Revelation 8:1-6

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Awestruck silence in expectation of divine judgment is also found in OT texts (Hab. 2:20; Zech. 2:13). Some have suggested that the silence is also necessary that the prayers of God’s people might be heard, of which more in a moment. The half-hour is not easily understood but perhaps suggests again that the final judgment of the Lord will not be long in coming.

The seven angels” suggests a well-known group of angels but there is no such group of angels mentioned in the Bible. We have had four angels mentioned in 7:1 and there are seven angels, one for each of the seven churches mentioned in chapters 1-3, but nowhere seven angels who stand before the throne of God. In Jewish apocalyptic literature, however, there was a well-known group of seven archangels. They are even named in that literature and they include Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Remember, John has filled his account with symbolism familiar to both the readers of the OT and Jewish apocalyptic literature.

Trumpets, as you remember, were used in the OT to lead an army into battle, to sound a warning, even to bring down the walls of Jericho. But in the prophets and in the New Testament trumpets also herald the day of the Lord’s wrath. In Zephaniah 1:14-16 the sounding of a trumpet announces the day of the Lord, “a day of distress and anguish.” And in the NT a trumpet announces the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

This other angel is pictured with a censer or fire-pan in his hand. He takes the hot coals from the altar over which the incense was then sprinkled and burned creating the fragrant aroma. Earlier in 5:8 the incense burned in heaven was again identified with the prayers of the saints.

In Ezekiel 10 we have a similar image. A man clothed in linen fills his hands with coals of fire from between the cherubim and scatters them over the city. There too this represents the fire of the Lord’s judgment being sent upon the earth.

The language of storm and earthquake harks back to 6:12-14 and occurs again in 11:19 and 16:18. These are all emblems of divine judgment and often of the last judgment.

This is the first Sunday of Advent and it is worth my pointing out that traditionally preaching in Advent is supposed to concern the “comings” or “advents” of the Lord Jesus Christ, both his first coming and his second. As we have come in our sermons on Revelation to the description of events that, however understood, at least herald or anticipate the second coming of the Lord, we may continue our series in Revelation uninterrupted secure in knowing that it is preaching appropriate to Advent! Not that it would make that much difference if it weren’t. Preaching on such themes at Advent is a tradition only and a tradition observed only in certain segments of the church. There is no law, in other words!

But, we come with this passage before us this morning to what I think I may safely be described as “the problem” of Revelation. By that I mean the problem created by the significant differences in the interpretation of the book even among men who hold to the same biblical theology and the same principles of biblical hermeneutics. That is, these scholars – often devout men – intend to interpret Revelation according to the principles of historical-grammatical exegesis. They intend, by careful study of the text and its OT, Jewish, and NT background, by the study of other literature of the time written in the same genre, and from the study of first century history – that is, the life background of the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world in John’s day and so the world of the people to whom John was writing to determine what John meant to say. They mean to interpret his words according to the rules of Greek grammar and in terms of the genre in which he wrote. These men all agree that apocalyptic literature such as we have in Revelation – literature that features visions of earth and heaven, that is full of dramatic symbolism, and vivid but figurative representations of human history and of mankind’s future – should not be read in the same way a letter of the Apostle Paul or one of the four Gospels ought to be read. Revelation is a different sort of book and should be read accordingly. These men, employing a sound and sensible approach to the interpretation of Revelation are all attempting to ascertain what John meant by what he wrote.

Nevertheless they don’t come to the same conclusions at point after point. Revelation is uniquely difficult to understand among the books of the Bible, not, I think, in its overarching message or even in the burden of many of its details. But even the most sympathetic of commentators are perplexed at a number of points in the book to know how best to understand the progress of John’s narrative. It is the connection between the parts of the book that create the most confusion. We have had some of this already but we have a great example of the problem of understanding the progress of John’s narrative before us this morning. There is a reason why Charles Spurgeon said that “only fools and madmen are positive in their interpretations of the Apocalypse.” And this morning we have come to one of those cruxes, one of those places where Revelation proves particularly difficult to interpret and to understand.

