I heard an eagle — Revelation 8:12-13

Previously: The fourth trumpet – Revelation 8:12-13

The scripture

Rev. 8:12 – The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day was without light, and the night as well. 13I looked, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid-heaven, saying in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth, because of the remaining trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to sound!” (HCSB)

I heard an eagle

Now John writes, “I looked, and I heard an eagle …” Some manuscripts read “angel” instead of “eagle,” which could make more sense because angels play such prominent speaking roles in Revelation. However, most translations render the word “eagle.” Young’s Literal Translation renders it “messenger.” The eagle is a symbol of the Romans and is found on their ensigns. For some, that supports a first-century fulfillment of Revelation as the Romans swoop down upon Jerusalem like an eagle on its prey and bring the nation to ruin in 70 A.D.

The eagle in scripture is a symbol of vengeance. In Deut. 28:49, as Moses recites the curses that will befall Israel if the people break their covenant with God, he says, “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle.” In Hosea 8:1, the Israelites are told, “[P]ut the horn to your mouth! One like an eagle comes against the house of the Lord, because they transgress My covenant and rebel against My law.” And in Hab. 1:8, the Lord tells His people He is raising up the Chaldeans as an instrument of His wrath: “They fly like an eagle, swooping to devour.”

Eagles are mentioned many times in scripture, usually in symbolic terms. They convey the idea of gathering God’s people to Himself (Ex. 19:4); of swiftness (2 Sam. 1:23; Job 9:25-26; Jer. 4:13; Lam. 4:19; and others); of prophetic significance (Dan. 7:4); of a parable (Eze. 17:1-4); of youth and the young (Ps. 103:5; Deut. 32:11); of flying toward heaven and nesting in the heights (Job 39:27; Prov. 23:5; Jer. 49:16; Obad. 1:4); of feasting on carcasses (Job 39:28-30; Prov. 30:17; Matt. 24:28); of the Lord bringing destruction (Jer. 48:40-42; 49:22-26; Hosea 8:1); of the Lord renewing strength (Isa. 40:31); of God’s people being delivered from Satan (Rev. 12:14); of creatures with four faces (Eze. 1:10; 10:14); and of beasts in heaven around the throne (Rev. 4:7).

If the creature in Rev. 8:13 is in fact an eagle, he fulfills his Old Testament role as a harbinger of judgment, for he pronounces three woes – which are the three final trumpet judgments – upon the earth’s inhabitants. If this creature is an angel, he speaks in a manner consistent with other angels in Revelation who herald, or deliver, God’s wrath.

The eagle is said to be flying in “mid-heaven,” which also may be translated “very high.” Some versions render it “midair,” “air,” “directly overhead,” “mid-heaven,” “midst of heaven,” or “sky.” So it appears he is soaring in our atmosphere, hovering perhaps, circling intently as one that eyes his prey. But the eagle does not attack. He is not the instrument of judgment, but its herald, warning those on the earth that there is still time to repent, but not much time.

W.A. Criswell puts the three woes in perspective: “Incomprehensible to us is the reluctance with which the Lord God Almighty gives up His people … Why does not God damn the demons out of His sight? Why does not God destroy them? Why does not God burn them with fire? Why does God let a tyrant live? Why does God let sinful people continue in their terribleness? Why does He do it? Because of the longsuffering of the Almighty. Maybe, maybe they will turn. Maybe they will hear. Maybe they will listen. Maybe they will repent. Maybe they will be saved…. There is always an appeal from God, a warning from the Lord, lest we fall into perdition and into damnation and into death. That is why this warning is given here before the sounding of the last three trumpets, beyond which it is forever and forever too late” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, pp. 178-179).

The eagle cries in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth.” There are two words in the Greek language to describe dwellers on the earth. One is paroikeo, which means to  dwell as a sojourner. The other is katoikeo, and it means to settle down. The latter word is used here, illustrating that those upon whom judgment is about to fall are firmly attached to their world and prefer it to the throne of God. They will be damned, not because a place in heaven is unavailable, but because they won’t have it. Their home is the sinful and fallen earth. Their treasures are here. Their hopes and dreams are here. Their desires are here. So the eagle tells them three times, “Woe!” They will get exactly what they want – a stake in the world that is passing away.

The word “woe” is telling. It is used more than 110 times in scripture and often is used as an expression of grief or a lament of deplorable conditions. When Jesus says in Matt. 24:19, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days,” He is expressing concern for the vulnerable when “the abomination that causes desolation” occurs. Yet there are times that a harsher meaning must be taken. Jesus’ woes upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 are pointed condemnations, especially since he repeatedly calls them “hypocrites,” “snakes,” and a “brood of vipers” and tells them plainly, “How can you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33).

But what is the meaning of “woe” in Rev. 8:13? The eagle does not speak directly to the earth’s inhabitants, although no doubt they can hear him. Rather, he warns that even more deadly judgments are about to fall upon those who cling to the domain of Satan. Perhaps this is a warning, uttered with a shade of God’s mercy. The axe has not fallen yet; there is still time. But if those who hear the warning fail to heed it, the eagle’s words will echo in their empty hearts for eons to come.

As the apostle Paul wrote in an appeal to the Corinthians, “Don’t receive God’s grace in vain…. Look, now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1-2).

Four major views of the fourth trumpet

How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the fourth trumpet?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – assign the events of the fourth trumpet to the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. The darkened celestial bodies symbolize Roman and Jewish leaders. Austin Farrar writes that “ruler after ruler, chieftain after chieftain of the Roman Empire and the Jewish nation was assassinated and ruined. Gaius, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, all died by murder or suicide; Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa, and most of the Herodian Princes, together with not a few of the leading High Priests of Jerusalem, perished in disgrace, or in exile, or by violent hands. All these were quenched suns and darkened stars” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, pp. 166, 168).
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – view the sun, moon and stars as “the political firmament of Rome,” and many argue that the events described in the fourth trumpet judgment are fulfilled in the fall of the Roman Empire in or around 467 A.D. The fact that some Roman influence continues after this time illustrates that the empire’s lights are not completely extinguished. Some historicists, however, remain open to the idea that these celestial bodies symbolize leaders in the church.
  • Futurists – who say the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided along literal vs. symbolic lines. Some argue that these fading celestial lights represent a reduction in spiritual light during the tribulation, citing 2 Thess. 2:11-12: “For this reason God sends them a strong delusion so that they will believe what is false, so that all will be condemned – those who did not believe the truth but enjoyed unrighteousness.” Others hold out for a more literal application. Some believe we are reading a description of an eclipse; others, of a day-night cycle shortened to 16 hours; still others, of the lingering effects of the first three trumpet judgments that leave “scientists and politicians trying desperately to find naturalistic explanations for their causes” (Henry Morris, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 169).
  • Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – say John is describing the decline of the Roman Empire, while others say it’s best to apply this more broadly to the fall of the ungodly. Geoffrey B. Wilson writes that “it should be obvious that John is painting a picture and not writing a treatise on astronomy! The darkness prefigures the doom of the ungodly (Isa. 13:10), and is also the prelude to the new exodus of God’s people from under the hands of their oppressors … In an age which looks to the stars for guidance, this verse reminds us that God exercises complete control over the solar system” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 169).

Next: The fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1-12)

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