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.
Previously: The sixth trumpet — Revelation 9:13-21
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)
Release the four angels
The sixth angel is instructed, “Release the four angels bound at the great river Euphrates” (v. 14). No doubt, the four angels are demons, for holy angels are not bound. Together, the demons command a vast army of 200 million mounted riders (some manuscripts read 100 million). The army is held in check until God determines the precise time for a special purpose: to kill one-third of the human race. Since a fourth of mankind already has been killed in the fourth seal judgment (Rev. 6:8), and “many” people have died from the bitter waters in the third trumpet judgment (Rev. 8:11), this means roughly half of the world’s population will be dead by the time the sixth trumpet judgment is completed.
As for the army of 200 million, is this a literal army riding uniquely equipped horses? Or does John’s vision depict modern-day weapons such as tanks, driven by soldiers from a nation, or a coalition of nations, capable of deploying such a vast army? It seems best to see this as an army of demons unleashed to destroy people. While these are wicked men and women who have rejected God’s call to repentance, the demons swiftly destroy them because they are creatures made in God’s image; if the demons cannot fight against God, they can destroy his creatures and mar His creation. Even so, they unwittingly carry out God’s sovereign plan as instruments of His divine judgment.
The timing is interesting here. Just as God sent His Son at “the completion of the time” (Gal. 4:4) and Jesus died “at the appointed moment” (Rom. 5:6), the four angels are “prepared for the hour, day, month, and year … to kill a third of the human race” (Rev. 9:15). From a human perspective, so much of life seems random, chaotic and uncontrollable. Yet God sovereignly directs the real choices of people (and demons) and moves the world toward judgment and, beyond that, its promised redemption.
Whose voice is it that sounds over the four horns of the altar? Some argue that it is none other than the voice of God. Others say that because the four horns represent the four Gospels, they sound in a unified voice so that all those who are about to be judged will hear that their pending destruction is due to their rejection of the Son of God.
At the river Euphrates
The Euphrates River is the most important and, at 1780 miles, the longest river in western Asia. It begins in the Armenian Mountains. It passes through the Taurus Range and the Mesopotamian Valley down to the Persian Gulf. But it is far more significant than just its size. The river is part of the cradle of civilization (Gen. 2:14) and one of Israel’s stated boundaries (Gen. 15:18). The banks of the river are where sin is first known, where the first lie is told, where suffering begins and where human misery originates. It’s also where God’s promise of redemption is made through the seed of woman (Gen. 3:15).
The Euphrates is the backdrop of great apostasies before and after the flood. 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. Now, in John’s vision, it is the river where four evil angels are unleashed, and an army of 200 million is deployed, as instruments of God’s wrath.
It is important to note that some commentators take a figurative view of the Euphrates and link it to “spiritual Babylon,” or the apostate church. More pointedly, they argue that the Roman Catholic Church is in view here, with its damaging dogmas of Mariology, sacramental salvation, and the buying and selling of indulgences.
In any case, the Euphrates in scripture is both a source and a boundary. It is one of the rivers of Eden; its root word, pehrat, means to break forth and abound. According to Xenophon, the Greek historian, the Euphrates causes the desert to “become a garden of fertility.” 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.
Next: The number of mounted troops was 200 million