Upending Hopes in False Gods
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 8:6–8:13
Not too long ago, a line of thunderstorms blew through Fort Worth. As storms approached from the west, we encountered several warnings that escalated. First was a notice days before of bad weather. That eventually escalated to a severe thunderstorm watch. That turned into a severe thunderstorm warning. The clouds then turned dark. The skies turned green. Thunder pounded in the distance. Then, we heard the sirens. Depending on where you lived, tornado sirens warned us to find shelter as the storms arrived.
As we make our way through Revelation, we encounter similar warnings that escalate. The storm of God’s wrath is approaching. But as that storm approaches, God sends numerous warnings. Some of them we’ve observed in the seven seals. Smaller judgments like international conflict, war, famine, death—in these judgments, God warns about the consequences of sin and coming judgment. The seven trumpets of chapters 8-9 sound a similar warning but with heightened severity. All of this in hopes that those with ears to hear will heed the Lord’s warnings and find refuge from his wrath in Jesus Christ. Let’s read verses 6-13 and then discuss these first four trumpets.
6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. 7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. 9 A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. 10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. 12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night. 13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”
How should we approach these seven trumpets?
How should we approach these seven trumpets? That’s the first of four questions I want to answer this morning. For starters, we need to approach them with humility. I’ve found the imagery in chapters 8-9 far more challenging than the first seven chapters. I’m not alone in that. Christians throughout history interpret these trumpets differently. But amidst the differing views, the primary message stays clear for those who, in humility, want to keep what is written in this book.
Another point about approaching these trumpets. Recall what we learned a few weeks ago about trumpets in the Old Testament. Trumpets sometimes called people to worship.[i] Sometimes they called people to war.[ii] But a few times, trumpets called people to wail in the face of God’s judgment. Joel 2:1, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.” That’s how these trumpets work. These trumpets bring woes—verse 13. They serve as warnings before the full storm of God’s wrath arrives.
Think back also to the story of Jericho in Joshua 6. God judged the city of Jericho for their rebellion. But part of that plan included seven priests with seven trumpets, marching around the city seven days. On the seventh day with the seventh trumpet blast God devoted the city to destruction. What do you think it conveys when seven priest-like angels are handed seven trumpets? The rebellious city of man will soon crumble before the kingdom of God. When you approach these trumpets, you need to be asking, “Am I like Rahab* placing my trust in the Lord’s mercy and goodness in Christ. Or will I reject God’s ways and crumble with the rebellious city of man?” The seventh trumpet will eventually sound.
But there’s another layer to consider. In hearing the passage, your ears may have perked when you heard images like hail and fire, waters turning to blood, lights going dark. These trumpets resemble the plagues on Egypt. They’re worse. They’re more widespread. Still, connecting them to the Exodus gives us a broader context.
Why did the plagues fall on Pharaoh and the Egyptians? Partly, God sent the plagues on Egypt in response to his people’s cries. The same happens in Revelation. The martyrs cry under the altar in 6:10, “How long, O Lord…” Those cries then ascend before God in 8:4. And now come the plagues of the seven trumpets. These trumpet judgments are part of God’s response to his people’s cry for deliverance.
Also, Exodus 12:12 views the plagues on Egypt as God executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt. It wasn’t simply judgment on the people; it was also a judgment on their idols, their false gods. The plagues proved that there was none like Yahweh in all the earth (Exod 9:14). He turned creation against Egypt to demonstrate his power, so that everyone might know that the earth is the Lord’s. Same with the trumpets in Revelation: God is upending hopes in false gods and proving that he alone is the true God.
The trumpets come, then, for the sake of his people. They come to upend the false gods of the nations. And they come to prove that God alone is glorious in power, perhaps leading others to repentance before the final trumpet blows.
What do these first four trumpets represent?
Those observations should sit in the back of your mind when approaching these trumpets. Let’s now look at the first four. What do these first four trumpets represent? Trumpet 1: “The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth.” From the Old Testament, all of these are signs associated with God judging his enemies. In Genesis 19:24, God rains sulfur and fire on the rebellious cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Exodus 9:23-24, the Lord sends hail and fire on the Egyptians as the seventh plague. It destroys everything in the field—man, beast, plants, trees. Also, Ezekiel 38:22 prophecies that God will destroy a future enemy called Gog with hailstones, fire, and sulfur.
