Rev. 9:13 – The sixth angel blew his trumpet. From the four horns of the gold altar that is before God, I heard a voice 14 say to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. 16 The number of mounted troops was 200 million; I heard their number. 17 This is how I saw the horses in my vision: The horsemen had breastplates that were fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulfur yellow. The heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and from their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur. 18 A third of the human race was killed by these three plagues—by the fire, the smoke, and the sulfur that came from their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, because their tails, like snakes, have heads, and they inflict injury with them. 20 The rest of the people, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands to stop worshiping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which are not able to see, hear, or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts. (HCSB)
The number of mounted troops was 200 million
John writes that 200 million mounted troops accompany the four angels released at the Euphrates. The number is so vast that he “heard their number.” No one can count it, even if, as some ancient manuscripts read, the troops number only 100 million. The greatest army assembled in ancient times is by Xerxes when he invades Greece. Herodotus, the Greek historian, says Xerxes brings 2.5 million men. In 1944, 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops land at Normandy on D-Day. And in more recent times, the 34-nation coalition that liberates Kuwait from the forces of Saddam Hussein deploy roughly 1 million troops. An army of 200 million mounted soldiers would cover an area one mile wide and 85 miles deep, by some accounts. And while it is reported today that China is capable of fielding a militia of more than 200 million, it appears that John’s vision should be taken symbolically rather than literally.
In the Greek, this number is expressed as “two myriads of myriads,” or twice 10,000 times 10,000. Likely this is used in a general sense to describe an exceptionally large invasion force with a singular mission: to kill one-third of the earth’s inhabitants. The riders are said to be wearing breastplates of fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulfur yellow. John is quite specific about the colors, which seem to correspond with the fire, smoke and sulfur that come from the horses’ mouths. Some commentators, however, believe these colors reveal the identity of the army as the Turks, who defeat the Byzantine Empire and capture Constantinople in 1453. Others see these riders as the Romans and their allies, who destroy Jerusalem in the war of 66 – 70 A.D.
Note that John places the greatest emphasis, not on the soldiers, but on the horses, which have heads like lions; mouths that breathe fire, smoke and sulfur; and tails with heads, like snakes, that inflict injury. Almost no one takes this literally. Some see this vision as describing the courage, power and brutality of the Romans and their confederates in the Jewish War of the first century. Others believe the fire, smoke, and sulfur are apt symbols of the gunpowder and artillery introduced in Europe and used by the Turks in their conquest of Constantinople. Still others believe this is a vision of future, mechanized tools of war – tanks, helicopters, and missiles. There are, however, many who see these frightening steeds as symbolizing the spiritual damage of false religions – such as Islam or cults of Christianity – that run roughshod over people who have rejected the truth and embraced another Jesus, a different spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).
In the end, the horses and their riders succeed in killing one-third of the human race. And whether one interprets this as physical death, or political, social, religious, or spiritual death, the damage is widespread and devastating.
The rest of the people … did not repent
Perhaps the most shocking truth of this vision is John’s statement: “The rest of the people, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands to stop worshipping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which are not able to see, hear, or walk. And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts” (vv. 20-21).
Think about this for a moment. In the depths of the American Civil War, President Lincoln calls his countrymen to a day of fasting and prayer. In the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, churches are flooded with people beseeching God for His mercy. Droughts, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes have led governors to call the people of their states to prayer. But what is the world’s response to the death of one-third of its inhabitants? Even if the destruction pictured here is limited to the Eastern third of the Roman Empire, or the city of Jerusalem, or the ruin of religious institutions, an event of this magnitude should cause the survivors to fall on their faces before an offended God.
Not here. The “rest of the people,” that is, unbelievers, seem to know that these plagues are aimed at them. Yet they do not turn from their wickedness to God. The hands that could have beaten their chests in remorse and regret instead reach for their idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood. The eyes that could be lifted up to heaven, or lowered in humility to the earth, instead gaze upon inanimate objects fashioned by human hands and backed by demons. The knees that could have buckled in veneration of an angry and righteous God stiffen in rebellion against Him. And the voices that could have cried out for forgiveness instead rail against the One who stands ready to save them.
