Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The resemblance in arrangement of the visions of the trumpets and the visions of the seals has already been noticed; but the warning cry, Woe, woe, woe ! has no parallel in the seals. The trumpets which follow are fraught with woo and judgment to the dwellers upon the earth.
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.(1) And the fifth angel . . .—Translate, And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star out of the heaven fallen (not “fall,” as in English version; the seer saw not a falling, but a fallen, star) upon the earth. The emblem of a fallen star is used elsewhere in the Bible. Isaiah (Isaiah 14:12) speaks of Lucifer fallen from heaven. Christ described Satan as lightning falling from heaven. Some great power or ruler is represented, then, by this fallen star. He is, moreover, said to have fallen from heaven, and he is represented as having been given the key of the abyss. Does not this lead us to expect the working of some evil spirit and diabolical agency? The 11th verse confirms our expectation. We may compare Revelation 12:8-12, where Satan is described as defeated, cast down to the earth, and filled with wrath. To understand this fallen star as the representative of a good angel seems hardly possible.
And to him was given . . .—Literally, and there was given to him (i.e., to the being represented as a fallen star) the key of (not “the bottomless pit”) the pit of the abyss. The abyss is the same word rendered “the deep,” in Luke 8:31, where the demons besought our Lord not to send them into the abyss, or deep. It is the word which describes the abode of the evil spirits. The verse before us suggests the picture of a vast depth approached by a pit or shaft, whose top, or mouth, is covered. Dante’s Inferno, with its narrowing circles winding down to the central shaft, is somewhat similar. The abyss is the lowest spring of evil, whence the worst dangers arise. (Comp. Revelation 11:7; Revelation 17:8; Revelation 20:1-3.)
And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.(2) And he opened . . .—Translate, And he opened the pit of the abyss; and there went up smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun was darkened, and the air, by reason of the smoke of the pit. The first result of the opening of the pit is the diffusion of such a dense smoke that light and atmosphere are darkened. In the previous vision there was an obscuration of light arising from the smiting of the luminaries; in this the obscuration arises from causes external to the luminaries. In that the light-giving power was enfeebled; in this the light is not enfeebled, but hindered. This must be remembered. The interpretation of these visions is most difficult; but we must bear in mind that they are descriptive of that great war which the Church is waging with the world, which good is waging with evil, but the end of which, we are assured, is the victory of good. The kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15); but during the progress of the war the issue will often appear doubtful: nay, even the triumph may seem to be in the hand of the enemy; but faith disregards the back-flowing waves, for she knows the tide is coming in. We have seen that the advance of Christianity is marked by the manifestation of evils as well as the establishment of good. Christianity does not create evils, but the very intense honesty of her principles reveals the hidden force of unsuspected corruption. Thus the faith of Christ is come to give light unto the world, but in her progress many lights fall—the false lights of world-power, world-wisdom, false religionism, and heresies. The enemy, too, is at work, and seeks to obscure her light by the diffusion of dark and low-born thoughts. The smoke of the pit blackens the light and confuses the atmosphere. Now, this obscuration is surely the diffusion on earth of evil thoughts and ideas, the spirit of falsehood and hate, hostility to truth, and enmity against God and man. The bright, clear air made gladsome by the sun is darkened; “all forms that once appeared beautiful become hideous.”
And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.(3) And there came . . .—Better, And out of the smoke there came forth locusts upon the earth; and there was given to them power, as the scorpions of the earth (? land-scorpions) have power. The outcome of the gloom is the power of devastation and pain. We still have reference to the Egyptian plagues—this time to the locusts (Exodus 10:12-15): “They covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened.” Similarly, Joel describes the darkening of the land through the plague of locusts (Joel 2:3-10): “The sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.” But the locusts of our vision are armed with the power of scorpions, to sting and to torture (Revelation 9:5): the scorpions are called scorpions of the earth. Some have thought that this expression is equivalent to land-scorpions, in contradistinction from so-called sea-scorpions. This hardly seems likely or necessary. Their power to torment men is the prominent idea. The locusts are not literal locusts: this scorpion- like power given to them is enough to convince us of this, even it the next verse did not clearly show it. The scorpion-like power seems to depict a malicious energy, as the locusts depict a devastating multitude.
