Milligan’s comments on the second woe
In Revelation 9:20-21, John declares that the previous series of plagues had not caused men to repent, and he lists several things that men did not repent of: worship of devils, idolatry, murder, sorcery, fornication, and theft. These statements may mean that the plagues associated with the first six trumpets are effects of the unsuccessful efforts of some to persuade others to repent.
In several of the trumpet plagues of Revelation, including the second woe, there is reference to a third part; this is notable in the sixth plague, or the second woe, where a third of men are killed by the four angels released from the river Euphrates.
And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,
Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates.
And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.
This must surely refer to something other than being literally killed by angels, as all men eventually suffer death. But, missionary campaigns of Western nations have resulted in the deaths of many over the centuries. Crusades, and wars of religion have also killed many. The great wars in the last century were fought among so-called Christian nations.
In the previous plagues, the third part is associated with the following events:
the third part of trees was burnt up,
the third part of the sea became blood;
the third part of the creatures which were in the sea died
the third part of the ships
the third part of the waters became wormwood
the third part of the sun
the third part of the moon
the third part of the stars
the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
The expression the third part may indicate these are events of a spiritual nature, and the things described above could hardly be literal. For example, how could a third of the stars cease to shine? If the stars represent the saints, as in Daniel 12:3, a third of the saints not letting their light shine by witnessing to the truth of the gospel pictures apostasy in the church. The waters that become wormwood are symbolic of the spiritual waters of the gospel; the message of the Bible is made unpalatable. The sun becoming partly darkened represents the gospel becoming obscured by flawed interpretations, or false teaching, or the unholy behavior of Christians. They are events that affect Christianity, which is but a part of mankind.
Note that the seven trumpets are preparatory to the coming of Christ.
The trumpet plagues are prefigured in the book of Joshua by Israel taking Jericho, after crossing the Jordan, when they entered the promised land. In Revelation, Jericho is typical of Babylon.
Several commentaries identify the river Euphrates with the eastern boundary of the land promised to Abraham. [Genesis 15:18] It is also related to Babylon, as it flowed through Babylon, and out from it, which suggests that the Euphrates of the prophecy alludes to mystical Babylon, representing man’s religion, as opposed to true worship of God.
The river Euphrates in the prophecy may be contrasted with the rivers that Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah described flowing from Jerusalem, which are invisible, figurative rivers representing God’s Spirit, and the gospel going from God’s saints to the world. In the case of Euphrates, which flowed out from Babylon, in the spiritual sense, it corresponds to false teaching, idolatry, flawed interpretations, and the like, and with the “flood from the mouth of the serpent” in Revelation 12:15.
Charles D. Alexander commented that the binding of four angels in the Euphrates shows that the river is not the literal Euphrates river, but symbolic. 
They are bound in the Euphrates river, not because angels are or can be actually located in the waters of a river, but because the action is symbolic of a releasing of an evil power the identity of which is figured by the Euphrates river. The attempts by Historicist and Futurists alike to prove that the actual river is meant is sufficiently refuted by the fact that angels are said to be bound therein – an impossible conception. As the angels and their releasing are symbolic, so must be the river in which they are said to be bound. Likewise the number of the angels is of great significance. Four in the Bible is ever the prophetic number of the world, as in chapter 7:1.
In the final verses of Revelation 9 John says that men were not led to repentance by the previous sequence of plagues, which helps in their interpretation, as the plagues represent incomplete or partial presentations of the gospel message, or distortions of it. The 5th plague is a plague of locusts which torment men for 5 months. In my interpretation of this prophecy, the locusts represent those who teach the idea of unending infernal torment of unbelievers. Neither this doctrine, or that of the horses in the 6th plague, leads men to repentance. The implication is that the men represented by these plagues are attempting to accomplish just that.
The horses of the 6th plague have lion’s teeth, and their tails are like serpents. They hurt with their tails. Isaiah identified the tail with false prophets. So the horses and horsemen of the 6th plague may be the vast multitude of people involved in what William Milligan referred to as “the degenerate Church.” Charles D. Alexander commented on the attempts by some to interpret the second Woe literally, and who profit from the sale of sensational books on prophecy. He wrote:
The literal view of this Woe is clearly impossible, whether we take it from the Historicist with his Turkish tale, or the Futurist with his army of Chinese. There is not room on the earth for the maneuvering of an army of 200,000,000 horsemen, even if sufficient warriors could be found to mount this unobtainable number of horses. And if all is to be taken literally, let us be consistent and have literal horses breathing fire and brimstone and biting with their serpent tails! The best our Futurist friends can do is to tell us that these are not really horses but monstrous tanks exploding with murderous fire. Indeed! Then away goes their literalism and they must treat the entire Book as a symbolic Book. They admit the horses are not horses, and later on they confess that their antichrist does not in fact have seven heads and ten horns (chap. 13. 1), nor does there sit on his back, or the devil’s back, a harlot woman who is the paramour of all the kings of the earth. (chap. 17:1-2)
“LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH”
The author of the latest boasted ‘best seller’ “The Late Great Planet Earth” tells us the 200,000,000 army is literal, and that China will supply that number of ‘militiamen’, and that they will wipe out one third of the earth’s inhabitants, by ‘fire, smoke and brimstone’ which he associates with thermo-nuclear warfare, but says nothing of the horses which in the prophecy are even more prominent than the riders. It is not the only place by any means where this author, happy no doubt with the colossal sale of 1,600,000 copies of his sensational book, departs from the strict text of Revelation, avoiding the impossible and symbolising where he can – or must – while claiming all the time to be a Literalist.
