Jesus fortified his followers by forewarning them that wars and rumors of wars are not in themselves signals that the end is near. International strife, famines, and earthquakes are only the beginning of the birth pangs that will in due time deliver God’s kingdom in all its fullness into the world.
Matthew 24:6 – 8 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are the beginning of birth pains.
This is the message of the trumpet visions shown to John: wars must happen, but it is not yet the end.
The trumpet visions portray limited disasters an distresses in the midst of history, events that are bitter foretastes of the final, unrestrained destruction of all opposition to God’s reign at the end of the present world order. The correspondence between the spheres afflicted between the first four trumpets and the first four bowls shows that God’s righteous wrath summons every aspect of our environment to indict human rebellion, both through the flow of history and at its climax with the bowls. In the law of Moses the covenant curses testify that heaven and earth are against Israel’s rebellion.
Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Deuteronomy 32:1, 2 Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. 2Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.
Isaiah 1:2, 3 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: "I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
Unlike the bowl judgments, which will be “the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished” (Revelations 15:1), when the trumpets are sounded the damage affects only one-third of each sphere. The demons released with the fifth trumpet are restrained in other ways: they cannot touch the earth’s vegetation or God’s sealed servants and the duration and severity of the torment they can inflict is limited, as we shall see when we study those passages. When the sixth trumpet sounds, a vast cavalry of eastern invaders sweeps across the Euphrates, killing one-third of the population. In each of the first six trumpets God draws the line, dictating that destruction go this far and no farther. The judgments inflicted with each bowl are universal, pervading their respective spheres. This contrast between trumpets and bowls is consistent with the purposes of trumpets in the Old Testament and the ancient world.
In biblical literature the sound of the trumpet announces the coming of God in splendor and victory. The Lord descended on Mount Sinai to give Moses his law with trumpet blasts of increasing intensity and volume.
Exodus 19:16, 19 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 19And the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
Two silver trumpets were fashioned to summon Israel to holy assembly before the Lord at his tent of meeting. Trumpet blasts signaled the good news of release and restoration upon the arrival of the Jubilee year and the news of a king’s coronation. With a trumpet sound the Lord would assemble nations to inflict his judgment on Babylon. The second coming of Christ will be heralded with the final, resounding trumpet blast.
The seven trumpets used in the siege of Jericho and the trumpet that sounds the alarm before the terrifying day of the Lord in Joel 2 are significant precursors of the trumpets in Revelation. When Joshua led Israel into the land of promise, they immediately confronted the fortified city of Jericho on the Jordan’s west bank.
God commanded that the Israelite army march around the city wall once a day for six days, with the Ark of the Covenant and with seven priests sounding trumpets as they marched. On the seventh day the Israelites encircled Jericho seven times and on the last lap the priests sounded the trumpets, the people shouted, and the walls collapsed. As the priests who blew the trumpets marched before the ark at Jericho, so in Revelation the seventh trumpet brings the ark of God’s covenant into view.
The purposes of the trumpet cycle are to sound alarms, warning the complacent and calling them to repentance and to summon the church to holy spiritual warfare. The use of the trumpet to raise alarm before attack is the background of Joel 2:1.
Joel 2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand.
The locust army that Joel describes in the following verses supply the imagery in which John will portray demon riders emerging from the abyss when the fifth trumpet sounds. The plagues associated with the trumpets proclaim God’s supremacy and prefigure the coming judgment, but they also leave time to repent. Yet, tragically, even after six trumpets “the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands.” (Rev. 9:20).
The fact that falling fire originates in the heavenly altar before the throne of God alerts us to the symbolic form of the trumpet visions. Just as the vision of the angel casting the fiery coals from the altar onto earth alludes to the vision that Ezekiel saw, so there are allusions to the physical plagues that feel on Egypt before the exodus and the forms of falling fire devastate different spheres of the physical order.
Ezekiel 10:1, 2 I looked, and I saw the likeness of a throne of sapphire above the expanse that was over the heads of the cherubim. 2The LORD said to the man clothed in linen, "Go in among the wheels beneath the cherubim. Fill your hands with burning coals from among the cherubim and scatter them over the city." And as I watched, he went in.
The purpose of portraying these judgments as the descent of burning objects from the sky is not to equate them with missiles or meteors, atomic fallout, acid rain, or volcanic ash. Rather it is to stress that the destruction that decimates the physical world through warfare, other human evils, or natural disaster is ultimately the outworking of God’s sovereign purpose, defending his people and warning his enemies.
This first of the seven angels sounded his trumpet. Hail and fire remind us of the seventh plague in Egypt as recorded in Exodus 9:23.
Hail and fire are instruments that The Lord often uses to defeat His enemies.
Exodus 9:23 – 27 When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt. 26The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were. 27Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. "This time I have sinned," he said to them. "The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.”
Joshua 10:11 As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the LORD hurled large hailstones down on them from the sky, and more of them died from the hailstones than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
Isaiah 28:17 I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place.
Numbers 11:1 Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.
Numbers 16:35 And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
Psalm 50:3 Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages.
Isaiah 66:15 See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
Hebrews 10:27 But only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Hebrews 12:29 For our "God is a consuming fire.”
