Then the fifth angel sounded a trumpet and I beheld a star falling out the sky to the earth, and it was given to him the key of the pit of the abyss.
Then he opened the pit of the abyss, and smoke ascended out of the pit like the smoke of an enormous furnace, and the sun was obscured, and the air, from the smoke of the pit.
Then out of the smoke came locusts to the earth, and it was given to them liberty to act as the scorpions of the earth have liberty to act.
And it was told to them that they are not to spoil, injure, or damage
- the grass of the earth,
- nor every green thing,
- nor every tree,
but only the people who do not have the seal of the Lord upon the forehead.
And it was given to them not to put them to death, but rather in order that they will be tormented and put to the test five months, and the inquisition of them is as the torment of a scorpion, when it stings a person.
And in those days the people will seek death and will not ever find it, and will long to die and death flees from them.Revelation 9:1-6
And now we know why the eagle cried “woe.”
From Possibly Natural to Definitely Supernatural
As strange as the previous trumpets were, a natural and scientific scenario could be conjured up to imagine what John might have been describing with his vivid imagery.
In 1907, a massive forest fire was ignited by an iron meteorite that just grazed the surface of the earth’s atmosphere.
The resultant atmospheric cloud over that hemisphere, the ash, the ice crystals, toxic material contaminating the water, much of what we read about in the first four trumpets can be understood as naturally occurring phenomena guided by God’s hand.
Similar corollaries have been drawn to naturally occurring events that could have happened in the sequence outlined in Exodus 7-12.
But there is nothing remotely ‘natural’ about locusts that can sting like scorpions, that will not feast on any vegetation for the five months they infest the entire globe, and which are able to discern the difference between people with or without God’s seal on their foreheads.
The Torment is a Test
The word John used for “torment” is βασανίζω | basanizō which means to “put to the test,” or “to prove.” The broader sense is to investigate something scientifically. When used in the context of people, it evokes an interrogation room where a suspect is examined closely and cross-questioned, or perhaps a courtroom where a witness is being cross-examined.
To be in the dock, under the spotlight, can be an excruciating experience, but this Greek word goes even farther than normal feelings of fear and anxiety. In antiquity, the torture of suspects and witnesses alike was accepted and understood. So to undergo basanizō was to be closely examined in a torturous way.
John was careful in choosing this word, no doubt because he intended to convey earth as God’s courtroom, the locusts as God’s examiners, and this inquisition as fearsome and dreadful as any actual Roman prison system would have been.
So how are we to understand this trumpet? Will all those who have so far rejected Jesus be torturously stung by these strange sentient insects? Will all those who have the Spirit of Christ be forced to helplessly watch on as their beloved ones writhe with pain, screaming for the release of death which will constantly elude them?
Or is this a metaphorical examination of some kind, that brings on spiritual torment (painful conviction of personal sin?), which displays for all to see who is at peace with God and who is still God’s opponent?
Most expositors interpret the falling star as a falling angel, probably Satan, who is permitted to release other fallen angels into the world.
Dark Spiritual Forces
It is obvious these locusts are extraordinary. In this view, they represent a demonic force of some kind, dark spiritual power released from the abyss.
In turn, this deep shaft, or pit, is none other than the prison Peter and Jude spoke of, where God remanded insurgent fallen angels long ago.
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment.2 Peter 2:4 (NRSV)
And the angels who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.Jude 1:6 (NRSV)
Billows of smoke belch from the depths, so grimy and black we might today say it was like industrial waste. John said it was like the clouds of soot coming from a furnace, so dense it darkened the sun and the very air. If we think of our culture as the air we breathe, and the sun – the light of day – as the revelation of truth, of reality, then this crepuscular smog is actually the sinister deception of evil itself, an evil the apostle Paul sought to warn his audience about.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood
Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV, modifications mine)
- but against the rulers,
- against the authorities,
- against the cosmic powers over this present darkness,
- against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
In another of his letters, Paul revealed Satan’s methodology.
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.2 Corinthians 4:4 (NRSV)
Before the locusts ever appear, the light of Christ is obscured, the light of the Gospel is dimmed, and all the good gifts from the Father of Lights
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.James 1:17 (NRSV)
… of righteousness and holiness, of joy, peace, wisdom, discernment, and perhaps even love become clouded as well.
Paul went on to tell another group of Christians worried about those among them who had already died (but Christ had not yet come) about what will happen first.
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses
- all power,
- lying wonders,
- and every kind of wicked deception
for those who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.1 Thessalonians 2:9-11 (NRSV, modifications mine)
This is the modus operandi of God’s enemy.
When John saw the fallen star given a key to the abyss, perhaps he was describing what Paul had also earlier explained.
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.1 Thessalonians 2:12 (NRSV, modifications mine)
Agents of Tortuous Testing
Whatever these locusts are, in this perspective they are seen as demonic rather than angelic. Jesus may have even referenced them.
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”
He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.
Indeed, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you.
Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”Luke 10:17-20 (NRSV, modifications mine)
Up until now, all people would have suffered through the calamities released by the four trumpets. But now that spiritual forces are at work, those who have been sealed by God are protected much in the same way the Israelites were protected from the worst of the Exodus plagues.
Of particular note was God’s sparing of the Israelites from the three days of darkness that settled upon all the rest of Egypt.
People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were, but all the Israelites had light where they lived.Exodus 10:23 (NRSV)
In the same way, those with God’s seal were not traumatized by the ominous black smoke from which emerged poisonous locusts.
(To be continued)
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg