Revelation 8:6-9:21; 11:14-19
One of the fascinating things in Revelation is the way it portrays the experience of the people of God in terms very similar to what transpired for Israel in Egypt and the ten plagues of judgment. For example,
1) prominence of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:1-31) // 1) prominence of glassy sea (Rev. 15:2)
2) song of deliverance (Ex. 15:1-18) // 2) song of deliverance (Rev. 15:2-4)
3) God’s enemy: Pharaoh // 3) God’s enemy: the Beast
4) court magicians of Egypt // 4) the False Prophet
5) persecution of Israel // 5) persecution of the Church
6) protected from plagues (Ex. 8:22; 9:4,26; 10:23; 11:7) // 6) protected from wrath (Rev. 7:1-8; 9:4)
7) hardened/unrepentant (Ex. 8:15; 9:12-16) // 7) hardened/unrepentant (Rev. 16:9,11,21)
8) the name of God (Ex. 3:14) // 8) the name of God (Rev. 1:4-6)
9) Israel redeemed from bondage by blood // 9) Church redeemed from sin by blood
10) Israel made a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6) // 10) Church made a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6)
11) 7th plague (Ex. 9:22-25) // 11) 1st trumpet
12) 6th plague (Ex. 9:8-12) // 12) 1st bowl
13) 1st plague (Ex. 7:20-25) // 13) 2nd/3rd trumpet & 2nd/3rd bowl
14) 9th plague (Ex. 10:21-23) // 14) 4th trumpet & 4th bowl
15) 8th & 9th plagues (Ex. 10:1-20) // 15) 5th trumpet & 5th bowl
Several introductory observations are in order.
(1) God’s intent in sending the plagues against Egypt was to harden Pharaoh’s heart and thereby provide a platform on which His glory and power might be manifest (see Exod. 7:5,17; 8:6,18; 9:16,29; 10:1-2). There is no indication in Exodus that God designed the plagues to soften Pharaoh’s heart and bring him to saving repentance. A question that perhaps has no answer is whether the purpose of the trumpets (and bowls) is to shock and shake people into repentance or merely to aggravate and intensify their hardness of heart and thus reveal the justice of their judgment. According to Rev. 9:20-21 and 16:6,11, the people on whom the trumpets and bowls fall do not repent of their evil deeds. In fact, their response is one of blasphemy, not faith.
(2) We should also take note of the place of trumpets in the OT. Trumpets would often sound an alarm that “holy battle was to be engaged against Israel’s enemy or against Israel as God’s enemy” (Beale, 468; cf. Judges 7:16-22; Jer. 4:5-21; 42:14; 51:27; Ezek. 7:14; Hos. 8:1; Joel 2:1; Zeph. 1:16). The use of trumpets in the defeat of Jericho is especially noteworthy. In both Joshua 6 and Rev. 8-9 the first six trumpets are preliminary to final judgment. In both instances, “silence” precedes the trumpet judgment
(3) We should also remember that the trumpet judgments proceed from God and the Lamb. The seven angels who blow the trumpets come from the presence of God (8:2) and are said to be “given” their trumpets by God (note the “divine passive” in 8:2, common throughout the NT and Revelation). How ought this to affect our interpretation of and response to the many so-called “natural disasters” that so frequently occur?
(4) It may well be that the trumpets, no less than the sixth and seventh seals, are God’s answer to the prayers of his people in 6:9-11 for vindication against their persecutors. If so, this would strongly militate against the futurist interpretation which relegates the trumpets to the final few years of history just before the second coming. In other words, it seems unlikely that God would act in response to that prayer only at the end of history while passing by and leaving unscathed more than sixty generations of the wicked.
(5) Finally, let us remember that the trumpets, as also the seals and bowls (at least the first five of each and possibly the sixth), are not datable events but describe the commonplaces of history. These are not judgments or plagues reserved for the final few years of this age but rather “aspects of the world situation which may be true at any time” (Wilcock, 92).
The First Trumpet (8:6-7)
According to Exod. 9:22-25 and the seventh plague, God rained down “hail and fire”, somehow strangely mixed together, upon the land of Egypt: specifically, on land, trees, and plants. Here in Rev. 8:7 the “trees” and “grass” are affected. The element of “blood” in this trumpet may derive from the first Egyptian plague in which the Nile turned to blood.
Are the “hail and fire mixed with blood” literal (8:7)? Certainly the hail and fire in the Exodus plague were literal, indicating that such a phenomenon here would not be inconsistent with divine activity. Some believe that John is describing an electrical phenomenon associated with severe thunderstorm activity. The reference to “blood” may simply point to the color of the hail under such conditions, or more likely to its effect on earth among men.
