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Revelation 9 is another chapter of the Bible excluded from the standard three-year Lectionary.  Therefore, it qualifies as part of the Forbidden Bible Verses, equally essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading comes from the English Standard Version (ESV).  Exegetical sources are given at the end of the post.  Visit Book of Revelation for related posts.

Revelation 9

1And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. 2He 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. 3Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.

7 In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11They 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; behold, two woes are still to come.

13Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. 16The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 17And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.

20The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.

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In Revelation 8, we read of the first four of seven archangels sounding their trumpets.  Today, we read of the fifth and sixth.

Before going into the exegesis, it might be useful to quell people’s apprehensions about this final book in the Bible.  Matthew Henry, a Calvinist minister who wrote his enduring Bible commentary in 1706 and offers insightful interpretations of every canonical book, writes:

1. God can make one enemy of the church to be a scourge and plague to another. 2. He who is the Lord of hosts has vast armies at his command, to serve his own purposes. 3. The most formidable powers have limits set them, which they cannot transgress. 4. When God’s judgments are in the earth, he expects the inhabitants thereof should repent of sin, and learn righteousness. 5. Impenitency under divine judgments is an iniquity that will be the ruin of sinners; for where God judges he will overcome.

The Lutheran pastor, the Revd Thomas Messer, of Peace Lutheran Church in Alma, Michigan, who has studied Revelation extensively, informs us:

God will always keep for Himself a remnant; He will always raise up men to defend His Word and maintain sound doctrine and practice. The main purpose of Revelation is to comfort Christians with this glorious truth, and to warn them against forsaking this truth. Revelation is a stern reminder to the Christian Church to remain steadfast in the Word, so that it will remain free from Satan’s attacks and inherit life in the eternal kingdom prepared for it.

Therefore, for the believer, Revelation serves as both a comfort and a warning.  For unbelievers it may be little more than an apocalyptic fantasy to be ridiculed.  However, this is to be expected, since God’s Word will never mean anything to many of them.

Recall that at the end of Revelation 8, an eagle cried out, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on earth.’  Today, we find out the basis for such a cry.

Henry believes that the star falling from Heaven in verse 1 may refer to Boniface, the third Bishop of Rome, who obtained his position by flattering the then-emperor Phocas.  As a result, he says, Boniface corrupted his ministry and became the antichrist, at the call of Satan.  Today’s interpretations differ.  Messer says the fallen star is undeniably Satan.  He will continue to appear throughout the rest of Revelation.

Christ permits Satan to have the key to the ‘bottomless pit’, the abyss of Hell.  Satan now has some, although not absolute, power over the Earth.  Neither he nor his angels can touch those who truly believe in Christ, which is why it is so important for us to stand firm in the faith so that the powers of darkness cannot corrupt us.

The smoke arising from Hell in verse 2 is what we would associate with that place of darkness.  However, it also means that this is a spiritual darkness which envelops the Earth.  This is what St John meant in his Gospel, contrasting Christ — ‘the light’ — with Satan (John 1:5):

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Without Christ, we would still be in spiritual darkness.

Verse 3 sees the unleashing of ‘locusts’ from Hell, recalling one of the plagues God sent to Egypt in the Book of Exodus.  However, unlike those, these are Satan’s fallen angels.  Both our commentators agree that these ‘locusts’ come to Earth to promote heresy, error, sin, depravity.  They have ‘the power of scorpions’.  Again, this is figurative: the pain they inflict is spiritual and emotional, but as Pastor Messer notes:

physical injury results when spiritually injured people do harm to others.

Henry concurs:

it should not be a persecution, but a secret poison and infection in their souls, which should rob them of their purity, and afterwards of their peace. Heresy is a poison in the soul, working slowly and secretly, but will be bitterness in the end.

Note that these demons — the locusts — were not allowed to harm plants or the elect (verse 4), recalling Revelation 7:2-3:

2Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

They have permission to harm only unbelievers and, even then, for a limited length of time — five months (verse 5) — a sign of God’s mercy even in judgment.  No one would be killed.  However, those afflicted would be in such torment that they would wish for death (verse 6).  They would have no comfort.  As horrific as this state of being is, it will be nothing like an eternity in Hell.

Verses 7 through 9 describe the formidable physical nature of these demons.  They have the strength of steeds in battle.  Yet, they are human with silky hair wearing simulacra crowns of gold.  All very imposing, and all very seductive in their deception.  Messer notes that Mel Gibson cast a woman to play Satan in The Passion of the Christ.  She was not without her wiles in the film.  And so it will be with these demons.  They will appear as attractive, seemingly reasonable people — yet they are evil and to be avoided.  Verse 10 again reminds us that they have the capability to do much damage in their short time on Earth.  Unfortunately, the unbelievers have no defence against these demons;  their only path to victory would be via Christ, but as they lack faith, this is impossible.  Verse 11 alludes to the demons’ ruler, Satan — the Destroyer or Adversary — known in Hebrew as Abaddon and in Greek as Apollyon.

