Ted Grimsrud—February 8, 2014
In Revelation 9, the unfolding of the vision of the plagues associated with the seven trumpets continues. Chapter 8 echoed the first four of the seal visions in chapter 6, except with much more destruction. We should read these plague visions in light of their being surrounded the visions of redemption and faithfulness that we saw in the worship service of chapters 4 and 5, the multitude that stands before the Lamb in chapter 7, and—as we will see—the faithful witness of God’s people in chapters 11 and 12. Such a reading strategy will help us keep the plagues in perspective. They are not the fundamental reality. And they are not the work of a vengeful God punishing human wrongdoing.
After the four plagues of chapter 8, there is a brief interlude where a talking eagle cries out in pain in face of what the earth is facing with the plagues. The term in 8:13 that is translated “woe” could also be translated “alas!” and has the connotation of sorrow and empathy more than that this is announcing God’s direct punitive judgment.
The eagle cries out three times, pointing to the next two trumpet blasts that will be described in chapter 9 and a third “woe” that does not have a clear referent. The seventh trumpet blast (11:15-19) could be the third “woe”—in which case since the focus with the trumpet is the promise that God will “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18), the idea could be that this “woe” will end all the “woes” by doing away with the actual source of the destruction, the Dragon and his minions. Beginning with chapter 9, Revelation makes it increasingly clear that the Dragon is the direct actor behind the plagues.
The fifth and sixth trumpets do speak of more trauma on earth and give more detail to the picture of this time of the “3 1/2 years” between Jesus’s victory described in Revelation 5 and the coming of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21.
The “star” that John sees as having “fallen from heaven to earth” (9:1) likely is the same entity as the “angel of the bottomless pit (or abyss)” who is the “king” of the terrible “locusts” (9:11) whose activity constitutes the fifth trumpet plague (or the first “woe”) of 9:1-12. That is, as will become apparent, this “star” or “angel” is the Dragon.
This is the first of several mentions of the “abyss.” Here in 9:1-2, the fallen “star” opens the “shaft of the abyss” and thick smoke pours forth. In 9:11, it is the “angel of the abyss” who is king over the locusts. In 11:7, the Beast who makes war on the Lamb’s witness “comes up from the abyss.” Then, in 17:8 we are told that the Beast the Great Harlot will ride ascends from the abyss. Finally, in 20:1-3 we read of the Dragon being thrown into the abyss and then briefly released.
Another clue about this abyss and the “key” the fallen star is given that opens the “shaft of the abyss” comes from early in the book. The vision of Jesus Christ that makes up the second half of chapter 1 contains a series of descriptive characteristics of this one who walks among the “lampstands” (i.e., the seven churchs, 1:20). One of the images that the vision mentions is that Jesus has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). Then in 3:7, in the opening statement to the message to the church at Philadelphia (one of two churches praised without critique), Jesus is described as “the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
The sum of these various references is not a crystal clear, coherent set of definitions about the abyss, Death and Hades, the Beast, the Dragon, and Jesus Christ and how they interrelate. However, if we keep all these allusions in mind as we look at 9:1-2, we are helped to understand what is being conveyed here. I think one of the main points being made in 9:1-2 is to alert readers to the actual dynamics of the “plagues” that characterize life during this time of present human history in which we live.
The “star” (that is, Dragon) is “given the key” that actually belongs to the Lamb (1:18—assuming that the “abyss” is the same as “Death and Hades”). This is not to say that the Dragon works for the Lamb or does the Lamb’s will. Rather, it’s part of the general picture in Revelation that God’s healing work is not defeated by the Powers of evil but instead works alongside the violence of the Powers to bring salvation and wholeness. All the terrible things that happen in history (directed by the Powers, not by God) do not defeat the purposes of God—hence, followers of the Lamb may live in hope and courage, following the Lamb wherever he goes and affirm merciful existence and resist the ways of empire.
The immediate consequence of the Dragon getting the key to the abyss here is the unleashing on the earth of the devastating locusts. Clearly this plagues draws on stereotypical fears of ancient peoples of massive and destructive infestations of these insects who would eat virtually everything in their path. More directly, the picture here links with the locust plague from the exodus story. That allusion, like several others where Revelation alludes to events from the exodus, can help us see that John’s specific visions ultimately serve the overarching vision of Jesus Christ the book contains—a vision of redemption and liberation (as does the exodus story).
One interesting twist here is that the plagues are said to be focused not on the followers of the Lamb (who, though they are spared here [the locusts are told not to damage those who “have the seal of God on their foreheads,” 9:4], will themselves be attacked in later chapters]), but on those who do not belong to the Lamb’s community. The effects of the locusts’ destruction are terrible: “people will seek death but will not find it” (9:6).
We then learn more about the locusts. They are not actually real locusts but a metaphor for soldiers and, it seems likely, specifically Rome’s soldiers. “Their faces were like human faces” (9:7), they are armored and vicious, and they have a king. This king is the “fallen star” of 9:1-2, that is, the Dragon. However, these are not simply demonic forces as free-floating evil-doers. The name of their king is “Abaddon” (in Hebrew) and “Apollyon” (in Greek). The word means “Destroyer” and likely alludes to the Emperor Domitian, who ruled the Empire during last decade of the first century when Revelation probably was written.
