THE GREAT TRIBULATION
Prophecy Studies - No. 8
The Great Tribulation is described for us in several Bible passages. A previous study dealt with the church, raptured and resurrected, glorified and rewarded. Meanwhile, on earth, a very different scene will be unfolding. The entire period constitutes the 70th “week” of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27). Daniel himself divides the seven years in two, with the setting up of the “abomination that brings desolation” as the defining mid-point. The latter three and a half years in particular is known as “the Great Tribulation” (Rev. 7:14; cf. Matt. 24:15, 21), though for convenience’ sake we often speak of the entire seven years as the Tribulation.
Though it occurs after the rapture of the church, there is no Scripture indicating that the Tribulation must follow immediately after. A number of prophetic scholars suggest the possibility of a brief interval between the two--of perhaps a few months. This would allow time for various things to be put in place that relate to the last seven years (such as the completion of Israel’s temple).
There has been suffering on earth, at various times, and in various places--rampant disease, natural disasters, and the persecution of believers. However, nothing will compare to the Tribulation. Jeremiah cries, “Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it” (Jer. 30:7). Similar language is used by Daniel (Dan. 12:1) and by Jesus Himself, who says, “That Day...will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Lk. 21:34-35; cf. Matt. 24:21). Thus, if language means anything, this is a time of total, unprecedented, world-wide trouble that affects every human being left on the globe.
Putting the many Scriptures together that deal with this subject, it is clear that the Tribulation has two distinct purposes.
1) It is a period of divine judgment upon the unbelieving nations of earth. The “Times of the Gentiles” ends with the wicked arrogance of the Antichrist seeking to rule the world and demanding the worship of men. This final rebellion will bring down the wrath of heaven. “For the Lord has a controversy with the nations; He will plead His case with all flesh. He will give those who are wicked to the sword....Behold, disaster shall go forth from nation to nation, and a great whirlwind shall be raised up from the farthest parts of the earth. And at that day the slain of the Lord shall be from one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth” (Jer. 25:31-33).
2) It is a period when God returns to His program for the Jews, and prepares Israel for her Messiah's coming. Israel as a nation will repent of her treatment of Christ and be redeemed and spiritually restored, in readiness for His return. As Zechariah prophesies, “It shall come to pass in all the land, says the Lord, that two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, but one third shall be left in it: I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people;’ and each one will say, ‘The Lord [Jehovah] is my God’” (Zech. 13:8-9). Or as Jeremiah says, “It is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it” (Jer. 30:7, cf. vs. 4-10).
This lesson relates particularly to the Gentile nations, and the wrath of God against the unbelieving. However, during this period, the nation of Israel will receive special attention and divine protection. Their experiences will be covered in the next lesson.
To get an overview of the multiple judgments of the Tribulation, please turn to the book of Revelation. Chapters 6 through 18 of the book deal with this subject. Before each judgment falls on earth, something happens in heaven. Seven seals on a great scroll are broken, seven trumpets are sounded, and the contents of seven bowls are poured out. This alerts us to the Source of these earthly events. They are neither random nor accidental. God is at work. Just how they are spread over the seven years is somewhat debated. But it is clear that the judgments come closer together and are more intense as the period draws to a close.
INSIGHT: In ancient times, official documents were sealed with a blob of melted wax. Only the one directly concerned with the contents had the right to break the seal. In Revelation 5:1 we see God Himself holding such a scroll. It is sealed with seven seals. Though the contents of the scroll are not specified, some believe it is the title deed to the earth. Then the question comes “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” (vs. 2). At first, it seems no one is (vs. 3-4).
1) Who finally steps forward and is recognized to have rightful claim to dominion over the earth (Rev. 5:5-7)?
2) Why would He have a right to “the title deed to the earth,” a right that was forfeited by all others (I Pet. 2:22; I Jn. 3:5, etc.)?
INSIGHT: As each seal is broken, something significant happens on the earth below. It will be seen that these are often an expansion of the “signs” Jesus describes in Matthew 24.
3) What occurs when the Lamb breaks the first seal (6:1-2)?
INSIGHT: This personage is sometimes mistaken for Christ. But keep in mind that it is Christ who is opening the scroll. This is the Antichrist, pictured as a warrior going forth to gain power by his conquests. At first he will present himself as a benevolent dictator, determined to bring peace to the earth. But “when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them” (II Thess. 5:3).
4) What happens with the breaking of the second seal (6:3-4)?
5) What does the breaking of the third seal depict (6:5-6)? (Note: a denarius--the coin mentioned--was a day’s wages for a common labourer.)
INSIGHT: The breaking of the fourth seal brings forth Death, riding on a pale horse (Rev. 6:7-8). Added to the continuing violence of war, and spreading famine, death will come by plagues and disease (“pestilences,” Lk. 21:11). Then the animals will turn on man, and death will come “by the beasts of the earth.” Since the time of Noah, God has placed a fear of man in animals (Gen. 9:2). Most will not attack unless cornered or threatened. But that will change in the Tribulation. Apparently, the whole animal kingdom will thirst for human blood and go on the attack.
6) As the fifth seal is broken, who cries out for justice? And what are they told (6:9-11)?
7) What natural disasters does the breaking of the sixth seal bring (6:12-14)?
8) What is the response of the people on earth (vs. 15-17)?
INSIGHT: Chapter 7 steps aside from the toll of judgment to tell a little of what is happening to Israel during this time. The seventh seal is broken in Rev. 8:1. All of the seven trumpet judgments to follow are telescoped within it (vs. 2), so it is significant indeed. Perhaps that is the reason for a half hour of silence in heaven at this time. All will pause to consider the terrible events to come, as the intensity of these plagues increases.
9) What happens when the first trumpet is sounded (8:7)?
10) What disasters follow the sounding of the second trumpet (8:8-9)?
INSIGHT: The destruction of ships at sea may come as a result of monster tidal waves created by what seems to be a giant meteor striking the waters.
11) What judgment comes after the third trumpet sounds (8:10-11)?
12) What happens when the fourth trumpet sounds (8:12-13)?
INSIGHT: As the fifth trumpet blast is heard, a horde of demons in the form of biting insects is released upon the earth, with their leader, Apollyon (Rev. 9:1-4, 11). The bite of these creatures is not fatal, but the pain will be so intense people will want to die, but they will be unable to do so (vs. 5-6). As a further important note, these insects will not bite those who “have the seal of God on their foreheads” (vs. 4). In Chapter 7, 144,000 Jews (12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel) will be sealed for their protection. LaHaye and Jenkins, in the “Left Behind” series, suggest the idea that all who put their faith in Christ are sealed with a supernatural seal that only other believers can see. They see this as a means God will use to protect this endangered group. It is a guess, but perhaps it will be so.
INSIGHT: When the sixth trumpet blows, an army from the East, from beyond the Euphrates, begins to march against the Antichrist--whose headquarters by this time will be in Israel. The army (likely made up of military contingents from China, Japan and India) is two million strong (Rev. 9:13-15).
13) Will these terrible trials bring the unbelieving world to faith in Christ (9:20-21)?
14) What does Proverbs 29:1 say will happen to people like Revelation describes?
15) Does this fact suggest what the attitude of sinners will be in eternal hell?
INSIGHT: The Greek word for “sorceries” (KJV) is pharmakeia--from which we get our English word pharmacy. Occult worship sometimes makes use of hallucinogenic drugs. This may be the connection. Or the passage may hint at rampant drug addiction, an attempt by wicked men to dull the pain of God’s wrathful judgment.
INSIGHT: Chapter 10 and a bit of Chapter 11 deal with other matters, including the testimony of two supernatural witnesses. Then, like the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet (Rev. 11:15) has telescoped within it the next (and final) seven judgments. Each will be visited upon the earth when one of seven bowls is poured out, “bowls full of the wrath of God” (15:7).
16) At this time, war breaks out elsewhere. Where? And between whom (Rev. 12:7)?
17) What will be the outcome of the war (12:8-9)?
INSIGHT: It may seem strange to see Satan in “heaven,” but there he is. Long ago (likely before the creation of the world), Satan rebelled against God, and lost the exalted position before the throne of God he once had (Ezek. 28:14-16). However, we know that he still has some access to the throne, since he came before God to accuse Job of hypocrisy (Job 1:6-11; 2:1-5). With his defeat here (at the mid-point of the Tribulation), even that limited access will be denied. He will be confined to the earth (vs. 9).
18) Two of the devil’s most basic destructive works are described in Revelation.
¤ What does he do in the unbelieving world (12:9)?
¤ What does he do in relation to the people of God (12:10)?
19) What is Satan’s reaction to what has happened to him? And what result does it bring (12:12)?
INSIGHT: From this passage we can see that, in the wisdom of God, Satan’s defeat comes about in stages. 1) Because of his prideful rebellion, Satan lost his exalted position before God’s throne (Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:14-16). 2) At the cross, his attempt to destroy man, the crown of God’s earthly creation, was thwarted. Through personal faith in Christ, individuals are rescued from Satan’s domain (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12-14). 3) At the present time, individual believers are given the power to “resist” the devil, by faith, and through the equipping of “the whole armour of God” (Eph. 6:10-18; I Pet. 5:8-9; Jas. 4:7). 4) In the Tribulation, he will be cast down to the earth, becoming, in effect, a further instrument of God in bringing awful judgment on sinners. 5) During the Millennium he will be bound, and unable to deceive for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2-3). 6) At the end of the thousand years, after being released, his final act of rebellion will be quelled and he will be cast into hell forever (20:7-10).
20) What judgment does the pouring of the first bowl bring (16:1-2)?
21) How does the judgment of the second bowl (16:3) compare with that of the second trumpet (8:9)?
INSIGHT: The pollution of earth’s fresh water (8:10-11) also seems to be tripled with the pouring out of the third bowl (16:4-6).
22) What does the pouring of the fourth bowl bring (16:8)? And with what result (16:9)?
23) What is the fifth bowl judgment (16:10)? And the result (16:11)?
24) What happens when the sixth bowl is poured forth (16:12)?
INSIGHT: This opens the way for the advancing army from the East, mentioned earlier (9:16). These forces prepare to clash with the Antichrist at a place called Armageddon (16:16). This is another name given to the Plain of Jezreel, stretching across the middle of the Holy Land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. With the pouring of the seventh bowl, a voice from heaven announces “It is done!” (16:17). Hailstones weighing 75-100 pounds fall from the heavens (vs. 21), bringing more blasphemous hatred from those who remain alive. This is accompanied by thunder, lightning, and history’s greatest earthquake (vs. 18), shaking the proud cities of men to their foundations and causing them to fall.
What is sometimes called the “Battle” of Armageddon is actually a series of manoeuvres, a military campaign, described in more detail in Daniel Chapter 11. The prophecy concerns “the time of the end” (vs. 35), and a ruler who “shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, [and] speak blasphemies against the God of gods.” Daniel says “[He] shall prosper till the wrath has been accomplished; for what has been determined shall be done” (vs. 36). After the abomination of his idol image is set up in the temple, threats to the Antichrist’s domination come from all directions (vs. 40-45). We should not be dogmatic about the details, but events seem to unfold somewhat as follows.
1) A confederacy of Arab nations, led by Egypt, attacks him from the south. 2) Russia and her allies attack from the north. (Ezekiel describes this strike more extensively--Chapt. 38-39, where Russia is called “Magog”). 3) After doing some damage in the Holy Land, the Russian confederacy moves south to strike at Egypt and her allies. 4) Then news comes of the advancing army from the East, and the mobilization of the Antichrist’s European forces. 5) The armies of the Antichrist defeat the Russian allies, after which the Eastern and Western armies prepare to clash at Armageddon, where they are all destroyed at the coming of Christ in glory (cf. Rev. 19:11-21).