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. – Rev 9:13-16
At the interlude between the fourth and fifth trumpet an eagle soars through the sky and announces: ““Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (Rev 8:13). The threefold “woes” represent the extraordinary severity that the final three trumpets possess, despite the first four trumpets already possessing dramatic consequences. The fifth trumpet unleashed a horde of demonic locusts that plagued the non-Christians for five months, driving them so far to the point of insanity that they long to die. The sixth trumpet seeks to help make this a reality.
The Great River, A Great Army
At the blowing of the sixth trumpet a voice emanates from the “four horns of the golden altar before God.” Tom Schreiner reminds us, “Horns on altars don’t typically speak, but this is apocalyptic literature!” (ESVEC). This voice could be God or another angel, but the connection with the altar reminds us of Rev 8:3-4 and shows us that this judgment is a response to the prayers of God’s people. The voice commands the angel who blew the trumpet to, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” The Euphrates plays an important role throughout the Bible: it was found in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:14) and marked the border of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15:18; cf. Deut. 1:7; Josh. 1:4). But by John’s day the Euphrates marked the eastern border of Rome’s empire: “The Euphrates was the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and on the other side were the dreaded Parthians. The Parthians had defeated Roman armies in 53 b.c. and a.d. 62 and were looking for opportunities for further plunder at the expense of Rome,” (Osborne, BECNT: Revelation).
In Israel’s past, enemies always had to cross over the Euphrates to begin their invasion, so Osborne comments: “Many of the terrible invasions of Palestine—by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians—came across the Euphrates. Thus it became not only the eastern boundary first of Israel and then of Rome but also a symbol of foreign invasion,” (BECNT). The image of enemies crossing the Euphrates will be repeated by the corresponding sixth bowl in Revelation 16:12, “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.” Thus, the “four angels bound at the great river Euphrates” are almost certainly an image intended to convey the kind of dread that comes from the invasion of a foreign army.
This army is no regular army, however. Angels being “bound” almost certainly entails that these angels are demonic in nature (see Satan’s binding in Rev 20:2). Further, they have “been prepared for the hour, day, month and year” of judgment. God has notched an arrow of divine judgment to His bow: the fury of the demonic hordes aimed at the earth-dwellers who had, ironically, been giving themselves over in idolatrous worship to these very demons (see Rev 9:20-21). Now is the time to let loose the arrow and let judgment fall. Suddenly, the four angels (cf. the four horsemen of Rev 6:1-8 and the four angels and four winds of Rev 7:1) morph into a force of mounted troops “twice ten thousand times ten thousand,” which totals to a staggering 200,000,000. Osborne notes: “The Roman army in the first century was composed of twenty-five legions or about 125,000 soldiers, and they had an auxiliary army of comparable size (see Lane, BEB 1:197). This was a thousand times that number, and that fact would not go unnoticed by the first-century reader,” (BECNT). However, Mounce explains, “Attempts to reduce this expression to arithmetic miss the point. A “double myriad of myriads” is an indefinite number of incalculable immensity,” (NICNT, Mounce).
The death toll of this army is jaw-dropping: one third of mankind are slain. The fourth horsemen in Rev 6:7-8 (Death) is given authority to kill a fourth of the population of the earth. Here, the number is increased to a third, though Rev 9:20-21 insinuates that this judgment is restricted to only fall upon unbelievers.
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. – Rev 9:17-19
Much like the locusts of the prior trumpet, John proceeds to provide gripping descriptions of these fantastical and terrifying creatures. Both horse and riders wear “breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur.” The “sapphire” is more technically the color of “hyacinth”, a grey smokey blue, similar to the color of smoke. Thus the three colors of the breastplates correspond with the three plagues that kills a third of mankind in vs. 18: “…the fire and smoke and sulfur…” The image of fire, smoke, and sulfur is repeatedly used throughout the Bible as images for divine judgment (Gen 19:24; Jude 7) and is ironically used to describe what Satan and his demons will be destroyed by (Rev 19:20; 20:10).
While the locusts of the fifth trumpet had teeth like a lion (Rev 9:8), these demonic steads have “heads…like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” But that isn’t all, they also have “tails…like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.” In Ancient Greece (c.8th cent. B.C.) Homer tells of the dreaded chimaera (alt. “chimera”), “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire,” (Homer, Iliad 6. 179 ff (trans. Lattimore). The hero Bellerophon slays the dreaded monster with the help of the winged horse Pegasus.
The Chimaera lived on in the writings and popular imagination across the centuries of Greco-Roman history, becoming a regular image of chaos and evil to be overcome (Hesiod Theog. 319-24; Euripides Ion 203-4; Electra 474-75; Apollodorus 2.3.1; Lucretius De rerum natura 2.705; 5.905-7; Hyginus Fabulae 57.2), but certainly by John’s day few people believed the chimaera to actually exist. In the 1st century B.C. Roman writer Cicero writes, “Who [in this day and age] believes that the Hippocentaurus (Centaur) or the Chimaera ever existed? . . . The years obliterate the inventions of the imagination, but confirm the judgements of nature,” (Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2. 2 (trans. Rackham).
