Judgments on the Eastern Roman Empire
In the main, Adventist commentators have followed the traditional Protestant interpretation of the fifth and sixth trumpets, and have attributed them to the attacks of the Moslems against Christianity, especially directed against the Eastern Roman Empire. This understanding has the Arab invasions represented by the fifth trumpet and the Turks represented by the sixth trumpet.
Because there has been little evidence of repentance on the part of God’s professed people, the judgments intensify. The last three trumpets are introduced with the words, “Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth” (Rev. 7:13). Indicating that these last three trumpets are much more severe than the first four. Ellen White writes that the woes were directed against the apostate church:
The “woe, woe, woe!” was pronounced upon a church who walked in the sparks of their own kindling, who did not derive their light and power from the great central Light, the Sun of Righteousness, and diffuse that light and glory to those who were in darkness. [PH028] 3.
The Fifth Trumpet
At the introduction of the fifth trumpet, again we see Satan falling from heaven. He opens “the bottomless pit” (Rev. 9:2), and out comes a horde with the appearance of locusts and with the ability to sting like scorpions. Many Bible commentators, have likened these locusts, to the conquests of the Moslem armies, that began to sweep out of the deserts of Arabia, during the seventh century. It is a remarkable thing that the eventual limits of the Arab conquests, correspond quite accurately to the natural geographical range of locust when they swarm.
These locusts had a king over them called ‘Abaddon’ in Hebrew and ‘Apollyon’ in Greek. The English equivalent is ‘destroyer’ (Rev. 9:11). Thus, the prophetic picture is pointing to the rise of Islamic power under the leadership of Satan. These ‘locusts’ were able to destroy, conquer and subjugate much of what was formally ‘Christian,’ because God had withdrawn His protection from the nominal church. However, there was one class of people that God had not withdrawn His protection from:
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. Rev. 9:4.
This first part of this verse, is meant to be contrasted with the second half of the verse. The first category is protected by God, the second category is not protected by God. If the second category is described as people without the mark of God’s approval – it is reasonable to assume that the green grass, and the trees are a category of people that God does approve of. This conclusion is further reinforced by going back to the experience of Ezekiel in vision, when he saw the angel dressed in linen putting a mark on the people destined for protection, whereas those without the mark were destined for destruction (see Eze. 9:4-11).
This prophecy was fulfilled in practice. The Moslems regarded Christians who honored and followed the Bible, as ‘people of the Book.’ The Moslems shared a common heritage with both Christian and Jew, and they allowed people who respected the Old and the New Testaments, to live relatively peacefully within their domains.
The reference to the period of five months (see Rev. 9:5,10) is 150 prophetic years (following the year for a day principle). During this 150-year period, there is a reference to tormenting and hurting, but not killing (Rev. 9:5, 10). The Arab armies certainly killed people. This command not to kill is therefore not meant to be understood literally. The 150 years and the command not to kill, can only be understood with a short diversion into the history of the breakup of the Roman Empire, and an account of the Arab conquests.
The Byzantine Empire
When Constantine the Great, became emperor, he moved the capital of the empire from Rome in 330AD, to a new location, at Byzantium. It was here that he founded a new city called Constantinople. The western half of the empire soon collapsed, under the onslaught of the barbarian tribes. But the eastern half of the empire did not collapse. It endured for another 1100 years. It eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire. In time, it lost its Latin origins and it became the greatest proponent of Greek culture and the greatest defender of the Greek Orthodox Church. But its origins were Roman and it cherished its Roman heritage, even if the language changed from Latin to Greek and the church changed from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox. It was this Roman Empire in the east, that became the greatest defender of ‘Christian Europe.’ Without this Roman Empire in the east, the Roman Catholic Church in the west would never have survived.
The success of the Eastern Empire was mainly due to its strategic position. Constantinople sat where present-day Istanbul sits today. Even today, this is a location of vital significance – but even more so then. It sits on the most accessible land route between Europe and Asia – with a short sea journey in between. When the Arab armies burst out of the desert, they found their way to Europe blocked by the Byzantine Empire. Repeatedly, they tried to take the city of Constantinople. They either had to conquer the Byzantine Empire, or they had to invade Europe through the Caucasus Mountains, much further to the east, or across the straits of Gibraltar, from North Africa into Spain even further to the west.
The passes through the Caucasus Mountains were well defended by a warlike tribe of people, known as the Khazars, and the Arab armies failed to get through. They had more success in the west, and penetrated as far as the south of France, before being beaten back at the Battle of Tours in the year 732AD. However, the real goal of the Arabs, was to capture the shortest route into Europe. To do this they had to conquer the Byzantine Empire. And to defeat the empire, they had to capture the fortress city of Constantinople.
Torment but not Kill
However, the prophecy says that the Arabs were not allowed, to kill those who needed heaven’s chastisement (see Rev. 9:5). The command not to kill referred to the fact that the Arabs were allowed to torment the Byzantine Empire for 150 years, but they were not allowed, or not able, to “kill” it. God does place restrictions on what Satan is allowed to do. When Satan challenged God over the loyalty of Job (see Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6), God said that Satan could “torment” Job, but that he could not kill Job. The same situation applies here. God has not totally withdrawn his protection – he is allowing the torment to take place, in the hope that the judgments will awaken the people’s spirituality.
If the Arabs had been successful in “killing” the empire, history would have been very different. One historian described the first successful resistance as having incalculable consequences. Speaking about the influence of the Byzantine emperor at the time he wrote:
He [the Byzantine emperor] had inspired his subjects with the moral to withstand five years of siege by a power hitherto considered irresistible, and in so doing he had saved Western civilization. Had the Saracens [Arabs] captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books, England, p. 101.
Tormented for 150 years
The prophecy states: “And it was given that they [the Arabs] should not kill them, but that they [the Byzantine Empire] should be tormented five months…” (Rev. 9:5). Prophetically, five months is 150 years. The Britannica has this interesting commentary on the battles between the Arabs and the Byzantines:
In 961 Nicephorus Phocas, then domestic (commander) of the armies in the West, reconquered Crete and destroyed the Arab fleet that had terrorized the Aegean for 150 years; he thereby restored Byzantine naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. In 962 his strategy achieved unexpected triumphs all along the eastern frontier and culminated in the capture of Aleppo in Syria… The ground lost to Islam in the 7th century was thus fast being regained… The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol.15, Article, Byzantine Empire, p.390.
The victories beginning in the year 961, heralded a turning point in the relationship between the Arabs and the Byzantines. In retrospect the ‘torment’ inflicted by the ‘scorpions’ was over. The Byzantines had bought themselves a respite, by attempting to reform their compromised Christianity. This reform movement is known historically as the Iconoclast Movement.
Idolatry and Iconoclasm
Just as the ancient Israelites had fallen into the forbidden practice of idolatry, so too, did the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Greek Orthodox Church in the east. The desire for a literal religion, as opposed to a spiritual religion, was just as prevalent in medieval times as it was anciently. Just as God sent judgments, upon His people in the past, to stop the practice of idolatry (see Deut. 4:14-28; Jer. 1:16; Rom. 1:18-25), so now, the purpose of the judgments in Rev. 9, is to stop the practice of idolatry (see Rev.9:20, 21).
In the past, God appointed heathen kings and nations to chastise His people, and work out His will for His people (see Deut. 28:48, 49; Jer. 25:9-12; 27:6; etc.). Once again, God uses the same methods to chastise and judge His people. It is interesting to note, what the Mohammedans themselves thought, was the purpose of their wars against the Christians. One Turkish ruler, Mahomet II, published the following throughout his empire:
I Mahomet, son of Amurath… emperor of emperors and prince of princes, from the rising to the setting sun, promise to the only God, Creator of all things, by my vow and my oath, that I will not give sleep to my eyes, that I will eat no delicates, that I will not seek out what is pleasant, that I will not touch what is beautiful, nor turn my face from the west to the east, till I overthrow, and trample under the feet of my horses, the gods of the nations, those gods of wood, of brass, of silver, of gold, or of painting, which the disciples of Christ have made with their own hands. Sismondi History of Italian Republics, vii. 397. Quoted by Mr. Birks, Mystery of Providence, p. 429.
Therefore, during the ‘torment’ inflicted by the Arabs, we should not be surprised to find the Christians themselves, involved in controversy and conflict over the issue of idolatry. Historians have named this struggle ‘iconoclasm.’ The name is derived from the practice of destroying icons [idols]. Even the emperors themselves, supported the iconoclastic movement and it was an emperor who initiated the movement. However, the majority of the church leaders always opposed the destruction of their treasured icons and ‘holy’ relics. The fact that enemies, especially the Arabs, always beset the empire, and it never seemed to have a moment of peace, was not lost on its leaders. They made the connection between the ‘torment’ and the idols. In connection with the Arab raids on the empire, another historian records the effect these raids had upon the emperor Leo III, one of the greatest Byzantine emperors and one of the emperors who supported and encouraged iconoclasm:
The emperor seems to have taken the common Byzantine attitude that such setbacks were evidence of divine wrath that needed appeasing. In 722 he tried forcing the empire’s Jews to accept baptism. Even that precaution, however failed to stop the Arabs from sacking Iconium the next year and finishing their reconquest of Byzantium Armenia by taking Camachum. Not long afterward, Leo began to consider another possible reason for God’s anger, that the use of icons of Christ and the saints might violate the biblical commandment against idolatry. A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997, p. 350.
