The First Four Trumpets in Revelation 8:7-12

The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians. Joel 2:31 indicates that in the time of the end the moon and sun will be turned to blood. The Jews had a tradition that at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea the angels hurled “arrows, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone” one the Egyptians (Aune, 2:519 cites Mek. de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 7). Fire and blood from heaven was included in Roman lists of “evil signs” (Cicero De div. 1.43.98; 2.27.58; Pliny Hist. Nat. 2.57.147).

The image of a great red storm sweeping across the earth destroying plants and trees may allude to Zechariah 13:8-9. In that apocalyptic text, only one-third of the land survives a “refining fire.” Why a third? This may be loosely based on Ezekiel 5:2, 12. Jerusalem will be destroyed one-third by fire, one-third by sword.

When the Second Trumpet is sounded, a huge mountain is thrown into the sea (8:8-9). The first judgement burned one third of the land, this judgement damages one third of the seas.  Sea life and shipping are all one third destroyed. “Something like a huge mountain” in the sea is reminiscent of a volcanic island being formed.  Mount Vesuvius erupted within John’s lifetime and destroyed Pompeii, many of the Jews believed that this was a judgement of God in the Romans for having destroyed Jerusalem. Volcanic debris blocked the Bay of Naples making it impossible to land boats (Tacitus Annals 4.67; Ant. 20.144).  The only eyewitness account is from Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16, 20). Pliny reports the sea level dropped and sea creatures were stranded on dry land.

Pliny, Epistles, 6.20 For although the ground was perfectly level, the vehicles which we had ordered to be brought with us began to sway to and fro, and though they were wedged with stones, we could not keep them still in their places. Moreover, we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, repelled by the quaking of the earth. The shore certainly was greatly widened, and many marine creatures were stranded on the dry sands. On the other side, the black, fearsome cloud of fiery vapour burst into long, twisting, zigzag flames and gaped asunder, the flames resembling lightning flashes, only they were of greater size.

The imagery is common in apocalyptic, see for example:

Sib. Or. 4.130-34  But when a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth, in the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven, it will burn many cities and destroy men. Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky, and showers will fall from heaven like red earth.

But the Revelation likely alludes to the first plague on Egypt in Exodus 7:14-23. In the original plague, all the water turned to blood, even water stored in jars. In addition, all the fish in the water died, as in the plague in Revelation.

When the third trumpet is sounded Wormwood falls into the fresh water (8:10-11). The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. A great star, like a torch falls from the sky effecting freshwater.  Unlike western folklore, shooting stars were considered bad luck, thus this star would have struck the readers as a bad sign (Aune 2:520, citing  Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.36; 5.23, a falling star means the death of a person) If a falling star is bad, a comet is the worst cosmic sign possible.  “…comets were considered prodigies that signaled the imminence of death and disaster (Manilius Astron. 1.892-926).

The star was named Wormwood (ὁ Ἄψινθος, ho Apsinthos). Wormwood is an herb which is not poisonous but has a very bitter taste that would render water undrinkable. Wormwood is mentioned in Jeremiah 8:14, 9:15, 23:15, as a symbol of God’s punishment of the people. How could a single disaster poison freshwater?  Although some writers try to make this a literal meteor or comet, it is a plague like the Egyptian plagues. God is destroying the water supply.

When the fourth trumpet sounds, fire mixed with blood falls from the sky (Rev 8:12). This trumpet effects the sun, moon, and stars, reducing their light by one third.  Darkness is a common symbol of terror and the end of the world, the reduction of light will increase terror, and make food production less effective. This darkness is unnatural, “not the way it is supposed to be”, and generally associated with “covenantal judgment” in the Old Testament (Beale, Revelation, 483). Two examples from the Old Testament:

Amos 5:18  Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD?  That day will be darkness, not light.

Isaiah 13:10  The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.  The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Cf Mark 13:24)

What is it that reduces the light?  It is possible that this is the combined effect of all the fire that has been started in the first three trumpets, all of the smoke and pollution have created a cloud cover that reduces light by one third. But it is more consistent with Revelation to see this as another allusion to Exodus 10:21-29, the ninth plague on the Egyptians.

In a previous post I suggested the 144,000 were in many ways similar to the send of the twelve in Matthew 10. Jesus sent his witnesses to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and in order to proclaim the presence of the messiah and to gather them into his messianic community. The plagues had a similar function in Exodus. For the children of Abraham, the plagues proved their God was defeating the gods of Egypt in order to rescue his people. As he has done before, God is calling his people out of the nations in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Why are Dan and Ephraim Missing in Revelation 7?

