The Scroll unrolled - the Seventh Seal
Revelation 8 & 9
There is a pregnant pause after the seventh seal is opened (8:1). The silence of heaven marks the boundary between the beginning of the church age and its central period.
The beginning was marked by the publishing of the gospel (including the production of the New Testament), the destruction of biblical Judaism and the disasters and turmoil of the mid-first century Roman Empire.
Now we come to the great middle period of the church age. We will be taught about it by a number of explanatory visions in chapters eleven to twenty but it is firstly presented in chapters eight and nine as the age of the Trumpets. Each new factor in these chapters is announced by a trumpet blast from heaven, blown by an angel.
We have a particular interest in these chapters because this is the period in which we live and there is a great deal of teaching for us on how to live and honour God during this time.
When John was writing this (probably in the 80's or 90's AD) the churches were just embarking on this period. They needed to know how to cope and what to expect. As John wrote in 1:1, this is "what must soon take place" for them (and us) because "the time is near" (1:3).
The Strange Result of Prayer
The scene in 8:1-5 is still in the throne room at the centre of the heavenly temple. From this vantage point we can see both the heavenly and earthly significance of events. The seventh seal is broken (8:1) and all creation waits for the scroll to unroll and for God's words to have an effect.
A half hour of silence extends the sense of suspense until seven angels are given seven trumpets - but they must not blow them yet. First incense must be offered in God's presence and mixed with the incense are the prayers of all the saints.
The Holy Spirit is telling us that the prayers of God's people have a primary role in His government of the world. And this does not just mean the prayers of a few notable christians because we are told that the incense is mixed with the prayers of ALL the saints.
In the New Testament the title of "saint" is given to every believer. A saint, literally a "holy one", is someone who has been made holy by faith in Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Although every christian is still working towards the standard of moral perfection (and none of us who are still alive has yet obtained total holiness) this does not disqualify us from the wonderful title of saint.
Our holiness is the gift of God; it is the righteousness which he bestows on us for Jesus' sake and the result of his full and free forgiveness. Hence, in the Revelation, white robes - which signify sainthood - are given by Christ rather than earned. Everyone who repents and obeys the gospel is a saint.
Every prayer of every christian matters to God; his government will take account of all our prayers, especially where leading the world towards the final Day of Christ is concerned.
All the answers to our prayers which we receive now have an unfinished and interim quality since our world is subject to death, decay and loss of every kind. Every prayer for goodness, relief from grief or trial, for any change for the better is double edged since any such improvement is only for a while. The permanent answer to our prayers will arrive when we behold at last "the new heaven and the new earth wherein righteousness dwells".
Part of the deep work of God in a soul is that a new set of motives lives and grows within us - the hungering and thirsting for righteousness which Christ spoke of on the mount (Matthew 5:3-12). We have an ache for God and the goodness of His government which will not be satisfied until we have seen His glory revealed on the earth. Every fervent prayer of a Christian heart contains the unspoken plea "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".
The prayers of all the saints are offered with incense before the face of God. There are many references in the Revelation to saints ruling with Christ. Some of these are obvious references to the eternal reign to come but others seem to refer to some way in which we rule now (e.g. 1:6,9, 20:4). Here we see how we share in that rule through our prayers.
The identity of the trumpet angels is also a clue. Who are "the seven angels who stand before God"? The only group of seven that we have met so far are the seven angels of the churches (1:20). Powerless christians can be comforted by the knowledge that they are very special to God by realising that their angels are in God's very presence (see Matthew 18:10 for a similar idea). What is more, it is the angels of the churches who are commissioned to despatch God's answer to the churches' prayers down to earth.
Our prayers do not rise up to God unaided. It is clearly the "much incense" of v.3 which makes the prayers of christians a pleasing odour. There is only one thing which makes our prayers acceptable and pleasing to God - the work of Jesus Christ. His death has reconciled us and made us and our prayers so acceptable to God that we can pray in Jesus' name in complete confidence KNOWING that our prayers, weak and sin-riddled, have become a pleasant offering to the Father.
