Revelation 8-9. Fire is cast on the earth. Many respond to the gospel proclaimed at this time (7:9-14); many do not. They refuse to repent and continue to worship idols and demons.
The trumpet first features in the Old Testament in the account of how God summoned Israel to meet with him at Mount Sinai. It was not a man-made instrument, blown by a man, but a call from heaven, mingling with the thunder, the lightning, the rumblings and the voice of God. Now the whole planet is at the foot of Mount Sinai, while unseen angels prepare destruction. When God poured his wrath on Jerusalem in the moment of history we designate 586 BC, six of his angels passed through the city and killed all who did not have a protecting mark on their foreheads (Ezek 9:2). Then another angel, a seventh, took burning coals from between the cherubim under God’s throne and scattered them over Jerusalem (Ezek 10:2), enacting Nebuchadrezzar’s setting fire to the city. Something similar is building up, only on a larger scale.
The earthly Temple had two altars, both made of acacia wood, one for sacrifice and, within the Holy of Holies, one for incense (Heb 9:4). The former was overlaid with bronze, the latter with gold. References to ‘the’ altar (e.g. Matt 23:35) were to the altar for sacrifice, visible to all, for only the high priest was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary. By offering himself as a propitiation for sin, Jesus as high priest purchased access into the presence of God for all his disciples. Consequently, there is now only one altar in heaven (11:1), the golden altar within the sanctuary. Here the redeemed offer themselves as living sacrifices – in service (Rom 12:1), praise (Heb 13:15) and thanksgiving (Ps 116:17). It is also where prayers are received, foremost among them the prayers of the martyrs (Rev 6:9f).
The ‘celestial bodies’ (stoicheia) are asteroids that break apart and catch fire as they enter earth’s atmosphere. Peter has in mind Isaiah 34:4.
And the testimony of Jesus himself: “They were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all. So it will be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28f). “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). The image of casting fire on earth is the same as in John’s vision. The fire will be a kind of baptism (Luke 3:16), cleansing the earth in the same way as water cleansed the earth in the days of Noah (I Pet 3:21).
‘The destruction was complete. Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire, and every room was filled with fallen bricks, timbers, and household utensils; in most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt.’K.M. Kenyon, Excavations at Jericho, 3 (1981)
‘Earth’ (ge) can mean either the whole planet (as in Gen 1:1) or the land distinct from the sea (as in Gen 1:10) or a particular land (e.g. ‘land of Judah’). In the preamble (8:5) it denotes the whole planet; here in v. 7 it denotes its land, including the vegetation that grows on it (Gen 1:11). The first four trumpets affect the land, the sea, the sources of fresh water and the Sun in turn.
Though divinely willed, the disasters are naturally caused. Hail and fire were the seventh of ten plagues that visited Egypt at the time of the Exodus, when Pharaoh was oppressing God’s people. Combined with fire, hail probably denotes a shower of rock (as in Jos 10:11). Psalm 18 speaks of hailstones and blazing coals – that is, meteoroids catching fire in the atmosphere. In the present vision, the fire is distinct from the hail, for it burns up huge areas of vegetation. It is thrown down onto entire continents – clearly not lightning, for which there is anyway a separate word. The only conceivable source is the Sun.
In the last decades we have come to know how fire might be cast on the Earth. For reasons that are not well under- stood, the temperature of the Sun’s atmosphere – its corona – is hundreds of times higher than at its surface: up to 2,000,000 degrees C. The corona is thus extremely energetic and continually gives off a wind of superhot plasma – charged particles, mostly electrons and protons – that blows through space at speeds up to 900 km/s. The interaction of this solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field is what produces the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere, causing the sky to look like an emerald rainbow. Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections (Latin: ejicere, to ‘cast out’), the most violent of which produce shock-waves capable of knocking out satellites and power stations. The occurrence of an ejection even more violent than that event is considered inevitable sooner or later. The ‘sounds’ that accompany the thunder and lightning – otherwise inexplicable – are consistent with the eerie sounds that accompany the more intense manifestations of the northern lights.
The Book of Revelation suggests a series of such events, climaxing with the ‘strong wind’ of the sixth seal. Shock waves hitting the sunward side of the planet depress the magnetosphere, impairing its ability to deflect the particles, so that their energy heats up the atmosphere and scorches the earth – an effect that the current weakening of the magnetosphere, at a rate of 5% per decade, will only exacerbate. The wind will also dislodge meteoroids and asteroids floating in its neighbourhood; on a much smaller scale, meteoroids are hitting the planet all the time. ‘Blood’ refers either to the colour of the hailstones (some asteroids are red) or to the deaths caused by the disasters. In the heat, rivers become strings of islands, and marshes dry up completely (Isa 42:15, 50:2). The trees and grass stand for vegetation generally, but particularly the seed-bearing kinds that provide food (Matt 13:26); rice, wheat, barley, oats, corn are forms of grass. Famine will be an immediate consequence. Vineyards too are parched (Isa 24:7).
