A Future Exodus (Rev. 8:6 – 9:21)
The book of Revelation does not read like most other books in the Bible. And when you get to chapters like 8 and 9, you get to chapters that themselves stand apart from the rest of this book. Locusts that look like battle horses? Demon horses with serpents for tails? What in the world is this about? And trying to turn these verbal descriptions into visual images is really difficult: it would be hard even for someone like Picasso.
However, I think the reason why we have chapters like this in our Bibles is because the Bible is from God. God knows what we are. He knows that we are not just disembodied minds in a vat. We are embodied souls. We think and we feel, we make choices and experience life from multiple angles. We see and touch and taste the world around us. We imagine and dream and wonder. We don’t always just believe something because we’ve carefully traced out the logic of an argument: most often we believe it because it fits with our total experience of the world. Sometimes the way a statement makes us feel has as much to do with whether we believe it or not as the way it makes us think.
It seems to me that Revelation 8-9 is meant to come at us in the totality of our persons. It is for this reason that it is not meant to be taken in an overly-literalistic way for it is an imaginative description of God’s plan for the end of history that is meant to provoke the imagination and move the affections as well as the mind. This is not just offered for our thoughts, but also for our emotions and our will. These images are not only meant to inform our belief system about the last times but to make that belief system more robust by addressing us in the totality of our beings.
So that is the reason why I think Revelation comes to us in the way it does. The Lord knows that we don’t just need didactic statements about the world around us but also that we need our entire person to be engaged with the truths of Scripture. So we do have didactic portions of the Bible, like the epistles of Paul for example. Paul was a very logical thinker. I am thankful for that; we need that. We need Romans. But we also need Revelation because sometimes a picture is better than an argument of a thousand words.
Have you ever wondered why so much of the Bible is poetry? The Psalms, the Song of Solomon, the book of Job. Just think about the book of Job for a moment. Here is a book which deals with one of the most profound philosophical problems mankind has ever wrestled with: the problem of evil and suffering. But how does the Lord deal with that? He deals with it through Hebrew poetry: a lot of Hebrew poetry. Christopher Ash explains why: “A poet can often touch us, move us, and unsettle us in way that prose cannot. Job is a blend of the affective (touching our feelings) and the cognitive (addressing our minds). . . . We cannot just sum up a poem in a bald statement; we need to let a poem get to work on us – we must immerse ourselves in it.”1 The problem of suffering is not dealt with best on a merely intellectual level but on a level that engages our affections as well as our thoughts.
Now some people mock the imagery and figures and characters in the book of Revelation and point at it and say that here is a book which is obviously written by a guy on LSD and off his rocker and therefore not from God. But I’m saying that the very way Revelation unfolds is a testament that it is in fact from God, because our Maker knows better than anyone that we can be taught and must be taught through pictures and drama as well as through arguments and propositions.
But is this really from God or is it just a fancy literary work entirely from the mind of John? Some folks have looked at Revelation and noticed that many of the elements of the dreams and visions that John has used are not original with him but find their background in the Old Testament, especially in Daniel and Ezekiel. And so they argue we shouldn’t think that John actually saw a vision from God and wrote it down for us but that he is communicating his own view of things using apocalyptic dreams and visions as a literary tool. They might say that we should think of it like you would Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. That book too proports to come from a dream, but I think we all know that this was just a literary tool Bunyan uses to draw his audience in. Is this what John is doing?
I don’t think so. We can, on the one hand, allow for the fact that many of the motifs and images in Revelation find their source in the books of the Old Testament. However, on the other hand, this need not cancel out the fact that John is in fact reporting a vision which he really saw and that this vision was from God. What is happening here is that God communicated spiritual realities to John using imagery that John himself would have understood. John knew the Old Testament. He was steeped in the language of the prophets; he understood them. So when the Lord revealed his plan for the end of history to John, he did so using language and images that would have made sense to John.
This reminds me of the experience of Nabeel Qureshi. In his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, he tells us that as he was wrestling with the claims of Jesus and the Bible, he asked God for a vision. And God gave him one. As he told his mother about the details of the vision, she turned to a book written by a Muslim to help Muslims interpret their dreams. The interesting thing is that every detail of that dream was interpreted according to that book in a way that pointed Nabeel to the truth of the gospel. Though some would argue that this is all just highly coincidental, I don’t see any reason to doubt that God was helping Nabeel through that vision in a way that would have made sense to him given his Muslim background. Now that’s not a perfect analogy for what is going on in Revelation, but it does illustrate, I think, the fact that God communicates to people in terms that they can understand. For both John and Nabeel that meant communicating to them using imagery and language from sources they would be familiar with (though I would never put Nabeel’s dream on the level with John’s visions!).
