A study on revelation chapter 9
I co-host a Theology Podcast called, “Remnant Radio,” and recently we did an episode about a so-called “prayer strategy” that’s caught like wildfire in the charismatic church. But when you do a little research, it sounds eerily similar to a second-century heresy, called Gnosticism.
After we do a show, we receive feedback from all over the world, and one of these people told us what happened to him, a few days after seeing our show. He was praying for a woman with insomnia. She’d been taking huge doses of highly potent sleeping pills, and even they weren’t doing the trick. The person praying—we’ll call him Joe—started asking her questions, and as it turned out, she was heavily involved with the very “prayer strategy” in question. Joe told her, “This could be a ‘spirit of Gnosticism’ causing your insomnia.” She flat-out denied the possibility. But she was so desperate to sleep that she let him pray, not believing it would work.
So Joe invited the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then with an authoritative voice, he said, “In the name of Jesus, I command the spirit of Gnosticism to leave.” Immediately, and involuntarily, the woman’s back arched so that her head was looking straight at the ceiling. Then she lurched forward. He commanded it one more time, and she lurched back again, and then forward, and then suddenly—I know this is strange—she threw up in a nearby bowl. When the episode finished, it was like she had woken up from a trance. She went home, and without a single sleeping pill, she slept like a baby through the whole night.
Now I recognize that if you’ve never heard a story like that, you probably think I’m crazy. But when we read the New Testament, stories like these fill the pages… stories of demons causing blindness, deafness, fevers, scoliosis, mental illness, and much more. If a demon is the cause, secular remedies are insufficient. Supernatural problems require supernatural solutions.
And this sets us up for our discussion today. We are in the last message of our series, the Eye of the Storm, which is a series on Revelation 6-9. Next week, we’ll continue in Revelation, but the theme will shift, and the series will be called, “Epic.” But to place our focus back on chapter 9: God has been pouring out His judgments upon the earth, and each one has become successively darker. Chapter 9 is the darkest (and strangest) of them all. Now, let’s read:
1 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. 2 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. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 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. 5 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. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. 7 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, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 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. 10 They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11 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. 12 The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come. 13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 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. 16 The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 17 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. 18 By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 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. 20 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, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
There are obviously loads of bizarre images that would be difficult to unpack, even if we had the time. It reads more like a nightmare than a chapter in the Bible. In truth, that’s actually the primary point: the Last Days will be characterized by unprecedented evil.
This is of course prophesied in many other chapters of the Bible, as it pertains to evil human beings. But the focus of Revelation 9 is less about evil human agents than it is about evil demonic agents. In the Bible, demons are more than just symbols for evil; they are evil angels that deceive, tempt, and oppress human beings. Just before the end of the age, mankind will be slammed with a tsunami of these evil angels.
Now, I recognize that you probably have never heard this idea before. Just like I’ve been saying throughout this series, most American Christians get their “eschatology” by looking to present-day news headlines, instead of by looking back to the first century, as we should. It’s impossible to understand the Book of Revelation, if we divorce our interpretation from the context of John’s world.
Let me just give you an example of what I’m talking about, specifically as it relates to Revelation 9. One well-known prophecy teacher interprets the symbols of this chapter as weapons of modern warfare—and he has many followers who teach the same thing. The “stinging locusts,” they say, are Cobra helicopters from the Vietnam War, releasing deadly nerve gas from their scorpion-like “tails”. The calvary of 200 million, they say (or, at least, said), must belong to “Red China,” because they are east of the Euphrates River, and only they could field an army that large. The sting of their deadly tails, we are told, refers to ballistic missile launchers, which they will wield in an end-times invasion of the holy land. If you get your end-times theology from Christian pop-culture, this is the sort of scholarship you get. And it completely misses the point of the passage.
In reality, it was the common Jewish expectation that the end of the age would unleash a deluge of demonic activity. It was believed, for instance, that 90% of Satan’s demons have been bound ever since God flooded the earth in Genesis 6. Peter and Jude actually refer to this belief in the New Testament (without necessarily validating the proportions), when they say that God keeps these evil angels in “chains of gloomy darkness.” In the last days, it was expected that Satan would be released from the “abyss” or “bottomless pit,” and the remaining 90% of demon spirits that have been “bound” since the days of Noah would also be liberated. As Michael Heiser notes in his scholarly work, Demons, scholars have long noticed the connection between ancient Jewish/Christian beliefs about an end-times release of demons, and the teaching of Revelation 9.
If you thought our present world was evil, consider that Satan is operating with a severely limited demonic army. Revelation 9, 12, and 20 all speak of Satan and/or demons being released for a very short time, at the end of the age, and this is why the last days will be characterized by unprecedented evil.
Now that we’ve established the context, let’s look at some specific verses. This “demonic onslaught” begins in verse 1, with a “fallen star.” We know this is not a literal star, for it’s called “he”, and stars were often symbolic for angels. “He” has been given the “key to the bottomless pit,” which in Jewish thought was “the place of the dead” or “the abode of demons.” In verse 11, we see that this same figure is the “king” of demons, and his translated name means, “Destroyer” or “Destruction.” Who do you think this is?