Verse 12 informs us that the first ‘woe’ ends, but there are two more to come.  The sixth of the seven archangels then blows his trumpet (verse 13).  Christ is now giving permission for the next judgment to occur, which, Henry writes, foretold the Ottoman invasion, as verse 14 refers to the Euphrates River (emphases mine throughout):

Here observe, 1. The power of the church’s enemies is restrained till God gives the word to have them turned loose. 2. When nations are ripe for punishment, those instruments of God’s anger that were before restrained are let loose upon them, v. 14. 3. The instruments that God makes use of to punish a people may sometimes lie at a great distance from them, so that no danger may be apprehended from them. These four messengers of divine judgment lay bound in the river Euphrates, a great way from the European nations. Here the Turkish power had its rise, which seems to be the story of this vision.

He posits that much of the Church had turned apostate, and God would avenge this falling away from faith.  The four angels were released in verse 14 at a very specific time (verse 15) to kill one-third of mankind.  Henry sees this as a specific judgment, already in the past by the time he had written his commentary.

He relates the descriptions in verses 16 and 17 to the Muslim invaders, probably to the 1453 Siege of Constantinople, which signalled the end to the Middle Ages and the beginning of Ottoman rule. A precursor to the cannon — the Orban bombard — was used.  Henry ties the two events together in interpreting verses 18 and 19, which describe plagues of ‘fire and smoke and sulfur’ as well as horsepower and massive war wounds. In this passage, he refers to another Bible scholar, a Mr Mede:

Their artillery, by which they made such slaughter, described by fire, smoke, and brimstone, issuing out of the mouths of their horses, and the stings that were in their tails. It is Mr. Mede’s opinion that this is a prediction of great guns, those instruments of cruelty which make such destruction: he observes, These were first used by the Turks at the siege of Constantinople, and, being new and strange, were very terrible, and did great execution. However, here seems to be an allusion to what is mentioned in the former vision, that, as antichrist had his forces of a spiritual nature, like scorpions poisoning the minds of men with error and idolatry, so the Turks, who were raised up to punish the antichristian apostasy, had their scorpions and their stings too, to hurt and kill the bodies of those who had been the murderers of so many souls.

In fact, it was only during Henry’s lifetime that Ottoman Rule was defeated at the Battle (Siege) of Vienna in 1683.  The Polish king, Jan III Sobieski, was victorious against the Turks.  This is, by the way, the origin of the delicious crescent-shaped pastry, the croissant, made by jubilant bakers to celebrate the historic victory.  It is also how Vienna became known for its coffee-houses: the Turks left behind many sacks of coffee.

As a side note, even the Mongol invader Genghis Khan, who practiced a form of shamanism, knew enough to say to his Christian enemies:

I am the punishment of God … If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.

Something to think about …

It’s interesting to note that 17th and 18th century Bible scholars believed some of the horrifying  events of Revelation had already occurred.

Pastor Messer relates these same verses to Satan’s unbinding immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming.  He says that a large number of people will be killed by the plagues of ‘fire and smoke and sulfur’.  Persecution will be heavy upon the Church, and many will fall away from the faith.

The chapter closes with the dire contents of verses 20 and 21: the majority of people will cling to their own accomplishments at work as well as to their gleaming idols (bling, anyone?) or those made of ‘stone and wood’ — ‘which cannot see or hear or walk’.  What an indictment!  So, for anyone who is bragging about their success and living in their own opulent castle (and many of us know a few people with amazing houses), take stock of your spiritual health as well.  It is even more important than your salary and your fine possessions.

Verse 21 is even more devastating: those who remained alive still did not repent of their murders, sorceries, sexual immorality or thefts!  What a thought.

Henry writes that many of those who survived the fall of Constantinople persisted in their sins and were wholly unrepentant.  Therefore, God has every right to impose His harshest punishment:

These are the flagrant crimes of antichrist and his agents; and, though God has revealed his wrath from heaven against them, they are obstinate, hardened, and impenitent, and judicially so, for they must be destroyed.

Pastor Messer says that just before the end of the world, Satan’s ‘little season’ will be horrific for believers.  People will worship anything but the Holy Trinity.  True Christians will be so few in number as to be difficult to find.  Yet, even churches will ‘present evil as good’:

Not only will people refuse to repent, but, influenced by Satan and his minions, they will promote sin as being salvific. Murder will not only be condoned, but promoted in society as a good thing (abortion?). Magic arts will be everywhere and people will cling to them (increase of so-called psychics, fortunetellers, and faith-healers in our day? Not to mention the new-age, occultist spirituality plaguing our society – scientology, mysticism, kabbala, pyramid power, fascination with aliens, etc.). Sexual immorality will not only be condoned, but promoted as well (and remember, all of this not only outside of the Church, but within the Church – women’s ordination, homosexuality accepted as legitimate, alternative lifestyle, the condoning of sex before, and outside of, marriage and living together? Not to mention the promotion of sex in the media – it’s everywhere!). All of these should be signs to awaken Christians to the fact that we may very well indeed be living in the “little season” of Satan.

He just might be right.  In which case, pay even more attention to studying Scripture, praying regularly and, if you can, belonging to a good church.

Next week: Revelation 10

Further reading:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

‘Revelation – Chapter 09 Notes’ – The Revd Thomas C Messer (LCMS)

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