The six trumpets

Revelation 8-9. Fire is cast on the earth from above. Asteroids accentuate the divine anger. While some hear the gospel (ch. 7), many refuse to repent and continue to worship idols and demons.

And when he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to add to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose from the hand of the angel before God. And the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and cast it on the earth. And there were sounds, and thunder, and lightning, and an earthquake.

The silence, the opening of the final seal, marks the completion of the wrath of God. ‘Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him’ (Hab 2:19f, Zech 2:13). The nations worship idols, but they are soon to know that he is God. The silence also marks a pause in the vision, broken by the start of a new series: by ‘sounds’ and the blowing of a trumpet.

A trumpet was blown when 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 thunder and lightning and the very voice of God. Now the whole planet is at the foot of Mount Sinai, while unseen angels prepare destruction. There was a similar moment when God poured his wrath on Jerusalem in 586 BC: a real moment in history, the ashes and arrowheads from which have been unearthed. Ezekiel watched as six angels passed through the city and killed whoever 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 the city on fire. 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, another for incense (Ex 40:5). 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, since only the high priest was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary. A wood fire burned on it continually for burnt offerings. The other altar functioned only once a year, on the day of atonement, when the high priest filled a censer with coals from the fire, covered the mercy seat with a cloud of incense and sprinkled it with blood. By offering the perfect propitiation for sin, Jesus purchased access to the Holy of Holies. In heaven there is only one altar. There we offer ourselves as living sacrifices in praise (Heb 13:15), thanksgiving (Ps 116:17) and good works (Rom 12:1, Heb 13:16). It is also where prayers are received, foremost among them the prayers of the martyrs (Rev 6:9f), whose prayers are now answered.

An angel renders the prayers fragrant by mixing them with incense. They are not ritualistic, 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 the effects of fire hitting the atmosphere. There is also a great earthquake (seismos – the Greek does not explicitly include ‘earth’ in the word).

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 its Christians by crucifixion and burning at the stake as a prefigurement of the time of the end. Almost his parting words were the following:
Heavens existed of old, 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, kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the wicked. …
The first world of human beings was destroyed by means of the heavens and earth themselves, i.e. by asteroids raining down from above and water erupting from below. So also will the present world be destroyed from above and below: from above by the Sun and from below by a planet-shaking earthquake.
With a roar the heavens will pass away, and celestial bodies will burn and disintegrate, and earth and its works will be burned up.
Since then all these things will be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, waiting for and hastening the arrival of the day of God, when heavens will be set on fire and disintegrate, and celestial bodies will melt as they burn!

The ‘celestial bodies’ (stoicheia) are asteroids that break apart and catch fire as they enter the atmosphere. Peter has in mind Isaiah 34:4.

Other passages that describe the earth being burned up include this from near the end of Isaiah’s book:
“Behold, Yahweh 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 Yahweh enter into judgement,
with all flesh, and by his sword,
and those slain by Yahweh will be many.”
And the closing words of the whole Old Testament:
“For behold, the day is coming burning like an oven, and all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. And the day that is coming will set them ablaze, says Yahweh of hosts, so that it leaves them neither root nor branch.”

Likewise 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). Revelation gives the details. 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).

Trumpets were sounded before the fall of Jericho, the first city that God judged after the Exodus. Each day seven priests walked round its fortified wall, blowing their trumpets, while the ark of the covenant followed them and all Israel’s men of war marched 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, along with 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.’ It too will be felled by an earthquake and burned with fire.
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.

‘Earth’ (ge, Heb. erets) can mean the whole planet (as in Gen 1:1), the land distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10), a particular land (e.g. Judah, Zeph 1:2f), the surface of the land (Rev 5:13) or the people living on the earth or land (Hab 2:20). In the preamble (Rev 8:5) it denoted the whole planet; here it denotes the land, including the vegetation growing on it (Gen 1:11). ‘A third of the earth’ represents an intensification of the disasters brought on ‘a fourth of the earth’ in 6:8. The first three trumpets affect, in turn, the land, the sea and the sources of fresh water; the fourth affects earth’s sources of light.

