Prophetic nightmares and Revelation 9
In his article Revelation 9: Imagine Your Worst Nightmare, John Mark Hicks presents his views on the two woes described in Revelation 9. The first woe, he thinks, arises from nature. The second is from humanity.
Hicks rejects the idea that the star who possessed the key of the Abyss who fell from heaven, is Satan. He says, “Some identify this star with Satan who fell from heaven. The problem, however, is that what is released from the Abyss opposes the reign of Satan in the world. The locusts attack the inhabitants of the earth who serve Satan’s beasts. It seems better to think of this ‘star’ as an angelic messenger who does God’s work by releasing the locusts. God will use evil (demonic?) to afflict evil (empire).”
Hicks implies that the first woe depicts events that occurred during the decline of the Roman empire. But it is unclear whether that is what Hicks believes, as elsewhere, he refers to some of the activities of the locusts as yet future. For example he wrote:
The scorpion-tailed locusts were given power (divine permission) to torture rather than kill the inhabitants of the earth … The earth itself, devastated in the first four trumpets, is unharmed by the locusts. This reversal of expectation (we expect locusts to harm the grass, plants and trees) emphasizes the human devastation that the locusts will inflict. They will increase the pain of life for humanity. The inhabitants of the earth will prefer death over life because of their sting. Life will become unbearable. The plague of locusts, of course, reminds of the similar plague upon Egypt though apocalyptic language is not used in Exodus as it is here (Joel 2 also serves as a backdrop).
On the one hand Hicks describes the locusts as though they are real creatures.
The detailed description of the locusts is the most thorough in the Apocalypse. They are large horse-like creatures with human heads but lion-like teeth. The are armoured and their wings sound like a chariot assault. Their weapon is their sting which does not kill but inflicts unimaginable pain. But it only lasts five months-a limited amount of time and probably defined by the natural life cycle of locusts.
On the other hand Hicks appears to discount their reality and says the first woe represents “a series (five months) of terrifying experiences,” which he says are “undefined,” but will seem like a “nightmare” to those who experience it.
These are not modern attack helicopters but an apocalyptic image for a series (five months) of terrifying experiences. The nature of the experience is undefined. It does not have to be defined-it is a nightmare. It is life in a collapsing empire where the security and prosperity of the empire is disappearing. Whatever forces engender that collapse seem like a plague of locusts. It is a picture of destruction.
The prophecy describes a star that falls from heaven, who holds the key to the bottomless pit. The bottomless pit is where Satan was bound in Rev. 20:2. When it was opened, smoke came forth, like the smoke of a furnace, and the sun was obscured because of the smoke. This smoke probably represents superstition, and false teaching, which obscures the gospel. The sun represents the gospel. Pagan superstitions about death, and Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul, were introduced into the church in the early centuries AD, and merged with the teaching of the Apostles, by church fathers such as Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD), and later, the idea of infernal torment of unbelievers was introduced, notably by Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD). The sun, representing the gospel, is darkened by the teachings about the soul imported from Greek philosophy. The sun clothes the woman in heaven, who represents the church. [Rev. 12:1] Jesus spoke of the righteous who “shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father,” when the tares are removed. [Matt. 13:43]
The figure of a plague of locusts has its roots in the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, who refused to trust God when the opportunity came for them to enter the promised land, as they were encouraged to do by Joshua and Caleb. Instead they believed the evil report of the other ten spies who Moses had send to explore the promised land. They said the people dwelling in the land were giants, and they viewed themselves as grasshoppers. People who lack faith, may therefore be represented by locusts. In Joel 2, the members of the army of locusts appear like horses, and horsemen. Horses in Scripture may represent those who lack understanding. “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.” [Psa. 32:9]
The locusts who emerge from the smoke in the first woe represent people who spread a flawed doctrine about the fate of unbelievers, those who do not have the seal of God in their foreheads. “And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.” [Rev. 9:4] The doctrine of the locusts says that those who do not adopt their preferred religious beliefs must suffer unending infernal torment! “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them,” [Rev. 9:6] The prophecy of the first woe, I think, alludes to those who preach the doctrine of infernal torment of unbelievers, according to which the souls of men are immortal, so are unable to die.
