June 28, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 19:05 in the audio file.
Or, The First Woe When Death Can’t Be Caught
P.G. Wodehouse once wrote to a friend about how there are some things in life that don’t break down very well into percentages, such as getting hit by a car. We’ve likewise past the point in the Apocalypse where percentages of interpretations work very well. It’s not quite all or nothing, positively past or fully future, but it’s close. We crossed the line when we left the Lamb around the throne in chapter 5. Doug Wilson made a similar point at the start of chapter 6:
“We also come to the point where Christian interpreters shake hands with each other in order to part company, not to be reunited again until the resurrection of the dead in chapter 20.”
There is just less percentage of compatible overlap between the approaches. It’s bad form to say, about the same verse, that it happened, it is happening, and it will happen. For example, the trumpets blew before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (the preterist approach), or the trumpets continue to blow in every generation in their own ways (the idealist approach), or the trumpets have yet to blow, and we are all waiting for the great tribulation (the futurist approach).
We are examining the Revelation together. I have been, and plan to continue, raising some alternative understandings of the various parts. But as I said, it’s hard to share percentages here. It’s also more difficult to persuade someone who is in the middle of the ocean that it would make better sense if they were on a bike. But I’m accountable as a teacher, and we can all keep treating each other charitably because we’re all on Jesus’ side. (Plus, it’s good practice for dealing with the mask mandate, ha!)
Remember where we’re at in the book. The Almighty, seated on the throne, handed the seven-sealed scroll to the worthy Lamb, and the Lamb has broken all seven seals. The seventh seal initiates seven trumpets given to seven angels. In chapter 8 verses 6-12, four angels blow the first four trumpets which results in massive, but not complete, destruction on earth. These judgments are meted out in percentage, with a third of land and sea and sky taking hits.
As G.K. Beale points out, “the cosmic order of the luminaries is essential to the continued welfare of the world,” and so the welfare of the world is not so well. The material cosmos is becoming more of a chaos, and it reflects God’s judgment on the moral chaos among men. The created patterns are being un-patterned, not just as retribution on men, but in some sense as a reflection of man’s devolution.
That’s just the first four trumpets of seven. There is something remarkable about the final three trumpets as they are singled out and identified as woes. Unlike the first four, these are direct torments on men, and each receives almost as much attention as the first four combined.
In Revelation 8:13-9:12 we’ll see the woes announced, the first woe of demon locusts unleashed, and the announcement that the first woe has passed.
This is an unfortunate non-chapter break, meaning that this verse doesn’t summarize the first four trumpets, it announces the final three trumpets.
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!” (verse 13)
The eagle isn’t circling like a vulture, but it might as well be. Around the throne in Revelation 4:7 one of the living creatures had the appearance “like an eagle in flight,” but this creature is different. The only other time an eagle appears in Revelation is chapter 12:14, where a “woman was given two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness.”
An eagle provokes thoughts of speed and strength, and as it flies overhead, everyone can see and hear its loud voice. As for a bird with vocal cords, remember, it is a vision, but also, we know at least that a serpent and a donkey have talked before. Besides, don’t we love the legend of Thorondor in The Silmarillion and the Great Eagles in The Hobbit and Gwaihir the Windlord bringing news to Gandalf?
The eagle cries, Woe, woe, woe. The two syllable Greek word (οὐαί) might actually sound like the cry of an eagle if screeched the right way. This trifecta of woes means that the woes are a disaster, and there are three woes for the tree remaining trumpets.
The woes are for those who dwell on the earth, for the earth-dwellers, which is more than a generic designation, but a label for those with an earthly, worldly mindset. This is a group personified as those whose lives are lived only “under the sun,” as Solomon put it. They won’t see anything deeper or divine. Give them superstition or science, just don’t give them the Lord.
Of all the things we’ve seen in Revelation so far, this is probably the most bizarre, and it is actually straight from the pit.
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. (verse 1)
A star fell with the third trumpet (8:10), but this star is personal. The star is referred to as he, and he receives a key and he travels to a door and opens it with the key. If the emphasis is on the star as fallen, then this is a rebel-angel, and perhaps the king referred to in verse 11. If the emphasis is on his charge over the pit, and related to chapter 20 where the key and pit and the angel are referenced again, this could be one of God’s angelic servants. It is not impossible, but odd if a rebel-angel was given a key to his own prison (Osborne).
A bottomless pit sounds deep. The original word is “without a bottom” or “without depth”; it’s a big hole. This abyss is only found in the book of Revelation; the beast comes from the pit, and Satan will be thrown into the pit for 1,000 years. Apparently there is some sort of door or gate or lid to the shaft, on earth, which requires a key to open. That key is held by the Almighty, or His Lamb, and at the blowing of the trumpet the key is handed off.
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 the smoke from the shaft. (verse 2)
Smoke rises straight from the pit in great and suffocating quantity. It’s a smoke mask for the sun.
