In the central section of Revelation there is an extended narrative involving a parallel series of three sets of progressive judgments; the seven seal-openings (6:1-17; 8:1, 3-5); the seven trumpets (8:2, 6-21; 11:14-19) and finally seven bowls of God’s fury (15:1, 5-21). The judgments which accompany the opening of the first six seals leads to a question in chapter 6: Who can withstand the great day of the wrath of the Lamb?
The scene in chapter 7 opens with four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds so that these winds could not damage the earth until another angel seals 144,000 servants with a mark on their forehead (7:2). Like all the numbers in Revelation, 144,000 “from every tribe of Israelites” (7:4) is clearly symbolic. 12 X 12 X 10 X10 means the whole or complete people of God. It seems very doubtful that the 144,000 represent Israel as opposed to the Church, as the list of specific tribes which follow in Revelation 7:5-8 did not exist at the time of Jesus since the tribes of the Northern Kingdom never returned from their exile. John has already included the Church in the kingdom, priesthood and heavenly New Jerusalem (1:6; 3:12; 5:9; 21:14) terms which would normally be reserved for Israel. In the New Jerusalem all God’s servants worship Him and bear His name on their foreheads” (22:4).
Echoing the description of marking believers with an X on their foreheads in Ezekiel 9, the seal on the foreheads of the 144,000 most likely refers to the sacrament of Baptism. St. Paul calls Baptism a ‘seal’ (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13-14). This language is evident in the early fathers such as the Shepherd of Hermas and continues to be used by the Church today (CCC 1121). We should not be put off by the fact that an angel marks these servants with a seal. The theme of Baptism often included the involvement of angels in the early church fathers. St. John Chrysostom admonished Catechumens to pray for the assistance of the angel of peace as they approached their Baptism. The ancient pre-Gregorian Sacramentary of Gelasius, prayed for the catechumens that God might “vouchsafe to send His holy angel . . . and bring them to the grace of His Baptism” in the same manner as the angel in the Passover.
Broadening his vision of whole or complete people of God, John now sees a great multitude which no one could count (7:9) who stood before the throne from every nation, race, people and tongue. The language of 7:9-12 echoes that of the earlier throne scene in 5:9-12. Finally the seventh seal is broken.
Instead of the expected immediate escalation of divine judgment and wrath, we are told; “When [the Lamb] broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1). This silence was the normal procedure for the incense offering in the Jerusalem Temple. It was a time of waiting for God to listen to the prayers and to answer. The angel’s incense offering is made “along with the prayers of the holy ones” (8:3). There is silence in heaven while, “The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel” (8:4). Finally in response to the prayers of the saints, the angel took burning coals from the altar and hurled them down to the earth. The throne vision in Revelation 4:5 is echoed again with “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning” and now an earthquake (8:5).
Now seven angels with seven trumpets step forward. Trumpets in the Old Testament were warning instruments in a time of war and by implication could be seen as announcing a coming judgment. These trumpet judgments are organized in a series of four + three. The first four judgments affect the Church but are not directed towards her. The last three judgments are demonic and do not affect the Church.
The first trumpet blast corresponds to the seventh plague in Egypt (Exodus 9:23ff) except that now the hail is mixed with blood. As a result, “A third of the land was burned up, along with a third of the trees and all green grass” (8:7b). Perhaps paralleling the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79, with the second trumpet “something like a large burning mountain was hurled into the sea” (8:1). As a result the sea is turned to blood and one-third of its creatures die and one-third of the ships are wrecked. With the third trumpet a great burning star falls from the sky and one-third of the rivers and springs of water are made bitter like wormwood. With the fourth trumpet one-third of the earth’s sources of light are cut off. Apparently it is not one-third dimmer but one-third more of the day ends up in darkness. Finally there is a vision of an eagle flying high overhead crying out in a loud voice, “’Woe! Woe! Woe!’ to those who will experience the final three trumpets” (8:13).
With the blowing of the fifth trumpet a star falls from the sky, but this is actually a fallen angel who is given a key to the abyss. He releases demonic locusts who had the power to torment people but not kill them. They are led by the angelic king of the abyss whose name is Abaddon. With the blowing of the sixth trumpet, four angels who are bound to the banks of the Euphrates are released to kill a third of the human race with cavalry troops numbering two hundred million. The point of all of these judgments was to provoke people to repent of their worship of demons and idols, and other evil practices such as murder, the use of magic, unchastity, and robbery (9:21). A second interlude with new visions follows, before the seventh trumpet is blown.
This series of articles on the Book of Revelation is by Scott McKellar, Associate Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.