Though divinely willed, the disasters are naturally caused. God is invisible. Since men have not believed what is written about him, he manifests his anger by stirring up violence in the visible realm. Hail and fire were the seventh of the plagues visited upon Egypt prior to the Exodus, when Pharaoh was oppressing God’s people and not allowing them to worship him. Hail denotes a shower of rock (as in Jos 10:11). Psalm 18 speaks of hail and coals of fire, that is, blazing meteoroids. Distinct from hail, fire is here thrown onto entire continents – clearly not lightning, for which there is a separate word. The only conceivable source is the Sun.

In the last decades we have come to understand how fire might be cast on the Earth. For reasons that remain unclear, the Sun’s atmosphere – its corona – is some two hundred times hotter than its surface: at least 1,000,000 degrees C. The corona is thus extremely energetic and continually gives off a wind of superhot plasma – charged particles, electrons and protons that blow through space at speeds up to 1000 km/s. The interaction of this wind with the Earth’s magnetic field is what produces the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern, causing the sky to look like an emerald rainbow (hence Rev 4:3). Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections, the most violent of which can produce shock-waves capable of knocking out satellites and power stations. Coronal mass ejection (photo: SolO (NASA/ESA)One such ejection occurred in 1859, known as the ‘Carrington Event’. The occurrence of an ejection still more violent is considered inevitable sooner or later. The ‘sounds’ that accompany the thunder and lightning are of the same nature as the eerie sounds accompanying intense manifestations of the northern lights.

Revelation suggests at least two great mass ejections, one occurring at the first trumpet and the second occurring when the sixth seal is opened. 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 will only exacerbate. The shock waves also dislodge the near-earth meteoroids that float in space. Hurricanes caused by the sudden heating whip up the sea, batter coastal cities and uproot trees. In the heat, rivers become strings of islands; marshes dry up (Isa 42:15, 50:2); lightning sparks wild fires. The trees and grass stand for vegetation generally, but particularly the seed-bearing kinds that provide food (Matt 13:26), rice, wheat, barley, oats and corn all being forms of grass. Famine will be an immediate consequence of the fires. 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.

This first catastrophe will make it clear to those who respect Scripture that the last days have begun. They will urge the world to understand where we are in history, but for the most part the world will not wish to hear.

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. And a third of the creatures in the sea died that had life, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

An asteroid – larger than a meteoroid – crashes into the sea, with effects depending on water depth. In the ages following the Cataclysm such impacts were not uncommon, famously the impact at the end of the Cretaceous that left a crater 190 km in diameter off the coast of Mexico. It is only recently (Alvarez 1997) that we have had the knowledge to understand what Revelation is describing. The entertaining stuff of apocalyptic movies becomes reality.

As before, ‘blood’ refers either to the colour of a pollutant or to the carnage irrespective of colour. The Red Sea is so called because it is prone to blooms of algae, turning the sea a reddish-brown. The first plague (in the sense of ‘calamity’) to afflict Egypt was the turning of the Nile to blood. All its fish died, possibly because of anoxia brought on by a bloom of algae (Humphreys 2003, Trevisanato 2005).

Many animals will have already died on land, but it is marine animals that are specifically mentioned. Like their terrestrial counterparts they have souls. A third of the mariners manning the 50,000 merchant ships on the ocean also lose their lives, to say nothing of the passengers on cruise ships, or the men that trawl the sea for fish and countless smaller craft. The capacity to transport food, petroleum and other goods across the world is crippled.

The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of the waters. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the water became wormwood, and much of mankind died from the water, because it had been made bitter.

The star (aster) is again an asteroid. It disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers the earth with toxic ash. Rivers and lakes become undrinkable. Human beings die in large numbers.

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 now imminent Day of the Lord, ‘a day of clouds and thick darkness’ (Isa 60:2, Ezek 34:12, Joel 2:2, Amos 5:20, 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 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. The cause of the darkness this time is probably the dust and vapour generated by another asteroid, again as happened at the end of the Cretaceous (Vellekoop et al. 2014). The asteroid strikes the land directly. Deprived of the Sun’s heat, the earth cools. Murder, looting and rape follow.

The heavens – long a source of wonder, and never more so than in the age of the Hubble Space Telescope – become a source of terror. But the door is not yet closed. There is still time to repent.

