Revelation commentary 8
In Rev 6:12-17 we read of the sun turning black, the moon blood- red, stars falling to earth and the sky receding like a scroll whilst every mountain and island was removed from its place. Here in Rev 8 the sky is back again, a huge mountain is thrown into the sea; one third of everything in the sea dies and one third of the ships are destroyed. Something else we can note is that when we contrast the two chapters we find an intensification of judgement in that Rev 6:8 speaks of power being given over a fourth of the earth and Rev 8:7 a third of the earth being burnt up. This is an intensification of judgement that is already ongoing.
When the seventh seal is opened there is silence in heaven before judgement is spoken of again. There is also the reminder of who it is that brings judgement when we link the last verse of chapter seven with the first verse of chapter eight. The One who brings this judgement is not some tyrant or ‘god-in-a-rage person’ who has given up on humanity. He is the Lamb of God.
Jesus is the One who wore our bruises as He stood in our place (Isaiah 53:3-7). He is the One who had a smashed face and almost unrecognisable body (Is 50:6 Luke 18:32) yet who still allowed those who were torturing, ridiculing and crucifying Him to have breath in their lungs (Job 33:4). The One who opens the seal, is the One who offered everything He had so that we could find forgiveness and reconciliation. Judgement is now coming up on the earth yet there is still time to turn to God.
God reaches out.
In his book ‘Killing Christians’ Tom Doyle recounts the story of a Somalian pirate called Azzam Azzia Mubarek who came to faith in Christ. Azzam had seven dreams about Jesus despite having a Muslim upbringing. He went to the local Imam Hussein Mohammed and was told that his visions were false. On returning home he had another vision and told his mother that Jesus was present in the home saying, “You believe me don’t you?” His mother Rawia looked him and said, “Leave son and don’t come back.”
Azzam left for a village twenty-five miles away where he had friends who would protect him. His father, a local warlord, was aware of where Azzam was and sent him a large parcel. On opening the parcel he found the butchered remains of his mother who’d been killed for telling him to leave home. A photograph was on the remains with a picture of his mother kneeling in front of two men with knives raised over her head. He recognised both the men (Mahdi and Yasin), who had been sent to kill his mother.
Shortly after this harrowing experience Azzam placed his trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour and started learning more about Jesus. After a few months he smuggled himself out of the country to get Bibles from Kenya in order to bring them back to the local believers. He did this by sharing a coffin with a dead man being sent home to be buried.
Azzam has now been a Christian for over fifteen years and during this time he encountered the two men who had killed his mother. On doing so he stepped out in front of them and told them he knew what they had done. Both men told him they had killed his mother because of death threats from his father. Azzam then said, “I know all about my father; I haven’t come to harm you – I’ve come to forgive you.” He then told them that he had prayed for them both ever since he had seen their picture with his mother and that Jesus had filled his heart with compassion for them. He also told them that Jesus could forgive murderers and that Jesus was greater than anything they had ever done.
Through subsequent meetings the men heard more about Jesus and came to place their trust in Him as Lord and Saviour. One of them, Mahdi said, “In my religion, there was no certainty of forgiveness – either from God or each other. When Yasin and I saw Azzam on the road last week, I reached for my knife, assuming I would need to defend myself. There would be no other reason for him to confront us other than to avenge his mother’s death. But when Azzim spoke, his words paralysed both us. We could not believe what we were hearing. His words of forgiveness…I had never heard anything like it.”
This story is adapted from Tom Doyle’s book, ‘Killing Christians’ pages 4-14
The seventh seal is opened and there is silence in heaven for about half an hour.
We live in a world where silence is increasingly hard to find; in a world which never goes to sleep and where someone’s television or radio is always on. Yet God calls us to slow down and reorientate our minds to focus our attention on Him, our only hope.
