The trumpet first features in the Old Testament in the account of how God met with Israel at Mount Sinai. It was not a man-made instrument, blown by a man. ‘As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. … And all the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, and at the sight the people trembled, and stood far off.’ Now it is as if the whole planet is at the foot of Mount Sinai. The seven angels seem to be the same as the six angels plus one who were told to pass through Jerusalem in 586 BC and kill all who did not have the protecting mark of God on their foreheads (Ezek 9:2).
The earthly Temple had two altars, one for sacrifice and, inside the Holy of Holies, one for incense (Heb 9:4). Into that inner sanctuary only the high priest was allowed to enter. By offering himself as a final propitiation for sin, Jesus as high priest purchased access into the presence of God for all believers. Thus, the earthly temple having been abolished, there is now only one altar (11:1), where the redeemed offer themselves as living sacrifices – in service (Rom 12:1), in praise (Heb 13:15) and in thanksgiving (Ps 116:17). It is also where prayers are received (Rev 6:9f).
An angel renders the prayers pure and fragrant by mixing them with incense on the altar’s fire. They do not go unheard. In response the angel takes some of the fire and scatters it on earth. ‘Sounds, and thunder, and lightning’ – previously phenomena emanating from the throne – are here the effects of fire hitting the earth’s atmosphere. As we shall see, the earthquake is most probably the effect of an asteroid.
Fire is the prime instrument of judgement at the end of the age. Peter regarded the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the ensuing martyrdom of the city’s Christians (by crucifixion and burning at the stake) as a prefigurement of the time of the end. Almost his parting words were these:
Heavens existed long ago, and an earth constructed by the word of God out of water and through water, through which [heavens and earth (‘which’ is pl.)] the then world was deluged with water and perished. But the present heavens and earth stored up by his word are for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly. …
Peter is saying that the first world of human beings was destroyed by means of the heavens and earth themselves, i.e. by water collapsing in on it from above and by water erupting through the earth from below. So also will the present world be destroyed from above and from below, only this time the heavens and the earth will be agents of fire.
With a roar the heavens will pass away, and the celestial bodies will burn and disintegrate, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
Since, then, all these things are to be destroyed, what sort of people ought you to be in holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the arrival of the day of God, during which the heavens will be set on fire and disintegrate, and the celestial bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
The ‘celestial bodies’ (stoicheia) are asteroids that break apart and catch fire as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Peter has in mind Isaiah 34:4.
Other passages that describe the Earth being burned up include Isaiah 66:15f, near the end of the book:
“Behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh,
and those slain by the Lord will be many.”
The closing words of the whole Old Testament:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.”
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, and as when God told an angel to take from between the cherubim burning coals and scatter them over Jerusalem (Ezek 10:2), foreshadowing Nebuchadrezzar’s setting fire to the city.
Trumpets were sounded before the fall of Jericho, the first city to be taken by the Israelites after their years in the wilderness. Each day for seven days seven priests walked round its wall, blowing their trumpets, the ark of the covenant following them and all Israel’s men of war marching in front and behind. On the seventh day they walked round the city seven times, the priests blowing their trumpets with each circuit. Then the people gave a great shout and the wall fell down – probably in an earthquake. The city was burned, and everything in it (Jos 6:24).
‘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)
At the close of the age the seven angels walk, so to speak, round the ‘great city’ of the world’s civilisation, ‘Babylon the Great.’
And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them.
The first blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown on the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.
Although divinely willed, the events 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 is more likely to denote a shower of rock, or meteoroids (as in Jos 10:11), than a shower of ice. Likewise, Psalm 18 speaks of hailstones and blazing coals – of 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 the Earth – clearly not lightning, for which there is anyway a separate word. The only conceivable source is the Sun.
In the last decades we have been granted to know how its fire might reach us. For reasons that are not well understood, 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, or northern lights (and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere). Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections, the most violent of which produce shock-waves capable of knocking out power stations and satellites. The occurrence of an ejection even more violent than that event is considered inevitable sooner or later.
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 Earth depress the magneto- sphere, impairing its ability to bounce back the energy of the particles, so that the energy heats up the atmosphere and the Earth is scorched. It will also dislodge the meteoroids and asteroids floating in its neighbourhood. On a small scale, meteoroids are hitting the Earth all the time. The ‘sounds’ that accompany the thunder and lightning are consistent with the sounds associated with the more intense manifestations of the northern lights. ‘Blood’ refers either to the colour of the hailstones (some asteroids are red) or to the deaths caused by the disasters. Since the text suggests an origin from above, the former seems more probable. The grass is burned up and withers. Some of it regrows (9:4).
The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Another asteroid crashes into the sea. Many such impacts are known from Earth history. Their effects were catastrophic. 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). All fish in the Nile died.
The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.
