Lighting Up the Apocalypse 17: Fallen Star, Bound Angels, and Hardened Hearts

Revelation 9, Job, Ezekiel 9:3-8, Luke 21:18

The second part of the seven-trumpet series does not make for pleasant reading.   Chapter 9 is prefaced with the cry of “Woe! Woe! Woe!”  As trumpets five and six are blown, we infer from the commentary that these  trumpets comprise two of these three woes (9:12).  The first of the woes, heralded by the fifth trumpet, features a fallen “star” who is allowed to unlock the gate to the abyss, who has the name of “Destroyer,” and who leads an army of locusts out of the pit to torment human beings. The second woe, which comes with the sounding of the sixth trumpet, features four spiritual beings “bound by the Euphrates river,” who are unleashed for a time over the whole earth, killing a third of humankind.  Both woes are brought about by the spiritual enemies of God, who nonetheless uses them to give those who are afflicted time to repent—but sadly, they do not.

 

Listen with care to this difficult passage:

 

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth.  They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.  They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone.  And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.

 

In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces,  their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;  they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails.  They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.

 

The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.

 

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.

 

Both dramatic scenes are associated with fire and smoke, horses, lions, teeth, and stinging tails, and catalyzed by bent angels.  A few commentators have thought that the first angel is simply an angelic messenger who descends from heaven to do God’s bidding.  However, the language “fallen star” is explicit, and has much background in the Bible. “Stars” are associated with spiritual beings, from the book of Job, where the morning stars sing for joy (38:7) at God’s creation, to our own book of Revelation, where the seven stars in Jesus’ hand are interpreted as angels (1:20).  Indeed, the devil and his crew are described later in our book as “a third of the stars of heaven” who are cast to earth with their leader (12:10).  We get similar pictures of the bent angels in books that were written before or at the same time as the New Testament—1 Enoch 86:3, Testament of Solomon 20:14-17, and Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11—“You have fallen from heaven like the morning stars.”  This last verse has clearly interpreted a passage from Isaiah 14:12, in which an arrogant leader is described as falling, despite his bright appearance.

 

As soon as this fallen angel opens the abyss, we know that what is being pictured here is darkness and ignorance of God.  Instead of the incense of prayer that arises in worship, smoke seeps out, obscuring everything.  One ancient writer says that the smoke comes “from the heart of a blasphemous people which also persecutes the Church” and “obscure[s]…the sun of faith and righteousness [to] … produce a blindess so that they do not see the light of truth” (Tyconius). When we see this as a vision, we may wonder why it is that God permits the abyss to be opened.

The burning question is, why not let sleeping dogs lie?  Why give this enemy the key to unleash the abyss?  Similarly, why release the four bound angels who are determined to wreak such havoc?

With these scenes, we are propelled back into the deep mysteries of Job.  There, evil and misfortune are pictured as a confrontation of the LORD with Satan, in which Satan is given a limited but real power to harm Job and his family. Someone reading our passage might argue that we aren’t directly told that GOD gives the key to the fallen angel—but surely that is implied.  And certainly the voice from the four horns of the altar is God’s, who calls for the release of the four spirits who have been bound, with their armies of two million. (By the way, we hear about these angels also in 2 Peter 2:4, “committed.. to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.”)  No, there is no way out—God is omnipotent, and evil things are bound, and sometimes released, with at least His permission. The book of Job lets us feel this keenly.  We watch in horror as the righteous Job looses everything, looses his children, looses his health – just not his life.  This restriction is actually echoed in our passage, where the fallen star’s army is told to not to kill those who are being tormented, even though they might wish for death, just as Job curses the day he was born.  Suffering and pain are that strong.  And when we believe in an all-powerful and totally good God, this forces upon us many questions.  In this scenario in Revelation 9, there is even a further question—it looks as though the people of God are given a pass, for they are sealed for protection (See also Ezek 9:3-8 and Rev 7:2-8). But is it the case that God is playing favorites, and vengefully allowing punishment to be poured out on the unrighteous? Does this diminish the righteous God in our eyes?

 

But stop!  Remember!  We have already seen the martyrs under the altars in this book.  We have already recognized that, like the slaughtered Lamb, the righteous faithful DO suffer.  If this is the case, then it is unlikely that those who have God’s seal are escaping suffering.  Rather, the seal protects them in the same way that Jesus speaks about those who are persecuted, and even who will be martyred. They have been marked by God so that “not a hair on their head will be harmed” (Luke 21:18). Physical suffering, though terrible, will not lead to final loss for believers!