Yet, elsewhere in Revelation “fire” is often symbolic (see 1:14; 2:18; 9:17; 10:1; 11:5; 19:12). Also, this first trumpet appears to find its OT background in Ezek. 5:2,12 where we read that judgment is determined by the use of “scales for weighing” (5:2), a clear reference to famine (see Ezek. 4:9-17). Israel is then “divided into thirds and judged accordingly. One third is to be burned with fire, one third to be struck by the sword, and the remaining third to be scattered in captivity” (Beale, 474). In 5:12 the judgment by “fire” is more specifically defined as death by “plague and famine” (the emphasis on “famine” found again in 5:16-17). This leads some to conclude that the fire in Rev. 8:7 that burns a third of the earth, trees, and grass is a metaphorical portrayal of judgment by famine. This seems to be what is meant in Rev. 18:8.
Whatever the case, the reference to only 1/3 being destroyed indicates that the judgment here is partial, with the climactic, final judgment yet to come.
Some find a problem in the fact that, according to 9:4, neither grass nor any green thing is to be hurt. They wonder how this can be if, according to 8:7, “all the green grass” has already been “burned up.” The answer might be, says Morris, “that this verse [8:7] does not appear to mean that all the grass on earth is destroyed. Throughout this section John is concerned with plagues which affect one-third. His meaning surely is that all the grass in the one-third of the earth mentioned was burnt up. But in the second instance it is a great mistake to read this fiery, passionate and poetic spirit as though he were composing a pedantic piece of scientific prose. He is painting vivid pictures and it does not matter in the slightest that the details do not harmonize readily” (120).
Beale also suggests that “the fifth trumpet [9:4] may be temporally parallel with the first [8:7]” (496), thereby eliminating the problem. Once again, we must ask whether the “burning up” of 1/3 of the earth and trees and all the grass is to be taken literally. If not, if in fact this is apocalyptic symbolism designed to portray the devastation of divine judgments against an unbelieving world, an apparent contradiction such as that between 8:7 and 9:4 would cease to exist.
The Second Trumpet (8:8-9)
Something “like” a great mountain burning with fire is now said to be thrown into the sea. Is this literal? It may be that we have here another example of prophetic hyperbole, descriptive of seasons in history of devastation, personal loss, and instability. Let us remember the words of the psalmist: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride” (46:2-3).
On the other hand, the “mountain” could be metaphorical for “kingdom”, as if often the case in Revelation (see 14:1; 17:9; cf. 21:10). Perhaps this trumpet is a reference to the judgment of an evil kingdom.
In Rev. 18:21 we read, “And a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea.” This is then interpreted, “Thus will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence.” In Jer. 51:63-64, Babylon’s judgment is compared to the sinking of a stone in water. Jeremiah 51:25 equates Babylon with a mountain and prophesies her judgment in similar language: “’Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain, who destroy the whole earth,’ declares the Lord, ‘And I will stretch out My hand against you, and roll you down from the crags and I will make you a burnt out mountain.”
Could it be that, since the stone and the mountain are metaphors for the judgment of Babylon in Jeremiah 51, they function in the same way in Revelation 8 and 18? Beale thinks so and concludes:
Therefore, the picture in Rev. 8:8 did not originate from an attempt to depict a literal volcanic eruption or some other natural phenomenon occurring in the first century or predicted for later. A literal reading is rendered unlikely here and throughout the visionary section by the simple observation that the catastrophes are inspired primarily by OT literary models that contain figures of speech. This does not mean that such models could not have been used to describe literal disasters, but the burden of proof is on those who hold to a literal understanding in addition to a figurative perspective” (476).
The description of a third of the sea becoming blood is a direct allusion to Exod. 7:20 and the plague against the Nile river. In both cases, the fish obviously die.
A few commentators have suggested that the language of v. 8 (the burning mountain being cast into the sea) sounds like volcanic activity “such as the tragic eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August a.d. 79, which radically affected the Bay of Naples from Capri to Cumae. Debris from Vesuvius fell into the bay making it impossible to land boats . . . though no streams of lava were emitted from the crater” (Aune, 2:519).
The Third Trumpet (8:10-11)
The presence of famine appears to be included in the third trumpet, as it was in the first two. Here we read of the waters becoming bitter and ultimately fatal. Psalm 78:44 also describes this plague: “And [God] turned their rivers to blood, and their streams they could not drink.”
The waters are polluted by a “great star… burning like a torch” (8:10). It would be difficult to interpret this literally, for how could one star fall on one third of all the rivers and springs of the earth? The star may be symbolic of an angel, as in 1:19, which thus serves as an instrument of divine judgment.
Angels are often associated with nations, functioning as something of a heavenly representative (even guardian) of the latter. This has led some to conclude that the “star/angel” here is associated with Babylon and that the third trumpet is, like the second, symbolic of judgment against it. This interpretation finds a measure of support from Isaiah 14:12-15 where the judgment of the king of Babylon is described as a “star” having “fallen from heaven” (v. 12).
The star is called “Wormwood”, echoing Jer. 9:15 and 23:15. There God says, “I will feed them [Israel], this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink” (9:15; cf. Jer. 8:13-14). Wormwood is a bitter herb and can be poisonous (although not known to be fatal) if drunk to excess (it is so powerful that a single ounce diluted in over 500 gallons of water can still be tasted). Israel’s sin was having “polluted” herself with idolatry. With poetic justice, God “pollutes” them with bad water. Other OT texts where wormwood is associated with judgment are Deut. 29:17-18; Prov. 5:4; Lam. 3:15,19; Amos 5:7; 6:12.
The Greek word translated “wormwood” is apsinthos. There is no evidence that any star was literally called by this name in the ancient world. Rather, the star is given this name as an expression of its effect upon the world.
Again, the question is raised: Are the waters literally affected by a literal star making them literally bitter and fatal? Or is this a metaphorical portrayal of severe judgment that might conceivably express itself in any number of ways, perhaps primarily in famine (in keeping with the thrust of the first two trumpets)?
There is a deliberate contrast drawn between, on the one hand, the “springs of water” (pegas hudaton) in Rev. 7:17 (and 21:6) that symbolize the refreshment and sweetness of eternal life and intimacy with God, and, on the other, the “springs of waters” (pegas ton hudaton) in 8:10 that point to divine displeasure and judgment. In the former case, the water is described as bringing “life” whereas in the latter it brings “death”.
The Fourth Trumpet (8:12)
This judgment is strikingly similar to the sixth seal in 6:12-13. The major difference is that whereas this judgment is partial (again, 1/3), the other is complete. This judgment also seems to reflect the ninth plague in which darkness covers the land of Egypt (Exod. 10:21-23). Again, is this literal or symbolic? If the latter, symbolic of what? Also, we have seen on several occasions in Mt. 24 and Rev. 6 that the darkening of heavenly bodies and other similar celestial phenomena typically symbolizes chaos on earth and especially divine judgment against national entities. Is that in view here?As noted, on several occasions in the OT, the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars is symbolic of divine judgment. More specifically, these texts assert “that God alters the fixed patterns of sun, moon and stars to indicate judgment on those who have wrongly altered his moral patterns, especially through idolatry” (Beale, 484).Note also that the elements affected by the trumpet judgments to this point include light, air, vegetation, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, and human beings. Some have suggested that, although the order is different from that in Genesis 1, the basic content and structure of creation itself is being systematically undone. This notion of “de-creation” (Beale, 486) is supported by the fact that the book of Revelation itself climaxes in the new creation: a new heavens and a new earth! Aune points out that “it is perhaps not mere coincidence that on the fourth creative day, God is reported to have created the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14-19), so that the cosmic destruction that occurs here can be understood against the background of the creation account” (2:523).
Conclusion to the First Four Trumpets
Introduction to the Last Three Trumpets (8:13)
This verse, with its reference to three remaining “woes”, indicates that, like the seal judgments, the trumpets are divided into a 4 + 3 pattern. Elsewhere in Revelation, “flying in midheaven” occurs twice and refers to creatures whose presence points to impending judgment: an angel in 14:6 and birds in 19:17. The OT also employs the image of an “eagle” when describing judgment (Deut. 28:49; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Ezek. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8). Beale points out that “the covenant curses threatened against Israel included being eaten by birds (e.g., Deut. 28:26,49; Jer. 7:33-34; 16:3-4; 19:7; 34:18-20; Ezek. 39:17-20; see also Rev. 19:17-18, which alludes to Ezek.39:17-20 and refers to birds flying in midheaven)” (490).
I want to conclude with these sobering words from G. B. Caird:
“Modern readers are apt to be shocked at the idea that God should be prepared to kill off large numbers of men in order to provide an object lesson for those who survive. John is more realistic about the fact of death. All men must die, and the question mark which death sets over their existence is just as great whether they die late or soon, alone or in company, violently or in their beds. Their ultimate destiny is not determined either by the moment or by the manner of their death, as the untimely death of the martyrs should prove, but by the opening of the heavenly books and by the true and just judgments which proceed from the great white throne (xx. 11-15). The idea that life on earth is so infinitely precious that the death which robs us of it must be the ultimate tragedy is precisely the idolatry that John is trying here to combat [emphasis mine]. We have already seen . . . that John calls the enemies of the church ‘the inhabitants of earth’ [or ‘earth-dwellers’], because they have made themselves utterly at home in this transient world order. If all men must die, and if at the end heaven and earth must vanish, along with those whose life is irremediably bounded by worldly horizons, then it is surely in accord with the mercy of God that he should send men from time-to-time forceful reminders of the insecurity of their tenure” (113).
