If I pull back a little, I can see the cascade of heavenly incense and glowing embers flung from the delicate and beautiful golden censor into the sky, and now falling gently, perhaps even majestically, through earth’s atmosphere. From heaven’s perspective, perhaps this is a mist of fine ash, the embers still glowing, an aromatic film slowly spreading to blanket the world. But from earth’s perspective, these are impossibly immense celestial objects being hurled seemingly out of nowhere.
Hail, Blood, and Fire
The first of these missiles, associated with the first trumpet, explodes into countless blood-streaming hailstones which ignite a third of the planet’s forests and woods, and scorch countless acres of wheat, barley, rice, and other grains.
Fire and Death
The second of these missiles, associated with the second trumpet, is like a massive mountain of fire, a poisonous projectile that filthies a full third of earth’s water supply, causing colossal die-off of marine life.
The third of these missiles, associated with the third trumpet, becomes a fusillade of concentrated toxin, contaminating a third of all potable water. Indeed, it even adulterates the sources of fresh water, precipitating widespread death.
Smitten Sun, Moon, and Stars
And now a fourth missile (as it were), associated with the fourth trumpet, appears to hurtle towards the sun and all the lights of the sky, smiting them with such force their power wanes by a full third.
All these trumpets have blown cosmic-sized calamities onto the planet. How could something be even worse than this?
But as so often happens with misfortune, when things feel like they could not possibly get worse … they do.
A Lone Eagle Cries Woe
Then I beheld, and I heard one eagle [or perhaps a vulture] flying in the middle of the sky saying in a loud voice, “Alas, alas, alas for the inhabitants upon the earth because of the remaining blasts of the trumpets of the three angels about to be sounded.”Revelation 8:13
Interpreters who see historical fulfillment choose to view this eagle as an angel announcing a turning point. The western half of the Roman Empire has been decimated by relentless attacks by Goths and Vandals, as portended by the four trumpets. Now, the remaining three trumpets will blow the remaining eastern portion of the empire into oblivion. Once destroyed, the Roman empire will be viewed in a new form as the ascendancy of the Roman See, the Catholic Church.
Two of the three outstanding trumpets represent particularly intense and prolonged attacks by the Saracens and then the Turks. The final trumpet will usher in the seven bowls of God’s judgment, which are considered to be directed at the papacy, culminating in the French Revolution.
Theologians in this camp point to eagles – or rather, a particular kind of vulture common in ancient Israel – falling upon carrion as a portent of destruction.
The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagleDeuteronomy 28:49 (NRSV)
his horses are swifter than eagles—Jeremiah 4:13 (NRSV)—See also Lamentations 4:19
woe to us, for we are ruined!
Set the trumpet to your lips!Hosea 8:1 (NRSV)
One like a vulture is over the house of the Lord,
because they have broken my covenant
and transgressed my law.
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.Habakkuk 1:8 (NRSV)
Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather.Matthew 24:28 (NRSV)
In fact, this was a well-known trope in God’s covenant warnings about apostasy—the curse of being devoured by carrion-eating birds.
And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make likethe calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf shall be handed over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives.
Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.Jeremiah 34:18-20 (NRSV)
The eagle signals God’s judgment in the three woes yet to come.
- The first woe represents the turmoil and betrayals among the many factions in Jerusalem.
- The second woe begins with Rome’s siege of Jerusalem.
- The third woe is the actual destruction of God’s holy city.
This final woe caps all the others in its finality. One million died in this final conflict, and the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth was torn stone from stone, to be left in ruins.
Commentators looking to the future for John’s Apocalypse to unfold see the eagle announcing an order of magnitude increase in the intensity of what is to come.
The first four trumpets announce various physical disasters initiated by God’s judgment. The final three trumpets will unleash dark spiritual forces that wreak heretofore unimaginable evil and misery.
By its trumpet blast, each of the first four angels were sounding a warning of the severity to come. God’s divine warnings – only a third of each sphere is harmed in some way – act as omens for the demonic woes in store for those who persist in opposing the Lord. Jesus prophesied of this very moment.
Then [Messiah] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.Matthew 25:41 (NRSV, brackets mine)
Commentators who take a more general view liken the pattern of the trumpets to the pattern of the previous seals.
The first four seals with their horsemen came as a set—four being the number associated with earth.
- There are four corners to the earth
- There are four living creatures in heaven
- God warned of four judgments on Jerusalem for apostacy: sword, famine, wild animals, pestilence.
The last three seals have more to do with martyrs, and metaphysical and mysterious symbology
So now the first four trumpets overlay the seals as a reprise of God’s judgments for apostacy, and the last three trumpets, more grievous than all that precedes them, will be more metaphysical and mysterious in nature.
The progression of amplitude in suffering and severity suggests that as history moves forward, God’s warnings will also increase by degree and become more strident in urgency and pain as the end of time approaches.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg