"It is perhaps this verse, more than any other, which has confused expositors into supposing, against all other evidence, that the Harlot is Rome. If the City is Jerusalem, how can she be said to wield this kind of worldwide political power? The answer is that
Revelation is not a book about politics; it is a book about the Covenant. Jerusalem
did reign over the nation." (Days of Vengeance, p. 442)
Attack from the Abyss
As the Eagle had warned (Revelation 8:13), the sounding of the fifth Trumpet (Revelation 9:1-12) signals the intensifying of the plagues in this series. While this curse is similar to the great swarms of locusts which came upon Egypt in the eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15), these “locusts” are different: they are
demons from the “Abyss,” the bottomless pit, spoken of seven times in Revelation (9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3). The Septuagint first uses the term in Genesis 1:2, speaking of the original deep-and-darkness which the Spirit creatively overshadowed (and metaphorically “overcame”; cf. John 1:5).
In Biblical symbolism, the Abyss is the farthest extreme from heaven (Genesis 49:25; Deuteronomy 33:13) and from the high mountains (Psalm 36:6). It is used in Scripture as a reference to the deepest parts of the sea (Job 28:14; 38:16; Psalm 33:7) and to subterranean rivers and vaults of water (Deuteronomy 8:7; Job 36:16), whence the waters of the Flood came (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; Proverbs 3:20; 8:24), and which nourished the kingdom of Assyria (Ezekiel 31:4, 15). The Red Sea crossing of the covenant people is repeatedly likened to a passage through the Abyss (Psalm 77:16; 106:9; Isaiah 44:27; 51:10; 63:13). The prophet Ezekiel threatened Tyre with a great desolation of the land, in which God would bring up the Abyss to cover the city with a new Flood, bringing its people down to the pit in the lower parts of the earth (Ezekiel 26:19-21), and Jonah spoke of the Abyss in terms of excommunication from God’s presence, a banishment from the Temple (Jonah 2:5-6). The domain of the Dragon (Job 41:31; Psalm 148:7; Revelation 11:7; 17:8), the prison of the demons (Luke 8:31; Revelation 20:1-3; cf. 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), and the realm of the dead (Romans 10:7) are all called by the name Abyss.
St. John is thus warning his readers that hell is about to break loose upon the Land of Israel; as with Tyre of old, the Abyss is being dredged up to cover the Land with its unclean spirits. Apostate Israel is to be cast out of God’s presence, excommunicated from the Temple, and filled with demons. One of the central messages of Revelation is that the Church tabernacles in heaven (see Revelation 7:15; 12:12; 13:6); the corollary of this is that the false church tabernacles in hell.
Why does the locust plague last for
five months? This figure is, first of all, a reference to the period of five months, from May through September, when locusts normally appeared. (The unusual feature is that these locusts remain for the entire period, engaging in constant torment of the population.)
Second, this seems to refer in part to the actions of Gessius Florus, the procurator of Judea, who for a five-month period (beginning in May of 66 with the slaughter of 3,600 peaceful citizens) terrorized the Jews, deliberately seeking to incite them to rebellion. He was successful: Josephus dates the beginning of the Jewish War from this occasion.
Third, the use of the term
five is associated in Scripture with power, and specifically with military organization — the arrangement of the Israelite militia in a five-squad platoon formation (Exodus 13:18; Numbers 32:17; Joshua 1:14; 4:12; Judges 7:11; cf. 2 Kings l:9ff.). By God’s direction, Israel was to be attacked by a demonic army from the Abyss.
During the ministry of Christ, Satan had fallen to the earth like “a star from heaven” (cf. Revelation 12:4,9, 12); and, St. John says, “the key of the well of the Abyss was given to him. And he opened the well of the Abyss.” What all this means is exactly what Jesus prophesied during His earthly ministry: the Land, which had received the benefits of His work and then rejected Him, would become glutted with demons from the Abyss. We should note here that the key is
given to Satan, for it is God who sends the demons as a scourge upon the Jews.
The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came”; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes, and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation
Because of Israel’s rejection of the King of kings, the blessings they had received would turn into curses. Jerusalem had been “swept clean” by Christ’s ministry; now it would become "a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird” (Revelation 18:2).
