Revelation 8

Chapter 8

As the Lamb opens the seventh seal the scroll is finally opened. The half hour silence surely marks the significance of this. This is the moment we've been waiting for - the end of history, judgment and beginning of the everlasting rest. No doubt it is a silence of relief for the redeemed and shock at what it means for the wicked. We cannot be flippant about such things.

Excursus: The Structure and Purpose of the Book

The question that 8 verse 2 brings is a critical one in the book: Does what follows follow temporally or is it a recapitulation - another list of judgments that will span the church age? There is a similar pattern of 4 and 3 (8v13), and the emphasis on earth, sea and trees imply these are encompassed within seals 1-4 that were held back until the multitude were sealed (7v1). Yet if chronological, the sealing still protects the redeemed from them. And a number of immediate details do favour chronology over recapitulation. (1) It's the most natural reading. (2) v1 is bizarrely abrupt if it simply ends the build up to that point. In reality it breeds anticipation of what is to happen next. (3) Trumpets are a herald of victory and completion (cf. Matt 24v31, 1 Thess 4v16, 1 Cor 15v52) - although if covering the whole church age they do still make that point. But v5 alludes to Sinai, and there the trumpet heralded God arriving to meet with his people. (4) What follows seems a response to the prayers of the saints noted with seal 5 - the alternative being that the trials of the world today result from the prayers of God's people (although this may be implied by 11v5-6). (5) The judgments are much more consonant with an intensification of seal 6 than the others. (6) They cannot easily be pinned down to past history as seals 1-4 can. (7) Structurally the 7 seals stretch from the "in the Spirit" of 4v1-2 and that of 17v1-3. (8) So the 7 trumpets are played out once the scroll is opened by the 7th seal (10v1-11). (9) The trumpets are patterned on the plagues of Egypt which God's people were exempt from because of the blood of the Lamb, so these couldn't picture general tribulations of the church age, like the seals, that the redeemed endure too. (10) The judgments are similar to those marking the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18 that occurs just before the parousia. Having said all this, the detail of the judgments implies a period of time still to the end, so rather than being the final judgment itself they should probably be read as final precursors - the events resulting from opening the seventh seal, as with those resulting from the other 6. We’ll see that those that actually destroy Babylon are a more intense version.
     Further support for recapitulation is found in (11) Leviticus 26 as background. There, refusal to repent from idolatry brings further plagues in groups of 7. This implies we are learning that as humanity refuse to repent as history progresses, so their judgments will intensify as in the book. (12) The wording around the 7 bowls as the "last" plagues by which God's wrath is finished strongly suggests chronology (15v1, 16v17). (13) Their intensification from a third of the world to the whole world does too (8v7f, 16v1f), as does (14) their difference despite similarity. These are not the same judgments.
     All this is critical in understanding the book. Although chapters 1-5 relate to the period of the first century and chapter 6, 10-13 and 20 the tribulations throughout history, the rest of the book and so major focus is on the events just before, during and after Christ's return. In short, it's encouragement is that the trials and the battle with evil that all Christians will face are part of Christ's purpose and victory, and will soon end with the wicked receiving the justice warranted and the righteous their rest. God's people are therefore encouraged to persevere as in the letters of chapters 1-3.
     In terms of the various interpretative methodologies then, it is difficult to tie our view to one. Nevertheless we are not preterist in seeing the focus throughout as the first century - although there are elements. We are not classically historicist in charting stages through the church age - although we are told the general things to expect. However we are at least partly idealist in acknowledging the highly symbolic nature of the book means events can't generally be tied down historically - although some can. But more strictly, we are futurist in acknowledging the end is the focus, although not wholly so. Perhaps we should say we are a combination of these last two views.

