November 9: Revelation 16:1-11

Revelation 16:1-11

The actual cycle of seven bowl-visions occurs in chapter 16, the drama of the scene having been built up in the prior two chapters, especially the vision in chap. 15. The seven Messengers (Angels) hold seven “plagues” (plhgai/)—disasters sent by God which are to “strike” the earth. The motif of the bowls (“offering-dishes”, fia/lai) is related to the image of wine poured out on the earth as a symbol of Judgment (cf. the previous note). The two sets of images are combined, so that the “plagues” are poured out of the dishes; the historical tradition of the Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-12) very much influences the imagery of these visions.

The earlier trumpet-cycle of visions also depicted the great Judgment upon the earth; however, in that cycle, the focus was on the wickedness of humankind generally, while here the bowl-visions more properly emphasize the judgment of the nations. In particular, the first five visions are centered on the domain and influence of the Sea-creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) from chapter 13, as was the vision in 14:9-11. Note the thematic structure of the first four visions:

    • Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
      • Vision 2: Judgment upon the Sea—turned to blood
      • Vision 3: Judgment upon the Sea (its waters) as they exist on/in the earth—also turned to blood
    • Vision 4: A burning of all human beings (i.e. those who ‘belong’ to the Sea-creature)

The outer visions 1 and 4 target humankind as those belonging to the Sea-creature, while the inner visions 2 and 3 directly target the Sea itself.

Verse 1

“And I heard a great voice out of the shrine saying to the seven Messengers: ‘Lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go away] and pour out onto the earth the seven (thing)s of the impulse of God (that are) to strike!'” (v. 1)

As the Messengers, in these visions of chaps. 15-16, repeatedly come out of the heavenly sanctuary (nao/$), now a “great voice” is heard (also in verse 17). Since no other Messenger is mentioned, presumably it is God Himself now who speaks, giving the command for the Judgment to begin. In terms of the action that is involved, “pouring out”, this continues the wine motif, confirmed by the use again of the noun qumo/$ (“impulse”) associating the wine-cup/bowl with the anger of God and His desire to punish wickedness. It is this divine anger that is “poured out” upon humankind in the Judgment; for more on the traditional nature of this idiom, cf. its use in the Prophets (Psalm 69:24; Jer 7:20; 10:25; Ezek 7:8; Zeph 3:8; Koester, p. 646), in addition to Joel 3:13ff and the previously cited wine references (note on 14:9-13).

Verse 2: First Vision

“And the first (Messenger) went from (there) and poured out his offering-dish onto the earth—and there came to be a bad and evil wound (left) upon (all) the men holding the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] its image.” (v. 2)

As in the vision of 14:9ff, the first bowl-vision (and first “plague”) is directed at all people who worship the Sea-creature (chap. 13) and who receive its engraved ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) indicating that they belong to it. The punishment matches the sin—they receive a painful ‘mark’ (e%lko$) on their body. The noun e%lko$ indicates a wound or cut, possibly related to the verb e%lkw, signifying a pulling or tearing of the skin, etc. It can refer specifically to a ‘wound’ that is the result of disease or illness—a festering sore, ulcer, abcess, etc. While this alludes to the plague in Exodus 9:8-12 (e%lko$ being used in the LXX, v. 9), it is the parallel with the “mark” of the Sea-creature that is especially being emphasized.

Verses 3-7: Second and Third Visions

“And the second (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the sea—and it came to be blood, (as of) a dead (person), and every soul of life [i.e. living soul] died off, (all) the (thing)s in the sea. And the third (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the rivers and the fountains of waters—and it (also) came to be blood (there). And I heard the Messenger of the waters saying: ‘Just are you, the (One) being and the (One who) was, the right/pure (One), that you judged these (thing)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they poured out the blood of holy (one)s and foretellers [i.e. prophets]—and (now) you have given them blood to drink, (for) they are brought (into the balance)!’ And I heard the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] saying (in return): ‘Yes, Lord God the All-mighty, true and just are your judgments!'” (vv. 3-7)

Even as human beings were given a painful wound for their worship of the Sea-creature, so the very Sea itself is given a similar ‘wound’ and turned into blood—the thick, congealed blood of a “dead person”. As a result, all living beings in the sea die off. While this vision refers to a plague upon the natural world (echoing the plague on the Nile, etc, in Exodus 7:14-21), it is clear that the symbolism properly applies to the wickedness of the human government of the world—in other words, the earth as the domain of the Sea-creature. I would interpret the two visions here as follows:

    • Vision 2: The Sea—the dark, chaotic realm of evil, out of which the Sea-creature rises
    • Vision 3: The rivers and fountains = the presence of the Sea (waters) on/in the Earth, i.e. the domain of the Earth-creature, who acts on behalf of the Sea-creature

The reference to the “Messenger of the waters” is parallel to the Messenger controlling the fire in 14:18—both reflect the ancient cosmological idea that the natural features and phenomena of the world are controlled by divine/heavenly beings, and, indeed, the visions of Revelation make considerable use of this idea within the drama of the narrative. However, the message of this Angel refers not to the “waters” as a natural feature, but as a symbolic manifestation of the evil power of the “Sea” in its functioning power on earth. According to the visionary logic of the scenes in chapter 13, this refers to the domain of the Earth-creature who works on behalf of the Sea-creature. It is said that “they” poured out the blood of holy ones and prophets, meaning that they persecuted and killed the people of God—both the earlier ones of Israel, and, subsequently, believers in Christ (cf. Matt 23:31, 37 par). The end-time persecution in the period of distress is primarily in view (7:14; chaps. 12-13). Who are “they”? The worldly rulers and powers—specifically the Roman imperial government and its local/regional vassals, though it could just as well apply to any wicked earthly government throughout history. As in the first vision, the punishment here fits the sin: they poured out blood, and now blood has been poured out for them to drink. This is also expressed by the adjective a&cio$, rather difficult to render in English; I have tried to preserve the fundamental meaning of the idiom, that of something brought into balance, i.e. weighed out so that its value and worth is determined. Here it is the scales of justice that are in view, the wickedness of human beings weighed out, balanced by a proper and proportionate punishment.

In response to the Angel’s message, the altar in heaven speaks. Again I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, even though the altar in the book of Revelation is generally understood to be the altar of incense (not animal sacrifice) that resides in the Temple sanctuary. However, in the fifth seal-vision (6:9ff), the idea of sacrifice is implied by the presence underneath the altar of the souls (of believers) who have been slain, and the emphasis here is also on believers being put to death by the wicked. Those souls in the seal-vision speak out in a loud voice, and the response from the altar here likely is meant to echo the earlier scene.

Verses 8-9: Fourth Vision

“And the fourth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sun—and it was given to it to burn the men (on earth) in fire. And the men were burned (with) a great burning, and (yet) they insulted the name of God, the (One) holding e)cousi/a [i.e. power/authority] over these (thing)s that strike (them), and they did not change (their) mind to give Him honor.” (vv. 8-9)

To the realms of Earth (i.e. the inhabited world of humankind) and Sea (the dark, turbulent world of evil) is now added that of the Sun. Again, on the surface this refers to a feature of the natural world; however, in the visionary logic of the narrative, here it more properly signifies the heavenly realm of light, righteousness, etc. In particular, it is a powerful image for the fire of God’s holy Judgment—i.e., the traditional motif of fire from heaven. This aspect of the Judgment has been expressed a number of ways (fire from the altar of incense, etc); now it relates to the natural heat human beings feel on earth from the sun—the sun itself serves as a vehicle for God’s fiery Judgment. The response of the afflicted population, as described here, could be taken to imply that humankind still had the opportunity to repent and turn to God, even after the Judgment had begun. In this respect the vision resembles the fifth and sixth of the earlier trumpet-cycle (chap. 9, note esp. verses 20-21).

Verses 10-11: Fifth Vision

“And the fifth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the ruling-seat of the wild animal—and its kingdom came to be darkened, and they squeezed their tongues out of the labor (they felt), and (still) they insulted the God of heaven (from) out of their labors and out of their wounds, (but) they did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of their works!” (vv. 10-11)

As noted above, these visions specifically target the domain of the Sea-creature, but here the point is made explicit, the plague being poured out directly on the ruling-seat (qro/no$, throne) of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on). Back in 2:13, the city of Pergamum was said to be the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan is”, due to its importance as a provincial center, the prominence of the imperial cult in the city, and, most importantly, because the believer Antipas was put to death there. All of these factors also serve to inform the symbolic domain of the Sea-creature (chap. 13), even though that domain cannot be limited to any specific geographical location. The Roman Empire and the Imperial cult is the most immediate point of reference for the symbolism, but, as we will see in the sixth and seventh visions, the imagery is considerably broader than the historic Roman rule of the first centuries.

The darkening that comes upon the creature’s kingdom is another direct allusion to the Exodus traditions and the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:21-29). Darkness was also a traditional image associated with the judgment to come upon nations and people on the “Day of YHWH” (Joel 2:10; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7-9) and was a common motif signifying (end-time) judgment (Mark 13:34 par; 15:33 par; Rev 6:12); moreover, any unusual darkness could be seen as an omen portending a coming disaster (cf. Koester, pp. 450, 649). Verse 10b-11 refers to the people in the Sea-creature’s kingdom, i.e. the human beings under its control, who belong to it and venerate the image, etc. It is not immediately clear what about the darkness causes the reaction of “squeezing” (or “chewing”) the tongue; most likely, it marks the cumulation of the experience of hardship and suffering in the midst of the Judgment. The noun po/no$ is used, which fundamentally means “labor, work, toil”, here more properly the suffering and pain that comes from hard labor. This hardship, along with the painful “mark” (e%lko$) on their bodies (cf. above), prompts humankind again to insult God (vb blasfhme/w). It would seem that people still have the opportunity to repent, but apparently none do. There is a bit of wordplay here involving the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) and the plural nouns po/noi (“labors”) and e&rga (“works”):

    • People insult God “out of” their labors (po/noi), i.e. their hardship and suffering
    • They do not repent “out of” their works (e&rga), i.e. their wicked behavior

The final two visions in the cycle (6 and 7) bring the scene of the great Judgment to a close, depicting the same judgment of the nations with a different set of symbols. We will explore these in the next daily note.

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November 7: Revelation 15:5-8

Revelation 15:5-8

The drama and suspense of the onset of the great Judgment builds in this second heavenly scene (15:5-8). In the previous note, we examined the scene of the People of God (believers) standing upon the crystal-clear sea, in front of God’s throne (implied), singing a song of praise to God for his deliverance. The sea was “mixed with fire”, indicating the punishment-aspect of the Judgment and anticipating the Bowl-cycle of visions. The seven Messengers (Angels) holding these “plagues” (plhgai/) were already mentioned in verse 1, along with an announcement of the Judgment.

Verses 5-6

“And with [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw—and the shrine of the tent of witness in the heaven was opened, and the seven Messengers holding the seven (thing)s to strike came out of the shrine, having been sunk [i.e. clothed] in clean (and) bright linen (garments) fastened around the chest (as they stood with) golden belts.”

The seven heavenly Messengers (Angels) are described here in some detail, both in terms of the setting of their appearance and the clothing they wear. Again, from a literary standpoint, this allows the suspense of the scene to build. The shining white (linen) garments with golden belts matches the earlier description of the exalted Jesus (1:13-14); it is traditional imagery, depicting purity, holiness, and heavenly splendor, applicable to the righteous in heaven (3:4; 7:14; 19:8), and, more broadly, to the People of God in their heavenly aspect (4:4; 19:14).

As in the visions of chapter 14, these Messengers come out of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”), the Temple being used as a symbol for God’s dwelling (in heaven); it also represents the place where the People of God gather to worship. The altar (of incense) is in the Temple sanctuary, and its fire symbolizes the end-time Judgment (8:3-5; 14:10-11, 18). The reference to the Temple as the “tent of the witness” is one of several images from the Exodus narratives that have been introduced into the Judgment scene here. In verse 3, the song sung by the People of God is called “the song of Moses”, referring to the song of praise, attributed to Moses, set after Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt and crossing the Sea (Exod 15:1-18). The seven Messengers are said to hold plhgai/, literally things which strike, often in the sense of disease or natural disaster that ‘strikes’ humankind. The English “plague” derives from Greek plhgh/ (pl¢g¢¡), and the Bowl-visions certainly reflect the historical tradition of the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7-12). As for the “tent of witness”, it is a reference to the portable tent-shrine (‘tabernacle’) of the Exodus/Wilderness period. More properly called the “tent of (the) appointed (meeting)” (du@om lh#a)), the name “tent of the witness” is better rendered from the Hebrew as “tent of the agreement” (td%u@h* lh#a), Num 17:7-8 [Heb 22-23]), in reference to the tablet(s) recording the binding agreement (covenant) established between YHWH and Israel, stored in the golden chest that served as the “throne” of YHWH in the shrine. Both the tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and later Temple were built after a similar pattern, and served a common purpose for the People of God (Israel); however, the image of the tent-shrine is more appropriate here, in terms of its (Mosaic) connection with the “plagues” of Egypt, etc, but also because of its more immediate association with the cloud/fire of God’s presence. This is alluded to by the image of the smoke (kapno/$) of His presence that fills the shrine in this scene, also serving as an image for the smoke of His fiery anger.

