By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ live in a human world that is controlled by Satan. As such, most of our neighbors, institutions, governments, and organizations are under his influence. This means that the arch-enemy of God uses people to try to keep us from being like Christ, and from sharing the gospel with unbelievers. He does this through many ways, but one of the chief ways is through violent persecution, which leads to the murder of Christians. When our brothers and sisters in Christ are murdered for their faith, we want justice to be brought on their murderers, but this often doesn’t seem to happen. Or does it? In Revelation 8-9, the apostle John sees the answer to that question in vivid ways.
In chapter 8 of Revelation, John has just seen a vision of the number and identity of God’s chosen people in heaven. This vision showed him that before God destroys the earth, and those who belong to it, He has already sealed His people to protect them from this destruction. So any judgment that God brings on the earth isn’t meant to punish His people, but His unbelieving enemies.
Before this vision, however, John saw the Lord Jesus, pictured as a Lamb, begin to unseal a scroll that He took from God the Father. This scroll contains God’s plan for history, and as the Ruler of the universe, and the Redeemer of God’s people, the Lamb is given the right to execute God’s plan for history, and to bring it to its final end. He does this by revealing this plan through the unsealing of the scroll. With the breaking of the first four seals, the Lamb unleashed military conquest, war, economic disaster, and deadly calamities on the earth. When He broke the fifth seal, He revealed the longing of His martyrs in heaven for justice to be brought on their murderers. This longing is expressed in the question for God of how long He will wait until He avenges their blood. Finally, when Jesus breaks the sixth seal, this vengeance is portrayed through a vision of the destruction of the universe, and the cowering of God’s enemies on the day of judgment.
So when we come to chapters 8-9, we see a partial answer to the longing of the martyrs in chapter 6, and an explanation of why God’s people needed to be sealed before four of God’s angels brought destruction on the earth in chapter 7. This answer is revealed to John through the Lamb’s breaking of the final seal on the scroll of God. This is the beginning of the fullest revelation of God’s plan for history. In these chapters, John sees 11 main things:
- The Lamb Breaks the Last Seal (8:1-2)
- The Laments of the Saints are Listened To (8:3-6)
- The Land is Scorched a Little (8:7)
- The Life in the Sea is Lessened (8:8-9)
- The Life-Giving Springs are Laced with Poison (8:10-11)
- The Lights are Shut Off a Little (8:12)
- A Loud Soarer Alerts to Sorrows (8:13)
- Locusts Sting the Lost with Suffering (9:1-6)
- The Locusts Seem Like Supernatural Soldiers (9:7-12)
- The Last Swarm is Launched on Sinners (9:13-19)
- The Lost Stubbornly Latch on to Sin (9:20-21)
The Lamb Breaks the Last Seal
In the first two verses, John sees Jesus break the last seal of the scroll, and what it immediately results in:
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” (ESV)
Why is there silence in heaven when Jesus opens the last seal? Because before, there had been loud praise of Jesus, and of the Father on His throne. Now, this praise is silenced, since the final revelation of God’s judgment on the earth is about to be revealed. Why is it “for about half an hour”, though? This doesn’t mean that there was silence for literally 30 minutes, but for an extended period of time. This represents the expectant response of God’s servants to the arrival of His judgment on the earth.
This judgment will be announced by “the seven angels who stand before God”, awaiting His command. They will loudly announce God’s judgment because “seven trumpets were given to them” by God.
The Laments of the Saints are Listened To
In verses 3-5, John sees a description of the delivery of the saints’ — or holy ones’ — prayers to God, and of His response to them:
“And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them.” (ESV)
First, John sees yet another angel stand at an “altar”, carrying “a golden censer”. He has already seen this altar when the Lamb broke the fifth seal, revealing the Lamb’s martyrs underneath the altar, representing the blood of the sacrifice of offerings on the altar. Now, this altar is used to burn the saints’ prayers like incense, so they reach God as a sweet-smelling smoke. The angel delivers the saints’ prayers with “a golden censer”, which was a round container used to carry spices that were burned as an offering to God. Instead of just spices, though, this angel also carries “the prayers of all the saints”. To these prayers, which at least partly consist of the martyrs’ request for God to avenge their murders for His sake, the angel adds “much incense”, or sweet-smelling spices. Given the teaching in the rest of the New Testament about prayer, it’s safe to see this incense as consisting of the power and right that Jesus gives to His people to make requests of God the Father. In other words, it’s only because the Lord is their Mediator between them and God that their prayers reach God as an acceptable offering. They reach Him by being offered “on the golden altar before the throne” of God, where “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, [rises] before God”.
