The seven trumpets provide us with a summary of what will happen during the time known as the Day of the Lord.
The opening of the seventh seal is accompanied by "silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Revelation 8:1). All creation is awed by what is about to happen. The Day of the Lord, the event angels and saints have anticipated for thousands of years, has finally arrived. Centuries of prayers from the saints are symbolically compared to the fragrance of burning incense ascending from the temple altar to the very presence of God in heaven (verses 3-5). The answer to those prayers is now imminent.
Once the seventh seal is broken, the entire scroll is finally opened. Much of the remainder of the book of Revelation is subdivided into seven major parts, each signified by the blast of a trumpet.
In the ancient world trumpets often were used to announce the approach or arrival of danger. They serve a similar purpose in Revelation. Here they announce the main phases of God's judgment on this evil world—and on the devil, who has deceived it.
Combined, the seven trumpets (chapters 8-11) provide a summary of what will happen during the time known as the Day of the Lord. Revelation explains and describes the punishment each trumpet blast heralds.
Most of the following chapters (12-20) fill in details concerning the Day of the Lord, particularly about the persecuting worldly powers led and controlled by Satan and about Jesus' victory over those powers. Chapters 21-22 give us a brief glimpse of the saints' eternal reward.
The first four trumpets
The first four trumpets in Revelation 8 herald cataclysmic devastation. The first is a rain of hail and fire (verse 7), perhaps similar to one of the 10 plagues God sent on Egypt at the time of Moses (see Exodus 9:13-35). This could be describing phenomena such as icy hail mixed with lightning, a rain of superheated volcanic material from a gigantic eruption, or a meteor storm from space.
The second trumpet plague, a burning mountain thrown into the sea (Revelation 8:8-9), could also indicate a devastating super volcano or an asteroid impact. The third, a falling star burning like a torch (verses 10-11), also seems to refer to an asteroid or comet impact.
Then, following the fourth trumpet, light from the sun, the moon and the stars is obscured (verse 12)—possibly as a result of the atmospheric debris from the first three catastrophes. A plague of darkness, similar to another of the plagues of Egypt (see Exodus 10:21-29), engulfs at least a third or possibly all of the earth. (An even greater darkness will later ensue during the seven last plagues.)
The targets of the first four trumpets are "the earth and the sea" (Revelation 7:2). Though many deaths will surely result from these plagues, they are primarily directed toward mankind's earthly life-support system. They devastate earth's environment. God, our Creator, will provide ample evidence to every human being that He has full control over our life-sustaining environment.
Notice exactly what is affected by the first four trumpet plagues. First "a third of the trees" and "all green grass" are burned up. Next "a third of the sea" turns to blood. Then "a third of the rivers and … springs of waters" are poisoned, bringing many more deaths (Revelation 8:7-12).
Although these events are terrifying, God remains merciful. He always prefers to impose lesser punishments first to give people an opportunity to repent. As He told Ezekiel: "Say to them: 'As I live,' says the LORD GOD, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live'" (Ezekiel 33:11).
Rarely have whole nations repented and changed because of God's warning punishments. Most people tend to become bitter toward God rather than admitting their own callous behavior and evil thoughts. Though the first four trumpets may cause a few to abandon their evil ways, most of humanity will not repent, even when later afflicted by far greater punishments (Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9-11).
When mankind stubbornly refuses to repent, God increases the severity of His punishments. "And I looked, and I heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, 'Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!'" (Revelation 8:13).
Specifying the next three trumpet blasts as woes aptly describes the punishments they represent. Now the targets are "the inhabitants of the earth." The people themselves become the direct recipients of God's punishments.
The fifth trumpet plague
The affliction of the fifth trumpet, the first woe, emerges out of a darkened atmosphere, again possibly polluted with smoke, dust and ash from the preceding plagues. Like the first and fourth trumpets, the fifth blast is reminiscent of one of the plagues that fell on ancient Egypt—that of locusts (see Exodus 10:1-20). However, these "locusts" in Revelation are apparently not insects but machines, with "breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings … like the sound of chariots"—possibly, from John's first-century perspective, referring to deadly military aircraft such as modern helicopters. These torture people as with the sting of a scorpion (Revelation 9:1-10).
Though the sources of the afflictions are not specified, their effects are strikingly similar to the effects of modern chemical or biological warfare.
The director or "king" of this wave of affliction is described as "the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon" (verse 11, NIV). These titles, in Hebrew and Greek, mean "destruction" and "destroyer," respectively. And we later see that the Satan-led "beast" power emerges from this abyss or bottomless pit (Revelation 17:8), showing that the locusts here are probably the forces of this Europe-centered power bloc directed by Satan.
As noted earlier, as the end of his reign approaches, Satan is filled with "great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time" (Revelation 12:12). He is the master manipulator behind the massive armies gathering for their brutal mission. But God remains in control despite Satan's rebellion against Him.