Why am I saying all this? I am saying it because I want to you hear Revelation as God’s word, and unfortunately there are always people out there who want to undermine your faith in the Bible. One of the ways this has been done is through things like so-called higher criticism, and one of the ways higher critics undermine faith in the Bible as the word of God is by pointing to literary sources outside the Bible and arguing that this shows that the Bible is just a human work dependent on other human works. They will argue that John didn’t get the content for Revelation from God but that he drew on other sources to craft this book using various literary techniques. This can sound reasonable at first, but it rests on a false dichotomy. What am I saying is that just because you can trace literary sources behind the images of Revelation is not an argument that this was a genuine vision from God, which it is.
So Revelation 8 and 9 is from God. But what are we meant to learn from this? What truth or truths are meant to engage us as we read these words? This vision was not seen to entertain us; it was meant to teach us and to make us feel something. And I think the reality that is conveyed here is this: the Exodus of Israel from Egypt is a type of a much greater future Exodus of the people of God from a hostile world. I want to unpack that in terms of the text we have just read, and then I want to end with an encouragement and a warning.
The Exodus of the OT points to a future and greater Exodus.
Why do I say this? I say it because the trumpet-judgments are intentionally meant, I think, to remind us of the plagues with which God judged Egypt before delivering Israel from bondage. In doing so, the Lord is telling us through this vision that there is a greater Exodus coming: not from one part of this sin-cursed earth to another part of this sin-cursed earth, but from a sin-cursed planet to one where the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Like the seal-judgments, the trumpet-judgments come to us in a 4-2-1 pattern. The first four are judgments directed at the earth, then next two at rebellious mankind, and the last is marked off from the previous six by an interlude in chapters 10-11. We will be looking at the first six trumpets in this message.
But why trumpets? We argued that just as the seals of a scroll must be unloosed before the contents of the scroll could be enacted, so the seal-judgments represent calamities that are the kinds of things that must take place (cf. Mt. 24:6) before the end comes. But what function do trumpets have in the unfolding of these visions? If the seals bring us to the end, the trumpets introduce the end times. In the OT, trumpets were used for various reasons, such as “declaring a state of emergency and summoning men to battle (e.g., Jg. 3:27ff., 7:8ff., Neh. 4:18).”2 But they were also used for announcing days of worship and times of joy: “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; that they may be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Lord your God” (Num. 10:10).
It should not surprise us, then, that we see trumpets used here for both judgment and joy, as they announce catastrophes (following the first six trumpet blows) followed by superabounding joy in the seventh trumpet as the people of God celebrate the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. We are also reminded of the several NT passages in which the Second Coming is announced and preceded by the blow of a trumpet by the archangel.
In verses 6-12 of chapter 8, the first four trumpet-judgments are described. These are judgments against the earth (7), the sea (8-9), the rivers (10-11), and the celestial lights (12). As we look at these, I think there are two extremes that should probably be avoided here. One is to look at these and to interpret them excessively literally. Note the language throughout here of “as it were” and “were like unto” and so on. For example, a strictly literal interpretation of the judgment upon the sun, moon, and stars would demand that the intensity of their light is diminished by a third, whereas it is not the intensity of their shining that is affected but the length of their shining. But this is a vision, and though this is what John literally saw, doesn’t mean that each item must be interpreted literally.
On the other hand, the temptation for other interpreters is to take the principle that these are symbolic and figurative images and to give an interpretation that fails to do justice to truly apocalyptic nature of these symbols. I don’t think these are just symbols for common calamities; they are symbols for calamities and judgments which will be actual events in history that herald the end of the world as we know it. And though I don’t think the point is that we are meant to be able in advance to discern the exact nature of these judgments, we are meant to know that judgments like this will happen and will herald the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God in all its fulness.
The First Trumpet
The point, however, that is easy to miss is this: all these judgments are meant to make us think of the plagues God visited upon ancient Egypt. So when the first angel sounds the first trumpet, we are told that, “there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up” (7). This is very much like the seventh plague, in which we are told that “Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation” (Exod. 9:23-24). Of course, the plague of the first trumpet is intensified because there is also blood mixed in. However, you will also notice that in these first four trumpet judgments, there is not only intensification, but there is also a limitation. Here, we are told that only a third of the trees (probably a reference to fruit trees) are burned up.
