Revelation 9: 1-12: The First Woe-The Locusts of the Abyss
1 And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit; 2 he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months. 11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.
12 The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.
The first four trumpets saw the earth and sea and sky become the bearers of God’s judgment to provide an opportunity for the recalcitrant portions humanity to repent. Now in the fifth trumpet the recipients of the suffering begins to shift to humanity and specifically the portions of humanity not sealed with the seal of God. Like in the book of Exodus where the chosen people of Israel are not inflicted with the signs and wonders that God does against Egypt; so here the Israel sealed and protected will not be stung by the demonic locust swarm that is released from the abyss.
While the star that fell in Revelation 8:10 was referring to a meteor which falls from the heavens into the waters of the earth contaminating them the star here most likely refers to an angel of God. In Revelation 1: 20 we see the seven stars referred to as the seven angels of the churches. Some have taken this figure to be Satan falling from heaven coming to unleash the forces of the abyss and while this is possible (and there is language later in Revelation about Satan being cast out of heaven as well Jesus’ statement in Luke 10:18 about seeing Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning) it seems odd that God or an agent of God would hand Satan the key to the abyss. Initiating the first woe an angel opens the demonic realm of the abyss.
The abyss in Revelation is a demonic realm. It is not the same as under the earth, where the creatures that live there will give God praise. Instead this is the realm of the Destroyer and those forces that are opposed to the Creator. In Revelation 11 the beast will come up from the abyss, and in Revelation 20 Satan will be confined there. John observes the abyss being opened and the smoke arising from it along with the emergence of the locusts, but John does not dwell on the abyss itself and instead focuses on the impact of the abyss being opened upon the people of the earth.
These first two woes demonstrate a removal of restraints by God. The creatures of the abyss have been imprisoned there and only upon being released is their destruction seen and felt. The locusts of the abyss are demonic in every way and counter to the natural order. In some respects their description mirrors the Greek mythological creature of the manticore with its human, lion and scorpion traits and yet these demonic locusts are distinct even from this mythical creature which blurred the boundaries of species and reality. The locusts do not act like regular locusts: they fly through the smoke where normal locusts will become inactive in smoke, they do not consume the grass and plants of the field like normal locusts do and instead of their mouths it is their stingers that are the troubling aspect. The comparison of the locusts to horses emphasizes their military aspect and they, like the demonic cavalry that come with the sixth trumpet. Their description being like ‘horses equipped for battle’ echoes Joel 2: 4-5:
They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots. They leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.
The description of the demonic locusts indicates their menace and these locust act like a military unit attacking the people and yet they are not given the power to kill only to torture with their sting. The people wish for death due to the pain of the sting, but they are ultimately allowed to live, they are given the opportunity to repent after being incapacitated by the sting for an extended time.
For me the key to understanding this section comes in verses 20-21 where they people don’t repent and return to the worship of demons. As I’ve mentioned throughout this section the locusts and their master, Abaddon or Apollyon, are demonic forces of destruction that are in opposition to God the creator. The action of the angel in opening the abyss turns the people who worship, in John’s view, demons over to the demonic forces they worship, and they are tormented by them. Revelation is a vision of disclosure that attempts to illuminate the world through its strange images. God no longer restrains the demonic in order to unmask the idols that people are giving their allegiance to in order that they might turn to the Lord. But even here at the first woe there is restraint that prevents the demonic horde of locusts the ability to bring death even to the unrepentant.
It is also worth noting the similarities between the locusts of the first woe and the first rider from the first seal. The first rider on the white horse also wears a crown and is given the power to conquer. There is also a progression from this image to the image of war in both the second seal and the second woe. (See Revelation 6: 1-4)
Revelation 9: 13-21 The Second Woe-the Angels and the Cavalry Horde
13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. 16 The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number. 17 And this was how I saw the horses in my vision: the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.
20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.
With the sixth trumpet a second group of creatures, this time angels, are released to bring about judgment. Much like the opening of the abyss, here creatures that are bent on destroying humanity are unleashed and with them a seemingly impossible number of demonic cavalry. Like in the second seal, war is unleashed upon the earth and death follows shortly afterwards. Structurally there seems to be a connection between the angels unleashed here and the four angels retraining the four winds of heaven in Revelation 7:1. These angels bound at the river Euphrates are not the same angels, but while the first angels hold back judgment these angels of death become the summoners of destruction and desolation. Yet, even in the midst of the destruction and devastation, Revelation wants us to hear that by releasing these angels of death that even here God remains firmly in control.
The angels at the beginning of this woe are bound, like Satan will be in Revelation 20:2 (see also the evocative language of binding the strongman in Mark 3:27). Perhaps they are bound as they emerge from the abyss and they are fallen angels like Satan, perhaps they are fallen angels that have been chained here at the Euphrates for countless years, or perhaps they were simply created to be vessels that God will use to bring about the judgment of the people. For me the angels themselves seem to be fallen creatures and the cavalry they will summon also is full of demonic aspects in its description and mission. Ultimately these creatures which are unleashed upon the creation are also forces of death and destruction and bring about the death of large portions of humanity. Yet the command to release the angels comes from the altar of God and, as mentioned above, God remains firmly in control despite the chaos the people of the earth would experience from the unleashing of the forces of war and destruction.
The description of the cavalry has its closest resonance in the mythical Chimera (which has a lion’s head, snake for a tail and a goat’s head arising from it’s back). They are not like a normal troop of cavalry and John reminds us that we are seeing this in a vision. The horses kill with fire, smoke and sulfur and in addition inflict harm with their snake-like tails. The vision shows us a distortion of the created order. The image is one of war and the destruction that comes with it and cavalry was the most powerful military unit of the time of Revelation. Looking back on the last century of warfare it may be tempting to assign to these creatures correlations with the technology of warfare in our time, but the images are a visionary representation of God’s judgment and attempting to lock down the image to a concrete time or technology robs it of its flexibility.
Ultimately the goal of Revelation’s visions and judgments is to bring about change. God’s desire is for people to turn away from the created things that they worship and the works of human hands so that they can join creation in worshipping the Creator. A frequent theme in the bible is the way that humanity “exchanges the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four- footed animals or reptiles.” (Romans 1: 23) God desires humanity to turn both from its worship of demons and the work of human hands but also to turn from their practices which are listed in opposition to God. Yet judgment alone does not bring about repentance. Ultimately, God will provide witnesses to the people who now become the prophets to all the nations calling people to, ‘return to the LORD their God.’ Judgment and witness ultimately are employed in the service of God to bring about repentance. God desires for people to turn from the forces that are working to destroy the creation and to give their allegiance to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.