I am very pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, someone who regularly comments on my blogs, Mary Vanderplas. She is a former Presbyterian Minister and is now the Chaplin at Florida Hospital in Leesburg, FL. Although we regularly disagree with one another, Mary regularly inspires me to look at things from a perspective that I might not otherwise. Several times we have entered into discussion about apocalyptic language, and I feel that her knowledge surpasses mine regarding this topic. In some ways, I regret starting into the Revelation blog series, since there is so much that I still have to learn (and unlearn) regarding this particular book. Every time I began writing about chapter 8, I said to myself, “Mary should be writing this one.” I asked Mary if she would do this, and she agreed. I don’t necessarily agree with every word she’s written, but her perspective and insight is spectacular, and since I always enjoy reading her comments, I felt like the audience of this blog might appreciate her thoughts as well. So here it is!
Take some time now to read chapter 8 of Revelation. I would recommend that you also go back and read the ending of chapter 6, where the sixth seal is opened by the Lamb. After an interlude in which John presents a vision of the church in chapter 7, he returns in chapter 8 to the opening of the seals.
Well, is your heart warmed by John’s imagery? Just when you probably thought that things couldn’t get any worse – what more could possibly happen after the coming-apart-at-the-seams of the whole cosmos (6:12-17)?! – you turn the page, only to be met by a whole new set of visions of terrible events. What is going on here?
With the opening of the seventh and last seal (8:1), one would expect the end to come post haste. Instead, the final seal leads into seven trumpets. The trumpets, like the seals, originate in a scene of heavenly worship – conveying that the events are not random occurrences, but part of God’s plan for history. Before the visions of disasters are presented, there is a pause, silence (8:1). Likely John’s purpose was dramatic effect: a break in the action to prepare readers for the visionary fury to come – i.e., “Take a moment to catch your breath, folks, and then hang on!” Beyond this, it was a feature of some apocalyptic traditions to have the cosmos returning to a state of primeval silence before the end. Remember that John the prophet was writing in this literary genre and borrowing heavily from the apocalyptic traditions that were already popular in his day. Also, in view of the heavenly scene he pictures, in which the prayers of the saints are part of the worship of heaven, it is at least possible, I think, that the interlude of silence is a divinely-instigated shushing: “Quiet, please, so I can hear the prayers of my children.”
The heavenly scene of worship reflects the worship of the earthly temple, in which the burning of incense figured prominently. Here, in a striking image, the prayers of the saints ascend in the smoke of the incense (8:4). The pleas for deliverance and cries for justice on the part of God’s beleaguered saints in those tiny churches in Asia were, lest anyone doubt it, “getting through.” Indeed, their prayers were a part of the heavenly worship; and the saints themselves were intimately connected to this other world.
More striking still is that the pleas and cries of God’s struggling saints have an effect. Notice the images John uses to convey that their prayers “shake things up” on earth: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5). Viewed from the perspective of heaven, their prayers precipitate the unfolding of events leading up to the coming of God’s kingdom and justice. Thus, in a real sense, their prayers for the final victory of God are answered – though not immediately.
John next presents the visionary scenes of disaster. Here again, he draws from a store of images in the scriptures and the traditions of Jewish apocalyptic thought in describing his visions of what will take place just prior to the end. The sounding of trumpets was a part of the worship of the temple and had a variety of other associations in Israel’s history, including calls to battle, announcements of victory and liberty, use in celebrating the advent of a new year, use in conquering enemies (remember the battle of Jericho and the pivotal role the blowing of trumpets played in God’s victory over Israel’s enemies – see Joshua 6), calls to communal repentance. The sounding of trumpets had become a featured part of prophecies announcing the coming day of the Lord and conclusion of history. Here in John’s revelation the image speaks particularly of the judgment that will come upon the enemies of God’s people and upon the whole earth.
The visionary “seven angels” designated (by God) to blow the trumpets likely reflects the traditional seven archangels in Jewish thought, though John’s interest here is confined to communicating that God’s plan for the fulfillment of history is brought about through the terrors that are to come.
