October 4: Revelation 9:13-21

Revelation 9:13-21

The sixth Trumpet-vision is similar in meaning and imagery to the fifth vision (9:1-12, discussed in the previous note). Both involve armies of (demonic) beings, with hybrid human/animal features, which come out from the depths of the earth to inflict suffering upon humankind. Before proceeding, it is worth outlining again the parallel thematic structure between the Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles:

    • First Four Visions:
      • Seals—the four horses/riders symbolizing warfare and its effects on humankind
      • Trumpets—celestial/natural phenomena which bring about destructive effects on the world and humankind
    • Visions Five and Six:
      • Seals—celestial/natural phenomena which has terrifying/destructive effects on the world and humankind (6), together with the identity of believers and a voice sounding from the altar (5)
      • Trumpets—warfare on humankind from demonic military forces (horses/riders), along with the themes of the identity of believers (5) and a voice coming from the altar (6)

As noted previously, the twin themes of warfare and celestial/natural phenomena are also brought together in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mk 13:7-8, 24-25 par; also vv. 14ff [Lk 21:20-24]); interestingly, the Discourse also includes reference to the identity and persecution/suffering of believers (Mk 13:5-6, 9-13, 21-22 par), as well as the motif of the Temple/Altar location (Mk 13:14 par).

Rev 9:13-15

The solemn character and grandeur of this vision in marked by the voice from the heavenly altar which responds initially to the trumpet-blast:

“…and I heard a (single) voice (from) out of the [four] horns of the golden place for (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] th(at is) in the sight of God, saying to the sixth Messenger: ‘Loose the four Messengers, the (one)s having been bound upon the great river Euphrates!’ And the four Messengers were loosed, the (one)s having been made ready—unto the hour and day and month and year—(so) that they should kill off the third of men (on earth).”

In the earlier (fifth) seal-vision, the significance of the altar—the place for (ritual) slaughter (qusiasth/rion)—was related to believers who had been put to death during the time of persecution (6:9-11). Though the death of these believers may be seen as a kind of sacrifice, it is clear that in the book of Revelation the heavenly altar is an altar of incense, not animal sacrifice, and that the incense is connected symbolically to the prayers of believers (5:8; 6:10; 8:3; cf. also Luke 1:9-11; Acts 3:1; 10:4). The (four) horns of the altar are mentioned in relation to four Messengers who are to be released.

The specific location of the great Euphrates river is curious and requires comment, as it is apt to trip up commentators today. Like many of the specific symbols in the book of Revelation, it involves a matrix of ideas and associations. Here I would identify these as three-fold:

    • It reflects the place of origin for the conquering armies/powers coming from the east (and north) in Israelite history—i.e. of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.
    • It marks the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire. Recall that the conquering horse/rider of the first seal-vision (6:2), carrying a bow, may have alluded the potential violence of non-Roman forces invading the empire. In the first century A.D., the Parthians were the major power along the Euphrates border.
    • In a sense, it also marks the outer region of the inhabited world (in the east), as known by people at the time in Syria/Palestine and further west. According to the Genesis creation narrative, the Euphrates is one of the four original, primeval rivers (Gen 2:10-12).

Crossing the Euphrates thus symbolizes the invasion of hostile and destructive forces into the known (civilized) world. The fact that the four Messengers (i.e. Angels) have been bound (dedeme/nou$) probably indicates that they are evil/fallen beings (20:2; cf. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6); if so, then they presumably lead the demonic armies which are unleashed, just like the “Messenger of the bottomless (pit)” in verse 11. They are given power to kill off a third of humankind, keeping with the common “one-third” motif of the Trumpet-visions. Verse 15 makes clear that this judgment/punishment corresponds with God’s plan and purpose, down to the precise day and hour.

Revelation 9:16-19

The description of the army which is unleashed across the Euphrates generally matches the grotesque, hybrid character of the locust-army in the fifth vision (cf. the previous note). This is presumably intended to reflect their demonic character—the ferocious, destructive appearance of spirits, etc, which represent (and/or cause) pestilence, disease, and death. Like the locust-army, it is primarily a cavalry force (i.e. horses/riders, as in the first four seal-visions, cf. above), wearing armor (qw/rac, chest-guard), with fierce animal attributes (spec. that of the lion), including a stinging tail. Several of the unique details are worth noting:

    • they are specifically identified as a body/force of armed soldiers (stra/teuma), riding horses (v. 16)
    • their number is indicated by the expression dismuria/de$ muria/dwn (“two multitudes of multitudes”), which, by arithmetic calculation would be 10,000 x 10,000 (= 200 million), but here simply means an immeasurably large number (cf. 5:11)
    • they are essentially fire-breathing creatures, and the colors of their armor match what comes forth out of their mouths (v. 17)—fire (red), dark blue (smoke), and yellow-green (sulphur)
    • the destructive fire from their mouth is also matched by the mouth/bite of their tail; the locusts had a stinging point (ke/ntron) at the end of the tail, while these creatures have a “head”, like a snake’s head (with a mouth) at the end of their tail (v. 19), making them doubly deadly.

