Lighting Up the Apocalypse 16: Silence, Trumpets, and Suspense

Lighting Up the Apocalypse 16:  Silence, Trumpets, and Suspense

Revelation 8;  Exodus 7-12; Ex 19; Ezekiel 33; Isaiah 19; Zech 9; Zech 13:8-9; Eccl 3:7

In Revelation 7, we witnessed the opening of the first six seals, beginning with the White Rider, and capped by a twin vision of the people of God, first numbered particularly, and then depicted as an innumerable host, clad in white, and made clean by the “blood of the Lamb.”  Now we move on to the final seal, and the trumpets of the Lord.  Here is the passage:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then 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 offer with 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 before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them.

The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon 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.

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. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

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

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 likewise a third of the night.

Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The seals, though sobering in the details that they reveal, were bookended by white—the White Rider, and the white worshipping crowd. There that host sang joyful acclaim to the Lamb and to the Father, but now, in chapter eight, a prolonged and poignant silence reigns.  Angels and the redeemed alike have taken to heart the words of Habakkuk: “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). For the Lamb is about to do something else.

His seven archangels take up their trumpets, but do not sound them yet.  First, they wait as another angel presents incense before the LORD, mingled with the prayers of the saints.  We have seen these censers of prayer before in the hands of the worshipping twenty-four elders (Rev 5:8), but now they are formally presented to the LORD by His angel.  The offering is followed by a curious action:  the angel conjoins the prayers of the saints in the censer with fire from the heavenly altar, and casts the mixture on the earth. What he does is punctuated by thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Something momentous has happened and is about to happen.  God’s people have prayed, God has listened, and the two actions are now brought together, making an impact upon the whole creation. With this, the sequence of the seals is complete and merges into the sequence of the trumpets.  And the trumpets herald fearful events, more fearful than what we saw when the seals were opened.

As we read of the first four trumpets, we are reminded of several passages in the Old Testament.  The first, of course, is the scene of the pyrotechnics on Mount Sinai, when the people kept their distance and Moses spoke with God.  There, too, there was the increasing sound of the trumpet, darkness, fire, and shaking: “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled… And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Ex 19:16, 19).  All this happened as a prelude to the giving of the Law, and the people had no choice but to take note.

Earlier in the story of the Hebrew deliverance, of course, God had also made His presence known to the Egyptians, who were oppressing God’s people.  It is hard not to see a link between the plagues Moses declared in Egypt, and the trumpet sequence. Exodus chapters 7-12 list ten plagues (over against seven trumpets), but frequently in the Psalms the list is reduced to seven: bloodied water, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock struck, boils, hail and fire, locusts, darkness for three days, and the death of the firstborn.  Some of this is echoed in the trumpet sequence, such as spoiled water and darkness.  However, the disaster here is more cosmic than what happened in Egypt.  We don’t simply see things from the perspective of earth through John’s vision, but are told that the sun, moon, and stars have been hit, as well as the earth and sea—strangely, only a third of these elements are affected in the vision.

At any rate, to the theme of an alert that we see on Mount Sinai when God speaks with Moses, we add the theme of warning that is so prevalent in Moses’ altercation with Pharaoh.  Both alert and warning characterize the sounding of the trumpets. God is speaking not only to his own people, but to those who do not honor Him, as well, getting their attention, and calling for repentance.  We are reminded of the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who said, “then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself” (Ez 33.4).  Here, then, seems to be part of the reason why only a third is afflicted—time is being given for those who take heed to turn back to God.  As the prophet Isaiah warns, “And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the LORD of host with thunder and with earthquake and great noise” (Isaiah 19:5b-6).

These first four trumpet-events are closed by the clarion call of an eagle, a messenger from God, who verbally warns the inhabitants of the whole earth:  “Woe! Woe! Woe!” God speaks both by vision, what can be seen, and by word—a word that is unmistakable. And all this is out of love. “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn!” (Ez 33:11)   This call to repentance will become ever more urgent as we read on in John’s visions, but is implicit here.  Those of us who have seen the vision of the slaughtered but standing Lamb know that God is not vindictive, but that all measure is taken to call His people home.  The trumpet calls, with all the background of the trumpet in the Old Testament, reminds us that our God is not silent, but speaks, and warns.

