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)
Previously: The seventh seal – Revelation 8:1-6
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).
The four angels standing at the four corners of the earth are prevented from harming “the earth or the sea or the trees” until the 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:2-3). But now, with the sounding of the first and second trumpets, a third of the earth and trees are burned up, and a third of the sea becomes blood. The hiatus is over and massive destruction of the sin-cursed world begins to take place.
Are we to believe that hail, fire and blood are literally mixed and hurled to the earth? What’s the significance of “a third,” a recurring fraction in the first four trumpet judgments? How can “all” the green grass be burned in the first trumpet judgment if the “locusts” that ascend out of the abyss are prevented from harming the grass in the fifth judgment? And do the trumpet judgments follow the seal judgments chronologically or run concurrently with them? Let’s take a closer look.
The first angel blew his trumpet
The trumpet employed by each angel in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and is translated so in the Complete Jewish Bible. This horn has special significance for Israel. Loud blasts of the shofar accompany the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai and cause the people to tremble (Ex. 20:18). The shofar is incorporated into the Jewish feasts of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, or Atonement. Some Bible commentators believe the coming rapture of the church will be associated with Rosh Hashanah and the trumpets described in 1 Cor. 15:52 and 1 Thess. 4:16. They also believe the trumpets of Yom Kippur will herald national judgment on Israel, leading many Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah during the Tribulation.
David H. Stern writes, “The idea that the Great Judgment of the Last Days is heralded by blasts on the shofar has its roots in the Tanakh [Old Testament]. ‘YHVH [Yahweh; God] will be seen over them, his arrow will go forth like lightning, and Adonai YHVH will sound the shofar and will move in the storm winds of the south…. And YHVH their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people (Zech. 9:14, 16)” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 814).
Additionally, the shofar is to be sounded on the Day of Atonement in the Year of Jubilee, every 50th year, to signal the release of slaves and debt. For Christians, this may be seen as symbolic of Christ’s work on our behalf, redeeming us from the slave market of sin and paying our sin debt with His blood. His finished work on the cross frees us from the debtor’s prison of sin.
Whatever the significance of the shofar in the case of the trumpet judgments, its sounding precedes unprecedented acts of God upon the earth (the first four trumpet judgments) and its wicked people (the last three trumpet judgments).
Hail and fire, mixed with blood
After the angel sounds the first trumpet, John sees hail and fire, mixed with blood, hurled to the earth. R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and D. Brown note there is a common feature in the first four trumpets; the judgments affect natural objects – the earth, trees, grass, the sea, rivers, fountains, the light of the sun, moon and stars. But the last three trumpet judgments affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 8:7).
Further, the language used to describe these judgments is drawn from the plagues of Egypt, with five or six out of the 10 plagues corresponding to trumpet judgments: hail, fire (Ex. 9:24), water turning to blood (Ex. 7:19), darkness (Ex. 10:21), locusts (Ex. 10:12), and perhaps death (Rev. 9:18).
If we step back a little, we can see a pattern in all three sets of judgments – the seals, trumpets, and bowls. As the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times notes, “In all three series of seven, the first four judgments focus on the earth, while the last three are more cosmic in nature. The seals and trumpets follow a 4+2+1 pattern, while the bowls follow a 4+3 pattern. There is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals and the sixth and seventh trumpets, but no interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls as the pace becomes too intense” (p. 405).
It’s also important to note that some commentators see these three sets of judgments playing out in chronological order – the seals first, followed by the trumpets and, finally, the bowls – while others see them as repeating and overlapping, especially since each series culminates at the end of time with a storm-earthquake. One’s view of the end times (historical, for example, or futurist) no doubt influences a belief in either consecutive or overlapping series of judgments, or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, it is difficult to overlook the similarities between the three sets of judgments.
Grant Osborne, in his book Revelation, identifies seven major themes in the three judgment series:
- These judgments are poured out on unbelievers, while believers are protected (Rev. 3:10; 7:1-8; 9:4; 16:2).
- These judgments are God’s response to the prayers of the saints for justice and vengeance (5:8; 6:9-11; 8:3-5).
- The sovereignty of God is emphasized throughout.
- God does not command evil to do His will; He simply allows it to operate.
- Unbelievers respond by refusing to repent and by cursing God, thus demonstrating depravity (9:20-21; 16:9, 11).
- These judgments are acts of mercy, providing a final opportunity to repent (9:20; 14:6-7; 16:9, 11).
- There is a progressive dismantling of creation, preparing for the final consummation.
As for the first trumpet, it no doubt ushers in a terrible storm, but commentators are divided as to what that storm symbolizes. Some argue this is a symbolic storm of heresies; others, a mixture of doctrinal errors such as the Arian heresy that denied the deity of Christ; or a tempest of war falling on the state. In any case, the hail and fire, mingled with blood, remind us of the seventh plague God sends against Egypt (Ex. 9:18-26). The prophet Joel also promises blood and fire in the last days (Joel 2:30).
Although it’s difficult to picture hail and fire mixed with blood, imagine the apostle John, from his first-century perspective, trying to describe events that are perhaps centuries in the future. If the futurist perspective is correct, for example, how is John to describe 21st century (or later) warfare and weapons? Could the locusts be attack helicopters, and the burning mountain falling into the sea a nuclear warhead? We simply do not know.
As we read these descriptions of hail and fire mixed with blood, strange-looking locusts, and blazing mountains falling from the sky, we are well advised to cling to the clear teachings of each passage and be willing to be proven wrong on our assumptions about apocalyptic details. For example, it is clear that God is bringing judgment to bear upon the earth; that much suffering ensues; that the wicked refuse to repent; that the Lamb is in control; that His people are protected; and that the earth is being prepared for what Jesus called “the regeneration” (Matt. 19:28 KJV) and what Peter referred to as “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13).
Next: A third of the earth was burned up (first trumpet continued): Rev. 8:7