Then the second angel sounded a trumpet: and something like a massive mountain blazing on fire was thrust into the sea, then the third of the sea became blood, and the third of the creatures in the seas died – the ones having life – and the third of the ships were destroyed.

Revelation 8:8-9

How interpreters have imagined this scene is in large part influenced by their point of view. Taken simply as a scene, it is horrific. Is it metaphorical? Is it commentary on a situation? Is it prophecy to be literally fulfilled? Is it a warning that may not come to pass if heeded?

Historic

Possibly, the mountain acts as a metaphor for power, perhaps a powerful kingdom that is naturally protected by its size, or its geography.

He stopped and shook the earth;
    he looked and made the nations tremble.
The eternal mountains were shattered;

Habakkuk 3:6 (NRSV)

Being cast into the sea speaks to a significant nautical event, an invasion or maritime battle of some kind.

Mountain as Vandals

Those with an historical perspective see this mountain as the Vandals, led by King Genseric from 428-468 CE. Genseric of the Vandals was evidently known as “the Tyrant of the Sea,” and was the first in nearly seven hundred years to challenge Rome’s naval superiority.

Maritime Victory

Like an ocean of marauders, Vandal pirates swept over land and sea, demolishing Roman vessels, overtaking island conquests, and rampaging through Gaul, Spain, and the north African coast. Their relentless and violent onslaught would have filled the seas with blood.

Rome itself was ransacked, ravaged for over two weeks, leaving its citizenry slaughtered, its city sacked, and its plunder hauled away.

Over the course of the next 137 years, Rome was despoiled five times by the Goths and Vandals.

Preterist

Alternatively, the mountain might be both metaphorical and actual as Mount Zion.

Mount Zion

All Israel was once called the holy mountain of God.

You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
    the place, O Lord, that you made your abode,
    the sanctuary
, O Lord, that your hands have established.

Exodus 15:17 (NRSV)

In this way, first-century Judea and Jerusalem come into view.

Fiery Wrath

What is more, fire is associated with God’s judgment.

When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning,

For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,
    and by his sword on all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

Isaiah 4:4, 66:16 (NRSV)

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire 

Malachi 3:2-3 (NRSV)

Sea of Nations

The sea also carries a biblically symbolic connotation of the Gentile nations. Not only did Jesus call His disciples to become fishers of people, but He later told a parable that pictured the sea as the world of all people. Later, John would receive this same explanation in his vision.

“The waters that you saw … are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.”

Revelation 17:15 (NRSV)

All this put together could be interpreted as the destruction of Jerusalem, the “mountain of God” set to the torch by Rome, the resultant horrific loss of life in that bloody conflict everywhere in Judea, and the Jewish remnant dispersed throughout the “seas” of the Roman empire.

Preterist scholars point to a passage in Matthew’s Gospel that appears to predict this very disaster. Jesus’s disciples watched as Jesus cursed the leafy but fruitless fig tree – an ancient metaphor in itself of God’s people Israel. The following day, when His disciples noted the tree had withered, Jesus replied,

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”

Matthew 21:21 (NRSV)

The inference would be that Jesus was continuing His metaphor of the cursed fig tree the day before to the mountain of God being cast into the sea of nations due to His disciples’ prayers. If so, the prayers of the people depicted at the beginning of John’s vision is carried through the first two trumpets—the angel casting the incense of prayer and the coals of God’s altar onto the earth, with cataclysmic outcomes.

By medieval – medieval, CC BY-SA 4.0

There is also a compelling corollary between this prophecy and Josephus’s account of grisly battle between Rome and Galilee on the Sea of Tiberius.

And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands; and indeed they were destroyed after various manners every where, till the rest being put to flight, were forced to get upon the land, while the vessels encompassed them about [on the sea]: but as many of these were repulsed when they were getting ashore, they were killed by the darts upon the lake; and the Romans leaped out of their vessels, and destroyed a great many more upon the land: one might then see the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped.

And a terrible stink, and a very sad sight there was on the following days over that country; for as for the shores, they were full of shipwrecks, and of dead bodies all swelled; and as the dead bodies were inflamed by the sun, and putrefied, they corrupted the air, insomuch that the misery was not only the object of commiseration to the Jews, but to those that hated them, and had been the authors of that misery. 

Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book III, Chapter 10:9

Futurist

Not unexpectedly, those who look to future fulfillment do not miss the significance of these emblems.

Mountain of Rome

In this case, the mighty nation would be realized in a neo-Roman empire about to meet its demise.

Sea of Gentile Nations

Clear biblical symbology connects the sea with non-Jewish nations.

Fire of Revolution

Whether in some otherwise unknown nation, or in the governments to be overtaken by the Antichrist, this will be a wildfire of change, inflaming all those it touches.

Put together, the neo-Roman empire, led by the despotic Antichrist, will heave itself upon the nations of the world. Its raging conflagration will be a devastating force leaving rivers of blood and crumpled, conquered nations behind it.

Babylon

One commentator refers back to ancient Babylon (which will feature later in John’s Revelation), noting it was once called a “destroying mountain.”

“I am against you, O destroying mountain,”
            says the Lord,
    “that destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you
    and roll you down from the crags
    and make you a burned-out mountain.”

God to Babylon, Jeremiah 51:25 (NRSV)

In this case, the burning mountain would be a spiritual resurgence of Babylon, a false church which God will judge.

Nevertheless, some theologians are certain this is a prophecy meant to be understood literally. Meteorites have hit the earth over the course of millennia, altering its polar tilt, causing massive die-off, boiling the oceans and casting ash into the atmosphere. It is not outside the realm of possibility for an asteroid, or a satellite of some kind, to be supernaturally guided to the planet by angels’ hands.

And at least one commentator reminds the reader of John’s description, something like a massive mountain blazing on fire. Not an actual blazing mountain, but something like one, such as a nuclear warhead.

Spiritual

Some interpreters look to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE as providing a near-term example of John’s vision. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were utterly blotted out in a swift and terrifying event that polluted land, air, and sea.

Perhaps this event acted as a visceral reminder of humankind’s vulnerability and God’s great power. Symbolically, then, the first two trumpets conveyed God’s judgment against humankind’s abuse of the environment and of commerce.


The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg


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