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.

12 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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  5. Comparing something to a personal experience makes it much more relatable and understandable, and that is exactly what John did with these “image sets” when he references and equates to God’s judgments to things such as earthquakes, fires, and so on. Since it is a possibility that the original readers of revelation were Jewish Christians who may have had family members killed in Rome, these saved Jews might have been carrying a weighty and heavy burden in their hearts. Despite the fact that the loss of Jerusalem was devastating to them, it was nevertheless perhaps also a comforting even I proved what in the midst of the despair. This was because it proved Jesus to be true, because how else could a mere human being have predicted something such as this? Even in our present age, we have many of what Jesus specifically warned us against, namely false teachers and prophets. Often these false teachers/prophets come in the form of the media and politicians, informing us that something is “imminent”, when in fact it is not, and also telling us that something won’t happen when it fact it actually does. This is an additional reinforcement of the truthfulness and power of God, as he is the only one with actual truth knowledge of future events, and this is displayed not just in one simple example such as the foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem, but in many others (Mark 8:31, John 2:19-21, Matthew 21:1-3, Luke 22:21, etc).

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  6. In the book of Revelation, there is a lot of imagery used in the stories and using images to help us see what the story could look like. What is interesting is that there are seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls in the images. Why only seven? What is the importance of the number seven? Numbers have been a huge part in the book of revelations and quite a few have meanings and/or resemble something. But, there are also times where the number is just a number and that it does not have a story behind it. With using imageries, we can use our own personal experience to understand what the author is trying to say, especially with metaphors. The seven seals, trumpets, and bowls spread out all over the earth and release their judgement that God has given them and cause destruction and chaos. The importance of these is the story of the end times. When the seals, trumpets, and bowls come, they are fulfilling what God has said will be the end times. John had an important role in this because he got to witness what will happen in the end times. The angels came to him and showed him what the wrath of God will do and what his judgement will be. What is interesting and shows how all-powerful God is is that he does not use all of his wrath, he only uses a small portion of his wrath and that is amazing.

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  7. It has been very enlightening to go through the book of Revelation and see just how many different references to the Old Testament exist within what John writes. If nothing else, it does support Dr. Long’s supposition that the book of Revelation was primarily written to Jewish Christians. The ten plagues of Egypt don’t necessarily line up perfectly with the different “sevens” that John describes, but I do see the resemblance that Revelation holds with Exodus 7-12. There are many judgements that specifically deal with making water undrinkable. There are the second and third trumpets, which turned the sea to blood and made the fresh water bitter, respectively (Revelation 8:8-10, ESVSB). This in comparison to the very first plague in Exodus, which turned the Nile river to blood (Exodus 7: 20, ESVSB). One can also compare the act of the fifth trumpet, which opened the abyss and released a large group of creatures resembling locusts, to the eighth plague that afflicted Egypt during the time of the Exodus (Exodus 10: 14-15). The main difference between these two plagues, however, is that the plague of the locust-like creatures in Revelation have no authority over the plants of the land. Rather they have all authority to afflict the people themselves for five months, which is about the time that the locust season lasts (Long 219).

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  8. Yeah I think this can go back to the three different types of interpretation of the images and metaphors in Revelation and specifically I think of the Idealist view when reading this article. When John wrote these “judgements” out, he was indeed connecting previous personal experience to what he saw was going to happen. So the Idealists would say that this was the case but also we will see in the future even to 21st century readers, these metaphors coming into play through contemporary and modern events that yet have to happen. This just seems to make the most sense to me knowing that God, the way he breathed life into the scriptures through his holy spirit, intended this book to reach a large audience of thousands of years and had to still be accurate and somehow be still recognizable when these trials and tribulations come at the end of history. It’s crazy to try and wrap our minds around it.

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  9. Prior to the class and the small portion of studying I had done independently on the book of Revelation, my understanding of it was the traditional futuristic viewpoint. I had assumed that Christ would come in the future, and probably after my time, to restore the earth back to God. I grew up reading the pre-teen version of the fiction series “Left Behind” by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B Jenkins, where teenagers were trying to survive after the Rapture and deal with the tribulation. The authors of the series took a very literal interpretation of the seal, trumpets, and bowls and portrayed what it would look like if those occurred in real time to real people. While I think there is value in seeing in color what those events could look like if they occurred in the 21st century; I find even more value in looking at the historical events surrounding the time period in which John wrote this book as pointed out by P.Long. All too often it seems like we want scripture to apply to the future and never the present however, “John is using creative language drawn from well-known events of his day; but he is also talking “through” the events to their ultimate fulfillment in the end times” (Long 2018). As mentioned in the original post, it is important to remember the cultural and historical cues surrounding this piece of literature, things the original audience would have immediately picked up on and understood become things modern Christians dispute over because we do not have the same context as they did.

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  10. Throughout the time since the book of Revelation was written many people have had different views of what the seals, trumpets, and bowls were and what their effect on the earth would be. During the time of the black plague, there were some church leaders who thought it was the Tribulation and the beginning of the judgments of the Lord. During World War I, some people thought that the seals were coming about. The 20th century saw many opportunities for individuals to establish a skewed view of the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Through the Great Depression, the genocides of many millions of people in Europe and an even greater number that were killed in Asia for the same reason, followed by the Cold War many Christians took the view that the end had come. One of the strange theories I have heard is that Revelation 9:18 is referring to the Americas, which make up approximately 1/3rd of the population and the destruction would be due to nuclear weapons.
    Overall, these views are largely, if not completely, dependent on the cultural views of the era in which they were seen and experienced, rather than a contextual understanding of the words of John in Revelation. John’s focus on the persecution and the natural disasters of the day gives light to the view his original readers would have had in reading what he had written to them. By understanding this, the true context of what John wrote can be applied to us more readily and accurately.

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