I. T. Beckwith on the Second Woe
The following is a commentary on Revelation 9:13-21 by Isbon Thaddeus Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John [Macmillan Co., New York. 1919. pp. 564-570.]
Sixth trumpet-vision; the plague of fiendish horses, 9:13-21. See pp. 549, 271.
In the plague of the sixth trumpet-vision, the second woe, the Apocalyptist as before takes a suggestion from familiar eschatology. The irruption of a mighty army riding upon horses forms one of the striking predictions of Ezekiel’s prophecy (38:14ff.), and from his time on an invasion of a fierce host becomes a standing event in visions of the Last Days; e.g. Is. 52:26 ff., Jer. 1:14ff., 6:22f., Joel 3:9f., Zec. 14:2, 2 Es. 13:34, En. 90:16, Sib. Or. III. 663. But the horse appears as an essential figure in the late Jewish pictures of an invading host; e.g. Is. 5:28, Jer. 4:13, 47:3, 50:42, Ezk. 26:7, 10, Hab. 1:8, Ass. Mos. 3:1. These representations, then, furnish what may be regarded as the origin of the Apocalyptist’s vision in this passage. In so far as these invasions described in earlier apocalyptists relate to the events of the end, the plague is commonly thought of as sent upon God’s people and not as here upon their enemies. But that is the case also with the plague of the locusts. It is only the general form of eschatological calamity that furnishes the Apocalyptist with his type. The application of the figure, as often with him, is quite different from its primary use. He finds in the familiar eschatological imagery of the irruption of a fierce cavalry host an example of a calamity set for the last time, and he takes the most conspicuous figure, the horse, and transforms it into a fiendish monster, as he had done with the locusts. The fabulous form and activity which he gives to these instruments of God’s anger are doubtlesss the product of his own fancy, or perhaps may in part be suggested by some figure preserved in popular mythology.
The fear prevailing in the first century B.C. and later of an invasion of the Roman empire by the Parthian hordes from beyond the Euphrates caused apocalyptists of this period to associate the eschatological invaders with these; they placed the home of the armies of the Last Days in the East, as in an earlier time it had been placed in the north (Jer. 6:22, Ezk. 38:15); cf. En. 56:5f. ‘In those days the angels shall return and hurl themselves to the east upon the Parthians and Medes; they shall stir up the kings . . . and they [the kings] shall go up and tread under foot the land of His elect ones.’ It is probably this association of these eschatological hosts with the Parthians of the East that furnishes to our Apocalyptist the subordinate feature of his vision, the location of the troop of horses on the banks of the Euphrates, v. 14. To find in vv. 13-19, as many scholars do, a fantastic description of a Parthian invasion, actual or feared, is to exaggerate the relation of the imagery of the Apocalypse to contemporary history. If that were intended, the horsemen would form the principal figures; but they are barely mentioned, no activity in the infliction of the plague is attributed to them, and there is no allusion to the characteristics of the Parthians. The fabulous horses with their marvelous powers (vv. 17-19) are alone the agents of the plague. The location of the host at the Euphrates is the only feature distinctly traceable to the popular dread of the Parthians. (Cf. Gunkel 216 f.)
13. φωνὴν … τοῦ θεοῦ, a voice from the horns of the golden altar which is before God: the altar here designated as the altar of incense (see on 8:3) is that especially associated with the prayers of all the saints in the introduction to the trumpet-visions (8:3-5). Thus the command which comes forth from its horns, i.e. its corners, is represented as in answer to those cries for judgment; cf. 6:9, 8:3, 14:18, 16:7. The connection between the command given and the prayers is made more vivid by the poetic personification of the altar, which as in 16:7 utters its voice; the latter passage shows that the voice is not that of God, God is addressed there. The command is of course understood as in accord with God’s will. — μίαν; indef. art.; see on 8:13.
14. Only in this vision does the angel-trumpeter become an actor in the event to follow. In the first woe an angel-star is made the immediate agent (v. 2); here in keeping with the paramount significance of the vision (see p. 271) the office is performed by one of the seven archangels. — λέγοντα: instead of λέγονσαν, construct, ad. sens. — ὁ ἔχων: for the nom. see p. 224. — τοὺς τέσσαρας ἀγγέλους, the four angels: these angels are evidently the leaders of the invading host of horses, though not distinctly so designated; this is implied in their being loosed, and especially in the fact that the purpose for which they are said to be loosed, the destruction of a third part of men (v. 15), is executed by the host (v. 18), i. e., they are identified with the host which they marshal. The monsters of this woe then, like those of the first (v. 11), are under supernatural leadership. — – δεδεμένους, bound: as ministers of God’s purpose they are kept bound till the divinely appointed time for their work has come; cf. what is said of the winds in 7:1-3. — ποταμῷ τῷ μεγάλῳ, the great river: a standing epithet of the Euphrates, cf. Gen. 15:18, Dt. 1:7, Jos. 1:4, Rev. 16:12. — Εὐφράτῃ, Euphrates: cf. 16:12. The Euphrates, the great river of Assyria and Babylonia, the chief enemies of Israel, is in the prophets put by metonymy for these countries to designate the place whence punishment would be sent by God; cf. Is. 7:20, 8:7, Jer. 46:10. It also formed the Roman empire’s eastern boundary, from beyond which the dreaded Parthians would come. Hence it came to figure in eschatological imagery.