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.(4) And it was commanded . . .—Translate, And it was commanded them that they shall not injure the grass of the earth, nor yet any green thing, nor yet any tree; but only (or, except) the men whosoever have not the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts which are sent not to injure the vegetation are clearly not literal locusts, and the security of those who have the seal of God in their foreheads (those who were described as sealed, and so assured of safety against the tempest blast: see Revelation 7:1-3, et seq.) may confirm us in this view. Whatever the plague be, it is one which cannot injure God’s children. “Nothing,” Christ has said, “shall by any means hurt you. I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10:19). It is interesting and suggestive to notice that this promise of our Lord was given immediately after the saying, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,” as the safety of the sealed ones is mentioned here after the vision of the star fallen from heaven. The coincidence is hardly undesigned; at least, the sense in which we understand the danger from which Christ promised His disciples protection may afford us a guiding meaning here. Now, none have maintained that Christ promised His disciples entire freedom from danger, pain, and death. He said, “They shall persecute you and kill you; ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake, but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” No real injury can happen to them; pain and death might be encountered, but all things work together for their higher good. They have a joy which no pain or peril can take away; they have a joy in this (it is the same chapter as above—Luke 10), that their “names are written in heaven.” For such, death has no sting, the grave no victory. They meet famine and nakedness, and peril and sword; but in these they are more than conquerors. No plague can hurt those who have the seal of God in their foreheads. A plague from which those whose way is through tribulation are exempt can hardly be a physical one.
And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.(5) And to them . . .—Better, And it was given to them that they should not kill them (i.e., those who had not the seal of God in their foreheads), but that they should be tortured five months. The general period of a locust plague is about five months: “as the natural locusts commit their ravages only for five months, so the ravages of these symbolical ones will be only for a short period” (Stuart). Their power is to inflict torment, and not death. The next verse tells us that men would consider death preferable to this torment; but the relief of the grave is denied them.
And their torment . . .—Literally, and the torture of them (i.e., the torture inflicted by them) is as the torture of a scorpion when it has stricken a man. The wound of a scorpion occasions intense suffering: we have in it the symbol of the malicious cruelty of the merciless. The emblem is used in Ezekiel: the rebellious and malicious opponents of the prophet being compared to scorpions (Ezekiel 2:6). We may compare the similar imagery of the bee for the Assyrian power (Isaiah 7:18), and the Psalmist’s complaint that his enemies came about him like bees—a swarm, irritating him with wing and sting. The tenth verse tells us the way in which the injury was inflicted: there were stings in their tails.
And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.(6) And in those days . . .—Translate, And in those days men shall seek death, and shall not find it; and they shall yearn to die, and death flees from them. The change of tense from the future (“shall seek— shall yearn”) to the present (“death flees”) gives graphic force to the description. Men will seek for death in vain; they will long to die, and lo ! death is seen fleeing from them. We can see an age in which death will be regarded as a sweet respite from the tormenting trials of life: men will stretch out their hands to death as to a welcome deliverer; but behold! death is seen fleeing from them. The word translated “desire” in our English version is a strong word; it has been rendered vehemently desire: it is a passionate longing, as the yearning of the soul after one we love. There have been ages in which men have thus pined for death, in which light and life seem but mockeries to the miserable, and men “long for death, but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hid treasures” (Job 3:20-21). Such times are those which have been well called reigns of terror.
And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.(7) And the shapes . . .—Translate, And the shapes (or, forms) of the locusts were like horses made ready for war. The resemblance of the locust to the horse (especially in the head) has been remarked upon by travellers, and has found expression in the Italian and German names cavalletta and heupferd. The resemblance is more distinct when the horses are made ready for battle: the hard shell or scales of the locust having the appearance of armour. Hence it has been thought that the sacred writer here alludes to this horse-like appearance of the locust. It seems a little doubtful that this is the case, or that in this or any of the descriptions here there is any reference to the anatomical features of the locust. (See Note on Revelation 9:10.)
