After John’s dramatic pause, after the silence, after he has reassured his people that God does, in fact, listen to their prayers, he lays out the second cycle of judgments. The first set was symbolized by the breaking of seals; now we move on to the blasting of trumpets.
The seals and trumpets (as well as the bowls we will encounter later) must be taken together. To separate them, as in treating them chronologically, is to miss the point of what John is communicating.
They are connected in terms of structure (which we talked about yesterday). They are also connected in terms of meaning. John is going to build on what he said through the breaking of the seals.
John related the seals to remind his hearers that nothing happens in this world that God is not strong enough to redeem—nothing happens that he cannot make a part of his own loving plan for the entire universe. He now builds on that truth by covering the same ground a second time, from a slightly different angle.
In order to understand the plagues of the seven trumpets (and the bowls as well) we must recognize John’s use of imagery from the Exodus, when God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
I’d suggest reading and comparing Exodus 7-12 with Revelation 8-9. What similarities do you notice? What details do you see that are in both passages?
For first century Jews the Exodus was much more than a history lesson. It was how they defined themselves. In the Exodus God rescued the people of Israel from their pagan enemies and made them into a unified nation.
The Exodus was also how they interpreted their present times. Most saw that the world was still not as it should be, and they expected God to act soon and powerfully to redeem it. And many writers of John’s day used imagery from the Exodus story to say that God was doing just that. As one teacher put it, John’s use of Exodus imagery “is an emphatic way of saying that present disasters are but a prelude to God’s great deliverance” (G.B. Caird).
That is the message of the trumpets, only this time the enemy is Rome, not Egypt.
Once again, this makes sense of other aspects of John’s imagery. For instance, in 8.8-11 John alludes to two ancient prophecies about the fall of Babylon—Jeremiah 51.24-25,41-42 and Isaiah 14.3-4,12-23. Notably, Christians often spoke of Rome as a new Babylon (see 1 Peter 5.13).
John once again alludes to the dreaded Parthians, who were always a threat to invade Rome from the east (on the other side of the Euphrates—9.14). Their mounted archers would shoot one volley of arrows as they charged and then another one over their horses tails as they withdrew beyond the range of their enemies’ weapons. This makes perfect sense of verse 19 in its first century context.
Living what we learn
It is no accident that John uses the symbol of trumpets. Blasting trumpets had numerous nuances of meaning in the Old Testament:
- Signaling the defeat of God’s enemies (Joshua 6; Jeremiah 51.27-40).
- Proclaiming the accession of a King (1 Kings 1.28-40; 2 Kings 9.13; Psalm 47.5-9).
- An alarm summoning Israel to repentance in the face of God’s coming judgment (Isaiah 58; Ezekiel 33.1-6; Joel 2.1,15-17).
- At feasts as a call to remember God’s promises of deliverance and rest (Numbers 10.10; Leviticus 23.23-25).
It is not difficult to see that all of these associations were probably in John’s mind. God is becoming King of the entire world, and his enemies are being defeated. His promises are being fulfilled, and we’d better be on his side.
Another key Old Testament text John uses extensively in this chapter is Joel 2.1-18. The whole book of Joel, and especially chapter two, is about God’s coming judgment and the need for his people to repent.
This is also the point of John’s oracle. The end of Revelation 9 reveals that his goal was for people to repent (which they refused to do).
The same thing holds true today. God is still in the process of bringing the world under his rule, and we’d better be on his side. God is becoming King of the world, no matter what the newspapers may say, and we need to respond by repentance and faith.
Repentance is a much misunderstood concept in our world. It is not about feeling bad for our sins and promising to do better. In Jesus’ day repentance was a word used in military contexts when one general was trying to convince a group of opposing soldiers to join and fight behind him instead of against him.
Repentance is about a transfer of allegiance.
In the fullest sense, repentance is about worship—about who we answer to, who we serve, who we aim to please.
And the question of Revelation 8-9, while first addressing John’s hearers, hits us just as hard today: What is at the center of your life—God, or something we have put in God’s place? (9.20-21)