If Mr. Lindsey’s book really had been fulfilling some sanctifying purpose, one could be lenient with the absurdities, but sad though it may be to say it, he has given us nothing to satisfy the hunger of our hearts for Christ and holiness and evangelical truth, whereas John wrote (and this Mr. Lindsey appears to overlook) that those who read should keep the sayings of the Book and by that means obtain blessing. But Mr. Lindsey is only the latest of a long line of authors who succeed in writing books exceedingly profitable for themselves (1,600,000 sale) but only sensationalising the Book of Revelation without any awareness of any spiritual or sanctifying purpose. The blurb on the cover reads, “A penetrating look at incredible prophecies involving this generation.” So say they all, for hundreds of years past – everything is always for ‘this generation’. But no doubt we shall see.
William Milligan’s commentary on the second woe is a striking contrast to Lindsey’s sensational approach. Milligan pointed out that the second woe is not directed against the church. But possibly, this may be because the horses are symbolic of large numbers of people within the church, who lack understanding. [Psalm 32:9] Below are Milligan’s comments on the second woe in Revelation 9:13-21. 
And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the horns of the golden altar which is before God, one saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound at the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, which had been prepared for the hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should kill the third part of men. And the number of the armies of the horsemen was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates as of fire, and of hyacinth, and of brimstone. By these three plagues was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and the smoke, and the brimstone, which proceeded out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails are like unto serpents, and with them they do hurt. And the rest of mankind which were not killed with these plagues repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood: which can neither see, nor hear nor walk: and they repented not of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts (ix. 13-21).
There is much in this Trumpet that is remarkable even while we confine ourselves to the more outward particulars contained in it. Thus we are brought back by it to the thought of those prayers of the saints to which all the Trumpets are a reply, but which have not been mentioned since the blowing of the Trumpets began. [Vers. 3-5.] Once more we read of the golden altar which was before God, in His immediate presence. On that altar the prayers of all the saints had been laid, that they might rise to heaven with the much incense added by the angel, and might be answered in God’s own time and way. The voice heard from the four horns of this altar that is, from the four projecting points at its four corners, representing the altar in its greatest potency shows us, what we might have been in danger of forgetting, that the judgment before us continues to be an answer of the Almighty to His people’s prayers. Again it may be noticed that in the judgment here spoken of we deal once more with a third part of the class upon which it falls. Nothing of the kind had been said under the fifth Trumpet. The inference to be drawn from these particulars is important. We learn that, however distinct the successive members of any of the three series of the Seals, the Trumpets, or the Bowls may seem to be, they are yet closely connected with one another. Though seven in number, there is a sense in which they are also one; and any characteristic thought which appears in a single member of the series ought to be carried through all its members. [Comp. p. 141.]
The judgment itself is founded, as in the others already considered, upon thoughts and incidents connected with Old Testament history.
The first of these is the river Euphrates. That great river was the boundary of Palestine upon the northeast. “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates;” [Gen. xv. 18.] and in the days of Solomon this part of the covenant appears to have been fulfilled, for we are told that “Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river” (that is, the Euphrates) “unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt.” [1 Kings iv. 21.] The Euphrates, however, was not only the boundary between Israel and the Assyrians. It was also Israel’s line of defence against its powerful and ambitious neighbour, who had to cross its broad stream before he could seize any part of the Promised Land. By a natural transition of thought, the Euphrates next became a symbol of the Assyrians themselves, for its waters, when they rose in flood, overflowed Israel’s territory and swept all before them. Then the prophets saw in the rush of the swollen river a figure of the scourge of God upon those who would not acknowledge Him: “The Lord spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; now therefore behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks: and he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of Thy land, O Immanuel.” [Isa. viii. 5-8.] When accordingly the Euphrates is here spoken of, it is clear that with the river as such we have nothing to do. It is simply a symbol of judgment; and the four angels which had been bound at it, but were now loosed, are a token–four being the number of the world–that the judgment referred to, though it affects but a third part of men, reaches men over the whole surface of the globe. When the hour, and the day, and the month, and the year–that is, when the moment fixed in the counsels of the Almighty–come, the chains by which destruction has been kept back shall be broken, and the world shall be overwhelmed by the raging stream.
The second Old Testament thought to be noted in this vision is that of horses. To the Israelite the horse presented an object of terror rather than admiration, and an army of horsemen awakened in him the deepest feelings of alarm. Thus it is that the prophet Habakkuk, describing the coming judgments of God, is commissioned to exclaim, “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every stronghold; for they shall heap dust, and take it.” [Hab. i. 5-10.] Like the locusts of the previous vision, the “horses” now spoken of are indeed clothed with preternatural attributes; but the explanation is the same. Ordinary horses could not convey images of sufficient terror.
