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As was the case with the breaking of the seven seals, the first four trumpets in the sequence are set apart from the last three. At the end of the fourth trumpet, John hears an eagle 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!" (v. 13). The first four judgments are differentiated from the more terrible ones that follow in two ways: first, they affect primarily the natural world rather than the inhabitants of the earth; second, each affects only a third of the earth, trees and grass (v. 7), the sea, sea creatures and ships (vv. 8-9), rivers and springs of fresh water (vv. 10-11), and the sun, moon and stars (v. 12), respectively. The limitation to one-third leaves room for more terrible destruction to come, whether in connection with the last three trumpets or the later visions. Still, one-third is more than one-fourth. Eugene Boring (1989:135) notes that "in the first cycle, one-fourth of the earth's inhabitants were struck (6:8); in this cycle the scale goes up to one-third," adding wisely, "to inquire whether this is a third of the original whole, or a third of what remained after one-fourth had been struck would be a wrong question; John works with the imagination, not calculators."
The four areas affected—earth, sea, fresh water and sky—made up the whole of the human environment as the ancients perceived it. These four spheres were what Jews and Christians acknowledged as God's creation (compare 14:7). Despite the discovery of new oceans and continents, even the exploration of space, these four—earth, sea, fresh water and sky—are still the natural components of the human environment as we define it today. Already in the sixth seal, John had begun to view some of these spheres of creation as potential spheres of the creator's judgment. He had seen four angels "holding back the four winds of the earth from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree" (7:1). All the terror inherent in the metaphor of wind is now to be unleashed as the trumpets blow. Yet wind plays no explicit role in the trumpet series. Fire takes its place, probably with reference to the Sinai scene. Just as the traditional trumpet of God is multiplied by seven in the book of Revelation, so the Lord's descent in fire on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:18), echoed in John's "fire from the altar" (Rev 8:5), is serialized in the first three trumpet blasts: hail and fire mixed with blood . . . hurled down upon the earth (v. 7), something like a huge mountain, all ablaze . . . thrown into the sea (v. 8) and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky (v. 10). For John, no less than for the author of Hebrews, "our God is a consuming fire" (see Heb 12:29).
Three of the four judgments echo the plagues of the Exodus, preceding the giving of the law at Mount Sinai: hail in connection with the first trumpet (v. 7; compare Ex 9:23-25), the sea's turning to blood in the second (vv. 8-9; compare Ex 7:20-21) and darkness in the fourth (v. 12; compare Ex 10:21-23). Yet Mount Sinai, not the Exodus, dominates the imagery, at least up to this point. Fire, not hail or blood, is what damages earth, trees and grass (v. 7; contrast Ex 9:25). When a third of the fresh waters turn bitter (v. 11), not bloody, it is more like the waters of Marah after the departure from Egypt (Ex 15:23) than the plagues themselves. Finally, the dimming of the light of sun, moon and stars by one-third (v. 12) is far from equivalent to the "darkness that can be felt" or "total darkness" that covered Egypt (Ex 10:21-22). Yet these reminders of the Exodus alert us to watch for more as the visions continue. The controlling theme is closer to the theme of Sinai—fire from heaven.
When the angel blows the second trumpet, the scene echoes Jesus' promise to his disciples that "if anyone says to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart . . . it will be done for him" (Mk 11:23). In Revelation the mountain is no ordinary mountain, but a vehicle for fire sent down from God. It is as if Mount Sinai itself, all ablaze (v. 8; compare Heb 12:18) has been taken up and thrown into the sea. "Later Christian piety, prompted by Paul (Gal 4:25) and Hebrews (12:18-21), saw in Mount Sinai the terrors of the old law which condemns the sinner " (Sharrock 1987:388). In The Pilgrim's Progress, for example, John Bunyan's Christian
was afraid to venture further, lest the Hill should fall on his head: wherefore there he stood still, and wotted not what to do. Also his burden, now, seemed heavier to him, than while he was in his way. There came also flashes of fire out of the Hill, that made Christian afraid that he should be burned: here therefore he sweat, and did quake for fear (Sharrock 1987:63).
Although the book of Revelation makes no such link between its Sinai imagery and "the curse of the law" (Gal 3:13; 4:25), it is still true that John views the throwing of the fiery mountain into the sea as an act of God's grace on behalf of God's people. Hard as it may be to accept (because we are not accustomed to thinking of God as the author of destruction), this is the case with each of the first four trumpets. They are God's answer to "the prayers of the saints" (8:3).
Even the star that falls from the sky in connection with the third trumpet is a messenger of God. It is easy for us to think otherwise, since C. S. Lewis gave the name "Wormwood" to an agent of Satan, the nephew of the infamous Screwtape and recipient of The Screwtape Letters. But the star called Wormwood in John's vision is no satanic messenger. Rather, it is the personification of something God threatens to do to God's people when they allow themselves to be deceived by false prophets (see Jer 23:15, "I will make them eat bitter food [KJV wormwood] and drink poisoned water, because from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land"; compare Jer 9:15). Given the mischief of the Nicolaitans and "Jezebel," the situation in Asia Minor in John's day was similar to the one lamented by Jeremiah.
When the fourth trumpet sounded (v. 12), nothing fell from the sky. But the dimming light of sun, moon and stars, and consequently of both day and night, sent a signal that the worst was yet to come. This impression is confirmed by the voice of an eagle or vulture directly overhead, announcing three even more terrible "woes" or judgments against the earth's inhabitants.