Rev. 16:12 –The sixth [angel] poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 Then I saw three unclean spirits like frogs [coming] from the dragon’s mouth, from the beast’s mouth, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14 For they are spirits of demons performing signs, who travel to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for the battle of the great day of God, the Almighty. 15 “Look, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who is alert and remains clothed so that he may not go naked, and they see his shame.” 16 So they assembled them at the place called in Hebrew Armageddon. (HCSB)
Its water was dried up
The Euphrates River figures prominently in both the sixth trumpet judgment and the sixth bowl judgment. As you may recall, in the sixth trumpet judgment four demons bound at the Euphrates are released to lead a vast army that kills a third of the human race. Here, in the sixth bowl judgment, the waters of the great river are dried up to make way for the “kings of the east.”
In 536 B.C., Cyrus the Persian devises a plan to divert the flow of the Euphrates River, which runs under the wall surrounding Babylon. This enables his soldiers to march under the wall, take Belshazzar by surprise and capture the city without serious resistance. It’s possible that John is drawing from this well-known historic event to prepare his readers for a swift and certain act of judgment, although it’s not necessary to interpret the drying of the waters literally. In fact, many commentators see the river as a symbol for political or religious boundaries, impediments to the advance of evil forces, or the geographic region from which many of Rome’s soldiers came to destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Some futurists, however, believe the Euphrates will indeed dry up, enabling a coalition of Eastern powers to sweep into the Holy Land. While the implication is that the water is dried up by an act of God, “the fact is that dams have been built across the Euphrates River in this [20th] century to divert water for irrigation so that there are times even today when there is little or no water in the Euphrates” (J.F. Walvoord, R.B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Rev. 16:12).
It’s worth noting the similarities between what happens here and what occurs in the crossing of the Red Sea and the march across the Jordan River as God’s people pass out of bondage and into the Promised Land. The miracle that Israel experiences in Old Testament times is now repeated in a negative sense, say preterists, as the first-century Jews who have rejected their Messiah are called into account for their national sin.
Apostasy and the Euphrates
The Euphrates is the backdrop of many great apostasies. It is the river from which many of Israel’s greatest and most oppressive enemies drink and water their horses. It is the backdrop of captivity and exile for Israel and Judah. And it is the scene of the rise of the great world empires that oppose God’s people. It is the place from which the Assyrians come to defeat Israel’s northern kingdom and from which the Babylonians, Persians and Medes strike terror in the hearts of their enemies. In the days after Jesus’ ascension, as Israel rebels against the Roman Empire (66 – 70 A.D.), the Euphrates is where some of Rome’s mounted troops are poised to bring swift destruction. Surely, there could be a first-century fulfillment to this frightening prophecy.
Some commentators see a later fulfillment, however, in which the collapse of false or corrupt religious systems opens the way for more people to receive Christ. Matthew Henry holds this view and writes, “The idolatry of the church of Rome had been a great hindrance both to the conversion of the Jews, who have been long cured of their inclination to idols, and of the Gentiles, who are hardened in their idolatry by seeing that which so much symbolizes with it among those called Christians. It is therefore very probable that the downfall of popery, removing these obstructions, will open a way for both the Jews and other eastern nations to come into the church of Christ. And, if we suppose that Mahomedism [Islam] shall fall at the same time, there will be still a more open communication between the western and eastern nations, which may facilitate the conversion of the Jews, and of the fullness of the Gentiles” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 16:12-16).
The Euphrates in scripture is both a source and a boundary. It is one of the rivers of Eden. While it is a life-giving source of water, the river also sustains wicked people and their murderous schemes. For those who spiritualize the river, it symbolizes the source of idolatry and other false teachings, from Islam to Roman Catholicism to the New Age movement. As a boundary, the Euphrates separates East from West and, in many ways, Judaism and Christianity from competing Eastern religions. And in John’s vision of the sixth trumpet, it is a boundary where evil forces are detained until the sovereign God of the universe decides to unleash them.
