A swarm of locusts would have been terrifying enough, for they were a devastating plague that could not be stopped. But these locusts were stranger still.
And the likenesses of the locusts resembling horses having been prepared for battle, and upon their heads something like crowns resembling gold, and their faces like faces of human beings.
And they had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth like that of lions.
And they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings like the sound of many chariots of horses running into battle.
And they have tails resembling scorpions, and stingers, as well as in their tails their power to injure the people five months.
They have over them a king, the angel of the abyss, his name in Hebrew “Abaddon” and in the Greek he has the name “Apollyon.”
“The first woe is departed: behold is coming yet two woes after these things.”Revelation 9:7-12
The imagery is bizarre, to say the least. These creatures are nothing like any locust you or I have ever seen. Artists down through the centuries have tried to depict just what John was describing, and their illustrations are as weird and fantastic as John’s words.
The question remains, then.
Are these actual monsters that will rise up out of some sepulchral chasm cloven in the mantle of earth? Or is their appearance allegory rich with symbolical meaning?
Not unexpectedly, theologians who search for spiritual meaning in John’s Revelation see these locusts picturing the character of demons.
Character of Demons
- Like horses prepared for battle—they march forth like an invading army.
- Crowns like gold—counterfeit but impressive. These are fake στέφανοι | stephanoi, “wreaths of triumph” represent Pyrrhic victories, empty of any real meaning.
- Faces like human beings—bearing intelligence.
- Hair like women—certainly beautiful, but also regal and commanding the respect a wealthy woman with ornamental hair – “the outside adornment consisting of a braiding of hair and a wearing of gold things or putting-on of garments” – would expect.
- Teeth like lions—ferocious, remindful of Peter’s warning that the devil prowls like a lion seeking someone to devour.
- Like scorpions—dangerous and empowered by God’s enemy.
Behold— I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. And nothing will by-any-means harm you.Jesus to His followers, Luke 10:19 (DLNT)
- Breastplates like iron—seemingly invulnerable.
Unlike actual locusts, which do not have a leader but are still able to swarm together and move as one unit, these locust do have a king with a name meaning “destruction” or “destroyer.” Who he is, is unknown, but judging by the male pronouns, he is a masculine, not a feminine, figure, Some posit Satan himself, though others note Satan is not presented to the reader until Revelation Chapter 12.
Put all together, a picture emerges.
Profile of Evil
Whoever, whatever these are, whether a vast army of human beings, a swarm of ghastly creatures, or a metaphor of events, it is a grouping that moves as one with its king. It is a sweeping invasion of some kind that seems unstoppable, that appears to be regal and wealthy and powerful. Yet its very nature, though beguiling and lovely, is ferocious, evil, and dangerous.
Led by something or someone dedicated to destroying, their movements are intelligent, malicious, they move with purpose and unity, and their focus is to inflict pain.
For a time, this movement has the power and liberty to harm people, but there are limitations. Those with the seal of God will be protected. The timeframe has been set with a sudden and dramatic beginning, and a hard stop at the end which will seem to come just as suddenly. Those who are injured will survive, but only just, for the agony will be acute.
Scholars who focus on the events surrounding 70 CE hold a similar supernatural view. They see this swarm of locusts as a horde of demonic power inciting madness in Jerusalem
According to Josephus,
while [the Zealots] inclination to plunder was insatiable, as was their zeal in searching the houses of the rich; and for the murdering of the men, and abusing of the women, it was sport to them.
They also devoured what spoils they had taken, together with their blood, and indulged themselves in feminine wantonness, without any disturbance, till they were satiated therewith; while they decked their hair, and put on women’s garments, and were besmeared over with ointments; and that they might appear very comely, they had paints under their eyes, and imitated not only the ornaments, but also the lusts of women, and were guilty of such intolerable uncleanness, that they invented unlawful pleasures of that sort.
And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city, as in a brothel-house, and defiled it entirely with their impure actions; nay, while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and when their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors, and drew their swords from under their finely dyed cloaks, and ran every body through whom they alighted upon.Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter 9, item 10
For the preterist, the king of the locusts is Satan, and his name might be a play on the Greek god “Apollos,” whom the emperor Domitian claimed he was, incarnate (the emperor in power when John wrote his Apocalypse).
Expositors who keep history in view are certain this was a prophetic vision of the 150 years of Saracen invasions throughout the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. They remind us that the ancient Midianite troops were so numerous they were likened to locusts in the scriptures.
For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them.
They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, nor any sheep or ox or donkey. For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted, so they wasted the land as they came in.Judges 6:3-5 (NRSV)
Aspects of Saracen Soldiers
And there is evidently a tradition (here is one link to an article) about the Prophet of Islam and locusts,
… the idea that the locust was created by God and that God determines whether it harms or not: the Prophet prohibited the killing of locusts … According to a tradition of the Prophet there is an inscription on the locust’s chest that says: “The greatest army of God.”M. J. Kister, Concepts and Ideas at the Dawn of Islam, Chapter VIII, page 351
With this in mind,
- Like horses prepared for battle—the Saracens marched forth an invading army.
- Crowns like gold—become a traditional head-covering, yellow turbans for the Saracen horsemen.
- Faces like human beings—as the eye was drawn down from the bright turbans to the soldiers’ faces appearing below.
- Hair like women—is seen in the Saracen’s long, flowing beard and hair, as Pliny described. In the first century, Hellenized men wore their beards and hair short, or were clean-shaven, so the well-document long Arabic beard and hair would have been distinctive.
The Arabs either wear the mitra, or else go with their hair unshorn, while the beard is shaved, except upon the upper lip: some tribes, however, leave even the beard unshaved.”Pliny, in his The Natural History, Chapter 6, 67-68
- Breastplates like iron—literally, the Saracens wore iron coats of mail as specified in the Koran.
- Teeth like lions—because the Saracens were ferocious in their fervor to convert all Europe to Islam. Well-placed was Peter’s prophetic utterance,
Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.1 Peter 5:8-9 (NRSV)
- Like scorpions—with stingers in their tails, because, most stunningly, the Saracens were noted for twirling backward on their horses to fight facing rearward over their horses’ tails.
Commentators who look for future fulfillment tend not to try to describe what these locust beings will be, and at least one scholar sees them as modern-day religious heresies. Similarly to the spiritual understanding, each of the details John provides describe these heresies and their teachers in occultic fashion
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg