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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Revelation 8

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-13

Chapter 8

THE SILENCE AND THE THUNDER OF PRAYER (Revelation 8:1-5)

8:1-5 When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense that he might add it to the prayers of the saints on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense went up with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. And the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it on the ground. And there were crashes of thunder and loud voices and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

Before we begin to examine this passage in detail, we may note one point about its arrangement. Revelation 8:2, which tells of the seven angels with the seven trumpets, is clearly out of place. As it stands, it interrupts the sense of the passage and it should come immediately before Revelation 8:7 --probably a copyist's mistake.

The passage begins with an intensely dramatic silence in heaven for about half an hour. The sheer stillness is even more effective than the thunder and the lightning. This silence may have two meanings.

(i) It may be a kind of breathing-space in the narrative, a moment of preparation before another shattering revelation comes.

(ii) There may be something much more beautiful in it. The prayers of the saints are about to go up to God; and it may be that the idea is that everything in heaven halts so that the prayers of the saints may be heard. As R. H. Charles puts it: "The needs of the saints are more to God than all the psalmody of heaven." Even the music of heaven and even the thunder of revelation are stilled so that God's ear may catch the whispered prayer of the humblest of his trusting people.

The picture divides itself into two. In the first half an unnamed angel offers the prayers of the saints to God. In Jewish thought the archangel Michael made prayer for the people of Israel and there was a nameless angel called The Angel of Peace whose duty was to see that Israel "did not fall into the extremity of Israel" and who interceded for Israel and for all the righteous.

The angel is standing at the altar. The altar in the Revelation frequently appears in the picture of heaven (Revelation 6:9; Revelation 9:13; Revelation 14:18). It cannot be the altar of burnt-offering, for there can be no animal sacrifice in heaven; it must be the altar of incense. The altar of incense stood before the Holy Place in the Temple (Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:46). Made of gold, it was eighteen inches square and three feet high. At each corner it had horns; it was hollow and was covered over with a gold plate, and round it was a little railing, like a miniature balustrade, to keep the burning coals from falling off it. In the Temple incense was burned and offered before the first and after the last sacrifices of the day. It was as if the offerings of the people went up to God wrapped in an envelope of perfumed incense.

Here we have the idea that prayer is a sacrifice to God; the prayers of the saints are offered on the altar and, like all other sacrifices, they are surrounded with the perfume of the incense as they rise to God. A man may have no other sacrifice to offer to God; but at all times he can offer his prayers and there are always angelic hands waiting to bring them to God.

There is another half of this picture. The same angel takes the censer, fills it with coals from the altar and dashes it on the ground; and this is the prelude to the thunder and the earthquake which are the introduction to more terrors. The picture comes from the vision of Ezekiel, in which the man in the linen-cloth takes coals from between the cherubim and scatters them over the city (Ezekiel 10:2); and it is kin to the vision of Isaiah in which his lips are touched with a live coal from the altar (Isaiah 6:6).

But this picture introduces something new. The coals from the censer introduce new woes. H. B. Swete puts it this way: "The prayers of the saints return to the earth in wrath." The idea in John's mind is that the prayers of the saints avail to bring vengeance upon those who had maltreated them.

We may feel that a prayer for vengeance is a strange prayer for a Christian, but we must remember the agony of persecution through which the Church was passing when the Revelation was written.

THE SEVEN ANGELS WITH THE TRUMPETS (Revelation 8:2; Revelation 8:6)

8:2,6 And I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God, and seven trumpets were given to them; and the seven angels with the seven trumpets prepared to sound the trumpets.

These seven angels, known as the angels of the presence, were the same as the archangels. Their names were Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel and Remiel (Tobit 12:1; Tobit 12:5).

That they were called the angels of the presence means two things. First, they enjoyed a special honour. In an oriental court it was only the most favoured courtiers who had the right at all times to the presence of the king; to be a courtier of the presence was a special honour. Second, although to be in the presence of the king meant special honour, even more it meant immediate readiness to be despatched on service. Both Elijah and Elisha repeatedly spoke of "the Lord God of Israel before whom I stand" (1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:15; 2 Kings 3:14; 2 Kings 5:16); and the phrase really means, "The Lord God of Israel whose servant I am."

The seven angels had seven trumpets. In the visions of the Old and the New Testament the trumpet is always the symbol of the intervention of God in history. All these pictures, and there are many of them, go back to the scene at Mount Sinai, when the law was given to the people. There were on the mountain thunders and lightnings and thick cloud, and a very loud trumpet blast (Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:19). This trumpet blast became an unchanging part of the apparatus of the Day of the Lord. In that day the great trumpet will be blown and it will summon back the exiles from every land (Isaiah 27:13). On the Day of the Lord the trumpet will be blown in Zion and the alarm sounded in the holy mountain (Joel 2:1). That day will be a day of trumpet and alarm (Zephaniah 1:16). The Lord will blow the trumpet and go out with the whirlwind (Zechariah 9:14).

This picture passed into the New Testament visions of the last day. Paul speaks of the day when the trumpet shall sound and the corruptible will put on incorruption (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). He speaks of the trumpet of God, which is to sound when Christ comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Matthew speaks of the great sound of a trumpet when the elect are gathered in (Matthew 24:31).

It would be wrong to expect God literally to blow the trumpet; but none the less the picture has symbolic truth in it. A trumpet blast can be three things:

(i) It can sound the alarm. It can waken from sleep or warn of danger; and God is always sounding his warnings in the ears of men.

(ii) It can be the fanfare which announces the arrival of royalty. It is a fitting symbol to express the invasion of time by the King of eternity.

