Rev. 8:8 – The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea. So a third of the sea became blood, 9a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed (HCSB).
The second trumpet
This is the second of four trumpet judgments that affect natural objects, in this case the sea and the creatures who swim in it or sail upon it. The final three trumpet judgments, as we learned in the last lesson, affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell.
In this second trumpet judgment, John sees something that appears to him as a great blazing mountain plummeting into the sea, resulting in a third of the sea becoming blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea dying, and a third of the ships navigating its waters being destroyed.
Is John’s vision to be taken literally? What is this great blazing mountain? Is the sea a reference to all salty bodies of water around the world, or perhaps simply a reference to the Mediterranean Sea – or something else entirely? What are we to make of the fractional reference to “a third,” which we encountered in the first trumpet judgment? Let’s look more closely.
The second angel blew his trumpet
As a reminder, the “trumpet” each angel blows in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and has special significance for Israel (see The first trumpet for more details). In this case, the sound of the shofar announces the commencement of judgment. This is an important detail that should not be overlooked.
While the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2) and Jesus warns His followers to be ready at all times for the unknown day of His return (Matt. 25:13), the judgments God sends upon the world’s wicked are announced in advance. We are not told how much time elapses between the sounding of the shofar and the arrival of these torments, any more than we can say with certainty how much time we have to run for cover after a tornado siren blasts a warning. But it appears that God communicates to mankind through the angels that His mercy is drawing to a close and His hammer is about to fall. Perhaps in these final moments some will repent, although John’s record seems to indicate that the wicked prefer blasphemy to humility in the face of judgment (Rev. (9:21, 16:9b, 21b).
Something like a great mountain ablaze with fire
What is it that John sees? He writes that “something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea.” He doesn’t say “a great mountain,” but “something like a great mountain,” which could mean this is a hidden symbol for his first-century readers or an attempt to describe something he has never seen before – a glimpse, perhaps, into the distant future.
Commentators offer many perspectives:
- Some say this mountain is Satan, lifted up like a mountain in his pride, and burning with hatred for God and his people, who is cast down into the sea of humanity, where he does much harm.
- Others say this is a heresy that does much damage to the church – the Macedonian heresy, perhaps, leveled against the deity of the Holy Spirit, or the Arian heresy against the deity of Christ. Each of these divine persons is one-third of the triune Godhead, so John’s reference to the mountain causing damage to “a third” of the sea finds its significance here.
- Still others argue that it’s best to understand this imagery in terms of the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths and Vandals. Rome is fitly represented as a great mountain, as kingdoms and cities sometimes are in scripture. The “sea” in this case represents the people throughout the Roman Empire who suffer as a result of the invaders’ brutal advance on Rome. Over the course of 137 years, beginning in 410 A.D., the Goths and Vandals sack Rome five times and reportedly one-third of the people are killed.
- W.A. Criswell writes that a modern-day fulfillment could be communism, which finds its foothold among restless people. Rather than producing liberation, it brings captivity, hardship, economic depression, despair and death.
- Futurists like Hal Lindsay see this blazing mountain as John’s attempt to describe nuclear warheads.
- Others interpret these verses literally. “The mountain is probably best understood as being a literal large body that fell from heaven. Since the results are literal, it is reasonable to take the judgments as literal also” (J.F. Walvoord, R.B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Rev. 8:8–9).
Whatever the proper interpretation, it’s clear that this judgment impacts many people. Satan is thought by some commentators to have taken one-third of the angelic host with him in his rebellion. Heresies that undermine any of the persons of the Triune Godhead impact the church and its ability to carry the gospel to the world. Wars involving world powers like Rome generate tremendous violence and upheaval. Worldviews that deny the reality of a Creator and Judge, like communism, result in spiritual, political and economic imprisonment. And modern technology has made it possible for a single nation to wreak havoc on much of the world.
Perhaps, as we’ve addressed in previous lessons, these verses are fulfilled in John’s day, and later in church history, and finally in the last days. Jerusalem falls in 70 A.D. and with it, formal Judaism comes to a close. The Roman Empire falls a few centuries later. Heresies do great damage to the church. Warfare causes great loss of life and damage to property and the environment. And in the last days, according to futurists, the Antichrist will lead nearly the whole world astray. In every case there is a common denominator: sin. Mankind’s rebellion against God manifests itself in political leaders who deify themselves; in church leaders who trump scripture with manmade traditions or, worse, heresies; in philosophers who rail against the idea of God and His absolute truths; and in ordinary people who prefer the praise of men to the praise of God.
