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Are These Judgments Literal or Symbolic


Did you notice that each trumpet judgment produces a literal result? For example, in verse 7, fire comes down from the sky and burns up a third of the trees and vegetation. In verse 9, a third of the ships sink after a great mountain impacts the sea. In verse 11, people die from drinking poisoned water after a blazing star impacts Earth. These events are consistent with the laws of physics, so it is possible the first four trumpets are literal descriptions of literal events. In other words, what else would fire, trees, and vegetation symbolize in the first trumpet if not fire, trees and vegetation? What else sinks real ships and causes real people to die if not two great asteroid impacts? For that matter, what do the sea creatures and people drinking poisonous water represent in verse 11 if not real sea creatures and real people? What else could the sun, moon, and stars represent in verse 12 if not the sun, moon, and stars that are normally visible? 


When it comes to interpreting apocalyptic prophecy, many pastors and scholars do not understand the necessity of using valid rules of interpretation. When valid rules are not used, one cannot study the Revelation and arrive at its intended meaning. This oversight has led many scholars to assert that the seven trumpets are symbolic because they believe “the whole book of Revelation is a book of symbolism.” If we evaluate the core of this argument, it is just another way of saying, “No one really knows what Revelation means.” For hundreds of years this tactic has enabled so-called experts to spin fancy interpretations that have little or nothing to do with the intended meaning.


If the book of Revelation forever remains a book of symbolism, we face two insurmountable problems. First, what kind of language would God have to use if He wanted mankind to regard the fire, trees and vegetation in the first trumpet as literal fire, trees, and vegetation? What words would God have to use if He wanted us to understand that during the third trumpet desperate people will drink poisoned water out of rivers and springs and die? If God wants the world to know that the first four trumpets are literal events, what would He have to say? We know that the four phenomena (peals of thunder, rumblings, lightening, and the earthquake) that precede the fiery hail of the first trumpet are literal, and we can see that the first four trumpets are consistent with the laws of physics, so treating the first four trumpets as symbols is not a valid argument.


If the first four trumpets are in fact symbolic descriptions of things other than what they say, where are these symbols defined? When a prophetic element is deemed symbolic, human beings are not free to interpret symbols according to their imagination. There must be relevant Bible texts to define the symbol; otherwise, the Bible cannot speak for itself. According to Rule Three, every time God creates a symbol in apocalyptic prophecy, God Himself defines that symbol. This simple process enables the Bible to speak for itself, that is, without an interpreter (pastor or scholar).


Consider two examples. A great prostitute is introduced in Revelation 17:1 and she is defined a few verses later (verse 18) as “the great city” that will rule over the kings of Earth. The seven stars in Revelation 1:16 are defined a few verses later (verse 20) as “the seven angels of the seven churches.” These two examples show how relevant texts interpret symbols. When we follow valid rules of interpretation, we are not at liberty to go rummaging through the Bible to find a disconnected verse that we can apply to something that we want to call a symbol. When God wants something understood as a symbol, He always defines the symbol by declaring the meaning of the symbol in a relevant text.  Rule Three of apocalyptic prophecy says, “Apocalyptic language can be literal, symbolic, or analogous. To reach the intended meaning of an apocalyptic prophecy, the student must consider (a) the context, (b) the use of parallel language in the Bible, and (c) relevant texts that define the symbol if an element is thought to be symbolic.” If we follow this simple rule (along with the other three), we will avoid reaching conclusions that have nothing to do with the intended meaning.


Calling the first four judgments “symbolic” is unwarranted. God has described the seven trumpets with language that makes perfect sense once you understand the full cup principle, God’s use of vocabulary, and the end of corporate mercy. Everyone on Earth will see and experience the first four trumpets when they fall. They will be very literal and very harmful.


Jesus Spares Two-Thirds


Did you notice the repetitive use of thirds in the first four trumpets? The Bible says a third of the trees were burned up, a third of the ships sank, and a third of the day was without light. “One third” is mentioned twelve times in the seven trumpets! This repletion is deliberate and important because Jesus assures us a dozen times in the seven trumpets that He is a generous King. To understand the ancient practice of sparing one-third and destroying two-thirds, we have to examine some passages from the Old Testament.


During Old Testament times, if a conquering king felt that grace was merited or that grace was politically expedient, he would spare one-third of his enemies after defeating them. Notice this text: “David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute [paid their taxes].” (2 Samuel 8:2, insertion mine)


King David was as generous as he was wise. He spared one-third of the Moabites for two redemptive reasons. First, he felt the surviving Moabites might have a change of mind and gladly pay their tribute [taxes] if he spared their lives. (Isn’t it amazing what people can do when motivated by gratitude?) Second, David did not want to destroy his tax base.