The four angels at the Euphrates. It is clear that the author does not identify these angels with those of 7:1; their place, condition, and function are different. The article however marks them as familiar figures. A difficulty arises also from the number four; it has no significance so far as is indicated in the account of the host of horses; it would be appropriate to a host moving out into the four quarters of the earth, rather than to one coming in one direction, i.e. into the western world from the East; for this latter a single leader would be expected, as in the case of the locusts (v. 11). It seems probable that the writer has taken this feature of four angels from a familiar apocalyptic tradition in which four destructive powers, i.e. angels, winds, or the like, come forth from, or go forth into, the four quarters of the earth. The influence of other forms of the tradition appears in 7:1ff. and elsewhere, e.g. Zec. 6:1-8, Dan. 7:2, Ap. Bar. 6:4. But the prevalent expectation of an irruption of the Parthian hordes in the period to which our book belongs might easily lead an apocalyptist to identify these destructive angels or powers with the leaders of the Parthians, and so to place them not at the four corners of the earth, but at the Euphrates (see above). This identification was probably not original with our author, since the angels of punishment are found associated with the Parthians in En. 56:5 (quoted on v. 12). Iselin in Theol. Zeitschr. aus d. Schweitz 1887, I. 64 cites from a Syriac Apoc. of Ezra (published by Baethgen) the following passage parallel to ours; ‘A voice was heard. Let the four kings be loosed who are bound by the great river Euphrates, who shall destroy a third part of men. And they were loosed and there was a great uproar.’ But this cannot be taken as a source wholly independent of our Apocalypse; see Spitta, 97ff.
15. οἱ ἡτοιμασμένοι εἰς τὴν ὥραν, those who had been made ready for the hour., etc.; the precision with which the very moment has been fixed is emphasized by the series of time designations. It was a cardinal doctrine with apocalyptic writers, that God has fixed the precise time of every event; cf. En. 92:2 ‘The Holy and Great One has appointed days for all things.’ See Volz 165. — τὴν: the art. is not repeated, since the nouns form a single compound phrase; cf. 5:12. — ἵνα ἀποκτείνωσιν; see on 8:6. — τὸ τρίτον, the third part; the part to be affected by this visitation, as with the first four trumpet- visions, is a third, i.e. a large, but not the greater part; see p. 251.
16. The angel-leaders drop out of sight, because it is the horses that constitute the real plague. — τοῦ ἱππικοῦ, the cavalry; τοῦ ἱππικοῦ is a substantive denoting a cavalry force; here the writer has in mind the horses rather than the horsemen; the latter, so far as mentioned, take no part in what follows. — ἤκουσα, I heard: see on 7:4.
17-18. The Seer passes to a description of the monsters and their equipment for their deadly work; cf. vv. 7 ff. in the structure of the vision of the locusts. — ἐν τῇ ὁράσει, in the vision; a superfluous addition to εἶδον, I saw, not occurring elsewhere in the book, but frequent in Dan. e.g. 7:2, 8:2. — ἔχοντας θώρακας, having breastplates; the words refer, not to the horsemen only but to the horses also; cf. the description of the locusts in v. 9; the words οὕτως εἶδον τοὺς ἵππους, thus I saw the horses, point to some added words descriptive of the horses as well as the horsemen. It is noticeable that the horsemen wear defensive armor only, in keeping with their subordinate role. The colors of their breastplates are made to correspond with the fire, smoke, and brimstone breathed forth by the horses. The correspondence in the two series shows that the dark blue of the hyacinth is meant to be parallel with the bluish color of smoke. — ὡς κεφαλαὶ λεόντων, as the heads of lions; a part of the terror-inspiring appearance of the monsters. — ἐκ τῶν στομάτων αὐτῶν ἐκπορεύεται πῦρ καὶ καπνὸς καὶ θεῖον, out of their mouths proceedeth fire, etc.; cf. Job 41:19ff. Fire-breathing monsters are common figures in mythology. The fire and brimstone here mark the hellish nature of the horses; cf. 14:10, 19:20, 21:8, En. 67:6.