“Apollyon” may be an allusion to the god Apollo. Domitian claimed to be Apollo incarnate. The locust was used as a symbol for Apollo. So, perhaps here the vision means to bring together emperor worship, the violence of Rome, and the influence of Satan. In what follows in Revelation, what seems obliquely intimated here becomes increasingly explicit. The Roman Empire that so attracts those in the seven churches, an attraction that John’s Jesus condemns in the seven messages, is empowered not by the true God as it claimed but by the Powers of evil. What’s at stake in the choices about where to place one’s loyalty is literally a choice between the God of the Bible and the Powers of evil—despite the surface attractiveness of the Empire.
Even as they wreak havoc on human life, the locusts have only limited powers of destruction here. They cannot hurt those with the seal of God. They cannot “damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree” (9:4). They could not kill those they tortured, and their time for doing their damage was limited to five months (the normal life span of locusts). And all of their activity is said to be “allowed;” they did not act out of their own independent power. Perhaps these limitations are a way of reinforcing that the Dragon ultimately cannot overpower or defeat the Lamb. In the end, as the Dragon mistakenly gathers his forces for a big battle, he will simply be captured and thrown into the lake of fire (chapters 19-20). The ultimate impotence of the Dragon in Revelation echoes Satan’s impotence in relation to Jesus in the gospels.
The picture here in chapter 9 prepares us for a major, though subtle, shift in emphasis. The chapter builds towards its conclusion, that the “rest of humankind” (that is, those without the seal of God) who are tortured by the scorpions will not repent and turn to God as a result of those tortures (9:21). This failure to effect repentance is itself an indication that indeed the plagues are coming from the Dragon, not God. The scorpions’ tortures, and the other consequences of the plagues, do not operate apart from God’s overarching care for creation and they certainly do not defeat God. But they themselves do not, nor were they intended to, bring about repentance. What will follow beginning in chapter 10, will be an account of what does actually lead to repentance.
The intensity of the plagues ratchets up even more with the sixth trumpet plague (and second woe). “The four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” are released (again the anonymity of the agent behind the plagues) in order “to kill a third of humankind” (9:15). Probably, “the four angels” should be linked with the “four horsemen” of famine, pestilence, famine, and war of chapter 6. Here, we again have horses and riders, along with a cavalry of “two hundred million” (9:16). But this time, the horses themselves are agents of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.
It would be a mistake to read these images as predictive of some future great war. They are instead simply greatly exaggerated pictures drawing on the present anxieties of John’s readers living in the Roman Empire. They would have feared extreme war likely due to invasions of their land from the East—”the barbarian hordes” from territories that the Romans had never conquered. John’s point in intensifying the levels of death and destruction (remember, in the seal-plagues the destruction was to one-fourth of the earth [6:8]; now it’s one-third of humankind that is killed [9:15]) is to underscore the on-going urgency of this call to turn from trusting in Rome and instead to trust in the Lamb. As we will soon see, this urgency in part is for the sake of “the inhabitants of the earth” (that is, those without the seal of God)—in order that they may actually find the way to genuine repentance that is stimulated by the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb and his followers.
The plagues (and certainly not God’s direct hand) will not literally kill one-third of humanity in the hopes of getting the rest to repent. From now on, we will read of plagues which seem to speak of massive death followed by activities indicating that such massive killing did not actually happen. Later, even after a plague of total destruction, the inhabitants of the earth remain to oppose God and ultimately to repent. The meaning of the plagues, then, is to serve as a metaphor for the on-going destruction wreaked by the Powers of evil (who are disguised as agents for good in establishing “peace and order”). The plagues are not promises of violent, punitive judgment against stiff-necked humans in rebellion versus God. Rather, they are reminders that the world remains in many ways enslaved by the Powers of evil and always in need of the witness to the Lamb’s way of healing love.
The plague visions call followers of the Lamb to equate the Empire with the minions of the Dragon and to persevere in their following the pattern of Jesus (faithful witness to the point of great suffering with trust in God’s vindication and ultimate healing of broken creation). Chapter 9 can easily be misinterpreted in a condemnatory fashion, as a picture of just how hostile toward God humanity has become. So it must be read in light of what comes before (the worship visions of chapters 4-5 and 7) and what comes next (the vision of how actual repentance does happen).
A key aspect of the chapter comes at the end—an often misunderstood picture of the failure of the inhabitants of the earth to repent in 9:20-21. “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent” (9:20). But who can blame them? If the world is a place of torment, war, and death, why would people want to trust in the one who is professed as the creator and ruler of this world? What is needed is some other picture of God that shows the one who desires trust to be an agent for human well-being, not simply punishment and devastation. We will get such a picture in chapters 10–12.
In light of what follows in Revelation, we need to understand this picture of the failure of humankind to repent not mainly as an indictment on human hard-heartedness. It is true that in face of the plagues, humanity turns to idols (note John’s powerful evoking of Psalm 115’s indictment of the dynamics of idolatry in 9:20)—and such idolatry only makes things worse. But we should be sympathetic to this turn. Humanity is under siege from the Powers of evil, the masters of deception. In their pain, human beings try to find comfort and a sense of security wherever they can find it.
What is needed is a powerful witness to a God of love, not retributive violence. This is precisely what will follow. So the picture of the failure of humanity to repent is more a reminder that retribution does not lead to healing—and that the One on the throne who is so closely connected with the Lamb (chapters 4–5) is not the source of the plagues. The One on the throne is the source of a way of being in the world that brings healing even in face of the devastation that characterizes some much of historical time.