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The First Woe: Demonic Assault

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Introduction

For hundreds of years, God was patient. The people of Israel had entered into a covenant with God. He would be their God & they would be His people. They immediately broke the covenant, and God should have immediately enacted the terms of the covenant which included increasing levels of punishment on Israel until they returned. Instead, God delayed punishment and sent them prophets to call them back in repentance. Israel refused and the prophets and the prophecies came more often and came more loudly. Increasingly the images became more terrifying, and the punishments more brutal because Israel refused to repent.
The book of Revelation reflects the same pattern. God calls to the earth for repentance (Acts 17:30) and mankind refuses. Every pain and problem is a reminder that judgement approaches and men refuse to repent. God calls again and the cycle continues. Thus we find ourselves at what I’ll call “the beginning of the worsening”.
But how we understand what is happening and why is, admittedly difficult. Here, I absolutely must interpose that these were exactly what John saw, thus he says. But what he saw was a sequence of visions. They must be understood and read within the context of the first century church who received them and who knew the Old Testament scriptures which were their own. Only then are they fit to be understood within our context.
In other words, what John saw is not - by virtue of what a vision is - what will precisely happen See for example Jeremiah 1:13-19. God was not about to pour boiling water on the people of Israel. God tells us in that text that the boiling water (which is painful and destructive) is symbolic of the horde of Babylon whose sudden and violent arrival from the north will be painful and destructive.
So let us experience the vision that John saw. Please stand with me as you are able and hear the word of God from Revelation 8:13-9:12.
Revelation 8:13–9:12 NASB95PARA
Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!” Then the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth; and the key of the bottomless pit was given to him. He opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit. Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them. The appearance of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle; and on their heads appeared to be crowns like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men. They had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle. They have tails like scorpions, and stings; and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months. They have as king over them, the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon. The first woe is past; behold, two woes are still coming after these things.

Woe

John looks again and sees an eagle (some translations say angel)[1] flying in midheaven crying out three times in succession “Woe” to those who dwell on earth. The remaining three trumpet blasts will be more horrible.
I have never seen an eagle who could talk. We have some beautiful bald eagles in our area now, but none of them speak. The whole thing from trumpets to eagles and more is telling you and I clearly that this is continuing to be symbolic imagery. It is what John saw, but what does it mean?
Over and over eagles appear as images of fearlessness, strength, and speed,[2] notably the power of God to deliver his people Ex 19:4).
He pronounces that three “woes” are coming. For a glimpse of woes in the old testament: take a read at Isaiah 5 and 6. Woe certainly appears to be a favorite word of Isaiah and Jeremiah. In brief it is a mournful warning of impending judgement best summed up perhaps by Isaiah 5:20 or Isaiah 3:11
Isaiah 5:20 NASB95PARA
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Isaiah 3:11 NASB95PARA
Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, For what he deserves will be done to him.
There is one Old Testament instance where it is repeated, in Ezekiel 16:23. In that Passage, God is telling a parable in which Israel, the nation he cherished, nurtured, and covenanted with must face judgement because they have given all His gifts to idols, given herself like an adulterous to every other idol of the nations, and have trampled the covenant of God under their feet. In response to the coming judgement, God himself says “woe woe to you!” to Israel.
The woes are necessary punishments for evil that God would rather have visited upon the shoulders of His son for redemption. I want you to note here that this is, as it were, a cry of grief from the Holy God who must enact them. These woes, like the woes in Isaiah are announcement’s beforehand that demonstrate God’s compassion and serve as a last second warning to those who must suffer lest they repent.
God’s holiness demands justice be served and it never overrides his mercy, nor does his mercy override his justice. The judge of the all the earth will do right. He will judge sin, but it is a continued testament to the grace of God that he does so even amid continued warnings.

The Abyss

As you open chapter 9, the fifth angel sounds and John sees a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth. I would like to point out that the Star is referred to as “he” in verse 2. Just as I said concerning Revelation 8:10 that the star is representing an angelic being. What we have here once again is an angel (good or evil we are not told) which has started in heaven and fallen s to earth. He is given a key, a symbol of authority. This angel is given a key, a key which opens the shaft of the abyss my translation calls it the bottomless pit but it is best translated as “The shaft of the abyss”.
In the Old Testament, the abyss is associated with deep water, but by the time of Jesus it had become the name of the place of punishment for wicked spirits, the realm of the dead.[3] For example in Luke 8:31 when the Gadarene demoniac who has the legion of demons is confronted by Jesus they are begging him not to send them into the abyss (Luke 8:31). This angel unlocks the abyss and in verse 2 we see what comes out.

A Demonic Horde

First we see smoke, thick and black so that it darkens the sun and the atmosphere. Exodus 10:15, Joel chapter 2, and national Geographic all describe a swarm of locusts so great that the land was darkened by them. But note that the smoke darkens the air here.
Out of the smoke come locusts. At least that is what they are called. But there’s nothing normal about them either in description, activity, power, or anything else.
I’ll start with my conclusion here that these Locusts are representative of a massive unleashing of demons upon the earth. It is not the conclusion I started with, it’s the conclusion that study leads me to. Let’s take a look.

Delegated authority.

The first thing we see is that they have a delegated authority: power was given to them. That will be more clear in a moment. Real locusts are renowned for not leaving anything undamaged, but there are limits set upon these.
They come out of the smoke, interestingly enough - not out of the pit, but out of the smoke.
Now, locusts are particularly important at two critical moments in the Old Testament.

The Eighth Plague

In Exodus 10:12-15 the eighth plague has locust devouring anything and everything that survived the plague of hail, and then pouring into the houses of the Egyptians - a description that I have to confess makes my skin crawl. We’ve seen the images of Locust Swarms over the years and even right now. A swarm of Locusts today in East Africa “can destroy 300 million pounds of crops in a single day.”[4]

Prophetic Judgment

Secondly the locusts evoke the memory of the book of Joel, which begins with Joel crying out for people to pay attention to the devastation that a sequence of real locust swarms had made upon Israel. Joel says they should turn to God with repentance and he would restore their fruitfulness (Joel 1:1-20).
But to these locusts in Revelation, a particular power was given to them. It is described as the kind of power a scorpion has. I am told that scorpions have a very painful sting. Some are deadly, others just hurt a lot and both types exist in the Middle East.
But note the restrictions on these guys. There are limits placed on these scorpion like locusts that point to them being anything but normal locusts.

Divine Limits

First of all, the locust are ordered not to do what locusts do: Don’t harm the grass, or anything green or the trees.
Then they’re told to only harm a very specific class of people - those who are not among the sealed of God. If you remember the imagery of the 144,000 which represents the church as its firstfruits who is marked as belonging to God then the command here is that the locusts cannot harm Christians.
Once again, the parallel to the Egyptian plagues is obvious. The Israelites were often protected entirely from the plagues on the rest of Egypt - so Christians will be protected from this plague upon unbelieving mankind. God’s wrath is NOT being poured out on Christians. It is being poured out on unbelievers.
Moreoever, as this points us once again back to Ezekiel 9 where the image of the seal of God on the foreheads of his own comes from; take note that the seal of God is placed in that passage immediately before “the unleashing of six angelic destroyers, who slaughtered those in Jerusalem who lacked the mark (Ezek. 9).”[5]
Third they are given another limit: They cannot kill, only torment. They could torment for five months (the lifespan of a flying adult locust is a maximum of 5 months.) with the same kind of pain of a scorpion when it stings a man. Does that remind you of anything at all? Pay attention to the restriction here. To torment but not to kill. That restriction may well bring another memory of an Old Testament book to mind: The book of Job. In the book of Job, God gives Satan permission to test Job, but gives a limit in that Satan cannot kill him (See Job 1:12; 2:6).