Where there is smoke there’s usually fire, and something like a great furnace is below. It’s obviously not electric, but a gigantic oven or kiln; this is a much more hellish version of the fiery furnace that Daniel’s three friends were thrown into (Daniel 3:20).
Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. (verse 3)
Suffocating smoke was the best thing to come from the pit. Either the smoke provided cover for, or somehow the smoke burped up, locusts. But these are not your normal plague-variety locusts. They were given power or authority, not to bite and consume, but like that of scorpions, to sting. There’s description of their appearance in verses 7-11, here we see their divine assignment.
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. (verse 4)
The garden variety locusts devour vegetation. These locusts are told to leave all the grass and plants and trees alone, and go right for men and women, only those people who do not have the seal of God, the earth-dwellers, the rebels.
Here is a small indication of chronology, since the sealing must have already taken place (chapter 7), and it’s also an indication of intellect rather than mere instinct of these locusts; they were told, and they understood. The torment they bring is cruel and unusual. It is also limited; they cannot wound willy-nilly.
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. (verse 5)
The beginning of the verse is another divine decision, “it was given to them to torment…for five months, but not to kill. The torment or pain-inducing is limited in extent of pain and in extent of time. They are not murder hornets, just torture locusts; they are the Johnny Appleseeds of misery. Five months is a strangely specific amount of time. Normal locusts have around a five month life-span, but these are, you know, not normal. They swarm from the pit, and they sting like a scorpion.
Some interpret this torment as “deceptive influences, especially false teaching” (Beale). But how does that fit with John’s next comment?
And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (verse 6)
Men will wish they were dead. To seek death could mean attempted suicide; Stoics and Romans at least considered suicide more honorable than disgrace (Osborne). That they will long to die is a form of ἐπιθυμέω, they will lust for, be consumed with a desire to escape. They will know no empty hours. But in this first woe, death doesn’t come; death will flee. It’s ironic. Some of these must be the ones the martyrs prayed for God to judge (chapter 6). And they are being judged. But they will experience some of the pain they inflicted on earth before the final judgment and lake of fire.
I tried to find out what a Preterist thinks about these torture locusts. I mean, things were bleak in the besieging of Jerusalem, but demonic torture locusts takes it to another level. And I can appreciate that a first century reader would have a variety of no-good mental imagery when reading about hordes of devouring insects, but it makes sense to me that all of those are types of devourers foreshadowing these end time torturers.
Why all of this description? Eight times we read “like.” The extended details demonstrate the reality of the creatures, and emphasize not only that they bring torment but also terror.
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, (verse 7) their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; (verse 8) 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. (verse 9) They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. (verse 10)
This is the stuff of nightmares.
There is some similarity in these descriptions to Joel 1-2, prophesying locusts in Israel, which would have reminded them of the locusts plague in Egypt, Exodus 10. But, those locusts don’t come from the abyss, and they wrecked the vegetation.
Normal locusts have visible similarities with horses. Did you know the German word for locust is heupferd which means “hay-horse” and cavalletta is Italian for “little horse.” These are like war horses, horses on steroids, horse faces straight from the pit. They have poser crowns, eerily similar and intelligible looking faces, sharp teeth (though they don’t use them), impenetrable armor from neck to navel, and make a terrifying clatter. Imagine thousands of iron chariots being pulled across a bumpy field by huge horses…the sights and sounds would scare you to death, but you can’t escape.
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. (verse 11)
The demon locusts have a demon king, the angel of the bottomless pit. John gives his name in both Hebrew and Greek, and both words turn a terrible concept, destruction, into a personalized form, “Destroyer.”
Abaddon is frequent in the Old Testament, Apollyon is found only here in all the Bible.
Some take this king of the pit as Muhammad, and the locusts as an Arab army. Others take the locusts as Parthians (and their long hair riding on horses) who had already defeated the Romans. But those options don’t really satisfy the woe.
The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come. (verse 12)
To say that the first has passed certainly has chronological implications, right? And that more woes are still to comedoesn’t sound like an announcement that things are going to lighten up, does it? It sounds like, Buckle up.
What are we supposed to get from this? What do we take away? How is a man of God equipped for good works by these inspired words?
Trust God to protect you, trust that He controls every part of your pain, and trust that He will do justice to those who want to live without Him. Endure whatever He has given to you, even in this world that deserves to have demons unleashed to torment it, and remember that for you, even death is gain. As Paul wrote,
as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)
I don’t expect the demon locusts to be released in July, but, what do I know? Of course we are just a little under five months from the presidential election. I don’t understand the demon locusts as mere symbols of really bad things either. But that doesn’t mean that you are in the clear. Jesus said the blessed are reviled, that they have all sorts of false evil said against them. Paul said you need spiritual armor. Peter said your adversary is on the prowl. So get real, and live by faith, and look to the Lamb.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:8–11, ESV)