In answer to these prayers, God has the angel fill his censer “with fire from the altar”, representing the wrath and judgment of God. This fire is thrown “on the earth”, resulting in “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake”. These frightening natural displays of power represent God’s power in executing His judgment on the earth, which produces destruction and devastation.
The announcement of this judgment will come from the seven angels, who now get ready to blow their trumpets.
The Land is Scorched a Little
The first phase of God’s judgment comes on dry land in verse 7:
“The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” (ESV)
The way God destroys some of the earth’s land is through “hail and fire, mixed with blood”. Hail is a common natural disaster, which destroys crops and vegetation, while fire commonly symbolizes God’s wrath and judgment in Scripture, but may also point to the natural calamity of volcanic eruptions. Either way, the blood is clearly symbolic, and almost always represents death in Scripture. Thus, this judgment represents natural disasters on the earth that bring death to God’s enemies.
However, this judgment isn’t the final judgment, since only “a third” of the land, “a third” of “the trees”, and only the “green grass” is burned up. The limited scope of this destruction shows that God isn’t completely destroying earth, as He has promised to on the final day of judgment. Nevertheless, this judgment reduces the amount of usable land for food, the number of life-sustaining trees, and removes healthy vegetation from the food supply of both people and animals, causing malnutrition and starvation.
The Life in the Sea is Lessened
The second trumpet blast announces God’s judgment on sea life in verses 8-9:
“The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” (ESV)
Now the weapon that God uses to harm the oceans is “something like a great mountain, burning with fire”. To anyone with knowledge of astronomy or space objects, this clearly seems to be describing a meteor or asteroid. Yet, we must remember that this is a symbolic vision, and is meant to be understood as figurative. The fire, again, represents God’s wrath and judgment, and the fact that this “mountain” comes from the sky shows that it’s a judgment from God, who reigns from heaven.
When this mountain enters the sea, “a third of the sea [becomes] blood”. Again, this shows that the judgment is only partial, and not total and final. The blood, as before, represents that this judgment on the sea brings death. First, death is brought to “a third of the living creatures in the sea”, or sea life. This takes away a portion of people’s food supply, resulting in starvation or malnutrition. Second, “a third of the ships” are destroyed, representing the once common sinking of ships on the ocean, which results in multitudes of people dying, to this day.
The Life-Giving Springs are Laced with Poison
The blowing of the third trumpet initiates the poisoning of drinking water, resulting in more death:
“The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.” (ESV)
The heavenly object that brings this judgment is “a great star” that falls “from heaven”, or the sky, which is “blazing like a torch”. Again, the fact that this weapon is on fire shows that it’s an instrument of God’s judgment on His enemies. This time, the instrument falls “on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water”. This, too, is a limited judgment on the fresh water sources of the earth.
John calls this star “Wormwood”, which is the name of a bitter plant that God promised to use in Jeremiah in His judgment on His enemies then. Hence, when this wormwood enters the rivers and springs, “a third of the waters [become] wormwood, and many people [die] from the water”. The fact that the water is made “bitter” clearly is a way of saying that the water is now poisonous, and kills a portion of God’s enemies.
The Lights are Shut Off a Little
The last of God’s judgments on the natural world now comes to the sources of light in verse 12:
“The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.” (ESV)
In partial destruction of the natural world, all the sources of light are harmed, so that less light is given to God’s enemies on the earth. This is clearly a description of solar eclipses, dark night skies, and lunar eclipses. The eclipses are rare events, but when they happen, they hamper people’s activities, and serve as reminders that unexpected problems can happen in the natural world. In the case of solar eclipses, life-giving light is withheld from people and crops, affecting their health. And before electricity, and in places where people need to travel at night, the absence of stars from the night sky can hamper their ability to know where they are, and where they’re going. God uses these three things in His judgments on His enemies.
A Loud Soarer Alerts to Sorrows
After John sees God’s judgments on the natural world, he hears an eagle announcing the the last three trumpet judgments, and describing the difference between them and what have just been revealed:
“Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!’” (8:13 ESV)
The way that this eagle announces the last judgments is by promising “woe” on “those who dwell on the earth” three times. In chapter 6, “those who dwell on the earth” are God’s enemies who are involved in opposition against, and the murder of, His people. The same is true here. The phrase doesn’t merely mean anyone who lives on the earth, but those who make the earth their “home”, think in an earthly way, and live earthly lives, rather than being “heavenly-minded”, or “spiritually-minded”. The word “woe” refers to a curse that deserves sorrow and lament from those under it. The eagle repeats the word three times to emphasize that all three of the remaining judgments are curses on God’s enemies, and are even worse than the previous ones.
