[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
(1) What purpose does the period of silence serve in 8:1? From what sphere of Jewish life is the imagery of 8:1-5 drawn? What sort of prayers are in mind in verses 3-4?
(2) What significance, if any, is there in the shift of imagery from “seals” in the preceding section to trumpets here?
(3) What ideas are associated with each trumpet blowing? Is the imagery employed significant? If so, how? What is achieved by the technique of repetition?
(4) What is meant by the following: The “great star” whose name is “Wormwood” (8:10-11)? The “shaft of the bottomless put” (9:1)?” “The seal of God upon their foreheads” (9:4)?
(5) What does the lack of repentance indicate about the intended purpose of judgment (9:20-21)?
(6) What is meant by the statement “that there should be no more delay” (10:6)?
(7) How is the imagery of the scroll in chapter 10 like and/or unlike that of the scroll in chapter 5? What Old Testament passage is recalled in 10:9-10?
8:1-6—Seventh Seal: Silence in Heaven and Preparation for Trumpets
The “trumpets” that follow the half hour of prayer (8:2-3) do not give the content of the scroll. They are warning blasts, summoning the world for repentance (see 9:20-21). “Trumpets” were used in liturgy and in war, for victory and for warning.
The saints do not specify what should happen to persecutors (8:3) as the psalmists did. They pray in accordance with Jesus’ teaching (Luke 18:1-8). verse 15 of chapter 11 suggests that “Thy kingdom come!” was their prayer.
8:7-13—First Four Trumpets: Plagues of Destruction
The series of seven trumpets and the series of seven seals share a number of characteristics. Both picture trouble and suffering. in each, the fifth section probes beyond the external troubles to the inner character of people. In each, the sixth and seventh seem to portray some final disaster and what follows it.
The two series are dissimilar also. Whereas the fifth seal shows Christians suffering (6:9), the fifth trumpet shows the world of unbelievers suffering (9:4), as do all the trumpets. The last three of them are expressly against “those who dwell on the earth” (8:13; cf. 6:10). The plagues of trumpets one through six recall the plagues that came upon unbelieving Egypt (8:7-9,12; 9:3; cf. Exod. 7–10). The humans in these trumpet visions are either destroyed by the plagues or unrepentant in spite of them (9:20-21). The coming of the kingdom of Christ, with trumpet seven, is a “woe” (11:14). It could only be such to unbelievers who refuse to repent.
These differences among the plague series actually support their unity. It would seem that they are two sides of one reality. Suffering is the fate of the world in general (the world in the sense of God’s creation, including the church); that is what the seal plagues show. It is also the fate, with a special divine purpose, of the world (in the other sense, of ungodly human society); that is what the trumpet plagues show.
The sounding of the trumpet (8:7) has several associations, especially with war, in declaring a state of emergency and summoning people to battle (cf. Judg. 3:27ff.; 7:8ff.; Neh. 4:18). It was natural for the prophets to use the symbolism of sounding the trumpet when warning people of the approach of God’s judgment (cf. Ezek. 33:1ff.; Zeph. 1:15; Joel 2:1). But the trumpet that sounds the alarm for some people, signals the coming of a day of gladness and victory for others (cf. Num. 10:10; Lev. 23:24; Joel 2:12ff.).
The ten plagues against the Egyptians that preceded the Exodus (Exod. 7–10) seem to be adapted in the trumpet plagues. With each trumpet judgment, the devastation is restricted to one third. The plagues are not total; for the goal is repentance.
The hail, fire, and blood (8:7) would seem to symbolize any kind of destruction that at any time damages the earth on which people live (cf. Exod. 9:24ff.).
The effect of the second trumpet (8:8-9) recalls the first of the plagues of Egypt (Exod. 7:20ff.). The particular mention of the loss of shipping may indicate that while the first plague was directed against the human environment, the second was directed against commerce.
The third trumpet (8:10-11) signals the poisoning of the fresh waters. The rivers and springs from which people drink are rendered useless, perhaps symbolizing the destruction of the natural resources that sustain human life. The darkness of the fourth plague recalls Moses’ darkening of the sin in Exodus 10:21 and following. The importance of the plagues that struck Egypt was precisely that people could not understand how that happened and had to admit that God was at work (cf. Exod. 8:76,18-19).
Verse 13 serves as a transition between the four plagues brought upon nature and the following demonic woes in which people will be directly attacked. The previous plagues have been called forth by angelic beings, but those that follow are announced quite appropriately by what seems to be a bird of prey hovering overhead.
