Home > Book of Revelation, Second woe, The Gospel > Interpretation of the second woe

Interpretation of the second woe

July 25, 2013

The traditional interpretation of the second woe of Revelation 9 is that the horses in the prophecy are symbolic, and represent false teachers, and apostasy, which, it was believed, would become worse at the time of the end. The views of some of the early scholars of the church who studied the Apocalypse are considered in this post. Quotations and author information are adapted from Augustus Clissold, The spiritual exposition of the Apocalypse, Volume 2, 1851.

According to Pope Gregory the Great, (d. 604) the horses of the second woe signify “iniquitous preachers, running about with their mouths opened by the impulse of carnal motives.”

Venerable Bede (c. 673 – 735) was born near Weremouth, in the bishopric of Durham. He “interprets the fire and smoke and sulphur proceeding out of the mouth as signifying noxious preaching. The prophet who teacheth a lie, he is the tail. ‘Tails like unto serpents,’ he therefore considers to signify false teachers.”

Ambrose Ansbert (d. 778) was presbyter in France in the reign of the Emperor Arnold, and Monk of the order of St. Benedict. He believed he was instructed by Christ to understand the obscure mysteries of the Apocalypse.

Clissold wrote:

Ambrose Ansbert conceives that by horses are meant the preachers of error; by the heads of the horses, the authors of these errors; by their having heads like lions, their being strong to tear in pieces the feeble; by the fire, smoke, and sulphur proceeding out of their mouth, their preaching perverse dogmas, and power of persuasion; by the tail, the prophet who teaches a lie.

Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury was born at Aoste in Piedmont, 1034. He was made Archbishop by William II, a.d. 1093. His work on the Apocalypse is entitled, Enarrationes in Apocalypsin; though it is attributed by some to Anselm of Laudun.

Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, Apocalypse, p. 487;

“And they who sat upon them had breastplates of fire, and hyacinth, and sulphur;’ that is, they fortified themselves by their opinions, from which followed their eternal punishment. . . .’From their mouth;’ that is, their preaching; because that is the cause of their punishment.”

Clissold wrote:

Anselm proceeds to interpret fire to signify the heat of cupidity, smoke the ignorance arising from pride, and sulphur the stench of evil works; the power in the mouth as signifying evil preaching, and the tail occult deceptions. In the application of these interpretations he exhibits however some slight variations from other authors.

Richard of St. Victor was a Regular Canon of St. Victor, Paris, and intimate friend of St. Bernard. Author of various works on the Scriptures. Died, 1130.

Richard of St. Victor, Apocalypse, p. 246; –

“These demons had ‘breastplates,’ by reason of their complicated subtlety; ‘fiery,’ through burning ill will; ‘sulphureous,’ through the fœtor of their infamy; ‘of hyacinth,’ through the shew and simulation of heavenly righteousness. The hyacinth, having a likeness in color to heaven, signifies the heavenly life. An angel of Satan sometimes transforms himself into an angel of light, and under the shew of virtue palliates vice; and whom he cannot deceive by force he deceives by hypocrisy. . . ‘From their mouth proceeds fire,’ from the malignity of wicked suggestion; and smoke from the darkness of their blindness, and sulphur from the foetor of their viciousness and wicked opinion. . . . ‘By these three plagues are slain the third part of men’ i. e., the whole body of those who are to be damned, viz., by the fire of evil suggestion, and the smoke of blindness, and the sulphur of corrupting viciousness and stinking thoughts: which proceeded from their mouth, because evil communications corrupt good manners. But inasmuch as the wicked endeavor to hurt the good not only by open suggestion but by secret fraud, it rightly follows that the power of the horses is in their mouth and in their tails. For the mouth signifies open suggestion; the tail, occult fraud; and the wicked, when they cannot hurt with their mouth, hurt with their tail; because they endeavor to accomplish in secret what they cannot do openly.”

Hyponoia, Apocalypse, p. 143; –

“‘The horses in vision and them that sat upon them,’ These were war-horses and their riders warriors, representing doctrinal powers, engaging in what we may call a contest of principles.”