Revelation 8:6-9:21; 11:14-19
The Fifth Trumpet (9:1-11)
That the “star” in v. 1 is a personal being of some sort is evident from the fact that the key to the bottomless pit is given to “him” (9:1) and “he” (9:2) opens it. Most believe that the “star” is symbolic of an angel (as was the case in 8:10; cf. 1:20), but is it good or evil? Satan’s judgment is described by Jesus in terms of his fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). The Dragon, most likely Satan, is portrayed as sweeping a third of “the stars of heaven” (12:4) and throwing them “to the earth”. There seems to be good reason, then, for identifying this “star” as a demonic being, perhaps even Satan.
Good/righteous angels are portrayed in Revelation as “descending” or “coming down” from heaven to the earth (10:1; 18:1; 20:1), but that is significantly different from being “cast down” or having “fallen down” to the earth. The latter phrases are always used of evil angels (both in the OT/NT, and extra-biblical Jewish writings).
It would appear that the “angel of the abyss” in v. 11, that being who exercises authority over the demonic hordes that dwell there (he is called their “king”), the one called “Abaddon” and “Apollyon”, is certainly evil and is most likely identical with the “star/angel” of v. 1. Clearly, then, the “angel” of 9:1,11 is different from the one in 20:1,3. The latter is a good angel carrying out the command of God to bind the Devil. Note also that the angel of 20:1,3 does not “fall” nor is he “cast down” but rather “descends” on a divine mission. That his mission is from Christ is seen in the fact that he has “the key of the abyss” (20:1) which he could only have received from the risen Lord (cf. 1:18).
The Greek word translated “abyss” (abussos) is used 9x in the NT, 7 of which are in Revelation (9:1,2,11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1,3). The word literally means “without depth,” i.e., boundless or bottomless. Here the shaft of the abyss is portrayed as blocked by a door to which God alone has the key. The demons whom Jesus expelled from the Gadarene entreated him “not to command them to depart into the abyss” (Luke 8:31). In Romans 10:7 it is a reference to the abode of the dead. The abyss is the origin of the beast (11:7; 17:8) and the place of Satan’s temporary incarceration. Here in Rev. 9:1,2,11 it appears to be the abode of the demonic hosts. The idea of a “pit” with a “shaft” that is “opened” or “locked shut” (“sealed”) by a “key” held by an angel is obviously figurative language.
“Smoke” (v. 2) emerges from the abyss when it is opened so that the sun and air are darkened by it (cf. Joel 2:10,31; 3:15; cf. Exod. 10:15; in these texts such darkening is a sign of judgment). The “smoke” of a furnace is also linked to judgment in the OT (Gen. 19:28; Exod. 19:18), as is the case later in Revelation (see 9:17-20; 14:11; 18:9,18; 19:3). The element of darkness in v. 2 may point to the spiritual deception or blindness that is so prominent in the remainder of the fifth and sixth trumpets.
Demonic beings are here (v. 3) portrayed as “locusts” to whom “authority” or “power” “was given”. This use of the passive voice is typical both in Revelation and in the rest of the NT. We see it again in v. 4 (“they were told”) and in v. 5 (“it was given to them”). These verbs “are in the passive of divine activity, which is a circumlocution used for avoiding the direct mention of the activity of God” (Aune, 2:527). In other words, it is God (or the risen Christ) who has commissioned and authorized them. This authority is likened to that possessed by “scorpions”, which Aune describes as “the ‘respect’ and the leeway people and animals give to scorpions because they fear their venomous sting, which is extremely painful and sometimes lethal. The ‘authority’ scorpions have, then, is the inherent ability to intimidate and tyrannize and, in the case of the demonic hosts, to terrorize” (2:527).
The literal plague of locusts in Exodus 10:12-15 (eighth) also brought darkness on the land and “they ate every plant of the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Thus nothing green was left on tree or plant of the field through all the land of Egypt” (v. 15). This is typical of locust plagues in the OT (see Deut. 28:38; 1 Kings 8:37; 2 Chron. 6:28; 7:13; Pss. 78:46; 105:34-35; Joel 1:4; 2:25; Amos 4:9; 7:2; Nahum 3:15). But here (v. 4) the locusts are commanded not to hurt the “grass . . . nor any green thing, nor any tree.” They are commanded only to hurt unbelievers, i.e., those who don’t have the seal of God by which one might be protected from such a plague.
Here in v. 5 there is an additional two-fold limitation on their activity. First, they are not allowed to kill anyone (in contrast with vv. 15-20), but only to “torment” them (which sounds similar to what God allowed Satan to do to Job). Second, the torment will last for only “five months”. There are three possible interpretations of this time period:
•Some take it literally, but then have no explanation for why such an odd number should be chosen.•Others believe the five months alludes to the “five-month life cycle of the locust [they are hatched in the spring and die at the end of the summer] or the dry season, also about five months, during which locusts could strike. If so, this is a severe locust plague, since these locusts do not strike occasionally, like literal locusts, but unceasingly throughout the five months” (Beale, 497).