There is grace to spare in Christ, MUCH incense, to aid our praying.
God responds to our prayers in governing the world. Our prayers return to the earth (8:5). But what a surprising result! Did the christian church pray for such destruction and carnage? No. We prayed for God's Kingdom to come. But the coming of the Kingdom is with judgement on sin as well as grace for those who repent.
The presence of a praying community does not guarantee peace to a nation or to the world as a whole. Christians, being peacemakers, pray for peace and sometimes God grants us a lull in the storm of human strife but our deep aspiration for a just, holy and healthy peace will be fulfilled only with the return of the Prince of Peace.
The Spirit has given us the Revelation to tell us that hard and terrible things have to happen if God's rule is to be seen in the earth. Hasn't this been true throughout the age of the church? Do we understand what it means to be "the salt of the earth"? Does the salt of christian witness always preserve societies? (See Mark 9:49) Did praying christians preserve Jerusalem or Rome?
The Age of Trumpets
Trumpets are loud and their sound carries well in the open. Before the days of electronic communications they were used to announce important events, gather troops for war and warn of approaching danger. When we see angels being given trumpets to blow there must be some special significance.
We saw that the image of seals being broken on a scroll full of writing was a picture of the beginning of Christ's rule in heaven. Now we have the image of seven angelic trumpeters. After each of the first six trumpet blast comes a vision of disaster falling on the earth. As we shall see later, each one of these disasters is a portent of the series of total disasters which will come at the end of the age. The implication is that each of the judgements of the Trumpet Age is a warning of further wrath to come.
If this is the case then every disaster and tragedy which befalls us in this age is a sign from God and warning of the full impact of wrath to come in the future (see how Jesus taught this in Luke 13:1-5), these are our "signs of the times" (Luke 12:54-59).
In Romans 1:18 it is written "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men" but it is not immediately clear HOW that wrath is revealed. A partial explanation is the fact that he allows men to go from bad to worse (the progress in evil is plotted in Romans 1:21-32) but how is that a revelation "from heaven"? There are two sorts of indication that God's displeasure is upon us: the first is that he "gives us up" by abandoning us to our sin; the second is by his judgements being seen in the earth.
The trumpet judgements are uneven and partial in their effects (a "third" of everything is blighted). In this age some of us have relatively comfortable lives while others suffer dreadfully. Like Jesus, we should be careful to say that different circumstances are not signs of God's particular blame or approval and we should love our neighbours by relieving suffering. But let us not forget Who is Lord of history and that these are revelations from heaven of God's wrath against ALL unrighteousness.
The "natural" disasters of ch. 8 are bad enough but the "man made" disasters of ch.9 which God allows are even worse. Consider the horrors of the 20th. century:.
What have been the great disasters of our century? The two world wars with their appalling carnage? The six million people lost to the gas chambers of Germany, perhaps, or the twenty million lost under communist butchery in the U.S.S.R, or do you see it in the slow haemorrhaging of "conventional warfare" under the nuclear umbrella such as the appalling agony of south-east Asia over half a century and the continuing horrors in various parts of Africa.
No hurricane, flood or earthquake has wreaked such appalling havoc as the incessant warfare, political zeal and personal greed of men.
God has let us loose to express an inhumanity of which only man is capable. This is no accident. God and nature are against us because of our sinful rebellion, but, so that we may know that the problem is within us, Christ allows us to express our sin in such horrific ways.
Religious Liberals assume God does not intend such things and is somehow powerless to prevent them. In fact, chapter nine clearly teaches us that Christ rules over even the worst actions of men. We are meant to realise that, but for His restraining grace this would be even worse.
9:20-21 records an astonishing fact. Even the worst judgements of God do not lead men to repent. What more could God do to shake us out of complacency? The human heart is naturally so hardened that even the most terrible disaster does not inspire repentance. The trumpet blasts go unheeded.
