The Time When the Trumpets Begin (Trumpets 3)

The throwing down of the censer (or fire) in Rev. 8:5 suggests to some Adventist interpreters that the events that follow (8:6—the blowing of the seven trumpets) are after the close of probation. This would mean that the seven trumpets represent end-time events rather than a forecast of events throughout the course of Christian history. But a number of indications in the text make this very unlikely.

First, the pattern in the first half of the book of Revelation (the churches, the seals and the trumpets) is that the visions begin with the New Testament era and cover events throughout Christian history. Second, whatever the casting down of the censer (fire) in Rev. 8:5 means, probation is clearly not yet closed at the time of the sixth trumpet. The intercession at the altar is still taking place (Rev. 9:13) and the gospel is still going forth (10:11; 11:3-6, 12-13). That the “interlude” of Revelation 10:1 – 11:13 should be included in our understanding of the sixth trumpet is shown in a following blog. Chapter ten and eleven are part of the sixth trumpet, not an independent vision. Finally, the proclamation of the gospel ends and probation fully closes only at the sounding of the seventh trumpet (Rev 10:7). So the seven trumpets of Revelation cover the whole course of history from John’s day to the close of probation and final events.

Major parts of Revelation DO concern end-time events in human history. But when John goes there, he makes it fairly clear that he is doing so. While each of the seven-fold series (churches, seals and trumpets) ends in the final era, the central focus of the second half of the book is almost entirely focused on the last events of earth’s history.

The Meaning of “Trumpets” in the Bible (Trumpets 2)

The seven trumpets section of Revelation (particularly 8:2 – 9:21) is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret. Faithful Adventist students of the Bible have not come to agreement on its meaning through the years, even though Ellen White makes passing reference to the passage in the book Great Controversy. There are enough biblical and historical issues with Josiah Litch’s explanations (referenced in GC) that consensus on the passage’s meaning has been elusive. But there are aspects of the passage that are reasonably clear and one of these is how it builds on the symbolic meanings that trumpets have exhibited throughout the Bible.

The Greek words for trumpets (nouns) and trumpeting (verbs) occur 144 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT. The vast majority of those references (105 out of 144) concern either signaling in warfare, worship and prayer, or a combination of both. The clearest single passage on the meaning of trumpets is Num. 10:8-10. According to this text, in ancient Israel the trumpets were always to be handled by the priests (10:8), even when being used in the context of warfare. So there is a spiritual meaning that Israel was to discern in the blowing of trumpets.

The defense of the nation of Israel was considered a sacred task in the OT. So when Israel went out into battle, the trumpet priests went with them. The sounding of the trumpets not only indicated the moves that the battle line was to make, it represented a prayer for God’s intervention in that battle (10:9). Likewise, in the temple and on the feast days, the blowing of trumpets invited God’s spiritual intervention in the lives of His people (10:10). So the core meaning of trumpets in the OT is covenant prayer, calling on God to remember His people, both individually and collectively.

Most of the occurrences of trumpets and trumpeting in the NT are in Revelation, chapters 8 and 9. At first glance it might seem that signaling in warfare is the primary meaning in the seven trumpets of Revelation. But the connection between the trumpets and the fifth seal (see previous blog) underlines the prayer theme as the primary one here too. The trumpets are a response to the prayers of the suffering saints of God (Rev. 6:9-10; 8:2-6, 13). It assures them that God has noticed their suffering and, even though He may seem silent in their experience, He is already acting in history against those who have persecuted them. So the trumpets are more than just an outline of history, they contain a deep theological message for those who are suffering. God’s silence in the experience of His saints is not the whole picture. He is often responding in ways that we may not detect until later.

The Purpose and Key Themes of the Seven Trumpets (Trumpets 1)

The seven trumpets (Rev. 8:2 – 11:18) build on a view of the incense altar (8:3-4) and contain an “interlude” (10:1 – 11:13) which offers a view of God’s people in the midst of the horrific sixth trumpet (9:12-21).