The images John uses to describe his visions of the disastrous events to come may have had some connection to natural disasters in the real world that he and his listeners/readers inhabited. What is most telling, though, in terms of what John is saying to his readers is that these images reflect to some extent the story of the exodus at the beginning of Israel’s history. There, as you may recall, God sent a series of grievous plagues on the Egyptians for the purpose of persuading Pharaoh to repent and let God’s people go (see Exodus 7-12). Some of the trumpet disasters here in Revelation 8 (and continuing into Revelation 9) – specifically, hail and fire, sea turning to blood, darkness, and locusts – match the plagues in the exodus story. Thus, the trumpet disasters, like the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, are pictured by John as judgments against the enemies of God’s people as well as a means of liberation.
Think about how the churches in Asia, tiny and marginalized as they were, harassed and persecuted by imperial Rome, would have heard/read these visionary trumpet plagues. As bad news eliciting fear and trepidation? Possibly, I suppose, since the imagery is dire and the pictured judgment/destruction cosmic in scope. But more likely, I think, these struggling congregations would have read them as good news, as the means of their ultimate deliverance from their Roman oppressors. It’s a bit like going through physical therapy after an injury. One can endure the pain, knowing that a positive outcome – namely, use of the injured body part – will ensue. (As I write this, I am two weeks shy of finishing a course of physical therapy to rehabilitate a broken wrist. While I am not quite ready to conquer the world – well, in a manner of speaking – I have hope.)
The issue here in Revelation 8 is the manifestation of God’s justice as history is brought to a close. As the imagery John uses makes clear, the terrors to come are not merely tragedies but the judgments of God because of human sinfulness. What is particularly envisioned is divine judgment of the evil empire, the punishment of oppressive and arrogant worldly power that sets itself against and seeks to destroy the church. But evil empire acting to persecute God’s people (Pharaoh, Rome) is not all that stands to be judged. All arrogant and oppressive earthly powers are hereby served notice: “Time is running out. You will not be allowed to go on forever doing violence to the powerless. You will be judged and punished by the One whose power is incomparably great and whose authority you are under and who hears the cries of those you so cavalierly abuse.”
Eight years ago I went with a group from my denomination on a mission trip to southern Africa. While there, we visited various local churches and church leaders with whom churches here in the United States are partnering for the purpose of helping the people of these countries with basic physical needs as well as spiritual needs. In one of the countries we visited, the cries of the people for justice were loud and piercing. Widespread poverty, homelessness, unemployment, even confiscation of property and imprisonment of those who dare to challenge the ruling powers characterizes life there under the rule of a thoroughly corrupt and oppressive government. The Christians are particularly subject to harassment and abuse at the hands of the authorities; and when we met with them, they talked about and prayed for God to act to deliver their country and punish their oppressors.
It will happen, says the revelation of John. For the people of that country, for all people in every place and time where power is arrogantly asserted and used for self-serving ends and where the rights and dignity of God’s children are trampled and their needs ignored. The God of exodus justice will not be silent, but will act to judge and liberate. He will hear the cries of “How long?” (6:10) and will respond with deliverance for the world.
Lest any become smug, as though the message of God’s judgment is for those other people, John’s pictures remind us that the whole creation must endure the terrors of divine judgment preceding the coming of God’s kingdom. (This echoes Paul’s words about the whole creation suffering under the weight of human sin, subject to decay and death, and awaiting its deliverance – see Romans 8:19-23.) There is, therefore, no room for a mentality that would exclude anyone from God’s mercy expressed as salvation or that would put anyone above God’s justice expressed as judgment of sin.
John’s revelation suggests, too, that the trumpet plagues are not displays of divine vengeance for the purpose of destruction, but rather expressions of divine justice, the purpose of which is to stimulate repentance toward the goal of restoration. (Could this be the meaning of only a fraction – one-third – of the creation and its human inhabitants being destroyed? See 8:7, 9, 11, 12; also 9:18.) The terrors of God’s judgments thus reveal the heart of God for every single one of his rebellious children and (perhaps) his ultimate plan to bring every lost one of them home.
What is assured is that no earthly powers, however strong and threatening, however much in control they may appear and even be in our present circumstances – none of them will be able ultimately to thwart God’s plan to judge and liberate, to eradicate evil and establish his just and peaceable kingdom. For it is God who is really in control, who governs our existence and guides the destiny of us all. To use Paul’s metaphor in Romans 8, the creation is “groaning in labor pains,” and there is no stopping the bundle of new life from coming!
Arnold, Clinton E. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 4, Hebrews to Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.
Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989.
Evans, Joseph. “It’s Coming.” http://day1.org/3039-its_coming.print.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Peterson, Eugene H. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version including Apocrypha. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.