“Be still and know that I am God “
As a young minister I remember travelling to hear a man who had served God throughout his life and who, in old age (mid-eighties), had sold his house and brought a small flat in order to generate money for books he was writing to help Muslims find Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. As I travelled to see this man of faith I wondered what I would say to him, yet quickly came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do was to just listen. The result of our time together, and future meetings, was eventually to be the publication of a book that went world-wide. Sometimes we forget that the best thing we can do is to stop everything we are doing and just listen.
“Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”
The Psalms constantly call us to slow down, focus on God and reflect on His greatness and goodness, for ultimately it is seeing God that helps us where life is lived first and foremost: in the heart and mind.
For example Job stands in awe before God as He is reminded of God’s power as Creator of the heavens and earth with God saying, “Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38:4-5).
Then, in turning to Isaiah we find a man who has an incredible vision of God. Words cascade from Isaiah’s lips like water released from a dam, as he screams out: “Woe is me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." (Isaiah 6:5).
In the New Testament Peter sees first-hand the mastery of Jesus over nature and in astonishment falls at Jesus’ knees saying, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8), and then we have John on Patmos. John sees such a powerful vision of Christ that He falls ‘as though dead.’ (Rev 1:17).
God continually encourages us to look to Him and place our lives in His hands day by day. No matter how small we feel and no matter how big the opposition, God can help us, as the story of Ruby Bridges clearly reveals and which we develop from chapter one.
Ruby Bridges was born in Tylertown Mississippi to a family she later called the poorest of the poor. In 1957 they moved to New Orleans where her father became a janitor and her mother scrubbed floors in a bank once the children had gone to bed. They went to church every Sunday with Ruby’s mother wanting her children to start feeling close to God from an early age. At that time black children were not allowed to receive the same education as white children and went to separate schools.
In 1960 a judge ordered four black girls (all of whom had passed entrance exams) to go to two white elementary schools. Ruby was one of the girls chosen to attend and became the first African-American child to integrate a white Southern elementary school.
On the first day Ruby attended the Frantz Elementary School on November 14th 1960 a large crowd of angry white people stood outside the Frantz Elementary School carrying signs saying they did not want black children in a white school. On the second day of school a woman threatened to poison her and on another day she was greeted by a woman displaying a black doll in a coffin.
Even though Ruby was only six years old people called her names and spat on her as she went into school. The President ordered armed federal marshals to walk into the school with Ruby but the abuse continued for many months with men, women and children shouting at her every day. The white parents refused to send their children to school and Ruby ended up in a class on her own with her teacher Mrs Henry who used to stand at the classroom window and watch her come into school each day. One day she saw Ruby stop in front of the crowd and seem to say something to the people shouting at her. The marshals tried to get her to move and eventually she stopped talking and went into school as normal.
Ruby’s teacher asked her what she had said to them that day and she told her that she was praying for the people. Apparently she had done this every day a few blocks before the school but on this particular day had forgotten and only remembered as she was walking through the crowd held back by marshals. She had stopped and prayed, “Please God, try to forgive these people, because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing. So you could forgive them just like you did those folks a long time ago when they said terrible things about you.”
Later that year some white children started attending the school again as parents got fed up looking after them at home and after a year all the other white families gave up their battle.
In 1999 Ruby formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation whose headquarters are in New Orleans. Her foundation promotes the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all people. On July 15th 2011 she met with President Barack Obama at the White House. Whilst viewing the Norman Rockwell painting of her (titled ‘The problem I must live with’) President Obama said to her, “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”
God is not in a rush and He knows exactly what He is doing; He sees all things and is never taken by surprise. God is all powerful and if we were to spray an aerosol into a room He could stop each particle exactly where and when He wanted it to stop.
God wants to be known and all across the world there are stories of men, women and children who are opening their hearts to Him. One young woman who did so is Chai Ling.
