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The Golden Censer & The Trumpets


When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.

The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.

The fourth angel sounded 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 turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.

As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”

Today we move on to Scene 3 in the overall structure of the drama of Revelation. One key question is: does Scene 3 follow Scene 2 chronologically or not? As mentioned earlier in this sermon series, what I believe we find in Revelation is what Michael Wilcock has called a “repeat of patterns”. As each scene ends, having traced history through to its end and beyond, John returns to the beginning and retraces the same course through the next scene. You can see the similarities between the vision of the Seven Seals, the Seven Trumpets, and the Seven Bowls on the chart I have provided in your bulletin. I hope this helps to sort out what can be a confusing welter of images in the book of Revelation. Furthermore, as you will also see on the chart in your bulletin, John draws many of these images from the ten plagues visited on Egypt in the Old Testament book of Exodus.


But there are also differences between the different sets of images. A scroll with seven seals conveys the idea of God divulging his secret plan for the future. Trumpets, on the other hand, had a number of associations in Hebrew Scripture:

  1. A trumpet was blown to proclaim the accession of a king (1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 9:13).
  2. Trumpets were often used as an alarm signal (Jeremiah 4:5; 5:1,17; Ezekiel 33:3 ff.; Isaiah 58:1; Joel 2:1,15).
  3. And trumpets were blown at all of the Jewish feasts (Numbers 10:10; Ecclesiasticus 1:16; Leviticus 23:24; Exodus 12:2; Ezekiel 45:20). Trumpets capture our attention and stir our souls and bodies to action.
  4. Above all, John probably has in mind the Old Testament story of the walls of Jericho falling down. The Israelites blew seven trumpets on that occasion. And behind the priest with the seventh trumpet followed the ark of the covenant. (Joshua 6). So too, when the seventh trumpet blows in Revelation, the ark appears in heaven (11:19) and a tenth of the great city falls (11:13).


With all these references to the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt, guided by God through the desert, and finally led triumphant into the Promised Land, John is conveying a clear message to his readers. He is saying, “You too will be delivered from all those who oppress you. And you will be led triumphant into God’s permanent Promised Land.” Along with other New Testament writers, John thinks of the Church as the new Israel (Revelation 1:6) and her redemption as the new Exodus (Revelation 15:2-3).


Golden Censer


Before the seven angels blow their seven trumpets, John sees another angel, who has a golden censer. This angel comes and stands at the altar of incense in heaven. (Note: there were two altars in the Jewish Temple—one for incense and one for sacrifice. In Revelation, there is no altar for sacrifice because the sacrifice of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, has already been offered once for all.) At any rate, the angel is given much incense to offer which, as we saw earlier, represents the prayers of God’s people. 


And what, specifically, were God’s people praying for? Back in chapter six, the souls under the altar ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” God’s people are praying for judgment; they are asking God to set everything right that is wrong with the world. In the Seven Seals and the Seven Trumpets we see how God begins to do that.

Trumpet #1: The Earth Stricken


With the sounding of the first trumpet, hail and fire mixed with blood is hurled down to the earth. A third of the earth is burned up, a third of the trees are burned up, and all the green grass is burned up. Hail and blood are two of the ten plagues visited on Egypt in the book of Exodus. 

Christians over the past 2000 years have been tempted to interpret some momentous event of their own day as the fulfillment of something in the book of Revelation. In the second half of the 20th century, some Christians began to interpret nuclear warfare as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the first trumpet. But it hardly seems right that God would wait almost 2000 years to fulfill the prayers of his people in the first century. 


It seems much more likely to me that the first five trumpets resemble the first five seals; they reveal, not datable events, but aspects of the world situation which may be true at any time. Hail, fire, and blood symbolize any kind of destruction that at any time damages the earth.


Trumpet #2: The Sea Stricken


When the second angel sounds his trumpet, something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, is thrown into the sea. The result is that a third of the sea is turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea die, and a third of the ships are destroyed.


Again, we are reminded of the first of the plagues of Egypt, where the water in the Nile River is turned to blood (Exodus 7). The local plague in Exodus is turned by John into a worldwide plague. The situation described in Revelation seems rather dramatic, but it is not unimaginable.


The story of the sinking of Atlantis is myth to us. But the readers of Revelation lived closer to the time of a colossal disaster that gave rise to that legend. In the sixteenth century BC there was a volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Thera. Then, in John’s own lifetime, in AD 79, Vesuvius erupted. John’s readers could easily have viewed the latter event as a judgment on Rome for destroying Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. Perhaps John’s readers viewed the smoke rising from Pompeii and Herculaneum as an answer to their prayers.


Trumpet #3: The Rivers Stricken


When the third angel sounds his trumpet, a great star, blazing like a torch, falls from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of this star is Wormwood, which is also the name of a bitter plant (Jeremiah 9:15; 23:15) and the name of a character in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. As a result of this star falling to earth, a third of the waters on earth turn bitter, and many people die from drinking these poisoned waters. Once again, we are reminded of the Exodus story and the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert where they encountered bitter water.


The picture of a great star, falling from the heavens, would have been a familiar one to John’s Jewish-Christian readers (1 Enoch 18:13). As Tom Wright explains…


…the picture of a giant star falling from the sky has resonances with the old story of a fallen angel being cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12). In Isaiah, this ancient picture has been freshly applied to the king of Babylon. John, well aware of this, sees the fall of the great star in this passage as an advance signpost towards the great denouement at the end of his own book.


Trumpet #4: The Sky Stricken


When the fourth angel sounds his trumpet, a third of the sun is struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turn dark. A third of the day is then without light, and also a third of the night is without the light of moon or stars. Along with the fourth trumpet we get a picture of an eagle crying out “woe” to the inhabitants of the earth. This recalls what God said to the Israelites in Exodus 19:4, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”


Though the events described under the previous trumpets are somewhat imaginable, it is hard to imagine how the events that follow the blowing of the fourth trumpet could happen at all. Thus, we need to remember, that the “how” of miracles in the Bible are not meant to be explained. These stories do not tell us how. Rather, they tell us something of the “who” behind the miracle, and the “why”. 


Trumpet 4 points us back to the penultimate plague visited on the Egyptians in the book of Exodus—darkness. Human beings could not understand how these plagues happened, so they had to admit that God was somehow behind it all. The “who” behind the miracle is God.


But we are still left with the question: “why?” To answer this question, we must pay attention to the fact that though all of these trumpets sound destruction, that destruction is not total, but only partial (one-third). The trumpets do not sound doom, but rather warning. The majority of humanity is allowed to survive and is given time to repent. The suffering church pleads for justice, but God offers mercy, more time to get right with him. 


It reminds me of the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. As you may recall, Jonah was sent to preach judgment upon a foreign city: Nineveh. At first Jonah runs the other way rather than obeying God’s call. He gets swallowed by a whale, prays to God for deliverance, gets spit up on to a beach somewhere, then, and only then, does he obey. He goes to Nineveh, preaches judgment, and calls on the people to repent. And the Ninevites do repent in a massive way. But Jonah is disappointed. He wants to see God destroy the pagan Ninevites. The story ends with God asking Jonah a very important question: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” 

We see the same thing happening here in Revelation. God’s people cry out for him to destroy the pagans who have persecuted them, but God shows mercy. 


And that is where we stand today. We are in a moment of mercy that God is providing. But that moment will not last forever.


In 2 Peter 3 we read something very interesting. I hope you don’t mind if I quote Peter at length because what he has to say is so very relevant to this passage in Revelation. Peter says…


Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

C. S. Lewis makes the same point in Mere Christianity. He asks…


Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.[1]

[1] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 64-66). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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