The purpose of the trumpets is clarified in connection with the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11). In the daily (tamid) service of the temple in John’s time, incense was collected at the Altar of Burnt Offering and then offered at the Altar of Incense in the Holy Place of the earthly sanctuary. At the close of that service in the temple of Jesus’ day, seven priests blew seven trumpets to indicate that the sacrifice was complete. In the opening of the trumpets (Rev. 8:3-4) there is reference to the two different altars in the context of the daily service of the temple. The first altar mentioned is a reference to the Burnt Offering Alter of the fifth seal. The second altar mentioned is the Alter of Incense. Reference to both altars and to the prayers of the saints in Rev. 8:3-4 connects the trumpets as a whole with the scene in Rev. 6:9-10. The seven trumpets answer the prayers of the saints for judgment on those who have persecuted them (compare also 6:10 with 8:13). The trumpets, therefore, fall on the opponents of God’s people in the course of Christian history.

Our brief survey of the trumpets will introduce the following themes:

1. The Meaning of Trumpets in the Bible.
2. The Time When the Trumpets Begin.
3. The Meaning of the Imagery in the First Six Trumpets.
4. The Relation of the “Interlude” to the Seven Trumpets.
5. The Allusion to Dan. 12 in Rev. 10.

I’ll be exploring the five themes above in future posts.

Concluding Thoughts on the Seven Seals and the 144,000 (Interlude 7)

Q. Reflecting on Rev. 7:1-3, do you think we are living in a time when God is restraining evil forces or a time when they are being let loose? If God is the one restraining, who is the one doing all the damage? When God does act in judgment, why does He do so? Some possible answers:
A. In many ways today’s turbulent times feel as if everything is falling apart. On the other hand, compared to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, the casualties of terrorism are fairly minor in scope and most neighborhoods are reasonably safe. So one could argue we still live in a time of restraint. The finger of blame for the evils in the world falls clearly on Satan in the book of Revelation (Rev. 9:11; 12:12). He is the destroyer, not God. When God acts in judgment, the purpose is not to hurt and destroy. God judges either to discipline His people (as in Rev. 3:20) or to protect them from harm by evil forces (Rev. 7:1-3; 20:7-10). Satan is relentless in his pursuit of destruction. If it were not for the restraining influence of His Spirit, things would be far worse than they are now.

Q. Why is there so much military imagery in the Bible?
A. Military imagery is familiar to people today as well, as the news, action movies and spy thrillers keep war activity in the center of people’s consciousness. God meets people where they are, using familiar language to illustrate spiritual truths. In Revelation, careful observation tells us that the most important battles are often a “war of words.” The war in heaven is between Christ and the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10-11). The battle of Armageddon is won by those practicing spiritual watchfulness (Rev. 16:14-16).

Q. What is the meaning of the “new song” in Rev. 14:3? Why can no one sing that song except the 144,000?
A. The 144,000 have a unique experience, passing through the character-shaping events of the end-time (Rev. 7:1-3; 14:1-5). The tribulations of the end-time will develop in them a unique appreciation for Christ that would not have happened otherwise. God does not will the troubles of the end-time, but He uses them to enhance the Christ-likeness of His followers. The end-time believers will then be able to play a unique role in eternity (Rev. 7:14-15—see theme 4 in the Commentary above).

The Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5) (Interlude 6)

Comments like this in Scripture should not be read in isolation and especially not according to Western Greek philosophical notions of perfection and “without fault.” Romans 3:19-23, in my view, is very important context for Revelation 14:5. It contains probably the clearest explanation of justification by faith in the whole Bible. It has been called the Most Holy Place of the gospel.

The Romans 3 passage is the climax of the first three chapters of the book. Summary these chapters, Romans 3:20 makes it clear that nothing a human being can do earns justification before God. Whatever perfection means, it has to come from a power that is outside of us. All have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Our inadequacy for salvation is not just a reality of the past, it is a problem in the present and in the future of this life. The present tense of “fall short” (Greek: husterountai) means that all our best efforts, now and continually, still fall short of God’s absolute standards. God’s justification is continuously and freely given to the very ones who “have sinned” and “continually fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23-24).