These judgments foreshadow what God’s future judgment will be like. Only, when we get to John’s vision in Revelation 8:7, the judgment is worse. Hail and fire now mingle themselves with blood. Blood is a sign of war, bloodshed.[iii] Also notice how they effect not just a city like Sodom, not just a nation like Egypt. “A third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” These judgments are like the old ones, but they are more severe and widespread.
What’s with the earth, trees, and grass? In Revelation, the earth is God’s good gift to man. It is the dwelling place he provides his creatures. The trees provide fruit like olives and oranges. Trees provide lumber for ships and chariots and other precious furniture. The grass included food for cattle and sheep, which is also where the people got milk and meat and leather and wool.
The problem, though, is that man in his sinful state exchanges the Creator for the creation. Man, in his sinful state, uses the earth not to bring God glory but to build a kingdom for self. Man, in his sinful state, ignores God and sets his hope in the creation and what the creation can give him and do for him apart from God. Indeed, sometimes in Revelation, sinful mankind is called “those who destroy the earth.” Instead of stewarding creation for the worship of God, it becomes a life-sucking factory for the idols of man.
For that reason, God turns the created order against sinful man. Read Revelation 18 when you get home. All the merchants of the earth weep and mourn at the downfall of their kingdom. All their hopes were bound up with the linens and scented wood and cinnamon and spice and wine and cattle and chariots. With their wealth, they thought they were invincible, until God upends their hopes by causing it all to crumble. The trumpets are a precursor to that final judgment of chapter 18. That’s what’s going on with the earth, the trees, the grass. God is upending people’s hopes in false gods.
Trumpet 2 in verse 8: “The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood.” That last part reminds us of the first plague on Egypt. God turned the Nile into blood. Egypt depended on the Nile for its resources and healthy crops.[iv] The Pharaohs would make their way to the Nile every morning as a way to convince the Egyptians of their sovereignty over the river. Ezekiel 29:3 pictures Pharaoh saying with pride, “My Nile is my own, I made it for myself.” By turning it to blood, though, God displays that Pharaoh is a pretender. Pharaoh and his gods are false.
Same here in Revelation. God is again upending people’s hopes in the false gods that they make of the created order. He’s turning creation itself against those who abuse it for idolatrous ends. This time it effects a third of the living creatures in the sea, “and a third of the ships were destroyed.” Ships were essential for trade, for money-making. Again, read Revelation 18. Among those who mourn at Babylon’s downfall are the “shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and those whose trade is on the sea.” They weep. They cry, “Alas, alas, for the great city where all who had ships at sea grew rich by [Babylon’s] wealth!” This smaller judgment in 8:8 is a precursor to that greater, final judgment of Babylon, which, in Revelation is a codeword for the rebellious city of man.
I think that’s why John sees a “great mountain, burning with fire.” Some associate that mountain with a volcano or a meteorite. Others suggest it represents an angel. I’m more persuaded by a connection with Jeremiah 51:25. It’s a prophecy against Babylon. God says, “I’m against you, O destroying mountain…which destroys the whole earth; I will stretch out my hand against you, and roll you down from the crags, and make you a burnt mountain.” If that’s a legit connection, then God is here warning the rebellious city of man by upending one of its main sources of income. It’s God’s way of saying, “All you who love this wealth and set it above me and my purpose, I will see to it that your kingdom crumbles. It will not last.”
Trumpet 3 in verse 10: “The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.”
Some Christians see this falling star as a comet. A little better is that it’s an angel. In Revelation, John identifies angels with stars—we saw that in 1:20; we’ll see it again in 9:1. A few others connect it to Isaiah 14:12-15. In that prophecy, the King of Babylon is likened to a star that God then humiliates to the ground for his pride.
In any case, the name of the star is Wormwood. Wormwood is an extremely bitter herb. The Old Testament used wormwood as a metaphor. Proverbs 5:4, “…the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood. Her feet go down to death.” God’s path leads to life. To follow a forbidden woman is like drinking the bitter cup of death. Similar imagery occurs in Jeremiah 9:13-15. God forces Israel to drink bitter water as a punishment for idolatry.
Revelation picks up the same imagery but applies it on a world-wide scale. We’re seeing a vision of God causing idolators worldwide to drink the bitter cup of death. By the way, this stands in contrast to God’s people, the ones who are sealed. Remember 7:17? God’s people get to drink from springs of living water. Not idolaters, though. Unless they repent, their end is the bitter cup of death. The third trumpet warns people that choosing your own way over God’s leads to the bitter cup of death.
Trumpet 4. Verse 12, “The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.” Darkness reminds us of the ninth plague against Egypt. When you think darkness, don’t think turning the lights off and you can still see a little bit. No, Exodus 10:21 describes the darkness as “a darkness to be felt.” It was a “pitch darkness.” You could not see anybody’s face. You could not enjoy a smile. It was a darkness that isolated you and trapped you and disabled you.
Same in Revelation, only it’s not localized to Egypt; it affects everyone under the sun, moon, and stars. In darkness, crops won’t thrive. People can’t work to produce. In the Old Testament, it’s also true that certain people worshiped the sun, the moon, and the stars.[v] Whether you worked by the light or worshiped the light, God’s judgment will fall in a manner that touches everyone. God will leave idolators isolated and undone in darkness. That’s what idolatry earns you—a world of darkness.
That’s the first four trumpets. In sum, people have abused the created order to serve their idols; and through these judgments God is warning them. He is warning us. With each trumpet blast, he shakes another wall in the city of man. He upends hopes in false gods and leaves idolators defeated in darkness and death.
When do the trumpet judgments come?
A third question to consider is when do these judgments come? My short answer is, At some point in God’s plan. Here’s my longer answer. Some will limit these events to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I struggle with that, because there’s good reason to believe Revelation was written after Jerusalem’s fall, around AD 90. Also, “a third of the earth,” “a third of the sea,” and so forth, seems like world-wide events.
Others prefer to limit these judgments to a seven-year tribulation at the very end of history. I’m not convinced of that for reasons I laid out before when we covered the seal judgments. My own take (at least for now!) is built on several observations. One is that I understand the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl to signify the same event—the final return of Christ. In other words, each series of seven takes us to the very end and then wraps back a bit to unveil more.
Another observation: the events in trumpets 1-4 effect only a one-third of the earth versus the whole creation like we saw in the sixth seal. At the same time, these judgments seem worse than the ones we observe in seals 1-5. Instead of one-fourth in the seals, the trumpets effect one-third—the warnings escalate the closer you get to Christ’s return. So, here’s how I’d sketch it (see screen). The seven seals gave us a snapshot of history between Christ’s resurrection and return. Trumpets 1-6 seem to overlap with the seal judgments but escalate the warnings as Christ’s return draws nearer.
That’s my attempt to put the narrative together. You may understand the historical outworking differently. In the end, I don’t think the timing matters when it comes to our obedience. Here’s what I mean: if God responds to idolators this way—if it is his aim to upend all false gods—we must turn from all forms of idolatry ourselves. Whether these judgments are past, present, or future, the point is clear: God doesn’t tolerate people abusing his created order for idolatrous ends.
What do these four trumpets mean for us?
That leads to the final question I want to answer: what do these four trumpets mean for us? It first means repent from all forms of idolatry. John eventually gets there in 9:20-21. He says, “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
That’s not the state in which you want to find yourself. They’re so enslaved to their idols that they can’t repent anymore. Don’t wait till then. Walk out repentance now.
What should baffle us in these trumpets is not the severity of God’s judgments. What should baffle us is that, for a time, God limits his judgments at all. He doesn’t pour out his wrath all at once. In the seals, he warns and then delays. In the trumpets, he escalates the warning and then delays. Why? Because he is slow to anger. Because God is patient with sinners. But let us not presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4).