 

At this time, we cannot answer why it is that God considers a fallen creation to be worthwhile, and why it is that the restoration of that creation must take place in time, a time where suffering is inevitably unleashed.  This is beyond our pay grade. It would be wrong, in our attempt to aquit God, to downplay suffering as though it doesn’t matter.  Of course it does.  But what we CAN answer is that Jesus, the God-Man, has taken the depth of this suffering upon himself.  What can continue to hearten us is the fact that even the machinations of Satan and his angels is under God’s supervision—the LORD will restrain, and will turn their schemes to our good.  What can give us direction is to know that suffering is not pointless, and that God is delaying the end of all things to make a time for repentance.  The time will come—and we will see it in John’s vision—when the abyss will be sealed for good, and the ravages of the enemy will cease forever (Rev 20:22). This is not just a promise of “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by,” but an assurance that PRESENT suffering has purpose: God has already conquered death by death.

 

The appearance of God’s enemies are nevertheless frightening, and their power is great.  John’s vision brings to our mind’s eye horses, lions, teeth, chariots, stings in the tail and power in the head, even an evil crown! It also brings to our ears the terrible names of “Abaddon” and “Apollyon”—the Destroyer. It is good to have a sober fear of such evil, knowing that the worst that the enemy can do to humankind is not a matter of the body alone, but of  can happen in the deep recesses of our hearts.  Physical suffering is a potent sign of the deeper loss that human beings can suffer in this fallen world.  There are things even worse than death. The deadly combination of power, destruction, speed, and seductiveness (the locusts have hair like women), and the wounding that God’s enemies can cause, whether by tail or by head, is meant as a warning to us.  In the end, we yearn not to be among those who are pictured in this vision, and who, like Jacob, sell their birthright, refusing to repent of idolatry, of immorality, of murder, of covetousness, of lust for power.  May we see past the smoke and heat of the battle, to the One who bears the standard of the cross. As the hymn puts it, “The prince of darkness grim?  We tremble not for him,” THOUGH “his wrath and power are great.”  For we know what has been done for us, what is being done, and what will finally be accomplished. May this chapter, though difficult to hear, make its mark, like an arrow, on anyone who reads it, causing them to turn, and to hold fast.

 

An ancient commentator, Andrew of Caesarea, brings home the prayer that this chapter of Revelation aims to place on the lips and in the heart of each of God’s children:  “May it be that we display the purity and authenticity of our faith in Christ by deeds so that we never hear those terrible words, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, I do not know you…Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.’ Rather, may we hear this blessed invitation, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 9.20–21).

 

The second part of the seven-trumpet series does not make for pleasant reading.   Chapter 9 is prefaced with the cry of “Woe! Woe! Woe!”  As trumpets five and six are blown, we infer from the commentary that these  trumpets comprise two of these three woes (9:12).  The first of the woes, heralded by the fifth trumpet, features a fallen “star” who is allowed to unlock the gate to the abyss, who has the name of “Destroyer,” and who leads an army of locusts out of the pit to torment human beings. The second woe, which comes with the sounding of the sixth trumpet, features four spiritual beings “bound by the Euphrates river,” who are unleashed for a time over the whole earth, killing a third of humankind.  Both woes are brought about by the spiritual enemies of God, who nonetheless uses them to give those who are afflicted time to repent—but sadly, they do not.

Listen with care to this difficult passage:

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth.  They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.  They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone.  And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.

In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces,  their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;  they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails.  They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.

The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.

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.

Both dramatic scenes are associated with fire and smoke, horses, lions, teeth, and stinging tails, and catalyzed by bent angels.  A few commentators have thought that the first angel is simply an angelic messenger who descends from heaven to do God’s bidding.  However, the language “fallen star” is explicit, and has much background in the Bible. “Stars” are associated with spiritual beings, from the book of Job, where the morning stars sing for joy (38:7) at God’s creation, to our own book of Revelation, where the seven stars in Jesus’ hand are interpreted as angels (1:20).  Indeed, the devil and his crew are described later in our book as “a third of the stars of heaven” who are cast to earth with their leader (12:10).  We get similar pictures of the bent angels in books that were written before or at the same time as the New Testament—1 Enoch 86:3, Testament of Solomon 20:14-17, and Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11—“You have fallen from heaven like the morning stars.”  This last verse has clearly interpreted a passage from Isaiah 14:12, in which an arrogant leader is described as falling, despite his bright appearance.

As soon as this fallen angel opens the abyss, we know that what is being pictured here is darkness and ignorance of God.  Instead of the incense of prayer that arises in worship, smoke seeps out, obscuring everything.  One ancient writer says that the smoke comes “from the heart of a blasphemous people which also persecutes the Church” and “obscure[s]…the sun of faith and righteousness [to] … produce a blindness so that they do not see the light of truth” (Tyconius). When we see this as a vision, we may wonder why it is that God permits the abyss to be opened.

