Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details

When we get to the trumpets (Revelation 8:2–11:19), interpreters offer starkly different choices. There is a fork in the road — a time to choose. One option commands wide scholarly support. The other option has less support and is the road less traveled. But as it says in Robert Frost’s poem,

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Before I mention the options, I recommend the road less traveled. I promise no less in the context of Revelation than Frost does in his poem: to take the one less traveled by will make all the difference.

The first option — the road most traveled — sees in the trumpets a message of retribution. Scholars committed to this view are too numerous to count, but I will give a few examples.

The terrors about to intensify upon the earth are not caused by independent powers of which Christians need to be afraid nor which they might attempt to placate. All proceeds ultimately from the sovereign hand of the one God (Eugene Boring).

The narrative of the punishments unleashed with the blowing of each successive trumpet (8:1–9:21 and 11:15-18)…is an eschatological application of the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt by God (Exodus 7-12) (David Aune).

Although the people of the earth afflicted by the seven trumpet plagues reportedly do not repent (9:20-21), the purpose of the plagues is not to elicit repentance but to exact punishment (David Aune).

The exodus plagues are both a literary and a theological model for the trumpets. Therefore, the trumpet plagues are better viewed primarily as actual judgments on the majority of earth’s inhabitants, though secondarily they are warnings for only a remnant (Greg Beale).

But if the theology of the exodus plagues has been formative for the composition of the trumpets, then the trumpets must ultimately be understood as punishments that further harden the majority of people (Greg Beale).

The purpose of the first four trumpet judgments is primarily to disprove the earthly gods and to show that Yahweh alone is on the throne. By recapitulating the Egyptian plagues, God wants to make his omnipotence known to the world and to show the futility of turning against him (Grant R. Osborne).

The logic of this view runs roughly like this: The martyrs under the altar find God in arrears with respect to holding the world accountable (Revelation 6:9-11). They pray for action. God hears their prayers (8:2-6). God’s answer is the trumpet plagues (8:7-9:21). Given that the trumpets seem to recapitulate the plagues of Egypt, they have the same theology. Don’t mess with God! There will be retribution! Lex talionis!

Despite massive support for this view, there are caveats small and great. Among the small caveats are these:

1. The trumpets need not be a response to the prayer of the martyrs because they received an answer in the fifth seal. “They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed” (6:11). Here, victimhood is the prescription for the believer, not a promise of retribution.

2. Beware of the pitfall of “parallelomania.” Many years ago, the Jewish New Testament scholar (and SBL president) Samuel Sandmel warned against this problem. This is a “disease” that emphasizes similarities but overlooks the differences. In the trumpets, there are similarities to Exodus and Deuteronomy, but there are also dis-similarities. In the words of Craig Koester,

the content of the trumpet visions differs significantly from the exodus tradition. The focus of the first trumpet vision is fire rather than hail, as in Exodus, and it includes the new element of blood from the sky. At the second trumpet an object like a flaming mountain falls from heaven and turns a third of the seawater to blood. At the third trumpet another star falls and turns the rivers and springs to wormwood. By way of contrast, the exodus narrative says nothing about stars falling; it tells of the Nile rather than the sea turning to blood; and it says nothing about wormwood (Koester, 2014).

3. The defining image in Revelation is the Lamb that was killed with violence (5:6). I shall wonder till I die why many interpreters are so quick to make the victim of violence into a perpetrator of violence, but that is what they do. God’s way in the cosmic conflict is in Revelation identified with the Lamb “killed with violence” (5:6). Can we get from there to the Lamb “that kills with violence”? Many interpreters do, including leading interpreters in my own faith community.

4. To do this, it is necessary to sequester the words of the earthly Jesus in response to his followers when the villagers in Samaria “rejected the gospel.”

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ [cf. first trumpet] But he turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).

And now to the massive caveats against the view that the trumpets depict retribution with God as the acting subject. Let us begin with the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1-11).

