Issues in the interpretation of the seven trumpets of Revelation
A visionary cycle of Revelation that has proven to be one of the most difficult to interpret is Revelation 8–11, the seven trumpets. The language and imagery are complex; and its application to specific historical events has resulted in a variety of views. This interpretational uncertainty could be confusing to church members and those interested in finding in this apocalyptic prophecy one clear and final interpretation. At the present time such a final interpretation is not available. Perhaps the question we should address is, What can be done to avoid transforming this diversity of opinions into an internal theological struggle? Let me suggest two things. First, we should ask the Lord to strengthen our willingness to work together in a spirit of Christian love and humility in order to build up the church. Second, we should agree on how to approach this apocalyptic prophecy—this is the question of proper hermeneutics.
I do not have anything particularly new to offer, but I will underline the need to remain firmly committed to our nonnegotiable hermeneutical principles of apocalyptic interpretation. I will list some of them in the context of the study of the trumpets.
- In the interpretation of the trumpets, Adventist theologians have almost consistently employed the historicist method of prophetic interpretation because it is grounded in Scripture itself. This method was provided to the apocalyptic visionaries by the angel interpreter. It has proven to be a valid approach to apocalyptic prophecy as illustrated in its use by Jesus, the apostles, and interpreters throughout Christian history. While in this article I will not provide all the necessary evidence to support the most important elements of the historicist method of interpretation,1 I will suggest that the following are indispensable for a proper interpretation of the trumpets:
- Apocalyptic prophecy covers the whole span of history from the time of the prophet to the very end of history (Dan. 7). In order to be loyal to this methodology, it is necessary to apply it to the apocalyptic visionary cycle of the seven trumpets. When we examine this prophecy from our historical moment, we must realize that some elements of the prophecy have already been fulfilled while others are in the process of fulfillment or will soon be fulfilled.
- Hence, the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy takes place within the flow of history as a whole. Consequently, it cannot and should not be interpreted along the lines of preterism or futurism or applied to conceptual abstractions disconnected from specific historical events (idealism).
- Recapitulation is central in apocalyptic prophecies (Dan. 2; 7; 8; 11). The trumpets recapitulate history from a particular perspective and, to some extent, parallel other prophetic cycles of seven found in Revelation.2 Each parallel analyzes the historical period from different and yet supplemental angles.
- The apocalyptic nature of the vision aims at a fulfillment specific enough to be located in one historical event or process. In other words, multiple fulfillments of the trumpets should be excluded from the discussion. 3 This has been considered by us and by the biblical writer to be a fundamental characteristic of apocalyptic prophecy (e.g., Daniel says to the king of Babylon, who represents the kingdom, “ ‘You are that head of gold’ ” [2:38, NIV]; similarly, Gabriel identifies “ ‘the kings of Media and Persia’ ” and “ ‘the king of Greece’ ” as represented by the ram and goat respectively [8:20,21, NIV]).
- The trumpets are not God’s final eschatological judgments upon impenitent sinners but judgments taking place within the flow of history. Therefore, we should clearly distinguish between the purpose of the trumpets and that of the seven plagues (Rev. 16). The plagues will occur at a specific historical moment that will quickly lead to the parousia.
- The mention of time periods within the trumpets should be carefully studied to determine whether we are dealing with prophetic time periods or something else. If the reference is to prophetic time periods, we should attempt to find the historical fulfillment applying the year-day principle to them.
- We should carefully study the biblical antecedents of the language and imagery used to describe each trumpet before attempting to identify their historical fulfillment. This methodological element is based on the hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets itself. Its application excludes the use of our imagination to determine meaning and identify fulfillment.
Using these principles will not guarantee unanimity of interpretation but will set some important parameters for the interpretation of the trumpets. Although differences of opinion cannot be ruled out completely, as Adventist interpreters we should uphold the principles discussed above. For instance, it could be that the language and imagery used in the description of a particular trumpet could be applied by different interpreters to different historical events. This is tolerable as long as a particular historical fulfillment is in view and the biblical text has been carefully analyzed in order to justify that particular possibility. This suggests that, with respect to a full or final interpretation of the trumpets, our journey has not yet reached its intended destination.
