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)
Rev. 8:1 – When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2Then I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God; seven trumpets were given to them. 3Another angel, with a gold incense burner, came and stood at the altar. He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up in the presence of God from the angel’s hand. 5The angel took the incense burner, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it to the earth; there were thunders, rumblings, lightnings, and an earthquake. 6And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them (HCSB).
Between the sixth and seventh seals we see a pause as 144,000 are sealed on earth and a vast number in heaven – from every nation, tribe, people and language – stand before the throne. Finally, as Christ opens the seventh seal, we learn there is silence for half an hour, followed by seven angels receiving trumpets that will herald judgments upon the wicked. Another angel approaches the altar, fills an incense burner with fire and hurls it to the earth, resulting in thunders, rumblings lightnings, and an earthquake.
Why is there half an hour of silence in heaven? What’s the significance of incense with regard to the prayers of the saints? Who are the seven angels who stand in the presence of God? How would John’s first-century readers understand all of this? And what are we to make of it today? Let’s look more closely at these six verses.
Silence in heaven
When Jesus opens the seventh seal, there is silence in heaven for “about half an hour” (v. 1). We have just heard the vast multitude, standing before the throne, shout praises to the Father and the Lamb (Rev. 7:10). And we’ve listened to the angels worship God with their uplifted voices as they fall on their faces before Him. When the Lamb opens the first seal, a thundering voice says, “Come.” When He opens the second, third and fourth seals, we hear the same voice. When Jesus opens the fifth seal, John hears the cry of the martyrs from under the altar. When He opens the sixth seal, there is a violent earthquake and tumultuous events in the heavens and on earth. Then, in Chapter 7, there is a high-decibel break in the action between the sixth and seventh seals as an angel cries in a loud voice to his fellow angels not to harm the earth until the 144,000 are sealed, and as angels around the throne worship God. But now, with the opening of the seventh seal, there is a deafening silence. Why? “Silence is appropriate in anticipation of the Lord’s coming judgment (Zeph. 1:7-10; Zech. 2:13)” (The ESV Study Bible, Rev. 8:1).
We should not assume that a delay means God is any less serious about vindicating His holiness. In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow to illustrate the importance of ceaseless prayer. “Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay [to help] them? I tell you that He will swiftly grant them justice” (Luke 18:7-8a). And in 2 Peter 3:4-13, we are told that God’s timing is not ours: “[W]ith the Lord one day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years like one day. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Lord’s judgment never falls before He has extended ample grace and mercy, which people may mistake as indecision or apathy on God’s part.
But why silence for half an hour? W.A. Criswell explains, “It is, first, the silence of awe and of intense expectancy. This is the last drama of the ultimate mystery of Almighty God… It is [secondly] a silence of ominous foreboding. Even the Lord God Almighty pauses before the onward rush of this great, final judicial administration…. Is that a brief while? No, indeed. It is seemingly interminable, unbearable…. The silence, the stillness in heaven is a pause one could never forget. Remember that time is altogether circumstantial and relative” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, pp. 161-62).
Matthew Henry argues that the prolonged silence may be seen from two perspectives: first, the perspective of peace, since there are no longer any cries being lifted up from the saints to God; and second, the perspective of expectation as the redeemed join the heavenly creatures in watching open-mouthed at what the Lord is about to do. Perhaps it is as Zechariah wrote, “Let all people be silent before the Lord, for He is coming from His holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13).
We can’t say with certainty whether the silence lasts 30 minutes, or simply a notable period of time. Heaven is a noisy place filled with songs, praise, and adoration – all joyfully rehearsed by human and angelic creatures in the presence of God. Silence of even a few minutes would seem deafening by comparison. No doubt the saints, angels, elders and heavenly creatures are holding their collective breaths as the Creator is about to bring human history to a close.
Seven angels are given trumpets
During this silence, seven angels are given trumpets. John tells us these are “the seven angels who stand in the presence of God” (v. 2). But who are these angels? We see four angels standing at the four corners of the earth in Rev. 7:1. And there are “seven angels” – presumably not the seven angels – with the last plagues in Rev. 15:1, but there is no specific mention elsewhere in Revelation of “the seven angels.” Some commentators say these are “the seven spirits before His throne” whom we encounter in Rev. 1:4, but a number of translations render it “the seven-fold Spirit,” or Holy Spirit, in the book’s opening vision.
These angels are distinguished from the multitude of other angelic creatures around the throne in that they “stand in the presence of God.” In scripture, the angel Gabriel identifies himself as one “who stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). And in the apocryphal Tobit 12:15 we read, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.” Perhaps there are others, unnamed in scripture, who serve in similar capacities. But it does not appear this is the seven-fold Holy Spirit, who is never depicted as blowing a trumpet. In any case, these seven angels take their trumpets in turn and prepare to blow them — a loud and clear warning of impending judgment.
