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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Revelation 9

 

 


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Verse 1-2

‘And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven, fallen to the earth, and the key of the pit of the abyss was given to him. And he opened the pit of the abyss, and smoke from the pit went upwards like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened as a result of the smoke from the pit.’

We are now specifically in the realm of the supernatural. The four winds of earth are doing their work and now the further elements of the spiritual world will also be called on to intervene. What follows is not to be seen visually by mankind, who will only know of it by its effects, although it is seen by John because he is in vision. It is often assumed that such dreadful events have not yet occurred, but such an idea is without foundation. The invisible activity of the powers of evil have occurred right from the beginning (compare Daniel 10). Within limits placed by God Satan has constantly attacked both the world and the church. These descriptions put his attacks in vivid and pictorial terms. Because we are cushioned from them we should not think that they have not happened. And the first began around the time of John and has continued through the centuries.

‘The abyss’ is another term for the place of the dead, for Jesus Himself descended to the abyss (Romans 10:7). It includes the abode of evil spirits, a place which they seek to avoid at all costs (Luke 8:31). It is therefore a general term for the world of the dead and of spirits, both good and bad. We are not told that John saw ‘the star’ fall. He describes it as already fallen. This may suggest that he has in mind the words of our Lord, ‘I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18). It would indicate that the fallen star may be Satan himself. What John sees as happening at this point in time is the consequent giving of the key.

That this is our first introduction to Satan in Revelation, apart from in the letters to the churches, is suggested by the fact that this angel is king over the abyss (Revelation 9:11). Furthermore the key of the abyss would only be given to someone very important, just as, in contrast, the keys of death and Hades were given to Jesus. During this age Satan is bound (Mark 3:27 and parallels) but he is given a certain amount of licence by God to carry out his evil intent on the world.

The smoke going upwards like the smoke of a furnace parallels Genesis 19:28 where the same description is given of the smoke going up from Sodom and Gomorrah after God’s judgment has come upon them, and we are justified in seeing in it an impending warning. (It is also paralleled in Exodus 19:18 of God’s appearance in fire on Mount Sinai, warning the people of Israel not to enter the Mount). But its primary reference here is to what follows. The rising of a great cloud of locusts was often seen and described in such fashion. (It therefore does not tell us anything about what the abyss consists of e.g. fire). Vast amounts of smoke are seen to rise and are then discerned to be a huge cloud of locust like creatures. Often in the Middle East people have thought there was a great fire as a result of seeing thick smoke in the distance, only for it to turn out to be a vast cloud of locusts. Such a sight struck terror in men’s hearts as they considered the effects.

If not Satan ‘the angel’ may have in mind the one described under the third trumpet in the previous chapter as having fallen from heaven, but in our view this is less likely. Either way the end result is the same. Such angels are servants of Satan. For the idea of the angels as stars see Job 38:7. They are also called ‘the host of heaven’ (1 Kings 22:19; 2 Chronicles 18:18; see also Psalms 148:2; Joshua 5:14), a name given to the heavenly bodies as well (Isaiah 34:4; Jeremiah 33:22; see also Isaiah 40:26; Isaiah 45:12). They are further called stars in other non-canonical apocalyptic literature, including Enoch (Enoch is quoted by Jude demonstrating that the early church utilised apocalyptic literature, while not on the whole accepting it as part of ‘the word of God’).

This angel, whom we consider is probably ‘the angel of the abyss’ (Revelation 9:11), is permitted by God (‘was given the key’) to release evil spirits on the world, although the people of God will have special protection from them (Revelation 9:4). So God tells John that soon (from his point of view) there is to be a release of powers of evil on the world. The binding of Satan is to be relaxed a little. Compare Revelation 12:12 (‘the ‘short time’ is essentially from God’s viewpoint. Satan does not know how long he has, but like man assumes it to be a short time). In all that happens it is made quite clear that God is over all. Paul has a similar idea in mind in Ephesians 6:10-18 where he describes the armour provided for God’s people, armour that can protect the mind and heart, armour that can divert the fiery darts of the Evil One, which is found in salvation and in the effective use of the word of God and prayer. So Paul there sees a multitude of evil spirits at work which aim to make things difficult for God’s people. ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in the spiritual realm’ (Ephesians 6:12). Paul describes the human side of the situation in order to encourage the putting on of the armour of God. Here in Revelation the divine side of God’ protection of His people is found in the seal which is put upon them marking them as His.

‘The sun and the air were darkened as a result of the smoke of the pit’. The darkness is clearly ominous, warning of the dreadful things about to happen. The rulers of the darkness of this world are emerging. Huge clouds of locusts which blotted out the sun regularly brought fear into the hearts of men. In vision John recognises here a greater threat.


Verse 3-4

‘And from the smoke locusts came out on the earth, and power was given to them as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was said to them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree but only such men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.’

The description of then as ‘locusts’ connects with the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 10:12) but there the likeness ends. These are not here to devour fields and grain, but to attack men directly like flying scorpions. But the attack is only to be upon such men as are not sealed by God. Thus will men as a whole undergo great spiritual tribulation. They are spiritual foes and will not therefore be visible. Men may well be unaware that these evil spirits are involved in what happens to them.

Again we are not told how widespread this would be. It would not necessarily be worldwide. They are described in terms of scorpions because of the fear in which the scorpion was held (Deuteronomy 8:15; Ezekiel 2:6), almost unseen and then stinging viciously. John’s use of the descriptions of scorpions and serpents (Revelation 9:19) has in mind that Jesus had given to His own the power to ‘tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the Enemy’ (Luke 10:19). That is why these creatures cannot hurt those who have been sealed, the people of God (Revelation 7:3), they are protected by the power of Christ.

‘It was said to them’. Again the indirect language points to God as the source. These too are, in the final analysis, under God’s control.


Verse 5-6

‘And it was given to them that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. And in those days men will seek death and will not in any circumstances find it, and they shall long to die and death flees from them.’

Scorpion stings are rarely deadly but they are so excessively painful that men so affected wish that they could die. Five months is the life cycle of certain types of locust. The idea would seem to be that during the life cycle of these ‘locusts’ they continue to bring pain and agony to men (not necessarily through one ‘sting’). Even here there is a limit set by God on what these creatures can do (‘it was given to them’) and limits on their time of activity.

It is probable that the anguish is to be seen as spiritual rather than physical, torment in the mind and spirit rather than in the body, although such anguish often produces, or results from, physical consequences. ‘Like the torment of a scorpion’ describes piercing pain which makes a man writhe in anguish. As a result men will want to die, but they will be so ill that they will be unable to find that way out. People with certain illnesses, physical, mental and spiritual, have suffered such torments, and when this occurs on a large scale, as it has for example in the Plagues with their distressing mental and spiritual effects, it may well be seen in these terms. Modern man likes to think he ‘knows’ the causes of illnesses which at various times especially plague mankind, but John is saying there is more to some of them than that (compare Luke 13:16). And when spiritual darkness falls on a land the same may be the case. The fact that there is a limit put on the torment is again a sign that God will not allow evil more than a certain amount of scope. All is controlled.

The locusts are now described in more detail and it is clear they are such locusts as have never been, nor ever could be. The passage is heavy in symbolism (they do not really look like this even in the spiritual realm) and we must recognise that they are almost certainly not seen by those they attack. They are described from heaven’s viewpoint. Earth sees nothing It is just aware of their effects. They are spiritual beings, fallen creatures arising from the abyss where they have been imprisoned (compare 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6), and invisible to mortal eye. It is by their effects that they are known. But John sees them for he is in a visionary state.


Verses 7-10

‘And the shapes of the locusts were like horses made ready for war, and on their heads were, as it were, crowns similar to gold, and their faces were like men’s faces. They had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates as it were breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to war. And they have tails like scorpions, and stings. And in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months.’

The locusts, invisible to mankind, are a mixture of strength and false piety. Their pseudo-golden crowns imitate the twenty four elders, their pseudo men’s faces imitate the living creatures, long hair on men would be connected with the dedication to God of the Nazarites (Numbers 6:5). Thus they represent the anti-Heaven and their dedication is to Satan. But really they are like fearsome war horses, they have lions’ teeth, they wear breastplates as of iron, they sound like the rushing of chariots and they have the sting of scorpions. In other words they have great power, are belligerent and are damaging to man.

‘Like horses made ready for war --- like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to war’. This picture has in mind Joel 2:4-5, where Joel is speaking of a fearsome race, probably of locusts, who will invade Jerusalem. It is a symbol of fierce attack.

For ‘the teeth of lions’, compare Joel 1:6. Joel is there describing the invasion of the ‘people’ who would cause the earth to quake, the heavens to tremble, the sun and moon to be darkened and the stars to withdraw their shining (Joel 2:10). Here they are changed into equally fearsome spiritual assailants.

‘Crowns similar to gold, their faces like men’s faces’. This is in contrast to the genuine ‘crowns of gold’ of the elders (Revelation 4:4) and the face of a man of the living creature (Revelation 4:7). Their crowns are sham and their faces imitational. They are not the real thing.

‘As it were a breastplate of iron’, a demonstration of strength and destruction, in contrast with the breastplate of righteousness (Isaiah 59:17; Ephesians 6:14). They are hard, unloving creatures.

Stated not to be exact descriptions they demonstrate that these creatures are not earthly, and mimic what God offers, while not enjoying the real thing. What they have is fading and unreal. But this does not mean that we can ignore the great danger they represent. We should thank God that His people are protected from them. In all this symbolism we are to see something fierce, and yet inadequate, strong, and yet held in restraint, vicious and without pity, but pitiful, attacking men’s minds and thoughts and bringing them to agony and despair.

They may also be responsible for dreadful physical ailments, compare the woman whom Satan ‘bound’ for eighteen years (Luke 13:16), and the mental ailments that produced such men as Hitler and other mass killers. As mentioned they are almost certainly invisible to us and the description is highly symbolic.

We are told by Peter that even in his day the Devil stalked around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). This similar description stresses that he has many minions who stalk round with him. Peter knew it as happening in his time. It happens too today. Those who do not bear the seal of God have reason to fear their activity. There is no reason for limiting these activities to ‘the end days’ except in so far as the whole Christian eraisthe end days.


Verse 11

‘They have over them as king the angel of the abyss. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon (‘Destroyer’).’

‘Abaddon, meaning ‘destruction’, occurs six times in the Old Testament (Job 26:6; Job 28:22; Job 31:12; Psalms 88:11; Proverbs 15:11; Proverbs 27:20) as a synonym for Sheol (the grave, the place of the dead), or of Death. It is the ultimate destruction. Here it is used of the prince of Death. Whether it is Satan or one of his leading princes is not too important. But as Satan was bound there (see on Revelation 20:3) Satan may be seen as a prime contender.

The Greek means ‘the one who destroys’. (This drawing attention to the Hebrew or Greek is typical of John (John 5:2; John 19:13; John 19:17; John 19:20; John 20:16)). Those who follow him go to destruction. But the fact that Jesus descended to ‘the abyss’, to be raised from there (Roman Revelation 10:7), warns against making it specific to evil spirits and fallen angels. It is the land of the dead, the land of emptiness. It includes the place in which the fallen angels are ‘bound’. The fact that Jesus ‘descended’ there does not mean there is a world below peopled by some kind of ghosts. It was ‘below’ because graves are below the surface. Apart from that it is ‘below’ only in spiritual terms, i.e. a retrograde place.


Verse 12

‘The first woe is past, behold there come two more woes hereafter.’

As with the seals, while the first five are concurrent, the sixth leads up to the end of time. (The seventhisthe end of time, the last trump). Thus while the first woe is concurrent with what goes before, the second and third finalise history. The awfulness of the first woe is brought out in this warning, and what more woeful than Satanic activity? But there is further emphasis on the awfulness of the next two woes.

The Sixth Trumpet Sounds - The Second Woe.


Verse 13-14

‘And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the horns of the golden altar which is before God, one saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “loose the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates”.’

The voice comes from the horns of the golden altar. This altar is the altar of incense from which the prayers of God’s people are offered to God (Revelation 8:3). Thus it is essentially the voice of the people’s prayers that has been heard. The altar is ‘before God’, where previously it was ‘before the veil’ (Exodus 30:6). This is because the veil has been removed in Christ (Hebrews 10:20).

‘Loose the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates’. These are not the same as any previously mentioned for they are ‘bound’ and need releasing. In all this we see that the powers of evil have been bound by Christ (Mark 3:27 and parallels) and that their release is dependent on His will, and in accordance with His purpose.

