George Eldon Ladd and the second woe
G. E. Ladd’s interpretation of the prophecy of the second woe is quoted below, accompanied by my annotations. [George Eldon Ladd. A Commentary on the Revelation of John Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1972. pp. 135-139.]
This is a plague of demonic horses with lionlike heads and serpentlike tails with which they are able to kill men.
The assertion is made that the second woe is a plague of demonic horses, but the notion that the horses or their riders are “demonic” is discredited by the fact that they wear armor, in the form of breastplates. In fact, the breastplates are a major feature of the prophecy. I suggest that by referring to breastplates, John intended to show his readers that the horses of the prophecy represent mortal humans. Demons do not need breastplates. The bright colors of the breastplates confirm that their wearers are not invisible. Ladd continued:
These demonic hosts come from the East – from the borders of the Roman Empire.
This comment seems strange, because demons are not connected with literal geographical locations. Ladd continued:
It is a historical fact that in the first century the Parthian armies from beyond the Euphrates were a constant threat to the Roman peace, and Jewish apocalyptic anticipated an eschatological invasion from these heathen forces (Enoch 56:5-8). These Parthians were famous horsemen and were feared because of their skilled use of the bow and arrow. Some commentators see in John’s vision an expectation of such a Parthian invasion; but this is highly unlikely. In the vision the riders of the horses play practically no role; the scourge is inflicted by the horses themselves which represent demonic powers.
Some background for the idea of an eschatological invasion of horses is found in the Old Testament. Ezekiel saw an invasion of horses pouring in from the North (Ezek. 38:1-14ff.) and such an invasion is often mentioned in other prophets (Isa. 5:26-30; Jer. 6:22-26), usually coming from the North. John has transformed these actual military expectations into an invasion of demonic hordes.
The prophecy of an invading army (God’s army) described in Joel 1 & 2, Ezekiel’s prophecy about Gog and Magog, the siege of Jerusalem in Zechariah 12 and 14, and the 200 million horses and horsemen of the sixth trumpet, all apply to the same events. That is, the great spiritual conflict in which Jesus Christ is revealed, coming in great power and glory. Ladd continued:
One important new emphasis distinguishes ]ohn’s vision from the similar expectations of the prophets and apocalyptists. The latter always envision the foreign invasion as an attack against the people of God by pagan hosts while John sees it as a divine judgment upon a corrupt civilization.
Verse 13. After the sounding of the sixth trumpet, John hears a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God. This altar has already been seen in the apocalyptist’s vision in the opening of the seventh seal, which brought us to the threshold of the end (8:3). It is the altar of incense which symbolizes the prayers of the saints who constantly cry out to God for deliverance, for vindication of the divine justice, and for the establishing of the divine rule upon the earth. This symbolically portrays the fact that the divine judgment on evil will occur in answer to the prayers of God’s people. In the vision it is the altar itself which speaks through its four horns: but this is only a symbolical way of expressing the same idea found in 6:9-10 where the voices of the martyrs are heard coming from under the altar.
Verse 14. The voice from the four horns spoke to the sixth angel who had sounded the trumpet, saying, Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates. The use of the definite article indicates that a definite group of four angels is indicated. They cannot be the same four angels appearing in 7:1, for those stood at the four corners of the earth. These angels are found at the river Euphrates. This group of four angels is not known in either prophetic or apocalyptic literature, nor can we say why there are four of them. The fact, however, that they were bound indicates that they were evil angels who could not carry out their desires until they were released. Since they share the same mission as that of the demonic horses. viz., “to kill a third of mankind” (vs. 15), we may assume that they are the supernatural leaders of these demonic hosts.
The Euphrates was the ideal limit of the promised land to the East (Gen. 15:18); and in the Old Testament, it was called the great river (Gen. 15:18: Deut. 1:7; Josh. 1:4). Beyond the Euphrates were the hordes of the heathen kingdoms, particularly Assyria, and thus the river became symbolic of the enemies of lsrael and of God (Isa. 7:20; 8:7; Jer. 46:10). An invasion by these forces could be described as an overflow of the river (Isa. 8:7). So the angels are bound on the banks of the Euphrates until the time of judgment when they will be loosed and a flood of demonic powers burst forth upon the civilized world. Undoubtedly first-century readers of the Revelation would have thought of the Parthian hosts, but this does not seem to be John’s primary thought.
In the book of Revelation the great city Babylon has a mystical significance, and represents worldly society in contrast to Jerusalem, the holy city, which is identified with the Church. The Euphrates River flowed through Babylon, and it too has a spiritual meaning. The temple at Jerusalem is depicted in Ezek. 47:1-12 as the source of a spiritual river, representing the spiritual waters of the gospel flowing from the Church. In Zech. 14:6 Jerusalem is the source of rivers of living water. These spiritual rivers represent Christ’s gospel flowing from the Church, the heavenly Jerusalem. In parallel with these images, Euphrates represents the corrupted doctrines and interpretations flowing from Mystery Babylon, representing worldly religious systems and apostate Christianity.
Some writers claim that the horses of the second woe are literal, while their lions’ heads and serpent-tails are figurative, but this is inconsistent. Since the heads of lions and serpent-tails are symbolic, the horses are symbolic too. Ladd continued:
Verse 15. So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of mankind. This verse contains an unusual way of designating time, pinpointing this plague to the exact hour. The idea intended is that these evil angels are under God’s control; they have no freedom to act until the very hour God designates. They are thus instruments of the divine judgments, all of which are carried out as part of the unfolding of the divine plan for the rebellious world.
Apocalyptic writings often reflect a sense of determinism, i.e., that the events and the time of the end are predetermined. Sometimes, such emphasis is placed upon the necessary unfolding of the times that God himself seems almost subject to the times he has decreed. “For he has weighed the age in the balance, and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move nor arouse them until that measure is fulfilled” (IV Ezra 4:30-37. See also Enoch 81:2). Such a rigid determinism is not found in the Revelation. The times are under God’s control; he is the “King of the ages” (15:3). The time of the end and the whole complex of final events unfold according to the divine purpose.
When the angels were released, they went forth to kill a third of mankind. How they accomplished this is not indicated; we may assume that they did so as leaders of the demonic horses. A third of mankind designates a large but not the greater part of mankind. Their mission was not the destruction of the race but, as agents of divine judgment, to warn men of the terrible judgment which awaits those who reject God’s love and mercy. Again, it is important to note that this is a judgment which falls upon the people of a rebellious civilization, not upon the people of God (9:4, 20). The fifth trumpet had brought torture; this one brings death.
The nature of the death remains a question; the horses and horsemen of the second woe represent that portion of the church which is not included in the 144,000 who were sealed in Rev. 7:4. The horses in the siege of Jerusalem in Zechariah 12:4 are not killed, but smitten with astonishment, and blindness, and other plagues. Their riders are smitten with madness. These facts suggest that the horses of the second woe kill one third of men in a spiritual sense, not physically. Ladd continued:
Verse 16. The size of this demonic host is inconceivable; 200,000,000. They could not be counted: John heard their number; i.e., he had to be told. This vast number rests upon Psalm 68:18: “With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.” Here, it is not chariots but horses–cavalry. The four destroying angels have dropped out of sight and the demonic horses fill the scene. It is difficult to believe that a literal number is intended; the demonic hosts are simply innumerable.
Verse 17. John now gives us a description of the demonic horses and their riders. By the words, I saw . . . in my vision, he reminds us that these are no natural horses and riders but demonic creatures which he has seen in his ecstatic state. This is the only thing that is said about the riders: they wore cuirasses whose color was fiery red, smoky blue, and sulphurous yellow. The grammar of the passage allows the interpretation that both the riders and the horses wore these bright-colored cuirasses, but it is easier to see here a description of the armour of the riders, which corresponds in color to the fire and smoke and brimstone which proceed from the horses’ mouths. It is not clear whether all of the armor was tricolored, or whether different riders wore different colors. It is interesting that no offensive weapons of the riders are described, only their protective armor. The center of attention is the demonic horses.
