ResistingTrump with Revelation (16)

the seven trumpets 1 (8:2-11:19)

Before the seven angels can wind their trumpets that is prefaced by an angel who has gathered the prayers of the martyrs in a golden censer filling it with fire from the altar and casting it on earth. Thunder, earthquakes, lightning, and rumblings afflicted the earth (8:3-5). This sets the context of the forthcoming judgments, or plagues, in an Exodus framework. This is the seventh seal.

This cycle, then, is organically related to the preceding one, intensified in that it cuts deeper (the 1/3 reach to the Seal’s ¼ reach). I think this language intends to take us deeper in insight rather than forward in time. As we have seen, these three cycles cover the same period of time from Christ’s death and resurrection and return in glory. There is nowhere to go forward to in time.

This point of Christ’s sermon is driven by the martyrs’ question “How long till we are avenged and God’s purposes fulfilled?” We say earlier that this cry is not for revenge but for justice, for God to set all things right. That is to bring his good purposes for his creatures and creation to fruition. The logic seems to be this in the sermon so far: Christ reveals what is really going on in the world, that those who have given their lives for his cause long for the fulfillment of God’s loving and redemptive work, God has sealed and secured throughout their journey in life. If “the inhabitants of the earth” are Egypt, the church is Israel.

Told to rest and wait in the Seal’s cycle, the martyrs here learn that even now God’s judgment is active on earth against those who resist him. If the church faces hard times by an Egypt under God’s judgment it can persevere by participating with God and the slaughtered Lamb in his loving and redemptive purpose. This judgment means that “something is wrong and we had better get it right. The harsh realities of history sound the alarm that ‘you are going down the wrong road,’ and you had better turn around.”[1] It’s a warning to provoke change not a judgment born of condemnation. The language and imagery of this judgment is meant to spur its readers to respond in repentance.

The First Four Trumpets (8:7-12)

The Trumpet’s cycle follows the pattern of the Seal’s cycle: 4 linked scenes followed by 2 longer scenes, an interlude, and then the seventh Trumpet which is the seven Bowls cycle.

                These first four Trumpets allow and abused and tormented creation to strike back at its tormenters. The similarity to the plagues on Egypt is unmistakable. 1/3 of the earth, 1/3 of the sea, 1/3 of fresh waters, and 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars, and their light are affected. The foundations of life on this planet God allows to rebel against their mistreatment.

                God’s relation to this judgment is real though indirect. Grimsrud[2] offers the following helpful observation on this:

So, the significance of all the “was” and “were” language of 8:7-12 may best be seen as a way of addressing the paradox of a universe which is governed by a sovereign God whose character and power are love. In such a universe there is an openness and respect for human freedom that makes possible a lot of evil and destruction—such as reflected in the admittedly hyperbolic plague visions. But none of this defeats or even operates in complete autonomy from the providential love of the Creator. This paradox cannot be easily defined, but it can be illustrated.”

The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets (9:1-21)

The final three Trumpets are introduced by an eagle soaring in midheaven announcing them as “woes” or “alas.”[3] The sorrows on the “inhabitants on earth” are about to get worse.

The fifth Trumpet (9:1-11), the first “Woe,” takes us deeper still into understanding what is happening in and to the world around them. Into a “bottomless pit” in fact (9:2). A “fallen star” (cast into the bottomless pit himself in Rev.20) is “given” a key with which to open this pit. Given, not his by right, possession, or ownership. This fallen star does not unleash further havoc on earth apart from the will of the One who does have the key by right, possession, and ownership. The Creator signs off on and limits (“five months,” 9:10) his activity and those of the horrors he unleashes.

This judgment affects those not bearing the seal of God on their forehead (9:4). The hideous creatures (or better, anti-creatures, parodies of God’s creatures[4]) released from the pit, these locust-like[5] fiends torture those who stand against God. Driven to their limits, those so afflicted long for death (9:6) but will not find it. That is not the end for which judgment is given. That end, is repentance (9:20). Judgment is a for the restoration and renewal of the God’s creatures. It is not purely or primarily punitive. There are consequences to living out of sync with the Creator’s will and the order he has inscribed in his world, to be sure. Judgment is often God’s allowing these consequences to play out in hope that the consequences will turn God’s creatures back to him and his way for us. Paul has a similar view. In Romans 1 he three times (v.24, 26,28) claims that God has “handed over” a rebellious and idolatrous humanity to its lusts and idols. This is the “tough love” of a divine parent toward his rebellious and incorrigible creatures.

Here we see that humanity’s troubles are not simply the sum of their own evil. There are other and more than human agents at work as well.  But they too are part of God’s loving restorative judgment (tough love) on a recalcitrant humanity.

Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary explains the symbolism of the fantastic beasts and images John uses here:

“An invasion of locusts could be described as warhorses (Joel 2:4), and horses could be described as being as numerous as locusts (Jer 51:27; cf. 51:14). The crowns might reflect prior military exploits. The image of human-faced scorpions derived from nightmarish traditions from the East, and Mediterranean zodiacs eventually applied it to Sagittarius, who was often portrayed with long hair (see comment on 9:8). Although the image is not meant literally, it draws on the most terrible, repressed images of that culture’s unconscious fears to evoke horror at the impending judgments.       

