Revelation 8:1-9:21

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Revelation is a book from and about exile. Exile is first and foremost about experiencing disconnection from others and therefore disconnection from purpose. As Eugene Peterson writes, “Exile is the experience of powerlessness, in extremis. Everything is determined by another. We are removed from where we want to be and whom we want to be with. We are isolated from place and persons. We are victims. The worst punishment possible in ancient Israel was banishment. To be separated from family and country, from community worship and family faith – that was the cruelest decree. The severest judgment that the nation experienced was exile to Babylonia. A person created for personal relationships of love cannot live adequately without them. Exile dehumanizes. It sentences us to death by bread alone. ‘On the island called Patmos’ Rome showed St. John who was in charge. Every lonely hour on the barren rock was proof that Rome determined St. John’s destiny, that Rome’s word was the final word on his life, that Rome’s decree set the limits within which he was permitted to exist. St. John was alone, powerless, and bereft” (Reversed Thunder).

But like Israel caught in captivity to Pharaoh, Jonah in the belly of the fish (in the depths of Sheol), or Judah in the midst of exile in Babylon, separation from the temple or the places that symbolized God’s unique presence is not really separation from God. The blessed discovery of Israel, Jonah, Judah, and John of Patmos is that the place of exile turns out – through prayer – to be a holy place where God shows up.

8:1 Then, when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

The final seal is opened. The end of God’s judgment and the vindication of the saints is at hand. Now God’s plan will come to fruition. Given those expectations, what really happens seems quite anticlimactic. The Lamb opened the seventh seal, and rather than the pouring out of wrath, there is a half an hour of silence.

The term “half an hour” has no obvious mystical or symbolic meaning, but Henry Swete gives a nice simple explanation: “Half-an-hour, though a relatively short time, is a long interval in a drama, and makes an impressive break between the Seals and the Trumpets.”

The delay, like all of the other delays in the book of Revelation, is not an act of divine indifference, but rather it is an act of grace on the part of a patient God full of steadfast love and mercy.

8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

The opening of the seals does not bring about the end. Instead, the opening of the seven seals leads into the blowing seven trumpets.

Rather than just sitting in silence, John draws the reader’s attention to the seven angels who were given the seven trumpets. Although not specified in the text, it is likely that the seven angels were interpreted as the seven archangels of Jewish tradition: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Ariel Gabriel, and Remiel.

There are many uses of trumpets in the Scripture, but here the image is likely drawing the reader’s imagination back to the Old Testament texts of battle. On the battlefield, armies used trumpets to signal the beginning of an attack, and people inside cities being attacked sounded trumpets as a way to warn their citizens of the impending peril.

One can’t help but think about this passage in the light of the narrative of the conquering of Jericho. The seven laps around the city and the blasts of the trumpets was an act of worship that caused the oppressive city of evil to begin to collapse.

 

Another angel came and stood at the altar, and he held a gold bowl for burning incense. He was given a large amount of incense, in order to offer it on behalf of the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4 The smoke of the incense offered for the prayers of the saints rose up before God from the angel’s hand.

But before the seven archangels begin to blow the seven trumpets the reader’s attention is drawn back to the heavenly altar where another angel offers to the One on the throne a golden bowl of incense full of the prayers of the saints. In the midst of the chaos of history, God quietly and carefully hears the scattered prayers of the Church.

History is not just God’s action, but the result of the synergy between God and his people. As Mangina writes, “Brief as they are, these two references to prayer are important reminders that, in the Apocalypse, the commerce between heaven and earth moves both ways. God is the primary agent in the book: therefore the primary thrust of movement is downward, from heaven toward earth. And yet it would be wrong to say that God rules simply by fiat. If the church is called to listen to the word of God, God also listens; the prayers of his people matter to him” (Brazos Commentary).

 

Then the angel took the incense container and filled it with fire from the altar. He threw it down to the earth, and there were thunder, voices, lightning, and an earthquake.

The brief silence in the throne room allowed the One seated on the throne to hear the prayers. The angel then mixed the prayers with incense for purification, combined them with the fire of God’s Spirit for power, and then threw the prayers back in a kind of “reversed thunder” towards earth. The cries of the saints which had ascended to heaven unnoticed by the rulers of the empire, returned to earth with immense force after having been heard by the ruler of all creation.