9:1-12—Fifth Trumpet: The Abyss Opened
The process of retribution is controlled and limited by God. The angel may open the “shaft of the abyss” only because he is “given the key.” The “locusts torment” people “for five months” only, and then only because they are “allowed.” Just as the natural plagues were limited in scope to one-third, so this plague is limited in time. Evil is in its nature self-destructive. But God mercifully limits its effects in order that people may see in their suffering a trumpet blast of heaven calling them to repentance.
The locusts emerge from the pit (8:3), the place of death. The pit is opened by someone who is a “fallen star,” no doubt Satan (Luke 10:18; cf. Isa. 14:12). Satan is “given” divine authority to do this. The locusts’ appearance is practically indescribable, but their effect is clear: sheer terror.
The faces of the locusts were as people’s faces. When John looked directly into the face of the advancing horde, he did not see the torpid expression of the animal world, but the hightly intelligent cunning and cruelty of demonic beings. People and animals are combined in a picture both unnatural and diabolical.
9:13-19—Sixth Trumpet: Four Angels Released
Verse 14 contains a reference to the Euphrates River. The river marked the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Beyond it lay the Parthians, the dreaded and mysterious enemy of Rome. Also, the Assyrians and the Babylonians had come from beyond the Euphrates in Old Testament days. An invasion from the east was something greatly feared—both in the past and in the present—for John’s readers.
The number four, used of the angels here (9:14), seems to be the number of the earth (four corners, four winds, four living creatures) and perhaps means that these angels represent all the armies of the earth. This idea is supported by the unexplained shift from the four angels to an innumerable number of cavalry (9:16).
The aim of the visions of these plagues is to shock people into avoiding the action—or inaction—that would bring the plagues about. John was not threatening pagans, but revealing to Christians the spiritual nature and destiny of the world to which they were tempted to conform.
9:20-21—Refusal to Repent
The people’s refusal to repent implies that they have been offered that opportunity through all of this. Humankind, through its sin, does bring all sorts of evil and horror upon itself. Yet in the grace of God, that trauma could have a positive effect and outcome…if people would let it work the way God is trying to work it.
However, just as the Egyptians stubbornly resisted God’s will, so does John expect humanity to continue in its idolatrous obstinacy. These verses express his conviction that the people of his day were so alienated from the Creator that no crisis would move them to repentance. Events in which the faithful see divine providence and justice are simply blind fate to those without faith. In spite of John’s negative expectation expressed here, the door to repentance can always be opened, and Revelation shows us that Jesus continues to knock.
The death-dealing horsemen of trumpet six (9:13-19) represent not only tanks and planes, but also cancers, road accidents, malnutrition, terrorist bombs, and peaceful demises in nursing homes. Yet the rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues still does not repent of its idolatry (i.e., centering life on anything but God).
The call for repentance also involves preaching the gospel throughout the world. God’s action is not just negative. God offers people a positive alternative to their self-destructive lifestyle.
10:1-7—The Angel with the Little Scroll
Verses one and two show us an angel wrapped in the cloud of God’s presence. Over his head is the rainbow of God’s mercy (cf. 4:3). The angel bears delegated attributes of deity, but it is also the angel of Jesus Christ, whose face John has seen shining like the sun (cf. 1:16). The legs like pillars of fire are reminiscent of Israel’s journeys through the wilderness. This is the angel who is to guide the new Israel through the darkness of its Exodus pilgrimage from Egypt to the Promised Land.
This dramatic appearance of an authoritative figure from heaven stands in marked contrast to the rebellious idolatry immediately preceding (9:20-21). God is still ultimately in charge.
It is not God’s patience, but people’s ability to respond that is exhausted. There is no point in offering further opportunities, for people have hardened themselves beyond the possibility of repenting. The angel then swears that trumpet seven shall no longer be delayed.
It is most plausible that the seven thunders (10:4), like the seals and trumpets, form another series of warning plagues. The people’s adamant decision not to repent (9:20-21) renders another series useless. It is too late to record any further warnings. In the verses that immediately follow, an angel under oath will declare that there shall be no further delay (10:5-7).
“The mystery of God” (10:7) is not truth about God which has not been fully revealed, but is simply the gospel. (Cf. other uses in the New Testament of the word mystery.) In verse 7, the word announced is actually euengelisen, “preached the gospel.”
With the sounding of the seventh trumpet that which God purposed in creation and made possible through the blood of the Lamb (5:9-10) will be brought to its fulfillment. That this purpose is in fact the kingdom of God is clearly seen in 11:15 where following the seventh trumpet the heavenly voices proclaim: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
10:8-11—John Commissioned to Eat the Scroll
The handing of the scroll to John is significant. This represents not just the passing on of a note for communication to the churches; rather, John is being given a prophetic commission, like that which Ezekiel received when he became a prophet (Ezek. 3). As if to underline this, John is told (like Jeremiah in his call to be a prophet, Jer. 1:10), that he must “prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.” This clearly has to do not with 11:1-13, but with the later visions of Revelation, notably with those in chapters 13, 17, and 19. The little scroll therefore signifies the reaffirmation of John’s prophetic ministry as a whole.