Verses 7-8

“And one out of the four living (being)s gave to the seven Messengers seven offering-dishes [fia/lai] being full of the (angry) impulse [qumo/$] of God, the (One) living into the Ages of the Ages. And the shrine was made full of smoke out of the splendor of God and out of His power, and no one was able to come into the shrine until the seven (thing)s to strike (held by) the seven Messengers should be completed.”

The parallelism of these two sets of images is clear enough. The offering-dishes are filled with the angry impulse of God (i.e. to punish wickedness), and the sanctuary is filled (same verb gem[i/z]w) with the smoke of His splendor and power. The Greek word fia/lh generally refers to a broad, flat dish such as that used in religious offerings, particularly libations—i.e. offerings of wine. This fits perfectly with the earlier image of the Judgment as a cup of wine to be poured out upon the earth (14:8, 10, 19-20); there the same word qumo/$ (“impulse”) was used, referring to God’s anger and desire to punish wickedness. As noted above, the “smoke” (kapno/$) is a dual-image, signifying both the presence of God in the sanctuary and His anger which will be expressed as a fiery Judgment. The final statement in verse 8 again draws upon the ancient Tent-shrine traditions, limiting access to the sanctuary, so that even the officiating priests could not enter (Exod 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron 5:13-14; 7:1-2; cf. also Lev 16:13, etc; Koester, p. 645-6).

The Messengers already hold the seven “plagues” which will strike the earth; the motif of the offering-dishes is a literary device which gives to the vision-cycle a powerful dramatic and ritual dimension. It also blends together two sets of images for depicting the Judgment: (1) the Exodus traditions with the Plagues of Egypt, and (2) the wine imagery of chapter 14. The sudden appearance of the “living beings”, which echoes back to the heavenly throne-vision of chapters 4-5, is also a dramatic device, but one which enhances the symbolism here in two respects: (1) it plays on the theme of God in the sanctuary as “the Living One”, and (2) it provides a subtle contrast to the Sea and Earth creatures of chapter 13, and the ‘living’ image of the Sea-creature that causes humankind to worship and obey the creature. The first five visions of this Judgment-cycle (16:1-11) are directed specifically against the world as the domain of the Sea-creature. These will be discussed in the next daily note.

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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.

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.

October 2: Revelation 8:6-13

Revelation 8:6-13

For an introduction to the Trumpet-visions and their relation to the earlier Seal-visions, etc, see the previous daily note (on 8:1-5). Verses 6-13 cover the first four Trumpet-visions, all of which involve natural disasters as the result of celestial phenomena. The language and imagery used to describe these is drawn primarily from Old Testament tradition, but also would have been recognizable to people in the Greco-Roman world at large, since these sorts of celestial phenomena were widely seen as portents of disaster and divine anger/judgment which were to come upon humankind. For the background of the trumpet-motif as a herald of end-time Judgment, cf. the previous note.

Suspense is created in verse 6, adding to the sense of anticipation and foreboding: “And the seven Messengers, the (one)s holding the seven trumpets, made themselves ready (so) that they should sound the trumpet”. The idea of trumpets sounding (in the sky) announcing or forewarning of disaster to come is widespread, and not only in Old Testament tradition (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.784ff; Lucan Pharsalia 1.578). The first three trumpets (vv. 7-11) each announce judgment in the form of fire from heaven, which echoes both the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 9:23-24) and the Sodom & Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24ff) in Old Testament tradition. Both were natural figure-types for the end-time Judgment; on the use of Sodom/Gomorrah in this regard, cf. Luke 17:29; also Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7.

The first two trumpet-visions follow a common pattern, describing fire which was “thrown [e)blh/qh] (down) into [ei)$]” the earth/sea. This reflects the Messenger holding the golden bowl at the altar of incense, who throws fire down to the earth (vv. 4-5); however, ultimately the passive should be understood here as the divine passive, i.e. God as the implied actor. The third trumpet-vision differs slightly, in that the fire (a burning star) falls (e&pesen) out of heaven to land upon the earth. Here is a comparison of the details in the three visions:

  • First Trumpet (v. 7):
    • “hail and fire having been mixed in blood”—an obvious echo of the plague in Exod 9:13-26 (also Ps 78:48ff; 105:32), repeated as judgment imagery in Isa 30:30; Ezek 38:22; Wis 16:22-23. The added element of blood may be intended to continue the theme of warfare and violence (and its effects) from the earlier seal-visions. Blood raining from heaven is known as a visionary portent of war (cf. Lucan, Pharsalia 1.578; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.5.14; Sibylline Oracles 5:377-9, etc). A more immediate Old Testament allusion may be found in Joel 2:30.
    • thrown down into/onto the earth
    • a third of the earth’s surface (i.e. the dry land)—trees and green grass—is burnt down
  • Second Trumpet (vv. 8-9):
    • “(something) as/like a great mountain burning with fire”—i.e. a great fiery mass; there are similar eschatological/apocalyptic references in 1 Enoch 18:13; 21:3; and Sibylline Oracles 5:158-9.
    • thrown down into/onto the sea
    • a third of the sea becomes blood—a clear echo of Exod 7:16-23 and the plagues on Egypt; whether this means that the water came to be the color of blood, etc, or was miraculously transformed into actual blood, hardly matters (probably the latter was meant). As with the fire which struck the land (burning trees and grass), there are similarly two effects from the fire which strikes the sea:
      —a third of the creatures in the sea die, and
      —a third of the boats come to ruin, perhaps literally rotting or decaying
  • Third Trumpet (vv. 10-11):
    • “a great star burning as a brilliant (light) [i.e. lamp/torch]”—falling stars (i.e. comets, meteors) naturally served as omens and portents of death and disaster in the ancient world (cf. Manilius Astronomica 1.874-6, etc). If taken literally, here it is the image of a great (fiery) meteor landing on the earth.
    • falls out of heaven—it is conceivable that this shift in wording foreshadows the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions; or, perhaps, it is intended to convey a natural phenomenon, as opposed to the supernatural fire of the 1st/2nd trumpet-vision.
      It falls out of heaven and land upon the rivers and springs of earth; exactly how this comes about from a single star/meteor is unclear, nor is the scientific detail important.
    • a third of the waters are turned into a&yinqo$, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, which refers to a small plant (‘wormwood’) which yielded a bitter taste (cf. Prov 5:4; Jer 9:15; 23:5)—i.e. a third of all rivers and springs, with their water used for washing, drinking and cooking, etc, became poisoned and made bitter, resulting in the death of “many” people. Here there may be likely an allusion to the judgment upon the people following the Golden Calf incident, where they were forced to drink the contaminated water (Exod 32:20; cf. 15:23).

As in the third trumpet-vision, the fourth (v. 12) also involves natural celestial phenomena—namely the sun, moon, and stars together:

“…and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were (each) struck, (so) that a third of them (each) would be darkened, and the day would not shine a third of its (light), and the night likewise.”

This, too, reflects the Plagues of Egypt—the plague of darkness on the land (Exod 10:21-23)—but the idea of the darkening of sun and moon came to be a common Judgment motif in the Old Testament (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7), one which Jesus would make use of in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:24-25 par). Unusual darkness, as during an eclipse, etc, was naturally seen as a dangerous omen or portent in the ancient world (Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.538-43, etc).

Verse 13 marks a division between the first four visions and the next two; from a literary standpoint, it also serves to heighten the dramatic suspense, pointing toward what is about to come. It is treated as a distinct vision:

“And I saw and heard one air-borne (being) winging [i.e. flying] in the middle of the heaven, saying with a great voice: ‘Woe, woe, (and) woe (again which is to come) to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, out of the remaining voices of the trumpets of the three Messengers the (one)s about to sound the trumpet!”

I have translated a)eto/$ literally as a creature/being in the air, which usually refers to a bird (spec. an eagle); some manuscripts instead read a&ggelo$ (“Messenger”, i.e. Angel), which seems more likely to be a ‘correction’ of a)eto/$ than the other way around. Birds served as omens or portents of disaster, etc, in the ancient world, and the eagle would have represented the nobility (and reliability) of a divine messenger (cf. Homer Iliad 8.242, Odyssey 2.146, etc). The messenger, whether an eagle or heavenly being, here is announcing the judgment still to come in the remaining trumpet-visions.

A common detail through the first four visions is the motif of a third—the celestial phenomena, and the related disasters, are repeatedly (and consistently) said to affect a third of the world. The precise significance of this remains uncertain. Possibly it is meant to indicate one stage or portion of the final Judgment, which will be completed in the seven Bowl-visions of chapter 16, etc. It also may reflect traditional imagery, or a literary/prophetic device, such as we see in Ezek 5:2ff; Zech 13:8-9. More likely is the idea that the limited application of the Judgment (to a third of the earth and humankind, cf. also 9:15ff) is intended as an expression of God’s mercy, to give the survivors the opportunity to repent before the Judgment is completed; this is certainly implied in 9:20-21, as a concluding notice to the first six trumpet-visions, and should be taken seriously.