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Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg and the Second woe

August 30, 2013

The following is a commentary by E. W. Hengstenberg  on the second woe of Revelation 9.

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St John. Vol. 1. pp. 442-456.

Ver. 12. One woe is past; behold! there come two woes more after it.

In ch. ix. 13-21, we have the sixth trumpet, the second woe. Four angels, till now bound in the Euphrates, are set loose, that they may execute the work of God’s vengeance. They overspread the earth with an incredible number of horsemen. The third part of men are destroyed. But the world continues still in its impenitence. Since, therefore, they will not turn back to him, who smites them, and seek the Lord of Hosts, they must expect that the word shall again be verified, “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” The world calls aloud for the seventh trumpet, the last woe. For, it is not to be imagined, that God’s righteousness shall prove less energetic than men’s sinfulness.

Ver. 13. And the sixth angel sounded. And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar, before God, ver. 14, which spake to the sixth angel, that had the trumpet. Loose the four angels, bound by the great river Euphrates.

There is not sufficient proof for the view of Bähr (Symbolik des Mos. Cultus I. p. 472), that the horns of the altar have a separate, symbolical meaning, and that the altar by means of its four corners is rendered “a manifestation of divine power and blessing.” For, that the horn occurs in a series of passages as an image of power and strength, with reference to those animals, whose strength lies in their horns, is not enough for the point in question. There is nothing to be found in Scripture indicating that this symbolical import was specially ascribed to the horns of the altar. Luke i. 69 does not refer to the horns of the altar, but to Ps. xviii. 2. But Ex. xxx. 10 (comp. Jer. xvii. 1) is against Bähr’s view, as there it is enjoined that the altar be purified once every year. This shows, that we must not refer the horns of the altar in a one sided manner to that which God imparted, but that rather what was presented on the altar, was what primarily culminated in the horns. Many impurities were mingled with the devotions (comp. Job xvi. 17, Isa. i. 15), which stood in need of atonement and forgiveness. We may rather suppose, that the horns of the altar come into consideration as that, in which itself runs out—in which all its signification culminates, as the horn of an animal is its strength and ornament; the head, in a manner, of the altar. With this view accords Ex. xxvii. 2, xxxviii. 2, according to which the horns were to be of one piece with the altar, to indicate that they had not a separate meaning of their own, but that the altar only culminated in them. Hence also, it may naturally be explained, how the sacrificial blood should have been sprinkled on the horns, how the slayer of blood should have laid hold of the horns, and in them of the whole altar, and here likewise, how the voice should have proceeded out of the four horns.—The voice is that of the altar itself, and nothing but a vicious realism here, as in the case of the eagle in ch. viii. 13, could have thought of an actual existence. The voice does not come merely out of the region, it comes out of the four horns of the altar itself. In what respect the altar comes into notice here, may be understood from ch. viii. 3. It is the place of “the prayers of saints.” It is these which desire the loosing of the four angels bound at the Euphrates, and obtain it. As the angels generally prepared themselves to sound in consequence of the much incense which was presented on the golden altar that is before God, so here, in consequence of the voice out of the altar, the angel looses the four angels bound by the great river Euphrates.—The voice proceeds, not from one horn merely, but from all the horns together, because they together formed the head of the altar. At the same time the four number of the horns appear to be not without some respect to the four angels in ver. 14, and the four number of sins in ver. 21. The sins, the desire of the church, the punishment, all bear the impress of comprehensiveness and intensity. The four number of the sins constitutes the foundation, the four number of the horns and the angels stand related to these as the effect to its cause. But comprehensive as the judgment is, it still bears, like the preceding trumpets, a provisional character in relation to the seventh. Angels, without any additional predicate, are always good angels. Of such alone can we think here, from the very nature of the case. For, in Scripture it is uniformly the good angels that are employed in punishing the wicked. The reference to them also is confirmed by the analogy of the four angels with the four winds in ch. vii. 1.—That the angels were bound, points to the long-suffering of God, which, up to this time, restrained the punishment, and still gave space for repentance. The signification of the binding was correctly given by Bossuet: “What binds the angels; are the sovereign commands of God.” We perceive the truth of this from ver. 15. Their work must have its commencement at a particular moment.—The four number of the angels bears respect to the four ends of the earth. It denotes the universality, the oecumenical character of the divine judgment. This number alone shows, that we are not to think of the angels of particular nations, and the same appears by a comparison of ch. vii. 1.—The Euphrates here, and in ch. xvi. 12, is mentioned as the river, from the regions on the further side of which, during the times of the Old Testament, and through the course of centuries, the scourge of God came forth upon the nearer districts of Asia. It was so, according to Gen. xiv., even in the most ancient times, and afterwards during the ascendency of the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, and the Persians. In Isa. vii. 20, the king of Assyria is described as a razor, hired by God in the district beyond the Euphrates. The word spoken by Jeremiah in ch. xlvi. 10, must come anew into fulfilment. “And this day shall be to Jehovah the Lord of Hosts, a day of revenge, that he may avenge him of his adversaries, and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood. For the Lord God of Hosts hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.” The epithet great, the great river Euphrates, itself points to the Old Testament—comp. Gen. xv. 18; Deut. i. 7; Josh. i. 4. The local designation is hence a merely apparent one. Not less than the four bound angels does the Euphrates belong to the vision, which ever loves to find the substratum of its representations in events of a similar nature in the past—comp. for example, Isa. xi. 15, 16; Zech. x. 11. All historizing interpreters, such, for example, as conceive the Euphrates to be mentioned from being the limits of the Roman empire, or from the dangers with which the Parthians threatened the Romans, apart from the misapprehension implied regarding the trumpets generally, is excluded by the enormous numbers in ver. 16. The subject of discourse in vers. 15, 16 is not the Romans, but men at large.—The angels are to be regarded as the leaders of the great hosts, who assemble under their banners in the regions beyond the Euphrates, the seat, as it were, of God’s hosts of war; as in Isa. xiii. 5, Jehovah himself marches forth at the head of his instruments of vengeance to lay waste the whole earth. In the angels the truth is embodied, that those warlike hosts do nothing, but what they are commissioned to execute. The heavenly agency so strongly engages the attention of the Seer, that at first he does not even think of the earthly instruments. In the preceding vision the same thought is rendered manifest by the falling of the star from heaven, which leads on the locusts.—We may understand from the beginning in ver. 13 who they are, against whom the four angels are loosed; they are the persons against whom the prayers of the church, they had persecuted, have gone up. We may also learn it from the conclusion in vers. 20, 21, according to which it is the world sunk in idolatry and the love of sin, which on this account could not but assume a hostile attitude towards the church and believers: for “he who doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved,” John iii. 20.