•Aune believes “five” is symbolic and is a number “frequently used in contexts in which it obviously functions as a round number meaning ‘a few’” (2:530). He cites as examples, 1 Cor. 14:19; Mark 6:38-41; Luke 12:6,52.
The “torment” they inflict is likened to that of a scorpion when it stings a man. Scorpions are a metaphor for punishment in 1 Kings 12:11,14. The word “torment” is used in Revelation for spiritual, emotional, or psychological pain (see 11:10; and perhaps 18:7,10,15). It is used in 14:10-11 and 20:10 for the “pain” or “torment” of eternal punishment. The meaning of this torment is perhaps best explained by v. 6.
The anguish of those tormented by the demonic hordes (v. 6) is any form of psychological or emotional suffering (physical too?) that provoked in them a desire for death. Yet they are unwilling actually to commit suicide, for surely if someone truly wants to die they can find the means to end their life. John appears to be describing that emotional and psychological depression and frustration and anger and bitterness and sense of futility and meaninglessness and lack of value, etc. that drives people to the point of utter despair. They prefer death to life but lack the courage to take their own lives, perhaps for fear of the unknown beyond the grave. All of this, says John, is the result of demonic activity (cf. Heb. 2:14-15), like unto that of a plague of locusts unleashed into the earth!
Perhaps John is describing the horrid realization in the human heart that one’s belief system is false, that one’s philosophy is vain, that one’s values are empty, that one’s destiny is bleak, and thus that one lacks purpose in living, that one is thus helpless and hopeless. Contrast this with the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:8) granted unto believers who bring their burdens and anxieties to God in prayer!
People without Jesus are desperate to find meaning and dignity and happiness in any number of ways: complex philosophies, a self-indulgent hedonism, the New Age movement with its endless remedies for what ails the human soul, reincarnation, radical feminism, political agendas, homosexuality, drugs, sexual immorality, spirituality, the current angel craze, psychology, materialism, selfism, etc. Demonic “locusts” lead them into such pursuits, all of which are, at the end of the day, empty and lifeless.
The description in vv. 7-11 of these demonic spirits is bizarre, and obviously symbolic. Note John’s repeated use of the words “likeness” and “like”. The material here reflects what we see in Joel 1-2 where a plague of locusts devastates Israel’s land. There, as here, a trumpet is sounded to herald their arrival (Joel 2:1,15). There, as here, the locusts are said to have “the appearance of horses” (Joel 2:4) prepared for battle. This judgment in Joel is itself based on the plague of locusts in Exodus 10. However, whereas the locusts in Exodus were literal (though they certainly symbolized something beyond themselves), and perhaps also in Joel (although there it may be a literal army that is compared to a swarm of locusts), here in Revelation they symbolize demonic spirits unleashed throughout the earth.
In both Exodus and Joel the plague of locusts is the cause of famine. But here in Revelation 9 the locusts are not permitted to damage the earth’s vegetation (9:4). “Nevertheless,” as Beale notes, “the idea of famine from Joel is still present, but is spiritualized, as are the locusts, and the damage envisioned is now that of a famine of the soul (the prophets sometimes spiritualized famine, as in, e.g., Amos 8:11-14). This suggests that actual famine conditions observed in the first three trumpets ultimately point to punishments coming on sinners because of the spiritual famine and barrenness of their souls. The locusts cause and reveal to the wicked the hunger and emptiness of their hearts” (500; emphasis mine).
Let’s take each element one at a time.
•Their appearance “was like horses prepared for battle” (9:7; cf. Jer. 51:27).
•On their “heads, as it were, crowns like gold” (9:7). Does this hint at their invincibility (cf. Aune, 2:532)?
•“Their faces were like the faces of men” (9:7), perhaps pointing to their intelligence.
•They “had hair like the hair of women” (9:8). This could be a reference to the antennae of actual locusts. In the OT, long and disheveled hair had at least three meanings: (1) it was a sign of uncleanness for people with leprosy (Lev. 13:45); (2) it was a sign of mourning (Lev. 10:6; 21:10); and (3) it was part of the sacrificial protocol for a woman accused of adultery (Num. 5:18). Aune points out that occasionally “the Jewish demon lilith is depicted with loose, disheveled hair in crude pictures on Aramaic incantation bowls” (2:532).
•Their “teeth were like the teeth of lions” (9:8). On this, see Joel 1:6. The “teeth of a lion” is a proverbial expression “for something irresistibly and fatally destructive” (cf. Job 4:10; Ps. 58:6).
•They had “breastplates like breastplates of iron” (9:9). These breastplates may well resemble the actual armor-like scales on their thoraxes.
•The sound of their wings “was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle” (9:9). This is strikingly similar to Joel 2:4-5.
•They have “tails like scorpions, and stings” (9:10).
•They have a “king” over them, “the angel of the abyss” (9:11). This is either the Devil himself or his representative.
Revelation 8:6-9:21; 11:14-19
First Explanatory Interlude (9:12)
In saying that “the first woe has passed” John does not mean “that the events have already transpired in history but only that the vision containing them is now past” (Beale, 505).
The Sixth Trumpet (9:13-21)
Whose “voice” is it that John hears? Is it that of Jesus (as in 6:6), or an angel (as in 16:7), or God the Father? The fact that the voice emanates from the golden altar connects this sixth trumpet judgment with the saints’ prayer in 6:10-11 for vindication.
People in the OT “sometimes expressed a desire to seek safety and protection from others by holding on to the horns of the altar (1 Kgs. 1:50-51; 2:28-34). Could the ‘four horns of the golden altar’ here refer to the full power of God that will be expressed in answering the cry of the saints by judging the wicked in the following trumpets?” (Beale, 506).
We see in v. 14 that “four angels” have been bound (deo; cf. 20:2) “at the great river Euphrates,” apparently restrained against their will (cf. the demons in 9:1-3).
G. B. Caird points out that “to the Roman the Euphrates was the eastern frontier, but to the Jew it was the northern frontier of Palestine, across which Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian invaders had come to impose their pagan sovereignty on the people of God. All the scriptural warnings about a foe from the north, therefore, find their echo in John’s blood-curdling vision” (122). On this see especially Isa. 5:26-29; 7:20; 8:7-8; 14:29-31; Jer. 1:14-15; 4:6-13; 6:1,22; 10:22; 13:20; Ezek. 38:6,15; 39:2; Joel 2:1-11,20-25; as well as Isa. 14:31; Jer. 25:9,26; 46-47 (esp. 46:4,22-23); 50:41-42; Ezek. 26:7-11.
These demonic invaders are coming at God’s appointed time so that they might kill a third of mankind. Is this arithmetically literal? Or is it John’s way of describing a preliminary, partial judgment that will only later, at the end of history, reach its consummation?
There is an interesting chain of command among the angelic and demonic hosts in this paragraph. First, we read of one angel commanding another (the sixth of the seven trumpet angels; vv. 13-14). Second, this angel then commands four other angels (perhaps demons; v. 15). Third, these four angels then release countless demonic angels into the earth (vv. 15ff.).
Although it isn’t explicitly stated, it appears that these four “angels” have power over a massive demonic army of horsemen numbering 200,000,000. Apparently this huge “army” is responsible for the killing of 1/3 of mankind. Literally, the number is a “double myriad of myriads,” a “myriad” typically equivalent to 10,000. A “myriad” is often used symbolically for an incalculable number, an innumerable, indefinite group (see Gen. 24:60; Lev. 26:8; Num. 10:35-36; Deut. 32:30; 33:2,17; 1 Kings 18:7-8; 21:12; Dan. 7:10; etc.). See esp. Rev. 5:11.
There is no basis whatsoever for trying to identify this “army” with the literal military forces of Red China that allegedly stand poised to invade Israel!
Again, let us take each descriptive item in turn. In doing so, however, we must be careful not to let our concern for the particular elements of their makeup obscure the overall visceral impact that John intends. In other words, John’s point in piling up these monstrous metaphors is to underscore “that the demons are ferocious and dreadful beings that afflict people in a fierce, appalling, and devastating manner” (Beale, 510).
• The riders of the horses (and perhaps the horses themselves) “had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone” (9:17).
• The heads of the horses “are like the heads of lions” (9:17). Again, this points to their fierceness.
• Out of the mouths of the horses “proceed fire and smoke and brimstone (or sulphur)” (9:17). Elsewhere in Revelation “fire and brimstone” are descriptive of scenes of the final judgment of unbelievers (14:10; 21:8) and of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (19:20; 20:10). See also “fire, sulphur, smoke” in several OT texts relating to judgment (Gen. 19:24,28; Deut. 29:23; 2 Sam. 22:9; Isa. 34:9-10; Ezek. 38:22).
• In v. 19 the power of the horses is said to be in their tails, “for their tails are like serpents and have heads.” John likens their tails to serpents, the heads of which are the source of the harm inflicted. That these are demonic armies is thus confirmed, for elsewhere in Revelation the “serpent” (ophis) is always a reference to Satan (12:9,14-15; 20:2). This reference to the serpent-like tail of the horses may specifically allude to their deception of unbelievers, for “the sweeping of the Serpent’s ‘tail’ [in Rev. 12] is symbolic of his [Satan’s] deception of the angels whom he caused to fall” (Beale, 514).
