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. – Revelation 9:13-21 ESV
How bad does it have to get before the world will recognize that God is not to be trifled with? What will it take to bring the nations to their knees before their Creator God? According to the book of Revelation, quite a lot. In this second half of chapter nine John reveals his vision of the sixth trumpet judgment. And what he is about to describe is going to be far worse than anything he has mentioned thus far. And it was set up by his warning in verse 12: “The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.”
This sixth trumpet blast will signal the beginning of the second of the three woes. And while the first woe brings demonic persecution upon the unbelieving population of the earth, it will not result in their deaths. In fact, John noted that those whom the locusts or demons torment “will long to die, but death will flee from them” (Revelation 9:6 ESV). But with the second woe, death comes with a vengeance. One-third of the earth’s population will suffer death at the hands of God. During the five months of relentless torment by the demons, many will want to die and even attempt to take their own lives, but they will fail. Death will escape them. But with the second woe, death comes calling and it is all on God’s time table and according to His divine agenda.
John mentions that he heard something from heaven. This time, instead of a vision, he hears a voice calling out “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” (Revelation 9:13 ESV). We’re not told how he knew the location from which this voice called, but based on his description, it may be that the voice was that of the angel mentioned in Revelation 8:3:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne…
John heard the voice call out to the sixth angel, commanding him to “release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” (Revelation 9:14 ESV). But who are these angels and why are they bound? Due to their description as being bound, it would seem that these are fallen angels. The book of Jude provides us with insight into their identity.
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day… – Jude 6
These fallen angels have been kept in confinement by God, awaiting the very day that John is describing and he tells us they have “been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year” (Revelation 9:15 ESV0. This is yet another clear reference to, and reminder of, God’s sovereign hand over all things, including the coming day of judgment. These four fallen angels had been locked away by God and with a future purpose in mind. Their confinement had been preordained and the timing of their release perfectly orchestrated to occur precisely as God had planned it. And the purpose behind their release is unquestionably clear: “to kill a third of mankind.” They will not torment. They will not harass. They will not possess. They will bring death.
The location of their captivity and place of release is important to note. The river Euphrates had formed a natural barrier between Israel and their enemies to the northeast, the nations of Assyria and Babylon. This river plays a significant part in the end times story, and is referenced a second time by John later in his book. He describes seeing this same river drying up, creating an entry point for the enemies of God to begin their assault on Jerusalem.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. – Revelation 16:12 ESV
The river runs through the land most closely associated with Babylon, and that city figures prominently in the end times chronology. We know from the Genesis account, that this particular river and the region through which it flowed, provides a link all the way back to the creation story.
10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. – Genesis 2:101-14 ESV
Everything is coming full circle. God is returning to the scene of the crime, where Adam and Eve rebelled against God. And Babylon stands as the poster boy for mankind’s moral, religious and political rebellion against God. This land, long associated with the Garden of Eden, became a wild garden where idolatry and immorality grew unchecked, and the pride of man became personified by the nations who rose up out of its sin-saturated soil.
And God is going to deal with the wicked and rebellious. He calls for the release of the four fallen angels, who will bring with them an army of unprecedented and almost unfathomable size. John states that they will number 200 million. Is this a literal army? Is it made up of human beings or demons? John doesn’t tell us. But he does say, “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). What is it that John is seeing? We can’t be sure. But the fantastic nature of his description would seem to indicate that these are not human soldiers, but demonic forces of some kind. What’s interesting to note is that these forces, whoever they are, do not wield swords or spears. John states that fire, smoke and sulfur came from the mouths of the horses. It is these three things, which John calls plagues, that will bring death to one-third of the earth’s population.
There are many who believe John’s mention of fire, smoke and sulfur is a reference to modern weapons of warfare, including guns, tanks, aircraft, etc. But there is no reason to assume that God must accomplish this event by ordinary means. He is not obligated or relegated by our existing technology. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah without help from modern-day weapons of mass destruction. If anything, the book of Revelation seems to imply that God is going to reduce to insignificance the achievements of mankind. He will bring forces to bear that no man has ever seen or could have ever imagined or invented. God’s destructive powers are on the same level as His creative powers. The God who spoke forth the universe has more than enough power to call for its destruction without the help of human technology or the latest advancements in state-of-the-art weaponry.
Who God uses to enact His judgment and what resources He calls forth to bring it about are far less important than the John’s sad assessment that the two-thirds of those who survive this devastation will remain stubbornly unrepentant and unwavering in their commitment to reject God.
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. – Revelation 9:20-21 ESV
Millions upon millions of their fellow citizens will die right in front of their eyes, but the survivors will remain unmoved and unrepentant. It will be business as usual. They will continue to worship their false gods and to live their immoral lifestyles just as they always have. What a stunning statement regarding man’s stubbornness and self-destructive bent. Rather than bow the knee to God, they will prefer to die at His hands. What is truly sad is that idolatry is essentially the worship of anything other than the one true God. There are no other gods. And all that we worship in this world is nothing more than a false representation of or stand-in for God. In his first letter, John warned us:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 ESV
These people will love the world more than God. They will worship the things of this world. In essence, they will worship the demonic forces that control the things of this world. The book of Deuteronomy makes it painfully clear that this is true.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded. – Deuteronomy 32:16-17 ESV
And those who survive this coming destruction will continue to worship the very source of their own misery. Rather than turn to God in repentance, they will turn back to those things that brought God’s judgment upon them. They will worship the creation instead of the Creator. They will continue to love the things of this world, even as they see the world disintegrating before their eyes.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.