Notice the limitations God puts on the locust-like conduits of human suffering: "They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads" (Revelation 9:4).
They are not sent to kill people (verse 5), only to torment them. God's previous punishments were aimed at the environment. But now they directly target those who still refuse to repent. The agony caused by this plague will be so intense that many will prefer to die. "In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them" (verse 6). God is still giving the world's inhabitants an opportunity to recognize just how angry He is with their rebellious behavior so they can understand that He will no longer tolerate their sins.
Notice that God's timetable for this punishment is precise. This plague affects human beings for five months (verse 10). God controls what happens and the length of time it lasts.
After five months of terrible afflictions, an angel announces: "One woe is past. Behold, still two more woes are coming after these things" (verse 12).
The sixth trumpet plague
A voice tells the angel who holds the sixth trumpet: "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates" (Revelation 9:14).
The Euphrates was the easternmost boundary of the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of Revelation. Except for a brief period later during the reign of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, when Mesopotamia and Assyria became provinces of Rome, the Euphrates was generally considered the dividing line between the Roman provinces and territories controlled by other kings to the east.
It is not clear whether this river will play a similar role at the time of the end. But this could be implied in the wording of Revelation 16:12, where "kings from the east" are again specifically associated with the Euphrates River.
Now to the next event. "And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind" (Revelation 9:15, NIV). John then mentions the coming of a 200-million-man army (verse 16). This event, the second woe or sixth trumpet plague, seems to be a massive counterattack against the European-led forces of the first woe or fifth trumpet plague.
By this time in John's visions all nations have refused to repent. They have refused to respond to God's warnings through famine, pestilence and environmental disasters, or the agony of the fifth trumpet. Therefore God will no longer restrain the beginning of an all-out world war—a global conflict that will soon climax at Christ's return.
The time has arrived for God to allow man to slaughter his fellow human beings without restraint (except for those righteous few whom He has already sealed). An unimaginable carnage is about to begin. One third of the earth's population will die in this conflagration. Apparently this will be in addition to the deaths from famines, disease epidemics and other catastrophes mentioned earlier—such as those over "a fourth of the earth" that were specified under the fourth seal.
John vividly describes this terrifying end-of-the-age conflict in the only way he can—in the language of the first century: "The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million. I heard their number. The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulphur.
"A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulphur that came out of their mouths. The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury" (verses 16-19, NIV).
John could portray a terrifying array of modern weapons only with the vocabulary available to him at that time. Tanks and missiles and aircraft with machine guns, smart bombs and laser-guided missiles did not exist, so he could not begin to describe such weapons in a way we would immediately recognize. When we get into chapters 13-18 we will learn more details about Satan's role in these destructive events.
The titanic war described in chapter 9 is the background of all the remaining punishments in Revelation. Keep this in mind as we continue. Chapter 10 and the first part of chapter 11 in particular must be viewed against this setting. Revelation shows that the final battle at the end of this conflict will be directed against Christ at His return (Revelation 19:19).
As the return of Christ draws near, the book of Revelation describes the stubborn, unyielding attitude of most of mankind. "But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts" (Revelation 9:20-21).
The seven thunders
In chapter 10, as prelude to the seventh and final trumpet—the third and last woe—John sees an angel holding "a little book open in his hand" (verse 2). The angel's voice is compared with the roar of a lion. As the angel speaks, John hears seven thunderous utterances. Then John says: "... I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, 'Seal up the things which the seven thunders uttered, and do not write them'" (verses 3-4). Notice that God revealed more prophecy to John than He allowed him to record (Revelation 10:1-4).
Next the angel emphasizes the importance of the imminent seventh trumpet. "The angel ... swore by Him who lives forever ... that there should be delay no longer, but in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound, the mystery of God would be finished, as He declared to His servants the prophets" (verses 5-7). The climax of the fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Bible will occur when Christ returns at the sounding of the seventh trumpet.
John then receives specific instructions: "'Go, take the little book ... and eat it; and it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.' Then I took the little book out of the angel's hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter" (verses 8-11). The meaning seems to be that while there is initial joy and wonder in the message, this turns to heartache when the magnitude of the corrective actions required to turn humanity from its wickedness really sinks in (compare Ezekiel 2:9-3:3, 14).
The angel further tells John, "You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings" (Revelation 10:11).
The prophecies here will be explained and proclaimed to the nations at the time of the end. God plans to ensure that the final proclamation of His prophecies, and the gospel itself, grabs the attention of all people!
God's two witnesses
When the time of the end arrives God will raise up, in Jerusalem, two prophets to complete this phase of His work before Christ's return. As His chosen witnesses, these two will carry out a spectacular mission on God's behalf. They will perform dramatic miracles as they proclaim God's plagues and judgments (Revelation 11:1-12).
