17 And in this way I saw the horses in the vision, and those sitting upon them, having breasplates [literally “chests”–the Greek is thôrax and can be used in either sense], fire and hyacinth and sulfur [colored], and the heads of the horses [were] as lions’ heads, and from their mouths came fire and smoke and sulfur. 18 From these three plagues a third of men were killed, from the fire and the smoke and the sulfur coming out from their mouths. 19 For the authority [or power] of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails [are] like serpents having heads, and they do harm with [i.e., by mean of] them.
John evidently thought it important not only to tell us what the horses and riders did, but what they looked like. And it’s really not their strange appearance that’s significant; like the locusts in the last trumpet, the fire, hyacinth, sulfur, lions’ heads, and serpent heads all have symbolic meaning. That’s what should be the focus. Which means we shouldn’t get hung up over trying to picture these strange creatures. This is a vision; we mustn’t bind ourselves to a literal image of what John sees. Whether or not he is describing something that did exist, or will exist is irrelevant. He is simply telling us what he saw, and the content of that vision tells us something about what God is doing, or is going to do.
The way the Greek is phrased, one could take the fire, hyacinth, and sulfur-colored breastplates as belonging to either the horses or their riders. Given that the second part of verse 17 describes the horses’ heads, I would take the breastplates as belonging to the riders. Not only does that make sense with the sentence structure, it means the riders’ armor mirrors the activity of their horses (the fire, hyacinth, and sulfur colors mirror the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming from the horses’ mouths). They are united; the horses are not working independently of their riders.
The word “colored” is not in the Greek, but I think it’s safe to supply it. I can’t imagine what else the fire, hyacinth, and sulfur on breastplates could be other than colors. Many translations seem to agree. There are various references to fire in the Old Testament, particularly with regard to judgment. See, for example, Genesis 19:24; Psalm 11:4-7; Isaiah 30:33; Ezekiel 38:22. Psalm 11:4-7 is interesting because the writer wants God to rain “fire and sulfur and a scorching wind” on the wicked. Isaiah 30:33 not only mentions fire and burning in association with judgment (of the Assyrians, here), but it describes the breath of the Lord as a stream of sulfur. Ezekiel 38:22 also speaks of the Lord raining down fire and sulfur, alongside mention of judgment with pestilence and bloodshed. Again, all themes we have seen in Revelation. Genesis 19:24 is, perhaps, the most significant, because God judges Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and sulfur. In 19:28, Abraham looks down and sees smoke coming up from there, like the smoke from a furnace. So in that story, all three elements are mentioned. It’s hard to miss the strong judgmental aspect to the use of these elements.
“Hyacinth” is my transliteration of the Greek. “Jacin” or “sapphire” are also legitimate translations of what is undoubtedly a blue color. It’s most often used in the Old Testament to describe a fabric color. Second Chronicles 3:14 says the veil to the Holy of Holies was made of blue, purple, and crimson fabrics. Its significance for us in Revelation 9, however, maybe no more than it can represent the color of smoke. So the horses breathe out fire (red), smoke (blue), and sulfur (yellow). These are the colors on the breastplates.
“Lions’ heads” are a picture of ferocity. The lion is a formidable beast, and is presented as such in Scripture. Any encounter between man and lion will not go well for the man. Or, pretty much, for any other animal. This is behind the striking pictures given with regard to that future state of peace in the new heavens and earth, when Christ returns. Isaiah 11:6 speaks of the lion and the calf co-existing peacefully, and Isaiah 65:25 talks of the lion eating straw like an ox, and, presumably, not eating the ox. Lions are listed among vicious predators (Isaiah 30:6, 35:9), and they are used to picture impending judgment (Jeremiah 5:6, 50:44).
The picture of a horse with a lion’s head that breathes fire, has lead some to speculate that John has in mind some kind of mythical fire-breathing beast, or perhaps some kind of modern weapon (e.g., a tank or a rocket launcher). While these are, of course, possible, we must remember this is a vision, and whether or not John is describing a real creature is irrelevant. The symbolism of impending and devastating judgment upon the godless is what matters. And the fact John uses fire, sulfur, smoke, and lions in his descriptions should draw our attention not to mythology, nor to modern newspapers or military manuals, but to the Old Testament. There is a connection between God’s promises of judgment in the past, and His fulfillment of those promises here in Revelation. These horses are ultimately God’s instrument of judgment upon the godless. The world’s disregard of the Lord, particularly His gospel message and His church–the means He has ordained to call all men to repentance–brings about the world’s ultimate condemnation.
