Revelation 9: Imagine Your Worst Nightmare

The fifth and sixth trumpets announce the ancient world’s worst nightmares. The terrifying images of Revelation 9 are worthy of our most horrifying apocalyptic movies. It seems 21st century western culture loves apocalyptic movies, whether it is the earth destroyed by a meteor, large armies battling for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the end of the world in 2012.  We have a fascination with apocalypses…whatever they may be. Perhaps, however, that is no different from first century culture.

Revelation 9 paints two apocalyptic, cataclysmic and terror-inducing pictures. One image arises out of nature and the other from humanity, though they are both in this text the result of angelic movements. One is a destructive swarm of locusts while the other is a huge invasion force. Both were the worst nightmares of ancient peoples as locusts destroyed crops while armies pillaged human treasures (including people). These are nightmares from which one hopes to wake up.

The opening of the fifth and sixth trumpets in Revelation 8:13 is the flight of an eagle soaring overhead and shouting, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.” The three woes announce the next three trumpets, and the announcement serves as a warning to the inhabitants of the earth.

An eagle pronounces the woe (“angel” in NKJV is based on inferior manuscripts). This is culturally significant in several ways. First, the “eagle of God” (aetos dios) is associated with Zeus (Jupiter) and it was a sign of power and immortality. It was often thought the messenger to/for the gods as the eagle could soar above storm clouds and fly into the presence of the gods.  Second, the eagle was a symbol of Roman power. Every Roman egion had a standard headed by an eagle (aquila). Consequently, this eagle that comes from the one who sits on the throne contrasts with the eagle of Roman power and religion.

The woe, however, is not for everyone. As we will see, the events associated with the fifth and sixth trumpets will not harm those who belong to God (the sealed 144,000). The “those who dwell on the earth,” then, are distinguished from those who are sealed with God’s name. This is the Apocalypse’s language for those who follow the beast rather than God (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). The contrast is between those who “dwell in heaven” (those who belong to God; cf. Revelation 12:12; 13:6) and who “dwell on the earth.” In other words, this is technical language for those whose citizenship is upon the earth rather than in heaven. They are part of the socio-political, anti-Christian powers (cf. Revelation 6:10; 11:10). They look to the powers rather than to one who sits on the throne in heaven for their guidance and life. This is the essence of idolatry.

The Fifth Trumpet

As in Revelation 8:10, a star falls from heaven in response to a trumpet blast, but in Revelation 9:1 this star is personified as one who is given the key to the Abyss. Some identify this star with Satan who fell from heaven. The problem, however, is that what is released from the Abyss opposes the reign of Satan in the world. The locusts attack the inhabitants of the earth who serve Satan’s beasts. It seems better to think of this “star” as an angelic messenger who does God’s work by releasing the locusts. God will use evil (demonic?) to afflict evil (empire).

What is the Abyss or “bottomless pit”? It is clearly a place of evil (Revelation 11:7; 17:8); a kind of prison for evil forces. We might compare it cosmically to “black holes,” though the symbolic language does not intend to identify this as a specific place in the cosmos. Rather, it is apocalyptic language for anti-creation and chaos. The “black hole” of God’s good creation are the forces of darkness, chaos, and destruction. These arise from the deep recesses of both human hearts and the cosmic chaos (good creation arose out of the “waters” of chaos).This anti-creation motif is present in the darkening of the sun.

The scoripion-tailed locusts were given power (divine permission) to torture rather than kill the inhabitants of the earth for torture.  The earth itself, devastated in the first four trumpets, is unharmed by the locusts. This reversal of expectation (we expect locusts to harm the grass, plants and trees) emphasizes the human devestation that the locusts will infllict. They will increase the pain of life for humanity. The inhabitants of the earth will prefer death over life because of their sting. Life will become unbearable. THe plague of locusts, of course, reminds of the similar plague upon Egypt though apocalyptic language is note used in Exodus as it is here (Joel 2 is also serves as a backdrop).

