Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 46:1-11; 19–28
“The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the nations. About Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: ‘Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle! Harness the horses; mount, O horsemen! Take your stations with your helmets, polish your spears, put on your armor! Why have I seen it? They are dismayed and have turned backward. Their warriors are beaten down and have fled in haste; they look not back— terror on every side!’ declares the Lord. ‘The swift cannot flee away, nor the warrior escape; in the north by the river Euphrates they have stumbled and fallen. Who is this, rising like the Nile, like rivers whose waters surge? Egypt rises like the Nile, like rivers whose waters surge. He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth, I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’ Advance, O horses, and rage, O chariots! Let the warriors go out: men of Cush and Put who handle the shield, men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow. That day is the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates. Go up to Gilead, and take balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt! In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you… [verse 19] Prepare yourselves baggage for exile, O inhabitants of Egypt! For Memphis shall become a waste, a ruin, without inhabitant. A beautiful heifer is Egypt, but a biting fly from the north has come upon her. Even her hired soldiers in her midst are like fattened calves; yes, they have turned and fled together; they did not stand, for the day of their calamity has come upon them, the time of their punishment. She makes a sound like a serpent gliding away; for her enemies march in force and come against her with axes like those who fell trees. They shall cut down her forest, declares the Lord, though it is impenetrable, because they are more numerous than locusts; they are without number. The daughter of Egypt shall be put to shame; she shall be delivered into the hand of a people from the north.’ The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, said: ‘Behold, I am bringing punishment upon Amon of Thebes, and Pharaoh and Egypt and her gods and her kings, upon Pharaoh and those who trust in him. I will deliver them into the hand of those who seek their life, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his officers. Afterward Egypt shall be inhabited as in the days of old’, declares the Lord. ‘But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished’” (Jeremiah 46:1-11; 19–28, ESV).
New Testament Reading: Revelation 9:13-21
“Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ 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. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 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. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 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. 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, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts’” (Revelation 9:13–21, ESV).
When the sixth angel blew his trumpet John “heard a voice from the four horns of the golden alter before God…”
This golden alter has been mentioned many times now in the book of Revelation. In 6:9 John saw “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” under the alter. From there they cried out to God for justice to be served. What follows is a description of judgment, an answer to their prayers. In 8:3 it was upon this alter that John saw an angel offer up much incense along with the prayers of all the saints before the throne of God. And in 8:5 John says that “the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” This alter, then, has taken a central place in the book of Revelation. It has come to represent, on the one hand, the prayers of the saints in heaven and on earth coming to the ears of God, and on the other hand, the place from which the judgments of God are poured out upon the earth. The same seems to be true here in Revelation 9:13. John heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden alter. Are we not to assume that, one, judgment is about to be released, and two, that it is prayers of God’s people that precipitate the outpouring of the judgment.
The number four is used in the book of Revelation, as well as other places in scripture, to symbolize completeness especially in connection with the earth. We use the number four symbolically even today, referring to the ends of the earth as the four corners of the earth – north, south, east and west. The number four symbolizes global completeness. It is to here – to this four cornered alter – that the prayers of all the saints throughout all the world come. And it is from here that the judgments of God are poured out upon all the earth. Horns symbolize power in the Bible. It from this alter, with four horns on it’s corners, that the God’s powerful sovereign judgments are poured out.
What did the voice coming from the horns of the alter say? The voice from the alter addressed “the sixth angel who had the trumpet [saying], ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates’” (Revelation 9:14, ESV).
The mention of “four angels… bound” here in this text should remind us immediately of the other bound quadruplets that we have encountered in the book of Revelation. The four horsemen of Revelation 6 and also the four angels called the four winds of heaven in Revelation 7:1-2 should come to mind. These spiritual beings were given authority by God to harm the earth, but they are described as being restrained until some appointed time, then they are released. The same is true here in Revelation 9. Mention is made of “four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”
The Euphrates River originates in eastern Turkey, flows through Syria and Iraq, joins the Tigris river, and then empties into the Persian Gulf. In biblical times, from the perspective of the Jews, the Euphrates River was associated with the enemy nations from the east who threatened them and who would eventually carry them into captivity. Put yourself in Israel and under the Old Covenant. Look east, away from the Mediterranean Sea, across the Jordan, far out into the wilderness. What do you think of when you consider that land where the Euphrates River runs? That is where the enemy lives. That is where conquering armies come from.
Quoting Dr. Dennis Johnson, “The Euphrates River had biblical and contemporary significance. In biblical history the Euphrates connoted a source of oppression and place of exile. Beyond the Euphrates River had stood ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire that conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and Babylon, which had carried Judah into captivity. The Lord had humbled and dismantled Babylon through the rising power of the Medo-Persian Empire and had resettled his people in the land of promise. But prophets of the exile still spoke of foreign powers such as ‘Gog,’ who would sweep down from the northeast, from the Euphrates, to afflict God’s people” (Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 150).
