What are the Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls in Revelation?

Within the structure of Revelation, John uses imagery to describe events on earth and in heaven during the coming period of persecution before the return of the Messiah. The first image is of the opening of a document with seven seals, the second is a series of seven angels blowing trumpets, and the last is a series of seven bowls which are upturned as judgment is pronounced.

These are sometimes called the seven “judgements” since they tend to be a judgements, although not all can be described in this way. The fifth seal, for example, is a scene in heaven of those who have been martyred. Some are simply events that set up the final conflict between the Beast and Christ.

The difficulty in interpreting these judgements is that the language is highly symbolic. John is describing these events in metaphorical language. As I have said, reading Revelation is like looking at a political cartoon from another culture and time. I need to understand the cultural and historical cues in the imagery in order to understand John’s original intention. For an American, baseball and cowboy movies are “image sets” which virtually everyone understands.

Greg Beale suggests that there are several potential “image sets” which inform John’s descriptions used in the vision (Revelation 370f). Nero’s persecution of Christians after the great fire in Rome is a good possibility, as are two major earthquakes in the Lycus valley in A.D. 17 and 60. An often overlooked event for the study of Revelation is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. This is intriguing especially for the fifth trumpet, since the descriptions of that catastrophe in contemporary literature sound quite a bit like John’s description of the opening of the Abyss. Beale also mentions a great famine in A.D. 92, an event which would have been fresh in the minds of those living in Asia Minor.

In fact, these are all well-known events to Christians living in Asia Minor in the 90’s A.D. If John alluded to the terror of a major earthquake in the Lycus Valley in 60, it is possible some hearing Revelation for the first time experienced that earthquake in their youth or heard stories from their parents about it. Personal experience is what makes a metaphor “work,” John used language that resonated with his readers.

To Beale’s list I would add the fall of Jerusalem, since the burning of Jerusalem and the Temple was a traumatic loss to the Jews, even to Christian Jews. I think that the original readers of Revelation were Jewish Christians. As followers of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem would a confirmation of Jesus’ own predictions, but it was nonetheless a crisis of faith. Undoubtedly stories of those final days circulated among Jewish Christians who may have lost family members in Rome’s military action.

Finally, the main source for all of John’s imagery is the Hebrew Bible. He draws on the language of the curses of the Law for the three cycles of judgments. For example, Leviticus 26:21-26 as background to the four horsemen. The Exodus narrative provides some of the imagery for the trumpets. It is easy enough to hear echoes of the plagues in the descriptions of the first four trumpets.

When John describes a coming time of great persecution, he is talking about present realities. In my opinion it is the growing persecution of Christianity under Domitian as well as internal struggles caused by the success of the church among the Gentiles. John is using creative language drawn from well-known events of his day; but he also talking “through” the events to their ultimate fulfillment in the end times.

7 thoughts on “What are the Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls in Revelation?

  1. Domitian… do you know of any similarities between Revelation and 1 Clement? They were written at the same time.

    • It is always 1 Clement with you…..! The genre is so different that I am not sure anyone has drawn too many parallels. I did look at David Aune’s WBC commentary, there are something like 55 references to 1 Clement in the first volume alone. I did not look through them all, most looked incidental. Usually allusions to the same texts from the Hebrew Bible. (For example, Christ as Lamb appears in Revelation 5, 1 Clem 16:7 and Barnabas 5:2, but all are ultimately dependent on Isa 53:7.)

      It might be possible to create a list of issues the 7 churches dealt with that are the same sort of issues that are problems in the Corinthian church in 1 Clement. In fact, I think that this would be a fruitful study, since off the top of my head there are a few similarities I recall from your paper.

  2. I never looked at it this way but reading this article I can see that he does use lots of things using imagery. I like how he can use a reference like blowing a trumpet and relate it to the end times. I think that revelations is a part of end times and there are different parts in the reading that demonstrates imagery in the Bible.

  3. I think one of the biggest reasons why certain images were used was in order to make a big impact on the recipients of the letter. The blog talked about how many of these images could have been earthquakes, volcanoes, or the destruction of the temple. P. Long said, “John used language that resonated with his readers”. By using these particular examples I think John was reminding the people of the disasters that happen. When they think of the images such as the abyss in Revelation 9 they probably think of the disasters that occurred a few decades earlier. In the article I read that Beale wrote on Symbolism he talked about how John wrote things to make a BIG impact on the readers. One of the points I made in my paper is that John used story and symbolism in order to make the impact greater. Just like an illustration makes things clearer in a sermon for us today, I think that these images made John’s story more clear to the people he was writing to.

  4. There is no doubt in my mind that we should be thinking of the context of the original time when Revelation was written out. It seems like it would be healthy to read about the fall of Jerusalem or other events during the new Testament from a historical account. I certainly think the Natural and Military disasters of the time play a pretty big role in the Jewish Christian understanding of Revelation. It is interesting to see a different possibilty of why the events of Revelation look similar to the events of that ancient day and age. Some scholars think that most of the happenings of Revelation already happened, but this other possibilty seems quite viable.

  5. P. Long’s final paragraph of this post is interesting to me. Scripture can prophesy future times, but also speak directly to those it was written too, and at at the same time be applicable to us today. This can be true of Revelation as John is using contemporary creative language that was, “drawn from well-known events of his day; but he also talking “through” the events to their ultimate fulfillment in the end times”(P.Long) Understanding context of Revelation and all scripture is key to helping us understand how it is applicable now these days. Even though we may never thoroughly and exhaustively understand it, there is still a beauty in studying it and seeing what God reveals/has revealed through it.

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