And on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.—Here again there has been a desire to find some physical appearance in the locust to suggest the crown of gold: the antennae, the rugged elevation in the middle of the thorax, have been imagined to have some resemblance to a crown; and the face of the locust, it has actually been said, bears under ordinary circumstances a distant (the adjective is most needful) resemblance to the human countenance.
And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.(8)And they had hair . . .—Translate, And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions, and they had breastplates as iron breastplates; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of (having, i.e., drawn by) many horses, running to war. The hair: It is said that some locusts are hairy, and the passage in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51:27) has been quoted as evidence (the rough caterpillars here spoken of being said to be “locusts bristling with hair”), but the application of the passage is uncertain: the rough caterpillar may be the locust in the third stage, when the wings are still enveloped in rough horny cases which stick upon their backs. Others think the idea of the woman-like hair has its basis in the antlers of the locust. The teeth like those of the lion is a description the origin of which is found in the prophet Joel, in his prediction of the locust plague: “a nation cometh upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth (or, grinding-teeth) of a great lion.” The terrible destructiveness of the locusts, and their strong, ceaseless, and resistless voracity, were thus described. Their breastplates are taken as descriptive of their thoraxes, which in the vision seemed strong as iron. The comparison of the sound of the wings to the thunderous sound of chariots and horses rushing into battle is repeated from Joel 2.
And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.(10)And they had tails . . .—Better, And they have tails like to scorpions, and stings, and in their tails is their power to hurt men five months. In this verse the secret of their power is mentioned: they have tails like scorpions’ tails, and stings which wound and so cause agony to men. On the period of five months, see Revelation 9:5. In the exposition of this passage it is utterly vain to look for features of the ordinary natural locust corresponding to the several particulars set forth by the sacred seer: this is admitted even by those who seem anxious to find such counterparts. “We must regard the comparison as rather belonging to the supernatural portion of our description.” The rule is a good one. Like the description of the Divine Presence in Revelation 4, most of the visions of the book are incapable of pictorial realisation without incongruities which would be grotesque and profane; nor need we be surprised, since the principles and truths are the main points with the writer. This general rule must be kept in mind if we would avoid the danger of dwelling too much on the bearing of details. It is not in the locust that we shall find even the suggestive basis of the details in the description here. The smoke rises from the pit of the abyss; the heaven is darkened, and out of the smoke emerges the pitchy cloud of locusts. The seer then adds certain characteristics of this locust plague, partly drawn from the earlier prophets, but, as his custom is, with some original additions. They are locusts, but they have the malice of scorpions; they advance like horse-soldiers to battle; they wear crowns; they bear a resemblance to men; there is something womanlike also in their appearance, and in their voracity they are as lions. The exigencies of the symbolism are quite beyond the features of the ordinary locust: the sacred writer shows us a plague in which devastation, malice, kinglike authority, intelligence, seductiveness, fierceness, strength, meet together under one directing spirit, to torment men. Some parts may be purely graphic, as Alford says, but surely the vision shows us a great symbolical army multitudinous as locusts, malicious as scorpions, ruling as kings, intelligent as men, wily as womanhood, bold and fierce as lions, resistless as those clad in iron armour. The symbolism of course must not be pressed too closely, but its meaning must be allowed to widen as new elements are added, especially when those elements are not suggested by anything in the locust itself, but are additions clearly designed to give force to the symbol employed. The locust-like army has characteristics partly human, partly diabolical, partly civilised, partly barbarous. They have been variously interpreted: the historical school have seen in them the Saracens under Mohammed, who gave to them a religion which was “essentially a military system;” others are inclined to refer them to “the hordes of Goths and others whose unkempt locks and savage ferocity” resemble this locust host. There is a good ground for taking the vision to prefigure the hosts of a fierce invading army. Even those who believe that Joel’s prophecy foretold a plague of literal locusts, yet acknowledge that these “may in a subsidiary manner” represent “the northern, or Assyrian enemies of Judah” (Introduction to Joel, Speaker’s Commentary). But, as the writer there says, these were “themselves types of still future scourges;” so may we see here a vision which neither the history of the Zealots, nor that of Gothic hordes, nor of Saracens, have exhausted, but one which draws our thoughts mainly to its spiritual and moral bearing, and teaches us that in the history of advancing truth there will come times when confused ideas will darken simple truth and right, and out of the darkness will emerge strange and mongrel teachings, with a certain enforced unity, but without moral harmony, a medley of fair and hideous, reasonable and barbarous, dignified and debased, which enslave and torment mankind. The outcome of these teachings is oftentimes war and tyrannous oppression; but the sacred seer teaches us distinctly that those who hold fast by the seal of God are those who cannot be injured, for he would have us remember that the true sting of false conceptions is not in the havoc of open war, but in the wounded soul and conscience. Nor is it altogether out of place to notice (by way of one example) that the power of Mohammed was more in a divided and debased Christendom than in his own creed or sword; the smoke of ill-regulated opinions and erroneous teachings preceded the scourge. Here, as in other parts of the book, we may notice that subtle, plausible errors pave the way for dire troubles and often sanguinary revolutions. Falsehoods and false worships that have been diffused over the world become “the forerunners and foretellers of a conflict between the powers of good and evil.” Yet as the trumpet sounds we know that every battle is a step towards the end of a victorious war.
