Interlude: Incensed Prayer
8:1-6 As the seventh seal is opened we have yet another delay. Seven angels with seven trumpets line up to sound, but the action is stopped for an angel who bears a bowl. “Much incense” is placed in the bowl, which is offered “with the prayers of the saints” on a golden altar. God takes a moment to savour the aroma of both the incense and the prayers. The bowl is then filled with fire from the altar and thrown to the earth, causing “thunderings, lightning and an earthquake.
The golden bowl does double duty. First, it carries the burning incense of the prayers of the saints to the altar before God’s throne, then it carries fire and coals from the altar back down to earth, initiating widespread troubles. Following from the complaints of the souls of the saints under the altar in the fifth seal, it would seem that God is beginning to answer their prayers for retribution by initiating the seven trumpet-announced plagues on the earth. Again we see the link between the martyrdom of the saints and God’s judgment on the unbelieving nations.
First Four Trumpet Plagues
Whereas the first six seals seem to show events as having earthy causes and effects, the first six trumpets seem to have earthly effects that flow from heavenly causes.
First Trumpet: The hot coals from heaven seem to lead to hail and fire raining on earth. This plague reminds the reader of a similar plague in Exodus 9:22-26, as God was preparing to free His Old Testament people Israel from Egypt.
Second Trumpet: A burning mountain is tossed into the sea, turning 1/3 of sea water into blood. Again there is an echo of the Exodus, with waters turning into blood. There is definitely a “let my people go” theme running through this section.
Modern people might think of a burning mountain as a meteor strike or a comet hitting the waters, but that seems to be an unlikely image for a First-Century Christian to understand. In the Old Testament Prophets, however, a hill or mountain is a common image for a kingdom or city-state (see Micah 4:1-2 referring to Israel and Jeremiah 51:25-26 referring to Babylon). Jeremiah 51 is particularly interesting here. Notice in Jeremiah 51:25 that the end of the verse refers to God’s judgment turning it into a “burnt” mountain. Verses 43-44 tell of how the sea covers Babylon, making it disappear completely from the sight of the nations. This is followed by a charge to God’s people to “go out of the midst of her,” a phrase reapeated in Revelation 18:4 (just in case we missed the previous allusions to Jeremiah 51!). [Look to Revelation 18 to unpack the destruction of “Babylong the Great” in greater detail.]
Third Trumpet: An angel falls from the sky onto fresh waters, making 1/3 of rivers and springs “bitter.” Bitter water was one of the earliest tests of the wandering Israelites in the desert, suggesting another link with the Exodus story. In Exodus 15:22-26 God heals the water for the Israelites, though it must have been bitter for all previous passers-by.
As for the angel, in spite of modern suggestions of nuclear weaponry, a better reading might be to see it as the same angel as in the fifth trumpet plague, opening the bottomless pit. The angel in both cases is identified with Satan, the Serpent of the Garden of Eden, appearing in the guise of the Dragon in Chapter 12, whose “bitterness” is further explained in that chapter.
Fourth Trumpet: Darkness strikes 1/3 of the sun, moon and stars in the sky. This plague of darkness, while not identical to it, suggests the plague of that type in Exodus. Darkness caused an instinctive fear in human beings in ancient times. If you can’t count on the heavenly bodies being up there to give light, what can you count on?
Is this darkening literal? Perhaps not, if you compare this with Revelation 12:7-12, where 1/3 of heaven’s angels are thrown to earth for rebellion against God. The fourth trumpet might reflect a shakeup in the administration of heavenly and earthly powers as judgment begins at God’s throne and works its way down to earth.
In any event, the theme of judgment in this section is closely tied to the theme of God’s retribution for the death of his saints at the hand of earthly and heavenly powers in rebellion against Him.
The plagues also strongly suggest that God is calling on His people to recognize a theme of a “second exodus” in this prophecy. God will bring every one of His people out of captivity into His glorious Kingdom.
The section ends with an ominous warning that there will be three “woes” yet to come before judment is finished. This means the worst is yet to come.