Hell will be filled with the likes of these men and women one day, for it appears that judgment does not lead to repentance. The rich man remains self-centered and unrepentant in Torment (Luke 16:19-31). Paul writes that it is the goodness of God – not His judgment – that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4) And when all is said and done at the end of time, the sinner remains what he has always been and will always be – unrighteous and filthy (see Rev. 22:11).
Warren Wiersbe writes, “These judgments are not remedial but retributive: God is upholding His holy Law and vindicating His suffering people (see Rev. 6:9–11). Even a casual reading of Revelation 9:20–21 reveals the awful wickedness of mankind, even in the midst of God’s judgments. The most frightening thing about Revelation 9 is not the judgments that God sends but the sins that men persist in committing even while God is judging them” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 9:1).
Four major views of the sixth trumpet
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the sixth trumpet?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – believe this vision refers to the Roman armies or their allies, following the invasion of the demonic “locusts” in the fifth trumpet judgment. Many of the troops that come into Israel during the war in 66-70 A.D. have been stationed at the Euphrates. Jay Adams writes, “It was across the Euphrates that Israel’s conquerors had previously come – Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia. Moveover, there were places at this very time where Roman armies were stationed along the Euphrates. The 10th legion, which participated in the destruction, had been located there” (The Time Is at Hand, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 186). Preterists also argue that this invasion is the specific fulfillment of Daniel’s 70 weeks and the prediction of Jesus, who said, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that its desolation has come I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all things take place” (Luke 21:20, 32).
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – say the third of mankind upon whom this woe falls is the eastern third of what once was the Roman Empire. Also known as the Byzantine Empire, this kingdom was ruled from Constantinople, which the Turks conquered in 1453. The increments of time – hour, day, month, and year – are to be added together. Using the year-for-a-day method, the total time is either 391 years (using 360-day years) or just over 396 years (using 365-day years). This proves to be almost the exact amount of time from the day the Turks cross the Euphrates River (1062) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). The four angels bound at the Euphrates are four sultanates bordering the river and confined until after the Crusades. As further evidence, historicists point out that the Turks are known for their red, blue and yellow breastplates. The fire, smoke and brimstone are descriptions of artillery, for the Turks first use large guns at the siege of Constantinople.
- Futurists – who say the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – tend to see the four angels as demons, although some futurists equate these four angels with the angels standing at the four corners of the earth in Rev. 7:1. Futurists understand the Euphrates to be the traditional boundary between East and West and therefore see the crossing over of 200 million mounted troops as an invasion from the Orient. They point to Rev. 16:12, where the waters of the river are dried up, as further support of their view since this would make it easier for massive troops to move westward. The expression of time – “the hour, day, month, and year” – does not refer to the duration of this attack but to the divine ordination of the judgment at exactly this time. Futurists are divided as to whether the mounted troops are demons or armies of men; some admit they are undecided. If these are human armies, it is difficult to explain how even a coalition of nations can amass 200 million troops, although Hal Lindsey points to an Associated Press story in 1961 that claims China is capable of mobilizing a militia of that size.
- Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – argue that the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments are related, with the former describing the internal corruption of society and the latter depicting the external forces that cause it to collapse. Some tie the sixth trumpet to invasions of Rome by Eastern enemies, while others emphasize the spiritual nature of these afflictions, with fire, smoke, and sulfur providing a foretaste of hell. Perhaps the most common view among idealists is that this vision depicts recurring phenomena throughout human history – spiritual wickedness that leads to physical strife and, ultimately, judgment. The horse, for example, is a symbol of warfare in the Bible (see Ps. 33:16-17; Prov. 21:31; Isa. 31:1; Zech. 9:10). “Certainly war is one of those recurring phenomena in history which God uses to punish civilizations and warn all men of the universality of death and the need to repent,” writes Steve Gregg in Revelation: Four Views (pp. 193, 195). The 200 million mounted troops are not to be taken literally but may apply to all wars at all times throughout the present age. Some even extend the meaning to include all death-producing events such as cancers and diseases.
Next: The mighty angel and the small scroll – Revelation 10