A half hour of silence in heaven followed the opening of the seventh seal. This silence probably served to allow for the prayers of the holy ones or God’s people on earth to be heard. (8:1)
John saw seven angels standing before God. To signal the commencement of divine action, each one received a trumpet. (8:2)
Another angel, with a golden censer, stationed himself at the golden altar before the throne. The Greek reads “upon the altar,” suggesting that the angel stood and then leaned over the altar to offer up the prayers of the holy ones in combination with the large quantity of incense he had been given. From the angel’s “hand” (apparently from the censer he held in his hand), the smoke of the incense, combined with the prayers of the holy ones, ascended before God. (8:3, 4)
This scene appears to indicate that the incense made the prayers of God’s people acceptable. As humans, they were not free from sin but had righteousness accounted to them on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for them. Because sin contaminates everything, the prayers, in themselves, are flawed expressions but are made acceptable to the Most High, the holy God. (Compare Haggai 2:13, 14; Romans 8:26, 27) The fact that the angel received the incense suggests that the means for making the prayers acceptable did not originate with him. He simply acted in a priestly capacity much like Israelite priests in the line of Aaron. So there is insufficient evidence for the deduction that the angel is a figure of God’s Son in his capacity of high priest.
The angel filled the censer with “fire” (probably burning coals) from the altar and then cast this censer on the earth. Apparently the angel’s action constituted a response to the prayers of God’s people. Whereas Jesus Christ admonished his disciples to pray for their persecutors, he also taught them to pray for God’s kingdom to come, bringing relief from suffering and seeing to it that justice is executed. (Matthew 5:44; 6:10) In view of developments on earth that followed the hurling of the censer, the prayers evidently include appeals for God to render justice. (Compare Luke 18:7, 8; Genesis 18:20, 21.) The peals of thunder, voices, lightning flashes, and an earthquake seemingly signaled divine action in the form of retributive justice. (8:5)
The Blowing of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Trumpets
At this point, the seven angels prepared to sound their trumpets. (8:6)
After the blowing of the first trumpet, hail and fire, mixed with blood, rained down upon the earth, burning up a third of the earth, trees, and green grass. Although a third is a considerable portion, the disastrous consequences left most of the land untouched. Nothing in the context suggests that here (and thereafter) a third is to be understood as applying to a particular area of the earth or to a people having a specific identity. (8:7)
When the second angel trumpeted, John saw a large burning mountain crash into the sea, and it appeared to him that a third of the sea had been changed into blood. A third of the sea creatures died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. Possibly the imagery reflects what happens when a submarine volcano erupts, hurling a fiery mass into the sea, causing the water to look red, killing fish and other sea creatures, and wrecking any boats in the area. (8:8, 9)
Subsequent to the blowing of the third angel’s trumpet, a large star named “Wormwood,” burning like a torch, fell from heaven upon a third of the rivers and the springs and made them undrinkable. Many died from drinking the bitter waters. (8:10, 11)
A third of the sun, moon, and stars became dark after the sounding of the fourth trumpet. This could mean that their light was reduced by a third or that for a third part of the day and the night total darkness prevailed. (8:12)
Next John saw an eagle flying in midheaven and proclaiming with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those residing on earth because of the remaining trumpet soundings of the three angels who are about to trumpet.” (8:13) The position of the eagle and its loud voice indicates that this large bird could be seen and heard over a wide area. Perhaps its speedy flight suggested to John that the judgments would follow quickly.
The calamitous developments that affected the earth resembled the plagues that befell Egypt in the time of Moses. (Compare 8:7 with Exodus 9:23, 24; 8:8-11 with Exodus 7:20, 21; 8:12 with Exodus 10:21, 22.) Because of failing to recognize the true God as the One who must be obeyed, Pharaoh and the Egyptians experienced devastating plagues, which came upon Egypt after the “outcry” of the oppressed Israelites. Like the Israelites in Egypt, afflicted Christians, in their distress, cry out to God. The plagues that come upon the unbelieving world are his answer to their prayers and are the precursors of the destruction of all who defiantly set themselves in opposition to God’s will. When humans disregard God’s ways, they bring ruin to themselves and their environment. According to Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:18-27), divine wrath is manifest in letting lawless humans experience the full brunt of their depravity. It may be preferable to regard the imagery in Revelation 8 and 9 in this light. Attempts to be more specific regarding the developments John saw amount to nothing more than conjecture, and the language does not permit a strictly literal interpretation (an eagle, for example, cannot make a loud proclamation).
