This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 8: The First Four Trumpets.
At the end of our last chapter, a dramatic pause was inserted after the fourth trumpet blast while a screeching eagle warned everyone to fear what was coming next. Now as we continue through Act 3 of this very dramatic vision, we come to a chapter which is commonly used to encourage a great fear of demons among Christians. Indeed, demons do play a major role in this chapter, but instead of focusing on them, we need to keep our focus on God and listen for the lessons that He wants us to learn.
Now before we get into this chapter, there are some things we need to understand about the ancient worldview. In these times, people had a grim view of the sea. The Jews believed that the gates to their version of Hell resided on the ocean floor. Now their concept of Hell was different than ours is today. They believed in Hades—a place where all the dead would drift about in some bodiless form. If you were bad on earth, you ended up in a bad section of Hades. If you were good, you ended up in a better section.
Now once you think the sea is parked right next to some freaky underworld, the sea becomes associated with all kinds of evil. We’re going to see several evil creatures emerging from water in Revelation.
With their constant dabbling in all forms of dark magic, the ancient people were well aware of the existence of supernatural spirits. They believed in good and bad angels—with bad angels being referred to as demons. Angels were believed to dwell in Heaven with Yahweh, but where did the demons dwell? Might as well stuff them into that underworld with all the other dead souls, because where else is there? So now we’ve got this freaky sub-dimension of earth where evil spirits dwell. Since access to that realm is through the ocean floor, imagine what wild superstitions ancient sailors must have had. Imagine how terrifying it would be to find yourself tossed overboard in a storm and then swallowed by some freakishly large fish? To you, that fish would look like the one way bus to that scary underworld, and there would be no doubt in your mind that that’s where you had ended up as you found yourself sloshing about in the inky black of the thing’s stomach. Way back in Jonah’s day, the prophet believed he had been miraculously saved from Sheol (which was the Old Testament version of Hades) after being spit out onto the shore by the fish who had swallowed him.
“I cried for help from the depth of Sheol and You heard my voice. For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me.” (Jon. 2:2-3)
“I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, but You have brought up my life from the pit, O Yahweh my God.” (Jon. 2:6)
Notice how Jonah refers to the underworld as “the pit.” No one wanted to end up in the pit. In Psalm 28, a panicking David cries out:
Yahweh, I call to You; my Rock, do not be deaf to me. If You remain silent, I will be like those going down to the pit. (Ps. 28:1)
In Psalm 30, a very relieved David writes:
O Yahweh, You have brought up my soul from Sheol; You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. (Ps. 30:3)
The same pit that the Jews were talking about in the Old Testament is going to show up here in Revelation 9 when our fifth angel blasts his trumpet.
Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen to earth from the sky, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. (Rev. 9:1)
Stars were common metaphors for angels. This star is not to be confused with the star named Wormwood from Chapter 8, nor is the falling action a suggestion of evil character. This is a good angel who is carrying out Yahweh’s plan for humans on earth—that’s why God gives this angel a key to unlock that dreaded pit.
Uh oh. Someone’s unlocking the pit? This won’t be good.
When he opened it, smoke poured out as though from a huge furnace, and the sunlight and air turned dark from the smoke. (Rev. 9:2)
You can’t open the pit in front of a bunch of superstitious Jews and not have it be a dramatic event. Jesus makes a big show out of it by having a bunch of dark smoke billow up—so much smoke that it turns everything black. Who says our Gods aren’t theatrical?
Then locusts came from the smoke and descended on the earth, and they were given power to sting like scorpions. They were told not to harm the grass or plants or trees, but only the people who did not have the seal of Yahweh on their foreheads. They were told not to kill them but to torture them for five months with pain like the pain of a scorpion sting. (Rev. 9:3-5)
Who are these frightening creatures who emerge from the pit smoke? Demons, of course. Now notice who they are targeting: the unsaved. Clearly God is saying that one day demons will rule the planet, right? Wrong. Then perhaps He’s dropping a subtle hint that one day legions of military helicopters will swarm in our skies? Nope, not that either. Let’s back up a second and see what God is really saying here.