While John’s vision differs some, the trimorphic image of a horse, with a lion’s head breathing fire, and a serpent head for a tail follows the pattern of the chimaera closely enough to wonder if John used a popular image of terrifying evil to communicate his vision. However, John goes out of his way to insist that he is describing what he actually saw in vs. 17 (“And this is how I saw the horses in my vision”) which discourages us from thinking that John is merely creating an interpretation of the vision he received. Further, there are several differences between the chimaera and John’s vision: there is no goat mentioned in John’s vision, and unlike the chimaera, John’s creatures have riders mounted atop them and the horses are clad in armor. Lastly, John’s primary background he is working from is Jewish, not Greco-Roman, thus we should look to the Old Testament (and Second-Temple Jewish literature) as the primary interpretive grid for meaning, not Homer and Hesiod. However, there is no fire-breathing trimorphous creature found in any Jewish texts. The closest would be Job 41:18-21 which describes the chaos monster Leviathan who breathes fire and smoke, or the four beasts of Daniel 7:1-8 who are an amalgamation of different creatures–but none of these match the description we find here in Revelation 9.
There may be good reasons to consider that John is utilizing the Greco-Roman chimaera myth here. While the primary background John works with is Jewish, he is applying it primarily to the Greco-Roman world (all seven churches in Rev 2-3 are in the Roman Empire). It could be that the vision God gave John used a popular image from Greco-Roman culture of a terrifying beast associated with chaos, destruction, and evil to grip the imaginations of readers. All Romans at the time of John’s writing were terrified of another Parthian invasion coming across the Euphrates, but John’s vision shows that something far worse than Parthian calvary is coming–something supernatural.
The validity of the vision does not rely on John believing chimaeras actually exist, but simply utilizes the image of a chimaera as a means of communicating the kind of psychological terror that ought to grip the readers of what will take place. The judgment described here is not something taking place in the natural realm, but supernatural, thus utilizing a monster from the realm of myth is appropriate to achieve the kind of dread one should possess when considering the magnitude of what this demonic judgment shall be like. Commenting on John’s appeal to Roman culture and myth in Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes, “John’s images echo and play on the facts, the fears, the hopes, the imaginings and the myths of his [Roman] contemporaries, in order to transmute them into elements of his own Christian prophetic meaning,” (The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 19).
While the chimaera of Homer’s Iliad required a hero with the aid of a flying horse to defeat it, what can regular individuals do when confronted not with one, but two hundred million similar creatures? Perhaps a modern day equivalent would be imagining what one would do if there were not nine Ringwraiths of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but two hundred million of them coming! Certainly, we would realize that this is a force capable of complete annihilation. We know that Ringwraith’s do not exist, but readers of Tolkien are familiar with the fantastical terror these figures illicit and what incredible strength is required to defeat just one of them, let alone myriads upon myriads.
This tells us that the judgment God is unleashing is something that no person should ever want to see. The imaginations of our greatest story-tellers cannot create monsters terrifying enough to compare with the hordes that will wash over the earth at the blast of this trumpet. It is only by God’s sovereign decree that their bloodshed is limited to a third of the earth.
“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.” – Rev 9:20-21
Rowland writes, “Despite all the terrible indications of disintegration, however, people’s injustice toward one another still persists. It is as if death and destruction had become an anesthetic, preventing the recognition of the remedy for disorder. It is a seemingly unending forgetfulness, which prevents a change of mind (“metanoia”) that can enable the world, and God, to be seen aright and the religion of the beast to be replaced by the way of the Lamb,” (NIBC: Revelation).
Here we see that the purpose of God sending this extreme judgment is to produce repentance in those who remain. Yet, despite the terrifying nature of these events, the rest of the earth-dwellers refuse to repent, but doubled-down on the worship of the very thing that just slayed a third of the earth (demons). G.K. Beale writes of how the early church first reading this, struggling with their own temptations to idolatry (cf. Rev 2:14, 20), would have understood 9:20-21: “The warning to the indecisive is that horrible demons stand behind the idols that they are tempted to worship. They are to know that idols are the tools employed by demons to keep people under the anesthetic effects of spiritual ignorance. The gruesome parabolic description of the demons is intended to shock the true people of God out of their complacent condition, as they realize what spiritual specters really lurk behind the idols,” (NIGTC: Revelation).
Perhaps it is more accurate to understand the purpose of these “plagues” to be tantamount to the “plagues” of the Exodus which did not produce repentance but only hardened Pharaoh’s heart and thus increased his judgment? Or maybe it is helpful to consider the Old Testament referent to the seven trumpets in the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 6. There, seven priests are commanded to blow seven trumpets for seven days. The first six trumpet blasts are not intended to result in repentance within Jericho, but serve only to presage the destruction that will come when the seventh trumpet is blasted.
Like I argued earlier, it is possible to understand that the fifth and sixth trumpet take place at a distinct time apart from the previous four since the eagle provides a unique interlude between them (Rev 8:13). However, it seems likely to understand these judgments as being descriptive of God’s response to evil across the history of the church. While the first four trumpets represent God’s judgment upon the created world, the fifth and sixth seem limited to non-Christians particularly (those who have not been sealed by God, Rev 9:4, 20-21). The trumpet judgments are a description of God’s response to the prayers of the martyred saints pleading with God for justice (see Rev 8:1-5ff). When we pray for God to bring His justice to the world, to bring an end to evil, the trumpets of Revelation 8-9 show us a dramatic, heavenly, and symbolic perspective of how God responds to those prayers.