How are you stewarding the things the Lord has given you? Have the things God has given you only become a means of supporting idolatrous ends? That is, are you using the created order to serve the Lord and the things that please him? Or, are you trading the Giver for the gifts themselves? How do the things you invest yourself in deeply—how do they serve Jesus? How do they serve his people?
A few weeks ago, Ben had some good questions when he taught on Jesus’ words about laying up treasures in heaven: How do you spend your stuff? How do you use your home? What do you spend your time dreaming about? Where are you directing your vision? Today’s message is like that one; it just clarifies what happens to those who don’t heed Jesus’ teaching on wealth. If your hopes are bound up in what money can buy—security in the here and now—darkness and death await you.
Learn from God’s dealings with Sodom and Gomorrah. Learn from God’s dealings with Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Learn from God’s judgment on Assyria and Babylon and Rome. Rich, powerful, seemingly invincible. But God brought them down. Gordon Wenham writes, “Societies that flout standards of decent human behavior and spurn God’s messengers…cannot hope to escape divine judgment…”[vi] The same is true today. God has not changed. The judgments on those nations were but warnings.
Listen to the trumpets. They’re like sirens before the storm. The rebellious city of man will crumble before God’s kingdom. Every people that exploits God’s gifts for their own idolatrous ends, every empire that believes their wealth and power make them invincible—God will upend them. God will prove that he alone is Almighty. Only one kingdom will stand in the end—that of Jesus Christ. Therefore, repent. Put away the idols of fame and fortune. Put away the idols of comfort and money. Put away the idols of self and sex. Put away the idols of politics and power.
Then, seek refuge in Jesus who saves from wrath and for a new creation. I love how 1 Corinthians 6:11 says that at one time some of you were idolaters. “But,” Paul goes on, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” God sent his Son Jesus into the world to die for our idolatry, to forgive our idolatry, and to cleanse us from every idolatrous motive, thought, or act that makes us unclean before God.
But even more, Jesus rose from the dead to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church. And listen to what Ezekiel 36 promises for God’s people. Trey read this over us last weekend: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” Every person united to Jesus gets the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit turns false worshipers into true ones. As Revelation has told us, the Lamb ransomed a people for God from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation, and he made them to be a kingdom and priests to his God.
For all who take refuge in Jesus, you will be among those who are sealed for the new heavens and new earth. Your end will not be a city that crumbles; you will inherit Jesus’ unshakable kingdom. The bitter cup of death will not be your end; rather, you will enjoy springs of living water before God’s throne. Darkness will not be your end; you will gain the light of the New Jerusalem. So, flee to Jesus Christ for refuge today. Don’t wait for the seventh trumpet to blow. Today is the day of salvation.
Finally, rest assured that oppressive worldly powers will not prevail over God’s people. God wrote this prophecy for a persecuted church. Powerful rulers and empires continue to persecute Christians. But as I said before, these trumpets come in response to the cries of God’s people. Note that: your politics won’t end the oppressive nations; your prayers will. These trumpets show that God hears the cries of his people; and in due time he will upend all the oppressive nations and their false gods. The Lord will turn creation itself against those who oppress his people. He will topple their power and avenge the blood of his people.
Therefore, when you see the wicked prospering, when you see those in office flouting standards of decent human behavior, when you see those in power spurning God’s messengers, don’t think that God doesn’t see. Unlike the false gods of the nations, the Lord does see. Unlike the false gods of the nations, the Lord does hear; and in these trumpets he promises to answer. The world will mock us from their mighty fortresses. But when the seventh trumpet blows, the city of man will crumble; and the Lamb’s kingdom alone will stand. Until then, let’s find Rahab and others like her. Let’s warn others about the coming storm and show them where to find shelter in Christ.
[i] E.g., Lev 23:24; 25:9; Num 10:10.
[ii] E.g., Num 10:9; 31:6; Josh 6:5.
[iii] Cf. Joel 2:30-31; Rev 6:3-4; 16:6.
[iv] E.g., Gen 41:1-37; Isa 19:6-8.
[v] E.g., Deut 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kgs 23:5; Jer 8:2.
[vi] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, WBC (Dallas: Word, 2000), 60.