The global warming brought about by our profligate consumerism – expressed, not least, in the destruction of the world’s forests – anticipates the judgement. Nearly half the world’s rainforests have been lost since the 1960s, and at the present rate of destruction there will be none left in another sixty years. The solar mass ejections bring to a head, by another mechanism, what we have brought upon ourselves. ‘All at once, a kind of invisible wildfire overran the city. It consumed its avenues and neighborhoods, swallowed its canyons and branches. It expelled an uncountable number of dwellers from their homes. It was merciless: Even those who escaped the initial ravishment perished in the famine that followed. Many people had loved the city, but none of them could protect it.’ So runs Robinson Meyer’s description of the devastation suffered by the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, compounded by more devastation in 2017 (The Atlantic, April 2018). Half its corals are reported dead.
This first catastrophe will make it clear to the Church that the last days have begun. Those who God will no longer keep silent.
Another asteroid crashes into the sea. The entertaining stuff of apocalyptic movies becomes real. In the period following the Flood-Cataclysm (the period in Earth history called the Archaean). As before, ‘blood’ refers either to the colour of a pollutant or to the dead bodies irrespective of colour. The turning of the Nile to blood was the first plague to afflict Egypt, possibly caused by a bloom of dinoflagellate algae (Humphreys 2003, Trevisanato 2005). All fish in the river died.
Many animals will have already died on land, but it is marine animals that are mentioned specifically. They have life; they were capable of blessing God (5:13).
A similar event pollutes the fresh water: the rivers and lakes and, by inference, the rainclouds that feed them. The star (aster) is again an asteroid. It disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers part of the Earth with toxin.
The heavens are partly obscured by Earth-enveloping clouds of dust, a foreshadowing of the now imminent Day of the Lord, ‘a day of clouds and thick darkness’ (Isa 60:2, Ezek 34:12, Joel 2:2, Zeph 1:15). Hebrew has various words for darkness (Isa 8:22-9:2); ‘thick darkness’ (one word in Hebrew) is particularly associated with the dwelling-place of God and with the final day of reckoning. At Mount Sinai God spoke to the people ‘out of the midst of fire, cloud and thick darkness’ (Ex 20:21, Deut 5:22). In David’s vision ‘he bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet’ (Ps 18:9). Thick darkness was the ninth, penultimate plague of the Exodus, brought about by the eruption of Thera/Santorini.
Three woes remain before the full force of God’s wrath. Man’s godless understanding of reality acknow- ledges only the natural. Even consciousness, his sense of self and of being alive, is seen as reducible to electricity in the brain. Now he is made to understand that there exists a supernatural realm, below him if not above.
The ‘star’ here is an angel long since cast out of heaven (12:9) (12:9). The abyss (abyssos) is the infernal region called Tartarus (II Pet 2:4), named after the angel that rules it; in Hebrew (e.g. Job 31:12) the region and its ruler are called Abaddon. Wherever the gospel transforms society, communication with the abyss is suppressed, but now it is opened up. Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water (the ‘great deep’). After the Cataclysm, at the end of the aeon called the Hadean, it was filled by the then molten material of the upper mantle, and deviant angels chained there pending the day of judgement (Gen 6:4, Jude 6). The smoke is an eruption of volcanic ash. Again the sun is darkened. The locusts recall the ninth plague before the Exodus, but these do not eat vegetation; they are invisible demons. At the end of the age they are given power to torment. Their victims are those who are not supernaturally protected (7:3) and do not acknowledge God.
After the destruction of a third of the planet’s vegetation, a third of its marine life and a third of its freshwater life, a third of mankind is killed: a plague more horrific than the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn men and animals. At the start we are not told why all this has to be. Here we learn that it is to see whether anything other than the gospel can break the addiction to buying and owning things and evaluating life in relation to them; whether anything other than the Holy Spirit can cause man to see that the good of his soul is not to be found in works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). But he would rather die in sin than live without sin. Not all are killed, despite not having the seal of God on their foreheads. Those that remain seem more hardened and unrepentant than ever.
‘Drug-taking’ translates pharmakeia, the use or dispensing of drugs, whether for medicine or to induce hallucinations; the context suggests the latter. The taking of mind-altering narcotics frequently leads to demon possession. The first commandment is to have no other gods before the God who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. All forms of immorality (idolatry, murder, fornication, theft, covetousness) proceed out of the rejection of the true God, and ultimately to refuse to worship him is to worship other spirits. By this stage they have indeed taken over the world.