The First Four Trumpets - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
7 The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
8 And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
9 And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.
10 And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
12 And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
The seventh seal, so we found, is revealed as seven trumpets. The first four of these trumpets we shall discuss in the present chapter.
We must constantly bear in mind the fact that we are discussing the last of the seven seals. Because this seventh seal reveals itself as seven trumpets, we are likely to lose sight of the fact that after all we are discussing the seven seals. But it is necessary that we keep this in mind for a correct understanding of the entire book. The whole history of this dispensation is implied in these seven seals. But the seventh seal is divided into seven trumpets, while the seventh trumpet is again divided into seven vials of wrath. We must also remember that the relation between the seals. and the trumpets is not to be conceived of as strictly successive, but rather as
contemporaneous, while we bear this in mind, however, that the judgments and the forces that are thus represented by the seals and the trumpets become more emphatic and more severe as the time draws near for the coming of the Lord Jesus, and that they finally assume the character of clear signs, to be witnessed by all that live upon the earth.
All Refer To The Visible Universe
Coming now to the discussion of the passage we quoted above, it is not difficult to see that the first four trumpets, even as was the case with the first four seals, form one group and belong together. The first four seals, we saw, were very clearly distinguished from the last three especially by the fact that they all came with the figure of the four horses. The same is true of the first four trumpets. There can be no doubt about it that they form a distinct group. This is clear, in the first place, from their very contents. As we hope to see more clearly presently, they all refer to the visible universe, and that too, to the world outside of man, to creation, to nature, though it stands to reason that man, standing in close touch with this visible universe, is also affected. But in the second place, that these first four trumpets form a separate, distinct group is also plain from the fact that in the text they are separated from the last three by the outcry of the eagle in mid-heaven, announcing a three-fold woe upon the inhabitants of the earth because of the three trumpets which are still to be sounded. Hence, also in regard to the trumpets it is to be noted that there is a division into four and three. This division and distinction is undoubtedly intentional, plainly indicating that the number seven does symbolize the union between the world and God, between the human and the divine,-if you please, the covenant relationship between God and His people.
We will readily admit that the interpretation of the trumpets in the Book of Revelation is very difficult. That this is true is not because the text itself is difficult to read, that there are many dark sayings in it: for that is not the case. If we had nothing else to do than merely to explain the words of the text, it would be rather easy. Little explanation would then indeed be required. But that is not the purpose of the Book of Revelation, nor of our interpretation of the book. We must not merely try to understand the text as such, but we also must try to learn the historical reality represented by and referred to in the text. If we do not attempt to do this, the book does not become real to the church of Christ and can offer little or no consolation. Yet this is evidently the chief purpose of the book. Two questions, therefore, must always be before our minds when we interpret the Book of Revelation, namely: first, what is the literal meaning of the text? And, secondly, where do I find the things that are thus revealed in the history of our present dispensation?
To find the answer to these questions it may be well to limit from the outset the sphere of our investigation by first of all discarding the results of many allegorical interpretations also in connection with the first four trumpets. You understand that the question is: must we conceive of the facts mentioned in the text quoted above as real, or symbolical, or allegorical? Does the earth mean the earth, or something else? Do hail and fire mean hail and fire literally, or do they represent something spiritual? Do the sun and moon and stars which are mentioned in the text mean the heavenly luminaries, or do they represent realities in the spiritual world?