Ver. 15. And the four angels were loosed, who were prepared for the hour, and day, and month, and year, that they might kill the third part of men.

The preparation proceeds only from God. The thought of such a preparation on the part of God may well encourage the church to bear what she has to suffer from the world. Whenever the set time comes, there will be a changing of places!—The article applies alike to all the four words. The definite period is meant, in which the loosing of the angels was to take effect. (Luther has improperly: an hour.) They were already in preparation for that, and when it arrived, after the wickedness of the world had become full, the loosing took place, and they were to begin their work.—An ascent is made from the lower to the higher. When I know, that something has happened about nine o’clock, I know less than if the year had been mentioned to me. In Numb. i. 1, Zech. i. 7, Hag. i. 15, also the rise is made from the day to the month, and from this again to the year. Bossuet: “The time being so precisely marked by the prophet, lets us see how exactly God determines the periods.”

Ver. 16. And the number of the army of the horsemen was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard the number of them.

The subject of discourse is the enormous multitude of cavalry. As cavalry produce a very imposing impression, the whole of the plundering hordes is here, as in the preceding trumpet, represented under this image, although in reality foot soldiers must be understood to be also included.—The four hundred millions exclude all idea of a particular war, and show that we have here to do only with a personified species. The fundamental passage is Ps. lxviii. 17, “The chariots of God are two myriads, thousands of repetition;” q. d. thousands multiplied by thousands, a thousand times a thousand. There it is the invisible war-chariots of Jehovah that are spoken of, which we may imagine to be drawn by hosts of angels. But the difference is not an essential one. For, these earthly hosts are as completely dependent on every nod of God, as those heavenly ones. They, too, are led by angels. In both places alike the hosts of God are employed in his service against the world.—He heard their number.

Ver. 17. And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having coats of mail of fire and hyacinth and brimstone; and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions, and out of their mouths went forth fire, and smoke, and sulphur.