Nicolas De Lyra was a native of Lire, a village of Normandy. He was a converted Jew of the order of the Franciscans. Flourished toward the beginning of the fourteenth century. His Postills on the Scriptures were said to be much esteemed by Luther.

De Lyra, Apocalypse, chap. ix.; –

“‘They had breastplates’ As in the case of good men, their breastplate is called righteousness, Eph. vi., ‘Put on the breastplate of righteousness;’ so, in the opposite sense, unrighteousness is here said to be the breastplate of the wicked. ‘Of fire,’ through the fervid appetite of doing injury. ‘Of a hyacinthine,’ i. e., a celestial color in which is designated their apparent zeal of faith. For heretics, asserting that they are but establishing the truth of faith, raise up a persecution against true catholics. ‘From their mouth proceedeth fire,’ – dissension among men. Moraliter; their power is in their mouths, being advocates of evil doctrine, detractors of others, adudators, and unjustly sustaining these evil practices by their words.”

Rupertus, abbot of the monastery of St. Heribert, Duyz, near Cologne; of the order of St. Benedict. A learned and celebrated commentator, who wrote upon various books of Scripture, and among these the Apocalypse. He flourished in the time of Pope Paschal the Second, A.D. 1116.

Rupertus, Apocalypse, p. 423;–

“What are we to understand by fire, but cupidity? What by the hyacinthine color which resembles the appearance of heaven, but pride? What by foetid sulphur, but lust, especially that which is contrary to nature?”

Blasius Viegas (d. 1599) of Lusitania, Spain was a Jesuit and the author of Commentaries on the Apocalypse and other books of Scripture. Clissold stated: “Viegas interprets the breastplates of hyacinth to signify the simulation of the zeal of faith and religion, of the love of celestial things, and the true worship of God.”

Louis de Alcasar (1554-1613) was born at Seville, Spain. He was a Jesuit teacher of philosophy and afterwards of divinity at Cordova and at Seville for twenty years. On the fire from the mouths of the horses in the second woe, Alcasar said: “The fire signifies the excandescence of anger and of angry persons; the smoke, the darkness of a disordered reason; the sulphur signifies rage.” Clissold stated, “Alcasar thinks that by the four angels bound at the river Euphrates, and here actuating men, are signified self-love, the love of the good opinion of the world, the love of riches, and private judgment, by which he seems to mean rather self-intelligence.”

Cornelius A Lapide was Professor of Theology in the Academy of Louvain, and a Jesuit. His most celebrated Commentaries on Scripture were published in successive volumes about the beginning of the seventeenth century. Cornelius a Lapide, Apocalypse, p. 176; –

“They are said to be ten thousand times ten thousand; because the army of angers, tumults, and furies, when it arises from the inordinate affections of the mind, is innumerable. Whence from these there arise innumerable quarrels, wranglings, and discords. Let angry persons take note of this; for while they resist not their wrath, but indulge it, what else do they but raise up and set in combat against themselves and their own peace and conscience, infinite cohorts of internal and raging enemies. . . . .”

Clissold wrote:

“A Lapide says, p. 179, that the breastplates were of a hyacinthine, i. e., a celestial color, in order that the combatants might seem to be sent by God from heaven. And Ribera, p. 148, says, it was that men might understand enemies of this kind to be insuperable and sent by God; by which means the wicked might be involved in punishment.”

Hieronymus Lauretus was a native of Cervaria, a town on the confines of France and Spain. He was a Benedictine monk of the monastery at Montserrat, and abbot of the monastery of St. Felix Guicciolensis. Author of the work, entitled Sylva Sylvarum totius Scripturæ, being a dictionary of the allegorical senses of words, compiled from out of the writings of the Fathers.

Lauretus, art. Sulphur;

“Sulphur is a substance concocted by the burning of fire in the veins of the earth, the fume of which is of a fetid and pungent odor; nor is there anything that more easily takes fire; whence it appears to possess a highly igneous principle (Pliny).