The tribes of Dan and Ephraim had some significant problems in the history of Israel. While Dan himself does not commit any great sin in Genesis (as do the sons of Leah). The blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 was not a condemnation, although Jacob describes Dan as a “serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider tumbles backward” (Gen 49:18). In the book of Judges, however, we find that the tribe of Dan was involved in idolatry. Samson was from the tribe of Dan, during his career as judge idolatry does not appear to have ceased. The tribe of Dan migrated north to a better territory. The worshiped a “calf” after the kingdom split (1 Kings 12:25).

But would Dan be omitted because of idolatry? All the tribes were, and any of the northern tribes would have been just as involved as Dan. It is in Judah that idols were established on the temple mount and the priesthood worshiped both Yahweh and Assyrian gods. It is possible that they were the first tribe to become idolatrous, but all tribes were involved at Sinai, the real beginning of idolatry in Israel. It was, however, a Jewish tradition that Dan was the most apostate tribe (Aune 2:462, citing Str-B 3:804-805).

A common explanation for this omission is that the Antichrist would come from the tribe of Dan. As Richard Bauckham points out, for John the Antichrist is imperial Rome is not a Jew from any particular tribe (101). This is a point which must be proven yet, but the observation is enough to make us wonder if the whole tribe is removed from the list because the Antichrist would come from it!

Dan is also missing from the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9. This is a more significant observation for our problem in Revelation. Perhaps the tribe of Dan failed to return from captivity and therefore lost its place in the tribes. In many prophetic passages, Ephraim becomes synonymous with the entire northern kingdom, especially in its idolatrous forms. The book of Hosea in particular uses the tribe of Ephraim to describe the apostasy of the whole of the northern kingdom.

So once again Revelation generates questions which may be impossible to answer with certainty. Perhaps the solution is as simple as the need to delete two tribes because Levi and Joseph were included.

What Does Revelation Say About God?

Despite the fact the book has a great deal to say about coming events, Revelation is not a roadmap of the future. It is, rather, an exhortation for today. It is possible that people living in the tribulation will pick up the book of Revelation and see the things spoken of being fulfilled in their lives, but the people living at that time will be under a delusion, (2 Thess. 2:11) and may not have the spiritual insight to believe what the book teaches. Revelation was intended to be read by the church living in the shadow of the Second Coming bearing up under persecution for their belief in Jesus, in order to encourage them to be strong and endure until the end.

The main theological point Revelation makes is that God is worthy of our worship. There are several scenes of heavenly worship around the throne of God (Rev 5:13, 7:11-12). As Grant Osborne notes, “The primary theme is proper worship of God” (Revelation, 12). When I read that I thought that worship could not possibly be a major theme of the book, but when I reflected on the contents of each chapter, it turns out that nearly every chapter of the book has some sort of a worship scene, song of praise, or doxology. The witnesses to the judgments described by the book respond in praise to God as the only thing in all of creation which is in fact worthy of worship.  It might be helpful to think about how many classic hymns and popular worship songs are drawn from Revelation, especially chapters 4-5.

This theme of worship has to be taken in the context of the Imperial Cult which declared that Rome was worthy of worship and that the Emperor ought to be honored as a God. But the Empire is not worthy of worship, the second beast in Revelation 13 must coerce people to worship the image of the first. The metaphor of Rome as a drunken whore evokes negative images of the honors given to the empire. John boldly declares that it is not the Empire nor the Emperor who is the almighty savior of the world, but the ‘one who sits on the throne of heaven.”

In Revelation, God is worthy to be worshiped because of the nature of his character. He is the one who is thrice-holy (4:8), he is the only being in all of creation that has all power and strength (4:10). In fact, the reason for God’s worthiness is that he is the creator (4:11, 10:6) It is evident that since God is the creator of all things, he is sovereign over them and can use them in what ever way he chooses. In Rev 10:6 even the elements of nature declare to be creator.

God is also described as a just judge who will avenge the wrongs done to his people. This is a dominant theme in the book (6:10, 16:5, 18:20, 19:11, 20:4, 20:12), but is also part of God’s worthiness to be worshiped. When the seventh trumpet sounds in Rev 11:15, the 24 elders fall on their faces and worship God because he is the Almighty God who has begun to reign (11:17). The worship is based on the judgment of the nations: God is the destroyer of the destroyers of the earth! Chapter 11 ends with a theophany reminiscent of Mount Sinai.

I think that this perspective on Revelation as a book of worship will curb some of the more enthusiastic interpretations of the book.  It also brings the book back to the church as a worship texts.  Rather than fearing the strangeness of the book, we ought to worship the awesomeness of our God!

Bibliography:  Eugene Boring, “The Theology of Revelation, “‘The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns,’” Int 40 (1986): 257-69.