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We have so far discussed the first two trumpets which brought invasions upon the Western Roman Empire from 410-460 A.D. God’s next judgment upon them was Attila the Hun. John speaks of the third trumpet in Rev. 8:10, 11,
10 And the third trumpet sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters; 11 and the name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood; and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter.
This is not to be understood as a literal star, comet, or meteor falling from heaven, which pollutes a third of the rivers on earth. Neither do the waters themselves become wormwood, as verse 11 appears to say, if one takes it literally. It is a symbolic way of saying that a destructive army has fallen upon a third of the rivers (or tributaries) of Roman territory (earth), causing hardship and great bitterness.
The bitterness of gall and wormwood is mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament and is associated first with men’s idolatry and secondly with God’s judgment for that idolatry. Wormwood was the bitter water (juice) of gall. Strong’s Concordance tells us that gall was actually the poppy plant. Hence, wormwood is its juice, which is full of opium. Even as such drugs destroy men’s lives in the natural, so also does God’s wormwood-like judgment destroy whole nations. Hence, wormwood has to do with the judgment of God. Jer. 23:15 says,
15 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concern-ing the prophets, Behold, I am going to feed them wormwood and make them drink poisonous water [lit. “water of gall”], for from the prophets of Jerusalem pollution has gone forth into all the land.
We showed in our book, The Laws of Wormwood and Dung, that when religion becomes full of gall (the opiate of the people), God then makes us drink the fruit of our own desires—gall and wormwood. This is the figurative way of depicting judgment that fits the crime.
In the case of Rev. 8:10, 11, Attila the Hun was God’s way of making the Christian Roman Empire drink the bitter waters of gall—that is, wormwood. The people had violated the divine law by allowing a root of bitterness to defile them, even as Esau (Heb. 12:15-17) and Simon Magus (Acts 8:23). Esau had neither faith nor patience and wanted to take the Kingdom by force and violence, rather than by love and peace. Simon Magus thought the Holy Spirit’s power could be purchased with money.
In reading Church history we find that the Church was full of violence against all pagans, Jews, and heretics in their attempt to take the Kingdom by force. We also find that the Church fell into the money trap, thinking that if they could just accumulate enough money, they could bring the whole earth into God’s Kingdom. This is the root of bitterness that defiled them and is the reason for God’s judgment upon the Christian Empire.
The divine law, commenting upon the idolatry of the Canaanites, warned Israel in Deut. 29:18 not to be like them, saying,
18 lest there shall be among you a man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations, lest there shall be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit [“the water of gall”] and wormwood.
The law goes on to tell us that idolatry will bring the judgment of God upon a nation—at least upon those nations that claim the God of the Bible as their God. If they have the Bible, then they are accountable to Him to be obedient to Him.
And so Attila the Hun came from the East, first invading the East as far as Constantinople (446). Then he invaded Western Europe in 450 A.D. We read on page 487 of H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History,
“In 451 Attila declared war on the western empire. He invaded Gaul. . . . He sacked most of the towns of France as far south as Orleans. Then the Franks and Visigoths and the imperial forces united against him, and a great and obstinate battle at Chalons (451), in which over 150,000 men were killed on both sides, ended in his repulse and saved Europe from a Mongolian overlord.”
While retreating, Attila’s cruelty gave him a reputation as “the scourge of God.” Gibbon tells us in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 487-488,
“. . . it was perhaps in this war that they exercised the cruelties which, about fourscore years afterwards, were revenged by the sons of Clovis. They massacred their hostages, as well as their captives; two hundred young maidens were tortured with exquisite and unrelenting rage; their bodies were torn asunder by wild horses, or their bones were crushed under the weight of rolling wagons; and their unburied limbs were abandoned on the public roads as a prey to dogs and vultures.”
Later, on page 489, Gibbon writes,
“It is a saying worthy of the ferocious pride of Attila, that the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.”
The Bible puts it a little differently in Deut. 29:22, 23,
22 Now the generation to come. . . when they see the plagues of the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it, will say, 23 All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. . .
H. G. Wells shows that Attila’s invasions did not end with the battle at Chalons. He says on page 487,
“This disaster by no means exhausted Attila’s resources. He turned his attention southward, and overran North Italy. He burnt Aquileia and Padua, and looted Milan, but he made peace at the entreaty of Pope Leo I. He died in 453. . .”
