Revelation 9:12-21 The Devil’s Horsemen

In verses 12 to 16 we hear the sounding of the sixth trumpet by the sixth angel. John now hears a voice that comes from the horns of the golden altar. We have already seen this altar in Revelation 8 – the altar of incense on which was offered before God the prayers of the saints who were then living on the earth. In that passage an angel took fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth – and judgment followed. Here, in the terrible events of the sixth angel and the sixth trumpet, the prayers of the saints in Revelation 6 are finally answered.

Notice that God’s answer takes the form of releasing four powerful fallen angels who have been bound for centuries at the great river Euphrates. But these evil beings have not been given free reign in the earth. God’s control over them is sovereign, and His timing of this event is surgically precise. These fallen angels are released at the “very hour and day and month and year” God had long ago predetermined. No power, human or demonic, could change the timing of that event by as much as a second. Notice that these events are all linked with the Euphrates River, the ancient boundary between the East and the West. It is at this ancient and historic river that four evil beings are somehow bound at this very moment, awaiting the very hour and day and month and year that God has foreordained for their release.

The 200-million-man army described in verse 16 has been subject to various interpretations. Many Bible commentators have claimed that this army is composed entirely of soldiers taken from the vast populations of Asian nations such as China, India, Japan, and Indochina. It is certainly true that the reference to the Euphrates River suggests that a barrier has been removed so that armies from the East can cross into the West. But note the number of angels released at the Euphrates: four. Four is the number of worldwide human government. It symbolizes the four directions of the compass – north, south, east, and west. This fact strongly suggests that 200 million soldiers will come not from any one country or even any one direction, but from all directions. And they gather in one place. We find the name of that place in Revelation 16, and it is a name which has become associated with the end of the world: Armageddon.

Armageddon – the Hebrew word for the Mount of Megiddo – is a place in northern Israel, less than 20 miles southeast of the modern port city of Haifa. Revelation 9 gives us our first glimpse of the terrible forces of death and destruction that will gather in the plain of Megiddo. There the great armies of the earth will assemble from every point of the compass to fight the last and bloodiest war of all of human history.

A fascinating mystery surrounds the additional description of this gathering of armies in verses 17-19. John recounts the vividly colorful symbols and images of his vision of the final conflict. It hardly seems possible that John himself understood what he was looking at. All he could do was record his impressions of future warriors, armor, and weaponry far beyond his ability to imagine. In fact, the events are still in our own future and may be beyond our own ability to imagine as well.

Yet is seems clear that what John envisions is machinery of future military destruction translated into the military terminology of his own day. Breastplates of various colors seem to suggest armored chariots – that is, tanks, troop carriers, missile launchers, rocket batteries, artillery pieces, and aircraft of various countries bearing the identifying colors of their nations of origin. The lions’ mouths which spouted fire and smoke suggest cannons, mortars, rocket launchers, and even missiles killing great masses of people with fire, radiation, and poison gasses. The fact that one-third of the human race is destroyed in this conflict strongly suggests that weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, will be used.

Another intriguing image is that of the horses’ tails, described as being like snakes, having heads that inflict injury. These words could apply to various kinds of modern armament – helicopter gunships with rotors mounted on their long tail assemblies, or perhaps missiles which leave a snake-like trail of smoke in their wake and inflict injury with their warheads. Perhaps it is a description of weapons that are yet to be invented. Regardless of what the details of these images mean, the overall picture is clear – and frightening. This scene will become still clearer as future chapters of Revelation return to this horrific scene and fill in additional nuances and details of the total picture.

The final scene under the sixth trumpet judgment is the reaction of these events of unprecedented calamity and horror (vv. 20-21). Even after all the catastrophes and upheavals that have occurred, both natural and man-made, the human race remains unrepentant and hard-hearted. Notice that the first and foremost sin mentioned by John is that of demon worship. This one sin explains all the rest, as well as mankind’s irrational and self-destructive unwillingness to repent. These people have willingly and completely enwrapped themselves in a satanic delusion.

