Sounding the Alarm

Tony Sammut   -  

Well, if you thought last week’s readings were a little crazy, get ready for a second helping of nuts!  Some of the most difficult and confusing parts of revelation are in these next few chapters (8-11).

And just like last week, a few handles up front might help to make sense of each day’s reading…

  1. Last week we looked at the “seven seals”. This week, it’ll be the “seven trumpets” (and soon to follow will be the “seven bowls”).  While some people think each of these “sevens” describe a linear progression of events that is yet to take place, it’s probably more helpful to understand each “seven” as a poetic re-telling of the same story.  One specific pointer toward this conclusion is that if you read carefully, it’s apparent that the seven trumpets are actually what come out of the seventh seal (likewise, the seven bowls come out of the seventh trumpet blast).  But more broadly, this is how ancient biblical poetry often worked.  Much of our poetry rhymes with words and uses similar sounds to draw our attention and emphasise certain things over others.  Ancient poetry, however, rhymed not so much with sounds, but with ideas and images.  The images that came forth from the seals described what would take place from one angle.  The trumpets will offer us another angle to understand this story from, and will give us a broader context to understand our own stories within.
  2. In particular, the perspective that the trumpets tell their story from is that of the Exodus story. If you’re familiar with it, then you’ll know that God called Moses to stand up to the King (Pharaoh) of Egypt so that the people of Israel would be freed from slavery.  Pharaoh was unwilling to listen however, so God sent ten plagues in order to change Pharaoh’s mind.  First the waters were turned to blood.  Then Frogs.    Flies. Deadly disease on the livestock. Festering skin boils on the people.  Hailstorms.  Locusts.  Darkness for 3 days.  And then finally, the angel of death, sent to kill the firstborn of every family, human and animal.  These plagues aren’t copied in perfect succession in Revelation, but their echoes are clear, so look out for them.
  3. The effect that this is all meant to have on us – the listeners of this Revelation – is the same effect that all prophecy is designed for. Not merely to “tell the future”, but to “call out to a people”.  It’s meant to warn us, just like Moses warned Pharaoh: “If you continue in your hard-heartedness, bad things will happen.”  But it’s also meant to give us hope.  Because, even if things do get as bad as these chapters describe, God promises that His people are sealed and guarded by Him.  This has ALWAYS been the case.  Whenever evil has seemed to run rampant in the world, it has never been allowed to last forever, or have the last word.  And God’s people, even in their worst sufferings, have remained.  That story has always been true.  And it will continue to be true even into the future, no matter how bad things get.


Day 1: The First Four Trumpets

Read Revelation 8:6-12

Whiles the “seals” (chpts. 6-7) were signs of revelation, the trumpets are signs of proclamation.  A message is being announced loud and clear.  And it’s not just a message, it’s a warning.  The trumpets are blasting an alarm!  We’d do well to listen.

With the first four trumpet blasts, earth, sea, sky, sun and moon are all brought low.  Each trumpet blast includes some echo from the plagues of Egypt, but these apply much more widely.  It’s a warning not just for Egypt, but for the world.  In Egypt, each of the plagues were targeted toward some god the Egyptians worshipped, who they sought for safety and provision.  But the plagues brought these gods to their knees.   There is only one God who is above and over all these things and who watches over the world.  And in his grace, he still holds back complete destruction.  With each trumpet blast, only 1/3 of the target is brought to ruin.  God’s compassion fills even His judgement thoroughly.

Perhaps all of these images and warnings of judgment may seem extreme for you.  But the truth is, many of us find it difficult to consider how extreme the consequences of sin and evil are in our world.  In our western context, we have an incredible privilege to be spared from so much war, oppression, famine, disease, and corruption.  We can assume the world is basically a good place, forgetting the incredible hardship that so many in the world live under.  But God is not content to leave the world in its current state.  How might you need to get a clearer picture of sin and evil in the world?  Or in your own life?  What warning may God be trumpeting to get your attention with?

Day 2: Trumpet 5

Read Revelation 9:1-11

A little more time is spent on the details of the fifth trumpet blast.  And it’s not pretty.  Once again, it seems to carry echoes from Exodus, as a locust plague is described.  But this one, way more intense than even the worst locust plague of history.   It’s like a nightmare.  An unleashing of evil and destruction – seemingly from the pit of death itself (9:2-3).  And they are led by the angel of Destruction himself (remember the last plague of Egypt).  It’s like evil is being fully revealed for what it is – a monster.  Yet even in this unveiling of these monstrous creatures, they once again are given limits.  There are certain things they’re not allowed to touch.  And they are only given a certain amount of time to do their worst.

Have you spent much time considering all the ways that you have been spared from evil?  Did you know that that’s something that Jesus even taught us to pray: “deliver us from evil”?  God cares deeply about that, and as much as it is true that evil has a way of wreaking havoc on whatever is in its path, God remains relentless in dampening its full force, and in guarding us from evils that we may not even have known were near.

Spend some time considering the ways that God has delivered you from evil.  Thank him and worship him for what he’s done.

Also consider some of the ways that others are experiencing the impact of evil being unleashed on their lives (ex. victims of human trafficking; those experiencing racial injustice; victims of war and poverty).  Pray for them, asking God to bind the evil at work and deliver them from it.

Day 3: Trumpet 6

Read Revelation 9:12-21

The downward spiral of destruction continues.  But now, with the 6th trumpet blast, it is not merely destruction that is unleashed, it’s death.   There is an unmistakable reality at work – both in the life of an individual and in the societal systems we create – that evil begets evil.  Unless evil is actively turned away from (repentance), then it has a way of roping us in and leading us down an increasingly destructive path.  That’s what’s being described here.  With each successive trumpet blast, a new and deeper level of destruction is experienced.  And just like Pharaoh, “the rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent” (9:20).