The first serious Arab/Moslem attack began in the year 674AD, when the city withstood a siege lasting for five years. There was another siege that failed in the years 717/718. The last attempt was made in 823AD.
The first two attempts to take the city, by the Arabs, were mainly sea borne efforts. The last attempt, was to be a grand design, of land conquest, with the building of a chain of fortresses from the Arab held lands, right to the walls of the city. At this time, the Taurus Mountains in southern Anatolia, were the established boundary between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. The Arab Caliph began the conquest by building the first fortress on the Byzantine side of the mountains. The Byzantine emperor’s reaction was to resume the opposition to idolatry:
The Caliph announced plans to construct a chain of such strongholds until he reached Constantinople. In the face of this mighty and implacable enemy, the emperor decided to resume persecuting iconophiles [the party that supported the worshipping of icons], which after all seemed to help Leo V [one of the more successful emperors, who supported and encouraged iconoclasm]. Ibid. 439.
In the same year that the invasion began, the Caliph died. His successors abandoned the invasion, dismantled the fortress and returned home. Theophilus was the Byzantine emperor at the time of this invasion. History records his reaction:
Theophilus apparently took this as a divine reward: as soon as he began to persecute iconophiles, God had struck his enemy dead and ended the invasion. The emperor became surer than ever that iconoclasm was God’s will and insured temporal success. Ibid. 439.
However, in spite of the fact, that most emperors and the army at this time, supported iconoclasm, the movement to rid the empire of idolatry eventually failed. Iconoclasm was only supported by a minority of the church leadership, and it was always opposed by a majority of the people. In the year 843, under the jurisdiction of another emperor and with the approval of the church, iconoclasm was officially ended by an edict of the state. This outcome was prophetically foretold. The prophetic record of this Byzantine period says:
And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands [making idols], that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: neither repented they of their murders, not of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts. Rev. 9:20, 21.
The Sixth Trumpet
Because of their refusal to give up idolatry, the Byzantine probationary time, eventually came to an end. Under the sixth trumpet a new impetus is given to the Islamic cause with the arrival of a new tribe of people. The Seljuk Turks [later called Ottoman], were a part of the wave of tribes moving from east to west. They invaded what is present day Iran and converted to Islam. They then settled the area through which the Euphrates River flowed. But further progress put them in direct confrontation with the Byzantine Empire.
The Turks enter the prophetic picture, when the command is given: “Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates” (Rev. 9:14). The Euphrates River is about to overflow its banks again. Once again, the imagery of the Old Testament is brought to bear, to illustrate and symbolize, the enemy going forth to punish and chastise the apostate people of God. This time there is no command not to kill. On the contrary the prophecy says “the third part of men” (Rev. 9:18) were killed by the horsemen in the vision. Thus, the Empire fell with the capture of the city in 1453, and was “killed.” The Islamic host swept on into Europe and reached as far as the city of Vienna, in Austria, before they were finally beaten back.
God’s judgment upon the empire and its supporters, was proven to be justified because, in spite of God’s efforts to quicken the spiritual consciousness of the people, the prophecy foretold that they would not repent or cease their “worship of devils, and idols of gold and silver” (Rev. 9:20, 21).
It is a significant irony, that at this very moment in time, the Protestant Reformation was taking place in Europe. The apostate forces, that reigned in Europe at this time, found it difficult to interfere with the early progress of this reformation, because they were totally occupied, in beating back the Islamic assault, and they could not afford to fight a war on two fronts at the same time. Therefore, the Moslems were indirectly responsible for protecting God’s people. Just as they protected those of God’s people that lived within their own borders, from the reach of the persecuting power of the ‘beast’ that reigned in Europe at this time.