Those who prefer the allegorical method of interpretation apply this method throughout. For instance, this allegorical method comes to the conclusion that the first trumpet reveals upheavals either in the church or in the Roman Empire. According as interpreters adhere to the one or to the other explanation, they make of the hail and fire erroneous teachings, while the trees that are hurt by them are preachers and teachers in the church, and the grass represents the common Christians; or they interpret that the earth represents the Roman Empire, and the hail and fire destructive forces of enemies who destroyed a third part of that empire immediately after Constantine the Great. According to the same method of interpretation, the burning mass which falls into the sea according to the second trumpet is allegorized into the devil, raging with fury because of the progress of the church and the kingdom of God in the world. Or again, the whole is referred to great naval exploits and battles at the time when the Vandals devastated Rome. The star falling from heaven, which is mentioned in connection with the third trumpet, represents either heretics, apostatized from the church and poisoning the fountains of the truth and thereby killing many spiritually; or again, it is made the symbol of Attila, the Hun, invading the Roman Empire. The darkening of the sun and the moon and the stars, mentioned in connection with the fourth trumpet, is very readily spiritualized into the apostasy of the false. teachers and the preachers of the church. Or again, by those who think of the Roman Empire, it is made to refer to the rulers whose glory was eclipsed at the time of its downfall.
Such are a few examples of the interpretations which have been offered by those who are of the opinion that they must always spiritualize, that the allegorical method must be applied to the Book of Revelation. It would seem, then, that the Book of Revelation was purposely written in such unintelligible form that the church could never understand its real meaning. We cannot accept this mode of interpretation.
We believe that whenever the text is to be taken in the symbolical, or allegorical, sense of the word, the context or even the very contents of the verses will plainly indicate this. When, for instance, John is said to swallow a book, it is evident in itself that this is not reality, but symbolism. But in this connection there is absolutely nothing that compels us to such an interpretation. It is true that there are portions in the text which may be taken in the symbolical sense. There is one part in which John himself plainly indicates that it cannot be taken in the literal sense, namely, when he says that a burning mass, as it were a great mountain, fell from heaven. But this gives us no reason to depart so radically from its literal interpretation as to spiritualize and allegorize everything. There is nothing strange in hail and fire falling from heaven, or in the disturbance caused by the mass from heaven in the sea, or in the poisoning of the waters, or the partial darkening of the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars. In fact, the text is plainly in favor of the literal interpretation. For you will notice that by these four trumpets the whole physical universe is involved,-the earth, and the sea, and the rivers, and the heavens, - thus presenting one whole, which can never be obtained by any allegorical interpretation. Even as the first four seals refer to every sphere of human activity and relationship in the present dispensation, so the four trumpets evidently refer to every sphere of the visible universe, together constituting the whole of the world, as is also indicated by the number four. In the second place, the allegorical interpretation gives no satisfaction. It is conducive to all kinds of arbitrary questions, demanding just as arbitrary an answer. And the result is that after all is said, you are not sure whether you have attained to the right interpretation or not. If hail and fire may mean heresies, and may also mean political disturbances in the world of the Roman Empire, why may they not refer to a thousand other things in the world? All certainty is thus removed, and Scripture becomes a source of speculation. Thirdly, I refuse to go along with this mode of interpretation because the reference to definite historical facts and periods, as is implied in such a method, has always led to disappointment, and still does. Perhaps you remember, - to mention just one example, - how the first world war in the early part of this century was explained as meaning that it referred to Revelation 13. The German Kaiser, so they had it, was the beast that is there pictured. And this war was to end in February, 1918, according to the exact calculation based upon the forty-two months which are mentioned in that chapter. Of course, that theory was exploded. And I suppose that other theories of the same kind can be built up. For it seems impossible that people learn by experience in this respect. But we will not be seduced by any such methods to interpret Scripture in this wise.
I wish it to be understood from the outset, therefore, that in general the text means just exactly what it expresses. Hail and fire mingled with blood refer to the destructive forces in nature with a view to the vegetable world. The sea is nothing else but the sea; and the creatures referred to are the inhabitants of that sea, while a ship means literally a ship. Rivers and fountains of water refer to inland waters in distinction from the oceans and seas; and their poisoning means exactly what it says. And sun and moon and stars are the heavenly luminaries with which we are acquainted, and not some mysterious reality either in the political or in the Roman world. We have here, in a word, a picture of the effects of the four trumpets on the physical universe in the history of the present dispensation.
