Commentary on Revelation 9

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the abyss.

Commentators disagree on whether this fallen star is a good angel or an evil angel (perhaps even Satan himself). In support of the interpretation that this is an evil angel, one can note that:

  1. In Rev 12:7-9 the dragon and his angels are cast out of heaven to earth.
  2. In Lk 10:18 Satan is described as falling from heaven like lightning.
  3. In Isa 14:12-14 the king of Babylon is described as the morning star falling from heaven and that this passage was later applied to Satan (1 Enoch 86.3; 88.1–3; 90.24–26; 2 En 29.4–5; Adam and Eve 12, 15–18).
  4. 9:1 may form an inclusio with the “angel of the abyss” in 9:11.

In support of the interpretation that this is a good angel, one can note that:

  1. Elsewhere in Revelation, God always uses a good angel to execute his will.
  2. It is unlikely an evil angel would be given the keys to the abyss (1:18; 3:7).
  3. When describing a star, there was little difference between “falling” (1 En 86.1; 88.1) and “descending” (1 En 86.3). Hence, one can see the angel of 9:1 as the angel descending from heaven with the key to the abyss in 20:1.
  4. In 1 En 20.2 the archangel Uriel is placed in charge of eternity and Tartarus (the place of final punishment). This shows it would not be out of place for a good angel to be given the keys to the abyss.

I find the good angel interpretation to be more persuasive. The good angel “was given” by God (cf. 6:2, 4, 8; 7:2; 8:2, 3) the key to the shaft of the abyss. The abyss is the place of the dead (Ps 63:9; 71:20; 1 En 10.4–14; 18.9–16; 19:1; 21:7-10; 54:1-6; 88:1-3; 90:23-26; Jub 5.3–11; Lk 8:31; Rom 10:7; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Rev 9:2; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3).

2 He opened the shaft of the abyss and smoke rose out of it like smoke from a giant furnace. The sun and the air were darkened with smoke from the shaft.

This imagery has clearly negative connotations (Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Rev 6:12; 8:12; 11:7; 13:1, 11; 17:8).

It is unwise to conjecture some specific meaning for each detail of the vision. It is better to allow the text to speak for itself. Usually visions of this sort have cumulative, overall effect, so that the parts make up the whole, which has meaning, but they themselves do not carry specific meaning. While the Apocalypse uses metaphorical and figurative language with great freedom, it is not an allegory that must be decoded before it will yield its meaning. The experience itself is often “what it means.” To demystify the existential is more often than not to remove it from the only setting in which it can be “understood.” (Mounce Locations 3612-3617)

3 Then out of the smoke came locusts onto the earth, and they were given power like that of the scorpions of the earth.

Out of the dense smoke now pours forth “locusts to the earth.” The locusts reenact not only Joel 1:2–2:11 but also the eighth Egyptian plague (Exod. 10:1–20). Locusts were one of the few insects allowed as food (Lev. 11:22), but they are best known in Scripture for their incredible swarms and the plagues that resulted. The Egyptian plague was described as the worst in past or future history (Exod. 10:14), but incredible disasters have been recorded up to the present day. Firmage (ABD 6:1150) describes an eyewitness account of the 1915 locust plague in Palestine: “Swarms of locusts flew overhead for five days, darkening the sky and leaving droppings everywhere.” The devastation of the land was total. Mounce (1998: 186–87) speaks of swarms four miles in length and a hundred feet thick and of 200,000 people who died in a famine following an 1866 plague in Algiers. In the OT locusts were also used as a warning, lest God send another such plague on an apostate people (Deut. 28:38–42). Amos spoke of locust plagues that Yahweh sent against an unrepentant nation (Amos 4:9), and the image of locusts was often used to depict military judgments sent by God (Jer. 46:23; 51:14; Nah. 3:15–17). The great locust plague of Joel 1:2–2:11 is a harbinger of “the great and dreadful day of Yahweh” (2:31), and all the locust imagery is consummated in this scene here. As Aune (1998a: 527) says, “These are demons in the guise of locusts, for their king is Abaddon, the angel of the abyss [Rev. 9:11].” As they ascend from the abyss, they parallel the ascent of the beast in 11:7; 17:8. (Osborne 364)

The Greek word translated “power” (exousia) means both “authority” and “power”. God has given the locusts authority over the earth-dwellers and the power to inflict harm on them.

4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth, or any green plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their forehead.

Unlike naturally occurring locusts, these locusts do not eat vegetation. They are released to carry out God’s judgment. God’s people, those with the seal (3:10; 7:1-8), are exempt from punishment.

5 The locusts were not given permission to kill them, but only to torture them for five months, and their torture was like that of a scorpion when it stings a person.

