I had taken a break from my series on Revelation in the age of COVID-19, but I am back at it. I plan to write a post about every other week on Revelation, alternating with posts on other issues in the area of Christian thought (Bible, theology, history). This week we focus on Revelation 8, which describes events heralded by the first four trumpets.
As with the first four seals of chapter six, Revelation presents the first four trumpets as a single unit (see my post on the four horses and riders). While the first four seals describe a storyline that recurs throughout history, the disasters of the first four trumpets look like the effects of a volcanic eruption. John’s readers most likely recalled the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which had occurred in 79 AD, just a few years before Revelation was written. This disaster immediately destroyed the nearby city of Pompeii, with thousands of people suddenly buried alive. The spewed lava of the volcano probably resembled a mixture of hail, fire, and blood (8:7), and giant red-hot rocks showered the nearby Mediterranean, killing sea creatures, destroying ships, and bloodying the water (8:8). Dust from the eruption likely poisoned nearby water supplies (8:10–11) and darkened the skies, day and night (8:12).
So the effects of the first four trumpets look like the results of a natural disaster. What is striking about this passage, however, is not what happens after the first four trumpets blow, but rather what causes the disaster. The eruption comes about when an angel throws fire from a censer (a tin container which holds burning incense) from heaven down to earth (8:5). According to 8:3, This angel had collected incense from the altar located in the heavenly throne room of Revelation 4–5 (see my earlier post on these chapters). Most crucial is the nature of this incense: the prayers of God’s people (Rev. 5:8)! God answers their prayers by bringing judgment to the earth.
And as bad as things are at verse 12, the eagle’s cry in verse 13 tells us that it will get worse. Yet there is a key difference between the first four trumpets and the last three: while the first four affect everyone, no matter their relationship to Christ, the final three will torment only to those who have not committed themselves to following Christ. This means that the main point of the judgment of the first four trumpets is to draw attention (what we expect of trumpets!) of the earth’s inhabitants back to God.
Today’s “natural disaster,” COVID-19, is comparable to the volcanic eruption of the first four trumpets. COVID-19 hurts us in different ways: many people die from it; many more deal with direct long-term health effects; still more suffer depression, economic disruption, education issues, and other problems. Like the events of the first four trumpets and the first four seals, COVID-19 does not know the difference between those who worship Christ, and those who reject him. It affects us all.
Yet within this disaster there is opportunity. As with the trumpet judgments, the inexorable COVID-19 can cause us to look to God in heaven, the only one who can control nature. As bad as COVID-19 has been, worse things are headed our way, so let’s strengthen our allegiance to Christ, the only one who can bring us through whatever perils the future holds.