This image indicates that there will be great loss of life.
Psalm 11:6 On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.
Isaiah 30:30 The LORD will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail.
Ezekiel 38:22 I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him.
Matthew 7:25 – 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
At the first trumpet John saw hail and fire mixed with blood thrown to the earth, to consume one-third of the earth and its trees and all the green grass, that is, vegetation smaller than trees, including grain crops.
The judgment in Egypt was limited in two ways: although flax and barley crops were destroyed, the later-ripening wheat and spelt survived, and the region Goshen, where the Israelites lived was exempt from the hailstorm. So also the destructive fire that John sees fall to earth stays within strict boundaries set by God.
Some manuscripts do not contain the words “A third of the earth was burned up” but the majority renders this verse as we have shown.
As the trumpets sound, we begin to see the effects of the four riders released with the breaking of the first four seals. The devastation of the earth by burning is an ancient strategy of war. The Israelites were forbidden from destroying fruit trees in the countryside surrounding a city that they were besieging but other ancient armies had no such discipline weigh on them. The association of this judgment with warfare is shown by the fact that, mingled with the hail and fire mentioned in Exodus, John sees blood, which is symbolic of violence and reminiscent of the red horse on which War rides as we saw in Revelation 6:4. Even when food supplies are not cut off by siege, the burning of crops makes grain rare, raising prices to the exorbitant levels that were announced as Famine rode forth. Rev. 6:6. The flames of war will sear the land from which people seek their food, but God, in his patience, restricts the destruction to a fraction of the earth and its trees.
The command of the angel of Rev 7:2 comes into view:
Revelation 7:1-3: After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea. 3"Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
God’s selection process is evident throughout Scripture and here, too, God revealed to John that not all will be destroyed, but the remnant that He chose before creation will survive the outpouring of his wrath. The Holy Seed in whom the promise is fulfilled will not perish or see decay.
Exodus 9:4 - 6But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die. 5The LORD set a time and said, "Tomorrow the LORD will do this in the land.” 6And the next day the LORD did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.
Exodus 12:13, 23 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. 23When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.
Isaiah 6:13 And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.
Isaiah 26:20, 21 Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. 21See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer.
Isaiah 65:8 This is what the LORD says: "As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and men say, 'Don't destroy it, there is yet some good in it,' so will I do in behalf of my servants; I will not destroy them all.
Malachi 3:18 And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.
Matthew 24:22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
Romans 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Revelation 9:4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
The judgment of God has been increased from what we saw in Revelations 6:8:
Revelation 6:8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The rider of the pale horse was allowed to kill a fourth of the earth, while the judgment of the first trumpet was increased to one-third. Even in the midst of such destruction, we are allowed to see that God does not wish to totally destruct creation but only destroy that which is in accordance with his divine justice.
This ‘something’ that looked like a huge mountain of fire symbolizes the holiness and majesty of God exercising his divine judgment and all must fear God. John uses approximate language to describe what he sees because it is something that he cannot comprehend or put into words.
Hebrews 12:16 – 21 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears. 18You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20Because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear.”
Exodus 24:17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.
Deuteronomy 4:11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.
Deuteronomy 5:23, 25 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leading men of your tribes and your elders came to me. 25But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer.
Volcanic activity around the Mediterranean basin, especially reports of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and devastated the bay of Naples in A.D. 79, would have magnified the horrifying vividness of this vision in the minds of Revelation’s first listeners. But John is not merely giving a poetic description of a volcanic explosion or meteor’s fall. The heavenly origin of God’s fiery judgment is implied. The burning mountain turns one-third of the sea to blood, leading to the death of one-third of the vessels on it. The order implies that the blood produced by the fiery mountain is not that of the sea’s creatures, for they die as a result of the transformation for the sea’s waters into blood. This scene partially imitates the first plague on Egypt, in which the waters of the Nile were turned to blood, killing the fish in the river. It also alludes to God’s word of judgment on Babylon, the ‘destroying mountain’ that the Lord will make a ‘burnt out mountain’ and submerge in the waves of the sea. Jer. 51:25, 42.
John sees in symbolic form the disruption of the trade network that kept the Babylon of his day, Rome’s sea-centered empire, afloat. Whether through sea battles or natural disasters, the Mediterranean’s waters will be bloodied, its fruitfulness as a source of fresh fish fouled, its armadas of merchant ships crippled. When the harlot Babylon’s utter destruction is revealed in a later vision, the merchants who had enriched themselves by trade with her lament, “Woe, woe, the great city in which all who had ships at sea became rich by her wealth, for in one hour she has been laid waste!”. Rev 18.19.
This great city is not only a latter-day incarnation of Babylon, the place of Israel’s captivity, it was also a new Egypt, the house of Israel’s slavery. The bloodying of the sea and the death of its creatures parallel the bloodying of the Nile in the time of Moses. The worldly powers that oppress God’s true Israel are to be shaken at the source of their confidence.
The judgment on sea is limited, as God’s wrath remains restrained.