They will exercise some of the same supernatural powers that God anciently granted to Elijah and Moses, two of the greatest prophets of old. "And if anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies [reminiscent of Elijah]. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy [as did Elijah], and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues [as did Moses], as often as they desire" (verses 5-6).
The work of the two witnesses is presented between the sixth and seventh trumpet plagues. Yet this is actually the time of the conclusion of their work—their prophesying lasts for 3 1 ⁄ 2 years, the same length of time Jerusalem will be occupied by the gentiles (Revelation 11:2-3). Thus it will have commenced just before the Great Tribulation.
In addition to their activities described here, they appear to be directly associated with certain prophecies of Zechariah (verse 4; compare Zechariah 4:3, 11-14).
We are introduced to the two witnesses at the temple site in Jerusalem. This, too, is significant. Throughout Revelation the temple is consistently associated with worship of God. We are told that "the court which is outside the temple...has been given to the Gentiles"—along with "the holy city" of Jerusalem (Revelation 11:2).
Jesus had earlier warned that a specific event will trigger many of the events described in the book of Revelation: "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." He continued: "For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again" (Matthew 24:15-16, 21, NIV).
Christ's words indicate that the devil will enable the prophetic Beast and False Prophet to commandeer the temple area, temporarily making it the center of their own satanically inspired system of worship. Opposing the Beast and False Prophet will be God's two witnesses. Jerusalem will find itself in the vortex of a great spiritual battle as prophesied events reach their climax.
But how will the two witnesses and their message be received? People will loathe them. Like no other prophets in the history of God's people, the witnesses and their message will be "hated by all nations" (Matthew 24:9).
Yet God is consistent. The effect of His witnesses' work will be similar to that of other great prophets. For example, God encouraged Ezekiel concerning the effect of his prophecies: "And when this comes to pass—surely it will come—then they will know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezekiel 33:33). We can expect no less from these two dynamic end-time prophets.
They will gain worldwide attention, giving them an unprecedented opportunity to warn the nations that they should repent of their sins and rebellion against God. Then, when God has seen that their message and warning has been delivered, He will allow the Beast to execute them. This, too, is part of God's plan.
By that time the people of every nation will have seen and heard frequent reports on the activities of the two prophets through worldwide communications systems. This becomes clear from John's statement that "peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days, and not allow their dead bodies to be put into graves" (Revelation 11:7-9).
Notice mankind's reaction to the murder of God's prophets: "And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them, make merry, and send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth" (verse 10). The whole world, having hated the two witnesses' rebukes and calls for repentance, celebrates their deaths.
But the rejoicing will be short-lived. Three and a half days after their execution, the two prophets will be resurrected (verses 11-13)—at the very time the seventh trumpet announces the return of Christ and the resurrection and reward of God's servants (see verses 15-18; compare Hebrews 11:39-40). A startled world will have irrefutable proof of who is the true God and which is His religion!
What comes next will occur with astounding speed.
The last trumpet announces Christ's return
"The second woe is past. Behold, the third woe is coming quickly. Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!'" (Revelation 11:14-15).
We reach the long-awaited return of Jesus, the Son of God, to establish the Kingdom of God. "And the twenty-four elders who sat before God on their thrones fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: 'We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned" (verses 16-17).
For God's faithful servants this occasion calls for unrestrained joy and celebration. This is the time when those in the grave receive victory over death, when their faith in God is totally vindicated. The 24 elders' special prayer of thanksgiving reflects the exuberant gratitude and excitement both the angels and the saints are certain to experience at that time (Revelation 11:16-18).
Paul explains the importance of this occasion for those in the grave awaiting Christ's return: "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
"For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).
An angel told Daniel of this wonderful occasion, saying: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life ..." (Daniel 12:2). He explained: "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever" (verse 3). (For a fuller explanation of the tremendous importance to you personally of the resurrection at Christ's return, be sure to download or request your free copy of the booklet What Is Your Destiny? )
We should note, however, that Christ's coming does not immediately bring universal joy. The final "woe" on the inhabitants of earth commences with the sounding of the last—the seventh—trumpet. John notes: "The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great—and for destroying those who destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:18, NIV).
The remainder of the book of Revelation specifies which worldly entities must now quickly be destroyed before the Kingdom of God can be established in all its fullness under Christ's rule.
Jesus also emphasizes the Father's faithfulness and commitment to fulfill every promise and prophecy He has ever made by showing John, as the conclusion of this particular vision in Revelation 11, "the ark of His covenant … within His temple" in heaven (verse 19). He reminds us that God will never forget His covenant promises, which were recorded by His prophets (Daniel 9:4).
One such promise concerns the overthrow of Satan's system. That is now about to occur. The full measure of God's judgments is about to be expressed through the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1). Babylon the Great, the ruling city in Satan's end-time empire, will be destroyed. But before it is annihilated, Christ reveals to us what it is and why it must be annihilated.