There is one last correlation that almost certainly would have come to mind for John’s audience—the Exodus.
Before the Lord led God’s people out of Egypt, God’s grand viziers Moses and Aaron held court with Pharaoh for a little over a year. In that time, God presented ten opportunities for Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from captivity and enslavement. Pharaoh rejected each of God’s offers and instead chose to stand his ground in a battle of wills he was doomed to lose.
The final showdown became Passover, an event every person of Jewish faith has celebrated annually from that night forward. For thousands of years, the Hebrew people remembered the ten plagues of Egypt, the horrific tribulations sent by God to bring Pharaoh and his people to repentance. Many Egyptians did come to know and believe in God, and some even left with the Israelites during the Exodus.
One of those trials was a deadly pestilence symbolically brought about by the prayers of Pharaoh’s people to the gods of Egypt.
God of the Sky
All people seek God in some form, even for people who say they have no religion, there is something they believe in, some ideology, or cause that they believe in or support. It was no different in ancient times. It was, in fact, the norm in the Ancient Near East for there to be multiple gods. Every people claimed a god for their province, and there were greater gods said to rule over the lesser gods. When clans and regions coalesced, the local gods would form a pantheon. Egyptians, for instance, had a god for everything, over eighty in all, which ruled over every possible area of life.
Egypt’s gods focused on three main sources of life for them: the Nile, the fertile earth, and the sky, including the sun. Accordingly, God seems to have prepared three arenas of contest with the gods of Egypt, to address each region: the Nile, the fertile earth, and the sky.
Each contest included a cycle of three plagues with a pattern of progressive revelation of God, both to Moses, Aaron, and the people of God, and to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt.
The ordeal began with the Nile becoming blood, frogs invading the land, and swarms of gnats, which ended the first cycle, showing God’s dominion over all the Nile gods: every aspect of Egypt’s fertility, the Nile delta, promise of children, crops, and herds.
The fourth plague of biting flies began the second cycle dealing with the earth gods. After the flies came a deadly pestilence that affected all the livestock left in the field. This was not simply a natural phenomenon, and it was not something their own magicians could pull off either. These were intentional acts of God Almighty, and they were for the purpose of displaying the Lord’s power and sovereignty.
The last plague in this second cycle affected both animal and human in an awful parody of a ritual the Egyptian priests used to bring health and healing to the land—soot blown into the air. Everyone was covered with boils, people and animals alike. That is to say, everyone except those in the Land of Goshen. This sixth plague completed the second cycle, displaying God’s dominion over all the Egyptian gods associated with the earth: everything having to do with strength, health, durability and stability.
Cast the Prayers
Remember again the text from John’s vision:
Then I beheld the seven angels who have stood in the presence of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Then another angel came and stood over the altar having a golden censor and it was given to him much incense in order that he will give [this incense] to the prayers of all the holy ones over the golden altar of incense standing in the presence of the throne.
Then the smoke of the altar arose to the prayers of the holy ones out of the hand of the angel in the presence of God.
Then the angel has taken hold of the censor, and he filled it out of the fire of the altar of incense, and cast [the incense] into the earth: and there came thundering, then voices, then lightning, then shaking.
Then seven angels, they having the seven trumpets, made them ready in order that they would sound their blast.Revelation 8:2-6
Now compare to what the Lard gave Moses to do:
Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become dust all over the land of Egypt and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.”
So they took soot from the kiln and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.Exodus 9:8-12 (NRSV)
Unquestionably, this imagery would have come to mind for John’s audience, the seven trumpets representing a fresh contest with the wills of the people of earth, that they would respond to God’s challenge to turn away from their false gods and turn towards the one true and living God for repentance and restoration.
Moses’s action was an awful parody of an Egyptian rite, where ashes from their altars were sprinkled in blessing, and on occasion part of their magic to end a pandemic, such as cattle pestilence. Pharaoh and his court would have been familiar with this ritual, and may even at first have wondered what bad could come from it.
Also, so far as we know, Pharaoh never took back his order for the Hebrews to make bricks without straw, so while all this was going on, presumably the Hebrews were still enduring this bondage. Think of the irony then, as Moses and Aaron lifted up soot from a brick kiln, representing the worship of Egyptian people to bless their cattle, yet also representing Pharaoh’s cruel treatment.
Soot from a Kiln
In Moses’s hands the people’s worship of lesser gods and their cruelty towards God’s own became a curse scattered upon the earth.
Ashes from an Altar
In the same way, the burning coals on the altar of incense became a series of tribulations scattered through the sky to settle upon the whole earth.
Pharaoh’s people suffered a pestilence of boils that ironically also infected their cattle. The people in John’s vision fared far, far worse.
Fire in the Sky
Then the first [trumpet] sounded: and there came hail and fire having been mingled in blood then thrust into the earth; and the third of the earth was completely burned, and the third of the trees was completely burned and all the green grass was completely burned.Revelation 8:7
There continue to be Exodus undertones to this first trumpet’s tribulation.
The third and final cycle of Exodus plagues tackled some of Egypt’s most powerful and deeply entrenched gods, the gods of the sky.
At the seventh plague skies became a hellish roil of black clouds, and rained hail and fire.
A few days later came plague eight, the sky again turned black, this time with clouds of locusts which literally stripped the land of all plants.
The last plague blackened the sky with three days of inky darkness. This was the most terrifying plague yet. Egyptians dreaded the night because they felt vulnerable and unprotected when the sun-god departed from the sky.
God had gotten God’s final point across: The Lord is sovereign over even the gods of the cosmos itself.