Diversity of views
The following chart illustrates how the application of the previous principles of interpretation to the trumpets by dedicated Adventists could result in a diversity of views regarding the prophecy’s precise historical fulfillment. This chart is not comprehensive but illustrative.4
Views on the trumpets
|Trumpet||U. Smith||E. Thiele||R. Naden||C. M. Maxwell||W. Shea||J. Paulien/ H. LaRondelle/ R. Stefanovic||A. Treiyer|
|First||Attack of Visigoths against Rome under Alaric.||God’s judgment on Jerusalem.||God’s judgment on Jerusalem.||God’s judgment on Jerusalem.||Pagan Rome persecutes Christians.||God’s judgment on Jerusalem.||Attack of Visigoths against Rome under Alaric.|
|Second||Attack of the Vandals against Rome.||God’s judgment on pagan Rome.||God’s judgment on pagan Rome.||God’s judgment on pagan Rome.||Fall of pagan Rome.||Fall of the Roman Empire.||Attack of the Vandals against Rome.|
|Third||Attack of the Huns against Rome.||God’s judgment against professed Christian church.||God’s judgment against professed Christian church.||God’s judgment against professed Christian church.||Apostasy of the Christian church.||Apostasy of the Christian church.||Attack of the Huns against Rome.|
|Fourth||Fall of Western Rome.||Darkness of the Middle Ages.||Darkness of the Middle Ages.||Darkness of the Middle Ages.||Darkness of the Middle Ages.||Rise of secular- atheism (Rev. 11:7).||Collapse of Western Rome and its system of worship.|
|Fifth||Rise of Islam. (5 months period; 1299 + 150 = 1449.)||Rise and progress of Islam. (5 months period; 1299 + 150 = 1449.)||Satan’s attack on the Reformation by the Counter- Reformation. (5 months = 150 years; 1535–1685.)||Rise and progress of Islam. (5 months = 150 years; first Muslim attack on Constantinople in 674 to the last in 823 [only 149 years].)||Crusades during the Middle Ages. (5 months = 150 years; 1099–1249; from the capture of Jerusalem to the beginning of the last crusade.)||Reign of secular- atheism. (5 months = God’s judgments are comprehensive but limited; cf. Gen. 7:24; 8:3.)||Rise of Islam against apostate Christianity. (5 months = 150 years; 632–782; first Islamic expansionist wave.)|
|Sixth||Ottoman Empire. (1 day, 1 month, 1 year = 391 years; 1449– 1840.)||Ottoman Empire. (391 years; 1449–1840.)||Time of final crisis; from 18th century to close of probation.||Ottoman Empire. (391 years; 1453, fall of Byzantine Empire to 1844.)||Ottoman Empire. (391 years; 1453–1844, when the edict of toleration was issued.)||Rise of end- time Babylon. The final crisis described in 7:1–3 and Rev. 13–16. (1 hour, 1 day, 1 month, refers to a divine ap- pointed moment of time.)||Ottoman Empire. (391 years; 1453–1844, when the edict of toleration was issued.)|
|Seventh||Mystery of God is finished.||Mystery of God is finished.||Consummation.||Mystery of God is finished.||Mystery of God is finished.||Sets final events in motion. (Summary of events described in Rev. 12–22.)||Time of the end when the mystery of God is accomplished.|
The chart reveals a number of important points. First, it is clear that the traditional view among Adventists, represented by Uriah Smith, is not strongly supported by many interpreters. However, the fact that one scholar (Alberto Treiyer) has recently provided a valuable exposition and defense of the trumpets along the lines of Smith’s indicates that this interpretation should not be easily dismissed. Second, none of the other interpreters follow Smith in his interpretation of the first four trumpets. In fact, if this sample of expositors is of any value, one could easily conclude that a new consensus seems to be emerging in the interpretation of the first four trumpets that radically differs from the views of Smith. Third, there are some significant interpretational differences with respect to the fifth and sixth trumpets. Two interpreters sided with Uriah Smith in their interpretation of the fifth trumpet (Thiele and Maxwell) and three on the sixth trumpet (Thiele, Maxwell, and Shea). But we find among them variations in some details. This suggests that Smith’s interpretation has not been totally put to rest.
