The seven trumpets in the book of Revelation (along with the seven seals and bowls) contain some of the most unusual elements of John’s apocalyptic vision. The fifth trumpet has led to some of the most interesting interpretive conclusions. Hal Lindsey, back in 1973, was the first to conjecture that the locusts described in this chapter may in fact be Apache helicopters, claiming the various details of the locusts corresponded to the different parts of the helicopter.
Suffice to say, this method of interpretation that views events and figures in the book of Revelation as a thinly veiled code for contemporary events/figures is likely an incorrect way to approach the book. If this were correct, that would mean that the majority of the book would have little meaning to the Christians across the past two millennia who, for instance, have had no idea what an Apache helicopter is. We need to interpret Revelation on its own terms, which will require us to see the connections to the Old Testament that John expects us to see.
First, let’s examine the 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. – Revelation 9:1-11 (ESV)
Space will not permit a detailed commentary on everything that is taking place here, but let’s examine the broad strokes of what John is wanting to paint here. The primary Old Testament texts that John seems to be alluding to here are Jeremiah 51, Joel 1-2, and Exodus 10.
The Locust Plague
First, if you are unfamiliar with what a locust swarm looks like, you can watch this:
Locusts, as will be seen, are used as symbols of judgment in the Bible. In an agrarian society that depends on crops for survival, a locust swarm can spell total destruction. In 1874 a locust swarm, 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, close to the area of the landmass of the state of California, swept across the midwest devouring every green thing in sight. One farmer reported having, “fifteen acres of corn eaten by [the locusts] yesterday in three hours. They mowed it down close to the ground just as if a mowing machine had cut it.”
The great dilemma of a locust swarm is that one is utterly helpless to do anything. A farmer can sit and watch his entire livelihood be devoured in a few hours. His family may starve to death now, and he can do nothing to stop it. These dire consequences coupled with the attendant helplessness are critical for understanding the psychological terror behind the image of a plague of locusts in the Bible.
The locusts described by John in Revelation, obviously, are not regular locusts. They come out of the “abyss” (literal translation of “bottomless pit” is abyss, Gk. abussos, ἄβυσσος), the prison of Satan and demons (cf. Luke 8:31; Rev 20:1, 3), and have Satan or some demonic prince as their king (Rev 9:11). Their appearance is a terrifying amalgamation of horses, locusts, scorpions, lions, and women clad in iron. They posses the “sting of scorpions” that cause people to “seek death” but “not find it.” Jesus compares scorpions with demons in Luke 10:19, thus these “locusts” are likely demons who have merely taken the form of a locust in John’s vision.
In Revelation after the angel unlocks the “shaft of the bottomless pit” smoke billows out till the skies are darkened from the smoke itself. Out from the smoke comes hoards of locusts filling the air. This language reminds us of the eighth plague poured out on Egypt: the plague of the locusts. In Exodus 10:15 we are told that the locusts, “covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened.” The locusts were so thick in the air that they blot out the sun. Farmers in the 1874 locust plague report the sky being darkened by the locust swarms, “Some likened it to a snowstorm, others to the coming of night.”
The locusts in Exodus proceed to eat “all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees…Not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt,” (Ex 10:15b). This is what locusts do: devour every green thing. In Revelation, however, the locusts are interestingly commanded to do the exact opposite. They are commanded by God, “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,” (9:4; cf. 7:2-3). Rather than biting and chewing the vegetation of the earth, they are commanded to harm the non-Christians on the earth. Just as the Exodus plagues fell on God’s enemies, not God’s people, (cf. Ex 8:22-23; 9:4-7; 9:11; 9:20-21; 10:23; 12:1-32), so too do these demonic locusts assault God’s enemies, not God’s people.
Jeremiah 51 is an oracle of destruction over Babylon, Israel’s other prototypical enemy (aside from Egypt). Though written several centuries after the fall of the Babylonian empire, Babylon plays a central role in the book of Revelation as the personification of the nations of the world who have rebelled against God (cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:1-18; 18:1-24). Much of Jeremiah 51 is repeated in Revelation 18, and a reference to Babylon as a burning mountain hurled downward appears to be behind the second trumpet in Rev 8:8-9 (cf. Jer 51:25), but a few elements are picked up here in the demon locusts of chapter 9.