“The prayers are “heard”; they have an effect. The effect is not merely a subjective release in the worshiper; the prayers of the saints on earth cause things to happen on earth. The saints’ prayers do not result in a deliverance from historical troubles but the deliverance of the world and history, by the eschatological appearance of God’s kingdom.” – Eugene Boring

The trumpets are first and foremost the announcement that God has heard the cries of the saints, and that a new creation is on its way.

The sounding of the seven trumpets breaks the temporary silence around the throne.

The pattern of the trumpets is similar to that of the cycle of seals. In the same way that the four horsemen were part of the judgment on earth, the first four trumpet-plagues are directed toward the world of nature. The fifth and sixth trumpets, like the fifth and sixth seals, are described in much more detail and take up a great deal of space in the text. And in the same way there is a break between the sixth and seven seals, there will be a break between the sixth and seventh trumpets.

Like John’s vision of the seven seals, the seven trumpets are not likely predictions of future events but fit into the typical pattern of apocalyptic woes that precede the victory of God at the reconciliation of creation. This second cycle of judgments or plagues – the seven trumpets – is not a chronological retelling of the first cycle – the seven seals – but it is rather an intensification of the first set. When the seals were opened one-fourth of the earth’s inhabitants were struck. When the trumpets are sounded the judgment increases to one-third. To ask if this implies that a different one-third was destroyed after (or in addition to) the original one-fourth probably misses the literary point. As Eugene Boring writes, “John works with the imagination, not calculators… Thus all grass is burned up in 8:7, but is still there in 9:4; the stars are struck in 8:12, although they have already fallen in 6:13. The pictures function to communicate a surrealistic impression of the terror of the final judgments and not a series of events which one may somehow fit into a single consistent pattern, even in the imagination.”

Most significantly for this passage, the trumpet plagues reconstruct the Exodus plagues of Moses and Pharaoh. The point of the plagues in Exodus was not so much God’s attempt to punish Pharaoh as they were meant to lead to his repentance. God wasn’t just trying to make Pharaoh miserable, but God was trying to make him change his mind. The connection to Egypt is important for these two chapters, for it means that not only does the Revelator see aspects of the Babylonian captivity in the situation faced by the first century church in Rome, but he also sees images of the great exodus from Egypt as well. Like the plagues that put and end to the Israelite’s bondage to Pharaoh, the trumpets of Revelation announce new and worse plagues upon the existing order of oppression and injustice.

8:6-7 Then the seven angels who held the seven trumpets got ready to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood appeared, and was thrown down to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up. A third of the trees were burned up. All the green grass was burned up.

With the sounding of the first trumpet, the second series of judgments begin. When the angel sounded his trumpet “hail and fire mixed with blood appeared.” The language is reminiscent of seventh Egyptian plague: “Then Moses raised his shepherd’s rod toward the sky, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightening struck the earth. The LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt… The hail also beat down all the grain in the fields, and it shattered every tree out in the field” (Ex. 9:23, 25).

8:8-9 Then the second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain burning with fire was thrown down into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures living in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

In the same way that the first plague scorched a third of the land, the second brought destruction to a third of the sea. A huge mountain with fire was throne into the sea and it became blood. Here again the reader is reminded of the first Egyptian plague, in which the rivers were turned to blood. “Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. He raised the shepherd’s rod and hit the water in the Nile in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the Nile began to stink so that the Egyptians couldn’t drink water from the Nile. There was blood all over the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:20-21).

8:10-11 Then the third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, burning like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water. The star’s name is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it became so bitter.

Although deviating slightly from the Egyptian plague motif, the third trumpet also seems to be connected to the Exodus events. When the great star named Wormwood fell on the rivers and springs, they became bitter. It is the reverse of the miracle and Marah where Moses cast a tree into the bitter waters and they were made sweet (Ex. 15:25).

8:12 Then 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 them became dark. The day lost a third of its light, and the night lost a third of its light too.

At the sounding of the fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars were struck so that they became completely dark. This judgment recalls the ninth Egyptian plague. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Raise your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over the land of Egypt, a darkness that you can feel.’ So Moses raised his hand toward the sky, and an intense darkness fell on the whole land of Egypt for three days. People couldn’t see each other, and they couldn’t go anywhere for three days. But the Israelites all had light where they lived” (Ex. 11:21-23).