Gibbon tells us more details of Leo’s intercession:
“Leo, bishop of Rome, consented to expose his life for the safety of his flock. . . The barbarian monarch listened with favorable, and even respectful, attention; and the deliverance of Italy was purchased by the immense ransom or dowry of the princess Honoria.”
Honoria, the daughter of the emperor, Valentinian III, was given to Attila, who added her to his innumerable wives. Such was the price of peace that Rome paid “the scourge of God.”
Valentinian himself, after murdering one of his generals, was in turn murdered by the general’s followers. Gibbon says of Valentinian,
“. . . though he never deviated into the paths of heresy, he scandalized the pious Christians by his attachment to the profane arts of magic and divination.”
In this one brief statement we catch a glimpse into the state of the Church of that time. If the emperor had believed that Jesus was merely similar to God, rather than actually God, he would have been excommunicated. But since he merely murdered his general for no good reason and merely practiced magic and divination, the Church indulged him. Their creeds were more important than either personal righteousness or human lives. Gibbon concludes his chapter by saying,
“If all the barbarian conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West; and if Rome still survived, she survived the loss of freedom, of virtue, and of honour.”
Like Israel of old, the Church forsook the covenant of God. Israel forsook the Old Covenant, the Church forsook the New Covenant. Thus, we read of the purpose of divine judgment again in Deut. 29:24-26,
24 And all the nations shall say, Why has the Lord done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger? 25 Then men shall say, Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. 26 And they went and served other gods and worshipped them, gods whom they have not known, and whom He had not allotted to them.
When Attila died in 453, his empire crumbled, and the nations he had conquered regained their independence. In 476 the last emperor of the West came to power. His name was Romulus Augustulus. It is considered an accident of history that the last emperor would be named after its first emperor, Augustus Caesar, and also the name of one its original founders, Romulus and Remus.
Augustulus was conquered by Odoacer, the king of a medley of Teutonic tribes. Of course, by this time the Western Empire had broken up into three parts. Odoacer conquered the Ostrgothic Kingdom, which included Italy. In Spain was the Visigothic Kingdom. In Africa was the Vandal Kingdom. In 476 he informed the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in the city of Constantinople that there were no more emperors in the West. John says in Rev. 8:12,
12 And the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.
Odoacer’s invasion directly affected only the Ostrogothic third of what had been the Western Roman Empire. The sun, moon, and stars, are symbolic of leaders in the nation—not only the emperor himself, but also those lesser authorities under him. In the case of Rome, this would include the senators. Gibbon says on page 504-506
“Odoacer was the first barbarian who reigned in Italy, over a people who had once asserted their just superiority above the rest of mankind. . . Odoacer devolved on the Roman magistrates the odious and oppressive task of collecting the public revenue . . .
“In the division and the decline of the empire, the tributary harvests of Egypt and Africa were withdrawn; the numbers of the inhabitants continually diminished with the means of subsistence; and the country was exhausted by the irretrievable losses of war, famine, and pestilence... and the senators, who might support with patience the ruin of their country, bewailed their private loss of wealth and luxury. One third of those ample estates, to which the ruin of Italy is originally imputed, was extorted for the use of the conquerors.”
John tells us that by the time of the fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon, and stars had been blotted out. This is symbolic of the ruling senatorial families of Rome. It has nothing to do with the literal stars being destroyed in the heavens, or the sun being reduced in size by a third, or a third of the moon being eaten away by some sort of cosmic disaster.
It has rather to do with the destruction of the ruling families of the Western Roman Empire. The generally accepted date of its final dissolution is with its conquest by Odoacer in 476. It is possible, though not provable, that the population of the Western Roman Empire had been reduced by a third, because of the wars, famine, and pestilence of that century alone—the time of the first four trumpets. Gibbon writes on page 506,
“St. Ambrose has deplored the ruin of a populous district, which had been once adorned with the flourishing cities of Bologna, Modena, Rhegium, and Placentia. Pope Gelasius was a subject of Odoacer; and he affirms with strong exaggeration, that in Aemilia, Tuscany, and the adjacent provinces, the human species was almost extirpated.”
In the following century, an eighteen-year war with the Goths completed the destruction of Italy. By the time the war ended in 553, Rome’s population had been reduced from a million to a mere 40,000 with half of them supported by papal alms. Milan had been destroyed with its entire population. Farms were abandoned, and in the region of Picenium alone, 50,000 died of starvation. Will Durant tells us in The Age of Faith, page 111,
“The aristocracy was shattered; so many of its members had been slain in battle, pillage, or flight that too few survived to continue the Senate of Rome; after 579 we hear of it no more.”
