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 second woe is more devastating than the first. The fifth trumpet judgment – the first woe – results in torment at the hands of demonic “locusts.” But the sixth trumpet judgment yields death for a third of the human race.
It begins with the release of four angels who are “prepared” for this particularly gruesome season in human history. Joining the angels are 200 million mounted troops riding grotesque, fire-breathing horses with heads like lions and tails like poisonous snakes.
The result of this judgment is death for multitudes and shockingly hard-hearted rebellion against God by the survivors, who refuse to repent of their demon worship, murders, sorceries, sexual immorality and thefts.
Who are these angels? And where do they muster a mounted army of 200 million? Who are the fire-breathing horses, and how do their tails inflict injury? Finally, how can any human being, no matter how wicked, refuse to repent after witnessing such death and devastation? Let’s take a closer look at the details of this second woe.
The four horns of the gold altar
John hears a voice coming from the four horns of the gold altar before God. Remember from previous lessons that in the tabernacle and temple, there are two altars. First, there is the altar of bronze, located outside the sanctuary in the court and upon which sacrifices are offered; we encounter this altar in the fifth seal judgment as the martyred souls beneath it cry out to God for vengeance (Rev. 6:9-11). The second is the altar of gold, a smaller altar that stands in front of the veil and is used to burn incense, a picture of prayers ascending to God (see Ps. 141:2). In John’s vision of the sixth trumpet judgment, we see the altar of gold, the altar of burned incense and prayer.
We also encounter the altar of gold in Rev. 8:3-5. An angel with a gold incense burner is given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of the saints. The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, arises into the presence of the Lord, while the angel fills his incense burner with fire from the altar and hurls it to earth in a prelude to the seven trumpet judgments.
The significance of the altar is that it reminds us the Lord hears our prayers and answers them – not always in the way we want or in keeping with our deadlines, but according to His divine will and in His perfect timing. Quoting from Psalm 34, Peter writes to remind us that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are open to their request. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).
W.A. Criswell shares the following insight into the two altars:
Now, in the golden censer, fire was taken from the Altar of Sacrifice and carried to the Golden Altar, where incense was burned unto God. Blood was taken from the Altar of Sacrifice on the day of atonement and sprinkled on the four golden horns of the Alter of prayer. All of this ritual was to teach that prayer and worship are based upon sacrifice, the shedding of blood without which there is no remission of sins, and without which no man can come into the presence of God. Now, it is from the four horns that the awful cry comes to loose those four terrible angels bound over the river Euphrates. What an amazing thing! Heretofore, the blood of the sacrifice and the prayers of intercession have always been for mercy, that God would forgive us, that God would save us. But now the blood that cries and the voice that is raised is no longer for forgiveness, for salvation, for God’s mercy, but the voice is for judgment and damnation. Oh, the horror of it! How could such a thing be? For a very plain and simple reason: God’s way for a man to be saved is in the blood. This is the way for a man to meet God, through the great mediation of the High Priest, Jesus Christ. This is God’s propitiation for our sins (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 189).
Next: Release the four angels — Revelation 9:13-21
Previously: The seventh seal – Revelation 8:1-6
Rev. 8:7 – The first [angel] blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up (HCSB).
The four angels standing at the four corners of the earth are prevented from harming “the earth or the sea or the trees” until the 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:2-3). But now, with the sounding of the first and second trumpets, a third of the earth and trees are burned up, and a third of the sea becomes blood. The hiatus is over and massive destruction of the sin-cursed world begins to take place.
Are we to believe that hail, fire and blood are literally mixed and hurled to the earth? What’s the significance of “a third,” a recurring fraction in the first four trumpet judgments? How can “all” the green grass be burned in the first trumpet judgment if the “locusts” that ascend out of the abyss are prevented from harming the grass in the fifth judgment? And do the trumpet judgments follow the seal judgments chronologically or run concurrently with them? Let’s take a closer look.
The first angel blew his trumpet
The trumpet employed by each angel in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and is translated so in the Complete Jewish Bible. This horn has special significance for Israel. Loud blasts of the shofar accompany the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai and cause the people to tremble (Ex. 20:18). The shofar is incorporated into the Jewish feasts of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, or Atonement. Some Bible commentators believe the coming rapture of the church will be associated with Rosh Hashanah and the trumpets described in 1 Cor. 15:52 and 1 Thess. 4:16. They also believe the trumpets of Yom Kippur will herald national judgment on Israel, leading many Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah during the Tribulation.
David H. Stern writes, “The idea that the Great Judgment of the Last Days is heralded by blasts on the shofar has its roots in the Tanakh [Old Testament]. ‘YHVH [Yahweh; God] will be seen over them, his arrow will go forth like lightning, and Adonai YHVH will sound the shofar and will move in the storm winds of the south…. And YHVH their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people (Zech. 9:14, 16)” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 814).
Additionally, the shofar is to be sounded on the Day of Atonement in the Year of Jubilee, every 50th year, to signal the release of slaves and debt. For Christians, this may be seen as symbolic of Christ’s work on our behalf, redeeming us from the slave market of sin and paying our sin debt with His blood. His finished work on the cross frees us from the debtor’s prison of sin.
Whatever the significance of the shofar in the case of the trumpet judgments, its sounding precedes unprecedented acts of God upon the earth (the first four trumpet judgments) and its wicked people (the last three trumpet judgments).
Hail and fire, mixed with blood
After the angel sounds the first trumpet, John sees hail and fire, mixed with blood, hurled to the earth. R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and D. Brown note there is a common feature in the first four trumpets; the judgments affect natural objects – the earth, trees, grass, the sea, rivers, fountains, the light of the sun, moon and stars. But the last three trumpet judgments affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 8:7).
Further, the language used to describe these judgments is drawn from the plagues of Egypt, with five or six out of the 10 plagues corresponding to trumpet judgments: hail, fire (Ex. 9:24), water turning to blood (Ex. 7:19), darkness (Ex. 10:21), locusts (Ex. 10:12), and perhaps death (Rev. 9:18).
If we step back a little, we can see a pattern in all three sets of judgments – the seals, trumpets, and bowls. As the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times notes, “In all three series of seven, the first four judgments focus on the earth, while the last three are more cosmic in nature. The seals and trumpets follow a 4+2+1 pattern, while the bowls follow a 4+3 pattern. There is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals and the sixth and seventh trumpets, but no interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls as the pace becomes too intense” (p. 405).
It’s also important to note that some commentators see these three sets of judgments playing out in chronological order – the seals first, followed by the trumpets and, finally, the bowls – while others see them as repeating and overlapping, especially since each series culminates at the end of time with a storm-earthquake. One’s view of the end times (historical, for example, or futurist) no doubt influences a belief in either consecutive or overlapping series of judgments, or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, it is difficult to overlook the similarities between the three sets of judgments.
Grant Osborne, in his book Revelation, identifies seven major themes in the three judgment series:
- These judgments are poured out on unbelievers, while believers are protected (Rev. 3:10; 7:1-8; 9:4; 16:2).
- These judgments are God’s response to the prayers of the saints for justice and vengeance (5:8; 6:9-11; 8:3-5).
- The sovereignty of God is emphasized throughout.
- God does not command evil to do His will; He simply allows it to operate.
- Unbelievers respond by refusing to repent and by cursing God, thus demonstrating depravity (9:20-21; 16:9, 11).
- These judgments are acts of mercy, providing a final opportunity to repent (9:20; 14:6-7; 16:9, 11).
- There is a progressive dismantling of creation, preparing for the final consummation.
As for the first trumpet, it no doubt ushers in a terrible storm, but commentators are divided as to what that storm symbolizes. Some argue this is a symbolic storm of heresies; others, a mixture of doctrinal errors such as the Arian heresy that denied the deity of Christ; or a tempest of war falling on the state. In any case, the hail and fire, mingled with blood, remind us of the seventh plague God sends against Egypt (Ex. 9:18-26). The prophet Joel also promises blood and fire in the last days (Joel 2:30).
Although it’s difficult to picture hail and fire mixed with blood, imagine the apostle John, from his first-century perspective, trying to describe events that are perhaps centuries in the future. If the futurist perspective is correct, for example, how is John to describe 21st century (or later) warfare and weapons? Could the locusts be attack helicopters, and the burning mountain falling into the sea a nuclear warhead? We simply do not know.
As we read these descriptions of hail and fire mixed with blood, strange-looking locusts, and blazing mountains falling from the sky, we are well advised to cling to the clear teachings of each passage and be willing to be proven wrong on our assumptions about apocalyptic details. For example, it is clear that God is bringing judgment to bear upon the earth; that much suffering ensues; that the wicked refuse to repent; that the Lamb is in control; that His people are protected; and that the earth is being prepared for what Jesus called “the regeneration” (Matt. 19:28 KJV) and what Peter referred to as “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13).
Next: A third of the earth was burned up (first trumpet continued): Rev. 8:7
Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)
The sealed of Israel
Between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, John witnesses the “sealing” of 144,000 “slaves of our God” from “every tribe of the sons of Israel” (vv. 4-5). He also views a vast multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” standing before the throne of God (v. 9). In this section we’ll focus on the 144,000.
No doubt, numbers are significant in this chapter. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. These angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea. But before they do, another angel tells them to wait until 144,000 servants of God are sealed, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.
A lightning rod for controversy
This passage is a lightning rod for controversy. Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the 144,000 make up a special class, “the spirit-begotten congregation” that will reign in heaven with Christ. Members of the Watchtower also refer to this class as the “little flock” of Luke 12:32; it is the only class of people who go to heaven. The rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called the “other sheep” (John 10:16) or the “great crowd” (Rev. 7:9-17) that hopes for future resurrection and life on Paradise earth.