Demonic Activity

Verse 6 gives us a horrifying update however on the severity of the pain. In fact it is repeated twice to indicate the severity of the situation. People will want to die from the pain, but they won’t be able to. Death will flee from them.
I was reading a book you can get your hands on for free today: Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper. Just searching that phrase will take you to a free download of the book that you can read, or the MP3’s to listen to: for free. It is a worthy expenditure of your time, and would be worth the money[6] if you want to donate or buy a paper copy. (https://www.desiringgod.org/books/coronavirus-and-christ)
In that book, very early on, John Piper is talking about the profound power of hope and he says this, “Hope is power. Present power. Hope keeps people from killing themselves—now.”[7] When I read that it struck me that these people, these unsaved, tormented people suffering under what seems to be demonic torment will suffer something worse than pain. They will suffer the loss of hope. That’s what longing to die envisions. Moreover they won’t be able to die.
Maybe, God’s just not going to allow suicide to work. Maybe it’s just an image of the hopelessness of man. Or maybe it’s another indication to show us that this is God releasing the demons to torment humanity.
In Mark 5:1-17, particularly verse 5 we read about the Gadarene Demoniac (one of the men with the legion of demons) who was living in the tombs, mercilessly powerful and terrifyingly self destructive - gashing himself with stones. In his torment he seems to have yearned to die, but was entirely unable to escape- being held captive to the whims of the demons that tormented him yet kept him alive. Only Jesus could free him. Is it possible that this terrifying picture is of the unleashing of demons and massive demonic possession of all those who have rejected the deliverance of Jesus?
This description of five months of torment is meant to open our eyes to what awaits those who reject Christ; and should it not move us to compassion knowing that the gospel, if embraced, can mark such a one safely from the suffering? Should it also not move those hearing but who do not believe to consider the great cost of rejecting Christ?

The Appearance of the Locusts

In verse 7 we see what they look like in John’s vision. They are chimera’s of horrifying description. Like horses, with human faces, crowns, long hair, sharp teeth, iron breastplates, loud wings and scorpion tails. There isn’t much locust left by the time an artist could draw this out.
What are they? What is the symbolism in this picture pointing to? Let’s look quickly.
Consider 1 Chronicles 12:8 where the Gadites coming against King David are described as having faces like lions and being as swift as the gazelles on the mountains. It was a description of their ferocity, not their real physical appearance.

War Horses – Swift and Powerful

First they are like horses prepared for battle. Instantly I’ve got images from the middle ages of knights in armor. But never mind our imaginations, consider the context of Joel 2:4 who is already in view in this chapter. Joel chapter 2 uses precisely this image. I am tempted to look only at the words of Joel 2:4 here but I want to read more of the chapter so that you will keep in mind the direct and very intentional link between the fifth trumpet judgement and Joel.
Joel 2:1–11 NASB95PARA
Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, So there is a great and mighty people; There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations. A fire consumes before them And behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them But a desolate wilderness behind them, And nothing at all escapes them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like war horses, so they run. With a noise as of chariots They leap on the tops of the mountains, Like the crackling of a flame of fire consuming the stubble, Like a mighty people arranged for battle. Before them the people are in anguish; All faces turn pale. They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like soldiers; And they each march in line, Nor do they deviate from their paths. They do not crowd each other, They march everyone in his path; When they burst through the defenses, They do not break ranks. They rush on the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter through the windows like a thief. Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness. The Lord utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, For strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it?
Who can endure it indeed. This is the great question of the terrified citizens of earth at the ope ning of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:17.
And there, as here the answer is the same: come to Jesus!
Joel 2:12 goes on to teach the people to repent:

Crowns – False authority

The creatures also have upon their heads something that looks like a golden crown. It wasn’t gold - meaning it wasn’t authentic. Crowns, even today are symbols of power and authority . But these things have no real authority of their own. Their power is given to them, it is limited by command, and shortened in its scope. They only appear to be crowns of gold. But they are not.

Human faces - intelligence

Third they are described as having faces like a human. Truly in the image we are presented with these locusts are horrifying - the very stuff of nightmares. But we also see angelic beings described in Ezekiel who have faces like oxen, eagles, as well as like a human (Ezekiel 1:10).
Most commentators seem to think this indicates intelligence. I’m not sure, but I’m not convinced of that.

Hair of women

They also had long hair. There is an interesting parallel in Deuteronomy 32:42 where God speaks about the punishments that Israel will receive for breaking the covenant and pursuing idols.
Deuteronomy 32:42 NASB95PARA
‘I will make My arrows drunk with blood, And My sword will devour flesh, With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the long-haired leaders of the enemy.’
The hair like women seems to make sense here as an allusion that this is clearly God’s punishment for the rebellion of unbelief.