In studying Revelation 9, we should learn three important lessons. The first is that because of its idolatry and sin, our world is judged by God with spiritual torments and destruction. These plagues originate in the Abyss where demons dwell. There are times when Christian influence is strong and a wholesome culture may flower in secular society. But when society turns away from God and rejects His Word, God will respond by judging that idolatry with spiritual forces of evil torment. Verse 15 suggests definite, foreordained times when God unleashes conquest on the pride of secular powers. Because we are called to live differently from the world, Christians will be accused of being out of touch and out of style. But according to Revelation 9, our holy separation from the spirit of the age protects us from the judgments even now being inflicted on the world.

Second, fearful as these judgments are, Christians should have no fear of them. This passage is filled with signs of God’s complete sovereignty over these plagues and torments. The chapter begins with God’s granting the angel permission to open the Abyss (v. 1). Verse 10 shows that God restricts the extent of the locust plague. The sixth trumpet begins with a command that comes from “the four horns of the golden altar before God” (v. 13). We have previously seen that this altar is where the prayers of the martyrs and saints are offered, so that these judgments are God’s response to His people’s pleas for deliverance. Fearful as these trumpet plagues may be, they are under the complete control of our covenant-keeping God, and thus they are unable to harm us. Many believers, however, are afflicted by their sinful lives before coming to Christ. They may therefore bear scars and enter the Christian life with habits picked up from sinful influences. But what a hope they have in Jesus Christ.

Third, we find at the end of the chapter that the purpose of these judgments is to awaken sinners to their need to repent and return to the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 20-21). There is no reason for you to follow this self-destroying example. To worship the idols of this world – money, pleasure, power, sex – is to be in service to demons and to receive the torments reserved in judgments for this world. God intends that through the misery of this life of sin, you will realize your need to be forgiven the guilt of sin and delivered from the power of sin. God offers all of these to you as a loving gift through faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

Revelation 9 is well summed up by a bumper sticker that you may have seen: “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Without Jesus – without the forgiveness and cleansing from sin that He gives – there is no peace in this world of sin. But if we come to know Him in saving faith, trusting His redeeming work to set sinners free from judgment and misery, we will know peace. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said; “my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

Revelation 9:12-21 Study Questions:

What happens when the sixth angel blows his trumpet (vv. 13-15)?

How are the riders and their horses described (vv. 17-19)? What do the horses and riders symbolize?

What is the response of the rest of humankind who are not killed by these plagues (vv. 20-21)?

What are the idols that we are tempted to worship, and how do we become like them when we choose to serve them rather than God?

How is God calling us to repent today?

Revelation 9:1-11 From the Bottomless Pit

In chapter 9, we arrive at the judgment of the fifth angel and the fifth trumpet (vv. 1-11). In the judgment of the third angel with the third trumpet we saw a great star fall into the sea. In this remarkable passage another star falls – but this time onto the earth. Here, as in previous depictions of judgment, we are probably witnessing a literal event – perhaps the fall of a brilliant meteor from the skies. The text makes it clear, however, that this is also a symbolic event. The star represents an individual who is given a key by which he opens up the gateway of hell, which is called here the Abyss.

In Luke 8:31, when Jesus cast the host of demons named Legion out of a man by the Sea of Galilee, the demons “begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.” The same Greek word for Abyss is used in this passage as in Revelation 9. By examining other passages of Scripture we can see that demons have already been imprisoned in the Abyss. Jude 1:6 tells us there are angels which are “kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” It seems apparent that in these scenes in Revelation 9 we come to that “great Day” referred to in the book of Jude, for in this passage the “star” which falls to earth becomes a being who takes the key to the Abyss and opens it. Out of the Abyss come great clouds of billowing smoke, darkening the daytime sky. Then out of the inky clouds come hordes of locusts, so thick and numerous that they have the appearance of clouds – yet another image laden with literal and figurative meaning.

At the same time that we see a literal plague of locusts unleashed, we also see the release of demons – invisible spirit beings from the pit of hell. The demons are released to go out across the earth like a plague of locusts. As we shall see as we continue to explore this passage, the person represented by this second star is a Jewish religious leader who turns apostate and unleashes demonic forces, like clouds of deadly locusts, upon the earth. I believe this leader is Jewish because of the clues given in the passage.

The locusts/demons were told not to harm “the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Clearly grass, trees, and plants represent people, as we have already seen in Revelation 7. More specifically, they represent Israel. Yet there is a certain group of them – the 144,000 who have been sealed by God – who are guarded and protected from demonic influence and control by the Spirit of God. Those unbelievers upon whom the locusts/demons are unleashed are not destroyed, but are instead tormented for a period of five months.

The being represented by the second star, then, is that person the apostle Paul refers to in 2 Thessalonians as “the Man of Sin,” a crucially important individual who arises in the last days. This man sits in the temple of God and claims the worship of Israel and of the entire earth. He is well known, even among casual students of the Bible and biblical prophecy. He is sometimes called the Antichrist.

In verses 3 and 5 where John writes that the locusts/demons “were given power like that of scorpions of the earth” – power not to kill the unbelievers on the earth, but rather “to torture them for five months.” And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes a man.” The Antichrist has loosed a horde of demons upon the earth, and these demons afflict the human race with their agonizing “sting.” This “sting” is the demonic propaganda of the Antichrist, the hellish lies he uses to ensnare the minds and hearts of those who are naked to demonic attack because they have not been sealed by the Holy Spirit. The metaphor of a scorpion’s sting speaks of the lies which the Antichrist inflicts, deceiving and mentally tormenting the world on a massive scale.

In verses 7 through 11 John goes on to describe, in metaphoric terms, the locusts/demons from the Abyss and the horrible delusion they bring upon the earth. At first glance, the symbols in this passage may seem difficult to understand, but they are really not difficult to interpret. They are consistent with symbols used elsewhere in Revelation and other prophetic books of Scripture. The locusts take on the appearance of war-horses wearing something like crowns of gold, which speak of authority. As people hear the teachings and claims of this magnetic leader, he gives the impression of speaking with authority and power. The locusts wear human-like faces, suggests intelligence. The teaching of the Antichrist will appear reasoned and appealing to the mind. Hair like women’s hair suggests that which is alluring and attractive, which the Antichrist’s propaganda will be.

But his propaganda will also be like lions’ teeth – penetrating, cruel, and frightening. Iron breastplates speak of hardness and callousness of heart, for the demonic forces behind the Antichrist’s power are the most pitiless, merciless beings in the universe. Once their torment begins, there is no relief and no escape. The sound of the locusts’ wings is like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. His message will appear as an overpowering sound, symbolizing the fact that it will come forcefully and overpoweringly. This speaks of the fact that it will be irresistible to the masses, so that the Antichrist himself will become widely popular. The stings in the locusts’ tails, like the stings of scorpions, speak of the terrible aftermath of the Antichrist’s influence:  mental, emotional, and spiritual torment inflicted by demonic powers upon all those who opened themselves up to their oppression.

Revelation 9:1-11 Study Questions:

John’s concept of the present creation includes a bottomless pit which, like a black hole in modern astrophysics, is a place of anti-creation, anti-matter, of destruction and chaos. What happens when the bottomless pit opens up (vv. 2-3)?

Why do you think John describes the super-locusts that emerge from the pit in so much detail (vv. 7-10)?

Where do we see evidence of this kind of widespread, cosmic harboring of rebellion and destructiveness in our own times?

What are the limitations of the locusts’ authority (vv. 4-5)?

Why such drastic measures are sometimes needed in order to bring about repentance?

We too have seen terrible things in our day such as using sophisticated military equipment to strike terror into human hearts. If we suppose that such destruction ultimately comes, like the insect-on-steroids in John’s vision, from the bottomless pit, under the direction of the Antichrist, what is our proper response?

Revelation 8:6-13 The First Four Trumpets

Revelation 8:6 launches the third cycle of visions with angels blowing seven trumpets. In the Bible, trumpets are blown for a variety of reasons. They are sounded as a call to the people of God to assemble for an important occasion. The feasts of Israel were hailed “with blasts of trumpets,” as “a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:24). Trumpets hailed Solomon’s ascension to David’s throne (1 Kings 1:34, 39).  According to the New Testament, a trumpet blast will herald the second coming of Christ, summoning the elect to join Him from all over the earth (Matt. 24:30-31). Against this background, verse 6 tells us that “the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them,” we can expect to see God intervening in history to defeat His enemies.