Again, the four angels who were bound at the river Euphrates, who are then released, employ this massive demonic army to kill 1/3 of mankind (cf. 9:15), utilizing the “fire and the smoke and the brimstone” that proceeded out of their mouths (9:18). The similarities with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are obvious (Gen. 19:24,28). Note that these three elements are now called “three plagues” (v. 18). Whereas the locusts in 9:5 were not permitted to kill anyone, but only to torment, this demonic army from beyond the Euphrates is permitted to kill. Is this a literal, physical termination of human life, or is it figurative for spiritual or emotional or psychological “death”? The verb translated “kill” (apokteino) generally refers to literal physical death in Revelation. That would seem to be confirmed by v. 20 (“the rest . . . who were not killed”). If that is the meaning here, John envisions this demonic host (under and subordinate to God’s sovereignty; see 16:9) killing a sizeable number of earthdwellers (i.e., unbelievers), whether through illness (perhaps outbreaks of infectious diseases), accident, natural disaster, famine, suicide, etc.
In v. 19 these demonic horses/horsemen are said to do “harm” (adikeo), the same Greek word used in 9:4,10 where demonic “locusts” torment, but do not kill, those who lack the seal of God (cf. also its use in 2:11; 7:3). Perhaps, then, the “harm” here (v. 19) is not physical death but a variety of forms of spiritual and psychological torment and emotional anguish short of, but a prelude to, death itself. In light of v. 20 that follows, “part of the harm mentioned in v. 19 includes deceiving people to participate in idolatry” (Beale, 519).
Verse 20 does not explicitly say that the purpose of the demonic plagues was to induce or stir up repentance. Certainly such plagues serve as a warning, but one that goes unheeded. This highlights the hardness of heart of those who lack the seal of God on their foreheads. Wilcock adds this insightful comment:
“The death-dealing horsemen of Trumpet 6 are not tanks and planes. Or not only tanks and planes. They are also cancers and road accidents and malnutrition and terrorist bombs and peaceful demises in nursing homes. Yet ‘the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues’, still do not repent of their idolatry, the centering of their lives on anything rather than God, or of the evils which inevitably flow from it. They hear of pollution, of inflation, of dwindling resources, of blind politicians, and will not admit that the first four Trumpets of God are sounding. In the end they themselves are affected by these troubles, and for one reason or another life becomes a torment: the locusts are out, Trumpet 5 is sounding, but they will not repent. Not even when the angels of the Euphrates rise to the summons of Trumpet 6, and the cavalry rides out to slay – by any kind of destruction, not necessarily war – a friend or a relative, a husband or a wife: not even in bereavement will they repent” (99-100).
Here we have a typical OT list of idols according to their material composition (see Dan. 5:4,23; Pss. 115:4-7; 135:15-17; Deut. 4:28). John portrays the worship of idols, in whatever form that idolatry might take, as the “worship” of “demons”. We should probably translate v. 20 – “so as not to worship demons, that is, the idols . . .” On this he agrees with Paul (1 Cor. 10:20) as well as several OT texts (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 96:5; 106:36-37).
In v. 21 they are described as not repenting of yet additional sins, a brief list obviously derived from the Ten Commandments. These particular four vices are often associated with idol worship in both OT and NT (see Jer. 7:5-11; Hosea 3:1-4:2; Isa. 47:9-10; 48:5; Micah 5:12-6:8; Rom. 1:24-29; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).
[Just as there was an interlude, a parenthetical pause, in 7:1-17 between the sixth and seventh seals, so also there is a similar parenthesis in 10:1-11:13 between the sixth and seventh trumpets.]
Second Explanatory Interlude (11:14)
The Seventh Trumpet (11:15-19)
Some contend that these verses do not describe the content of the seventh trumpet but simply anticipate it. The content of the seventh is then identified as the seven bowls. They argue that these verses portray no action but merely songs or hymns of God’s reign. But action is, in fact, portrayed in these verses. A song or hymn can depict the content of a “woe” or trumpet judgment as easily as a vision can. Also, what could possibly be more severe or demonstrable than the last, climactic, judgment itself, regardless of how long it lasts? Also, the most natural interpretation of 11:14, where the third woe or seventh trumpet is said to be “coming quickly,” is that 11:15-19 form its content.
Question: How could John have heard these “loud voices” if they occurred “in heaven” (v. 15a)? See also 12:10 and 19:1. Elsewhere he speaks as if from an earthly perspective and uses the phrase “from heaven” (10:4,8; 11:12; 14:2,13; 18:4). It would seem that on a few occasions John was either in a visionary trance state or bodily/spiritually present in heaven when he received his revelations.
The “loud voices” are either those of the angelic hosts worshiping God, or perhaps the saints in heaven (7:9; 19:1,6), or perhaps the twenty-four elders who are then portrayed as falling down in worship and speaking their praises in vv. 17-18.
