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Prayer, Judgment, and Repentance: Revelation 8:1-9:21

By Thomas Schreiner–

Sometimes we fail to see warning signs of what is about to happen. On April 18, 1983 the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed and sixty-three people were killed. The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. On October 23, 1983 the Marine Barracks in Beirut. Lebanon were bombed, killing 242 Americans and 58 French troops. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. On March 16, 1984 the Islamic Jihad kidnapped and later murdered Political Officer William Buckley in Beirut, Lebanon.  On February 26, 1993 The World Trade Center in New York City was bombed, leaving 6 people dead and 1,000 injured. The men carrying out the attack were followers of Umar Abd al-Rahman. On August 7, 1998 the U.S. Embassy in East Africa was bombed in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 12 U.S. citizens, 32 Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs), and 247 Kenyan citizens. Approximately 5,000 Kenyans, 6 U.S. citizens, and 13 FSNs were injured. Almost simultaneously, a bomb detonated outside the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 7 FSNs and 3 Tanzanian citizens, and injuring 1 U.S. citizen and 76 Tanzanians. The U.S. Government held Osama Bin Laden responsible. On October 12, 2000 the U.S.S. Cole was attacked, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 others. Supporters of Osama Bin Laden were suspected.

All of these were warnings and anticipations of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As we look back, we realize that we should have seen what was coming. We failed to see the obvious. And that is what Revelation teaches us in Revelation 8-9. God’s judgments in history warn us of his judgments to come. The last judgment should not surprise us, for there have been anticipations of it throughout history.

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. 6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. 7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. 9 A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. 10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. 12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night. 13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The kingdom comes in response to our prayers

Before we look at the role of prayer, let’s stand back and think about the first few verses of Revelation 8. The opening of the 7th seal leads to the blowing of the 7 trumpets. I don’t think this means that the trumpets are necessarily after the seals, for we have already seen the 6th seal brings us to the end of history. It seems that the relationship between the seals and trumpets is in part a literary device, so that John can describe from another angle God’s judgments in history. It is the case, though, that the judgments of the trumpets are more severe than the judgments of the seals. They represent an intensification of God’s judgments.

Let’s back up to v. 1. We see there that when the 7th seal is opened that there is silence in heaven for half an hour. What is the significance of the silence? We see from the OT that silence occurs before God’s judgment. For example, we read in Zeph. 1:7-8, “Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. And on the day of the LORD’s sacrifice—“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.” What is particularly striking is the role of prayer in God’s judgments. The prayer of the saints rises to God along with the smoke of incense. What does the incense signify here? It probably symbolizes the truth that the prayers of believers are acceptable to God. Indeed, in the OT prayer is compared to incense in Ps. 141:2, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” The prayers of the saints, so to speak, waft up to God, indicating that God is pleased with and hears the prayers of his people. And in response to prayer the angel takes the same censer in which the prayers were found, fills it with fire from the altar and hurls it to the earth. In response, thunder, lightning, and an earthquake follow.

So, what is the truth being taught here? God’s judgments represent his answer to the prayers of his saints. We pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. What this passage in Revelation teaches us is that God answers our prayers for the coming of the kingdom, and one way he answers it is by judging those who sin. The Lord will bring in his kingdom by judging and ultimately destroying those who resist his will. So, do not lose heart in prayer. God answers every prayer in which we pray for his kingdom to come, but he answers it in his time and in his way. Our prayers play a significant role in the working out of God’s purposes in history, for the final judgment and the coming of the kingdom become a reality through our prayers. We may feel that our prayers are pointless or don’t make any difference, but we are wrong. The effectiveness of our prayers does not depend upon our feelings. They depend upon God who answers prayer. One of the means by which God accomplishes his purposes in the world is through our prayers.

The six trumpets represent the judgment of God

Interpreting the trumpets is quite difficult. I have read a lot of different interpreters on the trumpets and there are many different opinions about what they mean. For instance, even people who believe they are entirely future differ quite radically about what the judgments actually are. The whole question turns on how to interpret the symbolism John uses here.

We have to remember that Revelation is an apocalyptic book with symbolic language. It is helpful to think of interpreting Revelation at 3 levels. First, we have the words that are written down in the book of Revelation. Second, we have what John saw in his vision. And third, we have the meaning or the referent of the vision.

So, for example, John writes about the beast in Revelation 13. The beast is wounded in the head and recovers. Most likely, John literally saw in his vision an actual beast that had a wound and recovered from the wound. But the vision and the meaning aren’t the same. No one thinks that a literal beast got a wound and then recovered from the wound. What makes Revelation hard to interpret is figuring out how to understand the symbolism that John saw in his vision, and all interpreters agree that the visions use symbolism.

Nor is it right to say that we should interpret the visions as literally as possible. That is quite an arbitrary rule, which tries to decide in advance what John means in his visions. Instead, we have to discern how John wants us to interpret his symbolism. And in some instances it is hard to figure this out, and that is why godly Christian interpreters differ. And I was particularly struck by how radically interpreters differ on interpreting the trumpet judgments in Revelation 8-9. As I said, even those who think that Revelation 8-9 relate only to the future differ quite remarkably on what the symbols John uses means. I think a very good case can be made for these judgments being entirely in the future. And I also think that a good case can be made for these judgments referring to God’s judgments throughout history. I don’t have a strong opinion on this matter. I slightly lean towards them being judgments throughout history.

