Home > Book of Revelation, Interpretation, Second woe, The Gospel > J. A. Smith and the second woe

J. A. Smith and the second woe

August 23, 2013

Justin Almerin Smith (1819-1896) discussed the second woe of Revelation chapter 9 in his Commentary on the Revelation. [American Baptist Publication Society. Philadelphia, Pa. 1884. pp. 131-139.]

Smith attempted to apply the prophecy to historical events. He believed the prophecy foretold the centuries of warfare between Mohammedanism and Christianity.

Smith suggested that the imagery of the prophecy of the second woe depicts the fierce spirit of men involved in those historical conflicts.

The picture becomes infernal in aspect as we study it. Out of the horses’ mouths sulphurous flames pour, while their tails become serpents, armed with ferocious stings. The imagery suggests the idea of wars and battles waged in a spirit more fiendish than is even usually the case; in which this spirit shall be indicated in a manner express and terrible. … During the general period whose various aspects are brought to view under these four trumpets – the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth – especially the later portion of this period, exactly such a prevalence of destructive wars is upon record; wars, in many instances charged with a spirit not less ferocious than the imagery here imports.

The connection with the river Euphrates, and the prominence given to horses in the prophecy of the second woe naturally point the reader to an interpretation involving people of Mesopotamia, who ride upon horses. But that approach encounters difficulty, because it assumes that the Euphrates, and the horses are literal. John described several features of the horses that show that they are not literal or natural. They emit fire, smoke and brimstone from their mouths.

Smith said the fire, smoke and brimstone from the mouths of the horses are “indicative of the infernal nature of the spirit by which these wars shall be instigated.”

In Scripture, fire represents God’s word, and the gospel.

John the Baptist said Jesus will baptize people with the holy Spirit, and with fire: “John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire:” [Luke 3:16]

Jesus said, “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?” [Luke 12:49]

When the holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, it appeared as tongues of fire: “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” [Acts 2:3]

Jeremiah referred to the word of God as “like a fire.” He wrote: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? [Jer. 23:29]

Jeremiah wrote of his prophecies: “And the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them: thus shall it be done unto them. Wherefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” [Jer. 5:13-14]

The river Euphrates flowed through Babylon. Just as the holy city Jerusalem is depicted in Ezek. 47:1-12 and Zech. 14:6 as the source of a spiritual river, representing the spiritual waters of the gospel flowing from the Church, the heavenly Jerusalem, Euphrates represents the worldly religious teachings and flawed theological beliefs that have Mystery Babylon as their source. Babylon is the name of the woman described in Rev. 17:3-5, who represents worldly religion, and apostate Christianity.

The claim that the horses of the second woe are literal, while the heads of lions and serpent-tails are figurative, is inconsistent, and ad hoc. Obviously, if the heads of lions and serpent-tails are symbolic, the horses are symbolic too.

The psalmist said, “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] This suggests that horses in prophecy represent people with no understanding, who lack the seal of God’s holy Spirit.

This idea is further illustrated by Jeremiah, who wrote, “They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.” [Jer. 5:8]

Jeremiah compared those who refuse to repent to “horses rushing to battle.” He wrote, “I hearkened and heard, but they spake not aright: no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done? every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle.” [Jer. 8:6]

In the prophecy of the second woe John embellished the figure of horses, and described an army of 200 million horses and horsemen, the horses having heads of lions, and tails which were serpents. Fire, smoke, and brimstone or sulphur proceeded from out of their mouths, by which one third of men were killed.

Heads of lions on the horses represent people with natural carnal minds, and the image strengthens the metaphor of the horses as symbolic of people who lack understanding, who do not have the Spirit of God dwelling in them.

Smith wrote:

And the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions. Symbolical of the fierce and destructive nature of the wars in which these hosts are marching forth. And out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. All these features are intended to make the symbolical forms in the vision more accurately and vividly representative of that which the vision itself symbolizes. These armies are innumerable, signifying how general, as respects the inhabited world, this marshaling of armies will be, and what mighty hosts will come in collision on the various battle-fields. The very horses which the soldiers ride are ferocious in aspect; they have the heads of lions – fiercest of all beasts of prey – and out of their mouths go forth fire and smoke and brimstone, indicative of the infernal nature of the spirit by which these wars shall be instigated. It is as if, of that spirit, the very horses which bear the combatants, partake. The riders are in a like manner terrible in appearance. They wear flaming breastplates – the purple hue of smoke mingling with the fire, and a colour of brimstone, as if suggesting that the armour and the weapons of the fierce soldiery are furnished out of the pit itself.

The usual weapons of warfare are not mentioned in the prophecy; only breastplates are described, and they are composed of materials most unsuitable for literal body armour; fire, smoke, and sulphur. Spears, bows and arrows, and swords are absent from the prophecy. Instead, the horses kill by the things that come out of their mouths. This fits the idea that their doctrines and words kill in a spiritual sense. Their victims may include people who believe in Christ. Isaiah identified tails with prophets who teach lies. [Isa. 9:15] John strengthened Isaiah’s symbol by saying the tails of the horses were serpents. The fire, smoke and brimstone from their mouths are not literal, but depict beliefs, teachings, and interpretations of those who the horses represent.