Thus, viz., as follows: The horses are here, as also in ver. 7, to be thought of as provided with riders. The description begins with the horsemen and then passes over to their horses. And them that sat on them, for: namely, them that sat on them. The vision is framed so as to impress on us, what might have been understood of itself, though it is still even to our day not understood by many expositors, that we must distinguish between the substance and the form, under which it appears in the vision. In this everything was seen—the internal had to imprint itself on the external, the spiritual receive a body. The wild exasperation, the thirst for murder, the desire of rapine and desolation, are pictorially exhibited in the colors of the coats of mail on the horsemen, and especially in the fire, and smoke, and sulphur which came out of the mouth of their horses: the external representation of their beastly appetite was transferred to the beast part of the host. Even apart from the warning-note, from the kind of invisible N.B. given in the expression, “in the vision,” it is scarcely possible to understand, how one should so far misapprehend the nature of the representation, as to conclude from it, that warlike hosts are not meant here. The affirmation, that nothing like actual war is seen here, may be met, as soon as we can distinguish between the reality and the clothing, by the counter affirmation, that everything does so. And were it not for the multifariousness of the forms employed in the representation, the six trumpets might be all compressed into one.—The signification of the colors of the coats of mail is entirely to be determined by what proceeds out of the mouth of the horses: to the coats of mail of fire corresponds the fire, which must therefore be imaged by them, to the hyacinth-colored (what is meant is the deep blue hyacinth), the smoke, to the brimstone-like, the sulphur. Bengel: “There is no mixture of a white, clear, peaceful color.”—The lion-heads, fearful and appalling.—The fire is the fire of wrath, the smoke is the inseparable accompaniment of the fire—comp. Ps. xviii. 8, where also, as here, the fire-wrath goes out of the mouth—the (burning) brimstone points to the unpleasant character of this fire: the fire of hell is a fire of brimstone, ch. xiv. 10, xix. 20, xxi. 8. If fire and smoke alone had been mentioned, an honorable wrath might have been indicated, as is plain from Ps. xviii. So that the ingredient of the sulphur here is quite necessary to a complete characteristic.

Ver. 18. By these three plagues was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouth.

The these refers to the things that had first been named. Without a figure: by their wild spirit of ferocity and murder. The limitation of Bengel is arbitrary, in understanding by the men “such as lived in those lands, whither the warlike host went.” The third part of men upon the whole earth are specified. We have here no gradation in relation to the fifth trumpet. For, the not being killed, is there to be limited to the majority, who here also remain in life; and in ver. 6 there, it is represented, not as the better, but as the worse lot. Here also, remarks Züllig, “by the perishing are to be understood those who have not the seal of God spoken of in ver. 4.” And Bengel says: “In the present day there is a great corruption among unbelievers and nominal Christians, in all parts of Christendom, among high and low, and in all conditions of men; but if we could see what in former times has been taken away, we should find that the great God has continually saved out of the corrupt mass a good portion to remain for a seed. Those portions that have been extirpated have for the most part been a bad commodity. In plants one always leaves the best, the largest, and most perfect for seed, so that a good kind may be preserved. What would it come to, if God should leave men to act as they pleased, since with so much to restrain them, they are still so averse to improve? It is, therefore, necessary for the holy angels to blow with their trumpets, that men may learn to fear the Lord, and not be ever contending against him. Lord, when I reflect how thou hast executed judgment in the world, my desire is increased to give thee glory in a truly reverential and submissive spirit.”

Ver. 19. For, the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents, and they have heads, and with these they do hurt.

The clause, stating the power to be in their mouth, serves only as a connecting link with what is still to be said of their tails. The injurious and dreadfully destructive tendency had not been sufficiently represented by what proceeds out of the mouth of the horses. It still farther embodies itself in the symbol of the serpent-tails. Serpents are mentioned here, as in ch. xii. 9, where the devil is called the old serpent, on account of their cunning, malicious wickedness, as opposed in some sense to the lions in ver. 17; and agreeing also in this, that the serpents are behind, where one suspects no danger. Bengel’s remark is rather little: “Whether they make a furious onset, or turn the back, and feign a retreat, they still do hurt.” There is no reason for supposing here, with some, a reference to a peculiar sort of serpent, “one that has a short tail, like a head, which the creature uses both for creeping and for discharging venom, as if it had two heads.” It is not said of the tails of the serpents, that they had heads, but of the tails of the horses. These resemble serpents, which have grown to the tails, and have the head free for biting.