All Represent Evil Phenomena In Nature
However, if this be established, we still confront the further question: what do these trumpets mean? To what exactly do they refer?
Our answer is, first of all, that they all refer to natural phenomena. If we see this, it will bring the vision much nearer home. As I have emphasized repeatedly, the seals and the trumpets principally all refer to events which take place throughout this dispensation. True, they will increase in force in an alarming measure as time goes on and as the completion of the kingdom draws near. Some of the phenomena here mentioned, as, for instance, the blood with which the hail is mingled, are to be revealed in the future, perhaps, in the literal sense of the word. But for the rest, they all refer to mere natural phenomena that take place and may be observed in our own time.
All the four trumpets, then, refer to phenomena in nature outside of man. This does not mean that man is not affected or involved. On the contrary, man is very plainly interested in all these natural phenomena.
The individual as well as the nations are affected by these four trumpets. Man is dependent upon the world in which he lives. He is dependent upon the soil which he cultivates, upon the crops which are raised. He is dependent upon the condition of the climate, upon rain and sunshine. He is dependent upon the water which he drinks. And through it all he is dependent upon the condition of the heavenly luminaries. This also the text indicates very plainly. And of course, what is true of the individual is also true of the nations and the relation between them. By the influence of these four trumpets the history of the nations is controlled and directed. Never has this been more plainly understood than in our own time. I remember that in the war in the early part of the present century it was emphasized that food would win it. And by this expression a deep truth is expressed. If food will win a war,-and to a large extent it will,-then the further truth, which is most often overlooked, is also very evident, that Christ, Who rules over the elements, over sunshine and rain, over hail and fire, after all determines who will be victorious in any war. And what is true with regard to the land is also true in respect to the sea and to the inland waters and to the sun, moon, and stars. By these four trumpets the physical universe is affected, but through it all the world of men and the relation of nation over against nation is largely determined.
Let us also notice, in the second place, that these four trumpets have this in common, that they all refer to what we may call evil phenomena in nature. On the whole they picture destructive forces which become active and affect the whole of the natural world.
Hail and fire from heaven are the representatives of all the destructive forces in nature with a view to the world of vegetation. As such I understand them. In the first trumpet we have the picture of a mighty thunderstorm bursting forth over the land and accompanied by the fall of heavy hail. That this can actually be a tremendous force we may plainly perceive when sometimes hailstones as large as hen eggs fall in great number in our own vicinity, destroying property and leaving large holes in the ground where they dropped. Thus it is in the vision. Tremendous thunder and hail storms are pictured, destroying trees and grass, in general the representatives of the vegetable world. Crops are therefore destroyed in a moment by this first trumpet. As far as the blood is concerned, I take it, in the first place, as having reference to the accompanying destruction. And we may take it in the literal sense of the word. In fact, history speaks more than once of a bloody snow and hail which fell in various places.
And with a view to the future, this blood mingled with the hail and fire will be so general and real that it becomes a sign to all that witness it.
Thus it is also with the second trumpet. It pictures to us a destructive force upon the oceans and the seas. John does not tell us that a great burning mountain was cast into the sea, but that in the vision he saw as it were a great mountain burning with fire and cast into the sea. It matters little, evidently, what this particularly stands for. But in general it is plain that it simply represents a destructive force with regard to the sea. The sea is represented as becoming a pool of blood, so that the creatures which live in it die. And at the same time it is represented as being swept by a tempest, or at least as being greatly disturbed, so that the ships are destroyed and caught in the storm.
The same is true of the third trumpet. The picture is either that of a star shattered to pieces and strewn over the waters outside of the ocean, or that of a comet leaving behind its poisonous gases and embittering the waters which must be drunk by men. Perhaps we may think in the literal sense of the word of a star. For it is not impossible that the stars influence our world far more than we know just now. However this may be, the main thing is that we remember that by this force of the third trumpet the waters and the fountains of waters are made bitter and poisonous, so that many die because they drink of them. Wormwood is, properly speaking, a plant that is noted because of its very bitter taste and because of the poisonous nature of its volatile oil. Here the name is given to the star because of its embittering and poisoning effect upon the waters.