Fourth, the most important development in the interpretation of the fifth and sixth trumpets finds in them the rise of secularism and atheism in the Western world and the work of the end-time Babylon (Paulien, LaRondelle, and Stefanovic). 5 Because this is a major departure from the traditional approach, it is necessary to make a few comments about it. The question is whether this interpretation remains compatible with the historicist approach. In my opinion, it seems to be compatible— notice that I am not saying that this is or is not the right interpretation of these trumpets. The main reason for my opinion is that it is neither a preterist or futurist, nor an idealist approach to the trumpets. The apparent problem is that this view identifies the powers described in the trumpets with philosophical and spiritual movements rather than with particular empires or nations. But here we should be cautious. For instance, in the New Testament, Israel is not simply a geopolitical power. Through the coming of the Jewish Messiah the faith of Israel has been universalized, and now the Old Testament Israel of faith incorporates people from every tongue, tribe, and people. There are various other examples from the book of Revelation itself, but the best is probably Babylon. It is no longer a city in Mesopotamia but a symbol of global apostasy and rebellion against God. This interpretational movement from a limited geographical area to a universal phenomenon is also supported by Ellen G. White in the context of apocalyptic prophecies. She takes the apocalyptic reference to Egypt to represent the spirit of the French Revolution that has now reached global dimensions in the form of atheism.6 Therefore this new interpretation of the fifth and sixth trumpets does not undermine historicism. It identifies a global way of thinking that originated in a particular nation and considers it to be the historical fulfillment of the fifth and sixth trumpets. This new approach remains within the boundaries of historicism. Probably the most significant challenge that this view confronts is to provide a valid interpretation to the time elements mentioned in the two trumpets. On the other hand, those who follow Uriah Smith or are very close to his views do not only have to agree on the specific dates for the fulfillment of the prophetic periods but they also need to find a better explanation for the mention of the seal of God in the fifth trumpet (Rev. 9:4).
Fifth, another item that tends to complicate the discussion of the prophetic periods and has influenced some of the expositors is that Ellen G. White seems to support the interpretation of the Millerite preacher Josiah Litch. This is what she says, “In the year 1840 another remarkable fulfillment of prophecy excited widespread interest. Two years before, Josiah Litch, one of the leading ministers preaching the second advent, published an exposition of Revelation 9, predicting the fall of the Ottoman Empire. According to his calculations, this power was to be overthrown ‘in a.d. 1840, sometime in the month of August;’ and only a few days previous to its accomplishment he wrote: ‘Allowing the first period, 150 years, to have been exactly fulfilled before Deacozes ascended the throne by permission of the Turks, and that the 391 years, fifteen days, commenced at the close of the first period, it will end on the 11th of August, 1840, when the Ottoman power in Constantinople may be expected to be broken. And this, I believe, will be found to be the case.‘—Josiah Litch, in Signs of the Times, and Expositor of Prophecy, Aug. 1, 1840.
At the very time specified, Turkey, through her ambassadors, accepted the protection of the allied powers of Europe, and thus placed herself under the control of Christian nations. The event exactly fulfilled the prediction. . . . When it became known, multitudes were convinced of the correctness of the principles of prophetic interpretation adopted by Miller and his associates, and a wonderful impetus was given to the advent movement. Men of learning and position united with Miller, both in preaching and in publishing his views, and from 1840 to 1844 the work rapidly extended.”7
The context indicates that she is describing the experience of William Miller and his supporters in the early 1840s. Since, at that time, she was a Millerite, she most probably accepted Litch’s interpretation of the prophecy. Her main point in the quote is that the fulfillment of his prediction added impetus to the prophetic interpretation of the 2,300 days put forth by William Miller. It has been suggested that what we seem to have here is a retelling of the experience of the Millerites, including hers, without necessarily providing a final interpretation of the prophetic period. Whether this is the case or not will continue to be a matter of debate.8 But the fact that she never again mentions 1840 as a year when a biblical prophecy was fulfilled should make us cautious on White to settle the question. They would rather reexamine the issue by taking a fresh look at the biblical text and examining historical sources. In this particular case, this appears to be a good procedure.
The views summarized in this paper are all compatible with the historicist method of prophetic interpretation. As long as this particular methodology is not undermined, the church should allow for a diversity of interpretations.9 Acknowledging this should immediately rule out dogmatic interpretations and heated discussions that could easily sacrifice Christian humility and love. Every suggested interpretation needs discussion in terms of the validity of the analysis of the biblical text and its alleged historical fulfillment.
