Demonic Horrors for False Worshipers
In 2020, Aljazeera published an article on a locust invasion in Ethiopia. It began this way: “Mother of 10 Marima Wadisha screamed, threw rocks, and in desperation even fired bullets at the locusts that descended on her sorghum fields… But the insect swarms were so relentless that her entire crop—her family’s only source of income—was destroyed. “They never left for a week,” [she said] “we are left with an empty harvest…How can I feed my children like this?”
Not only in modern-day Ethiopia but multiple times in ancient Israel, locusts were known for destroying land and leaving the people in despair. In one instance, the prophet Joel depicts locusts as a merciless army. Not only would they turn gardens into wastelands; they caused the people’s gladness to dry up. Locusts bring ruin on land. They also cause misery in people. In Revelation 9, we encounter another locust-like swarm. But they are worse. They represent demons, demons that God unleashes to ruin those devoted to idols. Look at it with me, starting in verse 1…
1 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. 2 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. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 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. 5 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. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. 7 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, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 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. 10 They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11 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. 12 The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come. 13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 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. 16 The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 17 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. 18 By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 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. 20 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, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
When we started the seven trumpets last week, I told you to keep in mind several things. I want to review those briefly. One, these trumpets serve as warnings before the final day of God’s wrath. Remember Jericho. Seven priests with seven trumpets, marched around the city seven days. But at the seventh trumpet, God destroyed the city. In Revelation, seven priest-like angels blow seven trumpets. Meaning? The rebellious city of man will soon crumble before the kingdom of God. Therefore, check yourself. Do you belong to God’s city? Or will you crumble with the city of man?
Another layer we considered: these trumpets resemble the plagues on Egypt. The trumpets are worse. But their similarities help us understand why they come and what they’re about. Like the plagues on Egypt, these trumpets come in response to the cries of God’s people.[i] Like the plagues on Egypt, God reserves these trumpets for the enemies of God’s people. Like the plagues on Egypt, these trumpets reveal God executing judgment on people’s false gods. They prove that God alone is glorious.
With trumpets five and six, though, another layer enters the picture. That layer is the prophet Joel. Like Revelation, Joel’s message warns of coming judgment and summons people to repentance. But Joel builds his prophecy around an awful locust plague. God sent locusts against his people for their rebellion. It was a sign that God’s curse was upon them. That real locust plague then became a sign for what the final Day of the Lord would be like. The final Day of the Lord would swarm humanity like a vast army that leaves everything ruined and everyone despairing.
Trumpets five and six tell a similar story. They too are signs that the final Day of the Lord draws near. The trumpets too leave people ruined and despairing. The trumpets too are signs that God’s curse rests on the rebellious. The difference is that now we see demons unleashed on the rebellious. Revelation takes Joel’s prophecy to the next stage in redemptive history. If locust armies don’t wake you up, if human armies don’t wake you up, maybe demon armies will wake you up.
The Lord orchestrates these judgments.
Now, holding those things in mind will help you understand the bigger picture. They will also help you understand some of the imagery John uses. That doesn’t mean Revelation 9 is now a piece of cake. It’s hard to understand. But if we focus on what’s clear, we will know how to obey its message. Let’s discuss it in three parts.
Part one, the Lord orchestrates these judgments. Remember, the sovereign Lamb of chapter 5. His reign initiates everything. Each series of seven—all twenty-one judgments from 6:1 to 16:21—they come because Jesus takes the throne and brings history to its climax. Also, in 20:1 and 7, we learn that God controls what goes into the abyss and what’s released from the abyss. Notice too the passive verbs in chapter 9: verse 1, “he was given the key.” Verse 3, “they were given power.” Often, that’s John’s way of saying nothing moves unless God gives permission. We also see the Lord limiting the damage: verse 5, the locusts torment but can’t kill; verse 18, the cavalry is allowed to kill but only a third. These sinister creatures aren’t in charge. Jesus is. Jesus controls them.
The Lord’s judgment involves demonic assault.
Part two: the Lord’s judgment involves demonic assault. In verse 1, the fallen star represents an angelic being. Sometimes stars represent good angels—1:20. Sometimes stars represent fallen angels—12:4.[ii] In either case, the Lord gives this angel authority[iii] to open the shaft to “the bottomless pit.” Other translations use “the abyss.” Remember what the demons said to Jesus in Luke 8:31—they begged Jesus not to send them into the abyss. In 20:3, the Lord casts Satan into the abyss for a time. The abyss is invisible to us; but it’s part of the created order. It’s not hell, which is the final judgment. Rather, it’s a temporary holding place for hostile, demonic powers.[iv]
But here they’re released. In verse 2, the opening of the shaft comes with ominous signs of smoke darkening the sun and the air. Locust plagues were known for darkening the sky. Their numbers become so dense, they cast a smoke-like shadow over the land. Like a plague of locusts, these demonic powers spread darkness.
They’re also dominant. In Joel 2:4, locusts are like war horses. Same here, but worse. Verse 7 says they’re like horses prepared for battle. Verse 9 says they wear breastplates like breastplates of iron. They sound like many chariots. In the ancient world, when you combine chariots with iron, you dominate. By adding crowns of gold in verse 7, we learn of their relentless desire to dominate and control people.[v]
They’re also deceptive. In verse 7, the ESV says, “their faces were like human faces.” But the NASB brings out a disturbing contrast. It reads, “their faces were like the faces of men.” Yet it goes on to say, “they had hair like the hair of women.” There’s an unnatural, deceptive mixture of male and female.
They’re also destructive. Their teeth are like lion’s teeth—also an image from Joel 1:6. Lions tear their prey to pieces. In this image, we’re reminded of Satan. Peter says the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8). These demons have the same goal. That shouldn’t surprise us once we learn the name of their leader. Verse 11, their king is called Abaddon in Hebrew. In Greek he’s called Apollyon. Both names mean Destroyer. Likely, we’re looking at Satan. He leads a host of demonic powers who are dark, dominant, deceptive, and destructive.
Nevertheless, they do not move an inch without the Lord’s design. In this case, the Lord gives them power to drive people to despair. In verses 3, 5, and 10, the Lord gives them power to torment people. They’re allotted five months, which may average the lifespan of a locust horde. If so, this demonic horde has a lifespan. They won’t be allowed to do this forever. But for a time, God permits them to torment.
That torment is then likened to the powerful sting of a scorpion. Scorpions were dangerous creatures when Israel passed through the wilderness (Deut 8:15). Evil kings used scorpions to make people obey them (1 Kgs 12:14). Jesus compares demonic powers to scorpions in Luke 11:12. Paul also uses the image of a scorpion’s sting when he says, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56). Death stings because we’re guilty. Perhaps these demons torment people with painful guilt to make them obey.
Physical pain may also be involved, but the psychological terror is obvious. Verse 6 describes it as “seeking death and yet not finding it.” “They will long to die, but death will flee from them.” Demonic assault comes with darkness. It seeks to dominate, deceive, and destroy. And the primary goal is despair. That’s the fifth trumpet.
The sixth trumpet pictures another vast army. Only this time it’s a lion- and serpent-like cavalry. Verse 14 reveals four angels bound at the river Euphrates. Since these angels are bound—much like Satan is bound at 20:1—we’re looking at four hostile, demonic angels.[vi] Nevertheless, the Lord still controls them. He grants permission.
Notice, too, how they’re standing by the river Euphrates. In the Old Testament, the Euphrates formed the north-eastern boundary of the Promised Land. At several points, though, foreign enemies attacked Israel from the Euphrates. Enemies like Assyria came from the Euphrates. Babylon came from the Euphrates. But we should also recall that when these foreign powers attacked, God sent them. God released them against his people for worshiping idols. Same in Revelation 9. Here we see another army of foreign powers; and we also see God releasing them to attack idolators.
Their number is great in verse 16: two-hundred million. Their purpose is to kill a third of mankind—verses 15 and 18. But the way they kill is peculiar. Fire, smoke, and sulfur come out of their mouths, verse 17 says. “By these three plagues, a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.” What other creature breathes fire, smoke, sulfur? A Dragon. A Serpent like Leviathan in Job. In verse 19, their tails are like serpents for a reason. They resemble their leader—that ancient Serpent of old. This army attacks humanity with the lies of Satan: dragon-like things are coming from their mouths—and it leads people to death. The Dragon’s lies kill. That’s why people murder each other in verse 21. They’re listening to his lies.
The Lord targets idolators in these judgments.
Part three, the Lord targets idolators in these judgments. Look back at 8:13. “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!” A “woe” is a cry for those under God’s curse. But notice who that applies to: “those who dwell on the earth.” Throughout Revelation, that refers to God’s enemies. In 6:10, they murder Christians. In 13:8, they worship the Beast. In 17:2, they get drunk with sexual immorality.
Look also at 9:4. The locusts “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.” In 14:1, the seal is the Lamb’s name. It’s a spiritual mark that shows you belong to God’s priesthood. In 7:4, God’s servants have that seal. Those redeemed by the blood of Jesus have that seal. Idolaters do not. According to 13:6, idolators have the mark of the Beast. The Lord targets them in these judgments.
Finally, look at 9:20. “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.” The Lord sends demonic horrors on those who don’t belong to heaven and who don’t bear God’s seal, which is then seen by them not repenting from their idolatry.