The declaration is that what Satan formerly ruled, in a manner of speaking, as the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2; cf. 6:12) and “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), has now finally and wholly been taken by the Lord and His Christ! Whereas in 1 John 5:19 we are told that now, in some sense, in this present age, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” a day is coming (this day, described in 11:15-19) when such shall no longer be! This is the consummate overthrow of all God’s enemies and the manifestation of the universal and cosmic extent of his rightful rule! Whereas the “world” could refer to the totality of creation it more likely “refers to the human world that had been in opposition to God and in conflict with his purposes” (Aune, 2:638). Interestingly, the only other verbal parallel to this phrase is found in Mt. 4:8 where Satan offers dominion of “the kingdoms of the world” to Jesus if he will only bow before him. The implication is that such dominion was, at that time, Satan’s to offer. But no longer! G. B. Caird explains:
“In one sense God’s sovereignty is eternal: he entered on his reign when he established the rule of order in the midst of the primaeval chaos (Ps. xciii. 1-4); he has reigned throughout human history, turning even men’s misdeeds into instruments of his mercy; and above all he reigned in the Cross of Christ (xii. 10). But always up to this point he has reigned over a rebellious world. A king may be king de jure, but he is not king de facto until the trumpet which announces his accession is answered by the acclamations of a loyal and obedient people” (141).
Three additional observations:
• The past tense “has become” in v. 15 is used proleptically, that is to say, a future event is so certain to occur that it is described as a reality of the past.
• Who is the “He” in v. 15 that “will reign forever and ever”? Is it God the Father, the “Lord” of v. 15, or God the Son, i.e., “His Christ”? Or is it both, as John envisions them as an inseparable unity?
• A phrase parallel to “He will reign forever and ever” is found in 22:5 where it refers to us in the New Jerusalem! God will reign forever and ever, but so will we . . . with Him!
The twenty-four elders once again resume their familiar posture: face down in the presence of God! Their cry is one of gratitude. They address God as the “Lord God, the Almighty” (cf. 19:6). But their declaration “who is and who was” (v. 17) lacks the third element found earlier, “who is to come” (1:4; 4:8). This means, notes Beale, “that the last part of the triadic name for God is not merely a general time reference to his sovereignty over the future but specifically speaks of the end time, when God will break into world history and end it by overthrowing all opposition to his people and setting up his eternal kingdom. Though this had not yet happened in John’s time, the seventh seal vision showed him what would happen at the end. The events about which he now hears are cast in the past tense because they have already happened from the perspective of those offering praise” (613).
The rage of the nations is provoked by the inception of God’s rule through His Christ. This is a clear reference to Psalm 2:2 – “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed” (see also vv. 5,10-12). The word translated “wrath” (orge), which is said to have come, is always used in Revelation of the final outpouring at the end of history (6:16-17; 14:10-11; 16:19; 19:15). Note well: “the nations were enraged (lit., orgisthesan) and Thy wrath (orge) came.” This is an example of how the punishment fits the crime: their rage against God is met by God’s rage against them!
The fact that this is the time “for the dead to be judged” and the faithful rewarded proves that John has in view the end of history. The parallel in Rev. 20:12-13, which all acknowledge speaks of the final judgment, makes this inescapable. Again in v. 18 we see that the punishment fits the crime (sin), for God “destroys” (diaphtheirai) those who have sought to “destroy” (diaphtheirontas) the earth (the “earth” here is probably a reference to God’s people).
Believers, on the other hand, now receive their heavenly “reward”, part of which, perhaps, is bearing witness to the judgment of those who have persecuted them (and thus this, too, is God’s positive answer to the prayer of 6:9-11). For the response of God’s people (described in almost identical terms) to judgment of the wicked, see 18:24-19:5. For other elements of this “reward”, see 2:7 (22:14); 2:11; 2:17; 2:26-27; 3:5 (7:14); 3:12; 3:21; 7:15-17; 22:3-4; 22:14.
A number of preterists render the phrase “to be judged” as “to be vindicated” and insist that it refers not to the wicked dead but to the Christian dead being vindicated by God’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 a.d. However, this is an unlikely meaning for the verb krino, which elsewhere in Revelation always refers to the judgment of the ungodly (6:10; 16:5; 18:8,20; 19:2,11; 20:12-13). The noun krisis, likewise, always refers to the “judgment” of non-Christians (14:7; 16:7; 18:10; 19:2). There is a Greek word that means “vindicate” (ekdikeo) and it is used that way in 6:10 and 19:2.
We have already noted the use of this phraseology in contexts related to the final judgment (cf. 4:5; 8:5; 16:18).
There is a tradition in Judaism that some expected the return of the ark of the covenant at the end of history when God would once again graciously dwell among his people. Indeed, one legend had it that Jeremiah removed the ark to safety in a cave or buried it on Mt. Sinai where it would remain hidden until the final restoration of Israel (see 2 Macc. ii.4-8; cf. 2 Bar. vi. 5-10; lxxx.2). But no such expectation is found in the biblical literature. Thus “the presence of the ark of the covenant in the heavenly temple implies that it is the ‘true’ ark, which served as an archetype for the construction of the ark housed in the earthly tabernacle and temple (cf. Exod. 25:9,40; 26:30; 27:8; 1 Chr. 28:19; Wis 9:8; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:1-5; 9:24)” (Aune, 2:677).
By Sam Storms