Maybe we would do well not to agonize over what each symbol in Revelation means, but to look within ourselves at our fallen state and to grasp the only hope we have: Jesus. Ultimately, it will take the destruction of the entire world to purge it of sin and its consequences and to make way for new heavens and a new earth (see 2 Peter 3: 10-13).
Next: Hurled into the sea (Rev. 8:8-9)
Rev. 6:7 – When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (HCSB).
John records that authority is given to “them” – Death and Hades, although some manuscripts read “him,” probably meaning Death – over a fourth of the earth “to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (v. 8b). Matthew Henry notes, “He gave them power, that is, those instruments of his anger, or those judgments themselves; he who holds the winds in his hand has all public calamities at his command, and they can only go when he sends them and no further than he permits” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 6:3-8). But why a fourth of the earth? “God’s providence restrains both his own wrath and humanity’s violence,” according to the ESV Study Bible. Other commentators argue that the pale horse, being one of the four, simply has his equal share in the judgments to come.
Sword, famine and plague (literally thanatos, or death, but in this context meaning epidemic diseases like bubonic plague) summarize the work of the riders on the red, black and pale horses. Add to this the predatory nature of wild animals in a depopulated environment, and these four elements echo the covenant curses on Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile (Ezek. 14:21), lending support to the preterist view that the Book of Revelation is largely fulfilled in the first century A.D. at the fall of Jerusalem. However, the death of a fourth of the world’s population would be a “great tribulation” such as the world has not yet seen (Matt. 24:21), bolstering the futurist view that the events of Rev. 6-19 have yet to take place. If the futurists are correct, more than 1.6 billion people will perish, according to current population figures.
Matthew Henry makes a number of poignant observations about these four horsemen:
“(1) There is a natural as well as judicial connection between one judgment and another: war is a wasting calamity, and draws scarcity and famine after it; and famine, not allowing men proper sustenance, and forcing them to take that which is unwholesome, often draws the pestilence after it. (2) God’s quiver is full of arrows; he is never at a loss for ways and means to punish a wicked people. (3) In the book of God’s counsels he has prepared judgments for scorners as well as mercy for returning sinners. (4) In the book of the scriptures God has published threatenings against the wicked as well as promises to the righteous; and it is our duty to observe and believe the threatenings as well as the promises” (Rev. 6:3-8).
While the calamities wrought by the four horsemen appear to be either natural or man-made, we will see in the verses to come that God is orchestrating these judgments. The redeemed in heaven know it, and the wicked on earth realize it. But rather than repent, those who oppose God cry out to the rocks and mountains for death rather than to the Rock for salvation.
Four views of the fourth horseman
So what does this fourth seal mean to John’s audience in the first century – and to us today?
The preterist – who sees the events of Revelation primarily fulfilled in the first century – points to the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The reference to the means of death – sword, hunger, death (pestilence) and beasts of the earth – are echoes of Ezek. 14:21, where God sends His “four devastating judgments against Jerusalem – sword, famine, dangerous animals, and plague – in order to wipe out [both] man and animal from it! Even so, there will be survivors …” In Ezekiel, God uses these judgments on Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. But now His instrument of judgment is the Roman army, which kills more than 1 million, destroys the temple, ransacks Jerusalem and scatters the survivors. Josephus describes the events of 70 A.D. in this way: “So all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews, together with their liberty of going out of the city. Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged” (Wars, 5:12:3-4).
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the church age – tend to see the pale horse as representing the years 248 – 268 A.D., covering the reigns of Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus. Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writes that from 248 – 296 A.D. “five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns that escaped the hands of the barbarians were entirely depopulated” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 114). Some commentators prefer to translate the phrase “a fourth of the earth” in verse 8 as the Latin Vulgate does: “over the four parts of the earth,” referring to the four sections into which the Roman Empire is divided at the time.
Futurists – who interpret nearly all of Revelation as yet unfulfilled – contend that the events described here are global in scope and occur during the seven-year Tribulation. If fulfilled in our generation, the prophecy of one-fourth of the world’s population being killed would amount to more than 1.6 billion people – a great tribulation indeed, greater than the day of Noah, and matching the unprecedented magnitude described by Jesus in Matt. 24:21.
Finally, spiritualists, or idealists – who see Revelation as setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – understand the pale horse to represent death by various causes throughout the church age. Since one-quarter of the world’s population perishes, it is reasonable to see this played out over centuries rather than as a single catastrophic event. The four severe judgments – the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts – symbolize all universal woes that believers suffer along with unbelievers during the present evil age.
We come now to the end of the four horsemen – conquest, war, famine and death – and hear their thundering hoof beats as they leave the vanquished behind. What’s next? What could there be in the wake of these breathtaking events? Bodies have been destroyed, but the fifth seal uncovers the souls of martyrs crying out for God’s vengeance.
Next: The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11)