But not all is darkness and gloom. Out of this great tribulation, the unnumbered multitude of chapter seven is gradually being assembled. How powerful the Gospel is! It succeeds where the trumpet warnings fail and brings dead sinners to eternal life.
The first four trumpets show us nature and heaven at war with mankind. These are a series of "ecological" disasters but they are presented in such a way that we are meant to realise that God's wrath and the work of His angels are behind each one.
It is as though God is unravelling the perfect fabric of nature woven in the six days of creation. There are many contact points between the early chapters of Genesis and the book of Revelation. For instance, the idea of six days of creation and a seventh which includes all that follows is almost certainly the source for the structure we find in Revelation.
But the messages are opposite. On one hand, in Genesis, we get a symbolic account of the perfect care taken by God to ensure a perfect, balanced environment for man. Just as man subject to God was in a joyful, peaceable relation to his Creator, so man's relationship with the environment was one of peace and balance. On the other hand, in the Revelation, the picture is one of increasing disharmony as the consequences of man's sin and the curse of God upon the ground (Genesis 3:17-20) are fully worked out.
Firstly, the earth, the natural habitat of man is scorched and the vegetation partly burnt up. In contrast to the vibrant fertility of Eden we see today vast tracts of desert land on the globe incapable of supporting more than a handful of wandering nomads. Even twentieth century attempts to improve matters have created new ecological disasters like the Aswan dam and the rising salt concentrations in the irrigated soil of southern California. Ecologists are surely right to demand more careful husbandry of the soil but we have no right to expect a new green paradise to arise in this age. The earth is not just polluted by our ignorance but also by our sin (Isaiah 24:4-6).
Secondly, the sea, the highway of commerce and a seemingly endless supply of food is struck. Men have always known that the sea could overturn their cockleshell boats. Just as man seems to have conquered the sea with his mighty steel ships in the modern age we are beginning to wake up to the disastrous implications on the seas caused by climatic and pollution pressures. Even in the past communities have starved because of the collapse of local fisheries.
The apparition of something like a burning mountain seems to be a reference to one of the coals from the censer (v5). The implication is that there is a massive difference of scale between earth and heaven. What is just a small chunk of glowing charcoal in heaven is a flaming mountain in relation to the miniature size of earth. Men and women see this world as the centre of the universe too often. We think of heaven, if we think of it all, as a shadowy, unreal existence on the outer limits of possible existence. But John, like every prophet who saw the Lord, sees the true proportion of things and how fragile the world is in relation to the might of God.
Thirdly, the fresh waters are struck and cursed in a similar way. The "living waters" - whose running movement could normally be taken as a sign that they are safe to drink - have become a source of death. This might be interpreted spiritually as a reference to religious or other deceptive sources of "spiritual life". My own view is that we should see it as part of this whole section showing that creation is no longer a safe and congenial home for man in his sin. In how many countries today is the water totally safe to drink?
Fourthly, the sun, moon and stars are afflicted. This must I think be understood figuratively since there is no astronomical evidence of major changes in the physical heavens over the last few thousand years. If a third of the sun's light really were withheld then the earth would soon become a planet of ice incapable of supporting much life at all.
I believe the meaning must be that all those natural sources of light and goodness in human life and society which should have an uplifting and wholesome effect have also been corrupted.
The "light of nature", as some philosophers have described human reason, has been darkened and confused. The arts have too often been corrupted and abused and the aesthetic sense set at odds with moral sense. Family life has often been twisted and disrupted. The result is that those parts of human nature and culture which ought to guide and lighten our path have often been false guides and causes of sin.
The darkening of the stars may be a reference to the angels which have fallen from innocence and become demons. As a result contact with the spiritual world often becomes delusive and destructive as in all magic and nature religion.
In other words nature outside ourselves, human nature within us and the spiritual environment have all been perturbed and have turned against our welfare.
None of this was new in the first century but what John is telling us is that the age of the gospel will see a new intensity in these plagues as the hardness of the human heart is revealed.