The entire generation became increasingly demon-possessed; their progressive national insanity is apparent as one reads through the New Testament, and its horrifying final stages are depicted in the pages of Josephus’
The Jewish War: the loss of all ability to reason, the frenzied mobs attacking one another, the deluded multitudes following after the most transparently false prophets, the crazed and desperate chase after food, the mass murders, executions, and suicides, the fathers slaughtering their own families and the mothers eating their own children. Satan and the host of hell simply swarmed throughout the land of Israel and consumed the apostates.
The vegetation of the earth is specifically exempted from the destruction caused by the “locusts.” This is a curse on disobedient
men. Only the Christians are immune to the scorpion-like sting of the demons (cf. Mark 6:7; Luke 10:17-19; Acts 26:18); the unbaptized Israelites, who do not have “the seal of God on their foreheads” (cf. Revelation 7:3-8), are attacked and tormented by the demonic powers. And the immediate purpose God has in unleashing this curse is not
death, but merely torment, as the nation of Israel is put through a series of demoniac convulsions. St. John repeats what he has told us in Revelation 6:16, that “in those days men will seek death and will not find it; and they will long to die and death shall flee from them.” Jesus had specifically prophesied this longing for death among the final generation, the generation of Jews which crucified Him (Luke 23:27-30). As God had said long before: “He who sins against Me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate Me love death” (Proverbs 8:36).
The frightening description of the demon-locusts in Revelation 9:7-11 bears many similarities to the invading heathen armies mentioned in the prophets (Jeremiah 51:27; Joel 1:6; 2:4-10; cf. Leviticus 17:7 and 2 Chronicles 11:15, where the Hebrew word for
demon is hairy one). This passage may also refer, in part, to the Satanic gangs of murderous Zealots that preyed on the citizens of Jerusalem, ransacking houses and committing murder and rape indiscriminately. Characteristically, these perverts dressed up as harlots in order to seduce unsuspecting men to their deaths.
One particularly interesting point about the description of the demon army is St. John’s statement that "the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle.” That is the same sound made by the wings of the angels in the Glory-Cloud (Ezekiel 1:24; 3:13; 2 Kings 7:5-7); the difference here is that the noise is made by
St. John goes on to identify the king of the demons, the "angel of the Abyss,” giving his name in both Hebrew (Abaddon) and Greek (Apollyon) — one of many indications of the essentially Hebraic character of the Revelation. The words mean
Destruction and Destroyer; “Abaddon” is used in the Old Testament for the realm of the dead, the "place of destruction” (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 15:11; 27:20). St. John thus presents Satan
as the very
personification of death itself (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:10; Hebrews 2:14).
Clearly, for Satan’s entire host of destroyers to be let loose upon the Jewish nation
hell on earth indeed. And yet St. John
outbreak of demons
land is only “the
Woe.” Even greater horrors lie ahead.
Attack from the Euphrates
St. John’s opening words about the sixth Trumpet (Revelation 9:13) again reminds us
that the desolations wrought by God in the earth are on behalf of His people (Psalm 46), in response to their official, covenantal worship: the command
to the sixth angel is
issued by a voice "from the four horns of the golden altar [i.e., the incense altar] which is before God? The mention of this point is obviously intended to encourage God’s people in worship and prayer, assuring them that God’s actions in history proceed from his altar, where He has received their prayers. The Church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, the holy nation, the true people of God, who possess “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). The first-century Church is assured by St. John that its prayers will be heard and answered by God. He will take vengeance upon their persecutors, for
the earth is both blessed and judged by the liturgical actions and judicial decrees of the Church.
God’s readiness to hear and willingness to grant His people’s prayers are continually proclaimed throughout Scripture (Psalm 9:10; 10:17-18; 18:3; 34:15-17; 37:4-5; 50:14-15; 145:18-19). God has given us numerous examples of imprecatory prayers, showing repeatedly that one aspect of a godly man’s attitude is hatred for God’s enemies and fervent prayer for their downfall and destruction (Psalm 5:10; 10:15; 35:1-8, 22-26; 59:12-13; 68:1-4; 69:22-28; 83; 94; 109; 137:8-9; 139:19-24; 140:6-11). Why then do we not see the overthrow of the wicked in our own time? An important part of the answer is the unwillingness of the modern Church to pray Biblically; and God has assured us:
You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2). But the first-century Church, praying faithfully and fervently for the destruction of apostate Israel, had been heard at God’s heavenly altar. His angels were commissioned to strike.
