The Futility of Idolatry (Rev. 9:13-21)
One frustrating tendency of Christians is their incessant search for innovative ways to worship God. We crave novel means of approaching God because we don’t like the results we are currently achieving. People who are generally dissatisfied with the depth of their spiritual experience—which is all of us at some level—are prone to look for creative approaches to worship.
This is why being grounded in historic orthodox Christianity is crucial if we are going to survive in an age of pluralism and compromise. We must vigilantly preserve the truth from the corruption of error. Innovative approaches to worship are not neutral alternatives worth exploring. At best, they are unhelpful distractions. At worst, they teach another gospel.
Our passage this morning portrays the devastating consequences of false worship. This passage teaches and exhorts us by way of contrast. We become more convinced of the value of biblical worship by seeing the end result of idolatry.
The first section of Revelation contained the letters to the seven churches encouraging them to persevere through persecution and to repent from any compromise with the culture. Chapters four and five contained a vision of heaven. John saw four living creatures who were a hybrid of the world above and this world. They represent the Creator in harmony with creation.
In chapter nine we are introduced to more hybrids. It opens with the torment of the locusts, and closes with the judgment of the horses. These creatures are a hybrid of this world and the world below. They represent creation in rebellion against its Creator, released to inflict misery and death.
Mounce The mission of the locusts was to torment (v. 5). The mission of the cavalry is to kill (v. 15).
While creation is cleansed of its corruption in the first four trumpets, unbelievers are judged for their rebellion in the fifth and sixth trumpets.
Read Rev. 9:13-21
THE RELEASE OF THE DEMONIC FORCE (13-16)
As soon as the sixth angel blew his trumpet John’s attention was brought to the golden altar again (13). This was the altar beneath which the souls of martyrs were crying out (6:9). Later on, their prayers were joined with the prayers of all the saints and offered to God with incense from the angel’s censer (8:3-5). We are reminded here that God is still answering the prayers of his persecuted church. We should anticipate more divine acts of justice.
The angels bound at the great river Euphrates (14) symbolize God’s sovereign restraint of the evil spiritual realm. These fallen angels were being restrained from their destructive wrath until now. The language is similar to that of the sixth bowl, where the Euphrates is mentioned again (16:12-14). The same event is being described from different angles.
Many commentators also point out that the Euphrates river served as a natural border to the Promised Land. So the idea that forces are being released from this region points to military invasion. Whether that invasion represents earthly or spiritual warfare remains unclear. I lean towards spiritual conflict in light of the obvious demonic influence.
But it could also imply the influence of evil upon the impulses of national leaders who stand opposed to God’s purposes. The description is reminiscent of the prophetic warnings to Israel regarding their own judgment and the judgment of their neighbors stemming from the North and the East, and resulting in their Babylonian exile.
These angels have been prepared for this very hour, day, month, and year (15). God is in complete control of all spiritual warfare. Not only does he limit the duration of their affliction, but he also controls the scope of their affliction. We see the increase of the severity of judgment (torment > kill), they are restricted to a third of mankind. God is in complete control. He is the one who sets the boundaries around demonic activity.
Finally, we also see the innumerable size of this army (16). 200 million “mounted troops” are released. The myriads of demons rival the myriads of angels we saw in heaven (Rev. 5:11). It’s not meant to be a precise number, but an overwhelming horde.
If God is sovereign over the severity and extent of all judgment that falls upon mankind for their rebellion, then our first concern ought to be alignment with his prescription for worship. If we could worship God in anyway that we please then judgment would be irrelevant. But because we know that God is judging false worship, we know he is concerned with how we approach him. You should be wary of any new spiritual method or practice that promises a mysterious breakthrough of insight.
After John heard about the number of the mounted troops, he saw the horses and described…
THE PLAGUES OF THE DEMONIC FORCE (17-19)
Their protective breastplates were fire, sapphire, and sulfur colored (17a). Their heads were like lions, and from their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur with which they were to kill a third of mankind (17b-18). Compared to the locusts whose power was in their tails (Rev. 9:10), these horses had twice the power. In addition to the killing power of their mouths, they had tails that were like serpents which could inflict harm (19).
The horses, like the locusts, are meant to be terrifying. These rebellious hybrids are bent on the destruction of everyone. It is hard to duplicate John’s experience without visuals, but we should use our imaginations. The demonic force is described in compounding metaphors. They are horses with heads like fire-breathing lions and tails like serpents.
The use of compounding metaphors is similar to God’s description of the great sea creature Behemoth in Job 40-41. What is conveyed there, and here in Revelation, is that these are not creatures you would ever want to encounter.