The question is this: as we move from the seven seals to the seven trumpets, as we move from the first cycle of seven to the second (there is still a third to come, the seven bowls), are we to understand that the seven trumpets represent events that transpire after the events described by the seven seals or do they return to the beginning and cover the same ground the seven seals covered before them? Do the seven trumpets take the story forward or recapitulate the story so far told? There are many good men who take the seven trumpets to cover the entire inter-adventual period, the period between Christ’s first and second coming, the period in which you and I are living now, just as did the seven seals. John Stott presents that interpretation in a very attractive form in a recent book [The Incomparable Christ]. For those of you who are aware of the debate and care (and I know that such is not the case with many of you), those who take the trumpets to recapitulate the seals are more often than not amillennialists. However, it is important to note that amillennialism does not require this interpretation and advocates of other eschatological views – that is other views concerning the events that will mark the end of the world – also take the relationship between the seals and the trumpets to be that of recapitulation, that is both the seals and the trumpets describe the whole course of history not two periods of history one following the other.

Others understand the seven trumpets to follow the seven seals and to represent the heightened measure of judgment that will befall the earth before and during the great tribulation at the end of the age. The seals are the history of the world up to that last great conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Evil One; the trumpets take the history through that final, terrible conflict. Believe me when I say there are good arguments for both interpretations.

For example, in favor of the view that the trumpets recapitulate the seals, cover the same history in other words, is the fact that the last trumpet seems to leave us at the same point we were left at the breaking of the seventh seal. After all, the number 7 seems symbolically to represent the end, but we have a seventh seal, a seventh trumpet, and a seventh bowl. In 6:12-17, at the breaking of the sixth seal, we have language that in the rest of the New Testament is used to introduce the Second Coming and the Last Judgment and are told that the day of the wrath of the Lamb has come. In 11:15, at the sounding of the 7th trumpet, we are told that the day of the Lord has come and in 11:19 we have a description of earthquake and storm such as we were given in 6:12-14 before the opening of the 7th seal and in 8:5 after the opening of the 7th seal. In other words at the end of the seven seals and at the end of the seven trumpets we seem to be at the same place. What is more, both the accounts of the breaking of the seven seals and the sounding of the seven trumpets are interrupted by an interlude. We considered the interlude in the account of the seven seals last time as we found it in chapter 7: a description of the church first sealed on earth against the harm the Lord was bringing upon the world and then triumphant at last in heaven. In a similar way the account of the sounding of the seven trumpets will be interrupted in chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11.

It is also to be observed that the seventh seal has no specific content mentioned. There is no woe mentioned as the result of the breaking of the seventh seal as there was in the case of each of the preceding six. In the same way at the sounding of the seventh trumpet there is nothing specific said as to any result, any specific judgment resulting as there was in the case of each of the preceding six trumpets. There are other similarities between the seal and the trumpets. 7:3-4 are very like 9:4 and so on. These are arguments for taking the trumpets to describe the history of the world as a history of judgment for the world and persecution for the church in the same way as that history is described by the seals. It is the same story told a second time. It is, as we suggested formerly, like a musical variation: the same theme repeated with different adornments.

On the other hand, and favoring the view that the trumpets follow the seals and represent events after those described by the breaking of the seals, is first the fact that this is what seems naturally to be the impression of the sequence of events from 8:1. The simplest reading of John’s words would seem to suggest that the arrangement of his material is chronological. The seven trumpets are what follow the breaking of the seventh seal and the opening of the scroll. Many have even taken the view that the seven trumpets are in fact the contents of the scroll, events that can only unfold once the scroll has been opened. Recapitulation may well be John’s method, but this is never explicitly said. There is further the fact that the judgments and the suffering described one after another as each trumpet is sounded are greater than those that befell the earth when the seals were broken one by one. For example, a quarter of the earth was slain after the fourth seal was broken, but a third of the earth was destroyed and a third of mankind killed when the sixth trumpet was sounded. There is an intensification of judgment in the trumpets that has led many commentators to conclude that the trumpets represent the sufferings of the earth at the end of the age, the catastrophes that mount up at the time before and/or during the great tribulation. I could go on, but you get the point. There are good arguments to be offered for both views and for the large number of sub-views, for each general approach has many variations.