“9:8. Joel 1:6 described locusts with “teeth like lions” to emphasize their destructiveness to the crops and everything else. In Joel, the image would terrify an agrarian society; in Revelation, it would remind readers of the lion’s proverbial ferocity. The “hair like women” would be a more obvious allusion to most of John’s readers: everyone in the Roman Empire knew that “barbarians” outside the Empire, unlike most people in Greco-Roman society, had long hair. In the context of a military invasion, the readers would immediately think of the Parthians (or, in apocalyptic terms, perhaps the evil spiritual realities behind them). By way of illustration, the reigning emperor Domitian’s father was reported-perhaps fictitiously-to have joked about the Parthians’ long hair in view of a long-tailed comet portending his death.                      

“9:9. The “noise of chariots” is borrowed from the military imagery for locusts in Joel 2:5; the swarms would be so intense that they would sound like an invading army, a sound great enough to make a land quake (Jer 8:16). The scales of a kind of locust’s thorax are compared with scaled armor in a later Jewish text; here John uses a more updated armor image.                                                                                   

“9:10. Their tails may be mentioned simply because that was the weapon of scorpions (9:5), but the reverse could also be true; scorpions could be mentioned because of the tails. It may be of interest that the Parthians (9:8) had become famous for their rearward archery: they had retreated up hills mounted on horseback, and when unwary Roman legions had followed them, the Parthians had released a backward hail of arrows, wiping out several legions before the Romans learned not to follow them up hills.

“9:11. “Abaddon” is a Hebrew name for the lowest depths of the earth, the realm of the dead (cf. Job 31:12; Ps 88:11; Prov 27:20); the Dead Sea Scrolls also linked the “spirit of Abaddon” with the “angel of the pit.” “Apollyon” means “destruction” in Greek. (Some scholars have secondarily connected the name to Apollo, a Greek deity one of whose totems was the locust, and whose incarnation the emperor claimed to be; cf. Rev 2:18. Because Apollyon as a name is otherwise unattested, it is not impossible that readers in Asia could have suspected this allusion; in this case, the emperor’s supposed patron deity is in reality an evil angel who, in the sovereignty of God, will be used against him; cf. Ex 12:12; Num 33:4. But the allusion is not altogether clear.) The final, terrifying touch to this description of an army with elements from Joel’s locusts, from Parthians and from scorpions is that these are the armies of hell, sent by death itself to fill its bowels.”

The sixth Trumpet sounds and a vast army 200,000, 000 strong are unleashed by four angels bound at the river Euphrates. They will kill 1/3 of humanity. Fire, smoke, and sulfur came out of the horses’ mouths slaying people. Notice that these beasts “were released.” This Trumpet has sounded. This horde roams the earth today. It is not a future event.

Keener again helpfully explains the imagery.


“Parthians were Rome’s most feared enemies in this period. They were portrayed as untrustworthy, and the authority of their monarchs was absolute. Older Greek prophecies about an eastern invasion of the Roman Empire still made some Romans nervous, and the Jewish Sibylline Oracles prophesied that Nero would return, leading Parthian hordes in vengeance on Rome. (Many Jewish people lived in Parthian territory, and many Jews in the Roman Empire felt no more allegiance to Rome than they would have to Parthia; in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 many Jews expected Parthia to intervene on their behalf, but their hopes were disappointed. . .                                                                                                                                                              

“9:14. Ancient literature indicates that it was common knowledge that the river Euphrates (16:12) was, above all else, the traditional boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires. Some other Jewish texts speak of fallen angels being bound in the depths of various seas, able to be released only at the command of God or one of his angels.                                                                                                                                                 

“9:15. For all their recognition of demonic forces in this age, apocalyptic writers recognized also the standard Jewish doctrine that God ultimately rules all of history. Casualty statistics like this one are also familiar in Jewish judgment oracles (see the Sibylline Oracles).

“9:16. Parthians were noted horsemen; in contrast to Rome, whose only cavalry contingents were drawn from its auxiliary (non-Roman) units, the Parthians were renowned for their cavalry. “Two hundred million” would be a huge standing army even today (nearly the entire population of the United States, almost four times that of Great Britain, over twice that of Nigeria, and eight times that of Canada); in the first century it may have represented more than the population of the entire world.

“9:17-18. The “dark blue” (NIV; “hyacinth”- NASB; or “sapphire”- NRSV) might allude to the color of the smoke of sulfur’s flame. Cf. 9:7-8 for the source of the image of horses and lions; lions were considered the most ferocious and regal of beasts, which no one cared to meet. In a widely read Jewish wisdom book, a writer had declared that God could have punished idolatry by sending lions or newly created, fire-breathing and smoke-belching monsters (Wisdom of Solomon 11:17-20). But again this imagery may be mixed with the threat of a Parthian invasion: Parthian archers often used flaming arrows.

“9:19. The power “in their tails” may allude to scorpions or to the Parthian cavalry’s rearward archery (see comment on 9:10).”

Again, John notes the purpose of this judgment: repentance. Humanity, however, blunders on in its multitudinous idolatries and foul practices (9:20-21). In light of this refusal of repentance, John’s “purple prose” here is understandable. More on the Trumpet cycle next post.

[1] Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 195.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] Ibid.
[4] Perhaps like the Orcs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Locusts, of course, were often agents of judgment, cursing and blighting the crops and spirits of the people.


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