Finally, the same is also true of the last of these four trumpets. It speaks of a change of the heavenly luminaries. They are smitten for a third part, so the text speaks, so that they do not shine to that extent upon the earth. What this would mean with respect to the sun ought to be plain to us all. A third less sunshine than necessary to ripen the crops would be determinately detrimental to any land. And although we know less of the influence of the other heavenly bodies upon our planet, we may believe that they all affect us to a sufficient extent to become destructive when their relation to us is changed.
Now picture, if you can, the combined effect of these four forces, and you will understand the first four trumpets, and feel them rather near. A decided cooling down of the atmosphere and lack of sunshine, caused by the darkening of the sun, and added to that the less known effect of the darkening of the other luminaries at night; a poisoning of the rivers and lakes and fountains of waters, so that not only men die because they drink of them, but undoubtedly the creatures which live in them also die because of the poison; a great disturbance in the sea and the ocean, so that the fish of the sea die and the ships are destroyed; and, last but not least, tremendous thunderstorms and falling of hail, so that the crops are destroyed and there is no grass for the cattle, nor any fruit. That is the meaning of the first four trumpets. It would mean that on the land there would be nothing to eat, neither for man or beast, that when men turn to the waters to live on the creatures of the sea and rivers and lakes, they find them vacated, while at the same time they themselves die because of all kinds of epidemics caused by the poison waters. Surely, if this were universal there would be no creature left alive in all the universe. But evidently universal and absolute these trumpets are not yet. Only what aggravates the condition for the stricken lands is that one of the main means of transportation is also cut off, for the ships are destroyed, so that nothing can be transported from one nation to another.
The "One-Third" Characteristic Of The Trumpets
It is, however, to the partial character of the trumpets and the forces which they represent that we must call your attention finally. In fact, I consider this one of the chief elements in the explanation of the text itself. Very emphatically it tells us several times that only one-third of the elements are affected by these trumpets. The expression "a third part" occurs even as many as twelve times in this particular passage, surely indicating that the Lord would have us pay special attention to this particular feature. A third part of the earth, a third part of the trees is burnt up. And though it literally reads that all the green grass is burnt up, we take it to mean all the green grass that grows on the third part of the earth, as is most natural. The third part of the sea is turned into blood; and the third part of the creatures die, and the third part of the ships is destroyed. The third part of the waters and fountains of waters are smitten by the star called Wormwood and are made bitter. The third part of the sun, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars is smitten, so that they do not shine for the third part of the day and of the night. Surely, there is reason for the question: what is indicated by this "third part" occurring so often in the text?
There are some who interpret this third part as meaning the smallest half. One-third is destroyed; two-thirds are still left intact. And then these interpreters have it that the judgments are not as yet absolute: there is still time left for repentance. The mercy and grace of God are still greater in their effects than His wrath. Soon, when the vials are poured out, there is an advance over the trumpets in this respect, that they are universal and absolute in their effect. They speak no more of a third part. Mercy is now still predominant. We do not deny that there is an element of truth in that interpretation. Surely, there is an advance in judgment. And gradually the tokens of God's general providence are withdrawn from the world. And as the power of that general providence of God is withdrawn, the judgments pictured in the words of our text will become more absolute and universal. In so far it is possible that also this idea is implied in the repeated mention of a third part.
Nevertheless we do not think that this is the only idea, or that it is even the main idea, that is expressed. On the contrary, rather than saying that one-third means the smaller part over against two-thirds which are not affected, I would say that one-third signifies just a little more than the one-fourth which is always affected.