Let us now see what the trumpets of the angels signify. The description in verse 7 is reminiscent of the seventh plague that befell Egypt during Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, when hail and lightning came upon the whole land. In Revelation 8 we see hail and lightning mingled with blood.  This is not a new phenomenon. Scientists and historians have recorded other times when red rain fell from the sky. Revelation 8 foresees a time when hail and fire, mingled with blood, will descend not on some isolated region of the earth, but over great portions of the land. It will devastate much of our natural world.

Notice that the plagues of the first four trumpets all fall on creation, causing massive environmental damage. It is as though the Lord were saying, “You have taken the natural world for granted, abused it, and plundered it. You want a devastated world? Very well then, you shall have it.” As always, the worst judgment God can mete out to sinful humanity is to give humanity what it demands. But the destruction that is depicted here doesn’t just have a literal dimension. It is also powerfully symbolic. It is designed to teach us a truth of God that is invisible to the eyes of men at that time. I believe this passage depicts a judgment that is directed not only against the natural world and the environment, but upon Israel – both its leaders (symbolized by the trees) and its people (symbolized by the grass). Old Testament prophets pointed to a future time when God would judge His people Israel, an example is in Zephaniah 1:12-13.

Next, John describes the judgment brought about by the second angel and the second trumpet (vv. 8-9). The first trumpet judgment assaulted the earth. The second attacks the sea. A great blazing mountain-like object falls into the sea. This could be the result of an unimaginably violent volcanic eruption or it could be a massive meteor falling out of space and flaming through the atmosphere, landing at last in the sea. Whatever this mountain-like object is, it will cause the sea to become blood-red resulting in leaving a third of all marine life dead and a third of all shipping destroyed.

If these are literal events, there is also a symbolic dimension to them. The image of the great mountain, blazing with fire and tumbling into the sea, symbolizes a great kingdom aflame with revolution. The prophet Jeremiah records some strikingly similar imagery when he conveys the Lord’s judgment against Babylon (Jer. 51:25). As we gather by comparing this passage with other passages of Scripture, the symbol of the mountain-like object falling into the sea probably symbolizes the influence of what is popularly called “the revived Roman Empire,” the ten-kingdom coalition of Western European and Western allied nations that will be prominent, under the leadership of the Antichrist, during the Tribulation period. So the symbolic image of these verses suggests a time when the Antichrist-led coalition will fall upon the Gentiles of the world like a flaming, destroying mountain, conquering the Gentile nations while destroying many Gentile lives.

As happened in the first trumpet judgment, and as will happen again and again throughout these seven judgments, we see the repetitive use of the term “a third.” Under the seals of judgment, the losses were limited to “a forth,” but here we see losses of “a third,” again and again. What is the difference between the judgments of the seven seals and the judgments of the seven trumpets? Four is the number of human government. Under the seal judgments God was indicating that He uses human government to limit the onslaught of the four terrible horseman of Revelation 6. Human government will still retain some vestige of restraining power during those days. But in Revelation 8, even that limited amount of restraint has been removed. Under the trumpet judgments, God alone restrains. Three is the divine number, the symbol of God’s attributes. By the repeated phrase “a third” God is indicating that only His mercy and grace limits these terrible apocalyptic judgments to one-third of the earth.

Now John describes the judgment brought about by the third angel and the third judgment (vv. 10-11). This great star which falls into the rivers and the fountains of the earth is very likely a comet or comet-like object which breaks up when it enters the atmosphere and scatters itself throughout the earth, falling into the rivers and springs and poisoning them. It is interesting to speculate that the form of poisoning described in these verses might actually be a form of radiation. In fact, we may have already witnessed a fore gleam of such an event when a nuclear reactor experienced a melt down at Chernobyl. It is no mere coincidence that the word Chernobyl is actually Russian for “Wormwood”! I believe God was desperately trying to warn us during that terrible nuclear accident – but, as usual, humankind refuses to listen.