Five months, or 150 days, was the duration of the flood waters that covered the earth, and destroyed all those not saved in the ark of Noah, which is a type of the judgment of God that all must face. In the prophecy of the first woe, only unbelievers are affected by the torment of the locusts.
Faces of men, and hair as the hair of women, depicts people who dishonour Christ. Paul wrote: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” [1 Cor. 11:14] Paul said the head of every man is Christ; and a man praying or prophesying with long hair dishonours Christ. [1 Cor. 11:3-4]
Lion’s teeth [vs. 8] depict a fierce attitude towards others, and towards unbelievers. [2 Tim. 3:1-3]
Breastplates are associated with the righteousness that belongs to the saints. [Eph. 6:14] The breastplates of iron worn by the locusts are a powerful reason for rejecting the claim by some that they represent demons; instead they show that the locusts must represent mortal humans. Why would demons need breastplates? The locusts’ breastplates of iron defend them from truth, and from reason. Cruel hearts are hard to reach.
“And the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.” The wings of the locusts may represent their interpretations of prophecy. Horses and chariots rushing to battle would make a loud, clattering sound, as chariot wheels rolled over stony ground. Their controversies generate lots of noise!
“On their heads were as it were crowns like gold.” Their crowns like gold may represent halos, shining circles above the heads of saints in religious paintings.
“And they had tails like unto scorpions.” [vs. 10] Isaiah said, “The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.” [Isa. 9:15] The doctrine of the unending infernal torment of unbelievers distorts the gospel of Christ, but centuries of tradition and superstition have established this idea as if it were biblical truth in the minds of many. Tails like the tails of scorpions suggest they spread a false doctrine about future punishment, since scorpions are mentioned in connection with chastisement and punishment in Scripture. Solomon’s son Rehoboam foolishly answered the people of Israel: “My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” [1 Kings 12:11] Of course, they rebelled.
On the second woe, Hicks wrote:
This trumpet announces the massing of a huge army on the borders of the empire. This is a nightmare that every nation fears, especially when the assembled warriors more than tripled the population of the Empire itself. While the Roman Empire may have been between 50-60 million, the army gathered at the Euphrates is 220 million. A 220 million man army on the frontier of the Empire dwarfs the size of the Roman legionaries (possibly around 150,000).
In Rev. 9:16 John says, “and the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.”
This army gathers at the command of God. The voice “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” has divine sanction if it is not God’s own voice. This voice gives the order to release the four angels who manage the grand army of the Euphrates. That the angels were “bound” may indicate that they are demonic, but this may only refer to how they had been previously limited in their use of the army. They had waited and prepared for this moment. It is an angelic action at the command of God. The army moves against the empire; it moves against the powers or the forces of Satan and evil.
It is actually a mounted calvary-220 million strong. But it is not ordinary cavalry. The horse’s heads were like lions’ heads, their tails like the heads of snakes, and they breathed smoke, fire and sulfur. Their breath alone killed one-third of humanity.
For readers within the Roman empire the image of a mounted cavalry at the Euphrates conjures up the terror of a Parthian army which was Rome’s greatest enemy. Rome never defeated the Parthians except to a stalemate on their eastern border. Parthia was an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to what is now eastern Iran. The threat of an invading army from a competing empire has always generated fear whether it is the Mongols in Russia, or the Turks in Europe, or Cold War fears not many years ago. The threat is a constant one in human history.
The apocalyptic image, which includes an exaggerated armed mass of humanity, represents the fear of invasion and massive violence. The voice from the altar assures the seven churches of Asia that the Roman legions are not the real power in the world, and that same voice assures us that no earthly power-no empire-controls their own destiny. God holds the cards and when God plays out the hand, no empire can stand.
IMO, the second woe probably has nothing to do with the threat of a Parthian invasion. Nothing in history supports it. In prophecy, horses represent people who lack understanding; lions’ heads signify they are dominated by carnal human nature. Their breastplates of fire, hyacinth and sulphur are evidence that they are mortal; demons would have no need for breastplates.
Tails that are serpents connect the horses with false teachers. Fire, smoke, and brimstone from their mouths has a similar significance. The number 200 million may well represent the number of professing Christians at the end of the age, scattered among tens of thousands of sects, denominations, and ministries. It seems to allude to Psalm 68:17: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place.”