The mention of the River Euphrates suggests the sphere of their operations which is the Mesopotamian region. Compare Jeremiah 46:6; Jeremiah 46:10 which refers to a previous ‘day of the Lord’ (Jeremiah 46:10) when Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon smote the Egyptians at the River Euphrates (Jeremiah 46:2; Jeremiah 46:13; Jeremiah 46:26)). It is beyond the border of the land which God had intended for His people Israel (Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:4), the land which was once conquered by David (2 Samuel 8:3). The language in Jeremiah 46:10 is very reminiscent of the final days of the Lord’s vengeance, but is specifically stated to refer to the days of Pharaoh Necho and King Nebuchadrezzar. (How careful we must be in handling the word of God). It could, however, be seen as a pattern of what is to come, as history repeats itself, for God is unchanging, and to some extent so is man.


Verse 15

‘And the four angels were loosed who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill the third part of men.’

God’s timing is always exact. Here it is fixed with computer like precision, to the very hour, with the aim of releasing on the earth at that point in time four murderous angels who had been prepared for this very purpose. Their aim was the slaughter of ‘the third part of men’, in other words a sizeable minority. There is only one definite article with respect to ‘the hour and day and month and year’, stressing that the four elements of time must be seen together as indicating the defining moment, detailed step by step. They are to have their hour. The slaughter is to be considerable, ‘the third part of men’ in that region. We are not told how long they would be operating. The aim was rather to bring out the evil forces at work against the world, and to bring out that God had them under control, only allowing their release on His timing.

The area in question has always been noted for its bloody wars. In John’s day the Parthian menace lay beyond those borders, ever threatening the security of the Roman Empire. Later it would be the centre of the hordes of Islam, and they continue today with different Muslim nations ever active in bloodshed, whilst the whole restlessness of the area makes it a growing threat as they develop nuclear weapons and germ and chemical warfare and suicide terrorists. It has erupted again and again with horrific consequences. It is constantly erupting today. Thus the area of the River Euphrates has regularly produced something like this, and we can see in it the activity of Satanic forces.

But as this second woe (and sixth trumpet) is connected with chapters 10 & 11 which deal with the last days of the age and the summing up of God’s purposes, it may well be seen as an intensification of the fifth trumpet occurring in the final period leading up to the end (compare the sixth seal and the sixth bowl, both precursors of the end).


Verses 16-19

‘And the numbers of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million, I heard the number of them. And this is how I saw the horse in the vision, and those who sat on them, they have breastplates as of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone, and the heads of the horses are as the heads of lions, and out of their mouths proceeds fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three plagues were the third part of men killed, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeds from their mouths, for the power of the horses is in their mouth and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents and have heads and with them they hurt.’

The four angels were clearly able to call on a multitude of assistants, possibly demons. We are not told the source from which they came, but they have been held back until the right time came. Like the previous horsemen these have tails which hurt. Whether the tails really had heads, or simply some appendage which enabled them to hurt men, is difficult to tell, but the point is that they were dangerous both in front and behind, and there were two hundred million of them (although they would spread out over a wide area). The likeness of their tails to serpents’ heads connects them with the Great Serpent (Revelation 12:9). In having dangerous tails they parallel the flying scorpion-locusts. So these evil spirits, presumably from the abyss, are released under the four fallen angels. And their purpose, unlike that of the scorpion-locusts, is to cause wholesale bloodshed as well as spiritual distress. Once again we are not to see these evil spirits as being seen by men. Men will only be aware of their effects as they see the carnage and distress round about them, wrought by men under the influence of evil spirits. The problem before the Flood (widespread demon possession) is again raising its ugly head. Men alive at the time will see nothing of these creatures, but John is allowed to see the real cause of the bloodshed and distress. We notice that God does not carry out the carnage. Evil angels (and evil men whom they utilise) are sufficient cause.

‘Two hundred million’ (twice ten thousand times ten thousand) - John was aware of the vastness of the number. He assures his readers ‘I heard the number of them’ - to show the vast armies released. We remember how in the days of Jesus one man was possessed by a host, a ‘legion’ of such evil spirits (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30).