You will remember that we explained the meaning of one-fourth in connection with the fourth seal. That fourth horse and its rider traverse the earth and kill one-fourth part of all men. We then said that one-fourth signifies just as many as is in harmony with the history of this dispensation; or, if you please,-to speak concretely,-one-fourth indicates the ordinary death-rate of the world. Four is the number of the world. And one-fourth is that part which is in harmony with the present existence of the world of men. One-fourth therefore indicates the ordinary rate in which men die. But the same is true with hail and fire, with storms and upheavals in the sea, with the poisoning of the waters, and with the cooling of the atmosphere. There is always one-fourth part of the earth affected by hail and fire. There is always one-fourth part of the earth and the trees and the grass and all the crops that is destroyed. Every year this happens again. The same is true of the sea. One-fourth of the fishes always die. That is the ordinary number of them. One-fourth of the ships always perish. That is the ordinary number of ships that are destroyed by the ordinary number of storms. There is never a year that no fish die, and there is never a year that no ships are destroyed. One-fourth part of the waters is always struck with the star which is called Wormwood. One-fourth part of them always causes epidemics, so that some die.
One-fourth part of the earth is always affected by the lack of sufficient sunshine.
In a word, these same things always recur, only, according to the measure of this dispensation, one-fourth part of the universe being affected. But as long as this is not increased, the earth does not consider them judgments. There is nothing strange in this. We have become accustomed to this. In general, all the world figures with this part of the crop being destroyed by hail and fire and by cold weather. In general, all the world figures on just so many ships being destroyed on an average, and just so many people dying because of the poisonous waters.
But now, in connection with the first four trumpets, this is increased just a little. Not much, it is true; only the next fraction is taken, instead of one-fourth, one-third. Just a little more hail and fire, just a little more cooling of the atmosphere, just a little more death to the creatures of the sea, just a few more ships destroyed, just a few more people die because of the waters, and just a little more cooling off of the sun. This is meant by the four trumpets.
You know the effect of this just-a-little-more: it upsets all the calculations of men. Just a little cooler atmosphere during the summer, and the crops do not ripen. Just a little more hail and fire than usual, and another part of the crop on which men had figured is destroyed. Just a few more storms and disturbances in the sea, and the number of ships on which we depended is greatly lessened. And thus it is with the supply of fish and with the waters of the earth.
In a word, by the just-a-little-more of these trumpets Christ controls all the world, and determines absolutely the relations which must ensue so as to complete His kingdom and ultimately destroy the power of the Antichrist. By these very natural causes it is Christ, blowing the trumpets through the seven angels, Who determines the development of the nations and so directs all things that exactly that constellation is called into existence which He desires. It is by controlling these natural phenomena that Christ ultimately will also destroy the Antichrist and Gog and Magog. In a word, it is Christ Who in this dispensation controls the fate of the nations also through these elements of the universe, Who gives victory and deals defeat, Who sets up and dethrones powers and dominions, and thus controls the history of all the world with a view to the bringing of His own kingdom.
Forces Directly From Heaven
Thus you will also clearly understand the words of our text in relation to all history. All the forces which cause these things come directly from heaven. It indicates that Christ, Who holds the book of the seven seals and opens it seal after seal, also determines crops and crop failure, plenty and lack of everything, and through all these determines the coming of His kingdom.
Be not afraid, therefore! These things must surely come to pass. They will come ever more forcefully and plainly. And in them all you may see the judgment that is coming upon the world and the answer to your own prayers.
Be not afraid! For even though by these judgments you will undoubtedly be touched as far as your present existence and life in the world is concerned, the spiritual kingdom of Christ is invulnerable and immune from the spiritual point of view. In the midst of these times as they are pictured in the text, the people of God are sealed, and they are sealed securely; that is, spiritually they shall surely conquer. And finally they shall through all these things enter into the economy of things where God shall spread His tabernacle over them, and they shall serve Him in His temple day and night forevermore.