October 3: Revelation 9:1-12

Revelation 9:1-12

The fifth and sixth Trumpet-visions should be considered together, just as the first four visions form a single group (cf. the previous note); however, due to the extensive detail in which each is presented in the text, it is necessary to treat them in separate daily notes.

Rev 9:1

The fifth vision, in its initial imagery, is similar to the third (8:10-11) in which a fiery star (a)sth/r) falls from heaven to earth. Most likely there is a play on the imagery in the two visions. In the third vision, we are presumably dealing with a natural celestial phenomenon (such as a meteor), despite the extraordinary effects it produces (poisoning a third of all rivers and springs). Here in the fifth vision, by contrast, the star is personified:

“…I saw a star having fallen out of heaven into/onto the earth, and the key of the pit th(at is) without depth [i.e. bottomless] was given to him” (v. 1)

The star is thus treated like a celestial/heavenly being (i.e. Angel) with power/control over the depths of the earth. In Near Eastern and Old Testament tradition, the stars were typically seen as divine beings, or Angels (Judg 5:20; Job 38:7, etc), as also in the symbolism used in Rev 1:20, etc. Moreover, in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the various celestial phenomena were controlled (by God) through heavenly Messengers (Angelic beings); this was expressed earlier in Rev 7:1-3.

The image of a falling star, or Angel, could conceivably allude to Satan or a similar demonic being (i.e. ‘fallen angel’), reflected in such passages as Luke 10:18 and Rev 12:7-9 (cf. also the negative connotations in Isa 14:12 and 1 Enoch 86:3; 88:1-3; 90:24-26; Koester, p. 456). However, the idea that this Star/Angel was given the key to the bottomless pit suggests positive divine presence and control (1:18; 3:7; cf. also 20:1-3). At the very least, the motif of falling, with its echo of the third vision, anticipates the destructive and demonic character of what comes out of the depths. The translation of a&busso$ (lit. “without depth”) can be misleading; in ordinary English idiom, “bottomless” (i.e. without a bottom limit to its depth) would be a more accurate rendering. The Greek is preserved as a transliterated loan-word in English (“abyss”). It occurs several more times in the book, as the location from whence demonic beings arise, and as the place where they belong (11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3). In at least one line of ancient Greek cosmology, the space under the earth, corresponding to the atmosphere (hemisphere) above, was bounded by a long and almost limitless gulf below (Homer Iliad 8.14-15f; Hesiod Theogony 119, etc) called by the name of ta/rtaro$ (of uncertain derivation).

Rev 9:2-3

The ominous character of this scene is expressed by a two-fold description of that which emerges from the bottomless pit—(a) immense, dark smoke, and (b) a terrifying swarm of locust:

“And he opened up the pit th(at is) without depth—and smoke [kapno/$] stepped up [i.e. came up] out of the pit, as the smoke of a great burning (oven), and the sun and the air were darkened out of [i.e. from] the smoke of the pit. (v. 2)
And out of the smoke there came out locusts [a)kri/de$] into/onto the earth; and authority [e)cousi/a] was given to them, (even) as the stinging (creature)s [skorpi/oi] of the earth hold authority.” (v. 3)

The image of smoke (kapno/$) continues the fire-imagery of the visions, as well as the motif of darkening (the sun, etc) common to ancient Judgment imagery and as expressed in the prior fourth vision (8:12). This fiery smoke also evokes the idea of warfare, as do the locusts which emerge in vv. 3ff. There are actually several aspects to the symbolism of a swarm of locust:

    • Destruction—as of the crops which are consumed/destroyed by locust, a potential disaster always in the mind of ancient farmers
    • Military attack—the swarm of locust symbolizing an army on the move
    • Pestilence—locusts themselves represent a terrible plague on humankind, and they can be used as representative of various kinds of plagues (diseases, etc)

All three aspects are relevant (and intended) here, and draw upon traditional imagery in the Old Testament, beginning with the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:4, 12-19; Psalm 105:34)—cf. Deut 28:38; Judg 6:5; 7:12; 1 Kings 8:37; Psalm 78:46; Prov 30:27; Joel 1:4; 2:25; Amos 4:9; 7:1; Nah 3:15-17; Jer 46:23; 51:14, 27. These locusts are distinguished from ordinary locust in that they have been given the power/ability to sting, like other insects/creatures (such as the scorpion, i.e. skorpi/oi).

Rev 9:4-6

These verses give further detail on the stinging power of these locusts. It was declared to them, i.e. by the Angel who released them, that they should not “take away justice” from (vb. a)dike/w, i.e. injure) the trees, grass or other vegetation (“green [plant]s”) of the earth. They would have power only over human beings (“men”), and then only over those who “do not hold the seal of God upon the (space) between the eyes [i.e. forehead]”. This seal (sfragi/$), mentioned previously in 7:2-3ff (cf. also the visions in chaps. 5-6), refers to the distinctive image impressed into clay or wax (or lead) marking an object as belonging to a person. This image (to be described in 14:1) consists of the names of God and the Lamb (i.e. the risen Jesus); however, at this point in the book, this detail has to be inferred, based on the context of chapters 5-6. Those who are sealed are identified as the true people of God—utilizing the traditional image of Israel (the twelve tribes) as God’s people. In the context of the book of Revelation (as in Rom 9-11, etc), this imagery refers to the people of God (Israel) who are believers in Christ (the Lamb). The seal also carries the idea of election—it was God (and the Lamb) who stamped them.

