Revelation 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Seventh Trumpet, or Third Woe
We all know the feeling summed up by the expression "the future is now." It may be graduation, marriage, the birth of a first child or a long-awaited trip to some faraway place. Someday it will be retirement, and one day it will be the hour of death. It is something we knew was coming, something anticipated and imagined for years, with excitement and joy or with dread. Sooner or later a time comes when it is upon us, and we experience either realization or disappointment or relief, depending on what our expectations were and how closely their fulfillment matched them.
John's expectations about the seventh trumpet must have been a strange mixture of excitement and dread, not unlike those of any Christian facing simultaneously the mystery of death and the hope of heaven. On the one hand John had been warned of three terrible "woes" to come on the earth, but had only witnessed two of them (8:13; 9:12). One remained, possibly the worst of all, and it was to come "soon" (11:14). Yet he had also been told that "when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets" (10:7). Now that he hears the trumpet, it sounds more like the fulfillment of a promise than an oracle of woe. Loud voices in heaven announce that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever (v. 15).
Clearly the announcement introduces a major division in the book. At once the twenty-four elders in heaven, who have not been heard from as a group since the opening throne-room scene in chapters 4-5, fall on their faces in worship, just as they did twice in that opening scene (4:10; 5:8), offering thanks to God for what he has done and what he is about to do (vv. 16-18). It appears that these verses form a kind of inclusion with chapters 4-5, framing the seven seals and seven trumpets and preparing the way for still more visions to follow.
At the same time, the singular expression, the kingdom of the world, echoes the prophecy just completed about "the great city" of this world, "which is figuratively Sodom and Egypt" (v. 8). The world has many cities and "many peoples, nations, languages and kings" (10:11), but John knows, just as Augustine knew in his City of God, and Bunyan knew in The Pilgrim's Progress, that these are all one city, all one kingdom, whether we call it the City of Man or the City of Destruction or Vanity Fair. Only when that city's citizens "were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven" (v. 13) was it possible to say, The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. The seventh trumpet is significant, therefore, both in relation to chapters 4-11 generally and to the end of the sixth trumpet in particular.
The dual phrase, of our Lord and of his Christ, recalls previous references to "the one sitting on the throne" together with "the Lamb" (5:13; 6:16; 7:10), but echoes more closely the language of Psalm 2: "Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One" (or "his Christ," Ps 2:1-2). Although G. B. Caird may have exaggerated in stating that John here "begins an exposition of Psalm ii" extending through several chapters (Caird 1966:141), much of the latter half of the book of Revelation will be given over to answering the psalmist's question. With the end of the Cold War, and in the face of many "small" crises all over the world (at this writing Russia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda and Zaire), the ancient question reasserts itself with as much urgency as ever. Why indeed is there so much turmoil among the nations?
The song of the twenty-four elders recalls God's self-revelation just before John's first vision (1:8), but with one significant difference. God is described not as the one "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty," but now as Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was (v. 17). God is no longer "to come" because God has come in power. The elders' song is a thanksgiving because you have taken your power and have begun to reign (v. 17). The occasion for God's great assertion of power is stated very briefly, in the spirit of Psalm 2: The nations were angry (v. 18). God's anger is in direct response to the anger of the nations. As one recent translation aptly puts it, "The nations rose in wrath, but your day of wrath has come" (REB; compare 6:17). In a similar vein, the song concludes that the time has now come for destroying those who destroy the earth (v. 18).
The first four trumpets might easily have left the impression that God was destroying the creation with fire from heaven, but by now the trumpet series has been transformed. Responsibility for the damage rests not with God, but with those who provoked God's anger. We have met them briefly, as the beast from the Abyss (11:7) or as "the great city . . . called Sodom and Egypt" (11:8). We will meet them again in varied forms in later chapters. The concluding reference to destroying those who destroy the earth (v. 18) is strangely similar to Paul's solemn warning to the Corinthians: "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple" (1 Cor 3:16-17). Here in Revelation, it is as if the whole earth is God's temple, the "outer court" of his sanctuary in heaven (compare 11:2), given over to the Gentiles--or nations--for a limited time, but now holy once again and ready to be reclaimed.
Between the stern words of retribution that frame verse 18 are corresponding words of justice and reward. It is likely that the rewarding of your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great, as well as the destruction of the earth's destroyers, takes place at the final resurrection in connection with judging the dead. This final judgment will eventually turn out to be a complex process in two stages (compare 20:5, 11-15), but in keeping with traditional Jewish expectations, the elders' song announces it as a single event involving reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked (compare Mt 25:46; Jn 5:28; Acts 24:15). The righteous are here divided into three groups: Christian prophets (compare 10:7), ordinary believers, or "saints," whose prayers triggered the series of seven trumpets (5:8; 8:3-4), and unbelievers who learned to fear and worship God at the end of the trumpet series (11:11, 13). As subsequent chapters will show, the judgment of those who destroy the earth is not limited to the final resurrection (20:11-15), but begins already with the fall of the city called "Babylon" (14:8 11; chaps. 16-18) and the defeat of the armies of "the kings of the earth" (19:17-21).
The divine response to the elders' song is the sudden opening of God's temple in heaven (v. 19), protected by John's prophetic act of measuring at the beginning of the chapter (11:1). Within God's temple the ark of His covenant appeared (v. 19 NASB), followed shortly by two more "appearances" (all with the same Greek word for "appeared," wphthh: first, "a great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven" (12:1) and then "another sign appeared in heaven" (12:3). The appearance of the ark of the covenant is God's acknowledgment of the thanksgiving just offered by the twenty-four elders. John's glimpse of the ark is the nearest he comes in all his visions to a glimpse of God. The repetition of the words "appear" and "in heaven" accent the continuity between God's self-disclosure in the temple and the disclosure of conflict and victory in the next four or five chapters (compare also 15:5). In this sense the seventh trumpet is open-ended, encompassing all the rest of the book of Revelation and announcing in advance the end of the story.
At the same time the trumpet series, like that of the seven seals, is terminated by a "storm" in heaven reminiscent of Mount Sinai: flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm (v. 19; compare 8:5).There will be more visions and more judgments, but no more trumpets. The double series that began with the seven-sealed scroll in chapters 4-5 is now at an end. Although there is definite continuity between chapters 11-12, there is at least a momentary pause in the action. Many readers have found this as good a place as any to divide the book of Revelation into two approximately equal parts: chapters 1-11 and chapters 12-22.
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