With the addition of the serpent tails, there can be no doubt that these are demonic beings. Their primary intentions, like the great serpent, are to deceive people and to destroy their hope through torment and death.
John is given a visual picture of the spiritual world at this present time. He is seeing in militaristic fashion, the forces of evil with their intent to harm and destroy rebellious mankind. Remember, these demonic forces are restricted from harming those who have been sealed by God (9:4). Saints have been sealed as a promise of protection from the deception of the demonic force.
We are not meant to interpret this passage as predicting the literal invasion of fire-breathing horses. Even less are we supposed to transpose some element of modern warfare upon each element of the vision “so that the ‘horses’ mouths’ are flamethrowers, the ‘horses’ tails’ bombers, and so on, and the ‘Euphrates’ from which all this military paraphernalia comes is Russia, or China, or whatever the current bogey may be” (Wilcock). That would make no sense to the previous centuries of church history.
What does seem to be clear from this entire chapter, is that throughout the history of this present age (between the first and second coming of Christ) there will be no shortage of religious rebellion. We do not get the impression that postmillennialists suggest of the Church’s ever-increasing influence upon the culture. Rather, the impression we get from texts like this are that the kingdom of evil is growing alongside the kingdom of God. Instead of the kingdom of evil gradually losing its strength, it will be cut off and cast into the abyss for good upon Christ’s return. But, until that day, we can anticipate ongoing and unabated spiritual warfare.
When we have a better understanding of the consequences of false worship, we are more inclined to get involved. We realize that we cannot simply stand by and idly watch as people worship false gods. We are more inclined to get involved in correcting, rebuking, and teaching others. We are compelled to listen to Jude’s exhortation to “save others by snatching them out of the fire…” (Jude 23).
The plagues of the demonic force will only kill a third of mankind. So what will happen to…
THE SURVIVORS OF THE DEMONIC FORCE (20-21)
Although the horses inflict the sting of death, they do not wipe out the rebellious people entirely. As with most of the previous trumpets there is a connection to the plagues that fell upon Egypt.
The tenth and final plague brought death to firstborn male in every Egyptian household. Israel was protected from harm because of the blood of the lamb that each household slaughtered during the first Passover, the previous night. In response, Pharaoh let the Israelites go with all of their possessions. But, shortly after that, God further hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he gathered his army and chased after them (Exod. 14:4-8). We also see that God hardened the heart of the Egyptians so that the whole army would enter into the Red Sea (Exod. 14:17).
The sixth trumpet serves to harden the hearts of those who survive the plagues of the horses, only for them to subsequently face their demise in the judgment of the seventh trumpet (11:18). Even if you question the intention of the sixth trumpet, the unquestionable result is hardened unbelief among the survivors. With each successive blast of the trumpet, it is as if their hearts are growing more and more entrenched in their rebellion. Rather than repenting and trusting in God they seem to despise him all the more. It has been said that,
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.
When affliction and pain do not get a person’s attention, nothing can. Rather than waking humanity up, these trumpets fall upon deaf ears. Rather than softening the hearts of the unsealed, these plagues harden their hearts. Just like Pharaoh.
But, if that was their purpose, it seems like a disingenuous gesture for the angels to sound the trumpets. Why “warn” them at all if God knew the warnings would be unheeded? The trumpets and judgments serve a theological purpose. They provide an opportunity to show God’s sovereign power and justice.
After repeated opportunities to turn to God, there does come a time when it is too late. All they can do is sink deeper in their unbelief. That is a terrifying thought for anyone who thinks they can simply wait until they are on their deathbed to make a parting declaration of faith.
As believers, we should also respond to this with a sobering expectation that we will face opposition until the bitter end. The idea of a Golden Age leading up to Christ’s return does not fit the reaction to these trumpet judgments that span the present age. But do not lose heart my friends! This all happens according to God’s plan.
Let’s close by considering the letters in chapters 2-3…
The churches were called to repent of their idolatry and compromise with the culture in which they lived (2:21-23). Idolatry is likened to adultery, and a warning of death is given. We saw the same thing in Ezekiel 16 in reference to idolatrous Israel. This connection can only mean one thing: idolatry is not simply something that is “out there”, it is also something that must be corrected “in here”. Idolatry—in all its varied manifestations—must be exposed and corrected and killed or it will destroy a community.
True worship is exalted by the recognition of the futility and inevitability of idolatry. Let us keep our eyes fixed upon Christ as the only hope of our salvation. Let us maintain a vigilant commitment to the ordinary means of grace (word, sacrament, and prayer). And let us persevere with confidence in the salvation that God will bring to completion through Christ!