It is precisely at this point that studies of the book often go awry and become tiresome and arcane efforts to prove one interpretation and disprove another. It is precisely for this reason that the book of Revelation is preached as little as it is. Preachers are afraid of being sucked into the quagmire of competing interpretations. The principle commentary among the several I am using to prepare these messages runs to over 1,000 pages – large pages often made larger still with sections printed in smaller type – the length in large part made necessary by the space it takes to sort out the various interpretations paragraph after paragraph!

Let me tell you why I don’t think it matters all that much how we answer this particular question of interpretation and, so, why I am not going to spend any time in the attempt.

  1. First, the most we could fairly claim at the end of such a weighing of evidence and argument is that we think there is reason to favor a particular interpretation. We could hardly say that we have proved it! Good men, wise men, learned men, devout men do not agree with one another at this point and know the other side’s arguments inside and out. That is, in my view, a demonstration of the fact that such questions of interpretation cannot be definitively answered. I have no heart for wearying you Sunday after Sunday with a recital of various possibilities of interpretation if the result is only going to be my best guess!
  2. Second, in the nature of the case it doesn’t make all that much difference whether we are reading about the tribulations and sufferings of mankind throughout history or an intensification of such sufferings at the end of history. We know from elsewhere in the Bible that both things are true: that this world stands and has always stood since the Fall under the judgment of the Lord and thatit will suffer still more, the Lord’s judgments will be multiplied and heightened, at the end of the age. The judgments of the Lord befall the world now and will befall it then for the same reason and they are the same kind of judgments, differing only in their measure and, perhaps chiefly in their extent, that is, the number of people involved. To be frank, if one is being burned at the stake, as many godly men and women have been through the ages, the fire will be as hot and the pain as great whether one dies in the midst of history or at its end.
  3. For the church at any time and in any circumstance the point is the same. The judgments are the Lord’s, they are visited upon the world because of its unbelief and rebellion, and they catch up the believing church as well in their pain, hardship, and sorrow. What is more they do not and cannot harm the Lord’s people in any lasting way. That is what every generation of Christians needs to know about the dark face of human life in this world and about the opposition the followers of Jesus Christ will face in the Devil’s world. And those lessons are taught however one takes the relationship of the trumpets to the seals.

For these reasons, it seems to me, we can safely conclude that whether we read the trumpets as descriptions of judgments visited upon the world in the final chapter of its history or as a further description of the judgments that have befallen it throughout its history and befall mankind now, the application of this vision of the trumpets will remain the same. We’ll get to what are unmistakably descriptions of events at the end of the age soon enough in any case.

And so we turn from this sort of question to consider the remarkable thing that is said in the course of this transition from the seals to the trumpets: namely that events on earth are prompted, even caused by the prayers of the church and that, in particular, the judgment of the world comes from heaven in answer to the church’s prayers. We have already seen the martyred church in heaven praying for her vindication in chapter 6 verses 9-11. The saints, we read there, prayed that the Lord would “judge the inhabitants of the earth” and here in 8:3-5 the picture is the same. The saints pray and judgment is hurled down from heaven to earth. The prayers of the saints, as incense ascending to God, are hurled back to earth as thunder, lightning, and earthquake.