The torment of this judgment is a harbringer of the torment in the lake of fire (20:10). Scorpion stings are rarely fatal but the pain can be intense. According to Beale (497) the torment is “primarily spiritual and psychological, since this is the connotation of the word elsewhere in the Apocalypse with reference to the nature of trials both preceding and including the final judgment (cf. 11:10; 14:10–11; 18:7, 10, 15; 20:10; the uses in ch. 18 are synonymous with the emotional pain of ‘weeping’ and ‘mourning’).”

Their torment is limited to a period of five months. This period has been variously explained. It may have been determined by the life cycle of the locust, which is of five months’ duration. It corresponds as well to the dry season (spring through late summer) in which the danger of a locust invasion is always present. Whatever the source of the number, it represents a limited period of time (not necessarily a short period of time) during which people in torment may yet turn from their wickedness and repent (cf. vv. 20-21). The plague is not an act of wanton cruelty but a stark indication that wickedness cannot continue indefinitely without divine requital. (Mounce Locations 3641-3646)

6 In those days people will seek death, but will not be able to find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.

The torment from the locusts is severe enough for people to seek death. “Ironically, the figure of Death, whose sickly green horse could not be avoided when the Lamb opened the fourth seal, now eludes humanity when directly sought out” (Boxall 144).

7 Now the locusts looked like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were something like crowns similar to gold, and their faces looked like men’s faces.

The war-horses of the ancient world were fearsome animals (Job 39:19-25). Crowns of gold symbolize a victorious conqueror. But that these were “something like crowns similar to gold” indicates that they were not truly victorious. Only God is truly victorious. It is not clear what the significance of the human-like faces are. Perhaps it indicates that they are cunning.

8 They had hair like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth.

The woman-like hair is probably connected to the human-like faces in order to indicate these locusts share something with humans.

Aune (1998a: 582) provides a further possible explanation, saying it pictures a woman with loose, disheveled hair. Disheveled hair connoted several things in the OT: uncleanness for people with leprosy (Lev. 13:45), mourning (Lev. 10:6; 21:10), proper protocol for a woman accused of adultery (Num. 5:18), and even the appearance of a demon (T. Sol. 13.1) or Satan (Apoc. Zeph. 6.8). Many of these images would fit the situation here. (Osborne 371)

The teeth of lions alludes to Joel 1:6. It symbolizes the fierce apetite and devouring nature of the locusts.

9 They had breastplates like iron breastplates, and the sound of their wings was like the noise of many horse-drawn chariots charging into battle.

The breastplates symbolize the invincibility of the creatures. The chariot was one of the most devastating weapons of war in the ancient world so their sound could strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.

10 They have tails and stingers like scorpions, and their ability to injure people for five months is in their tails.

11 They have as king over them the angel of the abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon.

Whereas the angel in 9:1 was a messenger of God, the angel in 9:11 is probably an inhabitant of the abyss (4Q280; b. Arakhin 15b; b. Sanhedrin 52a). Abaddon means “Destruction” and Apollyon means “Destroyer”.

The name of the Greek god Apollo was taken from this term [Apollyon], and the locust was one of his symbols, since he was the god of pestilence and plague. Moreover, the emperor Domitian (perhaps ruler of Rome at the time of writing) viewed himself as Apollo incarnate. Therefore, this could be another of the many references to the imperial cult (see the introduction and the discussion of chaps. 2–3). Throughout this book the Roman Empire is seen as demonic, and this would be a powerful way of getting that across. However, this is a side point even if the cryptic reference to Domitian were true. The real message is that the demonic forces are organized, powerful, terrifying, and filled with hatred and contempt for their followers. As soon as God grants them permission, they torture and kill all who have rejected God in order to worship them. (Osborne 374)

12 The first woe has passed, but two woes are still coming after these things!

There can be no specific answer to the question of exactly who or what is symbolized by the plague of locusts. To says that the first Woe is “a vivid picture of moral and spiritual decay which brings torment to the souls of men” may well be part of it. But it doesn’t do full justice to John’s vision of the period immediately before the end when the wicked will be subjected to a time of unprecedented demonic torment! Exactly what this will involve and how it will take place will remain unknown until disclosed by history itself. (Mounce Locations 3705-3709)

The second woe is completed in 11:14.

13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a single voice coming from the horns on the golden altar that is before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel, the one holding the trumpet, “Set free the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates!”

The voice from the altar is not God’s because the altar is said to be “before God”. It is the voice of another heavenly being (cf. 8:3-5; 14:18). The “four angels” recall the four angels who were holding back the wind of destruction in 7:1 (those four angels were at the corners of the earth however).