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet,

and I saw a star

that had fallen

from heaven to earth,

and he was given the key

to the shaft

of the bottomless pit;

he opened

the shaft

of the bottomless pit,

and from the shaft rose smoke

like the smoke

of a great furnace,

and the sun and the air

were darkened

with the smoke

from the shaft (Revelation 9:1-2)

1. There is more than passing likeness between this text and the story of the fall of “the Shining One” in Isaiah (Isaiah 14:12-20). Conversely, there is nothing like it in Exodus or Deuteronomy. The key elements in Isaiah’s poem are all here, a fall from heaven to earth to “the bottomless pit” (“the hell-hole”). Revelation gives a bullet point account of the Adversary in the cosmic conflict. It is hardly a coincidence that this is the preoccupation in the rest of the trumpet sequence (9:1-21). We are in a cosmic theater, and we should brace for a cosmic perspective.

2. For the re-reader of Revelation, the trumpets’ monotonous “thirds” have explanatory power not only with respect to quantity but also with respect to agency. First, note the repetitive “thirds.”

#1 “a third of the earth…a third of the trees” (8:7)

#2 “a third of the sea…a third of the living creatures…a third of the ships” (8:8)

#3 “a third of the waters” (8:10)

#4 “a third of the sun…a third of the moon…a third of the stars…a third of their light…a third of the day and likewise the night” (8:12)

#6 “a third of humanity…a third of humanity” (9:15, 18)

An arithmetic, ho-hum reading takes the “third” to be a marker of quantity even though some “thirds” become absurd. But the re-reader remembers the primordial struggle; he or she remembers how the Dragon’s tail “swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth” (12:4). Of all the “thirds” in Revelation, the most important third is here (12:4). The “thirds” are by this criterion a marker of agency. Nothing is now absurd because the Adversary in the cosmic conflict has blighted everything.

Second, Revelation piles on bizarre details downstream from the fall of the star. The darkness arising “from the shaft of the bottomless pit” materializes into locusts and then into scorpions and then into horses! “Scorpions” have tails, but “they,” meaning the horses, “have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months” (9:10)! The sixth trumpet continues this bizarre exposé, adding heads to the tails of the horses! Has John gone mad? To some readers, he has, but re-readers will be at full alert. “For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm” (9:19). What leaps of imagery! And yet what consistency! “His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth,” John says of the primordial scene (12:4).

3. What do we have in the fifth and sixth trumpet? We have a composite of “smoke,” “locusts,” “scorpions,” and “horses” (9:1-11). It gets worse: the figure has a “human face”; it has “women’s hair”; it has “lions’ teeth”; it has “iron breastplates”; and it has “wings.” We will not find this horse in the nearest zoo! These “horses” have “heads” at both ends, in the front, where there should be one, and “in their tails,” normally not a body part where a head would be expected. “Their tails,” in turn, “are like serpents,” “heads” and “mouths” and all. Like serpents!

The verbal jolt is high voltage. The dots connect to the serpent in Genesis (Genesis 3:1) by way of “the Ancient Serpent” in Revelation (12:9; 20:2). The antagonist in the cosmic conflict may breathe “fire and smoke and sulfur”; he may show chameleon characteristics — “locusts” one day, “scorpions” another day, and “horses” the third day. But he never lets go of his core identity. The sting of the serpent is related to its mouth, and the poison spewing forth is not snake venom but words (Genesis 3:1).

Do you trust me to tell you what John has just described? I can’t say it out loud for fear of offending sensitive souls. But if you lean over, I will whisper it in your left ear: he has described a demonic reality. If you let me, I’ll whisper another secret in your right ear: he has said that there is a demonic, non-human force at large in the world. Interpreters like to make these symbols into recognizable historical phenomena, but the effort is usually unimpressive and sometimes quite embarrassing.

John’s imagery resists the trivialization that interpreters force upon them. They tell the story of a cosmic problem, beginning with the star that fell from heaven to earth (8:10; 9:1). Requisite respect for the imagery allows the perpetrator of horror to remain himself. “When compared with the Seals that precede, and the Bowls that follow, the four Trumpets are colorless and weak repetitions,” said R. H. Charles. I think he is too severe, but I will describe John’s pedagogy this way: If we have not seen what Satan looks like, John shows him to us in Revelation’s trumpets. Here, literally, the Devil is in the details.

4. The identity of the power that wreaks havoc in the world is named in John’s kindergarten pedagogy. “They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon” (9:11). This is no “Life-giver” or “Light-giver,” although he poses as both. In English, his name means “Destroyer” (Revelation 9:11; cf. Isaiah 14:20).

