Earthquakes of Scripture (3)
Jeff Brown, Heath, Cardiff, Wales. [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In the previous two articles we looked at those earthquakes that were of major scriptural importance in the past – at the Flood, at Sinai with the giving of the law, at the crucifixion, and finally at the resurrection. This article focuses on those earthquakes still future, associated with the tribulation period, and the coming of Christ the King in power and great glory to Olivet.
The earthquakes under consideration are those associated with:
- the sixth seal, Rev. 6. 12-15;
- the seventh seal, Rev. 8. 5;
- the sixth trumpet, the resurrection of the two witnesses, and the slaying of the seven thousand men, Rev. 11. 13;
- the seventh trumpet Rev. 11. 19;the seventh bowl, the greatest earthquake ever to be experienced on Earth, Rev. 16. 18.
These five earthquakes take place in the tribulation period or Daniel’s seventieth week. Three of them are termed ‘great’ earthquakes.1
- the coming of the King to Olivet in power and great glory and after the five earthquakes listed above, Zech. 14. 4-6.
Literal or symbolic?
The earthquakes studied so far were obviously real, physical, literal events. What about those earthquakes prophesied for coming days? Are they literal earthquakes or are they to be interpreted symbolically of some political or moral event, or upheaval on Earth? The present writer believes that they are real, literal earthquakes, for the following reasons:
- When studying scripture, a sound principle to adopt is that if the literal interpretation makes sense then accept it as literal. We can apply this principle from Genesis chapter 1 regarding the literal twenty-four hour days of creation.
- When symbolic language is used, it is normally obvious, e.g., ‘a lamb as it had been slain’, Rev. 5. 6 – referring to the Lord Jesus.
- Elsewhere in scripture,2 earthquakes are obviously literal by the accompanying description. They are never used other than in the literal sense. Similarly, scriptural references to sun, moon, and stars are invariably mentioned in the literal sense, except again where it is obvious, e.g., Mal. 4. 2.
- Symbolic interpretation of earthquakes weakens the context, and is against the plain language of what is intended to be conveyed to the reader.
The earthquake associated with the sixth seal, Rev. 6. 12-16;
In the tribulation period God will again intervene on Earth via direct physical manifestations. Haggai had prophesied of future earthquakes for this period,3 and the Lord in the Olivet discourse had clearly indicated their association with future events.4 We notice in verses 14-15 the worldwide effects of this earthquake: ‘every mountain and island were moved out of their places’, v. 14; ‘and the kings of the Earth’, v. 15. The association of this earthquake with sun, moon, and stars, vv. 12-13, is interesting – the blackened sun, the moon becoming as blood, the stars falling, etc.
Bible expositors are divided as to whether the tribulation earthquakes are literal or symbolic. However, when it comes to ‘the sun became black as sackcloth of hair’, and ‘the moon became as blood’, then most commentators think that the language is figurative or metaphorical here – the sun and the moon are not actually changed, but appear to be changed. This may well be the case, but we cannot rule out literal, actual darkness, and literal, actual blood. Both viewpoints need to be looked at in a little more detail.
Looking at verses 12-14 from the figurative (non-literal) viewpoint, we notice the expression ‘as’ occurs four times – ‘the sun became black as sackcloth’ [my emphasis], ‘the moon became as blood’ [my emphasis]. The inclusion of the word ‘as’ can mean ‘the application of a description to an object when it is not literally applicable’ or, alternatively, ‘what the subject in view looks like to the eye of the observer’. Present processes on Earth could help us in this respect. The most violent and powerful volcanoes on Earth are associated with the most powerful earthquakes – these volcanoes ejecting billions of tons of ash, gas, steam and pyroclasts5 into the Earth’s atmosphere. The billions of ash particles ejected often darken the sun, and cause discolouration (a deep red) of the moon. Mount St. Helens in Washington state, USA, erupted in May 1980; the resultant ash cloud took three days to cover vast areas of the country, and then a further twelve days to encircle the entire Earth. For a time after the blast, daylight was turned into darkness in parts of Washington state. Later, bright purple-red sunsets were experienced. Total lunar eclipses or ‘blood moons’, when the moon is fully covered by the Earth’s shadow, can have the same effect.