John’s great scroll in chapter 5 contained the redemptive purpose of God as it was made effective by Christ. His “little scroll” contains the same purpose, to be made effective through the martyr witness of the church. If the redemptive work of Christ is to become operative in the present, it must be through the witness of his servants, the prophets. Accordingly, John is told that he must prophesy “once again,” and this time not in words only. John is to “eat” the scroll—to make it a part of his inmost being. The word of grace must be spoken by the prophet martyrs not only with their lips but also with their lives. This is why the scroll “tasted as sweet as honey” but was bitter to “swallow.” The way of victory is the way of the cross.
The contents of the seventh seal (8:1-6) lead up to the end. The trumpets cover some of the same territory. The trumpets announce the coming of the end. Similar to the opening of the seals, the sounding of the trumpets is not an end in itself.
The first four trumpets proclaim visions of natural disasters which seem to affect all people without distinction. Like the seals, they are the effects of evil and human sin on the world throughout history. The point, like with the seals, is not that God directly causes them, but that they are used by God to bring people to repentance—to test and strengthen Christians’ faith, and ultimately to destroy evil.
The fifth and sixth trumpets are specifically aimed at “the inhabitants of the earth” (KJV) (i.e., those who do not know God, those who are the opponents of the faithful).
The picture is one of extreme evil. The imagery is realistic but scary: locusts, scorpions, and invaders from the east (like the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Parthians).
Visions are a graphic attempt to portray the reality of spiritual evil and the promise that God is judging it. The purpose is threefold:
(1) to warn Christians who were being tempted to conform to the evil culture;
(2) to promise that this evil is not ultimately independent of God’s purposes;
(3) to indicate, as verses 9:20-21 show, that God invites repentance. (Note the preaching of the gospel that is going on simultaneously; cf. chapter 11).
That the end is indeed coming is indicated in 10:1-7. The “mystery” of God is the gospel of the kingdom. The promised redemption will indeed come to pass.
John’s prophetic call is renewed in 10:8-11. This is a call to recapitulate what he has already prophesied with special attention paid to the nations and the kings. This is the central focus of chapters 11 to 20. It is not something new—in addition to what he has seen—as much as it is a restatement of what he has already seen with added depth of meaning.
The little scroll is in continuity with the earlier scroll that the Lamb was opening. It is sweet to those who welcome God’s kingdom and bitter to those who reject it. John is to eat the scroll—that is, to fully identify with it and to make it a part of himself.
These three chapters picture in various ways the outworking of God’s judgment on the world. The trumpet series is the second of three plague series. Many questions arise which are common to all three. One of the most obvious questions has to do with what these visions imply about the relation between God’s mercy and God’s wrath. Can this God be the same God of love who Jesus and Paul taught about—the God of the suffering love of the cross, who loved his enemies so much that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8)?
People who would argue that the god of the plague visions is still ultimately a loving God see an intimation of that in 9:20-21, though the argument is based more on the final outcome of the book. These two verses in chapter 9 interestingly imply that one of the purposes of the plagues is to facilitate human repentance.
However, the people refuse to repent, even after six terrible trumpet plagues. These verses underline the corrupting, blinding, possessing nature of false worship, of people “worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk” (9:20). This worship blinds these people from the fact that evil powers are leading them down a path of self-destruction and that the only way out is to turn to the Creator-Redeemer God revealed in Jesus.
John’s point here is the same as elsewhere in the book when he pictures the earth dwellers in unfavorable terms. His readers are not to speculate about the fate of those people or to gloat over that fate. Rather, John wants the people in the churches to realize what is at stake in their choices. Will they follow the way of the Lamb consistently? Or conform to the ways of the surrounding world?
This continues to be his message to us. False worship continues as a tremendous temptation for God’s people. What makes this temptation so serious is the subtle nature of various types of worship. This temptation becomes more apparent when we understand worship in terms of ultimate trust. What determines our choices in life? What really shapes who we are deep down and what we are becoming? If we are honest, I think that all of us have to admit that many things other than God’s will revealed in Jesus enter into our decision- and value-making process.
Three idols tempt many of us in modern-day North America. These are not immediately seen in religious terms, but if our “religion” is that which we value most, the connection is readily apparent. These three idols are money, war, and social acceptance.