To someone familiar with the Exodus story there are obvious similarities with the plagues that fell on Egypt. Both Revelation and Exodus are stories of redemption and judgement but the account in Revelation is the fulfilment of what the Exodus prefigured.
Religion and War - The Human Plagues - ch.9
We have seen that the age of Trumpets is the time when disasters warn of the greater disaster to come and that we live in those times. As well as ecological and natural calamities (the first four trumpets) there are worse plagues to be suffered.
In 8:13 an eagle cries out that the worst is now to be revealed. The word for an "eagle" is used by the New Testament writers for any carnivorous bird, particularly a vulture. There is no doubt that this lone flesh-eater, flying in mid-heaven and crying out to reinforce the severity of the last three trumpets, is meant to be an ominous symbol for "the inhabitants of the earth" (see Matthew 24:28).
The last three trumpets announce demonic religion, then inhuman warfare, and, finally, the outpouring of God's bowls of wrath.
Demonic Religion 9:1-11
The star falling from heaven in v1 is Satan and he is called Apollyon, the destroyer, in v11.
The darkness caused by the fourth trumpet is now deepened by smoke being released from the Abyss so that sun and sky are completely obscured (v2). The Abyss is the prison where demons are trapped waiting for judgement (Luke 8:31).
They are permitted to affect the earth and its inhabitants only as far as God allows. Both the key to open the pit and the power of the locusts are "given" and the period of their activity is limited to "five months". This time limit, which corresponds to an adult locust's life span, probably has the same significance as the "ten days" of 2:10, i.e. it is a promise that God will enforce a limit the time of suffering.
The blackness of this smoke from hell is not an absence of physical light but rather a deep spiritual, moral and mental darkness within which the demons of the abyss can work and entrap people in false faiths and ideologies.
Periods of moral pollution and spiritual ignorance, such as that which we are entering in the West, create the conditions for demonic activity to thrive. We often think of the main work of demons being wierd spiritual phenomena or even possessing or haunting souls but this is a misunderstanding.
Satan's main work is the production of lies (John 8:44). If he can get people believing lies he can keep them away from the truth that sets us free. False teaching about God is the "doctrine of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1-5). False faith murders the soul but doesn't kill the body (9:5-6) and torments its followers with false hopes and promises which lead to despair. The inhuman acts of religious and political fanatics come out of this deep despair and, however lovely their ideals may seem, the result is dehumanising.
There are many allusions to the plague of locusts in Joel 2:1-11 in these verses. Locusts strip the countryside bare and leave desolation in their wake. These spiritual locusts don't touch the greenery, they impoverish and lay waste the souls of men.
Satan is the organiser of alternative faiths which keep people away from Christ. He is the angel of the Abyss (9:11). The huge amount of religious darkness and confusion which we see around us is the smoke from the Abyss (9:2) and in this darkness operate thousands of different sects, cults, prophets and teachers.
Not every faith is "religious". Any atheist theory, humanist philosophy or political creed which offers an anti-christian version of "truth" is just as much part of the darkness and born in hell. The fruit will be just as bitter. Communist, nationalist, Islamic and so-called "christian" fanatics have different faiths but share a common loss of humanity. They all have their own demons.
But one group is saved from the darkness and lies (v.4). If we are marked by God we are free. 1 Peter 1:3-6 explains the nature of this protection. God does not save believers from suffering but he does shield us THROUGH FAITH BY GOD'S POWER until the day our salvation arrives. Unlike false hopes christianity, being conformed to truth and reality, does not cramp the soul and kill the spirit.
Inhuman Warfare 9:13-19
The voice from the altar in v.13 reminds us again that these judgements are the action of God in response to our prayers offered on the altar.
Destructive war was restrained by four angels in 7:1-3 and in ch.9 we see it unleashed. The huge number and horrible appearance of this cavalry show the vast effort and single-minded purpose which mankind devotes to war-making. The names and shapes have changed with the centuries but this vision has been fulfilled again and again. Think of the the armies of Atilla, Genghis Khan, Mohammed, the Vikings, the crusaders, Napoleon, Hitler and the enormous effort we spend today on machines and methods of war.
