As we said last time, it’s important to remember that these are not 21 separate events but this same series of 7 seen in escalating scale. As we come to the end of a cycle the sense of time becomes strange. Here we return to the image of the prayers of the saints, a tangible presence rising up in the heavenly throne room. When they’re thrown down on the Earth we see again the signs of theophany, earthquakes, clouds and lightning. The prayers of the Saints are not wasted, God responds by drawing nearer to the Creation. So we stand paused at the end of this first cycle, the seals. God is right at the edge of the Creation, silently waiting for the final moment to bring all things to resolution.
And jarringly John throws us back to the beginning. A new cycle, this time of trumpets, begins. This section offer us another perspective on the same events, a series of catastrophes which unravel the wider Roman world, ending again with God drawing near.
This time John is bringing together two different series of images. The first is the thematic imagery of the Exodus and the 10 plagues. Our first trumpet evokes the 7th plague, bringing fire and hail. Our second trumpet is the 1st plague, the falling mountain turning the seas to blood. The fourth trumpet evokes the 9th plague, leaving the whole world in darkness. And the consuming insects arise at the 5th trumpet. We’ll jump back to what exactly this Egyptian motif means in a second.
Layered on top of this Exodus imagery is a theme of sweeping natural disaster. All four of the classic regions of nature are coming apart, the land, the seas, the rivers and the skies. This is all of Creation starting to come apart at the seams, a response to God’s silence and withdrawal from the unrepentant world. There’s nowhere to go.
The 5th and 6th trumpet are some of the strangest images in Revelation. Where we just witnessed the natural elements turning against Rome and the Roman world now we see the personified corruption and evil of the human world destroying itself. Our Locusts are not some otherworldly evil but the very real tangible, consuming evil of Rome and its corruption turned back on itself. Their leader is called a “king,” they arise from the earth and their leader’s name is Destruction and Apollyon (a pun on the emperor’s self-made association with the god Apollo). The emperor is portrayed as a king of the damned and the demonic, heading a corrupt army ravaging his own kingdom and hastening its death.
The 6th trumpet evokes images of outside invasion. The fear of cavalrymen invading from across a great river taps the Roman fear of the Parthians, the one great military power they could never overtake, a constant threat to Rome’s rule. When we take all 6 of these together we see a systematic collapse of Rome (much how it historically happened) natural disasters coupled with internal corruption and outside invasion.
But why does God ultimately do this? These things sound horrific, tortures and calamities falling on the world. Well, we have a couple of points to dig through. First, every single one of these events uses the same verb the passive form of “give.” God allows these things to unfold. God is not causing the events but rather God is allowing what would naturally occur to continue without the protection and shelter God had previously sustained. Without God’s sustaining power the natural world collapses on humanity, one catastrophe after another. Without God’s will at work, the powers and principalities built by humanity to help themselves become evil forces which dominate and destroy them. God isn’t directly punishing the world but instead allowing it to fall under the consequences of its own brokenness and evil.
We also have a literary distinction. In the ancient world there was little focus on individuals. We are accustomed to a different kind of narrative that zeroes in on specific characters, their motivations and lives and goals. In ancient literature, as harsh as it sounds, sometimes people and groups of people function only as set pieces, showing something without necessarily bringing you the baggage of a fully detailed character. The focus here is not on those who die but the whole world of those who witness their deaths and still don’t repent. The character isn’t “Bill who gets killed in demon locust attack” but “The sinful and rebellious world,” These fractional population deaths (we’re up to 1/3 from ¼ in the Seven Seals), are blows against the world which can’t see past its own corrupt gains.
And finally, continuing the Exodus theme, these woes are not meant to simply punish the world but to bring it to repentance. This isn’t random, unavoidable damage. The last thought John leaves us with in chapter 9 is one of repentance.