Notice how these locusts weren’t around until someone let them out of their prison. That someone was Yahweh. The angel who unlocked the pit didn’t use his own key, but a key which had been given to him by God. What’s being emphasized in this passage is not the power of demons, but rather the fact that demons are so pathetically limited. They can’t do anything until someone lets them out of their pit. The fact that they’re locked up to begin with further emphasizes how pathetic they are. Now that they’ve been let out, notice how long they get to do their thing: five short little months. This is the normal lifespan of a locust, by the way, and the locusts are being used to symbolize the demons because they were a common symbol of evil and fear for the ancient farmer. When locusts swarm all over your crops, all you can do is stand by helplessly and watch all of your hard work be devoured. Locusts symbolized a terrifying, unstoppable threat that would strike suddenly and with great numbers. Yahweh used locusts to ravage Egypt during His ten epic plagues in Exodus. In that famous passage from 2 Chronicles which we all like to abuse today, Yahweh confirms that He is the One controlling locust attacks by saying:
“If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My Name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:13-14)
Who is the source of all plagues, troubles and trials down here? Our Gods are. Yahweh is the One opening up that bottomless pit here in Revelation and sicking demons on people. Don’t get so focused on the demons that you miss the point: God is the One doing this. The demons are just His instrument of choice at the moment. Earlier He was turning water into blood, poisoning rivers, killing off the grass, and nailing people with plagues and wild animals. What Yahweh is teaching the Jews is that He is in control over every element of Creation—both the natural and the supernatural. Sure, the demons look like tough stuff when they first billow out of the pit, but when you remember that they couldn’t get out on their own, they start looking rather lame. They sound all mean and scary when they’re torturing everyone, but then you notice how they’ve been given a list of things they can’t mess with, and suddenly they seem like dogs on a leash. Yahweh tells these stinging locust creatures that they can’t touch the grass, they can’t touch the plants, they can’t touch the trees, they can’t touch the Christians. Good grief, what can they touch? Just the non-Christians, and only for a short five months, and they aren’t allowed to kill any of them. Are you supposed to be impressed by such limited creatures? No, you’re supposed to be impressed by the Almighty God who is controlling them. Yahweh is exalting Himself here. It’s His power that’s being unleashed in this world. So the next time you hear some idiot teacher or prophet or so-called Bible expert refer to Satan as the ruler of the world, just remember Who it was that unlocked the pit. Satan is pathetic, but foolish Christians like the apostle Paul had an unhealthy obsession with demonic beings and they attributed far too much power to them. When God speaks, He exalts God, not mere created things.
In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them! (Rev. 9:6)
This emphasis on people being gruesomely tortured by demons is Yahweh laying the groundwork for His next key point: people who defy Him are complete idiots. Remember that Jewish John is applying everything he sees in this letter to his time and place. The world he sees getting pounded is the Roman Empire. In that empire, demonic gods are being worshiped on every corner. What happens when we align ourselves with demons? God lets the demons lead us into all sorts of misery as a way of disciplining us. These locusts torturing people is a dramatic picture of how Yahweh views the spiritual effects of people worshiping demons. We end up utterly miserable inside. We end up terrified, suicidal, possessed, and agitated. We end up feeling lost and starving internally. But here’s the really insane part: even in the midst of all of this horror, we keep right on worshiping those demons. Is this not the height of idiocy? No one is forcing us to worship demons—we are choosing to do so and at the same time refusing to worship the Gods who truly love us. This insane pattern of humans stubbornly clinging to demons no matter how viciously those demons tear at them is the issue Yahweh is addressing here. These creatures we are so determined to idolize do nothing but hurt and despise us, yet we just won’t give it up.