Another fiery object falls from outside the atmosphere onto the earth making the water resources unusable. The fact that John specifically sees these objects coming from outside the earth and are thrown with force onto the earth indicates that it’s God’s judgment being poured out. Again one-third of the land-based water resources are affected.
The star was named Wormwood. Polluting one-third of the waters so that many people died from the poisonous infection, is a continuance of God’s judgment directed at specific resources that sustain human and animal life. God’s restraint is further illustrated by the accurate targeting of resources.
Recognizing the confluence of biblical symbolism will be the key to understanding this rather strange image. What this image does not imply is that we should seek understanding in a single physical object, like a star or meteor, falling on one-third of the fresh water resources that are scattered around the globe, or even just within the Roman Empire. Nor are we to puzzle over the fact that the physical substance, wormwood, while it makes water biter, does not render it deadly. Biblical symbolism makes wormwood’s bitter taste emblematic of lethal consequences.
In Jeremiah 9:15 we read,
Jeremiah 9:15 Therefore, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "See, I will make this people eat bitter food and drink poisoned water.”
The Lord pronounces judgment on an idolatrous Israel. This judgment replicates another aspect of the first plague on Egypt, for the bloodying of the Nile not only killed its fish but also rendered its water unfit for human consumption.
Through humanity’s avarice and violence another basic resource on which life depends, water, is made repugnant and lethal rather than refreshing and life giving. Again, however, the defilement is limited.
The fourth trumpet completes the disruption of four basic elements required for daily living on earth. First there was the disruption of food and food production, then water, then merchant travels, and finally, the interruption of light resulting in the inability to work a full day.
One-third of the sun, moon, and stars is darkened. If we had assumed up to this pont that the order of John’s visions reflects the order of the events to which they refer, we are forced now to recognize John’s stylistic device of repetition. At the opening of the sixth seal John saw the sun blackened, the moon turned blood-red, and the stars fallen to earth like figs. Now, he sees the sun, moon, and stars still shining in the sky and then struck with only a partial dimming. This confirms our conclusion that the sixth seal provided a preview of the final dissolution of the old created order, in preparation for the new heavens and earth. The fourth trumpet judgment, however, symbolizes providential disasters that precede that final cataclysm.
The ninth Egyptian plague, complete and palpable darkness for three days, is unmistakable. John’s wording, however, warns us not to try to view this judgment literally. And here is why not: Should we picture a third reduction in the size of the sun and moon and the number of the stars, or in their luminosity, or perhaps in the proportion of hours in the day in which the sun shines and of the nighttime hours in which the moon and stars give their light, as a literal reading of verse 12 would imply, we will misunderstand the visionary genre. If we seek a literal referent for the judgment portrayed in this vision, it may be found in the blackening of the skies by the smoke of burning fields and smoldering cities destroyed in war. As the God of the universe brings mighty Rome and all its lesser successors to its knees under the onslaughts of aggressors lurking at its borders, grain and fruit, fish and imports, fresh water, and even light will be in short supply.
The first four trumpets deals exclusively with matters concerning creation, the physical world and the disruption of things that are necessary for sustaining human life. The last three trumpets deal mostly with the things of man’s spirit and his soul; his rebellious humanity.
Some manuscripts say that it is an angel flying in midair, but the majority holds to the text we have quoted here. This messenger, eagle or angel, announces the judgment of God and the horrors that accompanies it in extreme context. The repetition of “Woe” indicates that the remaining three trumpets would be much worse that the first four.
The end of the first woe is announced between the fifth and the sixth trumpets, and the passing of the second woe is declared before the seventh trumpet sounds. The seventh trumpet, however, seems to reveal not a woe on earth but a celebration in heaven, responding to the announcement that the kingdom of the world has been the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. The final woe is the climax of God’s wrath on earth, revealed in the outpouring of the bowls containing the seven last plagues, the destruction of Babylon and the defeat of the beasts, those who follow them and the dragon.
John sees a star that falls from heaven to earth.
Luke 10:17 - 20 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
This is Satan’s current situation after he rebelled against God and lost his holiness in heaven. John sees Satan receiving the key to the abyss, to open it and allow the devils to escape from the abyss. But Jesus comforts his disciples that He has given them power over these demons and admonishes them not to boast and rejoice that the spirits submit to them, but rather that they should rejoice that their names have been written in the book of life.
The evil swarm that emerges from the abyss can do so only by the purpose and permission of the God enthroned in heaven. The key to the abyss given to Satan indicates his royal authority to command and control its occupants. That is why he is called king and angel of the abyss. He is the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan whom John will later, in chapter 12, see cast out of heaven and down to earth.
As John witnesses the opening of the abyss, he sees the multitude of demons and raw evil rose through the shaft that connects the abyss to the surface of the earth. John sees this migration of evil as smoke that rises like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. It is so intense that the sun and sky was darkened by it.
As evil darkens the sky it separates the inhabitants of earth from God and gives Satan and his henchmen an opportunity, under the restraint of God, to bring deception into the hearts of men. It is an evil that demons practice of their own accord and although God would allow this evil to befall his children, He would always let good come from it.
Genesis 45:4 - 8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come close to me." When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt, 5and now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8"So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.