Preparing for 1844
The sixth trumpet includes a time prophecy of, “an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year” (Rev. 9:15). On the prophetic time scale, this is the equivalent of 391 years. From 1453, when the Ottoman Turks captured the city of Constantinople, it is exactly 391 years, until the year 1844, when Jesus entered the most holy place in heaven, to begin the investigative judgment. Before we proceed further, we need to consider the construction of this time prophecy a little closer, focusing on the ‘hour’ part of the prophecy. One Bible commentator is particularly instructive:
Let us look at the “hour” first. Because an hour is the twenty-fourth part of a day, some readers have suggested that the hour here represents a twenty-fourth part of a year, or 15 days, leading to a total of 391 years and 15 days. There is, however, another attractive interpretation. In Revelation 14:6,7 an angel uses the term “hour” in the phrase “the hour of his judgment,” referring to the final judgment. Revelation 20 shows that the final judgment will last for at least 1000 years. So – because the 391 years are related to one of the trumpet judgments – some commentators suggest that the “hour” in our passage represents another “hour of judgment,” this one lasting 391 years.
Commentators who prefer to think of an “hour” of judgment extending 391 years call attention (1) to this use of the article the (in the Greek) only with “hour,” setting the “hour” apart from all the other terms. Thus, they say, the “hour” can indeed mean an “hour of judgment,” even though the day, month, and year retain their more ordinary meanings. These commentators also remind us (2) that in New Testament times it was common practice in Greek to use and in an explanatory or epexegetical manner. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:38, “God gives it a body as he has chosen, and [or rather, that is to say] to each kind of seed its own body.”
In the light of these considerations we can helpfully translate the phrase this way, “for the hour: and [or rather, that is to say] for a day, and a month, and a year.” So now, interpreting the “hour” as an hour of judgment, we get this: “For the hour of judgment; that is to say, for a period of judgment extending over a day and a month and a year, symbolic of 391 years.”
Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares (Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, Idaho 1985) vol. 2, pp262, 263.
The Ottoman Turks were given this 391-year period “for to slay the third part of men” (Rev. 9:15). The time period opens with the destruction of the city and the fall of the Eastern Empire – after which the Moslems invade the domain of the Western Roman power and threaten, it too, with destruction. During this time the pressure on the Western Roman power, allows the Protestant Reformation to take root and this in turn gives rise to the Advent Movement. Just as the Advent Movement begins to rise, the Moslem pressure declines and allows the Advent Message to be heard around the world, even in the Moslem territory itself.
As the prophecy predicted, in the early 1840’s, Turkish power had declined to the point where the Ottoman Empire was known as, “the sick man of Europe.” When the Russians, tried to take advantage of their weakness, they could no longer even defend themselves. They had to rely on Britain and France to come to their defense during the Crimean War.
In 1798, the beast that had been persecuting and killing the people of God received “its deadly wound” (Rev. 13:3) and its power to persecute was broken. At the same time, the fate of the Ottoman Empire was very much in the hands of the Christian nations of Europe by the early 1840’s. And during this same time period, the atheistic forces that had appeared in France had been temporarily defeated and would not disturb the peace of the world again for many more years. Thus, all the enemies of God had either been defeated or were being held in check, at this time. Why? Because this was also the time of the birth of the Advent Movement, and it needed a time of peace and relative security to prosper and grow. Jesus said “thou hast a little strength” (Rev. 3:8). After ‘the great disappointment,’ the Church of God, was weak, confused and few in number. The Advent Movement needed time to find its feet – and God was providing a respite so that, His people could prepare for the new trials ahead.
The fifth and sixth trumpets, correspond perfectly with the fifth and sixth churches and the fifth and sixth seals. Once again, we see the Bible telling the same story in different ways. The fifth and sixth churches are dealing with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the Advent Movement. Both the Protestant and Advent Movements, take place in the same time periods as the fifth and sixth trumpets and indirectly they were assisted by Moslem pressure diverting the attention of the powerful persecuting powers, away from them. The fifth and sixth seals are also dealing with events, that took place during the times of the fifth and sixth trumpets. The fifth seal is dealing with the persecuted and martyred people of God during this period and the sixth seal is dealing with the Second Coming of Christ and events leading up to the Second Coming of Christ, which is the time and message of the Advent Movement.
The purpose of the fifth and sixth trumpets, is the same, as the first four trumpets. To awaken the people to their true spiritual condition and prepare them for the anti-typical Day of Atonement and the Second Coming of Christ. It is for this reason, that it is no accident, that there now appears a parenthesis between the sixth and seventh trumpets, specifically dealing with the movement, that heralds the great anti-typical Day of Atonement and the Second Coming of Christ.