Again, I believe the destruction depicted has a symbolic as well as a literal dimension. It is designed to teach us God’s truth about the invisible realm of man’s internal being. Rivers, of course, symbolize great masses of people moving together in one direction – entire populations caught up in one idea, one mindset, moving predictably and inexorably like a river toward a single destination. The springs symbolize the sources of moral or philosophical leadership. The star symbolizes a prominent leader. It appears from these symbols that the great person, widely recognized as a leader, will suddenly reverse his policy. He will, in essence, fall. Many people will be embittered by the turnabout of this influential leader. In the mass struggle that ensues, many will experience moral and spiritual death. This is exactly the scene that is described for us later in Revelation under the rule of the Beast that comes from the earth.

Next John describes the judgment brought about by the fourth angel and the fourth trumpet (v. 12). Now compare this verse with the words of the Lord Jesus from His Sermon on the Mount in Luke 21:25-26. There is no question that Jesus here describes the same event that John relates as the judgment of the fourth trumpet. But not only is this a literal event in which the sun, moon, and stars are darkened or fail for a time to give their light, this is also a powerfully symbolic event.

The sun, moon, and stars are used in various places in Scripture to symbolize earthly authorities. The highest such authorities – kings, prime ministers, dictators, and presidents – would be portrayed as the sun. Lesser authorities would be portrayed as the moon and stars. Thus, we see depicted here a hierarchy of civil authority – authority which somehow is eclipsed under judgment of the fourth trumpet. The darkening of these heavenly bodies means that these authorities will be morally darkened. Instead of displaying sound moral judgment, their judgment will be darkened and evil. They will display no ethical restraint, no compassion, and no justice. People under their government will experience only deceit, cruelty, treachery, oppression, and merciless exploitation. By the grace of God, this darkening will still be limited to a third. Some restraint of evil will still be possible in those evil times, but only by the sovereign grace of a sovereign God!

In verse 13, an eagle appears with a message of warning and lament. If you study in the King James Version, you will find the word “angel” instead of “eagle,” but the more authoritative and reliable Greek manuscripts use the Greek word for “eagle.” After the woes that have already befallen the earth, it is difficult to imagine what could follow in the next three trumpet blasts that could be any worst – yet as we shall see, the eagle’s threefold cry of “Woe!” is well-deserved.

As we examine this passage, we should note that there is a mistranslation in the text. The phrase “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth” would be better translated “Woe to those who make their home on earth.” This may seem a small difference at first, but it is actually an extremely important distinction. During the days of the Great Tribulation there will be many converts, redeemed followers of Christ, who are inhabitants of the earth but do not make their home on earth. They will live and act as though their citizenship is in heaven. Those “who make their home on earth” are a moral and spiritual class of people who live only for the present life and care nothing for the things of God and the life to come. They care only about the present, about their own immediate and self-centered needs, their own pleasures, their own will. They give no thought to others. They give no thought in the purpose of life or the meaning of their own existence. They give no thought to God.

The warning of the eagle is that a terrible doom is coming upon all those who live for the moment, who live for self, who have no larger framework for their lives than today’s pleasures. This is the kind of moral decay that will exist in that day. The first four trumpets, which should have been “loud” enough to awaken anyone with ears to hear, appear to have fallen on deaf ears among those “who make their home on earth.” The next three trumpets shall bring unimaginable woe upon those who live only for the moment and for self.

Revelation 8:6-13 Study Questions:

What do the first two trumpets bring (vv. 6-9)?

The idea of a huge mountain being thrown into the sea is an image used by Jesus himself on occasion, for example, Mark 11:23, and was familiar in other Jewish writings of the time. Why is it significant that this vision uses symbols and ideas that were already familiar to John’s readers?

What plagues do the third and fourth trumpets bring (vv. 10-12)?

The picture of a giant star falling from the sky (v. 10) has resonances with the ancient story of a fallen angel being cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12). By including this detail, how might John be pointing us to the ultimate meaning of what is being revealed in these plagues?

How does Revelation 8 underscore the seriousness of evil in our world?

There is nothing wrong with being an earth-dweller. But the point John is making, again and again, is that there are many who have lived on earth as though there were no heaven, or as though, if heaven there be, it was irrelevant. In what ways do we still see the tendency to think this way in our own day?

How might we set a counter-example as those who do embrace God’s re-establishment of the rule of heaven on earth?