Smith viewed the warfare depicted by the 6th trumpet as a punishment for the apostasy of Christians. He wrote:

This apostasy has been very strikingly set forth under the third, fourth, and fifth trumpets; the darkness descending on the earth from a firmament where the ordained lights had failed to shine, and ascending out of the pit in a deeper “blackness of darkness” still; the inroad of evil through the failure of that Christian instrumentality and influence by which it should have been stayed; and in general a condition of the Christian world not unlike that of the land of Israel in the times when “the Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold,” or when Babylon made of Judea and Jerusalem a threshing-floor. That such is the nature of the allusion seems clearly to be inferred from what appears, by verses 20. 21, of our chapter, to be the purpose of “the plagues” sent forth under this trumpet. “We are there told that “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 of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of 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.” This description applies alone to that period of the Christian Dispensation which we understand to be indicated by the third, fourth, and fifth trumpets, and to the condition of the Christian world as it was when the great apostasy was at its height. The papal religion was an idolatry, a worship of pictures and images, of saints (“demons” – departed spirits) and angels, above all in its form of Mariolatry – a perversion of the religious instinct in man, and of every revelation of himself which God had made, with a view to inspire and guide the love and the worship of his creatures, as flagrant and as ruinous to the souls of men, as any worst form of Paganism. The judgments under this sixth trumpet come as the punishment of that idolatry and of the crimes prevailing in connection with it. As God visited apostate Israel under the Old Dispensation, so now he visits apostate Israel under the New.

Smith claimed the second woe corresponds to the Mohammedan conquests, and the conflict between the Christians and the Saracens.

In the interpretation given to the vision under the sixth trumpet, a somewhat specific allusion will naturally be understood to be to the wars of Mohammed and his successors, and to the later contests of Christians and Saracens for the possession of the Holy Land. From about the middle of the seventh century, when Mohammed began the enterprise of spreading his religion throughout the world by the sword, until the middle of the thirteenth century, the date of the eighth and last crusade, there was a direct and more or less continuous struggle between the two great religions – Mohammedanism and Christianity. The early portion of this period was occupied in the almost incessant wars of invasion and conquest carried on by the Saracens, with the specific and sustained design of completely destroying Christianity. The period first named, besides, from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the thirteenth century, was that within which the apostate Christianity grew into the proportions of usurped power, both spiritual and temporal, and of corruption reaching to all that is most essential in the religion of Christ, in which it at last bestrode and overshadowed the whole Western world. The parallel which seems implied in the Apocalyptic prediction, is almost a perfect one, between the judgment of God visited upon Christendom as thus apostate in these Mohammedan wars, and that which came upon apostate Israel in the invasions of heathen nations from the East and North. In truth, the hosts of Arabian warriors, who, under the banner of Mohammed and his successors, in less than a single century subdued to the faith of Islam five great nations – Persia, Syria, Egypt, Northern Africa, and Spain – and which at one time seemed likely to overrun the whole of Southern Europe, viewed themselves as instruments of divine anger upon the idolaters of Christendom. To the first of those ferocious leaders, Chaled – who united with extraordinary military skill, a fanaticism and a singleness of purpose which never lost sight of the one idea – the title, “The Sword of God” was given, and this designation became so identified with the whole idea of Saracenic conquest, that until this day it continues to be used by writers in their allusion to the wars of that period. There were, in these enterprises of the Saracens, other extraordinary features quite in accordance with that picture of them which we find here in the Apocalypse. The spirit of conquest has, of course, often so taken possession of individual men, conspicuous in history, as to urge them from one enterprise with that end in view to another, while even a world seemed insufficient to sate the passion which only grew more intense with each achievement. It is true, besides, that these men have shown themselves able to infuse their own spirit into the peoples they ruled and led, so as to make them at least submissive to the exactions necessary in the carrying forward of military schemes so vast, and so wasteful of both treasure and life. But there has never been, we may say, in the whole course of human history, another instance of an entire people possessed with this spirit, as the Saracens were; amongst whom, in fact, the host of the followers sometimes even went beyond the leaders in the eager passion for conquest, and in the insatiableness of that fanaticism which made the name of Christian one of deepest reproach, and themselves as pitiless as they were fierce. Again, the “four angels” that were “loosed” were “to slay.” The expression implies destructiveness united to unsparingness of a special sort. Wherever the Saracens appeared, in the invasion of countries, or the siege of cities, they had one announcement to make – “the Koran, tribute, or the sword”; and when the first two were refused, the last smote without pity, yet was never glutted with slaughter. Like features appeared in the wars between Christians and Saracens in the time of the crusades. One reads the story of those fell encounters with shuddering amazement. The great numbers engaged – the army of the Christians which encamped near Constantinople in the first crusade, numbering some six hundred thousand fighting men; the waste of life on the part of the Christians in the long marches, with no proper provision for the wants of so vast a host, under Syrian suns and amidst the tremendous passes of the Syrian mountains and in the ambuscades where the nimble foe took them at unawares, and slaughtered them by tens of thousands; as well as, upon the other hand, on the part of the Saracens, where the heavy-armed Western warriors had them at a disadvantage, and crushed them like hornets caught in a gauntleted hand – in these things the foreshadowings of the Apocalyptic vision seem to be literally realized.

Applying the prophecy of the 200 million horses and horsemen of the second woe to events centuries ago detracts from its application today, as a message that applies to multitudes who consider themselves Christian, but who need to repent and seek understanding from God, so that they can cease to be horses with heads of lions. Job said, “But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” [Job 32:8]

In Proverbs 2:6 we read, “For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”

The Psalmist wrote: “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” [Psa. 119:130]

Daniel said that God “giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding. He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.” [Dan. 2:21-22]