A similar event now affects the land. The star (aster) is again an asteroid, probably several kilometres in diameter. It disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers part of the Earth with toxin.
The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and the night likewise.
The heavens are partly obscured by Earth-enveloping clouds of dust. Thick darkness was the ninth plague of the Exodus.
Magnified a thousand times by instruments such as the Hubble Telescope, the heavens – so long a source of wonder – become a source of terror. In the atheistic account of origins asteroids are leftovers from the natural formation of the solar system. So god-like are our powers, we have photographed them at close quarters and even brought back samples, to say nothing of the information gleaned from meteorites on Earth. They have repeatedly failed to confirm the account. Most of the smaller bodies have turned out to be ‘rubble piles’, aggregations of rocks and dust produced when larger bodies collided with one another and shattered (hence easily broken up again). If not also rubble piles, larger bodies are the remains of created planets
that, shortly before their explosion, differentiated into crust, mantle and core, with correspondingly ‘stony’, ‘stony-iron’ and ‘iron’ compositions. At the time of the Flood-Cataclysm they became instruments of God’s wrath. Craters produced by their impacts on the Moon are still visible.
As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the Cataclysm they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the Cataclysm came and took them all, so too will be the arrival of the Son of Man. (Matt 24:37-39)
At this point in John’s vision, only a few asteroids have fallen. Only a few figs have fallen from the fig tree. The door of the ark is not yet closed. There is still time to repent.
And I looked, and heard an eagle saying with a loud voice as it flew in mid-heaven, “Woe, woe, woe to those who inhabit the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”
Three woes remain before the full force of God’s wrath. Man’s godless understanding of reality acknow- ledges only the natural. Even consciousness, the sense of self, is seen as a natural phenomenon, reducible to electricity in the brain. Now he is made to understand that there is a supernatural realm, below him if not above.
And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the abyss. He opened the shaft of the abyss, and out of the shaft rose smoke like that of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the shaft. Then out of the smoke came locusts onto the earth, and they were given power like that of the earth’s scorpions. And they were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but the people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. And in those days people will seek death and fail to find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.
The ‘star’ here is an angel, long since cast out of heaven (12:9). The infernal region of Tartarus (II Pet 2:4), human communication with which was suppressed wherever the gospel transformed society, is now opened up – the place where deviant angels from before the Cataclysm were chained pending the day of judgement (Gen 6:4, Jude 6). Originally the abyss (abyssos) was a subterranean region of water (the ‘great deep’); after the Cataclysm, at the end of the aeon called the Hadean, it was consumed by fire (invaded by the once molten but now solid upper mantle). The smoke is a cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption. Again the sun is darkened. The locusts recall the ninth plague before the Exodus, but here they do not eat the vegetation. They are invisible demons, and their victims are those who are not supernaturally protected (7:3) and do not acknowledge God.
In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek Apollyon.
In description they do not much resemble locusts, because the prime intention is to evoke a terrible invading army. In the Book of Joel, locusts not dissimilar to these are a natural plague brought upon Israel because she has neglected to offer grain and drink offerings and thereby acknowledge that God is the source of the land’s fruitfulness; so he destroys their grain harvest and subjects the land to drought. Interwoven with the account of devastation is an intermittent vision of the Day of the Lord, ‘a day of clouds and thick darkness’. Eventually, that day becomes the predominant theme:
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and clouds of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and manifest day.
The locusts become symbolic of a human army that invades the land and sells its people into slavery until God enters into judgement with them in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. In Revelation the scourge takes place at the same time as the land is occupied, but is directed against its foreign occupants and everyone on earth who do not worship God.
The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.
Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God say to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. And the army of horsemen numbered two hundred million; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in the vision and those riding them: they wore breastplates the colour of fire and sapphire and sulphur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulphur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire, smoke and sulphur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like snakes that have heads, and by means of them they injure.
The four angels are malign – cast out of heaven and then imprisoned. Now released, they bring up a vast horde of demons from the abyss. Fire, smoke and ‘sulphur’ (any sort of volcanic matter) suggest volcanic eruptions from the abyss, but the poisons come from their mouths, and the cause of death appears to be more supernatural than natural. A third of mankind die! Much as one would like to say that the number refers to just a part of the Earth and not the global population, there is nothing to justify such an interpretation. ‘Those slain by the Lord will be many.’ The five preceding catastrophes are all global in scope, and most probably this one is. Indeed, worse is to come (Isa 13:9-12):
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising
and the moon will not shed its light.
“I will punish the world for its evil
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty
and lay low the pride of the ruthless.
I will make people more rare than fine gold,
and mankind than the gold of Ophir.”
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.
A third of mankind is killed, after the destruction of a third of the planet’s vegetation, a third of its marine life and a third of its freshwater life. It is even 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. Now we understand 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.
