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Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets


If you have trouble understanding the trumpets in Revelation, consider this about the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1-11):

There is scarcely so uniform an agreement among interpreters concerning any other part of the Apocalypse as respecting the application of the fifth and sixth trumpets, or the first and second woes, to the Saracens (Arabs) and the Turks. It is so obvious that it can scarcely be misunderstood. Instead of a verse or two designating each, the whole of the ninth chapter of the Revelation, equal portions, is occupied with a description of both.  

I have taken the quotation from a historicist reading of Revelation in the nineteenth century, under the heading “The Moslem World in Prophecy.” The writer says that 1) most interpreters agree on its meaning; 2) “it is so obvious that it can be scarcely misunderstood”; and 3) the fifth trumpet refers to the Saracens (Muslim Arabs) and the sixth trumpet to the Turks.

Who wrote it? My source is Uriah Smith (1832-1903), for one hundred years the most influential interpreter of Daniel and Revelation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The statement appears as a quotation in Smith’s Thoughts on Daniel and Revelation. His source, in turn, was Alexander Keith (1792-1880), a Scottish clergyman who wrote copiously on prophecy and whose writings appear in uninterrupted quotations page after page in Smith’s book. The claim to clarity is disarming, showing a family likeness to other writers from that period, including Charles Darwin (science), Karl Marx (philosophy), Sigmund Freud (psychology), and Albert Schweitzer (theology). Lucidity, clarity, specificity, and certainty are characteristics common to all these writers, and Smith is no exception. Those were the days.

But Smith’s interpretation of the fifth trumpet has fallen on hard times. Today, there is no unanimity among interpreters; few will say that its meaning is obvious (I count myself as an exception; I believe the meaning is obvious); and very few agree that the fifth trumpet depicts the rise of Islam and the sixth trumpet the Ottoman Turks. A few holdouts persist, one of whom was the late R. A. Anderson. As late as 1974, he said this in Unfolding the Revelation of the fifth trumpet:

No more descriptive prophecy can be found in all the Bible. The blast of the fifth trumpet was fulfilled in the rise and progress of the Arabs. Arabia has been called ‘the pit of the abyss,’ because of its deserts and empty areas. It was here that Mohammedanism arose and spread like ‘a smoke.’ This false and fanatical faith threatened at one time to obscure the light of the gospel.

In Smith’s interpretation, the seven trumpets describe specific historical events, beginning with the demise of the Roman Empire. Throughout, he relied on Alexander Keith, who was indebted to Edward Gibbon’s inimitable prose. Blast after trumpet blast, Smith offers a succession of historical events.

FIRST TRUMPET: The blast of the first trumpet has its location about the close of the fourth century and onward, and refers to these desolating invasions of the Roman Empire under the Goths.            

SECOND TRUMPET: The sounding of the second trumpet evidently relates to the invasion and conquest of Africa, and afterward of Italy, by Gaiseric (Genseric), king of the Vandals. His conquests were for the most part naval, and his triumphs were “as it were a great mountain burning with fire, cast into the sea.”                                                        

THIRD TRUMPET: It is here premised that this trumpet has allusion to the desolating wars and furious invasions of Attila, king of the Huns, against the Roman power.                

FOURTH TRUMPET: We understand that this trumpet symbolizes the career of Odoacer, the first barbarian ruler of Italy, who was so intimately connected with the downfall of Western Rome. The symbols sun, moon, and stars — for they are undoubtedly here used as symbols — evidently denote the great luminaries of the Roman government, its emperors, senators, and consuls.

FIFTH TRUMPET: The meaning of this term may be learned from the Greek abyssos, which is defined “deep, bottomless, profound,” and may refer to any waste, desolate, and uncultivated place. It is applied to the earth in its original state of chaos (Genesis 1:2). In this instance it may appropriately refer to the unknown wastes of the Arabian desert, from the borders of which issued the hordes of Saracens, like swarms of locusts.

FIFTH TRUMPET (continued): Like the noxious and even deadly vapors which the winds, particularly from the southwest, diffuse in Arabia, Mahometanism spread from hence its pestilential influence — arose as suddenly and spread as widely as smoke arising out of the pit, the smoke of a great furnace. Such is a suitable symbol of the religion of Mahomet, of itself, or as compared with the pure light of the gospel of Jesus. It was not, like the latter, a light from heaven, but a smoke out of the bottomless pit.

