The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them. The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).
The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.
The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God. It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of the mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand. I heard their number.
The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Trumpet #5: Star Fall & Locusts
The first thing we see after the fifth trumpet is sounded is a star that falls from the sky. The star is called Abaddon in Hebrew or Apollyon in Greek, which means “destroyer”. This picture takes us back to Isaiah 14:12…
How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
In Revelation 12:9, Satan falls from the sky in a similar manner. So, I think it is safe to say that this fallen star is another picture of Satan, the destroyer. Jesus says in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
This fallen star is given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. The Abyss is mentioned a number of times in the Bible. When we were looking at Revelation 4 a few weeks ago, I talked about Jewish cosmology and showed you a picture of how the Jews of old conceived of the universe. In Genesis 1, the abyss was the place where a flood of waters was contained by God beneath the earth. The ancient Israelites conceived of it as a sort of subterranean sea. Later in Jewish theology the abyss became the final resting place of the enemies of God (Psalm 74:13; Isaiah 51:9; Amos 9:3). Then the abyss came to be thought of as a great chasm in the earth where the disobedient angels and the evil kings of the earth are imprisoned (Isaiah 24:21,22). The most detailed pictures of the abyss are in the book of Enoch that was written between the time of the Old Testament and the New. We have already seen how this book influenced John’s writing of Revelation. In the book of Enoch, the abyss is the home of the fallen angels, the ones who came to earth and seduced mortal women and who taught men to worship demons instead of Yahweh (Genesis 6:1-4).
In Revelation, when the fallen star opens the abyss, locusts come out. Locusts were known to cause terrible damage to the earth in ancient times. There was a plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians in the book of Exodus because Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. John is also drawing on the picture of an army of locusts in Joel, chapters 1 and 2. These locusts in Revelation, rather than attacking vegetation as normal locusts do, attack humans and cause great suffering. These are no ordinary locusts but seem to be especially powerful and demonic in nature.
The events that accompany trumpet #5, like so much in the book of Revelation, are symbolic. There are Bible commentators who take these images literally, but those who do have a hard time maintaining their literalism. As Michael Wilcock says, “Literalism reigns as far as the point where the mind begins to boggle, and beyond that symbolism is allowed to take over.”
I believe one thing this vision teaches us is that God gives Satan permission to inflict pain, but God does not send pain directly. Pain is sometimes, though not always, a result of our turning away from God. In fact, we might say that pain is the inevitable result of turning from God. If God is life, then to turn away from God is to enter into increasing realms of death. And, unfortunately, turning away from God is sometimes easier than repentance. As Virgil says,
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
Of course, good people suffer too. Paul sums up the good news in our suffering in this way: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Notice, Paul does not say that all things are good. He says that God works for our good in all things. Though I do not believe that God sends pain directly, I do believe that God can use pain to mold and shape us for our good and his glory.
God can also use pain, as is suggested in this passage in Revelation, to cause unbelievers to turn to him. I wonder how many people have turned to God in faith in desperate times of suffering.
As C. S. Lewis says, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
That is good, and fits with the nature of a trumpet. A trumpet call is meant to stir us, to wake us up to reality.
Trumpet #6: Four Death Angels Released
After trumpet #6, there is one more trumpet left to sound. But trumpet #6 is the last warning to the inhabitants of the earth.
When trumpet #6 sounds we hear a voice emanating from the altar of incense in heaven. The voice calls to the angel who blew the sixth trumpet, and he tells him to release the four angels who are bound by the river Euphrates. These four fallen angels unleash an army of 200 million soldiers who kill a third of humankind.
Why does this army come from the Euphrates? William Barclay tells us that: “The most dreaded warriors in the world were the Parthian cavalry; and the Parthians dwelt beyond the Euphrates. It may well be that John was visualizing a terrible descent of the Parthian cavalry on mankind.”
Intriguingly, the Parthians utilized mounted archers who were known for shooting one volley as they charged and another over their horses’ tails as they withdrew beyond the range of the enemy’s weapons. Perhaps this is why John says, “The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails.” However, as commentator G. B. Caird points out,
John is not here concerned with the possibility of a literal Parthian invasion—he has already covered that under the symbol of the rider on the white horse. This is an army straight from the jaws of hell. The snake-like tails of the horses indicate their Satanic nature, as emissaries of ‘that old serpent’ (xii. 9), and so do the fire, smoke, and sulphur which they exhale. John is using a nightmare version of a familiar first-century fear to instil a sense of some more ultimate and quintessential evil. In so doing he is heir to an apocalyptic tradition which we can trace to its source in Ezekiel’s prophecy … (Ezekiel xxxviii-xxxix)
There are other commentators who, I would humbly suggest, take the symbolism here far too literally and make unwarranted and unlikely applications of John’s visions to our contemporary scene. When I was growing up, I was taught that this part of Revelation prophesied the rise of the Chinese army, 200 million strong. But that can hardly be what the author of Revelation had in mind in the first century. An army with 200 million soldiers was beyond anyone’s imagination in the first century. So, I think this is John’s symbolic way of referring to a vast demonic army, bigger than any merely human army then current on the earth.
You can be forgiven for thinking there is a strong similarity between the events associated with trumpets five and six. No less a Bible commentator than Austin Farrer once said the same…
There can be no doubt that the description of the cavalry is inspired by the same texts of Joel as the preceding vision. Joel describes the locusts as invading cavalry; St. John makes two pictures of it—cavalry-like locusts, and locust-like cavalry. He does not even wish to contrast them strongly.
Michael Wilcock well sums up what trumpet 6 is all about when he writes, “Trumpet 6, like the rest, is sounding the warning of God’s wrath against sin in reply to the prayers of his people that evil should not go unpunished and that justice should be done.”
John’s goal, in communicating this part of his vision, seems to be to show us, that though God gives human beings warning after warning, and every realistic chance of repentance, there are some human beings who simply won’t repent, no matter how many chances they are given. God uses pain to wake up humanity, but some refuse to be roused from their beds of iniquity.
I agree with C. S. Lewis when he says…
No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.
Waking from the Nightmare
There is also another thing to notice here. We have already seen, over and over again, how the book of Revelation has, at times, a dreamlike quality to it. But now, the dream has turned to nightmare.
Personally, I can sympathize with anyone who has suffered from nightmares. I began having night terrors as a child after my one and only visit to the hospital. The dreaded operation was for the purpose of removing my tonsils. From that rather benign hospital stay of one night, emanated, I believe, the night terrors I still occasionally experience to this day. When I begin to wake up from one of these episodes, I am shaking all over. The only thing that I have found effective to bring myself out of it, and to displace the nightmare, is to turn the light on, sit up, pray, and read Scripture… preferably not the book of Revelation!
One thing I have learned from having my dreams interpreted by a professional is that everything in our dreams and our nightmares represents some facet of ourselves. Could it be that John, or even more importantly, Jesus, wants us to recognize the black pit, the abyss that is in ourselves?
N. T. Wright points out that…
Jesus spoke of the way in which all kinds of wickedness—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, treachery, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, stupidity—come bubbling up out of the depths of the human heart, to the surprise and horror of would-be pure persons who are doing their best to keep ‘clean’ by washing their hands (Mark 7:1-23). That is the black hole inside us all.
What are we to do about that black hole? The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal writes most eloquently about this personal abyss…
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. God alone is man’s true good…
I believe that the answer to the abyss inside each one of us is to ask God to fill us with himself. The Apostle Paul gives us the perfect prayer to ask God to do this. It is a prayer we can pray both for ourselves and others. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:14-19…
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.