The Second and Third Trumpets
Then comes the second trumpet: “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed” (Rev. 8:8-9). This should remind us of the first Egyptian plague, in which Moses was enabled to turn the waters of the Nile to blood. Here the focus is on the sea, or the ocean; in the next trumpet, the same thing will essentially happen for the rivers of the earth: “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter” (10-11). Wormwood, by the way, is the name of a plant which has a very bitter taste. It is not in itself poisonous but is associated in the Bible with poison. For example, in Jer. 9:13-15, we read, “And the Lord saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein; but have walked after the imagination of their own heart, and after Baalim, which their fathers taught them: therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall3 to drink.” There, as here, it is a symbol of God’s judgment upon a wicked people.
What are we to make of this burning mountain and this star called Wormwood? I don’t think we’re meant to associate these events with volcanic eruptions or rivers poisoned from industrial pollution. Rather, these are symbols of judgment from heaven upon an earth which has become the stage for human rebellion and sin against God. Notice that the great mountain is cast into the sea and the star Wormwood falls from heaven. These are judgments from God and the fact that one is a mountain and the other is a star is meant, I think, to help us see the enormity of the calamity which is the result. At the same time, the fact that only a third of things are affected points to the limited nature of the judgments. These judgments herald the end, but they don’t yet bring the end. In particular, they are meant to bring people to repentance.
The Fourth Trumpet
The fourth trumpet then sounds: “And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise” (12). This is probably meant to make us think of the ninth plague in Exodus. There, we read, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exod. 10:21-23). Then, only three days were darkened. In the fourth trumpet judgment, only a third of the day and night were darkened.
The Fifth Trumpet
The next two judgments are judgments against mankind, whereas the first four are directed against nature. However, John spends a lot more time on the judgments that accompany the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets than he does the first four. But even in the fifth plague (Rev. 9:1-12), I think we are reminded of the Egyptian plagues, in particular, the plague of the locusts (cf. Exod. 10:4-20), though the plague of locusts described in the book of Joel is also in the background here as well.
Of course, then the locusts were actual locusts. In the fifth trumpet judgment, the locusts “were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months” (Rev. 9:7-10). I don’t think these are actual locusts at all, nor are we meant to imagine them to be the size of locust but more the size of horses prepared for battle.
In John’s vision, these locusts are demons from the Abyss, from the bottomless pit. In 9:1-3, an angelic being described as a star is given the key to the bottomless pit, which serves as a prison for these demons (we are not told which angel, or whether this is a demon – the fact that it falls from heaven is not a reference to a moral fall or exile from heaven; it need mean no more than it descended to earth much as a meteor falls from the sky). They are led by a king, “the angel of the bottomless pit,” who is called Abaddon in Hebrew and Apollyon in Greek – both which mean “Destroyer” (9:11).
What they do is to torture men rather than kill them (9:5-6) – though the pain will be so severe that they will want to die. They are limited, however, not only in the extent to which they can hurt people, but also in the time – they have five months. (This corresponds to the summer months in Palestine when the threat of locust infestation is real.) However, there is another limitation: they are not allowed to hurt God’s people: “And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads” (9:4). I think we need to remember that when we read this. This is a book given to the churches, and the believers are being told here that this is something they will never have to experience. They are sealed; they will be protected. In other words, the Christian is not meant to read this and be afraid. If you are in Christ, you will be spared from this judgment.
The Sixth Trumpet
If the final trumpet has a corollary in the Egyptian plagues, it would be the death of the firstborn. So here, you have these four angels which command an innumerable army of mounted cavalry of fire-breathing horses with venomous snakes for tails whose task is to kill a third of mankind (9:13-19). Whereas the locusts could only hurt but not kill, these actually kill.
The four angels which seem to lead this army “are bound in the great river Euphrates” (9:14). The river Euphrates was in Solomon’s time the eastern extent of the Judean kingdom; over it lie Israel’s enemies, and it was from the other side of this river that the empires of Assyrian and Persia arose, and on the river itself that Babylon was situated. In John’s time, the Euphrates marked the eastern edges of the Roman empire and on the other side sat the feared Parthian cavalry which had defeated Roman armies more than once. So again, this is the Lord communicating to John in a vision in terms he would have well understood. The Euphrates was certainly an apt symbol for the origin of armies that would gobble up mankind.
The fifth and the sixth trumpets are the first two woes announced by a bird of prey (in KJV, an angel) in 8:12-13). The third woe is associated with the seventh trumpet which will not sound until late in chapter 11.