And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.(11) And they had a king . . .—Better, They have over them as king (not “the angel,” as in English version) an angel of the abyss; his name (is) in Hebrew Abaddon, and in the Greek he has a name, Apollyon. There is more than one point in which the seer wishes us to mark the contrast between these symbolical and the natural locusts. Locusts have no sting; these have. Locusts have no king (Proverbs 30:27); these have a king. The movements of the invading locusts are conducted with wonderful precision and order, yet no presiding monarch arranges their march; but here there is a directing and controlling head. The great movement is no mere undesigned or instinctive one, but the offspring of a hidden, spiritual force. The great battle is not on the surface only, the invasions, revolutions, tyrannies, which try and trouble mankind, involve spiritual principles, and are but tokens of the great conflict between the spirit of destruction and the spirit of salvation, between Christ and Belial, God and Mammon, the Prince of this world and the Prince of the kings of the earth. The king of these locust hordes is named in Hebrew Abaddon, or Perdition, a name sometimes given to the place or abode of destruction (Job 26:6). “Destruction (Abaddon) hath no covering”—i.e., before God. (Comp. Proverbs 15:11). In Greek his name is Apollyon, or Destroyer: The spirit of the destroyer is the spirit that inspires these hosts. It is a great movement, but its end is destruction, as its inspiring genius is from beneath, from an angel of the nether world. It is not necessary for us to seek some great historical personage for the fulfilment of this portion of the prophecy, any more than we ought to accept any great historical event as an exhaustive fulfilment of the vision. The picture is vivid and forcible, and its full and certain meaning will be plain hereafter; but it at least should draw our minds from the curiosity which seeks for historical or personal counterparts to the self-vigilance which fears lest our own spirit should be injured by the prevalence of any form of evil. It should teach us to remember always the vehement, earnest way in which the sacred writers describe the subtle, venomous power of all sin, and the merciless destructiveness of its work. It is not of any invading hosts, or signal and special forms of evil, but of the terrible and usual influence of all sin, that the Apostle St. Paul writes when he describes the world-wide devastations of sin in language partly borrowed from the Old Testament, but singularly reminding us of the vision before us. “There is none that doeth good; no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; the poison of asps is upon their lips; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:12-18). It is perhaps well to notice that at this fifth trumpet the unseen spiritual powers of darkness appear taking part in. the conflict. There is a time when the obstinate resistance of mankind (yes, and of individual men and women also) to better things becomes fortified by an evil spirit, and they are no longer passive resisters of good, but they become active antagonists of good, hating and obscuring the light of truth, and wounding the spirits and consciences of men. Alas! many walk of whom the Apostle could only say with tears, “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ” (the emblem of salvation), “and whose end is destruction” (Philippians 3:18-19).