The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. They had what looked like gold crowns on their heads, and their faces looked like human faces. They had hair like women’s hair and teeth like the teeth of a lion. They wore armor made of iron, and their wings roared like an army of chariots rushing into battle. They had tails that stung like scorpions, and for five months they had the power to torment people. Their king is the angel from the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon—the Destroyer. The first terror is past, but look, two more terrors are coming! (Rev. 9:7-12)
Demons are creeps and God is underscoring their evil character by dressing them up in some very repulsive costumes and showing them going around tormenting people just because. One leader is identified—an angelic creature named Apollyon. At this time, the Roman Emperor Domitian is demanding that everyone conform to his demonic religious beliefs. Now when you live in a society that worships countless gods, you end up choosing some personal favorites to focus on. The Emperor Domitian claimed the Greek god Apollo as his divine protector. Apollo (or Apollon) got his name from the Greek verb apollyo which meant destroy. He was called many names, one of which was Parnopios, which means “of the locusts”, and he was sometimes symbolized by the locust. He was also portrayed as an archer who would shoot silver arrows down to earth from the sky, dispensing truth and healing, or plagues and death. With Domitian insisting that everyone worship his favorite god, is it any wonder that Yahweh depicts the Christians of this time living in a swarm of stinging, vicious locusts led by a leader whose name is a spin off of Domitian’s favorite god?
So what is John going to get out of this? Well, Yahweh is demonstrating that He understands how the Christians feel. Demon worship is running rampant all around them, and of course the Jews feared the power of demons, just as we do today. Put a demon and a human together, and there’s no question that the demon will come out on top. But freaking out about demons isn’t what Yahweh is encouraging here. Instead, He’s making the rather unsettling point that He is the One controlling the activities of Apollyon and his army of locusts. Hm. Back in Chapter 6, Yahweh upset the Christians by announcing that He was planning to have still more of them martyred. Now He’s letting Apollyon out of the pit and letting his hordes run wild. Hm. We humans don’t like it when our Gods start flaunting Their control over evil. We like blaming Satan for our problems, but we refuse to look beyond Satan and see that Satan is being controlled by God.
Yahweh always pulls our attention onto Him. He pushes us to look past all the instruments He is using and see that our Gods are really the Ones behind everything that happens in this world—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Apollyon didn’t let himself out of that pit, God did. If God had just left the pit closed, the locust army wouldn’t have been unleashed. If you’re standing next to a cage with a rabid dog in it and your friend unlocks that cage, who are you going to blame when the dog runs out and attacks you? The dog was just doing what was in his nature—it’s your friend who is the problem. Your friend intentionally let the dog loose on you. We Christians understand this principle when we’re dealing with earthly situations, but then we get ridiculous when it comes to God. When bad things happen on earth, we always blame the instruments instead of the God who is controlling those instruments. We blame the terrorist, or we blame the demons who inspired the terrorist, or we blame that mystical force called “Sin”, but we never want to stop playing games and put the responsibility on God where it belongs. Is Yahweh teaching us to blame our troubles on demons in this chapter? Not hardly. He’s teaching us to see our Creators as the Ones who are really in charge. Apollyon might be the king of the demons, but God is the King of Apollyon. The buck always stops with God.
Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a Voice speaking from the four horns of the golden altar that stands in the Presence of Yahweh. And the Voice said to the sixth angel who held the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great Euphrates River.” Then the four angels who had been prepared for this hour and day and month and year were turned loose to kill one-third of all the people on earth. I heard the size of their army, which was 200 million mounted troops. (Rev. 9:13-16)
Notice the emphasis on Divine intent: “the four angels who had been prepared for this hour and day and month and year.” Yahweh has planned ahead for this event. Nothing’s running amuck. Everything is going exactly as He wants it to. Notice again how the limitations of these angels is underscored by this image of them having to be freed by Yahweh before they can do anything. Once again, God is using creatures who He has been keeping in some locked down state until He decides the time is right. And just like the locust army, these four angels have to work under tight restraints. They can only kill one-third of the people. It isn’t a literal number, but a picture of limitation.
This massive army of 200 million is not literal, nor is it a reference to any modern day nation. This like saying, “a billion zillion.” It means “too many to count.” At her peak, the Roman Empire had an army of only 126,000 soldiers. These images that God is feeding to His audience are wildly exaggeratory. Here is this army that’s greater than anyone can even fathom, yet clearly the mighty Yahweh is far superior for He’s been keeping this army and its four angelic leaders bound up all this time. God is in control: this is the principle that is being hammered over and over again. God controls both the good and the evil. God controls all things.
And in my vision, I saw the horses and the riders sitting on them. The riders wore armor that was fiery red and dark blue and yellow. The horses had heads like lions, and fire and smoke and burning sulfur billowed from their mouths. One-third of all the people on earth were killed by these three plagues—by the fire and smoke and burning sulfur that came from the mouths of the horses. Their power was in their mouths and in their tails. For their tails had heads like snakes, with the power to injure people. (Rev. 9:17-19)
The colors of the armor coincide with the nasty plagues these creatures are breathing out. Red is for fire, yellow is for sulfur, and dark blue is for smoke. These same three things pop up as symbols of Divine judgment throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis 19:24, the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the region around them are destroyed when Yahweh rains down fire and burning sulfur from the sky. Obviously that would also be a smoky event.
In Psalm 11, David can’t wait for Yahweh to obliterate the wicked as he writes:
Yahweh examines both the righteous and the wicked. He hates those who love violence. He will rain down blazing coals and burning sulfur on the wicked, punishing them with scorching winds. (Ps. 11:5-6)
In Ezekiel 38, Yahweh is railing at His enemies when He says:
“I will punish you and your armies with disease and bloodshed; I will send torrential rain, hailstones, fire, and burning sulfur! In this way, I will show My greatness and holiness, and I will make Myself known to all the nations of the world. Then they will know that I am Yahweh.” (Eze. 38:22-23)
Notice why Yahweh says that He is going to rain down all that nasty fire and sulfur: to exalt Himself. To show off how awesome and holy He is. To make everyone revere Him. God always exalts God. Here in Revelation, Yahweh is once again exalting Himself by flaunting His absolute control over all things. When defiant little humans dare to spit in Yahweh’s face by worshiping demons instead of Him, Yahweh unleashes demonic hordes against those fools and gives them a royal spanking. But how do the people react?
But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Rev. 9:20-21)
Here’s the climax that Yahweh has been building up to: the rebellion of these humans is incredibly hardcore. They refuse to stop worshiping demons even when those same demons are given permission by God to horrifically torment them. What should we be learning from all of this? Well, how gracious is Yahweh to give these rebels so many chances to repent? He could have wiped them all out when the first seal was broken, but here we are, seven seals and six trumpets later and God is still preserving a remnant of humans on the earth. Why? Because that’s how gracious He is. But even grace of this magnitude won’t last forever. Hell is real, and when we defy God for too long, He chucks us into it. When He does, should we Christians be whining and fussing and accusing God of being unfair? No. Revelation teaches us that it is beyond obnoxious to ever accuse God of being unfair in His dealings with humanity. His power is such that He could uncreate the whole universe in a single second. Yet instead, when He sees us down here spitting in His face 24/7 and treating His grace like so much garbage, He continues to wait and give us more chances to repent out of our idiocy. He brings carefully timed trials into our lives to motivate us to re-evaluate our choices and start making better ones.
The persecuted Jewish Christians want revenge, but Yahweh wants to see people saved. In this vision, He’s telling the Jews that it isn’t His plan to wipe the Roman Empire off the map. He’s going to shut her down in stages so that the people living within her borders can have more time. It will be the same with the real end times. God is going to drag this period out for the purpose of giving rebels time to repent. We’ll see Him coming up with all kinds of creative ways to turn our attention onto Him. We’ll see Him flaunting His power over every element of this Creation. How is the world going to respond? It will be mixed. Just like we’re seeing here in Revelation, there will be many souls who refuse to repent no matter what. But there will also be many who do decide to turn to God, and those will be the souls that God is going to want you to be ready to help. Becoming a Christian during the end times is going to be a wild ride. Souls who are new to the faith are going to be filled with questions about what’s happening and where God is in the midst of all the chaos. God is telling you what the right answers are right here in this book: everything that happens is part of His plan. God is always in control. Are you going to be someone the Holy Spirit can call on to help spread the truth in the last days?