In verses 14-16, the sixth angel is commissioned to release the four angels who had been “bound at the great river Euphrates”; they then bring against Israel an army consisting of “myriads of myriads.” The Euphrates River to the north formed the boundary between Israel and the fearsome, pagan forces from Assyria, Babylon, and Persia which God used as a scourge against His rebellious people (cf. Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:4; Jeremiah 6:1, 22; 10:22; 13:20; 25:9, 26; 46:20, 24; 47:2; Ezekiel 26:7; 38:6, 15; 39:2). It should be remembered too that the
north was the area of God’s throne (Isaiah 14:13); and both the Glory-Cloud and God’s agents of vengeance are seen coming from the north, i.e., from the Euphrates (cf. Ezekiel 1:4; Isaiah 14:31; Jeremiah 1:14-15). Thus, this great army from the north is ultimately
God's army, and under His control and direction, although it is also plainly demonic and pagan in character (on the “binding” of fallen angels, cf. 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). God is completely sovereign, and uses both demons and the heathen to accomplish His holy purposes (1 Kings 22:20-22; Job 1:12-21; of course, He then punishes the heathen for their wicked motives and goals which led them to fulfill His decree; see Isaiah 10:5-14). The angels bound at the Euphrates, St. John says, “had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year,” their role in history utterly predestined and certain.
The number of the horsemen is simply stated to be “myriads of myriads,” an expression taken from Psalm 68:17, which reads: “The chariots of God are
double myriads, thousands of thousands” — in other words, an incalculable number, one that cannot be computed. Attempts to turn this into an exact figure (as in the supposed size of the Chinese army, or the armed forces of Western Europe, and so on) are doomed to frustration. The term simply means
many thousands, and indicates a vast host that is to be thought of in connection with the Lord’s angelic army of thousands upon thousands of chariots.
Avoiding the dazzling technological speculations advanced by some commentators on Revelation 9:17-19, we note simply that while the
number of the army is meant to remind us of God’s army, the
characteristics of the horses — the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths — remind us of the Dragon, the fire-breathing Leviathan (Job 41:18-21), and of hell itself (Revelation 9:2; 19:20; 21:8).
Thus, to sum up the idea: An innumerable army is advancing upon Jerusalem from the Euphrates, the origin of Israel’s traditional enemies; it is a fierce, hostile, demonic force sent by. God in answer to His people’s prayers for vengeance. In short, this army is the fulfillment of all the warnings in the law and the prophets of an avenging horde sent to punish the covenant breakers. The horrors described in Deuteronomy 28 were to be visited upon this evil generation (see especially verses 49-68). Moses had declared:
You shall be driven mad by the sight of what you see (Deuteronomy 28:34).
As it actually worked out in history, the Jewish rebellion in reaction to the “locust plague” of Gessius Florus during the summer of A.D. 66 provoked Cestius’ invasion of Palestine in the fall,
with large numbers of mounted troops from the regions near the Euphrates (although the main point of St. John’s reference is the symbolic significance of the river in Biblical history and prophecy). After ravaging the countryside,
his forces arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in the month of Tishri — the month that begins with the Day of Trumpets.
What happened next is one of the strangest stories in the annals of military history. The Romans surrounded the city and attacked it continuously for five days; on the sixth day, Cestius successfully led an elite force in an all-out assault against the north wall. Capturing their prize, they began preparations to set fire to the Temple. Seeing that they were completely overwhelmed, the rebels began to flee in panic, and the “moderates,” who had opposed the rebellion, attempted to open the gates to surrender Jerusalem to Cestius.
