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 and the lightning and the rumblings and the voice of God. But 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 label 586 BC, seven 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, but on a larger scale.
The earthly Temple had two altars, one for sacrifice and, inside the Holy of Holies, one for incense (Heb 9:4). References to ‘the’ altar (e.g. Matt 23:35) are usually to the one 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 believers. There is now only one altar in heaven (11:1), where 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 (Rev 6:9f).
An angel renders the prayers pure and fragrant by mixing them with incense and fire. These are not ritualistic prayers, and 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. There is also a great earthquake.
Fire is the prime instrument of judgement at the end of the age. Peter saw the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the ensuing martyrdom of its 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 plural)] the then world was deluged with water and perished. But the present heavens and earth are stored up by his word for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly. …
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. But 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 these words from near the end of Isaiah’s 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 judgement,
with all flesh, and by his sword,
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 day that is coming will set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it leaves them neither root nor branch.”
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.
Trumpets were sounded before the fall of Jericho, the first city to be taken by the Israelites after the Exodus. 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 – presumably 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 march, 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.
Though 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 probably denotes a shower of rock (as in Jos 10:11). Psalm 18 speaks of hailstones and blazing coals – that is, 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 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, or northern lights, and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections (from the Latin ejicere, to ‘cast out’), 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. The wind will also dislodge 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 – otherwise inexplicable – 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. ‘Grass’ stands for vegetation generally, and rice, wheat, barley, oats, corn are themselves forms of grass. Vineyards too are parched (Isa 24:7).
The global warming produced by greenhouse gases foreshadows the judgement, for we have brought upon ourselves a lesser version of it. ‘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 now dead.
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.
The stuff of horror movies becomes real, as another asteroid crashes into the sea. In the period following the Flood-Cataclysm (called the Archaean in Earth history). 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 river 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 affects the land. The star (aster) is again an asteroid. 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 – a foreshadowing of the 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 his 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.
The heavens – long a source of wonder, and never more so than in the age of telescopes – become a source of terror. In the standard account of origins asteroids are leftovers from the natural formation of the solar system. In this century we have photographed them at close quarters and even retrieved samples, to say nothing of the information gleaned from meteorites on Earth. But they have 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. Larger bodies are either also rubble piles or the remains of created planets
which, 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. Indeed, 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. 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 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. And 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, only the people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And 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) (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 consumed by fire (invaded by the once molten, now solid, 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 from the abyss. Again the sun is darkened. The locusts recall the ninth plague before the Exodus, but these do not eat 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 wreaths of gold; their faces were like human faces, and their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth. And 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. And they have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months was in their tails. They have a king over them, the angel of the abyss. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon.
The prime intention of the description is to evoke a terrible invading army. In the Book of Joel, locusts not dissimilar in appearance come upon Israel as a natural plague because it 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. 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 columns of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood.
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 Revelation the scourge takes place at the same time as the land is occupied. It is directed against everyone on earth who does 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 and the riders in the vision: 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 harm.
The four angels are malign – cast out of heaven and then imprisoned. Now released from the abyss, they bring up a vast horde of demons. Fire, smoke and ‘sulphur’ (any sort of volcanic matter) suggest natural phenomena, but these poisons come from their mouths; the cause of death appears to be more supernatural than natural. A third of mankind die (sooner or later we must all 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 any mitigation. ‘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.
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. The plague 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. 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.