God promises Babylon that he is going to “fill you with men, as many as locusts, and they shall raise the shout of victory over you,” (Jer 51:14) and summon an army with “horses like bristling locusts,” (Jer 51:27). In Revelation, the sound of the flapping of the wings of the locusts are compared to the “noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle,” (9:9). In the same way a horde of locusts can shear a field down to nothing, so God judged Babylon, and so too will He again devastate those “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev 9:4; those possessing the “seal” on their foreheads are the church).
Only the devastation that these demon locusts exact are not physical but psychological. They are forbidden to kill anyone, but for five months “people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them,” (9:6). The five months may refer to the average lifespan of a locust, or to the dry season in Israel in which locust swarms may come, or is likely just meant to convey a limited amount of time. For this period, people will either be suffering from literal pain causing them to long to die or, more likely, they are suffering from a kind of emotional/psychological despair that fills them with a desire to die, but not enough courage to actually follow through on suicide. Tom Schreiner writes, “Their lives are slowly unraveling, and pretty soon the thread is gone and only insanity remains.”
The book of Joel opens with Joel recounting a literal locust plague that had just devastated Israel (1:2-4), but proceeds to use the locust plague as an analogy for what the dreadful “day of the Lord” will be. This day will be a day of judgment not only for God’s enemies, but for unrepentant Israel herself. The army arrayed against her will have teeth like lion’s teeth (Joel 1:6), will appear like war horses (2:4), and the sky will be darkened (2:2). The army that brings devastation is finally compared to a horde of locusts (Joel 2:25). Just as the swarm of locusts left Israel barren with no vineyards remaining, so will God purge the rotten vine of Israel. John taps into this imagery to convey what the final, dreaded day of the Lord will look like with an even more frightening picture of a locust plague straight from the pit of hell.
There are still many details present in Revelation 9 that we do not find an Old Testament referent for: the locusts’ possessing the face of a man, the hair of women, and breastplates of iron. Further, the torment exacted for “five months” of longing for death doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old Testament (although, see Job 3:20-22). All of these additional details are likely just further depictions of the ghoulish and terrifying demonic aspects of this plague, as well as the limited scope of this judgment. Either way, the background of the Old Testament provides us with this rich interpretation:
Just as God devastated Egypt and Babylon and unrepentant Israel, He will funnel that same judgment towards those who oppose Him once more. Only, the physical destruction and annihilation once rendered to these nations in the past will serve only as a parable of the internal, psychological devastation that will unfold upon God’s enemies, leading them to collapse into complete despair, longing for death. Just as before, God has sovereignly ordained judgments, permitting crippling acts of devastation to befall those who rebel from Him–note the angel “given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit,” (9:1), that is given by God. And just like last time, this judgment has been brought on by the presence of unrepentant sin (Rev 9:20-21). No people who persist in rejecting God will flourish. Sin may seem sweet, but it has a bitter aftertaste–God’s judgment.
While Egypt was visited with literal locusts as a judgment, it is unlikely that these locusts will appear as actual locusts. Rather, like the locust army that overtook unrepentant Israel or Babylon, since the imagery of the locusts here is so fantastical, it likely is meant to convey the spiritual reality of the judgment the locust is intended to represent: total, unstoppable devastation.
When does this take place? Depending on how one understands the timeline of the trumpets this trumpet either represents the judgment God pours out on unbelievers across time, from the beginning of the resurrection to the second coming of Christ or something that happens directly prior to the second coming of Christ. In favor of the first interpretation is that it appears that the seven trumpets are just a recursive telling of the seven seals, albeit from a different perspective. However, because there is a unique interlude between the fourth and fifth trumpet, indicating that the next three trumpets possess a unique judgment (8:13), then it is possible to understand the last three trumpets to occur distinctly from the first four trumpets, perhaps closer to Christ’s second coming. However, there is nothing in the text that refers to a specific seven year period prior to Christ’s return that these events take place during. It certainly does not make sense for this plague to take place after some “secret rapture” takes place where the church is no longer present, otherwise the command for the locusts to only afflict those “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (9:4) makes little sense.