Just then, at the very moment when complete victory was within his grasp, Cestius suddenly and inexplicably withdrew his forces. Surprised and encouraged, the rebels turned from their flight and pursued the retreating soldiers, inflicting heavy casualties in their attack. This unexpected success by the rebel forces had the effect of creating an enormous but completely unrealistic self-confidence among the Jews, and even the moderates joined in the general enthusiasm for war. Instead of heeding the true message of this warning blast of the Trumpet, apostate Israel foolishly became confirmed in her rebellion.
Therefore, St. John records in verses 20-21 that “the rest of the men, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent . . . so as not to worship demons and the idols.” The Jews had so completely given themselves over to apostasy that neither God’s goodness nor His wrath could turn them from their error. Instead, as Josephus reports, even up to the very end — after the famine, the mass murders, the cannibalism, the crucifixion of their fellow Jews at the rate of 500 per day — the Jews went on heeding the insane ravings of false prophets who assured them of deliverance and victory. Josephus comments: “Thus were the miserable people beguiled by these charlatans and false messengers of God, while they disregarded and disbelieved the unmistakable portents that foreshadowed the coming desolation; but, as though thunderstruck, blind, senseless, paid no heed to the clear warnings of God” (The Jewish War, vi. v. 3).
Warnings of Jerusalem’s Fall
What “clear warnings” had God given them? Apart from the apostolic preaching, which was all they really needed (cf. Luke 16:27-31), God had sent miraculous signs and wonders to testify of the coming judgment; Jesus had warned that, preceding the Fall of Jerusalem, “there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). This was especially true during the festival seasons of the year 66. Josephus continues in his report: “While the people were assembling for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the eighth of the month of Nisan, at the ninth hour of the night [3:00 A. M.]
so bright a light shone round the altar and Temple that it looked like broad daylight; and this lasted for half an hour. The inexperienced regarded it as a good omen, but it was immediately interpreted by the sacred scribes in conformity with subsequent events.”
During the same feast another shocking event took place: “The east gate of the inner sanctuary was a very massive gate made of brass and so heavy that it could scarcely be moved every evening by twenty men; it was fastened by iron-bound bars and secured by bolts that were sunk very deep into a threshold that was fashioned from a single stone block; yet
this gate was seen to open of its own accord at the sixth hour of the night [midnight]. The Temple guards ran and reported the news to the captain and he came up and by strenuous efforts managed to close it. To the uninitiated this also appeared to be the best of omens as they had assumed that God had opened to them the gate of happiness. But wiser people realized that
the security of the Temple was breaking down of its own accord and that the opening of the gates was a present to the enemy; and they interpreted this in their own minds as a portent of the coming desolation."
A similar event, incidentally, happened in A.D. 30, when Christ was crucified and the Temple’s outer veil — 24 feet wide and over 80 feet high! — ripped from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-54; Mark 15:37-39; Luke 23:44-47). The Talmud (Yoma 39b) records that in A.D. 30 the gates of the Temple opened by themselves, apparently due to the collapse of the overhead lintel, a stone weighing about 30 tons.
Those who were unable to attend the regular Feast of Passover were required to celebrate it a month later (Numbers 9:9-13). Josephus reports a third great wonder that happened at the end of this Second Passover in 66: “A supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I am now to relate would, I imagine, be dismissed as imaginary, had this not been vouched for by eyewitnesses, then followed by subsequent disasters that deserved to be thus signalized. For
before sunset chariots were seen in the air over the whole country, and armed battalions speeding through the clouds and encircling the cities.”
A fourth sign occurred inside the Temple on the next great feast day, and was witnessed by the twenty-four priests who were on duty: “At the feast called Pentecost, when the priests had entered the inner courts of the Temple by night to perform their usual ministrations, they declared that they were aware, first, of a violent commotion and din, then of a voice as of a host crying, 'We are departing hence!'"
There was a fifth sign in the heavens that year: "A star that looked like a sword stood over the city and a comet that continued for a whole year.” It was obvious, as Josephus says, that Jerusalem was “no longer the dwelling place of God.” Yet Israel did not repent of her wickedness. Blind to her own evils and to the increasing judgments coming upon her, she remained steadfast in her apostasy, continuing to reject the Lord and cleaving instead to her false gods.