One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter.(12) One woe is passed . . .—Better, The one woe has passed; behold there cometh (the verb is in the ( singular) yet two woes after these things. Here is the patience and faith of the saints. The troubles which pass only yield place to more, the rest and the victory are not yet; the powers of evil have not exhausted themselves, the iniquity of the social and spiritual Amorites is not yet full,
(12) THE SIXTH TRUMPET—THE SECOND WOE TRUMPET.—The first point which will strike the reader is that the plague under this trumpet resembles the last, though it is one of much more aggravated nature. Again we have vast hosts, with the powers of the horse, the lion, and the viper, at command, but the destructive elements are increased, the multitudes are more numerous, the horses’ heads grow lion-like. With the mouth breathing forth threatening and slaughter, as well as with the tail armed with deadly fangs, they can deal forth, not torment only, as in the last vision, but death itself, to a vast proportion of the human race. To aid in this new desolation new forces are released: the four angels bound near the Euphrates are loosed. The next point to notice is that, even more directly than before, we are reminded that the moral and spiritual aspect of these visions should claim our thought. The aim of the plague is to exhibit the death-working power of false thoughts, false customs, false beliefs, and to rouse men to forsake the false worships, worldliness, and self-indulgence into which they had fallen (Revelation 9:20-21). The Psalmist has told us that great plagues remain for the ungodly. Here, whatever special interpretations we may adopt, is an illustration of the Psalmist’s words. The enemy against whom these foes are gathered is the great world lost in false thoughts, luxurious ways, dishonest customs; that world which in the very essential genius of its nature is hostile to goodness and the God of goodness. But the hosts which come against this sin-drowned world are not merely plagues, as famine and pestilence, they are plagues which are the results of the world-spirit, and are to a great extent, therefore, the creation of those who suffer. For there are evils which are loosed upon the world by the natural action of sin and sinful customs. As the evil spirit mingled for the first time in the plague of the fifth trumpet, so from all quarters (typified by the four angels) new powers of misery arise. Nor must another feature be overlooked: the historical basis of the Apocalypse is the past history of the chosen people; God’s dealings with men always follow the same lines. The Apocalypse shows us the same principles working in higher levels and in wider arena. The Israel of God, the Church of Christ, with its grand opportunities, takes the place of the national Israel. Its advance is against the world, and the trumpets of war are sounded. Its progress is, like Israel’s, at first a success; it gains its footing in the world, but the world-spirit which infects it is its worst and bitterest foe; it becomes timid, and seeks false alliances; it has its Hezekiahs, men of astonishing faith in hours of real peril, and of astonishing timidity in times of comparative safety, who can defy a real foe, but fall before a pretended ally, and who in mistaken friendliness lay the foundation of more terrible dangers (2Kings 20:12-19). The people who are victorious by faith at Jericho lay themselves open by their timid worldliness to the dangers of a Babylonish foe. The plague which falls on the spirit of worldliness does not spare the worldliness in the Church. he overthrow of corrupted systems bearing the Christian name is not a victory of the world over the Church, but of the Church over the world. He who mistakes the husk for the grain, and the shell for the kernel, will despair for Christianity when organisations disappear; but he who remembers that God is able to raise up even of the stones children to Abraham, will never be confounded; he knows the vision may linger, but it cannot come too late (Hebrews 2:3). With all this section the prophecy of Habakkuk should be compared, especially Revelation 1:6-11; Revelation 1:14-15; Revelation 2:1-14; Revelation 3:17-19. The history of Israel is in much the key to the history of the world.
