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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Revelation 9

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-21

Chapter 9

THE UNLOCKING OF THE ABYSS (Revelation 9:1-2)

9:1,2 The fifth angel sounded a blast on his trumpet, and I saw a star failing from heaven on the earth, and to him there was given the key of the shaft of the bottomless abyss; and he opened the shaft of the abyss; and smoke went up from the shaft like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the abyss.

The picture of terror mounts in its awful intensity. Now the terrors coming upon the earth are beyond nature; they are demonic; the abyss is being opened and superhuman terrors are being despatched upon the world.

The picture will become clearer if we remember that John thinks of the stars as living beings. This is common in Enoch where, for instance, we read of wandering and disobedient stars being bound hand and foot and cast into the abyss (Enoch 86:1; 88:1). To the Jewish mind the stars were divine beings, who by disobedience could become demonic and evil.

In the Revelation we read fairly often of the abyss or the bottomless pit. The abyss is the intermediate place of punishment of the fallen angels, the demons, the beast, the false prophet and of Satan (Revelation 9:1-2; Revelation 9:11; Revelation 11:7; Revelation 20:1; Revelation 20:3). Their final place of punishment is the lake of burning fire and brimstone (Revelation 20:10; Revelation 20:14-15). To complete the picture of these terrors we may add that Gehenna--which is not mentioned in the Revelation--is the place of punishment for evil men.

This idea of the abyss underwent a development. In the beginning it was the place of the imprisoned waters. In the creation story the primaeval waters surround the earth and God separates them by creating the firmament (Genesis 1:6-7). In its first idea the abyss was the place where the flood of the waters was confined by God beneath the earth, a kind of great subterranean sea, where the waters were imprisoned to make way for the dry land. The second step was that the abyss became the abode of the enemies of God, although even there they were not beyond his power and control (Amos 9:3; Isaiah 51:9; Psalms 74:13).

Next the abyss came to be thought of as a great chasm in the earth. We see this idea in Isaiah 24:21-22, where the disobedient hosts of heaven and the kings of the earth are gathered together as prisoners in the pit.

This is the kind of picture in which inevitably horror mounts upon horror. The most detailed descriptions of the abyss are in Enoch, which was so influential between the Testaments. There it is the prison abode of the angels who fell, the angels who came to earth and seduced mortal women, the angels who taught men to worship demons instead of the true God (Genesis 6:1-4). There are grim descriptions of it. It has no firmament above and no firm earth beneath; it has no water; it has no birds; it is a waste and horrible place, the end of heaven and earth (Enoch 18:12-16). It is chaotic. There is a fire which blazes and a cleft into the abyss whose magnitude passes all conjecture (Enoch 21:1-10).

These things are not to be taken literally. The point is that in this terrible time of devastation which the seer sees coming upon the earth, the terrors are not natural but demonic; the powers of evil are being given their last chance to work their dreadful work.

THE LOCUSTS FROM THE ABYSS (Revelation 9:3-12)

9:3-12 From the smoke locusts came forth upon the earth, and they were given power like the power of the scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only such men as had not the seal of God upon their forehead. They were not permitted to kill them, but to torture them for five months. Their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it strikes a man; and in those days men will seek for death and not be able to find it; and they will long to die but death flees from them.

In likeness the locusts were like horses prepared for battle; on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold. Their faces were like human faces and they had hair like women's hair, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions. They had scales like iron breastplates, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of many chariots with horses running to battle. They have tails like scorpions with stings, and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months. As king over them they have the angel of the bottomless abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek Appolyon. The first woe has passed. Behold, there are still two woes to follow it.

From the smoke which emerged from the shaft of the abyss came a terrible invasion of locusts. The devastation locusts can inflict and the terror they can cause is well-nigh incredible. All through the Old Testament the locust is the symbol of destruction; and the most vivid and terrible description of them and of their destructiveness is in Joel 1:1-20; Joel 2:1-32 which are a description of an invasion of locusts; and it is from these two chapters that John takes much of his material. They laid the vine waste and stripped the bark from the trees; the field is wasted and the corn is destroyed; every tree of the field is wasted and withered; and the flocks and herds starve because there is no pasture (Joel 1:7-18). They are like a great strong people who darken the very sky; they are as destructive as a flame of fire and nothing escapes them; they are like horses and they run like chariots, with a noise like flame devouring the stubble; they march in their ranks like mighty men of war; they scale the mountains, climb into houses and enter in at the windows, until the very earth shudders at them (Joel 2:1-11). The two chapters of Joel should be read in full and set beside the description in the Revelation.

G. R. Driver in his commentary on Joel in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges has collected the facts about locusts in his notes and in a special appendix; and he has shown that the words of Joel and of the Revelation are no exaggeration.

The locusts breed in desert places and invade the cultivated lands for food. They may be about two inches in length, with a wing span of four to five inches. They belong to the same family as the household cricket and the grasshopper. They will travel in a column a hundred feet deep and as much as four miles long. When such a cloud of locusts appears, it is as if there had been an eclipse of the sun and even great buildings less than two hundred feet away cannot be seen.

The destruction they cause is beyond belief. When they have left an area, not a blade of grass is to be seen; the trees are stripped of their bark. Land where the locusts have settled looks as if it had been scorched with a bush fire; not one single living thing is left. Their destructiveness can best be appreciated from the fact that it is recorded that in 1866 a plague of locusts invaded Algiers and so total was the destruction which they caused that 200,000 people perished of famine in the days which followed.

The noise of the millions of their wings is variously described as like the dashing of waters in a mill-wheel or the sound of a great cataract. When the millions of them settle on the ground the sound of their eating has been described as like the crackling of a prairie fire. The sound of them on the march is like heavy rain falling on a distant forest.

It has always been noticed that the head of the locust is like the miniature head of a horse. For that reason the Italian word for locust is cavaletta and the German Heupferd.

When they move, they move inexorably on like an army with leaders. People have dug trenches, lit fires, and even fired cannon in an attempt to stop them but without success; they come on in a steady column which climbs hills, enters houses and leaves scorched earth behind.

There is no more destructive visitation in the world than a visitation of locusts, and this is the terrible devastation which John sees, although the demonic locusts from the pit are different from any earthly insect.

THE DEMONIC LOCUSTS (Revelation 9:3-12 continued)

Hebrew has a number of different names for the locust which reveal its destructive power. It is called gazam (Hebrew #1501), the lopper or the shearer, which describes how it shears all living vegetation from the earth; it is called 'arbeh (Hebrew #697), the swarmer, which describes the immensity of its numbers; it is called hasil, the finisher, which describes the devastation it causes; it is called caal'am (Hebrew #5556), the swallower or the annihilator; it is called hargol (compare Hebrew #7270), the galloper, which describes its rapid progress over the land; it is called tslatsal (Hebrew #6767), the creaker, which describes the sound it makes.

It is not the vegetation of the earth which they are to attack; in fact they are forbidden to do that (Revelation 9:4); their attack is to be launched against the men who have not the seal of God upon their foreheads.

The ordinary locust is devastating to vegetation but not harmful to human beings; but the demonic locust is to have the sting of a scorpion, one of the scourges of Palestine. In shape the scorpion is like a small lobster, with lobster-like claws to clutch its prey. It has a long tail, which curves up over its back and over its head; at the end of the tail there is a curved claw; with this claw the scorpion strikes and it secretes poison as the blow is delivered. The scorpion can be up to six inches in length; it swarms in crannies in walls and literally under almost every stone. Campers tell us that every stone must be lifted when a tent is pitched lest a scorpion be beneath it. Its sting is worse than the sting of a hornet; it is not necessarily fatal, but it can kill. The demonic locusts have the power of scorpions added to them.

Their attack is to last for five months. The explanation of the five months is almost probably that the life-span of a locust from birth, through the larva stage, to death is five months. It is as if we might say that one generation of locusts is being launched upon the earth.

Such will be the suffering caused by the locusts that men will long for death but will not be able to die. Job speaks of the supreme misery of those who long for death and it comes not (Job 3:21); and Jeremiah speaks of the day when men will choose death rather than life (Jeremiah 8:3). A Latin writer, Cornelius Gallus, says: "Worse than any wound is to wish to die and yet not be able to do so."

The king of the locusts is called in Hebrew Abaddon (Hebrew #11; Greek #3) and in Greek Apollyon (Greek #623). Abaddon (Hebrew #11) is the Hebrew for destruction; it occurs oftenest in the phrases "death and destruction," and "hell and destruction" (Job 26:6; Job 28:22; Job 31:12; Psalms 88:11; Proverbs 15:11; Proverbs 27:20). Apollyon (Greek #623) is the present participle of the Greek verb to destroy and itself means The Destroyer. It is fitting that the king of the demonic locusts should be called Destruction and The Destroyer.

THE HORSEMEN OF VENGEANCE (Revelation 9:13-21)

9:13-21 The sixth angel sounded a blast on his trumpet and I heard a voice from the four horns of the altar saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet: "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates." So there came the four angels who were prepared for that hour and day and month and year, to kill a third part of the human race. The number of the armed forces of cavalry was twenty thousand times ten thousand. I heard their number, and this was how I saw in appearance the horses and those who were seated on them. They had breastplates of fiery red, and smoky blue, and sulphurous yellow. The heads of the horses were like the heads of lions, and from their mouths there issued fire and smoke and brimstone. With these three plagues they killed a third part of the human race, with the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which were issuing from their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like snakes with heads, and with them they inflict their hurt.

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, even in spite of this did not repent of the deeds of their hands, so as to cease to worship demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which can neither hear nor see nor move; nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts.

The horror of the picture mounts. The demonic locusts were allowed to injure but not kill; but now come the squadrons of demonic cavalry to annihilate a third part of the human race.

This is a passage whose imagery is mysterious and whose details no one has ever been able fully to explain.

No one really knows who were the four angels bound at the river Euphrates. We can only set down what we know and what we can guess. The Euphrates was the ideal boundary of the territory of Israel. It was God's promise to Abraham: "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates" (Genesis 15:18). The angels, therefore, came from the distant lands, from the alien and hostile places from which the Assyrians and the Babylonians had in time past descended with destruction upon Israel.

Further, in the Book of Enoch we frequently meet angels who are described as the Angels of Punishment. Their task was at the right time to unleash the avenging wrath of God upon the people. Undoubtedly these four angels were included among the Angels of Punishment.

We have to add another fact to all this. We have frequently seen how the pictures of John are coloured by actual historical circumstances. The most dreaded warriors in the world were the Parthian cavalry; and the Parthians dwelt beyond the Euphrates. It may well be that John was visualizing a terrible descent of the Parthian cavalry on mankind.

The seer adds horror to horror. The number of the hosts of this terrible cavalry is 200,000,000, which simply means that they were beyond all numbering, like the chariots of God (Psalms 68:17). They seem to be armoured in flame, for their breastplates are fiery red like the glow of a blazing furnace, smoky blue like the smoke rising from a fire and sulphurous yellow like the brimstone from the pit of hell. The horses have heads like lions and tails like serpents; they breathe out destructive fire and smoke and brimstone, and their serpent-tails deal out hurt and harm. The consequence of all this is that one-third of the human race is destroyed.

It would have been only natural to think that the remainder of mankind would take warning from this dreadful fate; but they did not and continued to worship their idols and demons and in the evil of their ways. It is the conviction of the biblical writers that the worship of idols was nothing less than devil worship and that it was bound to issue in evil and immorality.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 9:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-9.html. 1956-1959.

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