Studies in Revelation—Lesson 17
by Reta Halteman Finger
As we look at Revelation 9:1-21. we’re again reminded that reading Revelation is a bit like wandering through a magic forest. So we need to keep checking our compass for direction. In chapters 6-8, the seven seals have opened up into seven trumpets, and we have discussed the effects of the first four trumpets in the last lesson. These natural disasters echo the ten plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-12), as well as reflecting events from the first century.
But now an angel cries, “Woe, woe, woe!” (Rev. 8:13) to introduce the fifth and sixth trumpets. They sound even more deadly because they hail from the abyss of evil, the bottomless pit of the underworld (9:1-2). Locusts and horses are described as frightful chimeras with human faces and tails like scorpions or snakes (9:7, 19). Forbidden to harm the natural environment, these creatures wipe out humans who don’t wear God’s seal on their foreheads (9:4). You’ve got to hand it to John—he’s got a terrific imagination!
Falling stars as fallen angels
But John’s imagination is not without biblical content, as Eugene Boring’s Revelation commentary details. In Revelation 9:1, John refers to “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth” and who opens the abyss to release the locusts. Stars were often personified as deities in paganism, or as angels in the Old Testament and in noncanonical Jewish writings (cf. Job 38:7). A fallen star/deity/angel implied loss of status. For example, in Isaiah 14:12-15, this mythology was mockingly applied to a Babylonian king who wanted divine honors but instead died and went down to Sheol, place of the dead (Boring, 136-37).
Only later was the Day Star of Isaiah 14:12 identified as Satan in Jewish and Christian tradition. It is translated as “Lucifer” in the KJV. This fallen star of Revelation 9:1 now unlocks the bottomless pit and reigns as their king (Rev. 9:11). His Hebrew name is “Abaddon”; in Greek, he is “Apollyon,” the Destroyer. In this way, Lucifer, the fallen angel, is used for God’s purposes near the end of time, namely, to increase suffering as a way to bring people to repentance. John’s use of locusts to incite terror reflects African and Middle Eastern fears of actual locusts who could destroy crops in a wide area in a single day. See also how Joel 1:4-12 uses locust imagery to lament what has happened to his land.
The sixth trumpet plays on Roman fears
When the sixth angel blows her trumpet, John hears a voice from the horns of the golden altar that is before the throne of God (see Rev. 8:2-5; 9:13). The instructions from the voice would have sounded ominous for any inhabitant of the Roman Empire: “Release the four [fallen] angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” (9:14). This river was the eastern boundary of the empire, beyond which lay Rome’s fiercest enemies, the Parthians. Releasing these angels would unleash the Parthians against Rome. (See Rev. 6:2 for a description of a Parthian soldier with his bow.)
John certainly knows how to scare his listeners! But Ted Grimsrud does not think John is threatening pagans (p. 76). Rather, John implies to his church members, some of whom are complacent (as in Laodicea, Rev. 3:15-20), that God is holding back the forces of evil and destruction until a particular time when they are released to drive people to repentance. The coming of 200 million cavalry with heads like lions and tails like snakes (9:16-19) is beyond imagination.
The purpose of scary warnings
Many commentaries emphasize that the goal of this gruesome imagery is repentance. In spite of the terror unleashed, destruction is never total. Over and over we hear that only one-third of the natural world is destroyed (8:7,9,10,12). The fearful locusts of the fifth plague (9:10) last only five months (the natural life cycle of actual locusts). The massive army of the sixth trumpet kills only one-third of humanity (9:15, 18). However, although this should be enough to scare the living to repenting of their “murders, sorceries, fornications, or thefts” (9:21), it doesn’t work. Like the Pharaoh of Egypt, they do not admit their misplaced allegiance. Yet God keeps the door of repentance open; most people survive and have another chance.
What’s so bad about Rome?
J. Nelson Kraybill’s book, Apocalypse and Allegiance, describes the way Rome had merged politics with religion as a way to strengthen Rome’s dominion over much of the known world at that time. Sculptures at an ancient temple at Aphrodisias near Laodicea “portray people and nations of the world subjected to Rome, each represented by a woman in ethnic attire. Just as John sees ‘all tribes and peoples and languages’ worshiping God and the Lamb (7:9), these images depict the same for the emperor” (p. 116).
If an emperor like Augustus Caesar is deified, all people must worship him and his value system, as well as all subsequent emperors. Whatever they do is the rule of the land. By John’s use of comparable imagery to portray allegiance to God and the slaughtered Lamb, he sets before his churches a choice. Whom do you worship? An emperor who controls by the sword, or the slaughtered Lamb standing before the throne of God?
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What does repentance mean to you? Why is it so hard to admit when we do wrong?
- Is warning people of doom the best way to get them to repent and change their allegiance? Or is there a better way?
- Is John’s theology too black and white? Could one be a good citizen of the Roman empire and a Christian?
- At what point does national pride shade into idolatry?
Sources referred to:
Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, 1989. Pp. 136-138.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987. Pp. 76-77.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. Brazos Press, 2010. Pp. 116-118.