Once again, it’s announced that the last three judgments will be introduced by three trumpet blasts from three angels.
Locusts Sting the Lost with Suffering
In the first six verses of chapter nine, John sees the first of the three woes in the form a demonic attack on people:
“And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.” (ESV)
First, John sees a “star” that falls “from heaven to earth”. However, it’s revealed that the star is actually a person, who is given the ability to open “the shaft of the bottomless pit”. Another word for “bottomless pit” is “abyss”, and such a thing is clearly mentioned by a group of demons that Jesus casts out of a man living in a graveyard in the Gospels. The demons beg Him not to send them into the abyss, since they will be tormented there. Hence, the “bottomless pit” that is opened by this angelic star is clearly the holding place for demons, where they are tormented until the day of judgment.
Next, the star opens the entryway to the abyss, and we see proof that this abyss is hell when smoke rises from it. The smoke clearly is symbolic of the smoke rising from the fire of God’s wrath and judgment. The fact that it “darkens” “the sun and the air” demonstrates that God’s judgment is coming to the earth, and to the spiritual realm of the earth, here called “the air”. We know this because in Ephesians 2:2, the apostle Paul calls Satan “the prince of the power of the air”. In other words, he has authority over the “airy” aspect of the earth, or the spiritual realm, exercised in his control of unbelievers.
The instruments of God’s judgment here are “locusts” that come from the smoke of the abyss. However, they aren’t ordinary locusts, since they’re “given power like the power of scorpions of the earth”. In other words, they can poison people with one strike, and make them suffer. These locusts, unlike normal ones, are “told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads”. The people without God’s seal, or mark of ownership and protection, are God’s enemies who “dwell on the earth”.
The way in which these demonic locusts punish unbelievers is by tormenting them for a limited period of time, symbolized by “five months”. This torment is so great that John describes it as “the torment of a scorpion”, which will cause unbelievers to “seek death”. However, death will be withheld from them, so that they will continue to suffer for the determined period of time.
The Locusts Seem Like Supernatural Soldiers
In verses 7-12, John describes what these demonic locusts look like, how they torment God’s enemies, and who is their ruler:
“In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (ESV)
The first thing that these locusts look like is “horses prepared for battle”. In John’s day, this meant that the horses were arranged in rows, so as to charge the enemy. However, these locusts have “crowns of gold”, which represent authority over the people they torment. Further, they have “human faces,” picturing their human intelligence. Also, they have long hair “like women’s hair”, symbolizing the intelligence-gathering antennae of locusts. Their fierceness and danger is shown by their “lions’ teeth”. Their invincibility is represented by their iron breastplates. Finally, their speed is symbolized by the sound of their wings being like “the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle”.
The way in which these locusts do harm to their victims is with their “tails and stings like scorpions”, which carry their ability to torment people. This may symbolize the suddenness, and unexpectedness, of these demons’ attacks on people, since it doesn’t come from the front, from behind, and is extremely fast, like the sting of a scorpion.
As if it wasn’t clear by now that these locusts represent demons, John says that their king is “the angel of the bottomless pit”. This is the spirit-being who “fell” from heaven, and opened the pit. The only angel that’s described in Scripture as “falling” from heaven is Satan himself. This identity is confirmed by the fact that John calls him by a Hebrew name and a Greek name that both mean “destroyer”. The greatest destroyer of all the angels is Satan, since he’s destroyed mankind, and the image of God in people, since the Garden of Eden. Thus, we see that one way in which God judges His enemies is by using Satan’s demons to torment people to the point of contemplating suicide. As John says, this is only the first woe on God’s enemies, out of a total of three.
The Last Swarm is Launched on Sinners
In verses 13-19, John sees the last trumpet judgment, consisting of a human army that kills God’s enemies:
“Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.” (ESV)
In this second to last judgment, John first hears “a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God”. In the Old Testament, horns represent power, which is why this voice comes from “the four horns”. The voice, which seems to be the voice of God Himself, now summons His own power from the place where He’s sacrificed to. The fact that this voice comes from the “altar” seems to allude to the fact that this judgment is a result of the sacrifice of God’s people through their murders at the hands of God’s enemies. Hence, this judgment isn’t just a response to sin in general, but to the sin of persecution against God’s people.
The voice that John hears commands the angel that blew this trumpet to unbind “the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” The Euphrates is the most useful river that was right next to the Old Testament city of Babylon. Babylon is a clear symbol of the height of human community rebelling against God and His people. Thus, the river that flowed from it seems to represent the overflow of human evil that results from such a community. From this river, come “four angels”, who evidently have authority over “the four corners of the earth”.
