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
Though each perspective sees the fulfillment of these trumpets occurring in very different timeframes, there are certain overarching themes on which all four views agree. Each trumpet announces acts of God’s wrath in which the Church is largely protected. There is a distinct correlation to the plagues of Egypt that was meant for us to see. Whatever calamities and woes are represented, their intent is two-fold: enacting justice and urging to repentance.
The historical perspective sees the first four trumpets as representing four separate major attacks on the Roman Empire, with the first trumpet blowing at the beginning of the fifth century. Interpreters turn to a passage in Job which designates hail as a symbol of God’s judgment.
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,God to Job, Job 38:22-23 (NRSV)
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
Combining this passage with God’s supernatural contest with the gods of Egypt along with John’s depiction of blood and fire, the destruction of fertile fields and stands of trees, and the picture of war emerges. In the fifth century CE, the Roman Empire withstood the first serious onslaught in eight hundred years, challenging Rome’s authority—the invasion of the Goths and Vandals.
Over the course of the two years between 408 and 410 CE, these ravaging hordes plundered the heart of the empire, attacking Rome three times, burning everything in their way, and finally destroying the capital city the year their Visigoth leader Alaric died.
Metaphorically, the trees and green grass might represent, respectively, church leaders and congregants, and the third mentioned may refer to either a third of the empire or a third of the known world.
Those who focus on the destruction of Jerusalem see the first four trumpets as perhaps happening simultaneously with regards to acts of war. The last three trumpets would also be happening during the same time, but as announcement of woes. All seven trumpets would have sounded between 66 to 70 CE as the Roman army exacted its rage on Judea, combatting the rebellion of the Jewish people.
Pointing to the plagues of Egypt as the tumultuous breakwaters of the new nation of Israel coming into being, so now the seven trumpets signaled the turbulence of the Kingdom of God coming into being. Just as Egypt, the great persecutor of the Hebrews was destroyed, so now Jerusalem, the great persecutor of the Church would be destroyed.
In this scenario, the trees and green grass would represent the people, even the people of God, swept up in the horrific circumstances of Jerusalem’s downfall. Others contend it might refer to the actual defoliation of the once lush Judean countryside, as the great Jewish historian Josephus described.
And now the Romans, although they were greatly distressed in getting together their materials, raised their banks in one and twenty days, after they had cut down all the trees that were in the country that adjoined to the city, and that for ninety furlongs round about, as I have already related.
And truly the very view itself of the country was a melancholy thing; for those places which were before adorned with trees and pleasant gardens were now become a desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down: nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change: for the war had laid all the signs of beauty quite waste.Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book VI, chapter 1:1
Though most scholars who foresee a future fulfillment understand these predictions literally, some find the trumpets so extraordinary in their dreadfulness, it is wondered if perhaps, in at least this oracle, John was speaking symbolically. Part of their hesitation comes from the extreme loss of life. There would indeed be a vanishingly small remnant remaining.
Such commentators suggest the third of the world perhaps indicates a union of western nations, the trees would represent international leaders, and the green grass the populations of those nations. Others suggest perhaps hail, fire, and blood all act as symbols of God’s divine wrath, that green grass stands in for agriculture and commerce, and the trumpets blow God’s judgment on a resurgent, future-day Roman Empire. In this case, the great conflagration would be a world swept over by forms of totalitarianism and despotism.
Most, however, envision a third of the earth’s forests literally destroyed by a hail of fire, a third of the earth’s landmass set aflame, and all the grasses and plants incinerated. In the Hebrew scriptures, God always fulfilled prophecy in a concrete and measurable fashion, bringing to completion every detail of the prediction, if sometimes in a surprising manner.
God also visited increasingly grave judgments on unrepentant Egypt, which are understood as literal events. Each plague involved natural events occurring in decidedly unnatural ways with uncanny timing, indicating God’s supernatural hand at work.
In fact, one commentator claimed this first trumpet’s call has at least one historical precedent, found in Camille Flammarion’s book, The Atmosphere. Evidently, blood-red rain fell on a town near Genoa, Italy in 1744.
Another commentator ascribes this global inferno to the after-effects of nuclear catastrophe, setting off a cascade of disasters. The world’s food supply will be burned acre by acre, the colossal loss of vegetation along with the smoke and ash will create extreme smog conditions, and there will be massive loss of life.
The spiritual approach points out the several roles trumpets play in the scriptures.
- The shofar announced the Day of Remembrance.
- Trumpets led parades of triumph.
- Kings were crowned to the calls of cornets.
And watchmen in their towers sounded the shofar in warning of coming danger, often of invading armies.
In this case, because a third of the world (and not all of the world) is affected, these trumpets act as warnings of the great judgment to come on the Day of the Lord. There is a series of trumpets, calamities which often follow each other, rather than specific events aimed at a particular group or era. As do preterist scholars, theologians who take the spiritual view note the first four trumpets represent earthly afflictions affecting physical arenas—the land, the oceans, the fresh rivers and lakes, and the heavens.
The last three trumpets depict woes or griefs that overtake humankind. The Church remains protected throughout, but those who reject God experience these afflictions and woes, first in judgment of the Church’s persecution, and second in the hope that those who reject God will now repent and turn to the Lord for rescue.
The spiritual view sees the trumpets overlayed with the seals. They are the same events seen from a different vantage, and are symbolic, affecting every time period of history. These tribulations will increase in occurrence and intensity as the end of human history approaches.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg