After the seven seals of God has been opened, seven angels with seven trumpets prepared to sound them. And from this time onward, we move into the time of the Great Tribulation, explicitly mentioned back in Revelation 7:14 from last week’s sermon.
Trumpets are military equipment in the ancient days; the soldiers blow the trumpets as signals and warnings in wars and incoming dangers. When the angels blow these trumpets, it is a declaration of God’s wrath against sins on earth. The blowing of the first four trumpets devastates the world of nature as a warning for people to repent of their sins. Every time the angels blow the trumpets, big disasters and divine judgement will come upon the earth.
The scenes of seven seals and seven trumpets see the eschatological events from different perspectives, that is, from different viewpoints. Suffering will come to the world in general as the ‘world’ in the sense of God’s Creation, including the church, that is the seven seals. But from another perspective, in the seven trumpets, it will also come with a special divine purpose, upon the ‘world’ of ungodly human society. We will see in here how God’s judgment will affect the entire world of human rebellion.
1) The First Trumpet: Judgment upon the earth and the plants
In Revelation 8:7, John wrote, “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” When the first angel sounded his trumpet in heaven, something happened in heaven, which then impacted the earth. John wrote he saw hail and fire mixed with blood. This is similar to what prophet Joel proclaimed in the Old Testament, “30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” (Joel 2:30-32a) When this divine judgment comes, it will be far beyond the magnitude of the seventh plague on Egypt in Exodus (Exodus 9:13-35). In modern terms, this is a worldwide ecological catastrophe. A third of the land was burned up with all the plants on it.
Early this year in 2020, we have witnessed the Great Australian bushfires. Billions of animals in the bush and rural towns were destroyed. But now, imagine that kind of bushfires are upscaling and happen around the entire world, destroying one-third of the forests and grasslands, completely burned up. None of the modern industrial damage to our earth’s environment can compare to this magnitude.
John is not concerned to provide scientific information about the mechanism for this global disaster. Still, he is telling us it is by the hand of God as judgments for our sins. In Genesis, God created the dry land and its vegetation on the third day of Creation (Genesis 1:9-13). And by the same powerful words, God cursed the dry land and its plant life because of human sin in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17-18). Now, as human sin continues to multiply, God finally extends his curse on the dry land by destroying a third of it. The hail, fire, and blood symbolize any kind of destruction that at any time damages the earth on which man lives. We don’t know if it is talking about human-made disasters like nuclear fallouts or natural disasters here. But the point that John made is the devastation and magnitude of the damage that will happen on earth.
However, even this plague is devastating; it is not yet fatal. Modern environmental scientists would doubt whether human life on earth could continue as we know it with just a few degrees of global warming. But how much more alarmed will they be when a third of earth’s vegetation is ruined? The destruction of one-third of the trees means shortages of fruit, including olives, figs and grapes, which are the essential food source of the ancient world. The destruction of green grass means the approaching death of sheep, goats and cattle; so it is the end of the world’s supply of meat, milk and cheese.
And this is only the beginning. This plague on this nature is meant to us as a divine warning of worse disasters to come, just like the ten plagues on the land of Pharaoh in the days of Moses. And this is only the beginning. Since only one-third of the earth is destroyed, it is only a partial judgment from God. His full wrath is yet to be unleashed.
2) The Second Trumpet: Judgment upon the sea
After dealing with the land, now the next judgment is upon the oceans. John wrote in verse 8, “The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, 9 a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” (Revelation 8:8-9) John’s vision sounds like a volcano was thrown in the sea. And the sea turned into blood recalls the plague of blood in Exodus 7:20-21. When the water is polluted, it destroys one-third of the sea creatures. God has created all the sea lives on the fifth day of Creation, but now in his judgment one-third of these creatures are destroyed. There is a shortage of seafood supply. The transformation of the sea into blood also alludes to God’s judgment upon Egypt in Exodus 7:20-21.
One-third of the ships are also destroyed. Ships are used for merchants in the ancient Roman world. The Mediterranean Sea was a major trade route of the Roman Empires. The destruction of one-third of the ships means the judgment will produce a significant impact on the commercial world. The global economy will be largely impacted. This loss is critical in the judgement but not yet fatal; they are signs as a severe warning to bring about repentance.
3) The Third Trumpet: Judgment upon the rivers and springs
After that, “10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11 the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11)
John saw once more something in heaven fall down and affect the earth. This time he describes a meteor-like device, a great star, blazing like a torch. The pattern is repeated here: First, John saw the vision in verse 5 from a heavenly perspective as the fiery censer that an angel hurled to earth in verse 5, now we can see it closer from the perspective in the world. This celestial object is called Wormwood, which means “bitterness” because of its effect. When this star or meteor-like device hit the water supplies on earth, it contaminates a third of the world’s freshwaters.
Like the way God punished the Egyptians by turning their river into blood, now again there is destruction on water supply upon the earth which humanity depends. The judgment recalls the plagues of Egypt, but adds to them an allusion to the bitter, polluted waters of Marah back in Exodus which God had purified (Exodus 15:23); the pure water becomes poisoned. And the ancients know that this is divine punishment.
As prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Why are we sitting here? Gather together!
Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there! For the LORD our God has doomed us to perish and given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against him.” (Jeremiah 8:14)
And many people died from drinking this polluted bitter water.
