The First Two Woes: The Big Guns Face Off
In This Corner: Locusts From Hell
9:1-12. When the fifth trumpet sounds, the angel that had already fallen to the ground at the third trumpet opens a great abyss and releases a swarm of locusts that overrun the land. Rather than being an image of modern attack helicopters, locusts were a common image used to describe an unbeatable invading army that ravaged everything in its path. The fact that they do not harm the earth seems to suggest a rapid, surprise attack that catches the enemy unprepared.
In fact, the “locusts” are said to resemble “horses prepared for battle” (v. 7). Yet they also have human faces, hair (like women) and breastplates. Give them wings (v. 9) and scorpion tails (v. 10) and you have a typical mythical animal with features from many unrelated creatures. (Babylonian and Assyrian buildings have many hybrid creatures adorning them.) The idea seems to be to convey an image of supernaturally impressive military might that scares the enemy into giving ground without much of a fight.
Because their power is compared to that of scorpion stings, the modern mind might suspect some kind of germ or chemical warfare. We are not told, however, that the “torment” is caused by the “sting.” It could be torment in the form of unending toil of subjugated peoples, such as Israel in Egypt as one possible alternative. Another possibility could be forced relocation as in Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Entire populations being sold into slavery wholesale is another possibility that brings those two unpleasant scenarios together. Later chapters in the book may bring out more information about what is going on in this brief depiction.
We are told, however, that their leader is “the angel of the bottomless pit,” known as “The Destroyer” or “Destruction” in the two languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek. We will be told more about him later in the book.
In the Other Corner: The Trans-Euphrates Challenger
9: 13-21. Just when things are looking good for the blitzkrieg, God intervenes by allowing a mighty opponent to arise, thoughtfully drying up the Euphrates River to enable then to enter the territory of their enemy. In fact, the name of the river and the direction from which they travel helps us to identify both foes as historic enemies. Historians of the Roman period will immediately recognize the Euphrates River as the border between the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire of that era.
Historic Note: In 53 BC, the Roman General Crassus attempted to add Parthia to Roman conquests. His 40,000 infantry troops lost in humiliating fashion against 10,000 Parthian cavalry. (This task force was only a small part of the main Parthian army that had been sent ahead to delay the Romans. Even their own general did not expect them to actually win the engagement.) Over the next two centuries the Parthians occasionally raided much of the Middle East with virtual impunity whenever the Romans forgot with whom they were dealing. At one point even portions of Asia Minor (where the seven churches were located) came under brief Parthian rule (41 BC, as per http://www.worldtimelines.org.uk/world/asia/western/133BC-AD223). They were still considered a force to be reckoned with at the time John put pen to paper.
The description of the enemy in v. 17 could easily apply to the Parthian “cataphract,” a horse and rider both armoured in bronze scales that were impenetrable to Roman swords and lances. In the battle against Crassus, the Parthian general Surena ordered his cataphracts to cover their armour with cloth until they got into position. When the order was given to remove the cloths, the Romans were virtually blinded by the brightness, (but held their formation). To an onlooker, it would have seemed like the Romans were being attacked by flaming horses, with a hail of arrows darkening the sky. See the Wikipedia article, “The Battle” for details of the battle.
We now have a name for the “evil empire” that starts the whole mess: “Rome.” Their glory will be reversed at the hands of a band of barbarians that will be unstoppable. For an oppressed Christian in the First Century AD, whether or not the ultimate “empire at the end of the earth” is met with an opponent able to field a literal force of 200 million mounted men is less important than the fact that the Christians’ Roman oppressors will finally meet their doom in ignominy. God will judge the evil empire that destroys His people and set the balance right.
For the modern or post-modern reader of Revelation, does this mean that the “evil empire” will literally be a resurrection of the Roman Empire? Probably not. (That would be too easy!) The game of empire has been part of the human experience from the very beginning. Empires always concentrate power into the hands of the few at the expense of the freedom of the many. Every political system that concentrates power can become a type of “Roman Empire” in its ruthlessness and intolerance of Jesus Christ’s message and disciples.
Perhaps what we need to look at is all the places on earth now where Christians are considered enemies of the state, and those for whom persecution for their faith is only beginning to happen. The time will come when each of those Christians who is martyred will be vindicated by the return to life promised by Jesus at His return. The time of every oppressive regime to be taken down will come. Yet even as this happens, the system will continue to resist changing from its evil ways (v. 20-21). Ultimately, the only way to stop the game of empire is to completely destroy all its players and start fresh. Only then can the world be made right.
In the meantime, Jesus continues to reveal the hidden powers behind the evil empires of their time and our time. Stay tuned…