We noted how God here is using demonic creatures to bring judgment against the world. Certainly, God in His sovereignty can use whatever means He so chooses to fulfill His purposes. But where we might expect God to send an angelic host to do this, rather He, in essence, pits evil against evil. There’s plenty of Old Testament precedent for God using Satan (Job 1) and forces opposed to His people (the Assyrians and the Babylonians) to do His will. Granted, we don’t often see God turning the wicked upon themselves, but why not? Perhaps this is the most effective, and the most just way of bringing righteous condemnation to bear upon hard-hearted people. And we’ll get a glimpse of how unbelievably hard-hearted they are in the next section.
John refers to the fire, smoke, and sulfur as three “plagues” (the Greek is plêgê), which I take to be a direct reference to the Exodus plagues. There have been enough allusions to Exodus in the judgments we’ve seen so far, such a connection seems obvious–at least to me. Those plagues against the Egyptians were God’s judgment against the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh (and against their gods). Again, we will see that the unbelievers killed by the Revelation 9 plagues are just as hard-hearted, if not moreso!
A third of mankind is killed by these plagues–not by the sword, nor by the sting of a tail. As before, “one third” shows a) God’s sovereignty, in that He controls the number of people affected; and b) that this is not the final judgment–just a prelude. In the end, all will be affected. We observed, however, that while the sting of the locusts’ tails could inflict great harm but not kill (men will desire death, but death will flee from them), the fire-smoke-sulfur combination from the horses’ mouths is lethal. Perhaps we see an escalation of judgments. This is the sixth trumpet, after all–the one before the seventh and last. And that last trumpet signals the Lord’s return, as we’ll see.
Are the “sealed”–i.e., the true church–affected by this? Are they among the “third” killed, or are they counted among the two-thirds that survive? I don’t think the “sealed” are included in the enumeration here, simply because the focus is on the judgment being brought on the godless. I believe this to be the case largely from the next section. We’re told the rest of mankind didn’t repent, which implies that the church are not included. Some might want to say that the church has been removed from the Earth at this point. Possibly. But it’s also possible that John’s focus is on the rest of the world. In 9:4, talking about the fifth trumpet, John said that only those who “do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” were affected. To me, this implies that the “sealed” were around, but this is all happening around them. In which case, when John is talking about judgment upon mankind, he’s not talking about the church. Does this mean the church isn’t affected at all by these judgments? I don’t think the judgments are intended for the church, but that doesn’t mean the church won’t be affected, at least indirectly. I base that statement on the fact that, as we have seen in the letters to the seven churches (chapters 2 and 3), God’s promises to His church are spiritual. He doesn’t promise them physical protection. Indeed, in places He predicts there will be those who will go to prison, and die. What God assures His church is that they have a heavenly home, an eternal assurance, that is secure no matter what happens on Earth.
John says the “power” or “authority” of these horses is in their tails as well as their mouths. There’s an awkward phrase in verse 19–at least, awkward in the Greek. Literally it says, “for their tails are like serpents having heads” which seems to state the obvious: serpents have heads. Is he saying that the tails are actually serpents? Or that the tails have the heads of serpents at the end? Remember, this is a vision, so visual coherence is not important. John is drawing attention to the fact that the business end of the serpent is the head, and these horse tails are doing what serpent heads do: inflicting harm. The locust tails in the previous trumpet also inflicted harm, and maybe it’s the same kind of great torment that John has in mind here. This is another example of escalation, since physical anguish to the point of desiring death is now coupled with actual death.
Why a serpent? I don’t think John has in mind snake bites (if for no other reason the Greek ophis doesn’t have to refer to just a snake–any kind of serpent will do). Anyone versed in Scripture knows that the serpent symbolizes Satan, the Deceiver, the Tempter. We don’t only see this in Genesis 3, but we’ll also see the connection between serpent and Satan in Revelation 12:9. There can be no doubt about the nature of these horses now: they are evidently Satanic. The smoke from the mouth also pictures deception, which is another tool of the Enemy, this time employed against the world.
To sum up, these are horses of judgment, but the judgment they bring is not the final judgment, but a prelude. However, this judgment does fulfill the promises God made through the prophets where he said he would punish His enemies, as we have seen in the symbolic language used. In these judgments, God shows Himself to be sovereign, just, and faithful to His people.
Next time, we’ll start (and maybe complete?) the next section, 9:20-21.