Johnson explains the contemporary significance of the Euphrates, saying, “For residents of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century [contemporary with the writing of the book of Revelation], the Euphrates was the eastern edge of the of Rome’s domain, beyond which were the threatening powers of the East, especially Parthia with its calvary of mounted archers, always harassing the Roman Empire’s eastern outposts. During the 60’s, after the conflagration that destroyed large portions of Rome and Nero’s disappearance, rumors flew in the capitol and the provinces that the megalomaniacal emperor had escaped to the east and was making preparations to reconquer the world at the head of the Parthian calvary” (Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 150).
Why do I read these excerpts from Johnson’s commentary? Well, they helps us get into the mind of the original reader of the book of Revelation living in 90 A.D. These were Christians who knew the Old Testament – they knew the significance of the Euphrates River, biblically speaking. And these were Christians living in a particular situation. To them, mention of powers pent up at the Euphrates meant something. It conjured up images of the marauding hoards that constantly assaulted their homeland. It probably also brought to mind the myth that Nero had fled there, and might return, bringing all manner of destruction with him. The vision shown to John is be understood with these things in mind. When the Christians living within those seven churches in Asia Minor to whom this book was addressed read the words, “release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates”, they would not have thought, I wonder what that will mean for Christian living 2,000 years from now, but rather, this image represents what has happened and what will happen time and again in human history – nation will rise up against nation, people against people, bring all manner death and destruction.
Mention of “angels bound at the Euphrates” has symbolic force. It symbolizes the fact we live in a world that is constantly on the verge of being given over to chaos and calamity. God, by his grace, restrains it; but he also permits calamities as a form of judgment upon the wicked. The voice from the alter addressed “the sixth angel who had the trumpet [saying], ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates’” (Revelation 9:14, ESV).
“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” (Revelation 9:15, ESV). Notice that these angels were prepared, that is to say, made ready, for a particular task to be accomplished at a particular time – “the hour, the day, the month, and the year”.
The futurist believes that the “hour, the day, the month, and the year” is yet to come in our future. Tim Lahaye, a popular dispensationalist and futurist says, “There is no need to spiritualize, ‘the great river Euphrates’, considered by Bible scholars to be the greatest river of boundaries in the Bible… That these four evil angels are today (copyright 1999) bound in that area of the world is no accident, for it seems that some of the world’s greatest events took place near the Euphrates River” (Lahaye, Revelation Unveiled, 174). His view is that Revelation 9:13-21 describes something that will happen yet future to us.
Our view is that Revelation 9:13-21, though it describes events future to us, also describes events that were near in time to those who first to read Revelation, having received it from John in 90 A.D.
In response to Lahaye’s comment, “there is no need to spiritualize, ‘the great river Euphrates’”, I would say two things. One, I agree that we should not “spiritualize” the text if by that he means interpreting this passage as if it will never have any real fulfillment that manifests itself in the physical world, but only “spiritual” meaning or application. I do think that this text has been and will be fulfilled in the world through actual historical happenings. Two, though we ought not to spiritualize this passage in the way described above, we must take it as symbolic. The whole of the book of Revelation is filled with symbols. The book communicates truth via symbol. That is why our first impulse should be to ask, what does the river Euphrates symbolize, and what does the releasing of the four angels bound there, prepared for “the hour, the day, the month, and the year” represent in this vision?
In the mind of the futurist there are literally four fallen angels – angels of destruction – bound right now at the Euphrates (I suppose they have been there for 1,900 years or more) who are waiting for “the hour, the day, the month, and the year” so that they might do what they have been prepared to do.
The idealist, which is what I am, interprets the passage differently and begins by asking what do these things represent? And after discerning the symbolism associated with the number four, the Euphrates, and the principle of restraint and releasing, we then to move to ask the question, how has this been fulfilled in the past, and how might this come to be in the future?
Look at what happens when the angels are released. “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” (Revelation 9:15, ESV). Is this the final judgment? No, it is something less than that.
Then we are told that “the number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number” (Revelation 9:16, ESV). These mounted troops seem to appear out of nowhere. These four ungodly angels have power over these ungodly spiritual forces. Literally, their number is 200,000,000. This should remind us of what happened when the fifth trumpet was blown. The fallen star was given the key to the bottomless pit and when the pit was opened so many locust rushed out that the sun was darkened. So too, when the four angels are released, an innumerable hoard of evil spirits appear armed for battle and ridding upon horses.
Verse 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” (Revelation 9:17, ESV). These are ferocious creatures who bring about death and destruction.
“By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths” (Revelation 9:18, ESV). Beale notes that “elsewhere in the Apocalypse the same phrase [fire and sulphur] is always used in references to the final judgment of ungodly idolaters (14:10; 21:8) and of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (19:20; 20:10). Therefore, 9:17 speaks of a similar judgment, but one that precedes the final punishment. Likewise in the OT “fire and sulphur”, sometimes with “smoke,” indicate a fatal judgment (Gen. 19:24, 28; Deut. 29:23; 2 Sam. 22:9; Isa. 34:9-10; Ezek. 38:22)” (Beale, NIGTC, 510-511).