Satan, or the devil—precisely. In the fifth trumpet (verses 1-12), Satan releases an army of locusts who torment human beings with a sting like a scorpion for five months. It should be obvious that these are not literal locusts. John uses the word “like” eight times to indicate that he’s using symbolic language. Furthermore, literal locusts harm vegetation—not humans—but these specifically DO NOT harm vegetation and DO harm humans. So what are these “locusts”? First of all, they are an army. The Old Testament commonly speaks of innumerable armies with the metaphor of locusts, and here in Revelation 9, the word “battle” is used twice to describe their nature.
What kind of “army” is this? Considering they come from the “abode of demons,” the answer should be obvious. Apocalyptic literature characteristically described demons as having both animal and human-like features, as we see here. And last of all, the scorpion sting confirms this interpretation, because—as Jesus displays in Luke 10:19—scorpions were a common symbol for demons. All this to say: the last days will be characterized by unprecedented evil because Satan will unleash a locust-like swarm of demons to torment the earth, both physically and psychologically.
And that’s just the fifth trumpet! The sixth trumpet gets worse. It’s essentially the same thing—more demons being released—but it’s more intense because it involves death, on a mass scale. We know that these agents of death are once again demonic because verses 14 and 15 refer to the “angels that have been bound…” Good angels are not bound; they are free to serve God. These are evil angels that had been bound by God until the end of the age, to wreak havoc through an army of 200 million (innumerable) life-destroying demons. The point, once again, is that there will be unprecedented evil in the last days due to a tsunami of demonic activity.
I fully recognize that what I’ve just said is very… heavy. And besides that, it’s hard to fathom: why would God release such an army of evil angels on the earth?
I’ll offer two reasons. The first is: Because that’s what we “wanted.” Now, I recognize that nobody was adding, “horde of demons” to their Amazon Wish List this week. But there’s a sense in which people choose demons over God every day, and it’s captured for us in verses 20-21. There, we see a long list of sins, but the one that garners the most attention is the root of them all—idolatry. Anything we prioritize ahead of God is “idolatry,” which verse 20 equates with the worship of demons. In other words, if you love your job or your mate or your bank account or your comfort more than Jesus, you might as well be bowing at the altar of Satan. This is the clear teaching of the Bible (Deut. 32:17; 1 Cor. 10:14-22).
For all of human history, we have consistently chosen to reject God. So we can’t be too upset when after thousands of years of telling God, “We don’t want You,” He finally gives us our wish. Revelation 9 is what the world looks like when God removes His protective hand. Suddenly evil angels are unbound. A world without God is a terrible world. There really will come a time when God finally says, “As you wish.” And it will be a time of unprecedented evil.
But the knife cuts both ways. Idolaters receive the object of their worship—demons—but so do the people of God. God’s protective hand is removed from everyone in the world, except those who belong to Him (9:4). If Jesus is the center of your affection, He promises to keep you in the eye of the storm. The sting of the scorpion cannot touch you; the torment of the serpent cannot strike you. Satan may be the king of demons, but Jesus is the King of Kings. He has power to grant everyone precisely what they want. Those who want Jesus, get Jesus—and the protection that comes with Him. Those who don’t want Jesus get precisely what they wanted—a world without His protective hand.
Now, for a second reason to explain this unprecedented wave of evil, and it comes back to what we said in the beginning: supernatural problems require supernatural solutions. The way the “releasing” of Satan and his demons in the last days is portrayed in apocalyptic literature (including Revelation), is that it’s for a very short time, and that it’s for the ultimate purpose of meeting their final judgment.
The Book of Revelation is—on a cosmic and global scale—what “Joe” witnessed on a personal level. Do you remember how the woman had no idea that a demon was destroying her life? It wasn’t until Joe gave the command that the demon manifested, causing her body to lurch and even vomit. If the demon stayed hidden, her torment would continue. Manifestation was the key to elimination.
Again, this is what we see in Revelation 9, but on a cosmic level. God gives the command, and millions of demons—previously hidden—become manifest. This involves a painful “lurching,” if you will. The earth will be shaken by this violent manifestation of evil. We just have to remember that the God who releases Satan’s demonic army in the last days is ultimately achieving a sovereignly good purpose. Without manifestation, there can be no elimination.
All of this is relevant for us right now, as we’re told that this is the most important election of our generation. Of course, we’re told the same thing every four years. I’m not going to lie—I feel disenfranchised by it all. I do believe it’s important to vote, but I’m tired of being told that if we just get the right social machinery in place, society will continually improve, until we ultimately achieve something like utopia. All it takes to prove this wrong is one good crisis. When the wheels fall off, people go crazy. No secular structure could possibly deal with the problem of evil. Only God can do that—and He has. He started the work through Jesus, who allowed evil to manifest for a short time at the Cross, only to rise above it three days later. He continues the work through His church, which pushes back the kingdom of darkness by the power of God’s Spirit. And He’ll complete the work at His return, when Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, and Jesus establishes our eternal utopia, also known as the kingdom of God.
There’s nothing wrong with longing for utopia. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can vote for it. Supernatural problems require supernatural solutions. Jesus is the only One who can truly resolve the problem of evil.
I’d like to leave you this morning with a quote from the prophet Joel about how God’s people should respond to this unprecedented wave of evil. The background for Revelation 9 was a prophecy in Joel 2 about a devastating “locust invasion” that was coming in the last days. He probably didn’t realize that God would fulfill his prophecy—not with bugs, but with evil angels. Regardless, here’s what he says about how to respond. It comes from Joel 2:12-14:
“For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?”