What to say? Smith’s history-telling is lucid, monochromatic, specific, and brimming with certitude. He presents a history lesson to be learned — no ifs, ands, or buts. The exegetical and historical merits are not clouded by caveats or alternative points of view. It is, first, a stellar example of Miles’ Law, named after Rufus Miles (1910-1996), who served in high positions in the US government and taught at Princeton University. Miles’ Law puts it like this, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Uriah Smith sat in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the temporal “where” was the nineteenth century. His point of view assumes common ground with the historical views and prejudices of his time, and his understanding of Revelation differs little from those of Alexander Keith. Smith also sits ensconced in a consensus bubble. There is no need to present an alternative view, to argue for and against, or to win the argument against competing options. Smith assumes that his audiences will acquiesce. They find his exposition in line with the textual evidence and sufficient for their needs.

Second, we see a world of distances. The distance is temporal and spatial. Temporally, four of the trumpets are in the distant past — featuring strange and scary names: Genseric, Alaric, Attila the Hun, and Odoacer. Smith has told it like it is. There is no felt need on the part of the audience to disturb the graves of the fallen. Spatially, the world of the trumpets affords the serenity and comfort of distance. Smith’s rhetoric does not have to reckon with Moslems in Battle Creek (or in New Jersey). He can say derogatory things about Islam without fearing reprisals or a contrary point of view. And he does. Islam occupies the whole of the fifth and sixth trumpet. Smith calls the religion thus depicted “noxious and…deadly vapors,” a “pestilential influence,” and “smoke out of a bottomless pit.” R. A. Anderson chimes in a century later, just before the comfort of distance is no longer possible, calling Islam “that false and fanatical faith.” 

Third, we see a bold and rapid leap from the text to application, from the symbol to the historical referent. Few today will consider it responsible exegesis.

New Historicism

The foregoing is “Old Historicism” with respect to the trumpets. Time took a toll; its shelf-life was expiring. At the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, some fifty years ago, a revision took place to what I call “New Historicism.”

In 2012, Angel Manuel Rodriguez, formerly the director of the Biblical Research Institute, wrote an article in Ministry Magazine under the title, “Issues in the Interpretation of the Seven Trumpets of Revelation.” His article grapples with the new reality. Uriah Smith is no longer the only voice in town. The trumpets are Exhibit One in a newly arrived diversity. Rodriguez says that “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…end-time Babylon.” “Because this is a major departure from the traditional approach, it is necessary to make a few comments about it,” writes Rodriguez. What is the problem, if there is one? It is this: “The question is whether this interpretation remains compatible with the historicist approach.” The view of the trumpets differs rather spectacularly from the views espoused by Uriah Smith. The following is excerpted from Ranko Stefanovic’s commentary:

FIRST TRUMPET: The biblical evidence leads one to conclude that the first trumpet blast portrays the consequences visited upon those who rejected and crucified Jesus and opposed the gospel. In the destruction of the Jewish nation with its capital city Jerusalem in A.D. 70, many of the Jews were ‘burnt up.’

SECOND TRUMPET: Like flames of fire from heaven came Genseric the Vandal, Alaric the Goth, and Attila the Hun, leaving in their wake scenes of ruin, desolation, carnage, and blood, irresistible and destructive as a flaming mountain, the hordes of barbarians fell upon the peoples of Rome (quoted approvingly from Edwin Thiele).

THIRD TRUMPET: If the first two trumpet sounds deal with the fall of the Jewish nation and the Roman Empire responsible for the death of Christ, then the scene of the blowing of the third trumpet has to do with the period of history following the fall of the Roman Empire…often referred to as the Dark Middle Ages.

FOURTH TRUMPET: While the third trumpet scene depicts in symbolic language the consequences of the spiritual decline and apostasy of the medieval Christian church, the fourth trumpet scene portrays the deepening of the prevailing darkness in the world in the period that followed the Dark Ages.

Next, the intellectual revolution of the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, that characterized Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, ended the rule of Christian faith over the Western mind. The new phenomenon rejected traditional religion and led to the outgrowth of rationalism, skepticism, humanism, and liberalism.  Its final product was the birth and rise of secularism.

FIFTH TRUMPET: Thus the fifth trumpet refers to the spiritual condition in the secular world and the consequences of such conditions from the eighteenth century to our time.

The oppressive rule of the church was replaced by the atheistic philosophy in various forms, such as deism, relativism, nihilism, nationalism, and communism.

The smoke from the demonic abyss may be observed, for instance, in the various movements within Christianity that are promoting a religion based largely on emotions, which has taken the place of the religion of mind and conduct. Yet this demonic smoke can equally be observed in the widespread New Age movement and the growing activities of Islam.

With respect to historical realities, much has changed from the Old Historicism to the New. The barbarian invasions are reduced from four trumpets to one. Islam, to Uriah Smith “so obvious that it can scarcely be misunderstood,” has barely made the short list, not as the blazing Ottoman Empire of old but in the form of “the growing activities of Islam.” All new is the Dark Ages (the third trumpet), the Age of Enlightenment (fourth trumpet), and secularism (fifth trumpet). What was succinctly political in the old view, is diffusely ideological in the new perspective.

