Ted Grimsrud—June 8, 2013
Revelation 5–7 has established several crucial things about the agenda of the book and its theological center. The One on the throne is confessed as Master of the universe, but the kind of power that best expresses this mastery is the power of persevering love. The Lamb is worshiped due to how the Lamb resists empire nonviolently even to the point of death. The Lamb’s resistance frees the multitude from the Powers and offers this worship, worship that finds its ultimate expression in these people following the Lamb wherever he goes.
In between the vision of the Lamb in chapter five and the vision of the multitude in chapter seven, two clearly parallel visions, we have the first of three sets of seven-fold plagues described. These plagues, we have seen, are not direct acts by God to punish rebellious creation. Rather, they are a creative way to assert that though the world we live in is full of wars and rumors of war, God’s will for healing remains active, and (according to the book of Revelation as a whole) this healing will come.
So, now we turn to another set of plagues, and their level of destruction expands from one-quarter to one-third destruction. Still—reinforced by the visions of healing in chapter seven—I believe we still must read the plague visions in light of the core affirmations Revelation has already made about God’s intentions, God’s power, the promise of God’s victory, and—importantly—the means by which the victory is achieved. What we don’t have here, contrary to many interpreters, is a picture of God Godself unleashing terrible destruction in order to push people to repentance. The plagues in chapter eight, though, cannot be understood apart what from what follows in chapters nine and ten. Hence, I will offer here only comments describing the plagues waiting for the following chapters to reflect more on their meaning.
When the Lamb opens the seventh seal (8:1), the first plague series ends. There is no plague immediately linked with this seal-breaking. One could say that from now on what we get is the actual content of the scroll. I’d prefer, however, to understand that what follows now (the next set of plagues) is the seventh plague and that the scroll’s content itself will not be revealed until the plague dynamic is fully spent (which will not happen until the end of chapter 20 and the final judgment when Death and Hades join the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet in the lake of fire). So the first set of plagues bleeds directly into the second set. The seventh seal is actually the same as the seven trumpets that follow. The seventh plague, that is, is the six plagues that are described in chapters eight and nine.
The idea with the plague visions is that we are being given a picture of present reality (what will later be characterized as the “3 1/2 years” of historical existence between chapter five’s life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and chapters twenty-one and twenty-two’s New Jerusalem). The plagues do vary a bit from series to series, most notably in their destructive reach, but the variations are best seen not as chronological but as rhetorical. The several plague series essentially show the same reality but the intensification of their destruction points to a sense of necessary urgency to respond creatively and redemptively to the brokenness (caused by the Dragon and his minions) the plagues portray—and the urgency to continue to resist the Dragon’s lure and demands.
As with the Lamb opening the seals in chapters six and seven, so here the image of the “seven angels who stand before God” readying to sound the trumpets that will bring in the next set of plagues points to a close connection between God and the plagues. So, we need especially to remember chapters five and seven and read what follows here in light of those chapters and their picture of the intimate and inextricable link between the Lamb’s way of self-giving love and the victorious power that the One on the throne exercises. The victory is won through persevering love, not through violence and coercion.
How then are we to understand the presence of these angels here? Like with the Lamb’s presence with the opening of the seals, the angels’ proximity reflect the sense that while the plagues are caused by the Dragon and his minions, they are not able to defeat God’s purposes for creation. God does not directly cause the plagues, but God amidst the fallout of the plagues to bring about healing—as we saw in chapters five and seven (and will see more of in future chapters) the violence and blood-shedding of the Powers nonetheless ends with the Lamb’s victory.
This process of blood-shedding leading to victory is alluded to here in Revelation 8 when we read of “another angel” who is given incense “with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne” (8:3). These are the same “saints” mentioned in 6:9-11 whose witness unto death resulted in their being given “white robes” (pointing to the “multitude” in chapter seven who are also given “white robes”). So, the prayers here in 8:3 remind us of the dynamics of faithful witness leading to vindication that characterize the pattern of Jesus and the vocation of his followers.
When the angel throws the censer with the incense “on the earth,” what results are “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and earthquake” (8:5). These are all signs of the powerful work the One on the throne is undertaking to transform creation—not through punitive judgment though, but through the healing engendered by the faithful witness of the multitude. With the coming of the trumpet plagues, that faithful witness is more important than ever. This is a challenge to John’s readers: They likely will face hard times in their resistance to the Empire. Hold fast, their willingness to stay with Jesus and follow his way will be used by God for the bringing down to earth of the New Jerusalem.
When the trumpets are sounded, a series of plagues are visited on the earth. The first four (8:7-12) echo the first four of the seal plagues from chapter six. One difference is that these plagues are even more destructive than the first set. With the seals, the damage was to one-fourth of the earth—Death and Hades “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth” (6:8). With trumpet plagues, “a third of the earth was burned up [and] all the green grass was burned up” (8:7).
Not only does the scope increase from one-quarter to one-third, the level of destruction within the fraction designated is greater—Death and Hades were given power over one-quarter, implying that not every life within that one-quarter was ended. But with the trumpets everything within the one-third is “burned up” and one-third “of the living creatures in the sea died” (8:9).
In fact, the level of destruction in these plagues is too great to be believed. We should note as well that after these plagues are described, life on earth more or less returns to normal. So, clearly, the point here is rhetorical, not predictive. John is conveying a growing sense of urgency. As people disregard the message about the Lamb, things are only going to get worse and worse—so a response of turning away from the Beast and toward the Lamb is required, right now.
The point is not a prediction of an inevitable chronological progression of human life getting worse and worse leading to the Rapture and Armageddon. Rather, the point is simply one of an intensifying challenge to readers to take this message seriously and to turn.
We should note as well the lack of named agency in these plagues. Over and over again in the account of these first four trumpet plagues we read “were hurled,” “was burned up,” “was thrown,” “were destroyed,” and so on. But who actually was hurling, burning, throwing, destroying, etc. is not named. Since the “seven angels” sound the trumpets, we should understand God’s agency being involved. However, the lack of direct attribution of these acts to God should give us pause before we accept the standard interpretation and understand these plagues as direct acts of God’s punitive judgment.
That the God of the book of Revelation or the God of the broader biblical story (who is the God of Jesus the Lamb) would do such punitive judging simply does not make sense. Why would the God revealed in Jesus act in this way? We should also remember that Revelation links Jesus the Lamb with the One on the Throne more closely together than any other place in the New Testament. And Revelation also makes clear the modus operandi of the Lamb—persevering love all the way down. This persevering love then is also the modus operandi of the One on the throne.
So, the significance of all the “was” and “were” language of 8:7-12 may best be seen as a way of addressing the paradox of a universe which is governed by a sovereign God whose character and power are love. In such a universe there is an openness and respect for human freedom that makes possible a lot of evil and destruction—such as reflected in the admittedly hyperbolic plague visions. But none of this defeats or even operates in complete autonomy from the providential love of the Creator. This paradox cannot be easily defined, but it can be illustrated.
Perhaps, then, we understand the trumpets as signifying the freedom God grants creation (that all too often does result in plagues) as well as giving a sense, in the sweep of Revelation’s visions (that point toward the overall sweep of the biblical story), that God remains the master of the universe who is bringing healing and redemption out of the plagues. The rest of the book will fill in the blanks (in visionary fashion) of the workings of God’s healing care for creation in relation to the freedom that allows for the plagues.