Unlike the previous judgments, it seems obvious that this one refers to a climactic event before the final judgment. The first reason for this is that it occurs at the blast of the sixth trumpet, just before the last one. Elsewhere in Scripture (such as 1 Thessalonians), it’s taught that there will be a final climactic event before the final judgment. Second, John says that the four angels were “prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year”, specifying a precise moment in time that they bring judgment. Finally, these angels bring from the four corners of the earth one army of “mounted troops” numbering “twice ten thousand times ten thousand”. The reason that John numbers them in this way is simply to represent an extremely large number, since the Greek phrase used is “myriads of myriads”, which John doubles. This clearly seems to be a description of the same kind of gathering that’s seen near the end of Revelation, where the kings of earth are gathered to wage war against God’s people. In this case, however, this army is gathered to wage war against God’s enemies.
John describes the horsemen as wearing “breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur”. Again, “fire” is symbolic of God’s judgment and wrath, and blue sapphire could depict the height of His wrath. Sulfur is elsewhere used as a picture of the painful punishment of God’s wrath and judgment. Just like the lions’ teeth of the locusts, the deadliness of this judgment is portrayed by the horses having lions’ heads.
Unlike the judgment of the locusts, the weapon that God uses here is the “fire and smoke and sulfur” that comes out of the horses’ mouths, representing God’s wrath and punishment. With this judgment, John specifies that only “a third of mankind” is killed, making it another partial judgment on people. Their suffering results, not only from the missiles from the horses’ mouths, but also from their tails, which are “like serpents with heads”. However, instead of killing with their tails, they wound, making their victims suffer before they die.
It’s evident that this vision doesn’t describe a literal army of horsemen riding on lion-headed and serpent-tailed horses. However, since it seems to coincide so well with the gathering of people described near the end of Revelation, and also with the rise of “the man of lawlessness” in 1 Thessalonians, it seems that this is describing a future judgment on God’s enemies that will involve a large gathering of killers, destroying a portion of mankind before the last judgment. This army will be motivated by the hatred for God possessed by ancient Babylon, but will come from the “four corners of the earth”, or all over the globe, bringing judgment on unbelievers before the end.
The Lost Stubbornly Latch on to Sin
In verses 20-21, John describes the response of the survivors of the onslaught of the second woe:
“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (ESV)
Instead of motivating the rest of unbelievers to give up their rebellion against God, the sixth trumpet judgment gives them yet another reason to continue enjoying their sins. The first sin they continue to commit is “the works of their hands”. With their hands, they evidently worship “demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood”. In the Bible, what someone does with his hands represents how he lives, and these people live by worshiping demons and false gods. Strikingly, they even worship their false gods by making them out of metal, stone, and wood. The third sin they continue to commit is “their murders”, which could refer to murder of other unbelievers, but most particularly refers to their murder of God’s people. Fourth, they continue to commit “their sorceries”, or cooperation with demons to accomplish their selfish goals. Fifth, they continue to commit “sexual immorality”, or sex apart from marriage. And finally, they continue to steal from others.
For all these sins, those who survive the massive killing of people near the end will be judged on the last day, at the blast of the final trumpet.
Expect God’s Judgment on Evil
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how do these visions apply to you?
First, if we ask God to punish people for persecuting Christians, then we should expect Him to answer us. We see this taught in the fact that the prayers of the saints reach God, and they result in the six trumpet judgments on unbelievers. God is not only going to bring final judgment on all of His enemies, but also brings judgment in this life through natural disasters, and through demonic attack.
Second, we shouldn’t think that the worst of suffering unbelievers experience in this life will motivate them to repent. Even at the end of this age, when the worst of God’s judgments comes upon His enemies, they’ll still continue to rebel against Him, knowing that they’re rebellion will result in their punishment. The only thing that can change the hearts and minds of sinners through the Spirit’s power, so they trust in Jesus to save them, is the good news of Jesus, not simply the bad news of judgment.
If you worship anything or anyone but the Lord Jesus Christ, are hateful, sexually immoral, or a thief, then you can know that, when you experience unusual suffering, God is giving you a taste of the judgment to come. If you don’t repent and trust in Christ, you will suffer eternal punishment in hell. The good news is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve from God. Then, God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. He demands that everyone repent of their rebellion against Him, and trust in Jesus to save them from their sins, and provide them with His forgiveness. Please make sure you’ve done this. If you have, then the Lord requires His people to be baptized under water in His name, as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a demonstration of faith in Christ.