19. ἡ γὰρ ἐξουσία, for their power, etc.; these words explain why the whole service assigned the horses, viz. the slaughter of a third part of men (v. 15), is performed by what proceeds from their mouths; it is because γὰρ their power to kill resides wholly in their mouths. — καὶ ἐν ταῖς οὐραῖς αὐτῶν, and in their tails: in these words closely joined with the preceding, as if a part of the explanation of the slaughter, the writer really passes to a new feature in the plague of the horses, one of which there has thus far been no mention. The mention of the power to kill residing in the mouth of the horses carries the writer’s thought on to the other power, viz. to torture, which resides in the tail, and he blends the two in the common reference to the ἐξουσία, the power of the horses. We should expect a distinct sentence for the second thought. Since the whole number to be slain, a third part of mankind (v. 15), is said to have been slain by the mouth of the monsters (v. 18), it is plain that the serpent-like tails do not kill; their injury ἀδικοῦσιν, cf. ἀδικῆσαι v. 10) is the torture of the serpent’s sting. The monsters of the first woe torture only (v. 6); those of the second both torture and kill; but slaughter is the chief purpose for which they are sent (v. 15); hence it holds the first place in the description of the woe. — ἔχουσαι κεφαλὰς, having heads: the tail ends in a serpent’s head with its sting.
The feature of the serpent-like tails given to the horses has been referred to various origins. It is taken to be an allusion to the Parthian custom of binding the hair of the horse’s tail in a way which gave it a snake-like appearance (Spitta 340), or it is suggested by the giants in the relief of the great altar at Pergamum (see on 2:13), which have legs in the form of serpents (Holtzm. al), or by an enemy skilled in shooting their arrows behind them in flight (Bengel, al), or by the so-called Amphisbaena, which with a serpent’s head at each end moved in either direction (Ewald, al). For other such explanations, equally far-fetched and inapplicable, see Düst. Alford, Speaker’s Com. The monster is purely a fabulous creature, either of the Apocalyptist’s fancy, or more probably taken from some mythological figure. A close parallel is found in the Chimaera, widely represented on vases, coins, etc., a fire-spouting monster, in which the fore part was a lion and the hinder part a serpent; see Preller, Griech. Mythol. II. 82 ff.
20-21. Notwithstanding the warning given in the plague, those who are not slain repent neither of their idolatry (v. 20) nor of their immorality (v. 21). In our book, as in all apocalyptic writings, the punitive purpose of the visitations is paramount, yet in some cases, as here, there is also implied a purpose to warn and lead to repentance; see pp. 551:, 812. — οἱ λοιποὶ, the rest: all the survivors are unrepentant, as were also those who perished; the plague, then, like that of the locusts, was sent only upon the unbelieving world, and v. 20 shows that the idolatrous world is meant. The Apocalyptist has in mind the Gentile world as a whole; the Jews scattered among the Gentiles are absent from his thought here. The problem of Israel’s attitude toward the gospel he meets elsewhere; see on 3:9 and 11:1-13. — ταῖς πληγαῖς ταύταις, these plagues: a repetition of the words of v. 18; the plagues of fire, smoke, and brimstone are meant. — If οὐδὲ be read before μετενόησαν (first case), the meaning may perhaps be that the supernatural warning did not even lead men to renounce their false gods, though these were but the creation of their own hands, and unreasonable objects of worship, οὔτε adopted by some, has no proper correlative. Probably the reading οὐ is to be adopted. — μετενόησαν ἐκ: the thought of turning away from is implied; cf. 2:21, 16:11. — τῶν ἔργων τῶν χειρῶν αὐτῶν, the works of their hands, etc.; the nature and folly of idolatry are set forth in the stereotyped terms of Jewish writers; cf. Dt. 4:28, Ps. 115:4ff., 135:15ff., Dan. 5:23, En. 99:6f., Sib. Or. V. 80ff. — ἵνα προσκυνήσωσιν: equivalent to infin. of result; see on 8:12. — δαιμόνια, demons: that heathen divinities were demons was a common Jewish and Christian thought; cf. Ps. 106:37, Bar. 4:7, 1 Co. 10:20. — In verse 21 the writer gives a summary statement of the heathen immorality generally associated with idolatry, taking the three fundamental vices named in the decalogue, murder, unchastity, and theft. The insertion of sorcery here in the same list with the vices named is explained by its wide prevalence with its trickery and allurement to all kinds of evil. It is frequently mentioned in conjunction with vice; cf. 21:8, 22:15, Gal. 5:20, Nah. 3:4 Mal. 3:5.