The Misery of Unbelief (Rev. 8:13-9:12)
John is writing from exile on the island of Patmos to the Universal Church in order to prepare them for the trials they will inevitably face and encourage them to persevere. The vision includes warning and encouragement. Heavenly glory is followed by divine judgment.
Last week, we began the second cycle of judgments looking at the first four trumpets. With each successive blast another judgment resulted in the de-creation of a third of the earth, sea, rivers, and sun. These judgments cleanse God’s creation of its corruption from sin.
What this fifth trumpet affords is a peak into the evil spiritual realm and the misery that it afflicts upon unbelievers. The fifth trumpet reveals the spiritual torment that eats away the hope of hardened unbelievers.
Read Rev. 8:13-9:12
THE TARGETS OF TORMENT (8:13; 9:4)
Some of the best nature images I’ve seen are of giant bald eagles swooping down to eye level. Recently, a friend went with a large group of people on a cross-country motorcycle ride. His GoPro camera captured the image of an eagle that must have been no more than ten feet from him. Several years ago, my in-laws took a cruise to Alaska and came back with photos of a convocation of eagles swooping down for food that had been thrown into the water. They are stunning photos.
But what does it mean that John “heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, ‘Woe, woe, woe…’” (8:13). “Directly overhead” is literally “midheaven”. The two other occasions where the word is used in Revelation refer to an angel announcing Christ’s return in judgment (14:6) and birds gathering to devour the flesh of the fallen at the end of the final battle (19:17). Consistent with several judgment announcements in the Old Testament, the eagle anticipates the destruction of judgment (Ezek. 17:3; Hos. 8:1).
The woes of the final three trumpets directly target earth dwellers (8:13). The contrast is between those whose hearts are set upon the things of this world and those who, by faith, “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Later on, the locusts are told that they can only harm “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (9:4). This refers to those outside the invisible church. The final three trumpets make an explicit separation between those who serve God and those who serve Satan.
How can we know that we have been sealed by God? How can we know that we have received the indwelling Holy Spirit? Paul encourages,
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?-unless indeed you fail to meet the test! – 2 Corinthians 13:5
We should acknowledge that some of us are more sensitive to these self-exams. Maybe we have a pessimistic view of our own spirituality. Maybe we downplay what God has accomplished in and through us. Maybe we focus too much on our failures and have a hard time recognizing the successes. Reflect carefully.
- Are your moral corruptions increasing unhindered or has the Holy Spirit begun to cleanse the effect of sin upon your whole being (mind, will, conscience, and passions)?
- Do you tend to minimize/excuse your sin or do you hate it more and more? HC Q.89 “What is the mortification of the old man? It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sin; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” Do you groan over the state of your own sin? Do you groan over personal/corporate/cultural sin?
- Are you losing interest in God or growing in your love for Him with your heart, mind, soul, and strength?
- Do you tend to keep your sin hidden or has the Holy Spirit given you the humility to confess your sin to one another?
- Does the experience of suffering cause you to question God or has the Holy Spirit caused you to cling to Him to persevere?
We could easily add more questions, but these will help you begin. Some questions are harder to answer than others. Some require more time to reflect while others might sting. But don’t neglect the process. Hopefully they will drive you to repentance, or affirm the Spirit’s transforming work in you.
Those who have not been sealed will be the targets of torment, but the locusts have several limitations placed upon them.
THE LIMITS OF TORMENT (9:1-3)
How the locusts are released reveals the limits of their power. The angel’s blast sends the star (a fallen angel, possibly Satan v.11, Lk. 10:18) to the earth where it is given the key to release the locusts from the bottomless pit. The star “was given” authority, which implies subjection to a greater authority. The locusts were “given power” like scorpions (9:3). And their power to inflict harm was limited in duration and scope (9:5). They could only torment their victims for five months and they could not kill them.
Rev 20:1 describes an angel also given the “key to the bottomless pit”, but in that scene it seizes the dragon, binds him, and throws him into the pit for a thousand years (20:2-3). I would argue that these are parallel judgments. While Satan was bound from deceiving the nations during this present age, he and his minions still have a limited authority to torment earth’s inhabitants.
When Jesus cast out the legion of demons, they asked that they not be sent directly “into the abyss” (Luke 8:31). Jesus allowed them to enter into the herd of pigs instead. That confirmed their large number, but it also confirmed Christ’s authority over unclean spirits. In the Greek, ἄβυσσος, is translated “abyss” or “bottomless pit”. Luke used the same word as John. The reluctance of the demons to depart into the abyss indicates it is a place of torment for demons awaiting their final judgment (2 Pt. 2:4).
If God has placed restrictions upon demonic activity, then we know that he is able to protect his saints from harm (cf Lk. 10:18-20). What’s most important is that we have been sealed, that our names are written in heaven. That is the primary cause of our gratitude and rejoicing. But it is encouraging to know that Satan is like a charging dog whose leash keeps choking him out just before reaching you.
I love how Martin Luther eloquently says it in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
Those of us who have been sealed have no need to fear. We know that God is ultimately in control. It is the Lamb who determines how far and wide the devastation of the locusts will be. And he has determined that they cannot harm his followers.
Despite the significant limitations that God has placed upon demonic activity, it is still capable of causing severe torment for unbelievers.
THE SEVERITY OF TORMENT (9:5-6)
Although it would only last five months, and no one would die from the locust attacks, the severity of their torment was great. Spiritual torment can seem worse than death for those going through it. People experiencing the wrath of Apollyon’s army would rather die, but they will be unable to escape their misery. Just as those fleeing from the wrath of the Lamb in the sixth seal would cry out for the mountains to fall upon them (6:16), so the victims of this locust attack in the fifth trumpet would seek death, but be unable to find it. Jeremiah prophesied that, “Death shall be preferred to life” by the remnants of evil families left in Israel (Jer. 8:3).
The depravity of sin does not bring contentment and lasting joy. This imagery conveys the physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil that accompanies all who follow the prince of darkness. They do not live a life of peace. Rather, they are in frequent distress. And, regardless of where they turn, nothing brings lasting relief. This torment is a present reality, and we can expect it to increase as we near the final day of judgment.
Your unbelieving family, friends, and neighbors may be able to hide their fears for awhile, but eventually their conscience will either become so numb that they lose all inhibitions, or with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, it will eat up any vestiges of pride and self-sufficiency and bring them to repentance (Rom. 2:14-16).
On the other hand, if you have been sealed by God you know that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). You too might long for death, but that is only because you are living for Christ and death has become gain (Phil. 1:21-23)!
The section concludes with a description of…
THE SOURCE OF TORMENT (9:7-11)
Dispensationalist, Hal Lindsey, argues that these locusts are Chinese attack helicopters. That interpretation would be impossible for the original audience to comprehend, or anyone who lived prior to the twentieth century. So how are we to understand these locusts?
Once again, we see a trumpet that alludes to one of the Egyptian plagues. Locusts were the eighth plague. They ate up all of Egypts trees and vegetation that were left after the destruction from the hail and fire of the seventh plague (Exod. 10:1-20). Joel describes the Day of the Lord with similar language. A plague of locusts has come upon the land (Joel 1:1-12). The priests are unable to make sacrifices of grain and drink offerings because the fruit of their land has been consumed (Joel 1:9-12). Their attack upon Israel is like “the appearance of horses”, “the rumbling of chariots”, and a “flame of fire” that devours the stubble (Joel 2:4-5).
Locusts were associated with famine, because once they swarmed a region, they left the place bone dry. They left regions lifeless and hopeless. However, in Revelation, we have already seen that these locusts were prevented from harming the vegetation (9:4). They were only permitted to harm unbelievers. It is a spiritual famine that leaves the souls of unbelievers lifeless and empty.
Prevented from bringing any real harm to the Church, Apollyon’s army brings as much damage upon mankind as he is allowed.
12 This does not refer to the chronological order of events, but the order in which John saw the vision. The events described run parallel throughout this age.
The fifth trumpet reveals the spiritual torment that eats away the hope of hardened unbelievers. But maybe you are not quite as hardened as Pharaoh was. Maybe you are here because you are seeking to learn more. You are not a believer, but you are curious about Christianity. This passage reveals where unbelief inevitably leaves a person. It’s only a matter of time before the torment eradicates every last ounce of your hope.
The only way to avoid the torment of hell is to receive the promised seal of God’s salvation. Repent and believe in Christ! Only through his cleansing blood can your torment become everlasting joy.
If the message to unbelievers is that they are miserable and without hope, save in the sovereign mercy of Christ, then the message to believers is joyful hope. The fact that we are not getting what we deserve fills us with gratitude. Instead of punishment, we receive pardon. Instead of misery, we receive mercy. Instead of agony, we receive acceptance. That is the exchange the gospel promises to those who turn away from their sin and place their hope in Christ alone for their salvation.