In 1989, my mother was in China just thirty miles from the protests in Tiananmen Square where, at the height of the protest, over a million people assembled in the square. Most of them were University students mourning the death of Hu Yaobang a former Communist party General Secretary and liberal reformer. The students called for freedom of the press, government accountability and the restoration of workers control over industry. Students occupied the square for seven weeks before government troops and tanks were sent in. There was a massacre and civilian deaths were numbered in their thousands.
Chai Ling was one of the leaders on the student uprising in Tiananmen Square and managed to escape and made her way to America despite being one of China’s most wanted women. She is now a Christian and in her book, ‘A Heart for Freedom” she writes,
“I now see that the thirst I had is the longing for freedom placed in our hearts by God. Only when I came to know God could I truly begin to comprehend his unique purpose for my life. I’ve since been given renewed strength, healing, and insight to explain my perspective on China’s past, the meaning of the Tiananmen movement and God’s future plan."
Chai Ling in, A Heart For Freedom, p 9
There is time to seek forgiveness.
As God continues to bring judgement to bear on this world we see that man will not be allowed to continue to oppress fellow-man and live as if he were the creator and not the created. Yet, in communicating in the way that God does, we also see that there is time to turn, to change one’s ways and to acknowledge one’s need of a Saviour. There is time to find forgiveness. Yet how is it that we can say, “grace is still calling out” when we see the devastating effects of judgement?
Firstly we note that this judgement is partial. If God did not care for this world there would have already been a command given and every atom and molecule would have ceased to exist.
Secondly, God speaks with imagery that would be clearly understood by those hearing His word read out. They can picture what is happening and going to happen and make choices.
Thirdly, there is an enemy out there who is quite happy for people to think everything is Ok despite what is going on; God says, “No it is not.”
Judgement has come and will come and with it the opportunity to repent. In this we see that the form and forms of judgement throughout Revelation and indeed the whole of scripture, speak of grace and mercy as well as holiness and justice. There is an opportunity to repent as the city of Nineveh found out (Jonah 3:5-10)
“Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling." Zech 2:13
Seven angels are given seven trumpets and a further angel brings a golden censer to the altar. A censer is a small bowl, sometimes with a handle, in which incense is burnt. It was used in the daily offering of incense which symbolised the prayers of men, women and children ascending to God.
Prayer involves an acknowledgement of God’s greatness, and awareness of our weakness. Our faith is exercised when, in full awareness of our failings, we still approach the One who has accepted us through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (Heb 4:16).
“Without a sustained awareness of God who invades the impossible, I will reduce ministry to what I can accomplish with my ministry gifts. These gifts are like sails on a boat – without the wind, they’re useless. We all need the wind of God to breathe on what we are gifted to do so that those gifts become eternally effective. If we fail to regularly remember who God is, what he has done, and what he is going to do, we will make decisions on the basis of what we can accomplish without Him, which restricts us to a life of the “possible.” This leads to discouragement, small vision, mediocrity, burnout, and all the other problems that plague Christian leaders who lose touch with what God is doing.”
Bill Johnson in, ‘Releasing the Spirit of Prophecy,’ page 152.
Prayer is about engaging with God; it is about knowing God and surrendering our lives to Him. In surrendering to Him we lose nothing except that which should never have been a part of our life in the first place. In surrendering our lives to God we hand them over afresh with an attitude of heart that shows we are open and available for all He would have us do. God hears our prayers ( Gen 17:20, 1 Kings 17:22, Ps 6:9, 34:6) and will bring an end to the suffering and pain that colours so many lives with greys and blacks. God speaks and we are called to listen.
“The goal of religion is not primarily to help us to express ourselves, but to bring us closer to God. Empathy rather than expression is the way of piety…The most important fact is that God speaks. And he who knows that God speaks cannot regard his own need for speaking and self-expression as being of supreme concern. The supreme concern is how to understand God’s speech, God’s expression.”
Dr. A.J. Heschel in, ‘Man’s Quest for God’ page 135.
