How should we understand the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls in the Book of Revelation?
The seven seals, trumpets, and bowls depicted in the book of Revelation represent the final judgments of God that are poured out on an unbelieving world in the end times. Some have tried to argue that the judgments spoken of in the book are things that either took place during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 or have been taking place throughout all of human history.
These arguments, however, do not hold up under the biblical and historical evidence, which points to a future fulfillment. Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, writes in his work Against Heresies (5.30.3), that "John [the author of Revelation] received the Revelation in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian." Domitian's reign ended in AD 96, so most Biblical scholars date Revelation to the mid-90s A.D, several decades after Jerusalem's fall at the hands of the Romans in AD 70.
Also, in the beginning of John's vision, he is specifically told that the things that he will see will be in the future: "Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this" (Revelation 1:19, emphasis added). These things being true, the case for what is called the "futurist" interpretation of the book of Revelation rests on solid ground.
The seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments are introduced in chapters 6, 8, and 15 of Revelation. Each judgment is broken up into seven distinct acts that bring destruction to the earth and those who are alive at that time. The number seven in the Bible often refers to perfection and/or completeness, and the fact that there are three categories of judgments – perhaps corresponding to the Trinity –may indicate that these are judgments from the triune God and represent His full and complete wrath upon a rebellious world.
The judgments begin with the seal judgments, first introduced in chapter 5 of Revelation: "Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, 'Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals'" (Revelation 5:1–5).
God the Father holds in His right hand (the right hand symbolizing authority) a book, which in the first century would have actually been a scroll made of some sort of papyrus rolled from both sides and held shut with seven seals. The scroll has writing on both the inside and outside, which was typical of contracts in the Middle East. The inside of these scrolls contained the details of the contract, and on the outside was written a summary of the contract. Only the owner of the property or valuables was legally authorized to break the seals affixed to the scroll.
This is what is being communicated in Revelation 5. Jesus Christ, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, is presented with His inheritance, which is the earth and all it contains: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession" (Psalm 2:8). His property has been usurped and stolen by Satan, and the contents of the document contain not what the inheritance is, but how Christ will regain what is rightfully His.
The first six seal judgments are unleashed in chapter 6 of Revelation and are comprised of the following:
• First seal (vv. 1-2) – the Antichrist is let loose upon the world
• Second seal (vv. 3-4) – wars begin and peace is lost
• Third seal (vv. 5-6) – famine breaks out
• Fourth seal (vv. 7-8) – the ultimate result of war and famine, which is death
• Fifth seal (vv. 9-11) – persecution of God's people, which brings more of God's vengeance on the world, but not until their evil has been filled up with the last martyr's death
• Sixth seal (vv. 12-17) – a great earthquake along with other celestial upheavals
The seal judgments are also described in Jesus' Olivet discourse, found in Matthew 24. The first four are mentioned in vv. 1-7; the fifth in vs. 9; and the sixth in vv. 7 and 29.
The breaking of the seventh seal occurs in Revelation 8 and marks the second wave of judgments, the trumpet judgments: "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. … Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them" (Revelation 8:1-2, 6).
The first six trumpets are comprised of the following judgments:
• First trumpet (vs. 7) – one third of earth, trees, grass is burned up
• Second trumpet (vv. 8-9) – one third of the sea creatures die and ships are destroyed
• Third trumpet (vv. 10-11) – one third of the waters polluted and many die
• Fourth trumpet (vs. 12) – one third of the sun, moon, and stars are darkened
• Fifth trumpet (vv. 9:1-11) – Locusts/demons are released to torment people
• Sixth trumpet (vv. 9:13-19) – Four bound demons are released to kill one third of humankind with an army
The sounding of the seventh trumpet proclaims Christ's soon coming and ushers in the last and final series of judgments, the bowl judgments: "Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. … And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever" (Revelation 15:1, 7).
Whereas many of the trumpet judgments affect one third of their target, the bowl judgments are more comprehensive in their effect:
• First bowl (vs. 16:2) - Horrible sores on those with the mark of the beast
• Second bowl (vs. 16:3) - Everything in the sea dies
• Third bowl (vv. 16:4-7) - All the waters are polluted
• Fourth bowl (vv. 16:8-9) – The sun burns and scorches people
• Fifth bowl (vv. 16:10-11) – Brings complete darkness over Antichrist's kingdom
• Sixth bowl (vv. 16:12-16) – The Euphrates dries up ; the kings of the East come, and the scene is set for the battle of Armageddon
• Seventh bowl (vv. 16:17-21) – Produces a great earthquake; cities of nations fall; a huge hailstorm occurs
The seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of Revelation teach a couple of important truths. First, God's end times and eternal wrath are inevitable. The end times cannot be stopped by anyone or anything: "Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?" (Isaiah 43:13).
Second, there is a way to escape God's wrath before it comes. Paul writes in Romans: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (cf. Romans 8:1). Believers will not face judgment, because their sins were judged when Jesus died in their place on the cross (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).
This being the case, everyone today would do well to listen and act upon what John says to his readers as he begins to write the book of Revelation: "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near" (Revelation 1:3).
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