Revelation 8: Prayer and Plagues

The Lamb took the book out of the hand of the one who sits on the throne and began opening the seals. The opening of the first four seals were accompanied by four horses that spread destruction upon one-fourth of the earth. The next two seals asked two questions. The martyrs asked “how long” will the persecution continue and the inhabitants of the earth asked “who can stand” when the wrath of the Lamb is unreleased. Then the unfolding drama of the seals pauses in Revelation 7 to assure the church that they belong to God and their martyrs are even now victorious as they stand before the throne and the Lamb.

And then….there is silence. Thirty minutes of silence. What is the significance of this silent pause when the reader expects to see the events that will accompany the opening of the seventh seal? Silence probably reflects a sense of awe and/or expectancy. The silence functions to heighten the suspense. All of heaven now waits in reverential awe to see what will happen next. What will happen now that the seventh seal has been opened? And what happens is that seven angels appear.

Seven angels, who stand before the throne of God, are given seven trumpets. Why are they given trumpets? Given the temple imagery that abounds in John’s description of the heavenly throne room, the trumpets may function much like those in Israel’s temple (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:6; 29:26; Ezra 3:10). Trumpets were not only used to praise God but they were used to announce the coming of God. In other words, when sacrifices were offered and the priests sound the trumpets, “all Israel stood.” It is a liturgical symbol of divine entrance. In the context of Revelation 8-11, God comes in judgment (cf. Revelation 15:6-8) and the trumpets probably announce the coming judgment. They announced that God is now announcing the prayers of the saints.

Essentially, the prayers go up and the fire comes down.  An angel stood near the altar and burned incense which “went up before God” along with the prayers of the saints. The twenty four elders also hold bowls of incense “which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) and the martyrs under the altar prayed that God would act to avenge their blood (Revelation 6:9-11). The angel, in response to the prayers, then hurled “fire from the altar” upon the earth. This is God’s response to the prayers of the saints. The ensuing plagues that accompany the trumpet blasts are God’s response. The first three trumpet blasts include “fire” as part of the plague that affects one-third of the earth.

When the angel threw the fire upon the earth, “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake” followed. This is the language of divine theophanies–God is acting. But it is also a literary device that holds the first vision together as a unit. The vision (“in the Spirit”) of Revelation 4-16 begins with this description as a manifestation of divine presence in the heavenly throne room (4:5) and now it follows the seventh seal (8:5). This language also appears at the seventh trumpet (11:19) and the seventh bowl (16:18). The language unites the literary unit as it reminds the reader that these judgments are themselves divine theophanies. God is present in the Empire to destroy its power.

The successive judgments of God are progressive in nature. While the opening of the seals only affected one-fourth of the earth, the trumpets reek havoc upon one-third of the earth. The intensification suggests a progressive work whose purpose is not only punishment but also a warning. The progressive nature of the judgment provides opportunity for repentance (Revelation 9:20-21). The Empire is crumbling but slowly and not all at once. It is headed for a cataclysmic ending but the process is prolonged. While this provides the potential for a season of repentance, it is also frustrating for the martyrs under the altar who cry, “How long?”

Like the six seals, the trumpets sounded in a 4+2+Interlude+1 pattern. The first four trumpets, like the first four seals, are grouped together, and the final three trumpets follow separated by the “Woe” pronouncement of a flying eagle (Revelation 8:13). The 6+1 pattern reminds us of creation with its six days separated from the seventh day. The plagues in Egypt have a 9+1 pattern and this represents uncreation (the reversal of creation). The seven trumpets have literary and theological links to the Egyptian plagues. What God did to the Egyptian Empire, God is now about to do the Roman Empire. The grace of divine creation is now, in response to the idolatry, oppression and immorality of the Empire, reversed and God undoes in uncreation what was provided in creation. Like the Noahic flood itself, God judges human violence in oder to save the creation itself.

While the links to the plagues on Egypt are more apparent in the seven bowls, it also influences how the seven trumpets are described. The first trumpet includes the Egyptian plagues of hail and fire along with a reference to blood. The second trumpet includes water turning to blood.  The fourth trumpet resembles the darkness that fell upon Egypt.

The reversal of creation is also present in the trumpets. The earth is set ablaze as trees and grass are burned up, living creatures in the sea perish because the sea is turned into blood, a great star falls from the sky which poisons the earth’s fresh water, and one-third of the sky is darkened such that one-third of the day and night are now without light. The primordial chaos which God ordered and bounded is here released in a limited way. God still reigns over the chaos, but God here uses the chaos as punishment and warning. This reflects how the prophets spoke about nations in the Hebrew Bible, including Israel itself (cf. Amos 3-4). God is moving among the nations with purpose, specifically to relieve the Lamb’s followers from Roman oppression.

Just as God heard the cries of Israel in Egyptian bondage, so God responds to the prayers of the believers under Roman oppression.

Does God so such things today? We certainly pray, “Your kingdom come,” and that prayer involves the destruction of evil and its structures. We lament oppression and injustice as we petition God to remove them from the earth. I would hope that our prayers are not misguided. On the contrary, this is the pattern of prayer in the narrative itself. Israel prayed for deliverance in both Egypt and Babylon, and the saints in Asia Minor prayed for justice amidst Roman injustice and violence. It seems we can pray for the same today and trust that the pattern in the narrative is still active. We certainly confess it as an eschatological reality but we might also hope that God is yet active in the world to defeat evil, violence and injustice, even by bringing down Empires.

We, of course, do not have prophetic eyes to see what God is doing. We–or at least I–have not been given apocalyptic visions that interpret what God is presently doing. We cannot say with any specificity or definitiveness that God has judged this nation or that nation for this or than specific reason. We can only confess that God is at work, that God’s righteousness will set things right, and trust that God will ultimately defeat evil within the cosmos. Then, and only then, will the new heaven and new earth appear where we will dwell with God in peace, prosperity and righteousness forever and ever.

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