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?