     The 7 angels stand before God. These are mighty angels who do his will. Trumpets are given them for a purpose - which must be heralding the end. Within scripture we see a trumpet blown at Sinai, on the ascension of Israel's king, to declare war - and importantly herald the day of the LORD (Ex 19v16f, 1 Kgs 1v39f, Joel 2v1). All are relevant here. The 7 again signals this will bring events to perfect completion.
     A further angel comes stands at the golden altar with a golden incense container - temple items made fit for the presence of God. In being given "much" incense to offer with the prayers we are learning how much Christ makes them pleasing and acceptable to God, despite the wrong motive and unclean lips from which they come. The incense and prayers rising before God signals them being heard by him. Verse 5 should therefore be read as a response. And in context the content of the fire is most likely that of the trumpets rather than separate to them. 
     Could there be a sense that the same thing that elicits the prayers (fire burning incense) is the thing that wreaks havoc on the world (judgments)? If so, there is acknowledgment here that the redeemed suffer amidst God's temporal judgments. More probably, the simple point is that God is executing judgment in response to the cries of the persecuted now the all to be martyred have been (6v9-11).
     6v9-11 strongly confirms the trumpets as the content of seal 7 - the final judgment, and 7v9-17 as picturing the "complete" people of God just before the end. It is possible this excludes a few believers still alive on the earth. It's a vision and so doesn't need to be absolute. However, there is a hint at the idea of the rapture here - that all believers will be caught up to heaven ("the air") in transformed bodies and so be rescued from these final events (cf. Matt 24v40-41, 1 Thess 4v16-17, 1 Cor 15v51-52). The "peals" of storm and earthquake stress the terrible nature of what is occurring and God's holy presence as at Sinai.
     We have to consider at this point whether the 7 trumpets need to be considered as chronological events or different aspects of one great judgment. The latter is certainly possible. We have concluded the 7 spirits are the one Holy Spirit and the first 4 seals likely take place concurrently. So the 7 trumpets could well signify the one trumpet heralding Christ's return (cf. Matt 24v31, 1 Thess 4v16, 1 Cor 15v52). However, the 7th is set apart in time (10v7), and 5-7 seem to be an intensification as the plagues of Egypt, so if any are concurrent it may be just the first 4 as with the seals, which may be signalled by 8v13 - the 4 describing their universality across the 4 corners of the earth. Whatever the case, any chronology may be quite rapid. Jesus taught that at his return people would be happily carrying on with life as in the days of Noah (cf. Matt 24v38). This hardly fits life if Christ's return were preceded by some period marked by the trumpets. Mostly likely they are akin to the arrival of the flood - rapid stages in one great and final cataclysm. This rapidity fits these trumpets being encompassed in the 7th seal.
     What follows the first trumpet is hail and fire as the hail and lightening that plagued Egypt. This certainly patterns the final judgment on the Exodus, as God brings his people out of the old order of oppression and into the new promised land (15v3), and testifies that he is the Lord to the watching peoples. But it is hard to limit the description to such symbolism. Just as the plagues were real so this might be. "Thrown" implies force, and "mixed with blood" speaks of its killing effect. But the mention of a "third" of the earth, trees and grass being burned up implies this judgment will be expansive but restrained and so not total (the bowls of chapter 16 lack this restraint). However it will effect the land's fruitfulness and so bring scarcity. Given the link to Babylon (18v21) with the second trumpet, this could look to the death, mourning, famine and fire of 18v8. Their description as "plagues" might support this. But being less extreme than the judgments on Babylon and wider society in chapter 16, these seem to be preliminary judgments.
     On the blowing of the second trumpet the "something like" implies what's seen is not necessarily a mountain but like it. It's burning may suggest something volcanic as in Sodom. But the impact echoes Egypt again. It is thrown into the sea and a third became blood - or red like it. One can understand how this impacts a third of fish. The destruction of a third of ships may imply a related disaster of some kind. The resolution is found in 18v21 that speaks of Babylon being thrown into the sea. This confirms the trumpets as the precursors to the final judgment, and that what's read should be taken figuratively. The note about creatures and ships might refer to the impact on those who benefitted from trade with Babylon (18v17-19). Interesting here is that this implies Babylon to be a far greater entity than the Romans Empire, for the destruction of the Roman Empire did not pre-empt the return of Christ at the end of history - nor was it truly worldwide as these judgments are in scope. At most we must say Babylon is idolatrous society of which Rome was a paradigm just as the New Jerusalem is godly society of which the actual Jerusalem was a paradigm.
     With the third trumpet a star, perhaps signifying an angel, falls from heaven like a torch. As the stars have already fallen in 6v12 we again see this is figurative. The fire motif speaks of judgment. And the star fell on a third of rivers and springs making them bitter (Wormwood) killing many. Is 14v12-15, Jer 9v15, 23v15 give the background. The star is the angelic representative of Babylon. And the poisoned water, the bitter suffering of her people. But there may be more here. Fresh water reliefs thirst. So Babylon's inhabitants will be without the luxuries that relieved and to some extent quenched their longings (18v23).
     v12: With the fourth trumpet a third of the sun, moon and stars are struck so their light is reduced to a third. This seems to mean a third of the hours they shine is turned to darkness rather than a third of their surface area. So a third of the day and night becomes dark as at the cross. Again, the fulfilment of figurative ideas in reality at the cross means we cannot presume these things are merely figurative. They speak of the unravelling of creation that has always been a mark of judgment. However, given the OT context to v10 they most likely refer to the downfall of heavenly beings - perhaps a reduction in the idolatry bound up with Babylon. Of course there is allusion to the plague of darkness in Egypt and denotes the resulting despair (18v23). Yet the darkness could also speak of them being handed over to demonic deception.

     v13: Eagles often signal impending just impending judgment on the OT. It's fitting. They are powerful and swift birds of prey, implying whatever is coming will be certain and speedy. The "loud voice" stresses the warning, and it flying overhead gives the sense that it warns the whole earth. It separates the first four trumpets from the last three. The three woes are a way of stressing intensity as with "holy, holy, holy." If we thought what's been prophesied to this point is bad, it's nothing to what's coming to all living on the earth.