Now there are some things to observe about this prayer and its effects in a preliminary way. First, this is not the prayer that most of us pray most of the time. I do not mean to disparage the largest part of the prayers we offer for such prayers are right and holy prayers and we ought to pray them. But our prayer is usually private and personal in its character and motivation. Much of it is this-worldly in its interest and perspective. We pray to commune with the Lord; we pray for the forgiveness of our sins; and we pray to grow in grace. We pray for provisions of one sort or another for ourselves or those we love. And, as I said, such prayer is part and parcel of any authentic Christian life. Almost all the great literature on the life of Christian prayer concerns prayer of this type: personal, private, this-worldly petitionary prayer. Alexander Whyte’s Lord Teach us to Pray; Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer; P.T. Forsyth’s The Soul of Prayer, even C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm chiefly concern themselves with the prayers of the individual believer such as you and I pray day by day.

But here we are speaking of the prayer of the church, concerted, public and official. It is perhaps especially the prayer of the church’s worship as is suggested by the references to altar and incense and “all the saints.” We have the saints praying together in the parallel passage in 6:10. And the prayer here is for the vindication of the people of God and the judgment of God’s enemies. It is prayer for the coming of the kingdom and the defeat of the enemies of Jesus Christ. It is such prayer as Jesus himself must usually have prayed. After all, he had few earthly concerns yet he prayed constantly and at great length. To gain time for his prayers he had to lose precious hours of sleep. The late night and the very early morning heard him at prayer when everyone else was asleep. What did he pray for? He prayed for the coming of the kingdom. He prayed for the conversion of the lost. He prayed for his disciples that they might grow into a force strong enough to win battles for his kingdom. The examples of his prayers that are given to us in the Gospels are almost all prayers of this type: prayers for the vindication of the faithful, prayers for their usefulness in the world, and prayers for the progress of the kingdom of God and the salvation of the world.

The church is to pray that way as well. And when we do, we read here in Revelation 8:3-5, the kingdom of God advances in the world and the kingdom of the Evil One retreats. We pray prayers of this type on Wednesday nights and on the Lord’s Day and, of course, whenever we pray and in whatever way we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray such a prayer when we pray, “Maranatha,” “O Lord, come!” We go to war when we enter this house to pray together for the kingdom of God. We are praying for the vindication of the Lord’s truth, for the conquest of the Lord’s enemies. And, of course, we cannot pray for the Lord’s return without praying for what we know full well will accompany that return: the judgment of the wicked and the destruction of the enemies of God. Proper as our other prayers are and proper as it is to pray them, let us admit that they are much smaller prayers than these that seek thunder, lightning, and earthquake in and upon the world for the sake of the saints and the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it is precisely here that we face the most intense challenge to our confidence in prayer and our obedience in prayer. How can it be that our prayers have such dramatic effect in and upon the world as is described here? The world either mocks prayer as a superstitious practice of no real consequence in the world, or, much more often, it transforms prayer into a sentimental exercise in wishful thinking. When people speak of “putting in a word with the Man Upstairs,” or when TV commentators who never have seriously prayed to the infinite personal God in all their lives say on behalf of the television audience that, of course, “our prayers are with” some group of people who have suffered some tragedy, what are we to think but that these people think of prayer as nothing other than some horizontal expression of good will or pleasing sentiment. They aren’t really invoking a God who can and does answer prayer. When we sing or read on a bumper sticker, “God bless America,” we know well enough not to think that such an expression means that the people in the car actually believe that God himself will bless or withhold his blessing from this nation in keeping with its people’s prayers.