Clissold wrote:

“‘The brimstone going out of the mouth of the horses, signifies the blasphemies of heretics, and of the persecutors of the church.”

Now the infernal origin of these doctrines is to be found in the lusts, concupiscences, or cupidities of the natural man. Accordingly Rupertus every where interprets brimstone to signify cupidity: Ribera, to signify lust.

And in like manner on Job xviii., 15, “Brimstone shall be scattered upon his habitation,” Gregory observes, the foetor of kindled lust (Brixianus Dic, art. Sulphur).

Wodehouse also observes, p. 272, of the smoke, fire, and brimstone, that, –

“These, issuing from the mouths of the invaders of the church, must, if interpreted consistently, be stated to represent corrupt, infernal, destructive doctrines.” (See also Horne’s Index to the Symbolical Language of the Scriptures.)

Again, p. 261, in a note, that, –

“By smoke are denoted dark confused doctrines, clouding the light of pure revelation, and brimstone in union with these implies their infernal origin.”

The heads on the tails signifies, says Durham, ‘the gross abominableness and absurdity of the doctrine,’ p. 298.

John Hooper, Rector of Albury wrote:

“Let us next consider the description which is given of the army mentioned under this trumpet. St. John says; ‘And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions: and out of their mouths issued fire, and smoke, and brimstone.’ These emblems clearly represent Satan assuming the appearance of heavenly things. The mimicry of love is discernible in the ‘breastplate of fire, and ‘jacinth’ being of a purple color and one of the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, shews that Satan will put forth the light of hell in the semblance of heavenly truth, so as to deceive if possible the very elect; the ‘brimstone’ discovers to us the spiritual apostacy by those who are led away by Satan, being given up by God to believe a lie, because they abode not in the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness. Their being on ‘horses’ shews that it is a fleshly host; and their horses having ‘mouths like lions,’ that they assume apostolic authority and power; ‘fire, smoke, and brimstone issuing from their mouths’ are expressive of false love, heresies, and spiritual wickedness. ‘By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone.’ It is added, ‘For their power is in their mouth and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents and had heads, and with them they do hurt.’ It is said by Isaiah, ‘The prophet that teacheth lies he is the tail,’ and their tails being like unto serpents represent the false prophets which shall be among the people, filled with all subtilty,” &c.

Hooper interpreted the horses of the second woe as representing apostate Christians led by infidels. He spoke of men who become “ecclesiastically dead.” In The Revelation of Jesus Christ Explained Agreeably to the Analogy of Holy Scripture and the Interpretation of Its Symbols [Joseph Masters, 1850] he wrote:

Instead, however, of looking to the literal Euphrates, from whence these Turkish hordes are said to be loosed, we prefer the more consistent course of making the whole vision symbolic, and of looking to the mystical Euphrates as the source from whence the instruments of this war have their rise. And in so doing, we believe the symbolism will apply to the present condition of Christendom, especially to the western part, moved, and led on, as it is, by infidel men. In this point of view, “horsemen” represent those who lead on a host. Thus it is written of Pharaoh, “The horse and his rider are cast into the sea;” the horse itself being a representative, as it were, of the host which is led; and the rider, of the leader of the host. The leaders of this host are said to have “breastplates of fire, and of jacinth and brimstone;” or rather, as the words denote, not the substances themselves, but like Fire” is the symbol, properly, of love—of the love of God shed in the heart by the Holy Ghost; and hence the Holy Ghost is frequently represented by fire, because the Holy Ghost is God; and being partakers of the Holy Ghost, God dwelleth in us. When the Holy Ghost was given on the day of Pentecost, cloven tongues like as of fire rested upon the disciples. “God is love.” “Our God is a consuming fire.” “The name of our God is jealous,” which belongs abstractly to love. Hence love and jealousy are used conjointly in the Canticles, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which have a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” This is its meaning in a good sense, but as all symbols have an application both to good and evil, or rather, as the abstract quality is moved and filled by good or evil, so here, it has only the semblance of good, and intimates that the men who ought to have on them the breastplate of righteousness, are wearing only as their defence an appearance of love. The “jacinth” is a mixture of blue and red; which combination of colours would seem to indicate a spiritual zeal for what they deem truth. “Brimstone” is the symbol of spiritual death; its vapour always destroys life under every form. These three symbols put together, will bring out, in an ecclesiastical point of view, what chartists and democrats are clamouring for in the state, and will produce in the Church the last universal earthquake, under the three forms of fraternity, liberty, and equality, which evil principles will alike destroy the constitution of kingdoms, and all Church establishments. They say, “We can love as brethren, without a Church establishment. We can be spiritually minded, and have zeal for truth, without Church ordinances. We are by nature equal, and as Christians we are all equal, are all partakers of one Spirit, and have equal rights one with another, and therefore we need no rulers or any Church establishment.” These fearful perversions of truth produce, what we may term, ecclesiastical death. Church establishments cannot exist any more than civil governments, if men maintain that all are equal, and all have an equal right, instead of recognizing the principle of God’s government over them, and that He calleth and ordaineth some to holy office in the Church, which none others can fulfil. But although such is the cry, and defensive armour of the leaders of this host against the righteous ways of the Lord, they are themselves the most tyrannical of men, and are well represented as having the “lion’s head,” for they deliver forth their dogmas with the same authority as though they were sent of God as Apostles to the Church, and assume an equal right to guide and control men. They are also false teachers, having a serpentine subtility, or semblance of truth in them; and these serpent tails having “heads,” shows that they are heads to themselves, and acknowledge by their principles no headship over them. “Out of their mouth also issued fire, and smoke, and brimstone;” that is to say, their zeal bears the semblance of love, (symbolized by the fire,) but their doctrines are those of darkness and not of light, being heretical and damnable, (represented by the smoke,) and they produce spiritual death (described as brimstone.) In short, these symbolic horsemen are Apostles of Satan, sent forth by him for the destruction of that outward fabric of Christian polity and government, which up to the present time, under one form or another, has ever been held sacred.

“By these were the third part of men killed.” This symbolism in the trumpet phase, relates to that class of persons who are the heads of the ecclesiastical body: for as the democrats aim at the destruction of all the upper classes of society who bear rule in the government of the world, so these spiritual leaders, or apostles of Satan, aim at the subversion and destruction of all rule in the exercise of the pastoral ministry in its three offices of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. And the Pastors of the churches throughout Christendom, losing the power of rule, (even as the kings of the earth lose theirs) become ecclesiastically dead.

“And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues, yet repented not of the works of their hands that they should not worship devils, and idols, and gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and wood, which neither can see nor hear, nor walk; neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.” “Evil men and seducers, (it is said) shall wax worse and worse,” and S. Peter declares of such “they shall utterly perish in their own corruption.” So devil-worship will be the last form of iniquity into which men will fall! As it was the last temptation which Satan presented to our Lord, so it is the last which he will present to the Church; and those who abide not stedfast in the faith, taking shelter and protection under God’s ordinances, will be led captive by him, and worship him as their God. And the personal AntiChrist who will arise out of apostate Christendom to rule over men, being energized and indwelt of Satan, will direct all men to worship him; sitting as he will, “in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” Those who repent not of their works go on into deeper depths of iniquity, robbing God of His dues both ecclesiastical and spiritual; and destroying all discipline and authority in the Church of Christ on earth. This work of destruction, in ecclesiastical things, together with the idolatry they commit, their worship of the work of their own hands, their forms of service and doctrines, their boast of natural talents and endowments, together with their unlawful intercourse with the world, or spiritual fornication, uniting ecclesiastical with worldly things, conspire at this period to bring about the consummation of the mystery of iniquity. As the former woe arose from separating the spiritual from the outward ordinances of the Church, so this second woe as a natural consequence leads to the destruction of all outward or ecclesiastical form whatever.