And the sixth angel . . . .—Translate, And the sixth angel sounded: and I heard a (single) voice out of the (four) horns of the golden altar, which is before God, saying to the sixth angel, him who had the trumpet (or, O thou, who hast the trumpet), Loose the four angels which are bound at the great river Euphrates. There are one or two verbal points worthy of notice. The Sinaitic MS. omits the words “single” and “out of the four horns,” and thus reads, “I heard a voice out of the golden altar.” It was the same altar from which the incense ascended mingled with the prayers of the saints. (See Revelation 8:3.) Where the prayers were, thence the voice comes. It reminds us that the prayers are not ineffectual, that still they are heard, though the way of answering may be in strange and painful judgments. The voice is heard as a single voice out of the midst of the horns of the altar. It is very doubtful whether the word “four” ought to be retained. The voice is represented as rising from the surface of the altar, at the corners of which were the four projections known as horns. The command is to loose the four angels bound at the Euphrates. What are these? Their number—four—represents powers influencing all quarters. They are angels (that is, messengers, or agencies) employed for the purpose. They are at or near the river Euphrates—that is, the spot whence the forces would arise. What is meant by the Euphrates? Are we to understand it literally? This can hardly be, unless we are prepared to take Babylon and Jerusalem literally also, and to deny all mystical meaning; but this is what only few will be disposed to do. The two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, are the types of two radically different sets of ideas, two totally antagonistic views of life; and the meaning and mystical import of the River Euphrates must be determined by its relation to these two cities. It has been, indeed, argued that we are not bound to take the name Euphrates mystically because the remainder of the vision is mystical, since in Scripture we often find the literal and the allegorical intermingled. For example, there is an allegory in Psalm 80:8; Psalm 80:11, “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt,” &c. It is quite plain that the vine is used mystically to represent Israel; but the word Egypt is not mystical—it indicates the literal fact that out of Egypt Israel was brought. This is no doubt true, but if hardly meets the question here. No one will dispute that a distinct, literal fact or name may be introduced in a passage otherwise allegorical; but do we ever meet with a passage in which names of places are introduced, some of which were to be taken literally and some mystically? And such would be the case here. The whole tenor of the Apocalypse keeps before us Jerusalem, the temple, and its surroundings (Revelation 11:1; Revelation 11:8), and Babylon, with its might and opulence, as two opposing cities; and it is out of all scriptural analogy to interpret Jerusalem allegorically, and Babylon allegorically, and then to claim the privilege of understanding Euphrates literally. In fact, the inconsistency and arbitrariness of interpreters is tested by these three names, Babylon, Jerusalem, Euphrates. Some will have Jerusalem to be literal, and Babylon and Euphrates mystical; others will have Babylon mystical, and Jerusalem and Euphrates literal. Surely those who hold all three to be literal are more consistent. But if Babylon be mystical and Jerusalem mystical, it is hard to see why Euphrates should not be so also. I am far from denying that those who consistently hold all three to be literal may not be right. There are not wanting tokens that a revival of the East may change the whole political centre of gravity of the world; but no such literal fulfilment would annul the infinitely more important mystical aspect of the Apocalypse. The conflict between a literal Babylon and a literal Jerusalem either in the past or the future can never vie in interest with the prolonged and widespread conflict between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Belial, between God and Mammon, which is waged along the whole line of history over the arena of the whole world, and plants its battle-ground in every human heart. In every man, and in the whole world, the war is waged, as the carnal and spiritual contend with one another. It is in this war between the mystical Jerusalem and the mystical Babylon that the great river Euphrates is to play an important part.
Twice (here and in Revelation 16:12) the river Euphrates appears, and each time in connection with some warlike demonstration or invasion. The basis of interpretation, as with Jerusalem and Babylon, must be sought in the history of Judah and Israel. Babylon is the great foe of Israel, and the Euphrates was the great river or flood which formed a natural boundary between them. “The other side of the flood” (i.e., Euphrates) was the phrase which pointed back to the early life of Abraham before he had entered upon the life of pilgrimage and faith; the Euphrates was the rubicon of his spiritual history. The Euphrates was the great military barrier also between the northern and southern nations; it occupied a place similar to the Rhine and the Danube in modern history. The advance of the Egyptian army to the banks of the Euphrates threatened the integrity of the Assyrian empire (2Kings 23:29). The battle of Carchemish established the supremacy of the Chaldean power to the west of the Euphrates (2Kings 24:7); such a preponderance of Babylonish influence threatened the safety of Jerusalem. The loosing of the four angels (or, powers) bound at the Euphrates can only signify changes analogous to disturbances on the great frontier line, as the drying up of the Euphrates signifies the annihilation of the protecting boundary. Such a frontier line between the spiritual city and the world city does in practice exist. There is a vast stretch of intervening territory which neither the Church nor the world really possesses, but over which each desires to possess power. There is a great neutral zone of public opinion, civilised habits, general morality, which is hardly Christian, hardly anti-Christian. When Christianised sentiments prevail in this, there is comparative peace, but when this becomes saturated with anti-Christian ideas, the Church suffers; and it is out of this that the worst aspects of trouble and danger arise; for out of it arise those forces which bring into acute form the great war between the world spirit and the spirit of Christ. The loosing of these four angels, then, seems to indicate that the issues at stake have become more distinct; that the conflict which has gone on under veiled forms begins to assume wider proportions and to be fought on clearer issues. The issues have been somewhat confused: the world spirit has crept into the Church, and against the world spirit, wherever found, the trumpet blast declares war.