In light of Romans 3, “without fault” does not mean absolute perfection, it rather expresses absolute loyalty, the kind where one would rather die than choose to sin. It is not about totaling up our good and bad deeds on a scale. It is about the general trend of our lives. The 144,000 fully and completely trust Jesus to keep their robes clean (7:14) and they are uncompromising in their loyalty to the one who redeemed them (14:4-5).

Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? (Interlude 5)

A surface reading of Revelation chapter seven suggests that the two groups are totally different. The 144,000 is a specific number of Jews made up of a specific number from each of the twelve tribes (7:4-8). The Great Multitude, on the other hand, is an innumerable collection of Gentiles from every nation, tribe, people and language (7:9). The 144,000 is also called “first fruits” in 14:4, implying that there is a second group like them in some way. But closer reading of these texts militates against those initial impressions.

First of all, the terms used for God’s end-time people are often interchangeable in Revelation. God’s people are not only called 144,000 and great multitude, they are also called remnant (12:17), saints (14:12), those who keep their garments (16:15) and the called, chosen and faithful followers of the Lamb (17:14). And several of these names are explicitly interchangeable. Two examples. 1) God’s people are called “remnant” in 12:17, then 144,000 in 14:1. But 14:1 alludes to Joel 2:32, where the same group is called “remnant.” The two groups have different names in Revelation but are the same end-time group. 2) The 144,000 of chapter 14 are then called “saints” in 14:12. So remnant, 144,000 and the saints are different ways of describing the same end-time group.

Second, John never sees the 144,000, he hears the number (7:4). But after hearing the description of the 144,000 (7:4-8) he looks and sees an extremely large group that no one can number (7:9). This hearing/seeing comparison is a literary pattern throughout the book of Revelation. John hears one thing (Lion) then sees its opposite (Lamb), but the two are different ways of describing one reality (Rev. 5:5-6). He hears a voice like a trumpet, but when he looks he sees the son of man speaking to him (Rev. 1:10-12). John hears that a prostitute is sitting on many waters, but when he looks he sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast (17:1, 3). In each case, the two images are in strong contrast, even at opposite poles (like lion and lamb), yet they are different images that described the same thing.

Third, in Revelation 14 there are two harvests, the wheat and the grapes. So when the texts speaks about the 144,000 as first fruits (Rev., 14:4), the “second fruits” are explicitly mentioned later on in the chapter. The wheat grains, representing the righteous, are the first fruits of that harvest. The grapes, on the other hand, are the second fruits or the completion of the harvest image. The 144,000 in Revelation 14, then, are not a separate group or a portion of the whole, they themselves represent the entirety of God’s end-time people.

Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? (Interlude 4)

Is the 144,000 in Revelation 7 a literal number of saved individuals at the end of time, perhaps a subgroup of the great multitude in 7:9? To take the number literally requires several assumptions. It assumes that the twelve tribes of Israel still exist in a meaningful way. It assumes that most things in Revelation should be taken as literal unless proven otherwise. It often assumes that this is a reference to Jews who come to Jesus in the final crisis of the world’s history, although some people suggest that the numbers are literal but the tribes are symbolic in some way, a distinction the text itself does not make.

I believe that a symbolic reading of the number is to be preferred for a number of reasons. First of all, the list of twelve tribes is not found in this form anywhere else in the Bible or historical experience, it is not a literal or normal list. For example, Judah is listed first, instead of Reuben. Reuben was the actual first-born of Jacob, but Judah became the leader of the family later on. Joseph (father of Ephraim and Manasseh) is listed among the twelve, but so is Manasseh, his son. To make things stranger, Joseph’s other son, Ephraim, is missing from the list. The tribe of Dan is also missing from the list while Levi, the thirteenth tribe in the Israelite national census (compare Num. 1:5-15; 13:4-15) is included. They are also not listed in birth order (Gen. 49:3-28). So a symbolic reading of the tribes is clearly indicated, which would imply that the number is also symbolic.

Second, Revelation 1:1 indicates, right at the start of Revelation, that the whole book of Revelation was “signified” (KJV, Greek: esêmanen, often translated “made known”). The Greek word for “signified” represents symbolic language that refers to the future. See the comments on Revelation 1:1 in my Facebook commentary on Revelation. So Revelation is different from the rest of the Bible. Generally, you take the Bible at face value unless it is obvious that a symbol is intended. In Revelation you are expected to do the opposite. The best way to approach the text of Revelation is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is obvious that a literal meaning is intended. This applies also to the number in Revelation 7:4-8. A parallel to the 144,000 is the 200,000,000 of Revelation 9:16. A literal army that size is hard to imagine, even in today’s world.

Third, reading the tribes as literal descendants of Jacob flies in the face of the fact that at least ten of those tribes are essentially lost to history. The so-called “ten lost tribes” were taken captive by the Assyrians around 722 B.C. and scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire, being replaced by people from at least five other nations (1 Kings 17). By the time of the return from Babylon (539 B.C.) the identities of the ten tribes was already largely lost. While some Jews today can still trace their lineage back to Judah, Benjamin or Levi, most western Jews today trace their lineage back to European converts in the Middle Ages. The twelve tribes of Israel are largely lost to history today. For these reasons a symbolic reading or Revelation is to be preferred.

The End-Time Seal and Ephesians (Interlude 3)

When Seventh-day Adventists talk about the sealing in Revelation 7 they often refer to Ephesians 4:30, which speaks about grieving the Holy Spirit who had sealed us for the day of redemption. The sealing of Ephesians 4:30 is in the past, but it has implications for the day of redemption. Does that have a connection to Revelation 7’s seal of protection?

The context of Ephesians 4:30 is a list of moral behaviors that grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:25 – 5:2). But there is an apocalyptic element to this list of behaviors that becomes evident upon a second or third reading. Believers are to give “no opportunity to the devil” (4:27, RSV, ESV). Instead, they are to be imitators of God (5:1). This dual reference has to do with character: the characters of God and Satan and also the characters of those who are being offered the presence of the Spirit. The references to God and Satan point to a much larger perspective than simply individual life here on this earth.

So grieving the Spirit in Ephesians is in the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan. The believer is invited to imitate the character of God (truth, honesty, graceful and encouraging speech, kindness, tender-heartedness, forgiveness, love, self-sacrifice) rather than the character of Satan (lying, anger, stealing, abusive speech, bitterness, hard-heartedness, slander, hatred). As is the case in the Book of Revelation, the little battles of daily character work are tied to the much bigger conflict in the universe.

Ellen White speaks of the end-time sealing as “a settling into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so that they cannot be moved.” Last-day Events, page 219. This statement ties the exegesis of Ephesians 4 together with that of Revelation 7. For her the end-time protection for the people of God is more spiritual than physical. The sealing represents a solidification of one’s commitment to God to the point where they would rather die than choose to sin (Rev. 12:11). This is the faith of the martyrs. This is the faith that will secure one’s standing with God in the final crisis. Those who are sealed will be safe to save, safe to receive eternal life in a cleansed and secure universe. They will also be protected against Satan’s spiritual assaults at the end of time.

The Meaning of Seals and Sealing in Rev 7 (Interlude 2)

Chapter seven is inserted parenthetically between the sixth (Rev. 6:12-17) and seventh (8:1) seals. Chapter six climaxes with the opponents of God calling on the rocks and mountains to hide them from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-16). These opponents then close with the poignant statement, “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Rev. 6:17, NRSV. That question is answered in chapter seven with the appearance of two groups, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:4-8) and the Great Multitude (7:9-14). The keys to surviving the calamities that accompany the Second Coming, are being sealed (7:1-3), saved by God (7:10) and having one’s robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). The end result of the final events is a people who are continually before the throne of God, serving Him in His temple (7:15). The purpose of Revelation 7 within its larger context is to identify what God’s people will be like just before the Second Coming.

In the ancient world, sealing a book had two main purposes. One sealed a book to conceal its contents from view (Isa. 29:11; Rev. 10:4) or to validate the contents as being authentic or official (1 Kgs. 21:8; Esth. 8:8; Jer. 32:44). Concealment seems to be the basic purpose of sealing the book in Revelation 5. The book doesn’t need a seal of validation, it was already validated by being in God’s possession. The purpose of breaking the seals and opening the book would be to bring its contents into view.

A more symbolic use of the word sealing can be found when you are talking about people. Sealing a person could be a sign of ownership (Exod. 21:2-6; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim. 2:19; Rev. 14:1) or a sign of protection (Ezek. 9:4-6). In early Judaism sealing was associated with circumcision. In Second-Century Christianity, sealing was associated with baptism. So the sealing of people by God would be a sign that they belong to God (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim. 2:19; Rev. 9:4), and that God knows the ones who belong to Him. In a spiritual sense, sealing validates where a person stands with God.

But the sealing of Revelation 7 is different from that of Ephesians, Second Timothy, or even Revelation 9. The sealing of Revelation 7 is not primarily about evangelism, the people being sealed are already “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3). That means that they are already sealed in the sense of being owned and validated by God. In Revelation 7 the people of God (sealed in the first sense) are sealed again as a protection against the calamities that accompany the End-Time (Rev. 6:15 – 7:3). So the usage of sealing in Revelation 7 seems to be different from the meaning in the rest of the New Testament. As such, it is a play on words here, used in relation to a book in chapters five and six and used in relation to people in chapter seven. Sealing conceals in chapter five and protects in chapter seven.

The 144,000 and the Great Multitude (Interlude 1)

Back to our series on the theology of Revelation. This blog begins a series on the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals, chapter seven.

Chapter seven functions as an interlude between the sixth and seventh seal. The chapter and verse designations in our English Bibles were not original, but were added many centuries after the Bible was written. So the division between chapters six and seven may mask the fact that chapter seven is part of the sixth seal. In the context of the very final events of earth’s history (Rev. 6:15-17) a crucial question is asked and is left dangling at the “end” of the chapter. The question of Revelation 6:17 is: “Who will be able to stand at the second coming of Jesus?” Chapter seven offers a two-part answer to that question. The ones who will be able to stand when Jesus returns are the 144,000 sealed ones (Rev. 7:1-8) and the Great Multitude in white robes (Rev. 7:9-14). Both groups represent the end-time people of God who will make it through the challenging events of the End-time.

Careful examination of chapter seven will lead us to address a number of themes:

1. The Meaning of Seals and Sealing. Documents are sealed to conceal or validate their contents. People are sealed as a sign of ownership or for protection.
2. Eph. 4:30 and the Cosmic Conflict. In context, the grieving of the Spirit in one’s own life is a localized version of the cosmic conflict.
3. Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? This is a controverted question, but evidence in the text leads me to believe that the number should be taken symbolically, and this will be detailed in a later blog.
4. Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? This question is also controverted and will be addressed in a later blog.
5. Rom. 3:19-23 and the Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5). The 144,000 are described in Revelation 14 as “without fault.” What exactly is that supposed to mean? I will make reference to Romans 3 to argue against an absolute perfection interpretation of “without fault.” Stay tune for blogs that follow this one.
6. Other Issues Concerning the 144,000. The picture of the 144,000 raises many practical questions. To what degree is God responsible for the suffering and violence in today’s world? What are we supposed to make of the military imagery in Revelation 7:1-8? What is the new song that only the 144,000 can sing (Rev. 14:3)? Stay tuned.