An encouragement and a warning.
Again, we need to ask: but why these judgments which really are just intensified versions of the Egyptian plagues? What is the spiritual profit we are meant to cash in on when we read these chapters? And I think the answer to that is that they point us to a greater Exodus. They point us to a greater redemption. They point us to a greater deliverance. And that brings both encouragement for the follower of Jesus and a warning for those who abandon Jesus for the world.
This letter was written to churches. These churches were being persecuted. For the most part, they had no influence or power or wealth. They dwelt under the shadow of the might of the very pagan Roman empire. Christians didn’t raise their children in a culture which was amenable to the Christian faith; they raised them in an atmosphere swirling with the sights and smells and sounds of a polytheistic and immoral culture. The world was not there to encourage the Christian to follow Jesus faithfully, but with the devil it did everything it could, either by persecution or pleasure, to sift their faith and turn them from the true God and true religion.
How does your faith flourish in that climate? How do you keep the faith when the injustice of your pagan persecutors is unlikely to be challenged? How, when it is much more profitable for your business to just fit in than to stand out? And how do you live in a culture today that celebrates sin and is proud about it? We are living in a time which is seeing a resurgence of a new paganism, so this easily applies to us as well. It’s all around us in a reality-abandoning, unborn-killing, child-sterilizing, God-denying, and Christ-ignoring secularism. How do you live in a culture like this?
You persevere in the faith of Jesus with joy and hope and peace because you know that in the end God will judge your enemies and the enemies of all his people. These trumpet judgments are a reminder of that reality. They are a reminder that justice will come and that the enemies of God’s people won’t escape
it. This world which is presently under the sway of the evil one will one day fall under the judgment of the King of heaven. And these judgments presage the end and will lead ultimately to the final judgment in which all humanity will stand before the throne of the King of the universe and give an account. Justice will be finally done. Judgement will be finally rendered. All wrongs will be made right, and all the unrequited deeds of courageous righteousness will be made public and celebrated. Not pride but piety.
So there is great encouragement in these verses. They remind us to live in light of the end. They remind us that the way things are will not always be the way things are. This world is temporary. The world to come is eternal. So, with John we say: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17). What we are seeing in these judgments is the passing away of this world. And what we will see in future chapters of Revelation is that the saints – those who do God’s will – will indeed abide forever.
But embedded in these verses is also a warning. It is a warning to those in the churches who were thinking about deconstructing their faith. It’s so easy to do that. You become an exvangelical and call yourself brave for leaving the faith. But that really is not brave. The easier thing to do is to do what the majority of the culture is doing, which is the way of the world, not the way of faithfulness to Jesus. The way of the world, the way of the exvangelical, is the broad way, through the wide gate. The hard way, the narrow way, is the way of following Jesus. But here’s the thing: the broad way and the wide road leads to destruction. The angels in Revelation 8-9 are trumpeting the judgment of God. And God’s judgment is far more severe, far more intense, than anything the world can dish out. And God’s judgment is just inescapable.
And by the way, you have to notice that the agents of the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments are demons. In other words, the agents of the prince of this world – the devil, whom the world serves – are the very ones who are persecuting the persecutors of the people of God. The devil is a bad master, and God is an inescapable judge. It doesn’t make sense to cast your lot in with Satan who won’t reward you and can’t save you.
In 9:20-21, we are told that those who survived these judgments didn’t repent. They should have and we are meant to see that this is tragic. They should have repented of their idolatry and murder and witchcraft and sexual immorality and greed, but they didn’t. So when we read this, if we are not living under the Lordship of Christ, our response ought to be repentance. For a person to laugh this off and say they don’t believe it and keep on with their idolatry and love of this world is as tragic as the condition of these folks in Rev. 9:20-21 who refused to repent. Oh my friend, flee from the wrath to come.
And run to Jesus. He is not only the Lion of the tribe of Judah who will devour all his enemies; he is the Lamb slain for the sins of his people, and all who come to him in faith and repentance, will find that he will never cast them out. Those who embrace him as their Lord and Savior will find that all their sins are forgiven and that their hope is eternal. Come to Jesus!
1 Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross (Crossway: Wheaton, 2014), p. 22-23.
2 G. R. Beasley-Murray, Revelation, p. 152. He also cites Ezek. 33:1ff, Joel 2:1, and Zeph. 1:15.
3 Some translate the phrase “water of gall” as “poisonous water.” See, for example: ESV, NASB, NIV.