The first idol is brought to mind by John’s reference to “gold and silver.” As the first letter to Timothy asserts, “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). This familiar verse might be a little hyperbolic, but I would argue only slightly so. The problem with money is that it tends to blind us from our basic human vocation: mutual aid, caring for our brothers and sisters. One of the ironies in the story about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 is that the rich man apparently did not even see Lazarus begging by his door. When we are burdened by our concern for making and spending money, we are less likely even to be aware of those in need around us.
In our society the vast majority of decisions made by businesses and government are determined by economic rather than “human” considerations. Terms like “the bottom line” and “cost-benefit analysis” are prevalent everywhere, not just in relation to an accountant’s work. The priority of money over people is especially apparent in the way large businesses operate. What is especially counter to the values of the gospel is that profit-maximization policies make wealthier a class of people (stockholders) who were already very wealthy as a rule. Meanwhile, the already poor victims who, for example, lose their jobs or have their workplaces and living places polluted for the sake of a few extra percentage points on the profit margin, become poorer.
John’s contention here, echoing Psalm 115, is that these idols can neither see or hear or walk. The Psalmist adds: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). When the love of money hardens people’s hearts to human suffering and exploitation, when it keeps us from even perceiving the Lazaruses around us, then it is indeed an idol and the root of much—if not all—evil.
John here (9:21) links murder with idolatry. Perhaps one of the clearest indications of humankind’s idolatrous commitments is the way that institutionalized murder (i.e., war) is justified and trusted in as an instrument of morality.
Why do individuals prepare for and fight in wars? It is because they give blind trust to their political leaders as the arbiters of (1) who their enemies are; (2) and what the appropriate responses to those enemies are. I am convinced of the power of the beast and its false prophet to “deceive those who dwell on earth” is primarily manifested in the war phenomenon.
What are the effects of wars? The death of innocents, destruction of property, reinforcement of reactionary political forces, destruction of democracy, and a general expanding of the power of hatred and violence in the world. Yet people still go on believing in the efficacy—or at least the necessity—of warfare
The obligation of the God-worshiper is to love God, and one’s fellow human beings with all one’s heart and all of one’s soul. Any human institution that reinforces contrary tendencies is idolatrous. It is from these institutions that the followers of the Lamb are warned to “come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins” (Rev. 18:4).
A third idol is the striving for social acceptance. Behind much of the book as a whole is the concern that God’s people were deserting their calling to discipleship in order to become socially acceptable in their culture. This was an especially strong temptation in cities like Laodicea, Sardis, and Pergamum. The cultural conformity was quite subtle, at least in the sense that it was not self-evident to the conformers themselves. “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17).
People in the church have always had to struggle with the fact that the essential message of Christianity is out of place in this world. The world sees crucified gods, earthen vessels, identification with social outcasts, and such as contrary to the “gospel” of success, power, and prestige. It gives its social rewards to those characterized by the latter set of values, and not the former.
We have to ask ourselves what values are calling the shots in our own decisions regarding how we spend our money, where we live, where we work, what (or even whether) we drive, how we spend our free time, what we say in public, and who our friends and associates are. These things say more than our words about what we worship. Jesus has the strongest words of praise for those Christians who were the least socially acceptable and the strongest words of censor for those who were the most socially acceptable. Is there any reason to think that his words would be any different today?
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) What is your emotional response in reading the accounts of the seal and trumpet plagues? Anger? Joy? Fear? Bewilderment? Who do you think causes them and who suffers from them? Do you think they are being experienced in the present? If so, what should our attitude toward them be?
(2) How do you understand 9:4? What do you think of the idea that God causes non-Christians to suffer? Do you want that to happen in history? In eternity? Why or why not?
(3) The trumpet plagues seem to reflect, to some degree at least, the pre-Exodus plagues. In the Exodus account (cf. especially Exodus 7–10), is the key point the punishment of the Egyptians or the liberation of the Israelites? What should our focus be on—punishment or redemption? What role should seeking escape from “plagues” have in the Christian faith?
(4) In 9:13-19 John seems to utilize common social fears to drive home his point about the terribleness of the plagues. What common social fears would a modern-day John play on?
(5) Was John’s point to threaten pagans or to warn Christians? Why? What are the implications of your answer for interpreting the book? in terms of applying it to our day?
(6) How do you interpret 9:20-21? God’s grace here or only human hard-heartedness? Why does John include this vision? How do you understand the interplay between God’s grace seeking people and human rejection of that grace? Could present-day evils lead to repentance? Is it experiencing God’s wrath or God’s grace and mercy which attracts people to faith?
(7) In the context of these plague visions, 10:1 implies that God still is in charge. How can this be after 2,000 years of continued plagues?
(8 ) What does it mean (cf. chapter 10) to say that if the redemptive work of Christ is to become operative in the present, it must be through his witnesses, the prophets? How can we “eat” (and thus make an integral part of our lives) the message today? Is it still bittersweet?