David knew that in years to come, the Moabites would recover from this war and repopulate. Their future taxes would mean additional income for Israel’s treasury! So, David spared “a third” of the Moabites. Now that you understand why ancient kings sometimes spared one-third of their enemies, notice that Jesus followed this principle when He destroyed Jerusalem during the days of Nebuchadnezzar:


 “Therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because you have defiled my sanctuary with your vile images and detestable practices, I myself will withdraw my favor; I will not look on you with pity or spare you. A third of your people will die of the plague or perish by famine inside you: a third will fall by the sword outside your walls; and a third I will scatter to the winds and pursue with drawn sword.” (Ezekiel 5:11,12, italics mine)


This last text is another confirmation of the ancient custom of sparing one-third and destroying two-thirds:


“’In the whole land,’ declares the Lord, ‘two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.’” (Zechariah 13:8)


Now that we have surveyed the ancient custom of sparing one-third and destroying two-thirds, the process of destroying one-third in Revelation should make sense. This repetitive language tells us the seven trumpets are redemptive in nature. The seven trumpets will be mixed with mercy (remember, atonement blood was mixed with the fire that was cast down upon Earth). Instead of destroying two-thirds of everything, the Lord restrains Himself by only destroying one-third. In other words, Jesus is “double generous!” Of course, very few people will think that Jesus is double generous when He destroys one-third of everything on Earth, but man’s ignorance has no bearing on God’s actions. Man learns from God, not the other way around. If Jesus destroyed two-thirds of everything during the seven trumpets, His wrath would be justified in the eyes of watching angels because corporally speaking, Earth today is very similar to Earth in Noah’s day – beyond corporate redemption.


Sixty Days?


Earlier, I indicated that the first four trumpets judgments will produce death and destruction on a biblical scale that exceeds human calculation. These four judgments will ruin Earth to the extent that recovery will be impossible. I also indicated that the first four trumpets will occur during a period of about sixty days. Even though the Bible does not explicitly declare the timing of the first four trumpets, there is come indication they will happen in a rapid-fire sequence after the censer is cast down. Please consider the following:


The Bible predicts that mankind will quickly respond to the first four trumpets by setting up a crisis government called “Babylon.” Of course, world leaders will not call their new creation “Babylon.” The Bible calls this coming government “Babylon” because its behavior will parallel the ancient kingdom of Babylon, both in arrogance and ignorance. The Bible also indicates Babylon will persecute God’s saints for forty-two months. (Revelation 13:5) Because the Great Tribulation will last approximately forty-five months (1,335 days, Daniel 12:11,12), Babylon has to form within ninety days after the Great Tribulation begins in order to persecute the saints for forty-two months (forty-five months minus forty-two months leaves ninety days). Since Babylon has to begin persecuting the saints within ninety days after the censer is cast down, this suggests that the first four trumpets will come in a rapid–fire sequence. Here is why:



1.   A rapid-fire sequence of judgments on notably wicked places will silence the argument that these horrific events were random acts of nature. If the first four trumpets were months apart, these judgments could be interpreted, as random acts of nature and the argument favoring a random string of “natural disasters” would be difficult to silence. Moreover, if the first four trumpets were months apart, nothing else could move diverse religions and nations to unite and form Babylon so that the persecution of God’s people all over the world can begin within ninety days.


2.   If the first four trumpets were months apart, it would be impossible to get people to thoughtfully consider the gospel presented by the 144,000. (The 144,000 will begin their work on the day the censer is cast down.) Until religious paradigms are shattered and a theological vacuum is created, people will not listen to a gospel that is contrary to their current beliefs. If the first four trumpets do fall within a short period on notably wicked places, this would force reasoning people to admit that (a) God is on the warpath against wickedness, and (b) something must be done quickly to appease God or He May destroy everyone.


3.   If the first four trumpets occurred in a rapid-fire sequence, the resulting shock and awe would totally overwhelm the whole world. Panic and trembling would be so great that a war involving nuclear exchanges would end. Panic and fear of “The Living God” would bring world leaders (religious and political) into a humble union. United by terror and motivated by fear, they would move quickly to appease God. Man’s fear of more wrath explains the sudden formation of Babylon. Everyone on Earth will conclude that God is angry. Of course, extreme circumstances require desperate solutions, and the Bible predicts that man’s solution to appeasing God’s wrath will be extreme (otherwise unthinkable).


Even these factors are combined and mathematically aligned; it is reasonable to conclude that the first four trumpets will occur within ninety days. Furthermore, it seems likely that Babylon’s persecution could begin as early as the sixty-four day of the Great Tribulation. (This calculation will be explained later.) Evidently, Babylon forms during the darkness of the fourth trumpet, and Babylon’s leaders will humbly, logically, and out of necessity, move quickly to do everything possible to appease God by reversing man’s degeneracy. However, in their efforts to do good, the leaders of Babylon will end up doing evil- persecuting God’s saints for forty-two months.


Even though we have not discussed and aligned all of the time periods mentioned in the book of Revelation, I hope you will consider the data presented in Diagram 12.2. As this commentary progresses through the book of Revelation, it should become increasingly clear that God has left little wiggle room for moving things around in the book of Revelation once all the prophecies are put on the table. For now, this simple chart should give a basic understanding of where this commentary is headed.



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