The detailed description of the locusts is the most thorough in the Apocalypse. They are large horse-like creatures with human heads but lion-like teeth. The are armoured and their wings sound like a chariot assault. Their weapon is their sting which does not kill but inflicts unimaginable pain.  But it only lasts five months–a limited amount of time and probably defined by the natural life cyle of locusts. The leader of this horde is Abaddon (Hebrew) or Apollyon (Greek) and both names mean “Destroyer.” This is neither a Roman Emperor nor Satan since the object of destruction is the empire and the inhabitants of the earth. Rather, this is more reminiscient of the “angel of death” (as in 2 Baruch 21:23) who rules God’s realm of the dead (cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 65). Abaddon was a name for the place of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Job 31:22; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 27:20).

These are not modern attack helicopters but an apocalyptic image for a series (five months) of terrifying experiences. The nature of the experience is undefined. It does not have to be defined–it is a nightmare. It is life in a collapsing empire where the security and prosperity of the empire is disappearing. Whatever forces engender that collaspe seem like a plague of locusts. It is a picture of destruction.

The Sixth Trumpet

The sixth trumpet is the second woe announced by the eagle. This trumpet announces the massing of a huge army on the borders of the empire. This is a nightmare that every nation fears, especially when the assembled warriors more than tripled the population of the Empire itself. While the Roman Empire may have been between 50-60 million, the army gathered at the Eurphrates is 220 million. A 220 million man army on the frontier of the Empire dwarfs the size of the Roman legionaries (possibly around 150,000).

This army gathers at the command of God. The voice “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” has divine sanction if it is not God’s own voice.  This voice gives the order to release the four angels who manage the grand army of the Euphrates. That the angels were “bound” may indicate that they are demonic, but this may only refer to how they had been previously limited in their use of the army. They had waited and prepared for this moment. It is an angelic action at the command of God. The army moves against the empire; it moves against the powers or the forces of Satan and evil.

It is actually a mounted calvary–220 million strong. But it is not ordinary calvary. The horse’s heads were like lions’ heads, their tails like the heads of sakes, and they breathed smoke, fire and sulfur. Their breath alone killed one-third of humanity.

For readers within the Roman empire the image of a mounted calvary at the Eurphrate conjures up the terror of a Parthian army which was Rome’s greatest enemy. Rome never defeated the Parthians except to a stalemate on their eastern border. Parthia was an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to what is now eastern Iran. The threat of an invading army from a competing empire has always generated fear whether it is the Mongols in Russia, or the Turks in Europe, or Cold War fears not many years ago. The threat is a constant one in human history.

The apocalyptic image, which includes an exaggerated armed mass of humanity, represents the fear of invasion and massive violence. The voice from the altar assures the seven churches of Asia that the Roman legions are not the real power in the world, and that same voice assures us that no earthly power–no empire–controls their own destiny. God holds the cards and when God plays out the hand, no empoire can stand.


On occasion, it appears, God releases chaos upon the earth for warning and judgment. God is sovereign over the chaos. God permits and even empowers it to disrupt the peace of the empire.

Why does God churn the waters? Revelation 9:20-21 provide one reason. It is the same reason present in many of the prophets of Israel (cf. Amos 4). God releases choas in order to warn humanity about coming judgment. Their choices and lives have moral significance–a reckoning will come. Divinely permitted chaos reminds humanity that God is paying attention to their works and lives. God uses chaos to prompt repentance but it is often ineffective because human hearts are so committed and bound to their own black holes.

Just as the drama pauses again for another interlude, John editorializes on the sins that provide the rationale for divine judgment. He identifies two broad categories: (1) human allegiance to idolatry (“works of their hands”) and (2) human selfishness.

Idolatry is misplaced allegiance. It substitutes something else in the place of God. It worships demons rather than God. Idolatry identifies the source of life and peace with something other than the Creator God. John equates the whole pagan religious system with the demonic and irrational (worshipping gods that cannot “see or hear or walk”).

Human selfishness is at the root of the second category.  The second commandment (the second half of the Ten Commandments) is to love one’s neighbor. Murder, sorcery, sexual immorality, and theft violate that love. It abuses and exploits the other for the sake of one’s own interests.

Love God and love your neighbor. These are the greatest commandments. When humanity pursues a different agenda, God releases chaos as a warning but with a transformative intent. God is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance. Unfortunately, as is the case so many times throughout history, humanity does not repent.

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