Read Revelation 8
When the last seal is opened, John records something unique to Revelation so far: silence. While silence is certainly not a foreign concept in the Bible, often indicating reverence or awe in the presence of God. This could certainly be the case as the scroll that was sealed is now open for all. However, it could also be that this silence brings a time of preparation for what is known as the “trumpet judgments,” the next series of seven judgments that are about to take place on the earth.
The golden censer and the burning incense draw their symbolic meaning from the altar of incense in the Tabernacle and Temple and from Old Testament imagery of prayers and actions before God. Such things rose up to God like the smoke of a fire and were thought to produce either “pleasant” or “fowl” odors before the Lord. John records that the incense that was in the golden censer was indeed the prayers of God’s people. Old Testament tradition holds that angels played a part in mediating between God and humanity though this is certainly not something that the New Testament indicates. Jesus Christ is our mediator and also the perfector of our prayers and worship as He presents them before God.
As the seven angels begin to blow their trumpets, the judgments that are poured out on the earth contain some familiar imagery. Thunder, fire, and earthquakes we have seen before indicating in some fashion the presence of God in whatever is happening. The first trumpet judgment, like many of these, draws its imagery directly from that of the 10 plagues in Exodus, something that is echoed in the book of Ezekiel.
The impact of these judgments is expressed by the fraction 1/3, indicating that at least partially, the punishment that is being poured out here is not yet complete.
The second trumpet judgment’s impact is reminiscent of the first plague on Egypt when the whole of the Nile river was turned to blood. Jeremiah also records the image of the mountain begin destroyed as part of a vision regarding the punishment of Babylon, which becomes an image for all the is evil in the world and a focal point for the battle between good and evil later on in Revelation.
Wormwood, the falling star of the third trumpet judgment, is a very bitter tasting plant. The star, John says, taints the fresh water of the world, making it poisonous to drink. This event is reminiscent of the miracle of the waters of Marah, recorded in Exodus 15, except in reverse. Jeremiah records a similar series of events in his prophecies as well in both chapter 9 and chapter 23 of his book.
The fourth trumpet judgment carries a similar theme to the ninth plague on Egypt, that of darkness. These similarities are important to the overall theme of Revelation, that of the ultimate freeing of God’s people. Israel’s exodus represented the freeing of God’s people from bondage; the plagues were God’s action on behalf of His people to punish the enslaver. Here we see similar things happening again, but on a cosmic scale, signaling the coming of the “final exodus” of God’s people from the oppression of sin and evil in the world. This is also why we draw so heavily on imagery from the prophets because they too envisioned this as a result of the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption, reconciliation, and victory that He would bring.
Drawing on imagery like this doesn’t always “explain” what exactly it means, but rather creates connections in the redemptive work of God throughout salvation history. We can then see that what John is witnessing here is not necessarily something new, but instead is the great revelation of God’s work to reconcile the whole world to Himself and put an end to sin and evil once and for all.