Prayer allows our minds to ‘breathe’ and brings light to the eyes, understanding to the heart, a balance to our emotions, and strength for the day. Prayer liberates us in the most difficult of circumstances: why? Because prayer is engagement with God, it is communion with above; it is reaching out through the One who has reached into our lives. Prayer is victory: His victory manifest in space and time whether in the martyrdom of a saint (Acts 7:55-56), the giving of two small coins by a widow (Mk 12:42) or the reaping a harvest of thousands. All is from Him and by Him and to be done for Him.
In the offering of the censer by the angel we are reminded of the offering which occurred on the Day of Atonement (the day of covering) when the High Priest entered the holy of holies and filled the censer with coals from the altar of burnt offering. The burnt offering was whole offerings that was continually made to the Lord (Lev 6:22; Ex 29:38) underlying the truth that our every living, breathing moment is a time when we, the disturbers of peace in God’s universe, are sustained by amazing grace. God has made a way for fallen man to approach Him and God listens to our prayers.
When the crowds of humanity scream so loudly that we cannot hear our voice, God still hears our prayers. When everything around us seems so big and powerful, He still sees the glass of water we give in His name (Mat 9:41). In the work of His Son, we, the rebel, have become sons or daughters (Rom 8:15).
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
The prayers of God’s people are known by God and spoken of as coming into the presence of the One who holds all things in His hands (Rev 8:3).
God hears the prayers of the suffering church. The cry of Hagar was heard and was known to Him, as were the prayers of a church gathering interceding for a recently imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:5). God knows the prayers of His people and sees those whom others may not notice. For example, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, who was told that He would see God’s salvation for mankind (Luke 2:25-32) – and also on Anna, an eighty-four year old widow who recognised Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 2:37-8).
“When he comes to God simply with his request, he comes with empty hands. But empty hands are necessary when human hands are to be spread out before God and filled by Him. It is these empty hands that God in His goodness wills of us when He bids us pray to Him. He who is obedient to Him is ready to begin at the beginning every time he prays. He always understands God as the unique source of all good and himself as absolutely needy in relation to Him. He puts himself joyfully under this fundamental law of the covenant relationship. He has nothing either to represent or to present to God except himself as the one who has to receive all things from Him.”
R. Boyce in, ‘The Cry to God in the Old Testament,’ page 73.
Prayer can help open the hearts to the touch of the Spirit and our eyes to seeing the bigger picture. Prayer helps open the mind to the touch of God and breathes hope into our lives even in the direst of circumstances; we need never be alone.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
The censer mixed with fire is then taken from the altar and throne down to the earth and the trumpets begin to sound. In the mention of seven trumpets we are reminded of the seven trumpets linked with judgement as Joshua’s army moves into the Promised Land.
In Joshua 6:6-11 we read of seven priests with seven trumpets marching around the city of Jericho which was a military fort.
“The masses lived in hamlets and other places nearby these forts. The forts themselves contained the palace, royal storehouse for the taxes… temple, some homes for the leadership and perhaps barracks for the troops. These “cities” were not the home of non-elites or of non-combatants.”
D. Grrothuis in ‘Christian Apologetics’ page 673.
On the seventh day of marching around Jericho the trumpets continued to sound as the people shouted and the walls of Jericho came down. In all of this we see God saying, “You are not secure, you are not safe, your oppressive ways will come to an end and your protective walls will come down.” Yet even in the midst of this judgement there was a place of safety for a most unlikely candidate (in a worldly sense) for the Kingdom of God: Rahab (Josh 6:25, Heb 11:31). In Rahab we see that people were aware of what was going on (Josh 2:11-13) – yet she was the one who acted upon it in turning to God. God’s grace and mercy can bring light and life to the darkest of situations and circumstances. Let us never forget how far we had fallen (2 Peter 1:5-9) and how far Jesus came to save us (2 Cor 8:9). In his book, ‘Cries of the heart’, Ravi Zacharias tells a story that clearly conveys something of what Christ bore on the cross for us.
