Rev. 11:13 – At that moment a violent earthquake took place, a tenth of the city fell, and 7,000 people were killed in the earthquake. The survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. 14The second woe has passed. Take note: the third woe is coming quickly! (HCSB)
The survivors gave glory to the God of heaven
John writes that the “survivors” of the earthquake are “terrified” and give “glory to the God of heaven” (v. 13). His use of the word “survivors” implies the death of some – perhaps people, human institutions or world systems. Those still alive see the hand of God in these events and are shaken to the bone with fear. Fear of the Lord can be a good thing, starting us on a journey of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Or, it can move us further away from God, motivating us to hide from His presence (Rev. 6:15-17). Or, it can inspire awe, leading us to exclaim, “We have seen incredible things today” (Luke 5:26).
Commentators are divided as to whether the survivors’ fear in this passage drives them to repentance or merely elicits a response designed to appease an angry God. Elsewhere in Revelation, the wicked stubbornly refuse to turn to God despite the clear understanding that God is bringing His judgments to bear on the earth. After the sixth trumpet is sounded, “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 … And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts” (Rev. 9:20-21). As the fourth bowl judgment is poured out, the wicked who are burned by fire “blasphemed the name of the God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give God the glory” (Rev. 16:9). And as the fifth bowl judgment follows, plunging people into darkness, they “gnawed their tongues from pain and blasphemed the God of heaven … yet they did not repent of their actions” (Rev. 16:11).
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
Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed. (HCSB)
Until their fellow slaves were killed
The martyrs are told to rest “until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed” (v. 12). It appears that many more will experience martyrdom before the return of Christ. While we may wonder why God doesn’t put a stop to the killing – some brashly question whether He is able to do so – we may be confident that He is sovereign over human history, causing or allowing all things for reasons we may not fully understand. God has determined that a number of saints will give their lives because of His word and the testimony they have. Only God know when this number – like the measure of sins being filled up by the wicked – will reach capacity.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the total number of Christian martyrs in the 20th century alone reached 45 million. How many millions of others have given their lives from the time of Stephen, the first martyr, until now is impossible to know with certainty. But no doubt there is ample room beneath the altar in heaven for those who have identified with the slaughter of the Lamb.
R.J.D. Utley writes, “One of the major truths of this book is that God is in control of all things, even the death of Christian martyrs! All of history is in His hand. God is not surprised by any events, actions or outcomes. Yet there is still pain, suffering and unfairness in this fallen world. This concept of a completed number of martyrs (cf. I Enoch 47:4) is a symbolic way of referring to God’s knowledge and plan for mankind. This is similar to Paul’s concept of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ (cf. Rom. 11:12, 25) which refers to God’s knowledge of all the Gentiles who would be saved” (Utley, Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Vol. 12, Study Guide Commentary Series, 63).
Briefly, here is a summary of the four major views of these verses:
- Most historicists see the fifth seal fulfilled during the rule of Diocletian, who persecuted the church in the last days of his rule from 284 – 304 A.D.
- Preterists argue that the souls under the altar are those of first-century Christians slain at the hands of the Jewish persecutors.
- Futurists contend that these saints are killed during the yet-future Tribulation.
- And spiritualists say this passage reveals the present state of those who already have died for their faith.
In any case, interpreters agree that Jesus comforts His martyrs, grants them rest and assures them that His judgment, whenever it falls, will be swift and sure.
Next: The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17)