It was only natural, then, that the bishop of Rome would assume power. He was the only one who could keep any kind of order as anarchy reigned in Italy. Durant says on page 94,
“Amid this chaos education barely survived. By 600 literacy had become a luxury of the clergy. Science was almost extinct.”
With the final disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Rev. 8:13 provides us with an interlude, as if to draw a distinction between the first four trumpets and the final three, which he calls “woes.”
The implication is that the judgments of God might have ceased at this point, if the Church had repented of its sin. The Church valued creeds instead of character. They thought that the most important Christian value was to pinpoint the precise nature of Christ and His relationship with God, using the precise wording. In their willingness to disfellowship anyone who had even a slightly different view, or to force them to comply, or even to kill them as heretics, they showed that they did not really understand the mind of God at all.
The Church worshiped its image (carnal understanding) of God, rather than God Himself. God was viewed through the eyes of their literary artists, who painted His portrait with great precision, but used a carnal model. They were quick to shed the blood of heretics and dissenters, but appointed and tolerated many ambitious and greedy bishops who acted nothing like Jesus Christ. John writes,
13 And I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!
The Church had long ago lost its first love. It was no longer a simple way of life that focused upon manifesting the love of God in the way that Jesus did. It was now a full-blown religious empire that ruled over the minds and bodies of men and treated parishioners as subjects.
During this interlude from 476 to 606 A.D., the prophetic events inscribed symbolically in the book of Revelation begin to shift toward the Eastern Empire. These events, particularly the overhaul of the Roman legal system by the emperor Justinian, are noted later in Revelation 13. We wrote of this in our book, The Seven Churches and will return to that subject at a later date.
The fall of the Western Empire provided a vacuum that was naturally filled by the bishop of Rome. Gradually, the bishops increased their claims to power. Although in 411 Augustine’s City of God had defined the Kingdom of God as a spiritual city, it did not require a giant leap to apply this politically once again to a very temporal kingdom, whereby men ruled others. The only difference was that instead of using the title of “king,” they used the religious titles of “Bishop of Rome” and “Pope.” H. G. Wells says on page 526,
“In later years these ideas developed into a definite political theory and policy. As the barbarian races settled and became Christian, the Pope began to claim an overlordship of their kings. In a few centuries the Pope had become in theory, and to a certain extent in practice, the high priest, censor, judge, and divine monarch of Christendom. . . For more than a thousand years this idea of the unity of Christendom . . . dominated Europe. The history of Europe from the fifth century onward to the fifteenth is very largely the history of the failure of this great idea of a divine world government to realize itself in practice.”
In fact, the reason that the Church failed to realize its dream of a “divine world government” was because God raised up the religion of Islam to oppose and weaken it. To understand God’s purpose for Islam is one of the keys to understanding the purpose of God even in our own time.
Insofar as the book of Revelation is concerned—and therefore, God’s perspective—the Islamic judgment on the Church came immediately after the Roman bishop laid exclusive claim to the title of “Universal Bishop.” This was done by Pope Boniface III in 606. This is quite remarkable, since his predecessor, Gregory I (590-604) had insisted that the Church was headed equally by the bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. In fact, in 596 Gregory wrote a letter that declared, “whosoever calls himself universal priest or desires to be called so, was the forerunner of Antichrist.” (See Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, page 220.)
Schaff says of Boniface III on page 230,
“Boniface III (606-607) did not scruple to assume the title of ‘universal bishop,’ against which Gregory, in proud humility, had so indignantly protested as a blasphemous antichristian assumption.”
And so the year 606 A.D. marked an important turning point in the history of the Church. It marks the time when the Roman Bishop assumed full authority over the entire Church. Others had done this before him, setting some precedents, but then their successors had denied this power. In 606 this assumed authority became a permanent fixture in the Church religious system. Perhaps they did not understand that in God’s eyes, authority brings with it an equal level of accountability toward Him for the manner in which they use this authority. H. G. Wells wrote on page 650 of The Outline of History,
“But it is the universal weakness of mankind that what we are given to administer we presently imagine we own.”
The last three trumpets, called the three woes, properly begin with the rise of Mohammed and the religion of Islam. Their calling was to judge the unrepentant and idolatrous Church. This is the story written in symbolic language in the ninth chapter of Revelation.