A third of the earth was burned up (Rev. 8:7)

Previously: The first trumpet (Rev. 8:7)

The scripture

Rev. 8:7 – The first [angel] blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up (HCSB).

A third of the earth was burned up

The impact of the hail and fire mixed with blood is devastating. John writes that “a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” Whether this is to be taken literally or figuratively is a matter of intense debate among scholars. See the final section in this lesson for a comparison of four views.

“I have no quarrel, none at all, with those who look upon these things as being literally described,” writes W.A. Criswell. “But, these things could also be symbols, pictures of the judgments of God” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 174). Possible meanings of these symbols in Revelation 8, according to Criswell:

  • Hail could be a sudden, sharp judgment of God (Isa. 28:2, 17).
  • Fire could be the unsparing evidence of the wrath of God, mostly in the form of war (Deut. 32:22: Isa. 33:14).
  • Blood could symbolize death in all its forms – physical, spiritual, moral.
  • The earth could stand for the civilized world.
  • The sea could depict the restless masses of humanity (Dan.7:2-3; Isa. 57:20).
  • Trees could represent the pride of human greatness (Dan. 4:10, 20-22; Eze. 31:3-18).
  • Grass is a term sometimes used to represent people in general (Isa. 40:6-7).
  • Green grass could symbolize the finest of mankind.
  • A star can be a pastor, a teacher, or a person of great authority.
  • Rivers and fountains could stand for sources of life-giving water – the doctrine, salvation and hope that false teachers undermine (pp. 174-75).

There is, of course, the possibility that both figurative and literal meanings may be applied at various times in human history, or even at the same time. For example, there is no doubt that the judgments of God have fallen hard and fast like hail upon His people (Israel and Judah, for example) and upon the wicked (the Assyrians; see Isa. 37:36-38). This does not preclude God from using the real elements of His creation – hail, fire, blood, etc. – to bring judgment upon the wicked in the last days. Some would argue that this view is too fluid, to the point where nothing in Revelation really means anything. But we must keep in mind that this is apocalyptic writing intended not only for readers in the last days, but for first-century readers facing persecution, the end of formal Judaism, and the collapse of the once-great Roman Empire. Surely the Lord can speak to people of all ages through His word.

Now, what about the fractions John uses here – a third of the earth, a third of the trees, and all the green grass? As Matthew Henry notes in his unabridged commentary on the Bible, “The most severe calamities have their bounds and limits set by the great God.” Could it be that in sparing two-thirds of the earth and trees – whether literal or figurative – the Lord is providing yet one more opportunity for the wicked to repent? They will refuse, of course, as we see later. “And [despite the sixth trumpet judgment] they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immortality, or their thefts” (Rev. 9.21). “So they blasphemed the name of God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory” (Rev. 16:9b). “And they blasphemed God for the plague of hail because that plague was extremely severe” (Rev. 16:21b). This, however, is no reflection on God’s mercy but on the severe wickedness of the human heart. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

But how can “all the green grass” be burned up if the locusts are told later, in the fifth trumpet judgment, not to harm the grass of the earth? There are a few possible explanations. First, the phrase “green grass” could mean something more specific than the term “grass.” In the New Testament, there is one Greek word translated “grass.” It is chortos and can mean grass or hay. So the “green grass” could be a reference to meadows and hillsides similar to the grass on which the followers of Jesus sat when He fed the 5,000 (Mark 6:39), while the “grass” could refer to cultivated fields of hay, oats and barley. Another explanation comes from the fact that we don’t know the lapse in time between the first and fifth trumpet judgments. We do know that when grass is burned, it grows back. One other possible answer is that if this language is figurative, then the “green grass” symbolizes prominent human figures while the “grass” represents all humanity.

A final thought from the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times: “The figure of ‘a third’ used in each of the first four trumpets reveals that God’s judgments are partial and destructive, but not yet final” (p. 454).

Four major views of the first trumpet

How do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the first trumpet?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the entire series of trumpet judgments is concerned with the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D., the “last days” of the Jewish commonwealth. The first four trumpet judgments depict several years of ravaging at the hands of the Romans prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. The plagues are reminiscent of those in Egypt at the birth of the Jewish nation. Some commentators insist that the trumpet judgments should not be seen occurring chronologically, but rather concurrently. The destruction of trees and green grass may be seen symbolically of people. The “green grass” could even describe the elect, who are not completely spared suffering and death in the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. Other interpreters, however, say the description of destroyed vegetation accurately depicts the Roman method of conquering Israel’s capital city and is captured by historian Josephus in his writings.
  • Many historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – identify the first trumpet with the military conflicts between the Western Roman Empire and hordes of Goths and Vandals under Visigoth King Alaric, who sacked Rome in 410 A.D.  Non-Christian historian Edward Gibbon described the invasion of the empire in biblical terms: “Blood and conflagration and the burning of trees and herbage marked their [Goths’] path.” Some suggest the “trees” and “grass” represent the church’s clergy and laity at this time. And the fraction “a third” could refer either to the Roman Empire, which was one-third of the known world, or one-third of the empire itself, the western division.
  • Most futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – take the hail, fire, trees and green grass literally. They equate the events in this judgment to one of the 10 plagues on Egypt (Ex. 9:18-26). Hal Lindsey, who authored The Late, Great Planet Earth, believes all of the ecological catastrophes in this chapter are the result of nuclear weapons. Some, however, equate the trees to great leaders, and the grass to ordinary people.
  • Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see the trumpet judgments as calamities that occur repeatedly throughout the ages, not as singular events in John’s day or at the end of time. Further, they see these judgments as symbolic, not literal. William Hendriksen writes, “In all probability this first judgment indicates that throughout the period extending from the first to the second coming, our Lord, who now reigns in heaven, will afflict the persecutors of the Church with various disasters that will take place on earth” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, edited by Steve Gregg, p. 151).

Next: The second trumpet (Rev. 8:8-9)