The burning question is, why not let sleeping dogs lie?  Why give this enemy the key to unleash the abyss?  Similarly, why release the four bound angels who are determined to wreak such havoc?

With these scenes, we are propelled back into the deep mysteries of Job.  There, evil and misfortune are pictured as a confrontation of the LORD with Satan, in which Satan is given a limited but real power to harm Job and his family. Someone reading our passage might argue that we aren’t directly told that GOD gives the key to the fallen angel—but surely that is implied.  And certainly the voice from the four horns of the altar is God’s, who calls for the release of the four spirits who have been bound, with their armies of two million. (By the way, we hear about these angels also in 2 Peter 2:4, “committed.. to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.”)  No, there is no way out—God is omnipotent, and evil things are bound, and sometimes released, with at least His permission. The book of Job lets us feel this keenly.  We watch in horror as the righteous Job looses everything, looses his children, looses his health – just not his life.  This restriction is actually echoed in our passage, where the fallen star’s army is told to not to kill those who are being tormented, even though they might wish for death, just as Job curses the day he was born.  Suffering and pain are that strong.  And when we believe in an all-powerful and totally good God, this forces upon us many questions.  In this scenario in Revelation 9, there is even a further question—it looks as though the people of God are given a pass, for they are sealed for protection (See also Ezek 9:3-8 and Rev 7:2-8). But is it the case that God is playing favorites, and vengefully allowing punishment to be poured out on the unrighteous? Does this diminish the righteous God in our eyes?

But stop!  Remember!  We have already seen the martyrs under the altars in this book.  We have already recognized that, like the slaughtered Lamb, the righteous faithful DO suffer.  If this is the case, then it is unlikely that those who have God’s seal are escaping suffering.  Rather, the seal protects them in the same way that Jesus speaks about those who are persecuted, and even who will be martyred. They have been marked by God so that “not a hair on their head will be harmed” (Luke 21:18). Physical suffering, though terrible, will not lead to final loss for believers!

At this time, we cannot answer why it is that God considers a fallen creation to be worthwhile, and why it is that the restoration of that creation must take place in time, a time where suffering is inevitably unleashed.  This is beyond our pay grade. It would be wrong, in our attempt to aquit God, to downplay suffering as though it doesn’t matter.  Of course it does.  But what we CAN answer is that Jesus, the God-Man, has taken the depth of this suffering upon himself.  What can continue to hearten us is the fact that even the machinations of Satan and his angels is under God’s supervision—the LORD will restrain, and will turn their schemes to our good.  What can give us direction is to know that suffering is not pointless, and that God is delaying the end of all things to make a time for repentance.  The time will come—and we will see it in John’s vision—when the abyss will be sealed for good, and the ravages of the enemy will cease forever (Rev 20:22). This is not just a promise of “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by,” but an assurance that PRESENT suffering has purpose: God has already conquered death by death.

The appearance of God’s enemies are nevertheless frightening, and their power is great.  John’s vision brings to our mind’s eye horses, lions, teeth, chariots, stings in the tail and power in the head, even an evil crown! It also brings to our ears the terrible names of “Abaddon” and “Apollyon”—the Destroyer. It is good to have a sober fear of such evil, knowing that the worst that the enemy can do to humankind is not a matter of the body alone, but of  can happen in the deep recesses of our hearts.  Physical suffering is a potent sign of the deeper loss that human beings can suffer in this fallen world.  There are things even worse than death. The deadly combination of power, destruction, speed, and seductiveness (the locusts have hair like women), and the wounding that God’s enemies can cause, whether by tail or by head, is meant as a warning to us.  In the end, we yearn not to be among those who are pictured in this vision, and who, like Jacob, sell their birthright, refusing to repent of idolatry, of immorality, of murder, of covetousness, of lust for power.  May we see past the smoke and heat of the battle, to the One who bears the standard of the cross. As the hymn puts it, “The prince of darkness grim?  We tremble not for him,” THOUGH “his wrath and power are great.”  For we know what has been done for us, what is being done, and what will finally be accomplished. May this chapter, though difficult to hear, make its mark, like an arrow, on anyone who reads it, causing them to turn, and to hold fast.

An ancient commentator, Andrew of Caesarea, brings home the prayer that this chapter of Revelation aims to place on the lips and in the heart of each of God’s children:  “May it be that we display the purity and authenticity of our faith in Christ by deeds so that we never hear those terrible words, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, I do not know you…Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.’ Rather, may we hear this blessed invitation, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 9.20–21).

 

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