8:13 Then I looked and I heard an eagle flying high overhead. It said with a loud voice, “Horror, horror, oh! The horror for those who live on earth because of the blasts of the remaining trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The Greek word that gets translated by many scholars as “eagle” can also mean “vulture.” In either case, what John sees is a large predatory bird that hovers in midair and cries out with a loud voice, “Horror, horror!” or “Woe, woe!” The word of “woe” to the world caught in sin is not only a familiar refrain from the prophets, but from Christ as well. The call of woe further sets the contrast between the hope of those whose life is marked by the Lamb and those whose lives are connected with the crumbling empire.

Craig Koester articulates the call to repentance well, writing, “The mounting threats show that it is an illusion to think that one can find security apart from God and the Lamb. Revelation presses readers to identify with those who belong to the Lamb, rather than allying themselves with the world that stands apart from the Lamb. Neutrality is not an option. Consider the contrasting way in which ‘blood’ is used in Revelation 7-8. On the one hand, the redeemed are washed in the blood of the Lamb. On the other hand, the world that has shed the blood of the saints is spattered with blood that falls from heaven with fire and hail, later finding itself awash in the blood of judgment, as a third of the sea is stained red. The followers of the Lamb are promised a future in which they will not suffer from scorching heat, although the unfaithful will be threatened with fire from heaven. The Lamb will guide people to the springs of the water of life, whereas those who prefer not to drink his life-giving water will find that the springs of the earth will become bitter and deadly. Those who follow the Lamb will not be struck by the sun, but judgment means that the sun itself will be struck, along with the moon and stars.”

9:1 Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the abyss.

It only took John the Revelator six verses to describe the first four trumpet blasts. But now he will devote twenty-one verses to the description of the fifth and sixth. People who were merely discomforted by judgments upon the world of nature are now directly subjected to torments that arise from the underworld.

When the fifth angel sounded his trumpet, John saw a star that had just fallen to the earth. Jewish literature frequently symbolized living beings or living spirits as stars. In Isaiah 14:12 the king of Babylon is portrayed as a day star fallen from heaven. Although this fallen star is sometimes associated with Abaddon – the angel of the Abyss who shows up later in the chapter – or Satan, the fallen star’s identity is not specified. Some scholars argue that the symbol is simply one of the many divine agents who throughout the book of Revelation are pictured as carrying out the purposes and will of God.

9:2 He opened the shaft of the abyss; and smoke rose up from the shaft, like smoke from a huge furnace. The sun and air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft.

The angel is given the key to the abyss. Revelation continually contrasts the life of the Lamb and the life of the Empire. It is possible that John is giving the reader in this text the mirrored location to the throne room of heaven. When the door of heaven was opened and John stepped through, he saw around the throne and around the One seated on the throne all kinds of heavenly creatures. While on earth – or in this case below the earth – the door is opened in which the reader now gets to see the creatures that surround the “throne room” of the abyss. Both throne rooms are filled with creatures. The heavenly creatures worship the Holy One and give life. The creatures from the abyss are instruments of destruction and bring death.

“John’s conception of the present creation includes a bottomless pit which, like a black hole in modern astrophysics, is a place of anti-creation, anti-matter, of destruction and chaos.” – NT Wright

9:3-6 Then locusts came forth from the smoke and onto the earth. They were given power like the power that scorpions have on the earth. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree. They could only hurt the people who didn’t have the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts weren’t allowed to kill them, but only to make them suffer for five months – and the suffering they inflict is like that of a scorpion when it strikes a person. In those days people will seek death, but they won’t find it. They will want to die, but death will run away from them.

Out of the abyss came locusts. The text again brings to mind the plagues of Egypt (10:1-20). But this time the super-locusts are not brought out to destroy the creation but to attack people. In these verses there is a great reversal. Those who have been continually living under threat and facing suffering – the followers of Christ who are marked by the Lamb – are now secure. While those who have either compromised or have been the oppressors of the faithful are now the “hunted.” But even here there is a strange element of grace. Those who have shown no mercy to the saints are shown mercy. They are hurt but not killed. The five months that the plague lasts is likely a reference to the life span of a locust. Those not marked by the Lamb now also face suffering, but their suffering will not be fatal and it will not be without end.

9:7-11 The locusts looked like horses ready for battle. On their heads were what seemed to be gold crowns. Their faces were like human faces, their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. In front they had what seemed to be iron armor upon their chests, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of many chariots and horses racing into battle. They also have tails with stingers, just like scorpions; and in their tails is their power to hurt people for five months. Their king is an angel from the abyss, whose Hebrew name is Abaddon, and whose Greek name is Apollyon.

The wild looking locusts from the pit have some roots in Joel and in other ancient Jewish literature. There has historically been audacious speculation about what they are and what they might symbolize. It would seem that the breadth of scholarship tends to associate them back to creatures that have been mentioned earlier and which were connected to the throne and to God’s purposes (such as the four horsemen). But now these creatures are unholy combinations that become odd and bizarre false replicas of God’s creatures. In Craig Koester’s words, “The vision of the heavenly throne room in Revelation 4-5 showed a rightly ordered universe, in which creatures offered praise to their Creator and to the Lamb, who are worthy of power. But in Revelation 9, grotesque figures create a demonic parody of the created order, showing what conditions are like under the lordship of the king of the underworld, whose names Abaddon and Apollyon mean Destruction and Destroyer.”

Although Abaddon or Apollyon are frequently associated with Satan, that connection is again not made explicit in the text. Many commentators believe that this name is meant to be a derogatory reference to the Greek god Apollo and those Roman emperors who frequently claimed a special relationship or kinship to him. “To name the king of the underworld Apollyon would be a cryptic way of saying that an emperor such as Domitian who liked to be regarded as Apollo incarnate was in reality a manifestation of the powers of the underworld… The allusion is strengthened by the observation that the locust was one of the symbols of the god Apollo.” – Robert Mounce

9:12-19 The first horror has passed. Look! Two horrors are still coming after this. Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet and I heard a voice from the four horns of the gold altar that is before God. It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” Then the four angels who had been made ready for that hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of humankind. The number of cavalry troops was two hundred million. I heard their number. And this is the way I saw the horses and their riders in the vision: they had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur. By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed: by the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths. The horses’ power is in their mouths and their tails, for their tails are like snakes with heads that inflict injuries.

The sixth trumpet and second woe also brings to mind the final plague in Egypt – the arrival of the angel of death. Many scholars associate this “woe” with the constant threat that Rome faced from enemies at the boundaries of the empire. As NT Wright comments, “When John sees in his vision four angels tied up by the great river Euphrates, ready to be released and to lead their massive armies into battle, everyone from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond knew what this meant. Their worst political and military nightmares. The fact that this vision follows immediately the horrible sight of the massive, torturing locusts reminds us again, if we needed it, that these are symbolic visions, drawing now on one lurid horror-fantasy, now on another, to present the image of escalating terror and torture. All of this was to be unleashed so that – and this is the point of it all – humans might be challenged to repent.”

9:20-21 The rest of humankind, who weren’t killed by these plagues, didn’t change their hearts and lives and turn from their handiwork. They didn’t stop worshipping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood – idols that can’t see or hear or walk. They didn’t turn away from their murders, their spells and drugs, their sexual immorality, or their stealing.

These two powerfully destructive chapters rehearsing the nature of the first six trumpets come to an astounding end. No one repents! The creatures, which were in a sense created through the idolatry of human disobedience, when unleashed, bring utter pain and destruction. Yet, like Pharaoh who can’t seem to help it but to chase the Israelites all the way into the waves of the Red Sea, the rebellious people who dwell on earth fail to repent even when they experience the pain and suffering that comes as a consequence of their idolatry. The empire’s answer to violence always seems to be more violence. The empire’s answer to idolatry always seems to be more idolatry.

If the trumpets and their judgments were designed to bring repentance to the people of earth, their mission was a failure. As will be revealed in the following texts, John is convinced that in order for repentance to occur a different approach will be needed.

“This is a lesson that the church has not always heeded. Too often we have thought that we can scare people into believing, or at least into being obedient to God. Some even use the book of Revelation for that purpose. But what Revelation in fact says is that, no matter how dire God’s warnings, those who choose not to believe will remain adamant in their disobedience.” – Justo Gonzalez

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