The composition of the breastplates, fire and jacinth and brimstone, means they would be quite ineffective for the defense of those wearing such armor. This means that the horses and horsemen are in a precarious condition, and very vulnerable to the sword of Christ, when he meets them in battle. Bright colors do not mean the armor is effective. Ladd continued:
The horses were like nothing ever seen on earth–their heads. . . were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulphur issued from their mouths. The emphasis here is certainly upon their ferocity and destructiveness, not upon their regal hearing. Their terror-inspiring appearance is emphasized by the sulphurous, fiery smoke that poured from the months of these beasts. Fire and brimstone (sulphur) indicate their hellish nature (14:10; 19:20; 21:8).
Heads of lions depict the unconverted nature of man, and allude to the devil, who Peter compared to a roaring lion. [1 Peter 5:8]
Verse 18. The fire, smoke, and sulphurous brimstone issuing from their mouths are regarded as three separate plagues which bring death to a substantial portion of mankind. The rendering of the AV, “by these three,” does not make this as clear as the RSV; by these three plagues. The repetition of the words issuing from their mouths reminds us of the demonic quality of these plagues.
Rather, the phrase suggests that the things that come from their mouths signify their flawed doctrines.
Verse 19. For the power of the horses is in their mouths. The torment of death is inflicted upon a great portion of mankind by the three plagues of fire, smoke, and brimstone which issue from their months. Just how these plagues inflict death we are not told.
These demonic horses have another weapon by which they wound men: their tails are like serpents with which they sting men and cause them to suffer. This feature connects this plague with the demonic locusts of the fifth trumpet which looked like horses and which had tails like scorpions, and stings (9:10). The fifth plague caused only torture; the sixth plague causes both torture and then death. Men are tortured by the snake-like tails of the demonic horses and killed by the power . . . in their mouths.
Ladd’s premise, that the horses are demons, obscures the meaning of the heads of lions, and the tails of the horses. John embellished the definition Isaiah gave to tails, by saying that the tails of the horses were serpents. Isaiah said, “The ancient and honorable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.” [Isa. 9:15] The serpent-tails of the horses lose their significance, when the horses are interpreted as demons. The tail of a demonic horse cannot be construed to mean “the prophet that teacheth lies.” The horses represent not demons, but people who lack understanding. David wrote, “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]
A third of men are killed in a spiritual sense, by the fire, smoke, and brimstone from the mouths of the horses, which signify flawed, confused interpretations and doctrines, and a defective understanding of the gospel. It does not necessarily mean natural or physical death.
Verse 20. The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent. The demonic plagues of suffering and death, terrible as they seem, embody a merciful purpose; they are designed to turn men to repentance before it is too late. Throughout the course of the age, men have been able to pursue a path of sin and to defy God with impunity and apparent safety. As the end approaches and the time of judgment draws near, God pours out on men a taste of his judgment and wrath; but this is not because he takes pleasure in wrath but in order to warn men that the way of sin and defiance of God can lead only to disaster.
One would think that the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, would learn a lesson from the one-third who were killed and would cast themselves in fear and trembling upon God. But not so: they continued in their defiant path of worshiping demons and idols. Idols can be viewed from two different perspectives. In and of itself, “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:4). This viewpoint is reflected in John’s description of idols as idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot either see or hear or walk. This motif that idols are lifeless wood or stone or metal occurs in the Old Testament (Pss. 115:4-8; 135:15-18; Dan. 5:23; and is frequently found in Jewish apologetic literature (see Bel and the Dragon). From another perspective, demons are seen to stand behind idol worship; and while meats offered to idols are not rendered unclean since an idol has no real existence, nevertheless “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20). Therefore, sacrifice to idols involves one in partnership with demons. This same tension between idols as lifeless wood and stone and yet symbolic of demons appears in the present passage.
Verse 21. The defiance of the rest of mankind is reflected not only in their idolatry but also in their immorality. They did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts. Here is the same theology expounded by Paul in Rom. 1:18ff.: ungodliness issues in all kinds of ungodliness and wickedness. The word translated “sorceries” can mean “poison,” but here it designates the use of magic potions and charms in incantations and degraded religious practices. The word for “immorality” designates sexual sin in general.