Apocalyptic prophecy presents its material in numbered sets that parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history. The seven trumpets parallel the seals of persecution, that is, divine judgment may fall at any time on those who oppose the cause of Christ.
The seventh seal begins with silence and then offers the response to “the prayers of all the saints” (Rev 8:3; cf. 6:10). “The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God” (8:4). What happens to all the prayers that have been offered by God’s people? They’re lit on fire and thrown back down to earth with “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5; cf. Ezek 10)! God hears the prayers of his people, and the trumpet judgments are his answer to them. Cosmic disturbance language signals an epic shake down.
Rather than taking a rigid chronological approach to the trumpets, think of John’s vision as cameras recording events from different angles. Notice how the first four trumpets impact natural resources and mimic the plagues sent to the Egyptians for persecuting God’s people (Rev 8:6-12). But just as Israel was protected from whatever struck the Egyptians, believers are shielded from the trumpet judgments and sealed (i.e., enabled to persevere).
The next two trumpets are explicitly marked off as being far worse (Rev 8:13). When the risen King Jesus commands “the shaft of the bottomless pit” to open, hell’s nastiest demons are unleashed to psychologically torment those who abide in spiritual darkness (9:1-10). As bitter anxiety heightens, the persecuting world “will long to die, but death will flee from them” (9:6). But note, these locust-like demons are “like horses prepared for battle” (9:7)—which leads to the sixth trumpet.
That the precise hour has already been set to the release the four Euphrates* angels underscores who is in control (9:12-15). Heaven is Command Central. Whereas the locust-like demons are not permitted to kill anyone (9:5), the four angels of the sixth trumpet lead a terrifying number of vicious demonic “troops” to “kill a third” of humanity (9:15-19). This army is from hell. Astonishingly, those who survive “these plagues” refuse to repent of their sins—and even more shocking, they continue to worship the very same demons who torment them (9:20-21). Satan’s minions are permitted to carry out their dirty work, but they cannot touch believers. The trumpets carry out Christ’s response to those bent on persecuting his people.
If all this is hard to swallow, perhaps there’s a deficiency in our theology of persecution. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet 4:14). Yes, a heightened sense of God’s glory emerges in persecution (cf. Phil 1:29; Rom 8:17; Acts 5:41; 2 Tim 1:80).
*In the Old Testament, armies “from the east” or “from beyond the river Euphrates” were often described as an innumerable horde riding on horses, threatening to devour like locusts (e.g., Jer 46:2, 4, 6, 10, 22-23; Jud 6:3-5; Joel 1:4, 6; 2:3-4).