Just as seals prevent written messages from being revealed until the proper authority breaks them and thus unravels the scroll, trumpets play unique roles as well. John is a Jew and is well versed in the place of trumpets in Israel’s national life. According to Numbers 10, trumpets have three important uses. They call people together (Num. 10:1–8), announce war (Num. 10:9), and herald special times (Num. 10:10). “The trumpet sounded at Mount Sinai when the Law was given (Ex. 19:16–19), and trumpets were blown when the king was anointed and enthroned (1 Kings 1:34, 39). Of course, everyone familiar with the Old Testament would remember the trumpets at the conquest of Jericho (Josh. 6:13–16)… Sounding seven trumpets certainly would announce a declaration of war, as well as the fact that God’s anointed King was enthroned in glory and about to judge His enemies (Ps. 2:1–5). As trumpets declared defeat to Jericho, they will ultimately bring defeat to Babylon” (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 8:1).
The fact that these are angels’ trumpets distinguishes them from the trumpet of God (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16), which proclaims the resurrection of believers, and from other New Testament trumpets (Heb. 12:19; Rev. 1:10, 4:1). The angels’ trumpets, sounded in turn, announce the Lord’s judgment upon the wicked of the earth.
At the golden altar
But before the seven angels sound the trumpets, a special angel performs a significant act at the golden altar in heaven. In the tabernacle and temple, the golden altar stands in front of the veil and is used to burn incense, a picture of prayer ascending to God (see Ps. 141:2). This is the work Zacharias is performing in the temple when the angel informs him that he and Elizabeth will have a son (Luke 1:5ff). The “prayers of the saints” (v. 4) are not the petitions of some special believers who have achieved superior status. All Christians are saints (2 Cor. 1:1; 9:1, 12; 13:13) and the Holy Spirit ensures their prayers ascend to their heavenly Father (Rom. 8:26). What’s more, scripture nowhere teaches that we are to direct our prayers to saints in heaven. Our prayers are to be directed to the Father through the Son with the aid of the Holy Spirit. It is possible that these are the prayers of the saints both in heaven (Rev. 6:9-11) and on earth for God to vindicate His holiness. These so-called “imprecatory prayers” are seen in the Psalms (see Pss. 7; 26; 35; 52; 55; and 58) and it appears God is about to answer them.
There is nothing wrong with prayers for vengeance, as long as we are beseeching God for His vengeance, not ours, and for His holiness to be vindicated, not our self-righteousness. There may be a fine line between imprecatory prayers and spiteful ones, but there is line in any case and we should not seek to cross it.
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest takes coals from the golden altar and, with the blood of sacrifices, enters the Holy of Holies to offer a sacrifice first for himself and then for the people. But in Revelation 8, the angel takes coals from the golden altar and hurls them to the earth. While the smoke of the incense ascends to God with the prayers of the saints, the burning coals flung to earth represent God’s answer to these prayers. The calm before the storm is ending.
“The purpose of prayer, it has often been said, is not to get man’s will done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth – even if that will involves judgment. True prayer is serious business, so we had better not move the altar too far from the throne!” (Wiersbe, Rev. 8:1).
Four major views of the seventh seal
How do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the seventh seal?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say this judgment is directed at apostate Israel, which is the “earth” or “land” in verse 5. In Old Testament times, when God’s people are commanded to destroy an apostate city, Moses orders them to burn all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord (Deut. 13:16; Judges 20:40). The priest takes coals from God’s altar and uses it to kindle the fire, thus putting the city “under the ban” so that nothing survives. Now, in Revelation 8, the angel takes coals from the heavenly altar and hurls it to the earth, placing apostate Israel and its capital city of Jerusalem under the ban.
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the angel who offers the incense as Christ, acting in His priestly role in the heavenly sanctuary. The saints are those slain by Rome during the era of the martyrs. Their prayers have ascended before God and are about to be answered by His vengeance against the Roman Empire.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say the prayers are those of “all the saints” (v. 3), or at least the saints of the tribulation who are living on the earth and crying out to God for vengeance. Some futurists see the incense-offering angel as Jesus, our High Priest, while others see no reason to equate this angel with deity. The fact that fire is cast to the earth from the same censer as was used in offering up the saints’ prayers implies that the judgments are in response to those prayers.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see the seven trumpet judgments running concurrently with the seven seal judgments, not chronologically after them. The calamities described here are typical judgments that recur throughout the church age and should not be regarded as symbolizing particular events. Some argue that the incense represents the intercession of Christ for His church, being mingled with the prayers of the saints.
Next: The first trumpet (Revelation 8:7)