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, and the rainbow over his head, and his face like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire. He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. And as he did so, the seven thunders gave voice. And at the sound of the seven thunders, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the land and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that no more time would pass, but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.
John’s book is a revelation of Jesus because he appears so different from the man John knew before or even after the resurrection. Although he had written that ‘we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us’, on seeing him he fell at his feet, as though dead. Here the son of God seems even more distant, and it is left for us to recognise who he is: not by his human-like appearance, but by the rainbow over his head (as seen around the throne of God), the sun-like radiance of his face (1:16), his radiant feet (1:15), his voice like a roaring lion’s (5:5), the reference to his right hand (1:16).
The seven thunders have a message, but we are not told what it is. The obvious one is surely that the world should tremble, for the sounding of the last trumpet is imminent. Standing on the sea and land, looking to heaven, the angel swears by the one in heaven who created land and sea and who has total control over them. The world’s wise men will continue to tell men that there is no such God. They will continue to maintain that the universe with its two trillion galaxies all arose from a singularity the size of a pea, that life is just a complex organisation of matter, and that its wonders are all natural wonders. But God is God, and his purpose will be fulfilled. The mystery revealed to the apostles and the prophets is that the Father loves us, and chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and Christ will present us holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:4, 6:19).
The seventh trumpet is not blown until 11:15. The announcement that time has run out indicates that the three and a half years encompassed by what follows, the contents of 10:8-11.14, do not follow chronologically from 9:21. The two witnesses prophesy over the same period as the horrors heralded by the trumpets. Accordingly, while the second ‘woe’ is clearly that of the sixth trumpet, the woe is not said to have passed until the end of their prophesying (11:14). (We therefore treat the interlude of 10:8-11.14 separately.)
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become that of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations were wrathful, and your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear your name, both small and great, and bringing to corruption the corrupters of the earth.”
We may think that we live in a democracy, and others in an autocracy, and that may be so – these forms of government are not the same. But ultimately there is only one ruler. Ever since the founding of Babel (ancient Babylon), where man first built a stairway down into the underworld and up to heaven, to worship angels in exchange for their power, all the kingdoms of the world and their authority and glory have belonged to Satan (Luke 4:5f, Jn 12:31, II Cor 4:4). Jesus came into the world in order to bring all mankind under the rule of God. Satan is not worthy to be its ruler, but the Lamb is, and to him has been given all authority.
… for who among the sons of God is like Yahweh,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and to be revered above all around him?
O Yahweh God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Yahweh,
or as your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also,
the world and all that is in it, you founded them.
The sea is the nations (Jer 51:42, Rev 13:1, 17:15), and Rahab, its monster ruler. Although the sky, the sea and the earth may seem more than ever to be ruled by man – so advanced is his technology – ‘man’ is an abstraction; we are not in control of our lives, either individually or collectively. We follow the ‘world’, and the world follows him who deceives and hates it.
The world belongs by right to its Creator, and now the moment has come when he asserts that right.
The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them. (I Thes 4:16f)
We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable and the mortal put on immortality. (I Cor 15:51-53)
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left behind. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left behind. (Matt 24:31, 40f)
This happens at the end of the tribulation. Believers will not escape persecution, nor the heat, the drought and the famine. But those who have died will join those who are left, in one great resurrection:
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)
The earth is harvested. The Exodus of God’s children is complete. The long-awaited Bridegroom has come for his Bride. Left behind are those who have not chosen eternal life, who have said, “There is no God,” “I am not religious,” “I will think about it some other time.” The gospel has been proclaimed to all nations, and trumpets have announced the coming of the kingdom. It is now too late to remember what some had warned, “Flee from the wrath to come.”
‘Corrupters of the earth’ evokes the reason why God brought judgement on the antediluvian world: ‘The earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. … All flesh had corrupted its way on the earth’ (Gen 6:11). Because we worship idols and do not honour God as Creator, we contentedly pollute the oceans, destroy rain-forests, burn up the earth’s coal and oil in a few generations, farm animals in concentration camps as if they were not living beings and drive countless animal species to extinction. So he will make the earth a desolation and purge it of its desecrators.
Then the temple of God in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen in his temple. And there was lightning, sounds, thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
The concluding sentence repeats what was described immediately before the first trumpet sounded – an example of inclusio. The phenomena are all effects of the geomagnetic storm and meteoroid showers brought on by the coronal mass ejection. ‘Great hail’ is an addition to the list.
Fire goes before him
and burns up his adversaries all around.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before Yahweh,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness
and all the peoples see his glory.
All worshippers of images are put to shame,
who make their boast in worthless idols. (Ps 97)
The ark of the covenant seen in heaven is a reminder that God has pledged himself to save his people Israel. While they are not among the saints taken up to meet the Lord, they are not abandoned.
When you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. (Matt 24:33f)
The final period before he comes back to Jerusalem is the subject of chapters 12 and 13.