“I have a friend who years ago spoke to me of how difficult a lesson it was for him when he learned the cost of forgiveness. He had betrayed his wife and family and lived through the pain of asking for forgiveness and rebuilding their trust. Somehow over a period of time he assumed that even for them, the hurt was all mended and the past expunged from their memory. One day he returned home from work early in the afternoon just to get a break. He walked into the house and when he entered could hear his wife, who was on her knees crying, unaware that he was home, asking God to help her forget all that had brought her this pain.
It was a rude awakening to him of the cost. Multiply that wrong by a limitless number and you will get a glimpse of what Christ bore on the cross for you and for me.”
Ravi Zacharias in, ‘Cries of the Heart’ page 118.
The call to repent.
In judgement there is the opportunity to repent (eg. Jonah 3:7-10), as is the case when the angels sound their trumpets. If there was no opportunity to repent then there would have been no need to speak of people who did not repent in Rev 9:20. The One who sanctions this judgement is the Lamb and the way the events come about do not deny grace and mercy in any way. The world is the new Jericho; bound in its ideology yet evil will come tumbling down. One day there will be another trumpet sounding as every man, woman or child that has ever lived is physically resurrected (1 Cor 15:52, 1 Thess 4:16).
The first trumpet sounds and a third of the earth and a third of the trees are burnt up along with all of the grass, this being reminiscent of the seventh plague against Egypt (Ex 9:13-35) where some of the Egyptians responded positively to what was happening and brought in their slaves and livestock.
In all the plagues against Egypt God deliberately targets false gods and all that Egypt trusted in and in this we see grace and mercy. God could have wiped out Egypt in a second (Ex 9:13), instead He worked in a way whereby people had the opportunity to repent.
In the seventh plague in Egypt God destroyed vegetation, striking a blow at Osiris, the so-called god of harvests and fertility. Yet, as already mentioned, there were those in Egypt who had a healthy fear of the Lord and heeded the warning (9:19), whilst others took no notice (v21). In using imagery similar to that of the seventh plague (where some Egyptians responded) we have grace and mercy underlined yet again. Yes, these catastrophic events are brought about because of God’s intervention, yet there is still a chance to turn to God.
The second trumpet sounds and we ‘see’ the imagery of a blazing mountain being thrown into the sea with a third of the sea turning to blood and a third of the sea creatures dying, this again speaks of partial judgement.
In this imagery John’s readers would no doubt recollect the cataclysmic events of A.D. 79 when Mt Vesuvius erupted with stones and ash spewing over twenty miles into the air in an explosion that would have surpassed the power of the explosion at Hiroshima. The larva flow from Vesuvius buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum with an estimated loss of over sixteen thousand people.
The imagery could also remind some of John’s readers of the words of God to Babylon, (likened to a mountain) recorded in Jeremiah 51:25. Mountains symbolised strength and Jeremiah speaks of the downfall of this superpower, as would be the case with Rome and all other empires across history. But what about the imagery of the sea turning to blood?
The sea turning to blood reminds us of the Nile turning to blood (Ex 7:14-24) as God challenged a people who relied on it for wealth and worshipped the male-god Hapti. Hapti was said to control the alluvial deposits and waters that made the land fertile, thus guaranteeing a harvest. God comes against man’s abuse of power and self-sufficiency. None of the powers in Egypt were able to return to the Nile to its former condition. Idolatry is no match for God.
“In a sense idolatry is at the core of every sin. I prefer my own designs to the design of God; I view my own way of seeing or acting or reaction as better than his. I act as if I know reality better than the Author of reality, as if I know the needs of my heart better than my heart’s creator. Grace pierces through this illusion. “
Fr R. Veras, Wisdom for everyday life from the book of Revelation, p 45
The sea turning to blood in Revelation may well depict the death of all that is evil. Both the land and the sea were major trade routes which sent supplies to a power which dominated the world at that time and Rome relied heavily on its sea-trade and worshipped the life-style she was able to purchase. All of this would one day be gone as is the wealth of others who have plundered nations and become rich at the expense of those around them. Take for example Adolf Hitler and the Nazi art treasures and Saddam Hussein who was convinced he was going to rule Iraq forever and reduced an oil-rich nation to a claustrophobic police state during a thirty-year rule of terror.
