7 And the likeness of the locusts [were] like horses having been prepared for battle, and upon their heads something like crowns of gold, and their faces like faces of men, 8 and they had hair like [the] hair of women, and their teeth were as lions’ [teeth], 9 and they had chests like breastplates made of iron, and the sound of their wings [was] like [the] sound of chariots of many horses rushing into battle, 10 and they have tails similar to scorpions, even stings, and in their tails [was] their authority to harm men for five months. 11 They have over them a king, the angel of the abyss. His name in Hebrew [is] Abaddon, and in Greek he has [the] name Apolluon. 12 The first woe has passed; behold, yet two woes are coming after these things.
Once again, my translation is not in the nicest of English, but is serves to bring out the flow of the Greek. The same Greek word, thôrax is translated by the words “chest” and “breastplate.” Some translations use “breastplate” in both places, however I don’t think locusts have breastplates, so I prefer “chest” as a reference to their mid-region. Also, it seems grammatically awkward to say “the likeness of the locusts [were],” and you may wonder why I supplied “were” instead of “was” (the words is square brackets are not in the Greek and must be supplied by English in order to make any sense of the translation). The reason is that “likeness” in the Greek is actually plural, so I’m using the plural form of “to be” to bring that out.
We started this time with a review of 9:1-6 for the benefit of some who missed last time. See the notes for that section to read the discussion of the star, the abyss, and the un-locust-like behavior of these locusts. The second part of this passage on the fifth trumpet goes into more detail with regard to the appearance of these strange locusts. Not only do they not do as locusts do, but they don’t really look a whole lot like locusts, either–at least as John saw them. He tries his best to relate what he sees to things his audience would be familiar with: horses, crowns, women’s hair, breastplates, scorpions, and chariots. We should observe a couple of things from this:
- These are not literal locusts. If they were, John could have just said, “they were locusts” and his audience would have understood. The comparison of these creatures to locusts appears to begin and end with their swarming behavior, and maybe the fact they have wings. From the similes John uses to describe their heads, teeth(!), hair(!!), and tails, they sound more monstrous than insect-like.
- Whatever John is describing, they are organic. These are not machines. If they were, we would expect him to use a lot more metallic imagery, and perhaps comparisons to weapons and tools. Instead, he speaks of horses, hair, lions, and tails.
If they are so unlike locusts, why start by saying they were like locusts? Again, maybe John had the swarming activity in mind, but perhaps he also intended to draw our attention to Exodus 10, and the plague of locusts God brought upon Egypt. We’ve already discussed the links between these trumpets and the Exodus plagues, and how that underscores the fact that God is bringing judgment upon mankind, just as He brought judgment upon the Egyptians in Moses’ day. We also see locusts spoken of as angels of judgement in Joel 1:4, and as a way of describing an army in Joel 1:6-7.
So, if these locusts aren’t actually locusts, what are they? There are a number of possibilities:
- A literal army. This notion is supported by the mention of breastplates, chariots, men’s faces, and teeth. Even the women’s hair could suggest the long hair of barbarian hordes. Roman men stopped wearing their hair long after about the third century B.C., so those nations that favored long hair on men would be considered by the Romans to be barbarian, uncivilized, and uncultured.
- Strange hybrid creatures. Bearing in mind this is a vision of the supernatural, John could be describing a strange breed of hellish creature coming out of the abyss. Certainly, if there is an escalation of supernatural activity associated with these judgments, it’s possible the forces arrayed against men could be of a kind, even species, unknown on earth.
- Demonic beings. Again, if this is a vision of the supernatural, and these locusts are a large horde whose sole purpose is to terrorize men led by a fallen angel, then why can’t they be demons? If we suppose demons can take on a horrific appearance, then maybe that’s what John is seeing.
- A blend of some, or all, of the above. We can be certain that whatever these creatures are, they are led by a fallen angel–maybe even Satan–and their purpose is evil. That they are at least demonic in motive and intent is, I think, without question. These demonically-driven creatures could then be either actual demons, or human armies taken over by demonic forces. These are the two I’m most persuaded by, though I’m inclined a little more to the former than the latter, largely due to the nature of the torment inflicted. As we noted last time, while there might be physical pain involved, the torment is largely psychological and spiritual, leading to extreme, suicidal depression.
Bearing in mind this is a vision, the descriptions may not relate to a physical reality, but might just be the Lord’s way of conveying to us the nature of this devastating, demonic force:
- They are like horses prepared for battle, so they are ready to fight.
- They wear crowns of gold–such crowns, or wreaths, are symbols of victory, strength, and power. This is a symbol of dominion.
- They have faces like men, which could imply human intelligence. They can reason, and, indeed, reflect the worst of our sinful natures.