Ver. 20. And the rest of the men, who were not killed by these plagues, repented not of the works of their hands that they should worship demons, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and wood, and stone, which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk.

Dreadful hardness of the human heart! Rather let all be destroyed than be converted! We may compare in the Old Testament the history of Pharaoh, whose servants said to him in vain, “Dost thou not see, that Egypt is destroyed;” and Isa. ix. 12, “And the people return not to him that smites them, and the Lord of Hosts they seek not.” A similar spirit of impenitence under divine judgments is given in ch. xvi. 9, 11, 21. The opposite, however, in the degenerate church, ch. xi. 13. Mark says, “It is to be understood of itself, that when it is said of the rest, they did not repent, the statement is to be confined to the apostates, and is not to be extended to those, whom the Lord has reserved for himself in secret.” The proper limitation, however, is rather this, that along side the world, which here is the subject of discourse, the church exists, and is also, indeed, much tainted by the worldly spirit, but by the judgments of the Lord it is awakened to repentance; see ch. xi. We have here a tenfold description of idols, divided by the seven and the three, and the first again by two and five.—That by the works of their hands, it is not actions that are denoted, as some conceive, referring to ch. ii. 22, xvi. 11 (where, however, actions are not spoken of), but works generally, is clear from Deut. iv. 28, “And ye shall there serve idols, the works of men’s hands, wood and stone, which see not, and hear not, and eat not, and smell not,” Ps. cxv. 4-7, “Their gods are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands,” cxxxv. 15-17. Further, in the service of idolatry, which those expositors understand to be meant by the works of the hands, the hands are not peculiarly employed. The worship is performed by the whole body. Finally, the repetition of the statement, “they repented not,” in ver. 21, is more easily explained, if by the works of the hands the idols are understood. The certainly somewhat hard expression: Repent of the works, is softened by what follows immediately after. According to this it is as much as, repent of their worshipping the works of their hands, demons and idols.—By the demons we can only understand evil spirits, according to the usage of the New Testament. There is no proof of lifeless images being ever meant by the demons. The second passages also, where demons are mentioned in the Apocalypse, ch. xvi. 14, indicates real existences, as there the spirits of demons are spoken of. The worship of idolatry may be viewed in two aspects. In the one it is a rude image-worship. The several heathen gods have no existence beside the material one in their statutes, the work of men’s hands. But in the other aspect, the idolatrous service has a demoniacal background. The allurement to give honor to those Elilim, those nonentities, proceeds from the powers of darkness, and since they constitute the spiritual background in the matter, the worship may be regarded as in a measure performed to them. Only a passing notice, however, is taken here of this aspect, and in what follows, the Seer immediately reverts again to the other. All profound investigations into the nature of idol-worship leads to this result. The fearful power, which it wields over the minds of men, is inexplicable without this spiritual background, which is first disclosed to our view in the New Testament, going, as it usually does, more to the bottom of things, while the Old Testament rests more in the material appearance. The apostles, who lived in the midst of heathen objects and relations, were thereby rendered, humanly considered, more competent for this, than those who know of heathenism only from books. The demoniacal character, the infernal origin of the evil, in all the more inveterate aberrations of the human mind, impresses itself on all who have it immediately before their eyes, and are capable of profound inquiries into the subject. However, the demoniacal nature of the Revolution and the rage for freedom has opened many eyes in our days, that were hitherto shut, to perceive the existence of a kingdom of darkness. It is quite similar in respect to the worship of idolatry. Airy phantoms, nonentities, were what came into immediate contact with men’s consciences, but behind these a real power lay concealed, and one of terrible energy.—The demoniacal background continues through all ages, even to the end of the world. But in regard to “the works of men’s hands,” &c., changes take place in the course of time, yet not such as materially to affect the nature of things. The world is continually fabricating to itself new schemes, which it idolizes and worships. The Seer here makes account only of that form which was prevalent in his time, without meaning, however, to ascribe more to this than the rest.—It is not without reason that the works of the hands are set first. For, the subject is not about a direct and conscious worshipping of demons.—On the words, “that neither see,” &c., comp. Dan. v. 23, “But the God, in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified.”

Ver. 21. And they repented not of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.