And there is also another thing about the trumpet to remember.  In the OT, the trumpet was a sign not only of impending disaster but also of God’s deliverance.  In Numbers 10:9, the command is given: “you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies.” And in Zec 9:14, the trumpet signals God’s rescue of his people.  Judgment and deliverance are tied up together, though we would prefer not to remember this.  Evil must be either transformed or eradicated, if good is to reign.  And God will not simply allow evil to triumph.  He will turn everything to His good purposes. Our greatest desire, if we share the heart of God, is that those who have been seduced by the evil one will heed the warning, and turn.  We can include ourselves in this hope, knowing that there are things in our own lives that need to be brought into conformity with God’s will.  1 Timothy repeats the assurance of the prophet Ezekiel, that our LORD “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (2:4).  So what God does publically, and says clearly, He does for every one of those created in His image.  His interventions, whether subtle or dramatic, are directed at us all, and at each of us.

But how are we to understand John’s vision of the third of the sun, a third of the stars, a third of the waters, a third of the earth, being destroyed?  We know that this cannot be intended in scientific terms, because a third of the sun cannot be removed without destroying everybody, and the narrative continues as other things happen in the sounding of the last trumpets, which we will consider in our next episode.  Readers have differed with regards to how these things should be understood, and many ancients understood the failing of the light as a spiritual matter, and the sullying of the waters also as the difficulty of receiving God’s pure water in pagan and heretical times. What we can determine is that these are dramatic visions intended to get our attention, and that there is a connection between the rebellion of the fallen angels and the tragedies that affect our world.  The fall of the blazing “star” Wormwood is most suggestive of this:  later in chapter 12 we will hear about the enemy of God who takes down a third of the heavenly hosts with him in his insurrection.  These trumpet events, with their destruction of thirds, suggests that the enemy’s destruction is not limited to heaven.  And yet God will save, turning even the evil that Satan purposes towards a final good.

One fourth century theologian, Tyconius, sees the destruction not in terms of a merely physical attack on humankind, but an attack on the whole person, and on the whole community, issuing in human or pagan rebellion against God, as well as in heresy.  He points to the use of thirds in Zechariah, where two thirds are removed from God’s care: “In the whole land, says the Lord, two thirds shall be dispersed and perish, and one third shall remain in it; and I shall lead the third part through fire, and I shall refine them as one refines silver, and I shall test them as gold is tested. They shall call my name, and I will answer them and say, ‘You are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” (Zech 13:8-9).  In the book of Revelation, this theologian also understands the trumpets to disclose the movement away from God by pagans and by heretics.  For him, the vision discloses those things which already are, and which shall continue, perhaps even intensify, as the enemy tries to deceive God’s people, and God refines them through this ordeal.

It seems that we do not have to decide between physical and spiritual harm, for we see plenty of both in the world around us, and know that the enemy of God delights in every form of human suffering.  Why does God not immediately bring an end to all of this?  Why does He allow evil, suffering, and lies to continue to make their impact upon our world?  We are in the presence of great mystery, but we have been assured that the delay is for our good, even though it is painful—he does not want any to perish (2 Peter 3:9).  Perhaps on reading such a dramatic chapter as Revelation 8, rather than trying to work out the details, we should simply take the divine warning to heart, and be glad the Bible does not pretend that suffering is only a state of mind.  As Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence” as well as a time to speak.  We have come only to the end of the first four trumpets, and are being warned of more woes to come. The alarm has been sounded. The tender-hearted among us may find the details of these visions too much to bear.  But with the trumpet also comes deliverance, and with judgment will come a new heaven and earth.  In the suspense, as the eagle cries out, we wait with bated breath for the Lord to complete His mysterious work among us.

 

 

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