The third trumpet sounds and a great star blazing called Wormwood falls from the sky onto a third of the water and springs, making it bitter and unfit to drink.
Wormwood was well-known in John’s day as a bitter herb with poisonous extracts. In light of this Wormwood is connected with death and judgement. We also see this from Jeremiah chapter nine where those who rejected God’s law and thought themselves wise in their own strength were told that they would eat bitter food and drink poisoned water, in a sense, reaping the real fruit of their own harvest. We can also note Deuteronomy 29 which speaks of people coming under the curse through choosing to live their own way, with ‘their own way’ being likened to poison.
In scripture the curse sayings speak of the separation and punishment that comes from a violation of one’s relationship with God. For example separation and punishment comes to those who are involved in idolatry (Deut 27:15), who deceived their neighbours (Deut 27:18, 24); manipulated the disadvantaged (Deut 27:18-19), were involved in sexual issues (Deut 27:20-23) and bribery (Deut 27:5), or failed to observe God’s law (Deut 27:26).
The result of going our own way is separation from the covenant and the love of a heavenly Father. In reaping the harvest of the curse man is made aware that his actions have consequences and that there will be a final reckoning. Yet it does not have to be this way: the poison of self can be removed by the blessing of God as indicated symbolically in the bitterness being removed from the water at Marah (Ex 15:23-25) during Israel’s travels through the wilderness of Shur. God offers us living water, yet man has built his own ‘wells.’ (Jer 2:13). Scripture also tells us that the fear of the Lord and the teaching of the Lord is like a fountain of life (Prov 14:27; 13:14); in Jesus, we find the true water of life (John 4:14).
“The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”
A fourth angel then sounds his trumpet and darkness covers a third of the world. This again reminds us of one of the plagues in Egypt where darkness covered the earth (Exodus 10:21-23) with God effectively saying, “You believe you are enlightened, yet you live in abject darkness.”
The Ancient World often worshipped the sun, moon and stars (e.g. the Babylonian gods Baal and Sin), as did Israel on occasion (e.g Manasseh who bowed before the starry host: (2 Kings 21:3). Man often seeks to deify and worship the heavens and the earth, yet all that man places his trust in will come under judgement and will be removed.
“Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.” Joel 3:14-15
The camera continues to capture imagery and the final three trumpet blasts are preceded by the image of an eagle flying in mid-air and calling out, “Woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels.”
God brought His people out of captivity, as on the wings of an eagle (Exodus 19:4) yet centuries later an empire whose legions had images of silver or golden eagles on poles oppressed a world under ‘Pax Romana.’ Now, in Revelation, the eagle, a symbol of power and speed, utters woes because of continuing judgement on a rebellious world. The word ‘woe’ is an expression of grief and pain and reminiscent of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41).
Before moving on to chapter nine it is helpful to note a comment from Dr C. Koester’s commentary on Revelation where he points out that Revelation is not giving us a step by step picture as we move to the future. What we are seeing is often the same picture from a different angle.
“The peculiar way that the heavenly lights vanish then reappear and the grass suffers destruction only to return so that it can be protected is an important part of Revelation’s manner of communication. These inconsistencies disrupt attempts to take the visions as a linear sequence of events that will unfold in the near step-by-step fashion at some point in the future. Revelation gives the appearance of a sequence by numbering the visions according to trumpets, one, two, three, and four, only to confuse the sequence by including details that do not fit the pattern.”
C. Koester in Revelation and the End of All things p 97