The historicism of this interpretation has acquired an urbane, intellectual flavor that is not found in Smith. To Smith, the world is ending in late Ottoman times, and there is no need to engage the issues of the Age of the Enlightenment. Both Hans LaRondelle and Jon Paulien, forerunners of the Stefanovic commentary, take stock of Revelation’s use of the Old Testament. This is almost absent in Smith, who draws clean, uncomplicated, uncluttered lines from Revelation’s text to history. No less significant (in my view) is LaRondelle’s theological sophistication. He is versed in Christian apologetics in the twentieth century, and he knows the theological tradition. Coming together now in the exposition of the trumpets is the punitive tenor of Exodus and Deuteronomy and the Calvinist tenor of retribution. Let the evidence speak for itself.

The apocalyptic seals, and by extension the trumpets and bowls, are all to be understood as Messianic judgments. The enthroned Christ is the Lord of history, both the Lion of Israel and the Lamb of God (Rev. 5:5, 6). This means that the rejecters of the blood of the Lamb will have to face the “wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16, 17) (La Rondelle).

The seals reach their climax in the cry for vengeance from the martyrs under the altar. This cry is answered in the judgments of the seven trumpets which fall on those who do not have the seal of God (9:4). Thus, while the seals are church related, the trumpets have to do with those who oppose Christ through their opposition to the gospel. In the trumpets, judgment has begun for the rejecters of the gospel. In order words, the primary focus of the seals is on redemptive judgment, while in the trumpets the primary focus is on punitive judgment (Paulien).

The throwing of fire to the earth is followed by the manifestation of divine wrath in the form of peals of thunder and voices and flashes of lightning and an earthquake. These are the symbols of the appearance of God, much like his appearance on the Mount Sinai with fire, thunder, lightning, and earthquake (Exod. 19:16-19). This phenomenon represents the answer to prayer which God is about to give to his people. He is preparing to bring his righteous judgments and vengeance upon those who viciously harassed and oppressed the faithful (Stefanovic).

For those who read my previous submission (“Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details”), these views are unremarkable. Theologically, they are decidedly mainstream Protestant views with or without recourse to Revelation. The trumpet calamities are “covenant curses,” and they suggest a punitive logic in history. To Rodriguez the novelties pass muster. He says of these and five additional interpretations that the diversity “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.” He concludes magnanimously that “the views summarized in this paper are all compatible with the historicist method of prophetic interpretation.” And yet there is a red line. “As long as this particular methodology is not undermined, the church should allow for a diversity of interpretations.”

Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets

To Miles’ Law again, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” This law also applies to how a trusted Bible scholar at the BRI adjudicates new and old in Seventh-day Adventist approaches to Revelation’s trumpets. His “sacred cow” is historicism, and he is fiercely protective. I will use hyperbole (intentional exaggeration), but the bottom line is that you can say almost anything — you can move from Attila the Hun in the old view to Baruch Spinoza in the new — if you maintain a historicist framework. Such fluidity is possible because of where the interpreter sits: he sits within a Seventh-day Adventist context, and he is spared peer review by non-SDA scholars and readers. He also, surprisingly, sits in a post-modern context unlike Uriah Smith. For the latter, specificity and precision are intrinsic to historicism. In the New Historicism, imprecision and wide-ranging intellectual experimentation are not a problem. The thought that post-modernism salvages historicist readings of the trumpets may seem preposterous, but let it be tried.

The New Historicism is broad and accommodating with respect to what John’s visions meant to include. I have counted ten explicit -isms under the fourth, fifth, and sixth trumpets in what is now the most influential SDA commentary on Revelation: rationalism, skepticism, humanism, liberalism, secularism, deism, relativism, nihilism, nationalism, and communism. Three more are implicit, “movements within Christianity that are promoting a religion based largely on emotions, which has taken the place of the religion of mind and conduct” (“emotionalism”) and the assertion that the demonic smoke “can equally be observed in the widespread New Age movement (‘spiritualism’) and the growing activities of Islam (‘Mohammedanism’).” Gone are the good old days of lucidity, monochrome, and strange political powers. Welcome to the brave new world of complexity, polychrome, and ideological turf battles.

Where does the New Historicism sit? I doubt it sits in Berrien Springs, Michigan. My hunch is that it sits somewhere in the heart of post-war Europe, perhaps in Holland or Belgium, two countries where the preoccupations of the New Historicism were intensely felt, and I imagine these two countries to be points of contact between the old world and the Seminary in Berrien Springs. Biblical exegesis and apologetic priorities have blurred, with new concerns rising to the surface. Despite a list of ten or thirteen undesirable –isms, I wonder about the –isms that did not make the cut. What about colonialism, capitalism, racism, fascism, or male chauvinism? Should they be added to the list? Do they count as bona-fide historicist readings? As a physician, I would like to add childhood leukemia, anorexia nervosa, Alzheimer’s disease, and pancreatic cancer. Why would you not include them?