Did the Jews really worship demons and idols? Certainly, by rejecting Jesus Christ, they inescapably involved themselves in idolatry, departing from the faith of Abraham and serving gods of their own making. Moreover, the Jewish idolatry was not some vague, undefined, apostate “theism.” Forsaking Christ,
the Jews actually became worshipers of Caesar.
Josephus bears eloquent testimony to this, writing repeatedly of God’s wrath against the apostasy of the Jewish nation as the cause of their woes: “These men, therefore, trampled upon all the laws of man, and laughed at the laws of God; and as for the oracles of the prophets, they ridiculed them as the tricks of jugglers; yet did these prophets foretell many things concerning the rewards of virtue, and punishments of vice, which when these zealots violated, they occasioned the fulfilling of those very prophecies belonging to their own country.”
“Neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries,
nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world.”
“When the city was encircled and they could no longer gather herbs, some persons were driven to such terrible distress that they searched the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and ate the dung they found there; and what they once could not even look at they now used for food. When the Romans barely heard this, their compassion was aroused; yet the rebels, who saw it also,
did not repent, but allowed the same distress to come upon themselves; for they were blinded by that fate which was already coming upon the city, and upon themselves also.”
Israel’s idols, St. John says, are “of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood,” a standard Biblical accounting of the materials used in the construction of false gods (cf. Psalm l15:4; 135:15; Isaiah 37:19). The Bible consistently ridicules men’s idols as the works of their hands, mere sticks and stones which can neither see nor hear nor walk. This is an echo of the Psalmist’s mockery of heathen idols:
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a noise with their throat.
Then comes the punchline:
Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them
(Psalm 115:5-8; cf. 135:16-18).
Herbert Schlossberg has aptly called this
reverse sanctification —
process by which “the idolater is transformed into the likeness of the object of his worship. Israel ‘went after worthlessness, and became worthless’” (Idols for Destruction, p. 295). As the prophet Hosea thundered, Israel’s idolaters “became as detestable as that which they loved” (Hoses 9:10; cf. Jeremiah 2:5).
St. John’s description of Israel’s idolatry is in line with the usual prophetic stance; but his accusation is an even more direct reference to Daniel’s condemnation of
Babylon, specifically regarding its worship of false gods with the holy utensils from the Temple. Daniel said to king Belshazzar: "You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His House before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see, hear, or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and your ways, you have not glorified” (Daniel 5:23).
St. John’s implication is clear:
Israel has become a Babylon, committing sacrilege by worshiping false gods with the Temple treasures; like Babylon, she has been “weighed in the balance and found wanting”; like Babylon, she will be conquered and her kingdom will be possessed by the heathen (cf. Daniel 5:25-21).
Finally, St. John summarizes Israel’s crimes, all stemming from her
idolatry (cf. Romans 1:18-32). This led to her murders of Christ and the saints (Acts 2:23, 36; 3:14-15; 4:26; 7:51-52, 58-60); her
sorceries (Acts 8:9, 11; 13:6-11; 19:13-15; cf. Revelation 18:23; 21:8; 22:15); her
fornication, a word St. John uses twelve times with reference to Israel’s apostasy (Revelation 2:14; 2:20; 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2 [twice]; 17:4; 18:3 [twice]; 18:9; 19:2); and her
thefts, a crime often associated in the Bible with apostasy and the resultant oppression and persecution of the righteous (cf. Isaiah 61:8; Jeremiah 7:9-10; Ezekiel 22:29; Hosea 4:1-2; Mark 11:17; Romans 2:21; James 5:1-6).
Throughout the Last Days, until the coming of the Romans, the trumpets had blown, warning Israel to repent. But the alarm was not heeded, and the Jews became hardened in their impenitence. The retreat of Cestius was of course taken to mean that Christ’s prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction were false: the armies from the Euphrates had come and surrounded Jerusalem (cf. Luke 21:20), but the threatened “desolation” had not come to pass. Instead, the Romans had fled, dragging their tails between their legs. Increasingly confident of divine blessing, the Jews recklessly plunged ahead into greater acts of rebellion, unaware that even greater forces beyond the Euphrates were being readied for battle. This time, there would be no retreat. Judea would be turned into a desert, the Israelites would be slaughtered and enslaved, and the Temple would be razed to the ground, without a stone left upon another.