Seventh-day Adventists say the 144,000 pertain to their communion, who are found observing the Jewish Sabbath when the Lord comes again and raptures them into glory. Other sects find similar solace in the belief that these sealed slaves come from their ranks.
More doctrinally sound commentators, who rightfully reject these views, still cannot agree among themselves. Some argue that these are 144,000 Jews converted and protected by God during the future Tribulation. Others contend that these sealed slaves represent the “true Israel” – the church. Others say this number symbolizes believing Israel, or the believing Jewish remnant to which Paul refers in Romans 9-11, or to the first Jews converted to Christianity.
But where are the tribes of Dan and Ephraim? Why have they been replaced? Should we read the 144,000 as a literal representation of some group of people, or as figurative? How did first-century Christians interpret this passage? And what does it mean for us today?
The number four dominates the first verse of chapter 7. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. What is the significance of the number four in this passage? In Old Testament symbolism, the number four refers to the whole earth (see Isa. 11:12; Jer. 49:36; Dan. 7:2; Matt. 24:31).
The writers of BibleStudy.org make the following observations: “Now the number four is made up of three and one (3+1=4), and it denotes, therefore, and marks that which follows the revelation of God in the Trinity, namely, His creative works. He is known by the things that are seen. Hence the written revelation commences with the words, ‘In the beginning God CREATED.’ Creation is therefore the next thing – the fourth thing, and the number four always has reference to all that is created. It is emphatically the number of Creation…. It is the number of things that have a beginning, of things that are made, of material things, and matter itself. It is the number of material completeness….
“The fourth day saw the material creation finished (for on the fifth and sixth days it was only the furnishing and peopling of the earth with living creatures). The sun, moon, and stars completed the work, and they were to give light upon the earth which had been created, and to rule over the day and over the night (Genesis 1:14-19).”
So, the four angels perhaps share some responsibility for the whole earth. Just as there are territorial demons – like the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” in Dan. 10:13 – so, too, there may be angels with assignments to watch over God’s creation, or to bring judgment upon it, for verse 2 tells us the four angels are “empowered to harm the earth and the sea.”
These angels stand at the “four corners of the earth.” The word translated “corners” is the Greek gonia, which literally means angles or divisions. It is related to our modern divisions known as quadrants. The Hebrew equivalent is kanaph and is translated a variety of ways but generally means extremity. It is translated “borders” or “corners” in Numbers 15:38. In Ezekiel 7:2 it is translated “corners” and again in Isaiah 11:12. In Job 37:3 it is “ends” and in 38:13 it is “edges.”
It is doubtful that any religious Jew would misunderstand the true meaning of kanaph. For nearly 2,000 years, religious Jews have faced the city of Jerusalem three times daily and chanted the following prayer:
Sound the great trumpet for our freedom,
Raise the banner for gathering our exiles,
And gather us together from THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH
into our own land.
The Book of Isaiah describes how the Messiah, the Root of Jesse, shall regather his people from the four corners of the earth. They shall come from every extremity to be gathered into Israel (Isa. 11:10-12). So there is little doubt that these angels stand ready to bring down judgment upon the whole earth, perched from the “four corners” where all is in view.
But what are the four winds? There are several interpretations. The rabbis viewed the quarterly winds as evil, and even the apostle Paul may have wondered about the malevolence of the “northeaster” (Acts. 27:14). Others liken the winds to the judgments of God (Jer. 49:36). Matthew Henry has an interesting perspective. He writes: “here the spirits of error are compared to the four winds, contrary one to another, but doing much hurt to the church, the garden and vineyard of God, breaking the branches and blasting the fruits of his plantation. The devil is called the prince of the power of the air; he, by a great wind, overthrew the house of Job’s eldest son. Errors are as wind, by which those who are unstable are shaken, and carried to and fro, Eph. 4:14” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 7:1–12).
It’s difficult to tell whether the winds are God’s instrument of divine judgment or evil forces under Satan’s control. The angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea and yet are restraining the four winds that will bring destruction. At first blush, it seems contradictory. But often it is this way in scripture until we look more deeply.
God is sovereign over His creation. And although Satan is the ruler of this age and is able to exercise some control over the natural elements of the earth, he can do nothing without his Creator’s permission. The evil that Satan desires to do God allows when it aligns with His divine will and good pleasure. So the issue is not so much who is stirring the winds as what God is accomplishing through them. As Henry explains, “the spirit of error cannot go forth till God permits it, and … the angels minister to the good of the church by restraining its enemies.” No doubt the winds will blow, but first the Lord must accomplish something in the calm before the storm: the sealing of His slaves.
Next: Another angel … from the east (Rev. 7:1-8)