And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.(15) And the four angels . . .—Better, And there were loosed the four angels who had been made ready unto (or for, i.e., ready for) the (not “an hour,” but the) hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should slay the third part of mankind. The English version reads as though the hour, day, month and year were to be understood as the length of time over which this plague of war should last. This idea has been adopted by many of the historical school of interpreters, and great ingenuity has been exercised to find some period which exactly corresponds with this, and during which disastrous wars prevailed. But the expression (“made ready unto the hour,” &c.) is not to be taken to imply that such was the duration of the plague; it implies that the loosing of the angels would take place at a definite period, the year, month, day and hour of which were known; the expression corresponds somewhat with our Lord’s words, “Of that day and hour knoweth no man.” It reminds us that there is a period—an unknown period, but nevertheless a certain period—at which the latent powers of retribution wake and begin to avenge themselves, at which the restraints which have withheld the long-deserved scourges are removed. Men and nations little think of this. Peace they cry, where there is no peace, for they have been by their sins mining the ground under their feet, or dwelling in that abode of false security which Bunyan might have called the city of Meanwell, and that abode is built on the sands; and when the angels of judgment are loosed, and the restraining influences of public opinion broken, the tempest is abroad, the frail house of formal religion falls, and the time of testing leaves its inmates unsheltered. Happy only are they who are ready for the hour of the Lord’s return. The angels are made ready that they should kill the third part of mankind. The way in which this slaughter is to take place is explained in Revelation 9:17-18 : it is a wide and devastating slaughter carrying away a large portion of the human race.
And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.(16) And the number . . .—Translate, And the number of the armies of the cavalry was two myriads of myriads. I heard the number of them. The writer heard, perhaps from some herald angel, the number of this vast army of horsemen; it was twice ten-thousand times ten thousand—i.e., two hundred millions. The number is like an echo from Psalm 68:17—“The chariots of God are twenty thousand (two myriads), even thousands (or, thousands of thousands) of angels.” This utterly bewildering number might have been sufficient to keep interpreters from looking for some slavishly literal fulfilment: it simply stands for an immense host, and may serve to point out the prolific powers of retribution—the harvest of sin is misery, multiplied thirty, sixty, one hundred-fold.
And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.(17) And thus I saw . . .—Better, And after this manner saw I the horses in the vision, and those who sat upon them, having breastplates fiery and jacinth-like, and brimstone-like, and the heads of the horses were as heads of lions; and out of their mouths goeth forth fire and smoke and brimstone. The seer proceeds to describe the general appearance of the horses and horsemen. After this fashion were they: the horses and horsemen were armed with breastplates of triple hue (corresponding to the three-fold destructive stream which goes forth from their mouth), the hues of flame, and dark purple (jacinth), and brimstone. The jacinth colour seems to be the dark purple or blue so often seen in smoke. The Poet Laureate uses the word “azure” to describe the colour of ascending columns of smoke (“azure pillars of the hearth arise to thee”): the colour here would be darker, the smoke not arising from peaceful dwellings, but generated among death-giving elements. The army is mainly of horsemen, and they are described as resolute and relentless: we are reminded of somewhat similar features in the Chaldean armies spoken of by Habakkuk, “I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation: they are terrible and dreadful: their horses also are swifter than leopards,” &c. (Habakkuk 1:6-10).