As a person born in the twentieth century, I insist on including the Holocaust and Hiroshima, if “historicism” is to have any meaning. This could well be my main source of intellectual and emotional distress. LaRondelle was thirteen years old when the deportations of 105,000 Dutch Jews began, most of whom perished at Auschwitz. Was this not enough of a horror to call to mind the imagery of the fifth and sixth trumpet within historicism?

I have put the words “disarray” and “trivia” in my headline. Unlike Rodriguez, I do not think “historicism” will stay credible with the dizzying moves from the Old Historicism of Uriah Smith to the New Historicism of LaRondelle outside the Adventist community. These trumpets give an uncertain sound. I do not propose to resurrect the world of Uriah Smith, but the timeline and proposed events (and ideologies) in the New Historicism are sure signs of disarray. Theologically, the New Historicism stresses a punitive logic in history. I lay that at the doorstep of a European theological tradition with a Calvinist tenor; I consider it a European theological legacy. For trivia, is it possible to move from the horrors of the fifth and sixth trumpets — locusts, scorpions, horses, tails, and tails that have heads — to “a religion based largely on emotions”? Such bizarre, immensely aspirational symbols — and such trite referents! It is possible to do this in the protected space of a reading community, but the result has much more to do with where the reader sits than what the text says.

Where to Sit

You will no doubt say that I cannot escape from the clutches of Miles’ Law any more than my historicist forbears and mentors. Is not the evolution from Old to New in the historicist paradigm proof of Miles’ Law? Must not my proposal reflect where I sit?

I acknowledge that I sit resolutely in a post-Holocaust world. Interpretations of the first trumpet invokes a punitive logic to the fall of Jerusalem and the fate of the Jews in the first and second century. It will not work to invoke that logic for the most searing event of the twentieth.

But that is not where I propose to sit. I propose to heed the summons to “come up here” at the beginning of the sequence of the seven seals (4:1). Look around — see if you can find an empty seat. There should be some because interpreters of Revelation tend to stay earth-bound, whether preterists, historicists, or futurists. The best seat is not somewhere on the timeline of history, either in Ottoman times or in the Secular Age, or somewhere in earthly space, like Battle Creek or Amsterdam. The best seat is inside the text of Revelation.

Now that we have found an empty seat — look around again.

Look at the One sitting on the throne and the scroll sealed with seven seals.

Notice the unease over the sealed scroll.

Feel the tension — the crisis in the heavenly council.

Hear the wailing of John in a nearby seat, sobbing inconsolably.

Look now at the One who has what it takes to take the scroll and break the seals — he looks like a Lamb that was killed with violence. 

Look at the faces of those who have been sitting there for a long time, all the way back to when “war broke out in heaven.” What do they seem to think when the seven trumpets sound?

What do they think when they hear and see this in the sixth trumpet?

The heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths (9:17).

A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone, which proceeded out of their mouths (9:18).

For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm (9:19).

Do the seasoned members of the heavenly council connect the dots? Do they hear the echoes of God’s description of Leviathan in his speech to Job? Surely they do.

Its sneezes flash forth light, and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. From its mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap out. Out of its nostrils comes smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth (Job 41:18-21).

Do they also connect the dots — not only to the historical event that killed “a third of mankind” in the sixth trumpet — but to that day in the primordial world that took such a devastating toll on heaven?

His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth (Revelation 12:4).

Miles’ Law applies — it is true that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” If we sit inside the text of Revelation, up there, somewhere in the stands of the heavenly council, a stone’s throw from where the cosmic conflict began, we shall stand in relation to the message of the trumpets in a less vulnerable spot than the monochrome musings of the Old Historicism or the polychrome imaginations of the New. I will close with a rewrite of Uriah Smith’s take on the fifth trumpet, written from where I sit on the rearmost spectators’ row in the heavenly council.

There is no agreement among interpreters concerning the fifth and sixth trumpets, and yet it is so obvious that it can scarcely be misunderstood. Instead of a verse or two, the whole of the ninth chapter of the Revelation — the darkness, the locusts, the scorpions, the horses, the tails, the heads, and the mouth — is occupied with him.

I looked at the councilors from where I sat. They had goosebumps. Their faces were ashen. They knew full well what they had heard and seen.


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Main photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash. In-line images courtesy of Wellcome Collection (public domain).


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