- They have long hair like women, which, like the barbarian hordes that assailed the Roman armies, give the impression of wild, undisciplined, and dangerous fighters. Some commentators think the “long hair” is a description of antennae. Not only do I think this is overly (and unnecessarily) literal, but an insult to ladies!
- They have teeth like lions, which recalls Joel 1:6 where teeth lay waste to the land, a picture of the ferocity of the attackers.
- They have chests like iron breastplates, which further underscores the creatures’ readiness to fight, to do battle.
- Their wings sound like chariots charging into battle, reminding us that this isn’t a swarm of insects, but a major military force ready to strike. This is a picture of power, speed, and strength.
- They have stings in their scorpion-like tails, which takes us back to 9:3-5, and the fact they bring torment to men via their stings, but they don’t kill. The power of this army is in that sting, and the painful affliction they can bring to men, driving them to hopelessness and suicide. But only those who are not sealed. As we said last time, God’s people are immune to this torment.
However we want to interpret the vision of the locusts, we need to bear in mind the significance behind these descriptions. More than what they look like, its their power and purpose that is, I think, the point John is trying to communicate.
In verse 11, John gives us the name of the king of the locusts, the one who is the angel of the abyss: Abaddon in Hebrew, Apolluon (or, more popularly in English, Apollyon) in Greek. We see the term Abaddon used in the Old Testament, particularly in Psalm 88:12, to refer to the realm of the dead, a place of destruction. Similarly, the Greek term apolluôn comes from a verb that carries the meaning “to destroy.” So both words can be translated “the destroyer.” The king of the locust swarm is the destroyer. This would certainly be a fitting name for Satan, and it would also fit any leader who has, with demonic relish, brought suffering and destruction upon God’s people. It’s interesting to note that the angel that kills the Egyptian first born children in Exodus 12:23 is called “the destroyer.” Yet another link to the Exodus plagues. This is also significant because the Hebrew children were protected by the lamb’s blood smeared on their lintels. Just as God’s people were protected from the destroyer by lamb’s blood in Exodus, so here, God’s people, those who have been sealed, are protected from Apollyon’s forces, by the blood of the Lamb.
Someone in the group wondered how anyone witnessing these overtly supernatural, even demonic, things wouldn’t repent and turn to Christ. In our discussion, we observed how our culture tends to deal with the supernatural. Most people seem to either deny its existence, or they make entertainment out of it. Books, TV shows, and movies about zombies, vampires, ghosts, and even the very stuff of Revelation. It has often been observed that Satan is equally happy for people to think him a fable, or make a joke out of him. It seems to me, as our world appears to fall apart around us, people are becoming more aware that there’s more to life than the physical. However, without the security of salvation in Christ, the possibility of the supernatural scares them, so they try to protect themselves either by denial, or by packaging it in the form of stories, books, TV shows, and movies, where they can control the narrative, and explore the supernatural from a “safe distance.” One day, however, the truth of the spiritual battle raging around us will become all too apparent. That day when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
So what is this fifth trumpet all about? It’s part of a crescendo of judgments from God against unbelievers, of which we all would be a part if not for the grace of God by which He saved and sealed a people for Himself. This judgment involves the torment and affliction of unbelievers by demonic forces. It’s not a long-lasting judgment, so this is not the final judgment, but part of the judgments building up to it. The purpose of this judgment seems to be recompense for the afflictions poured out by the world upon the church. It also fits into a progression of judgments that starts with the destruction of crops, then the destruction of sea creatures, then the poisoning of the water supply, followed by the removal of light, and now affliction. In the following woes we will see death come to a portion of mankind, and then, finally, the Lord’s return.
The fact that there is this crescendo seems to indicate a temporal progression to the visions. I’ve said time and again that we can’t fix a literal sequence of events to what we see in Revelation; the most we can say is that this is the order in which John had his visions. However, it’s not out of the question that there is some kind of order to the temporal events here, especially if this is a gradual worsening of judgments leading up to the final outpouring of God’s wrath. Much of what we’ve seen so far could relate to persecutions and cataclysms that have happened over the past 2,000 years of church history. And one could argue that things have been progressively getting worse, though I think you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone who lived through the persecutions of Domitian, the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages, or the various persecutions during the Reformation. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is a change in scope. Persecution and judgment will become less and less localized to a particular country, or countries, and become more global. Just a thought to tuck away as we continue our study.
Finally, verse 12 is a transitional verse, reminding us that this is only the first of three woes–there are yet two to come. Again, while I caution us about putting too much weight on a specific temporal sequence, the suggestion here is that there is a progression to these visions. Exactly how that plays out remains to be seen…
Next week will be our last study until sometime in January. I don’t think we’ll get through the sixth trumpet in one week, so it’s possible we’ll hold off on that until we return to our Sunday School class after New Year. Which means this might be the last Study Notes for a little while. If so, see you when we return!