What shall we call what has now been described? We shall not call it scenes of retribution. We ought to call it by the name handed to us in this book: revelation. This is the road less traveled in the trumpet sequence. And the fork in the road can now be illustrated like this:

So much is at stake that I will push the point a step further. A theology of retribution fails to do justice to the cosmic problem that is the concern of Revelation. It collapses the action in the trumpet sequence into single agency: God is the acting subject. “All proceeds ultimately from the sovereign hand of the one God” (Boring). If this scenario is incorrect — and widely off target, as I believe it to be — we risk sending the bills for the world’s horrors to the wrong address.

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Main photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash. In-line images courtesy of the author.

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Dr Tonstad - Thank you for tackling the task of explaining your perception of the meanings of the visions of Revelation.

While I find the presentation of the varying interpretations to cause nearly as much confusion as they alleviate, I do find your interpretations much more in line with my perception of God. Especially that his overriding attribute is Love and not Sovereignty, Justice or even Mercy.


I’m certain I will not be arguing with others (or for or against others) over these visions. I will though be basing my experience of these events (if they are future & I am alive) solidly on my relationship with Jesus, the Savior, whenever and however the actuality occurs.

What parent would bring down hideous suffering as retribution … Even earthly parents “punish” as a learning experience; not as some sadistic payback for no good reason. This is also why we shouldn’t accept the idea that the “lost” will go through degrees of suffering, depending on the enormity of their sins. That’s just a small step from an everburning hell fire.

One vote for “the road less travelled”.


Yes, Adventists are starting to realize that after 150+ years, maybe, just maybe, there is actually different interpretations of Revelation and the last days.

Thank you so very much for this article Sigve that adds to the evidence-base for a soundly reasoned (Isa 1:18; Acts 17:2), revised conceptualisation of the nature and character of God.

If God is actually the final destroyer that He is so widely promoted to be, then Jesus essentially can be validly accused of not being 100% truthful in His statement in Jn 10:10 where He attributes God as being exclusively associated with abundant life (zoe) and the thief (Satan) as being exclusively associated with stealing, killing and destroying (reinforced by Rev 9:11).

Peter and John both appear to have understood Jesus/God’s nature when they both declared that God does not want any to “perish” (2 Pet 3:9; Jn 3:16). To die as a consequence of perishing is very different than to dies as a consequence of someone having destroyed you.

Saul (erroneously) believed in a punishing God. But, after his conversion and re-examination of everything he had believed in during the ensuing years, Paul also understood Jesus/God when he said that the “wages” of sin is death (Rom 6:23) - rather than saying the penalty or the punishment.

Then too, if God actually is motivated by offence and retribution, then His ways are not in fact any higher than our ways - contrary to Isa 55:9.

It is so nice to find others also walking the road less travelled for no other reason than to glorify God’s name and share genuinely good news with others.

May the truth of the nature and character of God be seen for what it is - pure self-renouncing (Agape) love.

And may we be willing to cope with any cognitive/spiritual dissonance we may encounter in the process by searching out the truth like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) rather than outright rejecting it as per our unfortunate default tendency as humans.


One must be well grounded in the Gospel according to John before one attempts to understand Revelation. Thank you for your scholarship of assurance. Paul only alludes to the cosmic struggle. But no man struggled more but successfully.

Seems SDA members are not interested in details.

Sermons and bible teaching = superficial, abstract, ambiguous, obscure, religious lingo & clichés. Comes from inept attempts at exegetical teaching which just parrot the usual doctrines.

Read Matt 5-7 and see how many topics JESUS covered in his sermon.

The greatest advice I ever received was from the lady in her Testimony to Ministers, p.110. “Young men should search the scriptures for themselves…No man (or woman) should be relied upon to think for us. No matter who he (she) is, or in what position he may be placed, we are not to look upon any man as a criterion for us.” I view Revelation of Jesus Christ as a lesson for me. Now for any evangelist, General Conference ecclesiastical authority to tell me how I should interpret the symbols.

Thanks for sharing this perspective. I’ve been reading “Revelation DIY” and have been enjoying those insights also, but this adds extra richness to my understanding.
And it has brought up the topic of retribution/hell/justice. My son cannot understand why God brings everyone to life only to kill them. I believe that God brings everyone to life so that the universe will see that God DOESN’T kill anyone.
When Jesus said “He who believes has eternal life” He placed everyone’s destiny squarely in their own hands. Everyone outside the holy city will know that they could have been inside if they had accepted God’s gift. Not only that but they will have no grace to cover their diseased souls from themselves, and no defense against the guilt and shame that result from doing evil. They will condemn themselves. The presence of “Jesus and the holy angels” will be excruciating to those who love darkness. Eventually, after exhausting their denial and excuses each will accept their loss as being on their own heads and each will come to the point of asking God to end their torment by stopping the flow of life from Him. Those who are more hardened will take longer to reach that point and will suffer longer but it won’t be a punishment God inflicts.

