The appearance of the locusts: Revelation 9:1-12

Previously: Locusts came to the earth — Revelation 9:1-12

The scripture

Rev. 9:1 – The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth. The key to the shaft of the abyss was given to him. 2 He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft.   3 Then out of the smoke locusts came to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. 5 They were not permitted to kill them, but were to torment [them] for five months; their torment is like the torment caused by a scorpion when it strikes a man. 6 In those days people will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.

  7 The appearance of the locusts was like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were something like gold crowns; their faces were like men’s faces; 8 they had hair like women’s hair; their teeth were like lions’ teeth; 9 they had chests like iron breastplates; the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots with many horses rushing into battle; 10 and they had tails with stingers, like scorpions, so that with their tails they had the power to harm people for five months. 11 They had as their king the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon. 12 The first woe has passed. There are still two more woes to come after this. (HCSB)

The appearance of the locusts

John describes these locusts in graphic terms in verses 7-11:

  • Their appearance is “like horses equipped for battle.” They are coming to wage war and, like horses, they are swift. Joel 2:4 describes locusts this way: “Their appearance is like that of horses, and they gallop like war horses.”
  • On their heads are “something like gold crowns.” This is one of the only places in the New Testament where the victory crown (stephanos) is worn by anyone other than Christ and the saints. And in this case, they only wear “something like gold crowns,” an imitation of the genuine article. Evil thrives – but never endures – when it counterfeits good.
  • Their faces are “like men’s faces.” They are intelligent and able to discern between those who wear God’s mark of protection and those who don’t.
  • They have “hair like women’s hair.” Perhaps a reference to warriors like Samson, they are granted destructive strength. An Arabic proverb compares the antennae of locusts to the hair of girls. Some commentators believe this phrase describes the hairs on locusts’ legs and bodies.
  • Their teeth are “like lion’s teeth.” Like Satan, they roam the earth, seeking whom they may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Joel 1:6 describes invading locusts as having “the teeth of a lion.”
  • They have “chests like iron breastplates.” They will be difficult to confront and almost impossible to defeat.
  • The sound of their wings is “like the sound of chariots with many horses rushing into battle.” The very sound of their approach strikes fear in the hearts of people.
  • They have “tails with stingers, like scorpions.” We will see this imagery again in the sixth trumpet judgment. In Isaiah 9 the “prophet, the lying teacher” is described as the “tail” of Israel, inflicting damage on the people’s understanding of God’s word.
  • Their tails have “the power to harm people for five months.” Whether this is to be taken literally or figuratively, God controls the length of time these locusts run rampant over the earth.
  • They have as their king “the angel of the abyss.” Abaddon rules over these demonic forces; but remember he does not operate independently of God’s sovereign will.

W.A. Criswell comments: “When people persist in iniquity, when people choose to be vile and blasphemous, God lets it continue. If a man chooses the administration of Satan, God lets that man experience what it is to be a servant of the devil. That is what has happened here in the Book of Revelation. The spirit of iniquity works, and it continues and it goes on, and finally it ends in indescribable torment, hurt, agony and pain. We can always remember this: The man who lives in sin builds his house by the very pit of hell. He is next door. This that we find under the fifth trumpet is nothing other than an out-working of evil when men choose to be servants of Satan and when they wear the livery of the devil. Tormenting judgments inevitably come and inevitably flow” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 188).

Four major views of the fifth trumpet

How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the fifth trumpet?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – assign the events of the fifth trumpet to the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. The fallen star is some angel, or some minister of religion like the high priest, and the locusts are the spiritual errors they teach. There is considerable historical evidence that Jewish society in the days before the destruction of Jerusalem is deluded, despotic, and demonic. Jesus’ parable of the unclean spirit in Matt. 12:43-45 warns about the wickedness of this generation and the evil that will befall them when they reject the Messiah and His offer of salvation. The people wish for death, not because the Romans are outside Jerusalem’s gates, but because their own wicked countrymen are inside.
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – say the locusts represent the Muslim Arabs in their campaigns against the Eastern Roman Empire from 612 – 763 AD, with Muhammad as the star that has fallen from heaven. In the Koran there is a remarkable parallel with Rev. 9:4; it reads, “Destroy no palm trees, nor any fields of corn, cut down no fruit trees.” Those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads are corrupt and idolatrous Christians, against whom the Muslims chiefly prevail, according to the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. The five months are five prophetic months that, when using the year-for-a-day principle, equal 150 years, almost exactly the length of time the Muslims ravage the Eastern church. Some Roman Catholics have identified the locusts as the Lutherans of the Reformation, with Martin Luther as the fallen star.
  • Futurists – who say the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – tend to see the fallen star as Satan and the locusts as demonic hordes released against unrepentant sinners at the start of the tribulation. Some futurists equate the fallen star with the pope and the locusts with moral and spiritual errors. A number of futurists believe demonic possession will become widespread in the last days. While many who are possessed will seek death, they are not free to exercise their own wills and are kept alive by the demons who torment them.
  • Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see the fifth trumpet as the internal decay of the Roman Empire. Others, however, contend that the locusts represent demonic forces unleashed upon the earth, with Satan as the angel of the abyss, and the abyss itself the prison of demons. The description of the locusts inflicting torment like scorpions is similar to the biblical depiction of snakes as creatures hostile to man and therefore apt symbols of demons. Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 10:19, “Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy.” As Israel is kept safe from the plagues of Egypt, so God’s people are protected from the locusts. The “five months” are symbolic of a limited period of time, although the demonic torment is so intense its victims wish for death.

The first woe has passed

John ends this segment with a warning: “The first woe has passed. There are still two more woes to come after this” (v. 12). It is an echo of the eagle’s cry in Rev. 8:13: “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth, because of the remaining trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to sound!” While the first woe has resulted in unspeakable torment for unbelievers, John hints that things are about to get even worse.

Even so, there is mercy from God and hope for people. If John is reminding readers that two woes remain, it also means there’s still time to repent. Will the wicked turn to Christ? Or have they passed the point of no return, having filled up their measure of sin (1 Thess. 2:16)?

Next: The sixth trumpet — Revelation 9:13-21