Two hundred million may sound an unbelievably large number but there are probably as many men at arms in today's world. The horses sound like machines of war rather than natural creatures but it is fatuous to try to identify them with any particular piece of modern machinery; they represent all the fiendish ingenuity man brings to his warmaking.
Conquering armies in bible days such as Assyrians, Medes, Partians etc. generally came from the east across the Euphrates (v14). In the days of the Roman Empire citizens in Asia Minor and Palestine looked eastward nervously at the wild horsemen beyond the frontier. The image of an unstoppable horde of cavalry would be a familiar nightmare to John's readers.
There is a connection between these two plagues. Before the mass of mankind can be mobilised to these orgies of mass destruction they must first be hardened by evil doctrines. So Germany's Lutheran heritage had to be perverted by two centuries of Rationalism, Idealism and Liberalism before it was ready to perpetrate the horrors of the third Reich.
Islam and corrupt Catholicism prepared the way for the blasphemy of crusades in the name of God. The atheism of Voltaire and Rousseau leads through the sea of revolutionary blood to the massacre of millions under Napoleon. Later, the worship of "Democracy", that many-faced God, excused both U.S. violence in Central America and communist butcharound the World.
There is nothing too vile for believers in a "just cause". Normal humane instincts are suppressed . These horses and riders are unnatural, horrible. They have no purpose except to terrorise, injure and kill. "War is Hell" someone said. He was truer than he guessed. Only the final wrath of God is worse than what we do to each other when we go to war.
Although this passage pictures one battle in which a third of humanity dies it is better to see it as representing the dreadful progress in warfare which has continued up to the age of the hydrogen bomb and the international terrorist. The sixth trumpet has sounded many times in the centuries since Christ.
The Madness of unbelief 9:20-21
Anyone who looks at the world ought to realise that God is not pleased with us and is warning us to repent. How else can we explain a world which is full of both His good gifts and horrific experience? It is like living in heaven and hell at the same time.
But v.20 reveals that we are so foolish and corrupt that these trumpet blasts are ignored by men and women. We go on doing the things which are sure to bring God's wrath down on our heads. Unbelief and disobedience may be normal but they are not reasonable.
It is impossible to leave these chapters without reminding ourselves how negative the bible is about other faiths. Non-christian religion is idolatry and worshipping demons (v.20). Modern churchmen are quite right to seek ways of building bridges and talking to adherents of all religions but we also need sooner or later to speak God's judgement on all religion and faith which is not based on Christ.
Humanity is portrayed as addicted to its sins of idolatry, murder, magic, sexual immorality and theft. Like some alcoholics or drug abusers nothing seems to change their habits.
If this seems a bleak assessment, history has proved this prediction true over and over again. Unless God's grace breaks into our lives we prefer darkness to light.
However, something is missing from chapters eight and nine. These chapters are only summarising the warning judgements. While these are going on the Holy Spirit, also, is quietly at work in the world. We should remember that the great multitude dressed in white will emerge from this same time of tribulation.
The warning to the "inhabitants of the earth" in 8:13 is parallel to the call to the "inhabitants of the land" in Joel 2:1 (see AV, RSV etc. - parallels like this tend to be lost in freer translations and paraphrases). Just as Joel's trumpet call is a call to repentance (Joel 2:15-17) so are these trumpets and we know that enough people to fill heaven will heed the call.
Where are we, who live in the 21st. century, in relation to these chapters? John was obviously preparing his readers for the "long haul" so that they would realise that they were at the beginning of an extended period. We have come into this great drama at a much later time in its development.
My own conviction is that these trumpets are blowing very loudly in our ears today. No man may know the day of Christ's coming but the increasing intensity of these six types of warning suggests that the end may be nearer than we think. My prayer is that every reader of these pages will be ready.