In verse 19 we read: “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” (Revelation 9:19, ESV). This should remind us of the description of the locust. It should also remind us that these are not literal horses, but symbolic. They represent demons in such a way that reminds us of their power, their ferocity, and their ability to deceive.
It seems to me that Christians living in America, or in any place that has not been touched by war or significant civil unrest for some time, have a particularly difficult time understanding what is symbolized here with the sounding of the sixth trumpet.
You and I live with a sense of security not enjoyed by all in the world today, not to mention the history of the world. Imagine what it would have been like to live in Europe in the 1940’s. Or put yourself in Korea living near the 38th parallel in 1950. Or imagine living in Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s. Somehow I think you might read Revelation 9:13-21 a little differently if you were living in those places at those times.
Certainly you would have thought, “this is being fulfilled now! I see it before my eyes. Death and destruction is all around me! Look at power of the evil one unleashed! Look at how sick and sinful humanity is!” Indeed, being surrounded on every side with death and destruction you would have been right to say, “it appears as if the four angels once bound at the Euphrates, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, have been released to kill a third of mankind.” If you had any knowledge of history you would also say, “this is not the first time”. If you had any understanding of human nature you would say, “this will not be the last”, unless the Lord returns.
My complaint against the futurist and the dispensationalist is not that they see the prophesies of the book of Revelation being fulfilled in the world today. I also believe that the visions shown to John are being and will be fulfilled. My complaint against them is that they busy themselves trying to find THE ONE EVENT that fulfills this passage or that exhaustively so that they might start their countdown clocks. The approach is misguided.
You would think that men and women, having had a taste of judgment and having seen with their eyes the depth of man’s depravity would turn from their own sin and to Christ. But look at verses 20 and 21: “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, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:20–21, ESV).
This parallels the exodus. God judgments were poured out upon the Egyptians in the form of plagues, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He did not turn from worshipping his false God’s.
Let me draw your attention to four things before we close.
First of all, notice the intensification that we see as the book of Revelation progresses.
Remember the how the seal cycle intensified as it progressed from seal to seal.
The first four describe calamity in general.
In the fifth the souls of the mortars cry out for justice.
The sixth describes the final judgment from an earthly perspective.
The seventh describes the final judgment from the heavenly perspective.
And notice the intensification from the seals to the trumpets.
1/4 to 1/3
The judgments poured out are less general and more pointed.
The imagery is more graphic
Notice the intensification from trumpet to trumpet.
In the first four the realms of creation are touched, disturbing the natural order of things, taking comfort and security from the earth dweller.
In the fifth, those who do not belong to Christ are tormented spiritually and physiologically, but in a limited way. For five months. The locusts cannot kill them.
In the sixth trumpet 1/3 of all the idol worshippers are killed.
We will see intensification as we move from the trumpet cycle to the bowl cycle.
The meaning is this, I think. The world – people and nations – tend towards evil, and not towards good. And therefore the judgments of God intensify accordingly in the lives of individuals and nations. And this pattern repeats itself, not only in the book of Revelation, but also in human history.
Applied To The World
It seems to me that the world is moving, not from bad to good, but from bad to bad, if not bad to worse. I disagree with the postmillennialist who is optimistic concerning the betterment of culture. I am optimistic concerning the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, but I question weather the world is going to become a better place.
“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to [Jesus] privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. ‘Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:3–14, ESV).
Applied To Nations
It seems to me that nations follow this pattern. They tend to degenerate over time, and not improve, morally speaking.
Applied To Individuals
And the same is true concerning individuals who do not know Christ. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing that Paul was talking about in Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18–25, ESV).
Secondly, notice the principle of restraint. The destructive angels who were eventually release were first of all bound.
And when they were released they were permitted to kill only 1/3 of the idolators – 2/3 of the enemies of God were spared.
To those who blaspheme God saying, “if there is a God then why is there so much suffering in the world?”, I say, “it is only because God is merciful that there is not more.” God would be right to judge all fully and finally now.
But he is merciful to all. And he unimaginably gracious to those whom he has determined to reconciled to himself through faith in Christ Jesus.
Thirdly, notice the principle of permission.
Certainly God will judge in a most direct way in the future. But he also judges by way of permission.
He gives men over to their sins, permitting them to walk according to their sinful desires so that they reap the consequences of their ways.
And he permits the evil spirits to at in this world. They are restrained – that we have already seen – but he does permit them to act so that he might bring about his judgments through them.
Lastly, let me remind you of God’s ability to preserve those who are his.
What is described here in the sixth trumpet is God’s judgment poured out upon those who do “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, nor [do] they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” These are the ones judged.
This corresponds to the fifth seal. It is those who do not have God’s mark on them who come under his judgment. Christians suffer in the world, no doubt. But for the child of God the suffering is for good. It is to refine. The end of it is life. But for those not in Christ, the suffering is just judgment, and it’s end is death.
Turn to Christ, friend. Confess your sin to him, trust in him, cling to him always, and see that God is good and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)