Looking at verses 12-14 from the literal viewpoint, we make the following observations. The events before us in Revelation chapter 6 seem to be the ultimate fulfilment of Joel’s prophesy, Joel 2. 30-31, and are quoted by Peter in Acts, 2. 19-20. Both Joel and Peter state clearly, ‘The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood’ – not as darkness and not as blood. This could suggest literal darkness, and literal blood. The sun had been controlled before,6 and God had also caused water to be turned into literal blood.7 Other passages show that God will do it again, Rev. 8. 8, 11. 6, and note the physical results, Rev. 8. 9, with the third part of the creatures in the sea that had life, dying – surely not the result of an appearance of blood. Thus, both a figurative or a literal interpretation is possible for the verses under consideration. We can seek to explain these events by acknowledging that God can use any natural phenomena to achieve His purposes. However, God does not need to use anything other than His own power. He has done it before and He can do it again. He needs no aid, or ‘natural’ processes.
The other associated events in verses 13-14, the falling stars and the heaven departing in a scroll, are clearly a mirror of Isaiah’s description referring to the day of the Lord, 31. 4. How will this great earthquake impact on the population of the day? Surely sackcloth, darkening and blood would imply mourning and death. Earth’s population at this time will be terrified as death looms before them, yet, later, we read of them continuing to harden their hearts, Rev. 9. 20-21. As we consider these soon-coming prophetic events, what effect does it have upon us as believers? Surely this should cement our absolute confidence in the omniscient, omnipotent God, and bow our hearts in thankfulness that we, because of divine grace, will never experience what is under consideration here – we will have already been raptured!
The earthquake associated with the seventh seal, Rev. 8. 5.
This second tribulation earthquake is associated with voices, thundering, and lightning. These three phenomena were, incidentally, seen in Exodus chapter 19, with the great earthquake at Sinai! They were also seen together marking the opening of the seals, Rev. 4. 5, but now, at the opening of the seventh and final seal, an earthquake is added! The universal disorder which the thundering, voices, lightning, and the earthquake describe is only a foreshadowing of what is to come. The sounding of the trumpets by the angels in what follows in chapters 8-11, shows the development in more detail of what is to take place on Earth. Actually, the blowing of these trumpets will herald the most shattering, physical, literal upheavals on planet Earth since the time of the Flood! Men will imagine that the end of all things has come! Surely things can’t get worse? They can, and they will.
As we look at each of these earthquake events and what’s associated with them, whether famines, diseases, pestilences, plagues, weather changes, etc., we see that men will still be duped into ‘believing the lie’. Reasonable and well-argued explanations will be put forward by men of academic and intellectual standing to account for what is happening. Scientific explanations and historical parallels, ‘these things have always occurred in history’, will abound. Yet, as we continue through our study, by the time we come to the greatest earthquake ever to be recorded on Earth, Rev. 16. 18, men will be in no doubt – the omnipotent God is behind it all, and He is in control.
The earthquake associated with the sixth trumpet, Rev. 11. 13.
This is the third tribulation earthquake mentioned, and is very closely connected with the resurrected two witnesses and the slaying of the seven thousand men. The combination of all these events at the same time, ‘the same hour’, v. 13, and the mention of specific details, such as ‘tenth part of the city’, and ‘seven thousand men’, is further evidence of their literal nature. Just as the earthquake at Calvary only opened the graves of the saints, and no other graves, so this earthquake also had a specific and measured effect, in that those slaughtered were specifically known, lit. ‘seven thousand names of men’. What we have before us is a testimony not only to the immeasurable power of God, but also to His controlling every detail and every specific effect.
The seven thousand men that were slain stand in obvious contrast with the seven thousand witnesses at the time of Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19. 18. In that Old Testament day God’s witnesses were preserved, even though Elijah thought he was alone. In this coming tribulation day, these evil men will be destroyed. Be assured, fellow believer, our God knows those who are His own, Nahum 1. 7, and those who are not! This thought should be both a great comfort, and a great challenge to us all. Men were affected by this earthquake, and there now seems to be a recognition that God is behind all these happenings. Recognition and repentance, however, are two entirely different things!
1 Rev. 6. 12; 11. 13; 16. 18.
2 1 Kgs. 19. 11; Isa. 29. 6; Amos 1. 1; Zech. 14. 4-5.
3 Hag. 2. 6.
4 Matt. 24. 7.
5 Dense clouds of superheated gases and volcanic fragments, moving at about 100km/hr.
6 Matt. 27. 45; Josh. 10. 10-14; 2 Kgs. 20. 9-11; Hab. 3. 11.
7 Exod. 4. 9, and especially Exod. 7. 17-21.