The Blowing of the Fifth and Sixth Trumpets
After the fifth angel trumpeted, John saw a star that had “fallen” or descended from heaven. This star had received the key to the shaft of the abyss. Regardless of whether the star is to be viewed as representing a good or an evil agent, the one represented functioned as an instrument for removing a restraint, unleashing a terrible plague on unbelievers. When he unlocked the opening, thick, dark smoke ascended from the shaft, blocking out the light of the sun and darkening the air. (Compare Joel 2:10.) John saw hideous creatures resembling locusts come flying out of the smoke. Unlike locusts, they would not consume greenery but would torment unbelievers, those not marked with God’s seal on their foreheads. (Compare 7:3.) With the scorpion stingers in their tails, they would engage in tormenting activity for five months, the usual life span for locusts. The torment would be of such severity that unbelievers would prefer to die, but death would elude them. (9:1-6, 10)
John described the locusts as resembling horses. On their heads were what appeared to be golden crowns. The faces looked like men’s faces, with long (women’s) hair and lions’ teeth. Breastplates as those of iron served to protect them. (9:7-9; compare Exodus 10:12-15; Joel 2:4-11.)
The hideous appearance of the locusts suggests that they represent malevolent powers, probably of a demonic nature. (See Mark 5:2-5 for an example of the vicious nature of the powers of darkness.) Their crowns (stéphanos, often denoting a victory wreath) may suggest that they would succeed in their tormenting mission. The dreadful teeth resembling those of lions and the long hair, like women’s hair, seemingly are indicative of the locusts’ ferocity. Their strong breastplates suggest that any defense against their onslaught would be useless. The sound of their wings in flight resembled the noise of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. The king over this ferocious host is the “angel of the abyss,” called Abaddon (Hebrew) and Apollyon (Greek). Both terms mean “destruction” and could apply either to Destruction personified or to Satan, the ruler of the demons who has the power to cause death. (Hebrews 2:14) It should be noted that the star with the key to the shaft of the abyss and the “angel of the abyss” are represented in different roles, and there is no contextual evidence for viewing them as being identical. (9:7-11)
Dreadful as this woe would prove to be, two more (evidently more terrifying) were to follow. An announcement to this effect preceded the sounding of the sixth trumpet. (9:12)
The altar before God would have been the golden altar for offering incense. (8:3, 4) Accordingly, the voice from the horns of this altar (which John heard after the sixth angel blew his trumpet) could represent the prayers of God’s persecuted people, petitioning that the four angels bound at the Euphrates River be untied. These angels had been readied for a specific time (hour, day, month, and year) to slay a third of the men (less than half but still a large number of people). (9:13-15)
At its greatest extent, the dominion of Israel reached the Euphrates (Deuteronomy 11:24; 1 Kings 4:21), and invading forces would have come from the other side of this river. It appears, therefore, that the releasing of the four angels could signify their being liberated to allow an invasion to begin.
John described hideous horses, suggesting (as in the case of the locusts) a link to the powers of darkness. There would be nothing inappropriate about holy angels no longer standing in the way of an unleashing of demonic power. The books of Job and Daniel indicate that demons are not at liberty to carry out all they may desire. (Job 1:12; 2:6; Daniel 10:13) So, when a measure of restraint is removed, terrifying calamities follow. Without divine protection, a demonic assault would have devastating consequences. (Compare Matthew 12:45.)
The restraint, however, could not be removed (represented by the angels that were bound) until God’s appointed time. It is inconceivable that the voice coming from the horns of the golden altar would have been an appeal for the release of four bound demons. Rather, this voice would appropriately represent a petition for the execution of divine justice — retributive justice to be inflicted upon unbelievers when the powers of darkness are allowed to have free reign among them. No longer would the four angels be under restraint to keep the forces of darkness at bay.
The terrifying forces of cavalry numbered two myriads of myriads (two hundred million or, possibly, denoting a huge number that defies counting). John did not describe the horsemen but focused on their breastplates, the colors of which suggested destruction (red like fire, hyacinth or dark blue like smoke, and yellow like sulfur). The horses had heads like lions, with fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths. These three elements plagued the unbelievers, depriving one-third of them (a considerable number but less than half) of life. The tails of the horses, resembling serpents, also had the capacity to injure. (9:16-19)
The unleashing of the terrifying plagues against unbelievers should have moved those who survived to repentance, abandoning their lawless ways and idolatrous practices. But they refused to do so. (9:20, 21)