But in any case, both interpretations agree that God judges the wicked. The trumpets warn the people of the world that unless they repent, they will be destroyed. The first four trumpets recall the judgments God poured out on Egypt during the Exodus. Some who think the judgments refer to the future think John literally describes what will happen in the future. 1/3 of the earth will be burned up, 1/3 of the sea will become blood, 1/3 of the waters will be embittered, and a 1/3 of the day will be darkened.

But I suspect John is actually thinking of God’s judgments throughout history, and what he describes here should not be interpreted so literally. John is telling us that the judgments that are occurring on this earth are like trumpets. And what do trumpets do? They warn. They sound the alarm. So, John is saying that we see the affects of God’s judgments on land, on the seas, in the rivers, and perhaps in the weather patterns of this world—the storms and tornadoes which take place. In other words, the world in which we live is subjected to the judgment of God. I think this interpretation of the trumpets is supported by the highly symbolic language of the 5th seal.

As Revelation 9 opens the key to abyss is opened. The smoke of the pit—the smoke of hell comes up and darkens the earth. I take this to mean that the influence of hell and Satan is poured out on the earth. This is another way of saying that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. John sees locusts on the earth, but obviously these are not literal locusts. John compares them to scorpions. And v. 4 is very illuminating. “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Obviously, these aren’t literally locusts, for they don’t go after the green things of earth but only human beings. John picks up the language of locusts from Joel 1-2 and applies it to a much more terrible and devastating army than the army of locusts that stripped the land clean in Joel’s day. So, almost all interpreters agree that these locusts represent demons. Their head and king is Satan who is Apollyon, the destroyer. So, God judges human beings by handing them over to Satan. And Satan slowly destroys them, so that they become the shell of a human being.

Some think that these demons literally sting people with a physical sting that causes agony for five literal months. Well, that is possible, isn’t it? But I think it is rather unlikely that John intends for us to interpret this literally. He uses a vivid apocalyptic picture of the misery that demons inflict on human beings. And the anguish is not limited to the physical sphere. They also touch us psychologically. Part of God’s judgment in other words, is the misery people feel in their lives. They are so miserable that they wish they were dead, and yet they can’t bring themselves to kill themselves.

When we see human beings who are controlled by self pity, anger, lust, jealously, and they are full of unhappiness and they rage against their life, this is part of the judgment of God. They are under Satan’s dominion. Their lives are slowly unraveling, and pretty soon the thread is gone and there is nothing left but insanity. Everyone in hell is insane, for there is nothing more insane than the worship of self and the hatred of God. This too is part of God’s judgment on the human race.

Most also agree that the last trumpet refers to demonic forces. This is no human army. There has never been a human army that even comes close to 200 million troops.  Here the demonic angels of the Euphrates are released to kill 1/3 of human beings. This judgment may be near the end of history since John refers in v. 15 to “the hour, the day, the month, and the year.” It is difficult to know how to interpret the symbolism since John speaks of horses that have heads like lions, and says in v. 18 that “fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” Perhaps John even thinks of human weapons that inflict demonic judgments.

He says in vv, 18-19, “By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.” Probably the physical death described here is linked with spiritual death, with final separation from God forever. The point is that God judges those who refuse to honor and to worship him. And God’s judgments throughout history (or at the end of history) have a purpose. They show his holiness and righteousness. They show that he doesn’t tolerate evil. But they also have another purpose. The trumpets of God’s judgments function as warnings, and what do they warn us to do? We see this in my third and last point.

God calls upon us to repent at the trumpet judgments

We read in vv. 20-21, “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” God’s judgments in history are like a loud siren blaring, and they call out and they say. Turn from your sin and repent.

The trumpets remind me of when I first moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. I went to downtown St. Paul to take care of something related to the mortgage at our house. Suddenly, a loud siren went off, and it kept blaring and blaring and blaring. I looked around me to see what was happening. Everyone was carrying along like normal. No one seemed to be paying the least attention to this siren going off. This was exceedingly strange to me. What was going on that no one paid attention to the siren? Well, I found out later that every Wednesday this siren went off, so it was just a testing of the system to warn people of tornadoes.

But the trumpet judgments are not a test. They are real. They are warning the world that God will judge sin, and that we need to repent. But John emphasizes here the hard hearts of unbelievers. They do not turn away from their false gods, and do not turn away from their evil. They become increasingly hardened and stubborn in their sin.

Is that the story of your life today? How do you respond to the uncovering of sin in your life? Do you have a soft and tender heart that is willing to own up to sin in your life? Do you repent of your sin and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of your sins? Or, do you become argumentative and defensive, claiming that you are right and have done nothing wrong? Are there many arguments in your house where you are angry and you insist that the fault isn’t yours? Remember what Proverbs says about the wicked. “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” Let us pray that we are not deceived like these who will not give up their false gods.

If you are an unbeliever, repentance means that you turn from your sin and you ask the Lord to forgive you of your sins. You trust in the death of Jesus instead of your own works for the forgiveness of your sins, and you ask the Lord to take control of your life. And even as Christians we are, as Martin Luther said, called upon daily to repent. I have been a Christian 37 years and I still need to repent daily and often. How often I fail to trust God and love others the way I should. How loving our God is. He gives us time to repent. He doesn’t judge us immediately. He warns us in the trumpet judgments that a final judgment is coming. The trumpets are siren songs of his love, saying, “Don’t go that way.” God is saying that he takes no pleasure in the death of wicked, and so we are called upon to turn and to live.

Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are RomansPaul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.

Read other blog posts by Thomas Schreiner here.

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