4) The Fourth Trumpet: Judgment upon the heavenly bodies
After the land, the sea, and the water supplies are punished because of human sins, and the fourth trumpet turns against celestial bodies and the light sources in the sky that humanity depends on earth. John wrote, “The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.” (Revelation 8:12)
The “darkness” represents the Creator’s judgment of a fallen creation because God had created light at the beginning of the Creation back in Genesis 1:3-5, God said “Let there be light”, and he separated the light from the darkness. But now God has reversed the creation sequence in His judgment like wrapping up one-third of it as punishment to those who are disobedient. A darken sun also alludes to the ninth plague in Egypt in Exodus 10:21-28, So the biblical and societal contexts in which the first Century Christians in John’s days would interpret the significance of these trumpets: as the various “Pharaohs” who rule over the anti-Christian kingdom in John’s world stand condemned, while the unresponsive believers found among the seven congregations, who lack devotion to God, are rebuked like the grumbling, unfaithful Israel of Old Testament time.
The point of alluding to the plagues in Exodus is probably not that all water will literally turn to blood again, but to indicate that God is sovereign over these natural elements. He can send judgments on such matters throughout history.
Apostle John intends to communicate two things here:
First, the plagues paint a picture of an apocalyptic understanding of Christ’s salvation which locates all things–good and bad–under God’s sovereign plans for Creation.
Secondly, Revelation’s redemption–destruction dualisms calls our attention to the reversal pattern of the apocalypse. The landmarks of this fallen Creation are also the marks of a new creation in which evil is turned upside down at the triumph of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.
We, as Christ’s church, should, therefore, encourage one another to continue banding together for strategic prayer on matters of intermediate and long-term concern of God’s Kingdom, for the spreading of the gospel in the unreached world. Pray for the nations which often opposite God’s kingdom and persecute local Christians.
God’s wrath and judgment that comes in response to prayer may not seem high on our priority list of prayer requests. But for suffering, persecuted people, judgment on the world that represses them is a sign of hope, a signal that God will not wait only until the Second Coming of Christ to begin vindicating them. God will consummate history on that Day, but our Lord is the Lord of history even now. Prayers can shape history. We come to be part of God’s kingdom because of many prayers of the past generations of Christians. They pray that the Gospel of Christ will save people in Asia. And now the baton has been passed down to our generation; we ought to pray for global outreach of other places where people who don’t know Jesus and reject God’s salvation. They are the lost sheep that we need to intercede and ask for God’s mercy on their behalves so that they will come back to God through Jesus Christ.
Also, God’s wrath has important moral implications. While people suffer in many places around the world, others frequently profit from their sufferings through political or religious repression. Yet as much as relativistic Western culture has forgotten it, our God is a God of justice, who does acknowledge that one side can be right and another wrong in a situation. He is a God of wrath, who provides us with the necessary “moral clarity” to take sides when clear examples of oppression are taking place.
In contrast to our modern worldview, natural catastrophes like the pandemic happening right now are not simply random events, nor is our ability to predict many of them the same as the ability to harness and control them. Too often we have viewed disasters as happening only in other parts of the world: like floods in China, famine in East Africa, earthquakes in Japan or Mexico. We as humans often try to pacify our anxieties with dubious assurances.
The truth is, our prosperity living in the western world does not guarantee God’s blessing; Babylon; like in the Old Testament time, Babylon exercised far more military and economic power than Judah, yet Babylon’s empire has been no more than a distant memory of the ancient world. Similarly, although the history of parts of the Western World as mission-sending nations probably provided much of the divine favour under which we now live, far more Christians now live in the developing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, the secular world in the West revolt against God and its accompany moral apostasy are certainly inviting judgment. Many pastors have been preaching this message before me, but the secular world still puts a blind eye onto this issue. Just like the Israelites in Judah thought that they are God’s people, but many people do not live in God’s way. Our forefathers worship God and saved by Christ in their generations does not mean our nation is free from God’s judgment. Even God’s own house could not stay his wrath against a disobedient people. As prophet Jeremiah has declared, “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors forever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7:4-11)
Judgments have already come to seize our attention, but surely greater judgments are just around the corner. Those who read God’s Word and study the moral state of our secular society can easily understand that though in our day, as in Jeremiah’s there will inevitably remain false prophets of peace just telling people what they wish to hear.
“14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. 15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 6:14-15)
So, be warned about God’s wrath, and stay firm in God’s word in our words and deeds until Christ returns.
As we wrap up today’s message, please remember these application points:
1) Some plagues are the natural consequence of sin and evil, but others come by the plan of God.
2) God’s people will be victorious during times of divine judgment by looking at the patterns in the Book of Exodus.
3) Avoid trying to determine the chronology for the events predicted in this chapter.
Let us pray and give thanks to our Creator:
Lord God of all nature, help us to trust in your loving care, both when circumstances are good and when plagues seem overwhelming. Help us, like the songwriter of the hymn, to confess, “It is well with my soul.” Amen.
1. How important is it in responding to plagues for us to have a sense of whether they are the natural results of sin and a fallen world or whether they are divine judgments?
2. Summarise the difference between what happened when the seals of the Judgment Scroll were broken and what happened when the angels trumpeted.
3. To what extent do you agree that the plagues of Egypt are a helpful pattern for interpreting the plagues of Revelation?
4. Do Christians ever experience the direct outpouring of God’s judgment through natural plagues and disasters? Give historical examples to support your answer.