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Most commentators worth their salt believe that this was Matthew’s compilation of Jesus’s teaching, not one literal sermon. The sermon on the plain in Luke reflects the same. Many of the same teachings put together as representative of Jesus’s teaching from Luke’s perspective. Both accounts were written at least 30-40 years later. Luke’s by research, as he said.


So much is at stake that I will push the point a step further. A theology of retribution fails to do justice to the cosmic problem that is the concern of Revelation. It collapses the action in the trumpet sequence into single agency: God is the acting subject . “All proceeds ultimately from the sovereign hand of the one God” (Boring). If this scenario is incorrect — and widely off target, as I believe it to be — we risk sending the bills for the world’s horrors to the wrong address.<<

There is a time when it is a theology of retribution and a time when it isn’t. Sometimes evil does just fight against evil because it is evil. This is likely the scene of these three woes. These are seemingly more human, demonic and naturalistic. The “sealed are spared.”
The 7th Trumpet judgment to come comes from Gods Throne… I suggest satan is not there. Yes, what Boring said seems true. God ultimately allows or causes things that come to pass. So, I guess you could say He is guilty for both allowing (we would complain if He didn’t offer “free will” and we complain when He doesn’t) and causing, it seems.
Were the judgments and deaths David/psalmist speaks of from God or the Devil in Ps.97 & 136? How about the Egyptian plagues?
Those of us who hold to the fact God will repay, do so, not because we love violence but because he has said he would and considers that part of His righteous judgment. Rom.2:5

Historicists have overlooked the unremitting advancement from the first partition in the sanctuary, representing the observance of the tamid or “daily” intercession and depicted in the scenes of Revelation 1 and the seven churches (the seven candlesticks), into the second, the holy of holies in the scene of Revelation 8, representing the “yearly” or yoma intercession, synchronizing the Hebraic festivals with Revelation 1 through Revelation 11. The historicists’ oversight exemplifies the persistent impeding of this progress towards the holy of holies in these scenes, conflicting with the promise of but “a little season” to the souls of the sixth seal, until the yoma intercession, the day of atonement, when a final remnant will be martyred for Christ, depicted in the trumpets. Historicists’ rendering of the first seal as the first-century church hardly agrees with “a little season!”

Historicists have also overlooked that the souls of the sixth seal petition for retribution because of the torment by the horsemen of the previous seals, which are easily resolved as the horsemen and locust army of Joel 2:4 that traditional Hebraic scholars vindicate as the judgment illustrated by Rosha Hashana, heralded by the trumpet of Revelation 4:1. Contemporary historicists concede that Christ’s manifestation before the “Ancient of days” in Revelation 5 parallels his manifestation in Daniel 7:13, which represents the seventh-month festivals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As exemplified by the seven churches, Christ’s voice symbolizes the trumpets that herald the new moons (days of darkness) of the seven months between the spring and autumnal festivals and Rosh Hashana. Again, the petitions by the souls of the sixth seal are answered in the sanctuary scene in Revelation 8 that leads to the end of the torment of those who are sealed in chapter 7 by the horsemen/locusts, conveyed in the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:7), which supports the unremitting advancement from the first partition to the second, synchronizing the Hebraic feasts with Revelation 1 through Revelation 11.

This synchronization and revelation vindicate that the first horseman was fulfilled by Protestant missionary imperialism at the time of the Laodicean church, Daniel’s “time of the end” and “cleansing of the sanctuary.” I’ve documented much of this in a book that exposes the exploitation of the true church by apostate Protestantism, Babylon, that fulfills the denunciation that Babylon is “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus,” and this is the source of the torment of the souls in the sixth seal. Protestant missionary imperialism led to the wars for the resources of the world, the first attempt at globalism (the red horseman), the ending of their churches’ intercession in commerce (the black horse), and the famines and death that followed by their attempts at globalism (the pale horseman).

In Christ,
Jerry Huerta

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