The Euphrates was the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and on the other side were the dreaded Parthians. The Parthians had defeated Roman armies in 53 B.C. and A.D. 62 and were looking for opportunities for further plunder at the expense of Rome. Thus once more the Parthians figure as background (see 6:2). The Euphrates was also important in the OT. It was one of the rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:14), and in Gen. 15:18 God made a covenant with Abraham and gave him and his descendants the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. In Isa. 8:7 the Assyrian invaders are pictured as “the mighty floodwaters of the River.” Many of the terrible invasions of Palestine—by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians—came across the Euphrates. Thus it became not only the eastern boundary first of Israel and then of Rome but also a symbol of foreign invasion. This judgment also prepares for the sixth bowl (16:12), in which the Euphrates is dried up “to prepare the way for the kings of the east,” again built upon the Parthians. As Caird (1966: 122) notes, “All the scriptural warnings about a foe from the north, therefore, find their echo in John’s bloodcurdling vision” (Isa. 14:31; Jer. 1:14–15; 6:1, 22; 10:22; 13:20; 25:9, 26; 46:20, 24; 47:2; Ezek. 26:7; 38:6, 15; 39:2). (Osborne 379)

15 Then the four angels who had been prepared for this hour, day, month, and year were set free to kill a third of humanity.

This verse emphasizes divine sovereignty by noting that this exact moment was “prepared” by God. The seals killed a quarter of humanity (6:8) while the trumpets kill a third of humanity.

16 The number of soldiers on horseback was two hundred million; I heard their number.

The four angels are now described as soldiers on horseback.

This is a striking reminder that what the Apocalypse sets before us are not primarily coded descriptions of actual historical events, but kaleidoscopic and polyvalent visions, which work by their evocative power, stretching our imaginations to their limits. Perhaps we are to think of these angels as the driving forces behind human armies, particularly the human enemies of God’s people and those that will eventually bring the great city to its knees (see the similar scene in 1 Enoch 56). (Boxall 148)

The Greek translated “two hundred million” literally means “two myriads of myriads” (2 x 10,000 x 10,000). “Attempts to reduce this expression to arithmetic miss the point. A ‘double myriad of myriads’ is an indefinite number of incalculable immensity” (Mounce Locations 3768-3769). This verse describes what in the ancient world would have been taken as an unstoppable force.

17 Now this is what the horses and their riders looked like in my vision: The riders had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and sulfurous yellow in color. The heads of the horses looked like lions’ heads, and fire, smoke, and sulfur came out of their mouths.

Only here in the book of Revelation does John specifically indicate that his revelations are being mediated to him in a vision. The expression (“in my vision”) is not a “superfluous addition” but an indication that his descriptions are apt to be highly symbolic in nature. (Mounce Locations 3776-3778)

The Greek could mean that both the riders and the horses had breastplates. The Greek literally says the breastplates were of fire and hyacinth and brimstone, but the NET is most likely correct in taking the text to be describing the color, not the material, of the breastplates. The lion was the most ferocious beast known to the original readers and so horses with lion-like heads highlight the ferocity of this demonic cavalry. The fire, smoke, and sulfur coming from the mouth correspond to the colors in the breastplates.

18 A third of humanity was killed by these three plagues, that is, by the fire, the smoke, and the sulfur that came out of their mouths.

Verse 18 makes it clear that the fire, smoke, and sulfur are three separate plagues. The language recalls the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19:24, 28.

19 For the power of the horses resides in their mouths and in their tails, because their tails are like snakes, having heads that inflict injuries.

It seems that the mouths kill people while the tails injure people.

20 The rest of humanity, who had not been killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so that they did not stop worshiping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk about.

The phrase “these plagues” probably refers only to the most recent trumpet blast. One purpose of this judgment was the repentance of sinners. The Greek is emphatic that the survivors refused to repent. The “works of their hands” refers to idols (cf. Ps 115:4-7; Isa 2:6-8; 44:9-20).

21 Furthermore, they did not repent of their murders, of their magic spells, of their sexual immorality, or of their stealing.

The term “magic spells” refers to the use of magic potions in religious rites.

In the first century magic was based on the belief that both good and evil spirits (called gods) involved themselves in the affairs of people. Using religious rituals involving incantations and “commands” given to the spirit-gods, people would try to get the “gods” to work on their behalf, such as for success in business or athletics, sexual liaisons, or healing. (Osborne 387)

In the preceding 9:12, John deliberately tells his readers that “the first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.” What is to be noticed here is that he does not repeat this motif at the end of the current vision; rather he waits until 11:14 to mention this feature, which can only be deliberate on his part. Whatever else, John is telling his readers to keep the present six trumpets together with the following two interlude visions. They thus correspond to each other in some way, so that this sixth woe is not over until the twofold interlude (10:1–11 and 11:1–13) itself is over. (Fee 139)

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

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