The last two verses of chap. ix., which follow the sixth Trumpet, deserve our particular attention. They describe the effect produced upon the men who did not perish by the previous plagues, and they help to throw light upon a question most intimately connected with a just interpretation of the Apocalypse. The question is, Does the Seer, in any of his visions, anticipate the conversion of the ungodly? or does he deal, from the beginning to the end of his descriptions, with righteousness and sin in themselves rather than with righteous persons who may decline from the truth or sinful persons who may own and welcome it? The question will meet us again in the following chapters of this book, and will demand a fuller discussion than it can receive at present. In the meantime it is enough to say that, in the two verses now under consideration, no hint as to the conversion of any ungodly persons by the Trumpet plagues is given. On the contrary, the “men” that is, the two-thirds of the inhabitants of the earth or of the ungodly world who were not killed by these plagues repented neither of their irreligious principles nor of their immoral lives. They went on as they had done in the grossness of their idolatries and in the licentiousness of their conduct. They were neither awakened nor softened by the fate of others. They had deliberately chosen their own course; and, although they knew that they were rushing against the thick bosses of the Almighty’s buckler, they had resolved to persevere in it to the end.
Two brief remarks on these six Trumpet visions, looked at as a whole, appear still to be required.
1. No attempt has been made to interpret either the individual objects of the judgments or the instruments by which judgment is inflicted. To the one class belong the “earth,” the “trees,” the “green grass,” the “sea,” the “ships,” the “rivers and fountains of the waters,” the “sun,” the “moon,” and the “stars;” to the other belong the details given in the description first of the “locusts” of the fifth Trumpet and then of the “horses” of the sixth. Each of these particulars may have a definite meaning, and interpreters may yet be successful in discovering it. The object kept in view throughout this commentary makes any effort to ascertain that meaning, when it is doubtful if it even exists, comparatively unimportant. We are endeavouring to catch the broader interpretation and spirit of the book; and it may be a question whether our impressions would in that respect be deepened though we saw reason to believe that all the objects above mentioned had individual force. One line of demarcation certainly seems to exist, traced by the Seer himself, between the first four and the two following judgments, the former referring to physical disasters flowing from moral evil, the latter to the more dreadful intensification of intellectual darkness and moral corruption visited upon men when they deliberately choose evil rather than good. Further than this it is for our present purpose unnecessary to go.
2. The judgments of these Trumpets are judgments on the world rather than the Church. Occasion has been already taken to observe that the structure of this part of the Apocalypse leads to the belief that both the Trumpets and the Bowls are developed out of the Seals. Yet there is a difference between the two. and various indications in the Trumpet visions appear to confine them to judgments on the world.
There is the manner in which they are introduced, as an answer to the prayers of “all the saints.” [Chap. viii. 3] It is true, as we shall yet see, that the degenerate Church is the chief persecutor of the people of God. But against her the saints cannot pray. To them she is still the Church. They remember the principle laid down by their Lord when He spoke of His kingdom in the parable of the tares: “Let both grow together until the harvest.” [Matt. xiii. 30.] God alone can separate the false from the true within her pale. There is a sense in which the Church can never be overthrown, and there is not less a sense in which the world shall be subdued. Only for the subjugation of the world, therefore, can “all the saints” pray; and the Trumpets are an answer to their prayers.
Again, the three Woe-Trumpets are directed against “them that dwell on the earth.” [Chap. viii. 13.] But, as has been already said, it is a principle of interpretation applicable to all the three series of the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Bowls, that traits filling up the picture in one member belong also to the other members of the group, and that the judgments, while under one aspect seven, are under another one. The three Woes therefore fall upon the same field of judgment as that visited by the plagues preceding them. In other words, all the six plagues of this series of visions are inflicted upon “them that dwell on the earth;” and that is simply another form of expression for the ungodly world.
Again, under the fifth Trumpet the children of God are separated from the ungodly, so that the particulars of that judgment do not touch them. The locusts are instructed that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only such men as have not the seal of God in their foreheads. [Chap. ix. 4.]
Again, the seventh Trumpet, in which the series culminates, and which embodies its character as a whole, will be found to deal with judgment on the world alone: “The nations were roused to wrath, and Thy wrath came, and the time of the dead to be judged,”…. and “the time to destroy them that destroy the earth.” [Chap. xi. 18.]
Finally, the description given at the end of the sixth Trumpet of those who were hardened rather than softened by the preceding judgments leads directly to the same conclusion: And the rest of mankind which were not killed by these plagues repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood. [Chap. ix. 20.]
These considerations leave no doubt that the judgments of the Trumpets are judgments on the world. The Church, it is true, may also suffer from them, but not in judgment. They may be part of her trial as she mixes with the world during her earthly pilgrimage. Trial, however, is not judgment. To the children of God it is the discipline of a Father’s hand. In the midst of it the Church is safe, and it helps to ripen her for the fulness of the glory of her heavenly inheritance.
1. Charles D. Alexander. Revelation Spiritually Understood Part 10.
2. William Milligan. The Book of Revelation. Fourth Edition. Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1889. pp. 148-156.
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