As for those who do not carry this seal, they will be afflicted (but not killed) for a (symbolic) period of “five months” (v. 5). The verb used is basani/zw, a word of uncertain derivation, which specifically (and originally) referred to the testing of metals (gold/silver, coinage, etc). The harsh treatment required by such testing eventually led to the word as signifying torture, etc, as a means of ascertaining the truth. Here the implication is that the torment these people will endure from the locusts reflects, and will demonstrate, their true nature—i.e., as those who do not belong to God. What they suffer will be like the poisonous stings of the scorpion, resulting in agony that will make them long for death as a relief (v. 6). In spite of the military imagery which follows (vv. 7ff), it is clear that this refers to pestilence or disease.

Rev 9:7-11

A detailed description of the stinging locusts follows in these verses. Previously in the book, most of the imagery has been traditional and relatively straightforward; from this point on, it becomes increasingly complex, causing great difficulty for commentators and those eager to understand exactly what is being described. The hybrid depiction of these locusts is striking indeed; note the rather bizarre combination of elements:

    • they have the overall likeness of “horses made ready for war”, immediately indicating a military motif (i.e. war-horses, cavalry)
    • there are objects like golden crowns upon their heads, indicating the power to achieve victory (i.e. in military combat)
    • they have human faces (“like the faces of men”)
    • they also have long flowing hair (“like the hair of women”)
    • their teeth are long and sharp (“like [those] of lions”)
    • they each wear a chest-guard or armor (qw/rac), with the appearance of iron
    • their wings make the sound of “many horse(-drawn) chariots running into battle”
    • they have tails like a scorpion (lit. stinging creature [skorpi/o$]), with a stinging point (ke/ntron) on the tail

This admittedly strange mixture of features makes more sense once we realize that it is an attempt to combine several kinds of imagery, each with its own symbolic significance:

    • Military—armor, horses, and the rush into battle, with the power/ability to conquer
    • Personification—the human attributes indicate something of the purpose and control which these creatures possess
    • Demonic—images with hybrid human & animal features were commonly used in the ancient Near East to represent deities (and their attributes); from the standpoint of Jewish and early Christian monotheism, all such (pagan) deities tended to be regarded as demonic, or as symbolizing the demonic. In particular, there is likely a reflection here of the religious-royal iconography associated with the conquering Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires.
    • The Scorpion—special emphasis is given to the (poisonous) stinging tail of creatures such as the scorpion
Rev 9:11

“They hold upon [i.e. over] them as king the Messenger of the (pit) without depth [a&busso$]—the name for him in Hebrew is Abaddôn, and in Greek (this) name holds as ‘Destroyer’ [Apollu/wn].”

This army of locust has as its ruler (basileu/$) a being called “the Messenger of the (pit) without depth” (i.e. Angel of the bottomless [pit]). It is not entirely clear if this is the same being as the Star/Angel which opened up the bottomless pit, or whether it reflects a different being (i.e. one who rules over the pit below); probably the latter is intended. The Hebrew name indicated here—/oDb^a&, transliterated as Abaddw/n in Greek and Abaddon in English—is derived from the verb db^a* (“perish, ruin, destroy”), and originally referred to the grave/underworld as a place of death and decay; in this regard, it was roughly synonymous with Heb. loav= (Sheol). The word is used in this general/neutral sense in the Old Testament (Psalm 88:11; Prov 15:11; Job 26:6; 28:22, etc). Only in later Jewish tradition, did it come to take on a more negative and hostile/evil connotation, as in the Qumran texts (1QH XI.19ff; 4Q491 8-10; 11Q11 4.10). The Greek name Apollu/wn, is a relatively faithful translation, at least in terms of capturing the later (negative/hostile) sense of the word; it is related to the verb a)po/llumi (lit. “cause/suffer loss from”, i.e. “ruin, destroy”, similar in meaning to Heb. db^a*) and the noun a)pw/leia (“loss, ruin, destruction”). Simply put, the name signifies the power which brings about suffering and death; personified as a divine (or semi-divine) being, it would naturally be identified with Satan and the fallen angels (and/or unclean spirits) in Jewish and Christian tradition.

Rev 9:12

The concluding words of this vision echo those earlier in 8:13:

“One woe has come along—see! two (more) woes (are) yet (to) come after these (thing)s!”

An interpretation of the vision as a whole will be offered in summary after the sixth vision (9:13-21) has been discussed in the next daily note.