And I looked, and heard an eagle say with a loud voice as it flew in overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the sound of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

Each disaster is worse than the one before. Three woes precede the full force of God’s wrath. Man’s godless understanding of reality acknowledges only the natural, and interprets even consciousness, his sense of self and of being alive, as reducible to electricity. Now he is made to understand that there exists 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. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, rather, those of mankind 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 mankind 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 and the spiritual equivalent of a falling asteroid (1:20, 12:9). The abyss (abyssos, lit. ‘bottomless’) is the infernal region called Tartarus (II Pet 2:4), named after the angel that rules it; in Hebrew the region and its ruler are called Abaddon (e.g. Job 31:12). Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water, called 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 were chained there pending the day of judgement (Gen 6:4, Jude 6). Wherever the gospel transforms society, communication with the abyss is suppressed, but now it is opened up. A Tambora-like eruption of volcanic ash darkens the Sun a second time. The locusts emerging from the ash-cloud recall the ninth plague before the Exodus, but these do not eat vegetation; they are invisible demons, with power to torment. Their victims do not acknowledge God and are not supernaturally protected.

Those who have the seal of God on their foreheads, his spiritual mark of ownership (II Cor 1:22), are not protected from the physical disasters of the first four trumpets but they are protected from the demons. The torments of the fifth and sixth trumpets give a foretaste of Gehenna after death, for Gehenna can hardly be less terrible than the torments now inflicted. But it is still possible to repent.

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, and their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth. And they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of many horse-drawn chariots rushing into battle. And they have tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails is their power to harm mankind for five months. They have a king over them, the angel of the abyss. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Destroyer.
The description evokes a terrible invading army. In Joel’s prophecy, locusts are sent to plague Israel because they have neglected to offer grain and drink offerings, to acknowledge that God is the source of fruitfulness; so he destroys the grain harvest and subjects the land to drought. Interwoven with the account of devastation is a vision of the Day of the Lord. Eventually, that day becomes the dominant 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 will 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 the invaders. In Revelation the locusts are demonic, looking like horses that merge with their triumphant riders, and the plague takes place at the same time as Israel is occupied. They afflict everyone on the earth who does not acknowledge that God, not Nature, made the natural world and all its goodness.
They do not say in their heart,
‘Let us fear Yahweh our God,
who gives the rains of autumn and spring in their season
and keeps for us the appointed weeks of harvest.’ (Jer 5:24)
The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.
And 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 armies of horsemen numbered two hundred million; I heard their number. And this was the appearance of the horses and their 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, smoke and sulphur came out of their mouths. From 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 these means they harm.
The four angels are angels that have previously been cast out of heaven and imprisoned in the abyss. On being released, they bring up a vast horde of terrifying demons. Fire, smoke and ‘sulphur’ (any sort of volcanic matter) suggest natural phenomena, but they issue from their mouths; the cause of death appears to be more supernatural than natural. A third of mankind die (though 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 rather than the global population, there is nothing to justify a mitigating view, and John says that he heard correctly. 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 shine their light;
the sun will be darkened 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 the pride of the ruthless I will lay low.
I will make men 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 so as not to worship the demons and the idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood which cannot see or hear or walk. And nor did they repent of their murders, nor of their drug-taking, 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: a plague more horrific than the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn. At the start we are not told why all this has to be. Now we learn that it is to see whether anything can break the addiction to buying and owning things, and evaluating life in relation to them; whether anything can cause man to see that the good of his soul is not to be found in idols. Prophets explain what the plagues mean. “You knew that your pursuit of pleasure was destroying the planet, yet you carried on, regardless of generations yet unborn. So God is taking away what we took so little care to look after. Do you not see that these plagues were prophesied?” Not all are killed, despite not having the seal of God on their foreheads. Those that remain seem more hardened and unrepentant than ever.

‘The’ demons refers to those unleashed with the fifth and sixth trumpets, previously below ground, unseen, and unwittingly worshipped. ‘Drug-taking’ translates pharmakeia, the use or dispensing of drugs to induce hallucinations, especially in witchcraft. The taking of mind-altering narcotics frequently leads to demon possession. ‘Sorcery’ or ‘occultism’ would also be a viable translation (Deut 18:10 LXX), and in the modern context might include any technology that transported voices and images into the living room, entertaining and deceiving; for these all come from the ‘ruler of the authority of the air’ (Eph 2:2). The first commandment is to have no other gods before him who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. All forms of immorality (murder, fornication, theft, covetousness) proceed out of 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.