Lion Teeth – Ferocious and Powerful

The sharp teeth like a lion could conceivably refer literally to savage teeth. Though, if we understand it through the lens of both Apocalyptic symbolism as well as the Old Testament it is rather more a description of the power to destroy. For example We have already mentioned Joel’s locust swarm: Joel 1:6 describes those locusts this way:
Joel 1:6 NASB95PARA
For a nation has invaded my land, Mighty and without number; Its teeth are the teeth of a lion, And it has the fangs of a lioness.
Since we know that Locusts surely don’t have lion’s teeth - what was Joel describing? Their destruction and their relentlessness. The symbolism here communicates the same thing: no mercy whatsoever.

Breastplates of Iron – impenatrable

Breastplates of Iron would have been impenetrable to conventional weapons. Meaning they were safe from the attacks of mankind.

Loud - Frightening

The sound of their wings like the sounds of Chariots. Chariots would have been both loud as well as frightening, and I think both images are supposed to be communicated here.

Tail like a scorpion - Painful

Having a tail like a scorpion is descriptive enough, these things were serious chimera’s - mixtures of all different kinds of creatures to be sure as John looked at them. And note that the sting of their tails would hurt for five months - again the same number we saw in verse five.

The Identity of these Locusts

Finally, It would seem ultimately that verse 11 is the verse that brings clarity, at least a little, to the puzzle of what or who is pictured by this plague of locusts. Proverbs 30:27 makes a note of observing that Locusts move in ranks like an army, but they have no king. This further cements that the image of the locusts is just that: an image meant to teach something else.
The fifth trumpet envisions overwhelming numbers and immense devastation of a host of demons inflicting suffering on the earth.
Their king is named Abaddon or Apollyon a Hebrew name and a Greek/Gentile name - both names mean "destroyer" and the dual naming seems to indicate that he has power over everyone…. Except of course as we’ve seen – the Christians.

God’s purpose in Judgment

The first woe envisions a horde of demons afflicting unbelievers.
Taking all of this together, listen to Deuteronomy 32:24. In that text of Moses’ song he is prophetically telling them what was coming in the future for Israel. Beginning In Deuteronomy 32:15 Moses foretells of Israel’s rebellion and God’s subsequent judgement. In the midst of that we read this:
Deuteronomy 32:24–25 NASB95PARA
They will be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague And bitter destruction; And the teeth of beasts I will send upon them, With the venom of crawling things of the dust. ‘Outside the sword will bereave, And inside terror— Both young man and virgin, The nursling with the man of gray hair.
Did you catch that? God’s judgement for rebellion will come in the form of the teeth of beasts and the venom of crawling things. Does that sound at all familiar with what is being described in the fifth trumpet?
My point is this: it is not necessary to see in real life what John saw in a vision for this to come to pass. The fifth trumpet is as symbolic as the rest in describing a judgement of God that is terrible, and apart from the symbolic language of Revelation, somewhat indescribable.
What is God’s purpose? The same as always: To convince people to repent while there is still time, even as time is running out.
[1] Certain translations have an angel instead of an Eagle - presumably because flying and calling is more of an angelic job than an Eagles. In the Greek it is very akin to a simple spelling error between the two words (aetou / aggelou). I would agree with Metzger’s assessment that it was probably a deliberate choice based upon expectation.
[2] Ex 19:4; Le 11:13; Dt 14:12; 28:49; 32:11; 2 Sa 1:23; Job 9:26; 39:27; Ps 103:5; Pr 23:5; 30:17, 19; Is 40:31; Je 4:13; 48:40; 49:16, 22; La 4:19; Eze 1:10; 10:14; 17:3, 7; Da 4:33; 7:4; Ho 8:1; Ob 4; Mic 1:16; Hab 1:8; Re 4:7; 8:13; 12:14
[3] We see it also in Romans 10:7 in the quotation Paul uses from the Old testament… he says there “Who will descend into the abyss” (from which to bring Christ back from the dead). It is Paul who unites the two ideas for us because he is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and he changes the concept of the sea as a distant location to the abyss as symbolic for the realm of the dead (not merely a grave).
[4] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/05/gigantic-locust-swarms-hit-east-africa/
[5] Steve Gregg, Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 1997), 177.
[6] https://disrn.com/news/john-piper-releases-new-book-coronavirus-and-christ-as-free-download
[7] John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
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