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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
Revelation 8:8, 9 says,
8 And the second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood; 9 and a third of the creatures, which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Whereas the first trumpet focused upon land events, the second focuses upon the sea. John saw “a great mountain” on fire being cast into the sea. Even as the first trumpet described (in symbolic terms) a Gothic invasion of Italy and the sack of Rome, so also the second trumpet describes, in equally symbolic terms, an invasion from the sea.
First, this “great mountain” was not a literal mountain that was picked up and cast into the sea. Neither was it a large meteor coming from the heavens. Revelation 18:18 and 21 is similar, where it speaking of “Babylon” burning and being “like a great millstone” being thrown into the sea. This, of course, shows the final end of Mystery Babylon, whereas the second trumpet shows the end of Imperial Rome. The metaphor of a mountain being cast into the sea was used by Jesus also in Matthew 21:21. It was never meant to be taken literally.
In biblical symbolism, a mountain is a kingdom. We see this clearly in Isaiah 2:2, 3 where we read,
2 Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many people will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord ….”
The “mountain” established in the last days is later called the “kingdom” of God. It is not a literal mountain, although in earlier times it was certainly symbolized by Mount Zion, a literal mountain (hill) upon which David ruled.
Thus, the second trumpet calls for the overthrow of a kingdom. It has nothing to do with a huge meteor hitting the ocean from outer space, killing a third of marine life. It has rather to do with judgment upon the Roman fleet, as opposed to judgment upon the land-based cities.
We have shown how the Roman Empire was divided between East and West, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin. However, there was actually a third major division. The Western Roman Empire was divided by the Mediterranean Sea into two parts: Europe and North Africa. Hence, the book of Revelation seems to consider the nation in three parts and not merely two.
The wealth of the seven African provinces was not evenly divided among its people. There were huge numbers of slaves as well as serfs who were nearly as bad off as the slaves. These had little or no loyalty to Rome or the governments of their cities. The tremendous wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy land-owners.
And so when the tribe known as Vandals crossed the sea to conquer North Africa, they found many poverty-stricken people who welcomed them as liberators. H. G. Wells tells us in his The Outline of History, page 484,
“Manifestly the Vandals came in as a positive relief to such a system. They exterminated the great landowners, wiped out all debts to Roman money-lenders, and abolished the last vestiges of military service. The cultivators found themselves better off; the minor officials kept their places; it was not so much a conquest as a liberation from an intolerable deadlock.”
How the Vandals arrived in North Africa is an interesting story in itself. They migrated from northeast Europe into Spain and from there they crossed the strait at Gibraltar into Africa. H. G. Wells says on page 482,
“By 425 or so, the Vandals (whom originally we noted in East Germany) and a portion of the Alani (whom we mentioned in South-east Russia) had traversed Gaul and the Pyrenees, and had amalgamated and settled in the south of Spain.”
Meanwhile, in Rome, Honorius had died in 423, leaving the Western Empire to his six-year-old son, Valentinian III. In reality, his mother, Placidia, reigned for 25 years in the name of her son. Rome’s armies were led by two generals, Aetius and Boniface, who ultimately destroyed each other in competing for power.
Genseric became the king of the Vandals in 428. Boniface, one of Rome’s generals, rashly proposed to ally with the Vandals in southern Spain, and he sent them an invitation to settle peacefully in North Africa. The Vandals accepted the proposal, and moved into Africa. Under Genseric’s rule, about 80,000 Vandals moved into Africa in 429, and most of the local population offered no resistance to them, not wanting to see the destruction of their country. Boniface soon regretted this alliance and reversed his policy. Gibbon says on page 475 that he beheld…
“… the ruin which he had occasioned, and whose rapid progress he was unable to check. After the loss of a battle, he retired into Hippo Regius, where he was immediately besieged by an enemy who considered him as the real bulwark of Africa.”
The local population offered no serious resistance to the Vandals. Even Boniface’s troops were Gothic mercenaries from Europe. The Vandals captured the town of Hippo in 431, where, in the third month of the siege, Bishop Augustine died at the age of 76. (Recall that he was the author of City of God, written earlier in 411 A.D.) When the city was burnt, the library was spared, including Augustine’s writings.
After this, the Vandals began their conquest of the Roman fleets in the Mediterranean Sea. They soon took control of the sea from Rome, which is what Revelation 8:8 describes. H. G. Wells summarizes their conquests on page 482,
“And as a result of intrigues between two imperial politicians, the Vandals of the south of Spain, under their king Genseric, embarked en masse for North Africa (429), became masters of Carthage (439), secured the mastery of the sea, raided, captured, and pillaged Rome (455), crossed into Sicily, and set up a kingdom in West Sicily, which endured there a hundred years (up to 534).
Recall that in the first trumpet, Alaric the Goth invaded Italy in a land-based war, but when he attempted to cross the narrow strait into Sicily, a tempest destroyed his ships. Hence, there was no serious judgment upon the Roman fleet in that first trumpet. However, with the advent of the second trumpet, Genseric (or Gaiseric) the Vandal destroyed the Roman fleets. By 455 A.D. they had obtained the mastery of sea and had actually pillaged Rome itself.
The Roman Emperor from 457-461 was Marjorian. He attempted to reform the decaying Roman Empire, but his reign was too short and the empire too far gone. Insofar as the Vandal threat was concerned, he knew, as Gibbon says on page 503, “it was impossible without a maritime power to achieve the conquest of Africa.” And so for three years he built a great fleet of 300 ships, along with other transport vessels, in order to attack Carthage and its Vandal king. But while the fleet lay unguarded in a port of Spain, the Vandals destroyed it. Gibbon says on p. 503,
“Guided by their secret intelligence, he surprised the unguarded fleet in the bay of Carthagena; many of the ships were sunk, or taken, or burnt; and the preparations of three years were destroyed in a single day.”
This event in 460 A.D. destroyed the last hope for Rome to defend against Genseric, the Vandal king. And so from his entry into North Africa in 429 to the final destruction of the Roman fleet in 460, we see the judgment of the second trumpet upon the corrupt, decaying empire. The great mountain of Rome, already burning, as it were, by the fire of divine judgment from the first trumpet, saw its final demise in the sea.
From that moment, it was only a matter of time until the Western Roman Empire, Christian in name but worse than pagan in its immorality and injustice, approached its final end in 476 A.D.
The Donatist Controversy
One of the great symptoms of Church apostasy in those days is shown in the Donatist controversy. During the persecution of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian (in 305 A.D.), the bishops in Africa were ordered to give up their copies of the Scriptures to be burned by the political authorities. Some bishops complied with this order, and their lives were spared. Others, however, resisted and refused, believing it was a terrible sin to comply with this order.
A few years later, the Emperor Constantine ended these persecutions. The “Donatist” controversy then erupted, named after the most important leader of the bishops who had rigorously refused to give up the Scriptures. The Donatists believed that these bishops had denied the faith and should be excluded from the ministry. Others believed their weakness should be forgiven and they should be restored to fellowship. The majority of the mainstream Church ruled against the more rigorous Donatists.
The Donatists were concerned about “holiness” and became somewhat of a Holiness Movement of the day. Its weakness was legalism. The other side was more concerned about grace and forgiveness and became somewhat of a Grace Movement. Its weakness was in overlooking sin in the name of Grace. Both sides had its spiritual men and both had its carnally-minded men. The result of this controversy was that there was a schism in the church between the Orthodox and the Donatist churches.
To his credit, Constantine issued an edict in 321 granting the Donatist churches freedom and toleration. However, in the decades after Constantine’s death, other Christian Emperors attempted to force them back into the mainstream “orthodox” church. The Donatists resisted this forced assimilation, taking a hardline, self-righteous position, and many even resorted to violence themselves. There were actually some Donatist monks, “who wandered about the country among the cottages of the peasantry, carried on plunder, arson, and murder” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, page 362).
Nearly a century went by without resolving the differences. Finally, in 411 A.D., shortly after the sack of Rome, and while Augustine was writing his City of God, representatives from the two groups held a three-day conference in Carthage to try to resolve their differences. In attendance were 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatist bishops. The numbers themselves show how divided the Church in North Africa had become.
The conference again failed to resolve the differences, and did not regain “Church unity.” (By this they meant unity of the religion—not unity in the body of Christ, which is the true Church.) And so, more intolerant laws were passed against the Donatists to try to force them to confess the error of their view and bring them back into the fold. Philip Schaff says on p. 364,
“In 415 they were even forbidden to hold religious assemblies, upon pain of death.
“Augustine himself, who had previously consented only to spiritual measures against heretics, now advocated force, to bring them into the fellowship of the church, out of which there was no salvation.”
Augustine's allowance of the use of force later became the basis for the Inquisitions, where the church used torture and threats of being burned at the stake to coerce "heretics" into recanting their religious views.
They should have allowed what we call “freedom of conscience.” In my view, it is difficult to decide which side was right, because neither side manifested the character of Christ or the fruit of the spirit. They had long since lost sight of the love of the Prince of Peace. Most of them had forgotten that God’s ultimate purpose is not to establish a religion but to prepare for Himself a body in which to manifest the glory of His character and being. However, by this time they viewed the church as an earthly organization requiring membership, rather than as a body of people whose named were enrolled in heaven (Hebrews12:23).
This was the condition of the African church at the time the Vandals arrived. The Church had wasted their opportunity to develop the love of God toward each other. So even though the Vandals were now “the enemy,” no one even thought about showing them the love of God. Thus, instead of the Church looking upon the Vandals as a divine judgment for their spiritual condition, they did not repent. Instead of seeing in this situation an unprecedented missionary opportunity to convert Vandals by love, they reacted in the typical carnal manner like any pagan Roman would have done. Philip Schaff tell us on page 364,
“The conquest of Africa by the Arian Vandals in 428 devastated the African church, and put an end to the controversy. . .”
So ended the judgment of the second trumpet.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.