By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.(18) By these three . . .—Better, From these three plagues were the third part of mankind slain, by the tire and the smoke and the brimstone which goeth forth out of their mouths. For the power of the horse is in their mouth, and in their tails, for their tails were like serpents, having heads, and with them they hurt (or, injure). The destructive power in this vision is in mouth and tail, in the last trumpet-vision it was in the tail only (Revelation 9:10). The devastating power is increased; the foes come swift as horsemen, strong as lions, venomous as serpents, breathing forth elements that blind and burn with deadly power. We have, then, forces which are mighty, malicious, and relentless, and which are bidden forth against mankind for their sins of worldliness. (See Revelation 9:20-21.) It is not once only in the history of the world that such powers have been let loose. The desolations wrought by invading hordes— the force and ferocity of Turkish power establishing itself in Europe and threatening the power of Christendom—the widespread terror and slaughter promoted by the outbreak of the spirit of unrestrained violence in France, followed by reckless war, may illustrate such a vision as the present; but the main teaching of it is the never-failing truth that the spirit of worldliness provokes its own punishment, wherever it may exist, and its retribution is in a form which serves to reveal what latent power of destruction lurks behind every sin, and what hidden spiritual foes there are to intensify human passions and to increase human misery.
And 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:(20, 21) And the rest . . .—Translate, And the rest of mankind who were not slain in these plagues did not even repent of (or, out of—i.e., so as to forsake) the works of their hands, that they should not worship the demons (evil spirits), and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood; which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk: and they did not repent of (or, out of) their murders, nor of (or, out of) their sorceries, nor out of their fornication, nor out of their thefts. These verses make one or two points clear. First, they show us that, whatever the nature of the plagues might be, they were afflictions designed to bring about repentance, and to rouse men, whether nominally Christian or not, from the lethargy into which long indulged sin had plunged them. Those terrible revolutions which are the growth of years, and which startle men with their apparent suddenness and violence, are the great appeals of God, asking men to see the meaning of sin; they are the trumpet blasts calling to repentance. But we are told more; the remainder of the godless did not repent. We are not, indeed, told that they did not feel terror, or remorse, or momentary qualms and misgivings, but that they did not show that which alone is regarded as genuine repentance, the repentance out of sin, the repentance which turns away from sin. We need always that wholesome caution. We need it most in times when hysterical and emotional religionism is fashionable, and it is forgotten that true repentance is a repentance whereby we forsake sins. These men repented not out of their sin. And their sins are enumerated, and the enumeration again takes us back to the history of Israel as to the historical basis which the sacred seer enlarged and vivified; for the sins are just those against which Israel was warned and into which Israel fell (Deuteronomy 4:28; Psalm 106:34-40; Acts 7:41). The sins are demon-worship and idolatry: “They served idols; they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils.” (Comp. 1Corinthians 10:20; 1Timothy 4:1.) It is needful to trace these sins in the history of Israel, as it has been argued that these are heathen sins, and that therefore these plagues must be plagues which fall on those who are literally heathens. But if we bear in mind that the series of visions describe features which will accompany the advance of Christianity in the world, we shall remember that it is against worldliness, wherever found, idolatries, of whatever kind, murders and thefts, called by whatever name, that the true genius of Christianity makes war. Christ is king, and king of righteousness, and in righteousness does He make war, and the heathenisms which are called Christianity are as much the objects of His displeasure as the most obvious Paganism. It is needful to remember that Jews are addressed as if they were heathen, aye, very habitues of Sodom (Isaiah 1:10), and that the Christian Church is warned against sins which are little else than idolatries. Covetousness, the very essence of worldliness, is by St. Paul twice over called idolatry (Colossians 3:5, and Ephesians 5:5). It seems, therefore, to be foreign to the purpose to try and limit these plagues only to the non-Christian world. To do this is to get a narrow, improbable (may we not say an impossible?) interpretation; for the greatest strength of the world-power would be left untouched. It is true that the visions are not showing us the plagues which fall on apostasy and fornication within the Church; but it is true that we are beholding visions which show how terribly the world-spirit avenges itself on all who harbour it, whether called Christian or not. Gross sins, gigantic frauds, complacent familiarity with crime, followed by blunted moral sense, are heathenish, whether found in Pagan or Christian society. Heavy woes must inevitably await the society which tolerates such works; but the worst omen of the coming doom is seen when society has lost the power to repent because it has lost the power to hate evil. Such an incapacity is invariably significant of advanced moral decay. It is the climax in the growth of sin which the Psalmist noticed where men lose the sacred abhorrence of evil (Psalm 36:4). To such repentance is becoming impossible.