But who are the “kings from the east?” There are more than 50 interpretations to be found concerning their identity. Some expositors have viewed them as contemporary leaders of their generation. Others conclude that these are rulers from the Orient who cross the Euphrates in the last days and launch into the final, great world war. Still others identify them as the Parthian cavalry, fierce anti-Roman invaders who wreak havoc on the Roman legions. And then, there are those who see these kings as God’s tools to punish the wicked, or as ministers of God, breaking down barriers that have prevented a vast spread of the gospel; if so, this is an allusion to God calling His people from Babylon (Isa. 41:2, 25; 45:1-3; 46:11). Finally, some are of the opinion that this is Christ, who will come from the East (Matt. 24:27), joined by His saints.
Probably the best understanding is that the kings of the east are soldiers contracted by Rome to assist in the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Since prophecies sometimes are partially fulfilled in the days of the prophet and then fully fulfilled at a future time, it’s possible that the eastern kings also are a future coalition that sweeps into the Middle East. The main point to remember is that God directs the good and evil acts of human beings to bring history to its climax in the return of Christ.
Three unclean spirits like frogs
Next, John sees three unclean spirits like frogs coming from the mouths of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. He identifies these spirits as miracle-working demons who travel to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for the battle of the great day of Almighty God. As we saw in previous chapters, there is an evil trinity that parodies the triune Godhead. While God cannot lie, Satan can do nothing but lie, and these demonic beings entice unbelievers into a battle in which they will lose their lives. “As Ahab was drawn to the battle in which he died by the sending of a lying spirit into the mouths of his prophets (1 Kings 22:21-33), so God releases these spirits of demons (v. 14) into all the world to gather the kings of the whole world to the battle in which they are to die (cf. 19:20-21)” (Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views, p. 381).
Some commentators have gone so far as to identify these unclean spirits with false ideas. For example, historicist Albert Barnes depicts the spirits as paganism, the papacy, and Islam. Others, however, are less specific, noting that the mention of frogs may allude to the second Egyptian plague (Ex. 8:1-15). This agrees with the view that Jerusalem – which prophetically is called Sodom and Egypt in Rev. 11:8 – is under attack. Natural Egypt was judged with natural frogs; spiritual Egypt is afflicted by spiritual frogs.
These spirits are noisome and dangerous; “as frogs croak by night in marshes and quagmires, so these unclean spirits in the darkness of error teach lies amidst the mire of filthy lusts. They talk of liberty, but it is not Gospel liberty, but license for lust” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 16:13). Christ speaks words of truth, grace and righteousness to bring peace to a trouble world; these frog-like spirits lie and gather the world for war.
The primary means by which they deceive the nations’ leaders is the performance of “signs,” or pseudo miracles. Satan and his minions often counterfeit the supernatural works of God to entice unbelievers. Where clever words are sufficient, as in the garden, Satan plies his trade as the “father of lies” most effectively. But stunning displays of power are at times even more deceptive. And while Christians have the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us discern the things of God, we are not immune to demonic deception. The apostle Paul, warning us against “false apostles, deceitful workers,” writes, “And no wonder [they disguise themselves as apostles of Christ]! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
The warning applies to us today. There continue to be those who fleece the flock rather than feed it. As Peter described them, they “exploit you in their greed with deceptive words” (2 Peter 2:3). Jesus and the apostles also cautioned us against those who perform miraculous deeds in order to lead us astray. Whether it’s prosperity preachers mining their listeners for “seed money,” faith healers hawking health in exchange for a generous offering, or modern-day prophets who claim a word from God that adds to or takes away from scripture, we should measure everything by the yardstick of God’s word.
It appears the deception in this passage affects only unbelievers. Jesus warns of a time when false messiahs and false prophets will arise and “perform great signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). And Paul writes, “The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan‘s working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:9-10).
Next: Assemble them for battle – Revelation 16:14-16