(iii) It can be the summons to battle. God is always summoning men to take sides in the strife of truth with falsehood and to become soldiers of the King of kings.

THE UNLEASHING OF THE ELEMENTS (Revelation 8:7-12)

8:7-12 The first angel sounded a blast on his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood and launched themselves on the dry land; and a third part of the dry land was burned up, and a third part of the trees was burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

The second angel sounded a blast on his trumpet, and what I can only call a great mountain burning with fire was hurled into the sea; and a third part of the sea became blood, and a third part of the creatures in the sea who had life died, and a third part of the ships were destroyed in wreckage.

The third angel sounded a blast on his trumpet, and a great meteor blazing like a torch fell from heaven; and it fell on a third part of the rivers, and on the springs of water. And the name by which the meteor is called is Wormwood; and a third part of the waters became wormwood; and many of mankind died because of the embitterment of the waters.

The fourth angel sounded a blast on his trumpet, and a third part of the sun was smitten, and a third part of the moon, and a third part of the stars, so that a third part of their light was darkened, and so that a third part of the day did not shine, and so with the night.

Here we have a picture of the elemental forces of nature hurled in judgment against the world. At each blast on the trumpet a different part of the world is attacked; the destruction that follows is not total for this is only the prelude to the end. First, the blast of destruction falls on the earth (Revelation 8:7); then it falls upon the sea (Revelation 8:8-9); then it falls upon the fresh water rivers and springs (Revelation 8:10-11); then it falls on the heavenly bodies (Revelation 8:12). The tide of destruction is unleashed on every part of the created universe.

We have further to note where John found his imagery. For the most part the pictures find their origin in the descriptions in Exodus of the plagues which fell on Egypt when Pharaoh refused to allow the people to go.

In John's picture hail and fire and blood fall upon the dry land. In Exodus 9:24 we read how there came upon Egypt fire mixed with a hail of unparalleled destructiveness. John to increase the terror adds blood, remembering Joel's picture of the day when the sun would be turned into darkness and the moon into blood (Joel 2:10). In John's picture a third part of the sea becomes blood and the fishes in it die. In Exodus, when Moses lifted up his rod and smote the waters, the waters of the Nile turned to blood and the fishes in the river died (Exodus 7:20-21). In Zephaniah's picture of the Day of the Lord the threat of God is: "I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea" (Zephaniah 1:3). There is no parallel for the picture of the fall of the flaming star, but there are many to the ideas of waters turning to wormwood.

Wormwood is a general name for the class of plants known as artemisia whose characteristic is bitterness of taste. They are not really poisonous in the sense of being fatal, although they are noxious, but the Israelites dreaded their bitterness. Wormwood was the fruit of idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:17-18). It was the threat of God through Jeremiah that God would give his people wormwood to eat and the waters of gall to drink (Jeremiah 9:14-15; Jeremiah 23:15). Wormwood always stood for the bitterness of the judgment of God on the disobedient.

In John's picture there came a darkening of a third part of the lights of heaven. In Exodus one of the plagues was a darkness that could be felt over the whole land (Exodus 10:21-23).

As we have so often seen, John is so steeped in the Old Testament that its visions come to him as the natural background of all that he has to say.

In this case it is by no means impossible that John is taking at least a part of his picture from actual events which he had seen or of which he had heard. A rain which looks like a rain of blood has more than once been reported from the Mediterranean countries. There is, for instance, a record of such a rain in Italy and all over south-east Europe in 1901. The reason for it is that fine red sand from the Sahara Desert is caught up into the upper air; and then when the rain comes it seems to be raining blood, as the rain and the fine red particles of sand fall together upon the earth. It may well be that John had seen something like this or had heard of it.

Further, he speaks of a flaming mass falling into the sea. This sounds very like a volcanic eruption. There was an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August Of A.D. 79 which decimated Naples and its bay. That would be within a very few years of the writing of the Revelation. The Aegean Sea has volcanic islands and volcanoes beneath the sea. Strabo, the Greek geographer, reports an eruption in the Aegean Sea, in which Patmos lay, in the year 196 B.C., which actually resulted in the formation of a new island called Pataia Kaumene. Such events also may have been in John's mind.

In this picture of terror John has the vision of God using the elemental forces of nature to warn man of the final destruction to come.

THE FLYING EAGLE (Revelation 8:13)

8:13 And I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in mid-heaven crying with a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe! for those who dwell on the earth, because of what is going to happen when the rest of the trumpets speak, which the three angels are about to sound."

Here we have one of the pauses in the story which the Revelation uses so effectively. Three fearful woes are to come upon the earth when the three angels sound the last blasts on the trumpets; but for the moment there is a pause.

In this pause the seer sees an eagle--not an angel as the King James Version has it. It is quite possible that the Greek could mean "one solitary eagle." The expression "mid-heaven" means the zenith of the sky, that part where the sun is at midday. Here we have a dramatic and eerie picture of an empty sky and a solitary eagle winging its way across its zenith, forewarning of the doom to come.

Again John is using an idea which is not new. We have the same picture in Second Baruch. When the writer of that book has seen his vision and wishes to send it to the Jews exiled in Babylon by the waters of the Euphrates, he goes on: "And I called the eagle and spake these words unto it: 'The Most High hath made thee that thou shouldest be higher than all birds. Now go, and tarry not in any place, nor enter a nest, nor settle on any tree, till thou hast passed over the breadth of the many waters of the river Euphrates, and hast gone to the people that dwell there, and cast down to them this epistle'" (Baruch 77:21-22).

The picture is not to be taken literally but the symbolism behind it is that God uses nature to send his messages to men.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 8:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-8.html. 1956-1959.

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