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1 For example, see William Johnsson, “Biblical Apocalyptic,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 784–814.
2 On the topic of recapitulation and the trumpets, see Ekkehardt Mueller, “Recapitulation in Revelation 4-11,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 9, no. 1 (1998): 260–277.
3 See Jon Paulien, “Seals and Trumpets: Some Current Discussions,” in Symposium on Revelation—Book I, ed. Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 183–198.
4 The information for the chart was taken from the following sources: Hans LaRondelle, How to Understand the End-Time Prophecies of the Bible: The Biblical/Contextual Approach (Sarasota, FL: First Impressions, 1997); C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, vol. 2 (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1985); Roy C. Naden, The Lamb Among the Beasts (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996); Jon Paulien, “Interpreting the Seven Trumpets,” unpublished paper prepared for the Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference, 1986; William Shea, “Revelation’s Trumpets,” unpublished paper, 1998; Uriah Smith, The Prophecies of Daniel and Revelation (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1944); Ranko Stefanovic, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Berrien Spring, MI: Andrews University Press, 2002); Edwin R. Thiele, Outline Studies in Revelation (Angwin, CA: Class Syllabus, Pacific Union College); Alberto Treiyer, The Seals and the Trumpets: Biblical and Historical Studies (self-published, 2005). I apologize to the authors if I unintentionally misrepresented their views.
5 Jacques Doukhan also supports this particular view (Secrets of Revelation: The Apocalypse Through Hebrew Eyes [Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2002], 84–91). He sees in the first four trumpets the history of the church from post-apostolic times to the great apostasy, paralleling to some extent the seals.
6 She wrote, “ ‘The great city’ in whose streets the witnesses are slain, and where their dead bodies lie, is ‘spiritually’ Egypt. Of all nations presented in Bible history, Egypt most boldly denied the existence of the living God, and resisted His commands. No monarch ever ventured upon more open and highhanded rebellion against the authority of Heaven than did the king of Egypt. When the message was brought him by Moses, in the name of the Lord, Pharaoh proudly answered, ‘Who is Jehovah, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not Jehovah, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ [Exodus 5:2.] This is atheism; and the nation represented by Egypt would give voice to a similar denial of the claims of the living God, and would manifest a like spirit of unbelief and defiance. ‘The great city’ is also compared, ‘spiritually,’ to Sodom. The corruption of Sodom in breaking the law of God was especially manifested in licentiousness. And this sin was also to be a pre-eminent characteristic of the nation that should fulfill the specifications of this scripture” (The Great Controversy [Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1950], 269). In another place, after describing the moral corruption of the world, she asks, “What is to prevent the world from becoming a second Sodom?” (Education [Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1903], 228). Then she adds, “At the same time anarchy is seeking to sweep away all law, not only divine, but human. The centralizing of wealth and power; the vast combinations for the enriching of the few at the expense of the many; the combinations of the poorer classes for the defense of their interests and claims; the spirit of unrest, of riot and bloodshed; the world-wide dissemination of the same teachings that led to the French Revolution—all are tending to involve the whole world in a struggle similar to that which convulsed France” (Ibid., emphasis added). She seems to consider such a mind-set as the one prevailing now in the whole world: “Atheism and infidelity prevail in every land. Bold blasphemers stand forth in the earth, the house of God’s own building, and deny the existence of the Creator, and challenge the God of heaven to strike them dead on the spot if their position is wrong. Behold the societies of infidels everywhere forming to devise means to spread their hellish poisons!” (Review and Herald, May 4, 1886). It is clear that for Ellen G. White the names of the cities stand now for worldwide movements that were initiated in France during the French Revolution. This way of looking at apocalyptic prophetic fulfillment still falls within what we call the historicist method of prophetic interpretation.
7 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 334,335. 8 See Robert W. Olson, 101 Questions on the Sanctuary and Ellen G. White (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981), question 52. 9 This is illustrated by the way the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary dealt with the seven trumpets. While affirming the traditional view represented by Smith, it acknowledges other possibilities and avoids dogmatism (see F. D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary [Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1978], 7:778–796).