The evil warriors have ‘breastplates of fire and hyacinth (smoke) and brimstone’. This was the appearance of the breastplates in the vision, projecting the awfulness of these creatures. Fire and smoke is paralleled with brimstone partly to bring out the difference between the pure fire which speaks of God and the hellish fire in mind here. Brimstone is always a symbol of terrible judgment (Genesis 19:24; Deuteronomy 29:23; Psalms 11:6; Isaiah 30:33; Isaiah 34:9; Ezekiel 38:22; Luke 17:29; Revelation 14:10; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10; Revelation 21:8). ‘Hyacinth’ is a blue colour. Here it represents smoke. So the combination seen is of an unearthly red, blue and yellow representing creatures from the abyss.

The horses have ‘heads of lions’, this depicts their fierceness. They only purposes death. ‘From their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone’, probably from the mouths of the horses, paralleling the breastplates of their riders, underlining the hellish nature of the visitation. Note how ‘smoke’ has now replaced ‘hyacinth’ in the trilogy. Thus the hyacinth spoke of smokiness.

From the mouths of these horses issues only destruction (Revelation 9:18), brought about by the fire, smoke and brimstone. They bring no hope for man. They are the opposite of the One from whose mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, which had a positive purpose and did offer hope as well as judgment (Revelation 19:15). We must not take these pictures literally. No sharp-two edged sword will really come out of the mouth of the Son of Man It speaks of a spiritual reality. Thus the same principle applies here. The spiritual effect of these evil creatures will be destructive

‘Their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they hurt’. So like the scorpion locusts these creatures’ horses hurt viciously with their tails, suggesting the causing of spiritual distress and torment. Death proceeds from their mouths and great distress from their tails, as they incite mankind to evil. Their tails have heads of serpents which bite and bring misery. In other words the activity of these creatures is both deadly and spiritually distressing. They will be responsible for widespread slaughter. The last century has seen slaughter on a massive scale, partly at the hands of the Kaiser and a demon-possessed Hitler. This may well have been caused by these evil creatures. But what we can be certain of is that they cannot directly ‘hurt’ those who have the seal of God on their foreheads. They come from the very gates of Hades, but they will not prevail against those who belong to Christ (Matthew 16:18), although no doubt they can produce conditions that result in the deaths of many of them. The seal saves from the wrath of God not the wrath of men. We are again reminded of Jesus words, ‘behold I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you’ (Luke 10:19). Spiritually God’s people are safe. But physically they will have to face tribulation (John 16:33).


Verse 20

‘And the rest of mankind who were not killed with these plagues did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood, which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk, and they did not repent of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.’

The purpose of all God’s judgments before the end is to bring men to repentance. All these troubles which come on mankind are intended to make them consider their ways and repent. But in spite of the wholesale slaughter, they have hardened their hearts and will not do so. This is not to deny that some repent. It is an overall generalisation. It is saying that as a whole this was true of the rest of mankind. The description of idolatry is taken mainly from Daniel 5:23, where it is emphasised that it prevents men from glorifying ‘the God Who gave them breath and in Whose hands are all their ways’. So anything that prevents men from this may be included within the description. Paul pointed out that ‘the things which the Gentiles sacrifice (to idols) they sacrifice to demons and not to God (1 Corinthians 10:20). John agrees.

In our day when sorcery, magic, ouija boards, planchettes, crystal gazing, contacts with spirits, witchcraft, etc. are on the increase these words are very apposite. Note that ‘demon worship’ comes first in the condemnation. The very evil spirits that men seek to contact and honour will be their destroyers. The sad thing is that the modern penchant for books on magic and sorcery, seemingly harmless in itself, is preparing the foundation for a further increase in this kind of thing, and it is thus unwise to participate in it, and it can even, for that reason, be considered evil. But we note that sexual misbehaviour and theft are also included in the denunciation. However man hurts his fellowman, for that he will be judged.

There is now a break in the text before the sounding of the seventh trumpet so that further explanation of what is going on can be introduced. As we have seen most of what has been described happened, at least to some extent, in John’s day and has happened again and again in history. Man’s repeated sinfulness results in repeated problems. Every generation is a reminder that Christ is coming. It may be that they will reoccur in greater measure as the end of the age approaches, for man has not changed and has more and more terrible weapons at his disposal. Atomic, bacterial and chemical warfare could produce much of what is described here on a huge scale, and the time may be soon. There are already nations building up reserves of these weapons and many are centred around the Euphrates.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Revelation 9:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/revelation-9.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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