N.T. Wright, in his commentary, sums up the situation like this: “Granted the deep-rooted and destructive wickedness which emerges from the depth not only of the individual human heart but even more so from the systems of domination and oppression that humans together create, what is God to    do? As we have seen before, if he were simply to wipe out his creation, the whole thing would be a massive failure. But if he allows people space to repent, to come to their senses, to worship him as the source of life rather than demons and idols which are the source of death (verses 20, 21), then that patient mercy always risks the possibility that people will use the breathing space to make matters worse. The result is that the human systems and individuals that continue to rebel will simply make themselves all the more ripe for eventual judgment, which will at least in part consist of evil bringing about its own downfall…” (Revelation for Everyone)

Wright says elsewhere in the same book, “Repentance is more than just expressing regret for a few peccadilloes. It is a radical, heartfelt, gut-wrenching turning away from the idols which promise delight but provide death. God longs for that kind of repentance. He will do anything, it seems, to coax it out of his rebellious but still image-bearing creatures.”

In what ways do you need to listen to this call to repentance?

Who else can you pray for to pay attention?

Day 4: Eat the Scroll

Read Revelation 10

The sixth trumpet has been sounded, but just like it was with the seventh scroll, we have to wait before the seventh trumpet blast as well.  There’s still lots to see though!  A mighty angel appears.  Well, John says it’s an angel but he seems to describe someone with a lot of similar aspects that have been used to describe Jesus (ex. face like the sun, legs like fiery pillars, roaring like a lion, and holding the scroll).  Who knows for sure, but whether it’s Christ Himself or one of His mighty angels, he is someone who carries authority.

And now, as opposed to the message given before – “wait a little longer” (6:9-11) – it’s declared, “There will be no more delay!…  The mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (10:6-7).  The Apostle Paul also spoke about “the mystery of God”, saying “…He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Paul wrote about the mystery being revealed.  But now, John is told, it will be accomplished.  All things will be made right, brought together in complete unity under Christ.  It’s time.

John is told that this is what he needs to announce.  Presumably, it’s the message that’s in the scroll.  But first, John needs to eat it!  If he is going to preach this message, it needs to become a part of him.  For any witness to be authoritative, it needs first to be authentic.

The prophet Ezekiel was given a similar task many years before this.  And just like John, Ezekiel was told it would taste as sweet as honey.  What a beautiful way to describe God’s words – “they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10).

Yet, John is also told they will turn his stomach sour.  Ezekiel also had a similar experience, when he spoke the words he was given.  It came in the form of rejection and refusal from his hearers.  “They are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart” (Ezek. 2:7).  The same pattern seems to be going on here, as we’ve seen a stubborn refusal from humanity to repent after the first six trumpets.  When God’s good Word – the promise that all things will be restored and brought together under Christ – is rejected, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Consider the ways you are “digesting” God’s Word.  Are you nibbling or feasting?  Are you finding it to be as sweet as honey or bitter to swallow?  Is it coming out of you because it’s in you?  And when it does, are your words restoring and bringing together, or tearing down and pushing apart?


Day 5: Two Witnesses

Read Revelation 11

It’s no secret that the book of Revelation has some pretty puzzling pieces throughout, but chapter 11 is one of the heavy weights.  John is given a measuring rod and told to measure the temple.  This is another shout out to Ezekiel (chpt. 40) and Zechariah (chpt. 2), who were given similar tasks.  But by John’s time, the church now understood the temple to be not merely a building, but the whole community of Christ-followers, who housed the presence of the Holy Spirit among them.   It is these whom God will have marked and whom he will be sure to protect, even though there will be violent opposition against them.

Next there seems to be this very strange aside about two witnesses.  Who are they, and what’s it all about?  Well, there seems to be different opinions.  Some say they point to Moses and Elijah, the two who sum up all the Law and the Prophets and who ultimately witnessed to Christ.  Some say they point to Joshua and Zerubbabel, the two anointed as high priest and governor to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem after the exile (perhaps that’s a less familiar story to you, but there are some unmistakable allusions to them in Rev. 11 – check out Zechariah 3-4).  Rather than debating about who’s who, it may well be that John is bringing to mind all of these giants of the faith, ones who represented the powerful anointing of God – the Law, the Prophets, the Priests and the Kings – who were called to be witnesses to His good reign.  And this continues to be the role of the Church, who are called to be Christ’s witnesses in a world that may likely respond in direct opposition.

The witnesses, though they minister with power, are mistreated, killed, and left with their bodies exposed for three and half days.  But God miraculously resurrects them, and calls them up into his presence.  What’s the result?  The nations gave glory to the God of heaven (11:13).

Don’t miss this.  What may be one of the trickiest chapters to follow, may be one of the most important for us to see.  This is what all the previous seals and trumpets were designed to do, but could not do – to bring the world to repentance and into God’s Kingdom.  But when God’s people remain faithful to Jesus, and follow His way to sacrificially love and serve – and even lay down their lives – for the sake of others, His Kingdom is most powerfully displayed.  It’s his mercy that leads people to repentance.  And it is in the sacrificial love of Jesus and His people, that God’s enemies are ultimately conquered.

Is there anyone in your life who you need to change “tactics” with?  Are there ways in which you have been trying to prevail through powering up, manipulating, or battling wills?  What could it look like for you to follow in the way of Jesus, and lay down your life to sacrificially serve?  How might Jesus want to powerfully show Himself through that?