Fire-breathing creatures are common in ancient myth, but here the description more closely resembles the chimera (xi/maira) of Greek legend (Homer Iliad 6.181-2; Hesiod Theogony 319ff; Virgil Aeneid 6.288; Ovid Tristia 4.7.13, etc; Koester, p. 467). It serves as a powerful climax to the six trumpet-visions, which emphasized the motif of judgment by fire (from heaven)—the fire cast down onto the earth now takes the form of burning plagues. The imagery here in this regard is three-fold: (1) fire (pu=r), (2) smoke (kapno/$), and (3) burning sulphur (qei=on). This last word is similar (and may be related) to the words for deity (qei=o$, neut. qei=on; qeo/$), and could conceivably indicate a bit of wordplay—the failure of human beings to recognize the true God (qeo/$ / qei=o$) leads to judgment by burning sulphur (qei=on); on this, cf. below. Judgment by fire and burning sulphur was part of the Sodom/Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24-28) which became a stock element of eschatological and apocalyptic judgment-imagery.

Rev 9:20-21 and interpretation of the 5th/6th visions

The six trumpet-visions, describing God’s end-time Judgment on the world, close with the narration in verses 20-21:

“And the (one)s remaining of the men (still alive), the (one)s who were not killed off in these (plague)s that struck (them), even (then they) did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of the works of their hands, (so) that they would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the daimons and the images (of) gold and silver and copper and stone and wood, which are not able to see nor to hear nor to walk about.” (v. 20)

This seems to imply that the limited scope (one-third) of the initial Judgment is meant to give humankind, even at that late time, the opportunity to repent. The flip side is that this painful “testing” (vb. basani/zw, verse 5) actually serves to demonstrate the wicked character of humankind (the non-believers)—even in the face of the anger of God clearly at work, people continued to follow their pagan/idolatrous ways. This is expressed entirely in traditional Old Testament language, from the Prophets, and sharpened in the light of Jewish and early Christian monotheism. All other deities, apart from the one true God (YHWH), must be false and/or evil—that is to say, either (a) non-existent, or (b) evil/malevolent beings. Both lines of thought can be found in the Old Testament, with the former dominating in the Prophetic writings—i.e. the ‘gods’ are simply lifeless images (Isa 44:9-20; Psalm 115:4-7, etc). By the time of the New Testament, Jews and early Christians tended to adopt the latter position (i.e. they are real spirits/beings [daimons], but evil/hostile to God and humankind); note, however, Paul’s careful treatment of the subject in 1 Corinthians 8-10. An important point in the letters of Revelation 2-3 involved the same issue addressed by Paul—believers taking part in food which had been offered to pagan deities (2:6[?]; 3:14-15, 20). The letters of Revelation contrast sharply with Paul’s approach, condemning the practice in no uncertain terms, without any qualification.

At the same time, this traditional religious polemic is joined with the ethical dimension of pagan religion and society, typically viewed by Jews and early Christians as thoroughly immoral (cf. Romans 1:18-32 for a similar description of the behavior which is the target of God’s impending Judgment). Here it is summarized by four terms:

    • fo/noi—acts of killing/slaying (i.e. murder)
    • fa/rmakon (pl.)—literally a medical potion or drug, which, according to the ancient mindset, would generally be thought to have magical properties; in this (religious) context, it can connote both (1) a harmful poison, and (2) the practice of magic/sorcery (cf. the related noun farmakei/a)
    • pornei/a—literally prostitution (sexual intercourse for payment/hire), but often used to describe sexual misconduct or immorality generally; based on Old Testament language and tradition, Jews and early Christians frequently used the word figuratively for religious unfaithfulness (cf. earlier at 2:21).
    • kle/mma (pl.)—literally “things (that are) stolen”, i.e. stealing, theft.

Thus Judgment comes upon humankind for this wickedness, expressed in both religious (v. 20) and ethical (v. 21) terms. How are we to understand the nature of this Judgment in the trumpet-visions? If we isolate out, for a moment, a layer of distinctly Biblical imagery (from the Exodus Plague Narratives, etc), the first four visions present extreme versions of the sort of natural and ecological disasters with which we are becoming increasingly familiar today—burning of grass and trees (as in the recent wildfires on the U.S. west coast), contamination of the oceans, lakes, and rivers, etc. The darkening of the sun and moon, etc., whether by a natural eclipse or other meteorological phenomena (including smoke/pollution), also is not uncommon. That God would make use of these natural means and forces in a special way at the end time, is fully in keeping with the witness of both Scripture and common religious tradition.

The fifth and sixth visions are a bit more difficult to interpret. On the whole, the armies of attacking creatures seem to represent the disease and destruction which comes about by demonic forces. If the judgment in the first four visions comes from above, that of the fifth and sixth visions comes from in/under the earth itself—based on the traditional idea that evil/fallen beings (Angels) have been bound in the depths under the earth (Gk. ta/rtaro$). Naturally, much, if not most, of this is quite foreign to our cosmology today. In the modern intellectual idiom, we might translate this to say that the forces bound up within the earth/nature itself work to bring about the suffering/destruction of humankind. In ancient thought, the forces and powers of nature are personified as living beings. At the same time, within Scripture, there is a long tradition of dualistic conflict between divine/heavenly forces—of good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. The visions in the book of Revelation are fully rooted in this line of tradition. It is worth noting that the natural phenomena of the first four visions primarily affect the natural world (the earth itself), while the last two target human beings. There is an obvious parallel between human wickedness, which involves the worship of false/evil deities, and the supernatural/demonic attacks which come about in response—in a sense, it is an entirely fitting and appropriate punishment.