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 “judgments” since they tend to be a judgments, 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 judgments 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.

6 thoughts on “Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls in Revelation

  1. Good list of image sets. I would also include (beyond Nero’s persecution itself), the great fire of Rome in 64… important imagery for chap 18, especially vv. 9, 17-18, and 19:3.

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  2. Yes I would agree that John is using language or seeing a vision in a way that he is able to understand. Some of the things in Revelation that he records are of things that have already happened to the church or were happening currently as the time he was on Patmos. But, with using what has already happened in order for John to understand it, it is also at the same time showing the great persecution of the church that is to come yet again. All this imagery is to be read not all literally but the principles and ideas which it is trying to convey give a small glimpse of what is to come. Just because Revelation is a crazy book and is of an apocalyptic genre, does not mean we can throw basic exegesis and proper hermenutics out the window. It does not give free rain to any interpretation. Context, history and the rest of scripture must speak into the interpretation of this book.

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  3. I agree that John is using a language that he would be able to understand. And just like the political cartoons one has to understand what is occurring at the time the letter was written to understand the full context of the language. Even though most of the language used in Revelation is symbolic, and meant to be read metaphorical, it is strongly believed that the great persecution of the church is to come again. But understanding the culture behind the context of when and where the writer was writing will help the reader to best understand what John is trying to relay to his readers.

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    • I too agree that John is using language that he was able to understand. The political cartoons were a good example in that we need to understand the history and cultural aspects in order to understand some of them. I remember when P. Long showed us a bunch of these cartoons in class and some we could understand and the ones we could not he explained the story behind them by giving us the background of them. Even though the content of Revelation is symbolic, I do not think it should be read metaphorically. Because some of the content is meant to be warning signs of the end times. Which should be taken seriously. However, in order to understand all of this information, we must know the time and cultural aspects in which this stuff was written. Or else it can be taken out of context. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kayla.

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  4. John is precisely carrying out the form of imagery that we would/should expect him to carry. His writing of the book on the events he has seen (in his dreams) and off of personal events that have happened to those around of him. Again, there are a lot of events that are taking the complete opposite than what John had intended to right. For example use, there are people who believe that because God is a just God he will not throw those who do not follow him into the lake of fire. People think it is bizarre and quite out of the nature of God. Little do they know, that there is significant truth in and out of the context of God turning away those who do not follow him. John painted the picture or imagery of God finishing the battle and destorying every last one of those who are a follower of Satan. Now, it does seem harsh (logically), but the truth behind what John has seen and what John wants its readers to know.

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