On the transgressions of the first table there follow now those of the second. The former were completed in the number ten, and these latter are comprised in four. The four, on account of the four quarters of heaven, is next to the ten, the signature of the comprehensive, the complete. The two first sins are against the fifth command, according to Luther’s reckoning, the sixth by the original text, or the first of the second table; the two last are against the sixth and seventh, or the seventh and eighth respectively. Sorcery (mentioned also ch. xviii. 23, and Gal. v. 20) appears here among the transgressions of the second table, in connection with open murders, and is therefore viewed not in its religious aspect, but as one of the means by which a neighbour might be secretly injured, and injured in respect to his life. Fornication is the spirit of licentiousness, whence proceeds the transgression of the precept: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

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  1. August 31, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Hengstenberg’s comments fail to interpret the symbolic horses, serpent-tails, and heads of lions of the second woe. His comments imply the horses are natural horses. But the prophecy is not about natural horses as natural horses do not have heads of lions, or serpents for tails.

    The fire, smoke, and brimstone from their mouths is not literal; rather, the horses represent men; the fire, smoke, and brimstone from their mouths depicts their teachings; and belief in a gospel corrupted by superstition and human tradition.

    Horses can be interpreted as symbols representing people 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]

    Those who lack understanding ignore basic Christian principles such as the words of Jesus on the sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” [Matt. 5:9]

    Hengstenberg thought that the statement that the horses slay the third part of men [vs. 15] is meant literally. Interpreting “to slay the third part of men” in a spiritual sense, means that the horses and horsemen kill spiritually, by destroying the faith of believers.

    On the number of the horses and horsemen, Hengstenberg wrote:

    The fundamental passage is Ps. lxviii. 17, “The chariots of God are two myriads, thousands of repetition;” q. d. thousands multiplied by thousands, a thousand times a thousand.

    He noted the prophecy is called a vision, but believed it was about physical warfare rather than spiritual.

    Even apart from the warning-note, from the kind of invisible N.B. given in the expression, “in the vision,” it is scarcely possible to understand, how one should so far misapprehend the nature of the representation, as to conclude from it, that warlike hosts are not meant here. The affirmation, that nothing like actual war is seen here, may be met, as soon as we can distinguish between the reality and the clothing, by the counter affirmation, that everything does so.

    Hengstenberg discounted historical interpretations, noting that the size of the cavalry is too great for any historical army. He wrote:

    All historizing interpreters, such, for example, as conceive the Euphrates to be mentioned from being the limits of the Roman empire, or from the dangers with which the Parthians threatened the Romans, apart from the misapprehension implied regarding the trumpets generally, is excluded by the enormous numbers in ver. 16.

    Hengstenberg’s comments were probably influenced by Johann Albrecht Bengel, who he quoted. The number 400 million in place of 200 million horsemen is from Bengel. [Johann Albrecht Bengel. Gnomon of the New Testament, Volume 5 p. 243.]

    In his comments on Rev. 9:13 Bengel declared, “The second woe relates to the Saracens.”

    Bengel interpreted the “hour, and a day, and a month, and a year” as signifying a definite period: “…that is, a period of about 207 years, from A.D. 629 to A.D. 836, or from A.D. 634 to A.D. 840, that is, from the last time of Abubeker to the death of Motassem; — Abubeker was the friend and successor of Mahomet — Motassem, the last of the Caliphs.

    Bengel wrote, “The second woe is a period of about 207 years of men: therefore for every year (if there arose other or fresh horsemen every year) the immense body of 2,000,000, or at least … 1,000,000 horsemen, are collected.” Taken literally, his scenario implies that at least a million horses were bred, and a similar number were broken to a bit, bridle, saddle, and rider, every year for about two centuries.

    Identifying the horses and horsemen of the second woe with the Muslim conquests of the seventh to ninth centuries fails, because the horses in the prophecy have heads of lions and serpent tails, which are figurative, not natural.

    Hengstenberg asserted that everything in the prophecy supports the idea that literal physical warfare is meant, but this ignores the fact that the horses with heads of lions and serpent tails are not natural. While an enormous number of cavalry seems war-like, and terrible, these have no weapons such as swords, spears, bows and arrows, but wear defensive armour, (breastplates) and they “kill” by the things that come out of their mouths, that is, fire, smoke, and brimstone, representing their words, and doctrines. These horses depict people who lack understanding, and their serpent-tails represent false teachers.

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