People in general do not think of prayer as an actual instrument of divine judgment and of the vindication of God’s truth in the world. But Christians are to think of prayer in precisely these terms, particularly the prayer they pray together in the house of God. But that prayer is a supremely spiritual exercise and the more spiritual any act is, the more any act is an act of faith, the harder it is for us to do it and to do it confidently. Christians have to take the power of this prayer on faith. It is not obvious that thunder, lightning, and earthquake fall upon the earth because of the prayers of the saints. Much of the time it seems that only a few saints would be praying for any such thing, at least intentionally praying for such a thing. We must believe that prayer has this place in the history of divine judgment and we do believe it because the Scripture teaches it. I remember when the Soviet Union came apart in 1988 thinking that the prayer meeting which Florence and I attended in Aberdeen, Scotland had something to do with that. Those saints had prayed every Saturday night for 40 years for the destruction of the iron curtain; for the destruction of the communist state that prevented the Gospel from being proclaimed to millions upon millions of human beings. And what drama they and other faithful Christians caused in the world as one of the world’s most powerful nations staggered and then fell: thunder, lightning, and earthquake brought it down. A result hardly anyone had foreseen or even imagined until it happened.

I have on my shelf a volume of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer preached by Helmut Thielicke in Stuttgart during the last part of the Second World War. [Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer] Thielicke would later be known as the Billy Graham of Germany (though he was a much more serious theologian than Dr. Graham). One of these sermons is on the petition: “Thy Kingdom Come.” It was delivered in the choir of the Church of the Hospitallers since the nave and the rest of the great church had been reduced to ruins by the allied bombing. The choir is that part of the church where the pulpit and table are found. The center of the city had also been totally destroyed. Thielicke covered his office as a Christian minister with glory preaching that sermon. He made no effort to excuse or to extenuate. He pointed out that much of the judgment of the Lord that descends upon this earth is of man’s own making. The Lord, as Paul makes a point of saying in Romans 1, gives rebellious man over to his sins, to the dominion of the alien lords and tyrants, the false gods to whom he has devoted himself but from whose dominion, once he has crossed over to them, he cannot escape. The earthquake or thunderbolt from heaven in John’s dramatic imagery is in Paul’s explanation, often the working out of man’s sinful, destructive choices, lusts, prejudices, and selfish enthusiasms. As Thielicke put it, God’s judgment often consists

“…not in his destroying the offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven; it consists rather in his leaving them to their own wretchedness and compelling them to pursue their chosen road to the end, and go through every phase of its terrible curse.” [57]

No one, said Thielicke, can stop the deadly progress of this fate; perhaps a reference to the attempt to kill Hitler and take over the government that had occurred shortly before the sermon was preached and had been so brutally suppressed. In this fallen, rebellious world the kingdom of God must be revealed in conflict and battle, in the struggle between darkness and light, death and life. Thielicke told his shattered congregation that day:

“We have learned more, and probably experienced more, about the kingdom of God in the crash of air raids and the terrors of our cellars and underground shelters than those…times of comfort and well-being could ever suggest.” [63]

Everything that turns the eye away from the passing, the temporary, and the relative and fixes it upon that reality against which the gates of hell shall not prevail and which moth and rust cannot consume, that and that alone is what advances the kingdom of God in the life of men. For it is precisely persuading men and women to deny or ignore the eternal, the reality of God and his judgment and the salvation of sinners by Jesus Christ that is the work of the Devil’s kingdom. And it is everything that overturns that strategy and frustrates it that is the coming of the kingdom of God.

At the end of his great and solemn sermon Thielicke told of standing at the edge of a great bomb crater, what remained of the concrete pit of a deep underground cellar in which the lives of more than fifty young people had been snuffed out in an instant. A woman had come up to him and asked if he were indeed the pastor because she hadn’t recognized him in the clothes he was wearing. At one point in the sermon he had noted that he was preaching in his old army boots because he no longer owned a pair of good shoes. When she knew who he was, she said to him,

“My husband died down there. His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap. We were there the last time you preached in the cathedral church. And here before this pit I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity.” [65-66]

The establishment of the kingdom of God in the world and in the hearts of men; the judgment of the Lord upon the wicked; the vindication of the truth; this is the business of the Christian church and her prayers. This and nothing less.

The world may resist what we say to it. The lost to whom we speak may prove uninterested in the good news. But they are unable to stop our prayers, the prayers that bring the reign of God to pass upon the earth!