For an introduction to the Trumpet-visions and their relation to the earlier Seal-visions, etc, see the previous daily note (on 8:1-5). Verses 6-13 cover the first four Trumpet-visions, all of which involve natural disasters as the result of celestial phenomena. The language and imagery used to describe these is drawn primarily from Old Testament tradition, but also would have been recognizable to people in the Greco-Roman world at large, since these sorts of celestial phenomena were widely seen as portents of disaster and divine anger/judgment which were to come upon humankind. For the background of the trumpet-motif as a herald of end-time Judgment, cf. the previous note.
Suspense is created in verse 6, adding to the sense of anticipation and foreboding: “And the seven Messengers, the (one)s holding the seven trumpets, made themselves ready (so) that they should sound the trumpet”. The idea of trumpets sounding (in the sky) announcing or forewarning of disaster to come is widespread, and not only in Old Testament tradition (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.784ff; Lucan Pharsalia 1.578). The first three trumpets (vv. 7-11) each announce judgment in the form of fire from heaven, which echoes both the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 9:23-24) and the Sodom & Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24ff) in Old Testament tradition. Both were natural figure-types for the end-time Judgment; on the use of Sodom/Gomorrah in this regard, cf. Luke 17:29; also Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7.
The first two trumpet-visions follow a common pattern, describing fire which was “thrown [e)blh/qh] (down) into [ei)$]” the earth/sea. This reflects the Messenger holding the golden bowl at the altar of incense, who throws fire down to the earth (vv. 4-5); however, ultimately the passive should be understood here as the divine passive, i.e. God as the implied actor. The third trumpet-vision differs slightly, in that the fire (a burning star) falls (e&pesen) out of heaven to land upon the earth. Here is a comparison of the details in the three visions:
- First Trumpet (v. 7):
- “hail and fire having been mixed in blood”—an obvious echo of the plague in Exod 9:13-26 (also Ps 78:48ff; 105:32), repeated as judgment imagery in Isa 30:30; Ezek 38:22; Wis 16:22-23. The added element of blood may be intended to continue the theme of warfare and violence (and its effects) from the earlier seal-visions. Blood raining from heaven is known as a visionary portent of war (cf. Lucan, Pharsalia 1.578; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.5.14; Sibylline Oracles 5:377-9, etc). A more immediate Old Testament allusion may be found in Joel 2:30.
- thrown down into/onto the earth
- a third of the earth’s surface (i.e. the dry land)—trees and green grass—is burnt down
- Second Trumpet (vv. 8-9):
- “(something) as/like a great mountain burning with fire”—i.e. a great fiery mass; there are similar eschatological/apocalyptic references in 1 Enoch 18:13; 21:3; and Sibylline Oracles 5:158-9.
- thrown down into/onto the sea
- a third of the sea becomes blood—a clear echo of Exod 7:16-23 and the plagues on Egypt; whether this means that the water came to be the color of blood, etc, or was miraculously transformed into actual blood, hardly matters (probably the latter was meant). As with the fire which struck the land (burning trees and grass), there are similarly two effects from the fire which strikes the sea:
—a third of the creatures in the sea die, and
—a third of the boats come to ruin, perhaps literally rotting or decaying
- Third Trumpet (vv. 10-11):
- “a great star burning as a brilliant (light) [i.e. lamp/torch]”—falling stars (i.e. comets, meteors) naturally served as omens and portents of death and disaster in the ancient world (cf. Manilius Astronomica 1.874-6, etc). If taken literally, here it is the image of a great (fiery) meteor landing on the earth.
- falls out of heaven—it is conceivable that this shift in wording foreshadows the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions; or, perhaps, it is intended to convey a natural phenomenon, as opposed to the supernatural fire of the 1st/2nd trumpet-vision.
It falls out of heaven and land upon the rivers and springs of earth; exactly how this comes about from a single star/meteor is unclear, nor is the scientific detail important.
- a third of the waters are turned into a&yinqo$, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, which refers to a small plant (‘wormwood’) which yielded a bitter taste (cf. Prov 5:4; Jer 9:15; 23:5)—i.e. a third of all rivers and springs, with their water used for washing, drinking and cooking, etc, became poisoned and made bitter, resulting in the death of “many” people. Here there may be likely an allusion to the judgment upon the people following the Golden Calf incident, where they were forced to drink the contaminated water (Exod 32:20; cf. 15:23).
As in the third trumpet-vision, the fourth (v. 12) also involves natural celestial phenomena—namely the sun, moon, and stars together:
“…and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were (each) struck, (so) that a third of them (each) would be darkened, and the day would not shine a third of its (light), and the night likewise.”
This, too, reflects the Plagues of Egypt—the plague of darkness on the land (Exod 10:21-23)—but the idea of the darkening of sun and moon came to be a common Judgment motif in the Old Testament (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7), one which Jesus would make use of in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:24-25 par). Unusual darkness, as during an eclipse, etc, was naturally seen as a dangerous omen or portent in the ancient world (Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.538-43, etc).
Verse 13 marks a division between the first four visions and the next two; from a literary standpoint, it also serves to heighten the dramatic suspense, pointing toward what is about to come. It is treated as a distinct vision:
“And I saw and heard one air-borne (being) winging [i.e. flying] in the middle of the heaven, saying with a great voice: ‘Woe, woe, (and) woe (again which is to come) to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, out of the remaining voices of the trumpets of the three Messengers the (one)s about to sound the trumpet!”
I have translated a)eto/$ literally as a creature/being in the air, which usually refers to a bird (spec. an eagle); some manuscripts instead read a&ggelo$ (“Messenger”, i.e. Angel), which seems more likely to be a ‘correction’ of a)eto/$ than the other way around. Birds served as omens or portents of disaster, etc, in the ancient world, and the eagle would have represented the nobility (and reliability) of a divine messenger (cf. Homer Iliad 8.242, Odyssey 2.146, etc). The messenger, whether an eagle or heavenly being, here is announcing the judgment still to come in the remaining trumpet-visions.
A common detail through the first four visions is the motif of a third—the celestial phenomena, and the related disasters, are repeatedly (and consistently) said to affect a third of the world. The precise significance of this remains uncertain. Possibly it is meant to indicate one stage or portion of the final Judgment, which will be completed in the seven Bowl-visions of chapter 16, etc. It also may reflect traditional imagery, or a literary/prophetic device, such as we see in Ezek 5:2ff; Zech 13:8-9. More likely is the idea that the limited application of the Judgment (to a third of the earth and humankind, cf. also 9:15ff) is intended as an expression of God’s mercy, to give the survivors the opportunity to repent before the Judgment is completed; this is certainly implied in 9:20-21, as a concluding notice to the first six trumpet-visions, and should be taken seriously.