So, the message of trumpets five and six is this: if you do repent from idolatry and belong to the Lamb, the Lord will hand you over to demonic horrors. Look at verse 20 again. Did you notice how worshiping demons stands alongside worshiping idols. John does that because in and behind idolatry is the work of demons.[vii]
Consider what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:19-21, Christians were eating food offered to idols in the temple, despite their brothers. Paul tells them to stop it and flee the idolatry of these pagan temples. Then he adds this: “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
To participate in idolatry is to give yourself to demons. Unless you repent, God will unleash demonic horrors on you. That’s not an injustice, by the way. He’s giving idolators what they want. They want to worship idols and the demons behind them. It’s mercy that God restrains demonic activity at all. Please see this: the very things these idolators worship end up destroying them. Demons don’t care about you. Demons lure you with idols only to drive you to despair and leave you dead.
What, then, does that mean for us?
So, what does that mean for us? I really hope it’s clear: repent from all forms of idolatry—same thing the first four trumpets taught us last week. In his book The Mission of God, Christopher Wright surveys the Old Testament and finds several ways people can manufacture idols. We make idols from things that entice us—Deuteronomy 4:19. Created things that are greater than us or charming to us—we can be enticed to serve them in ways reserved for God alone. We can make idols from things we fear. Psalm 96:4 speaks of fearing the Lord above all other gods. Other gods don’t actually exist. Rather, we impose god-like qualities on things we fear such that we obey them.
Wright also observes we can make idols from things we trust. Psalm 115:8 speaks of people becoming like the idols they trust. When we trust anything besides the Lord for deliverance and satisfaction and meaning in life, we participate in idolatry.[viii]
People make idols from a nation’s strength—Habakkuk 1:11. Political leaders can become idols—Isaiah 36:6. Or, think of the idols of Rome when John is writing Revelation. They’re the same idols of today. People in Ephesus thought Artemis made them safe. Our culture worships things that make them safe. Safety can become a concern that’s higher than obedience to Jesus who calls us to take up a cross.
There was also Aphrodite, goddess of sex. Our culture says the whole of your self-worth is found in fulfilling your sexual desires. How many companies and sports teams and music artists sell their product using sex or sexiness? Plutus was the god of wealth. Think of the great control money has on people. Dionysius, goddess of wine and ecstasy. We see this expressed in the party-life. Heracles, god of strength and sport. Our culture marvels over wash-board abs and ripped physiques.
Idolatry is all around us. But Revelation 9 adds this to the picture: demonic horrors await those who give themselves to idols. They are dark, dominant, deceptive, destructive. They will drive you to despair. So come away from them. What entices you? What do you fear most? What are you trusting to find escape or joy or sustenance? Don’t be like the church in Pergamum or the church in Thyatira who tolerated idolatry and sexual immorality. Jesus warned his people because he knows the horrors. He knows Apollyon. Satan means to destroy you. So, turn from all forms of idolatry. Listen to God’s message in the trumpets. Don’t be like Pharaoh who hardened his heart in the locust plague. Turn away from the idols now before the demons dominate you.
Third, realize that what you worship drives how you act. Notice the parallel statements. Verse 20, “They did not repent of the works of their hands”—that means “their idols.” Verse 21, “And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” False worship leads to false ethics.[ix] Greg Beale published a book in 2008 titled We Become What We Worship.
Roe v Wade hit the news again this week. At a basic level, abortion is a worship problem. When people do not worship God who created people in his image, it leads to treating others however they please to satisfy what they do worship. In Psalm 106:36-37, you can read of Israel serving the idols of the nations, and behind those idols were demons, the text says. Do you know what it led them to do? Sacrifice their sons and daughters. False worship drives abortion. It also drives human trafficking and racism.
False worship also drives sinful anger—whether that’s the worship of self or the worship of whatever comfort that person just interrupted. Gluttony is a worship problem—we must glorify God in our bodies, but instead we obey fleshly appetites and look to food for escape. The same can happen with drinking. Pornography is a worship problem—I’ve had brothers confess, “I look at porn, because I want a world where I am King, where I am worshiped, where I control things and get what I want.”
If you want to act righteously, then you must worship truly. You must have a heart that’s set on worshiping the true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Consider again the Lord’s Prayer that we covered a few weeks ago: “Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed.” We need Jesus to give us hearts that treat God’s name as holy, that worship in Spirit and in truth. True ethics will follow true worship.
How does true worship happen? The gospel. That’s our final takeaway: rest in God’s grace in the Lamb to save you. What a picture we have of human depravity in verses 20-21. Look how enslaved the human heart can become? Six trumpet judgments pass and yet they do not repent. The only person who can free you from that kind of slavery is Jesus the Lamb. Many of us here can recall how enslaved to idols we once were. Maybe we don’t know the full extent of these judgments, but we know something of what demonic darkness is like. Yet now we find ourselves ransomed, freed, brought into the kingdom of light and life.
Our rescue was not owing to anything in us. It was all grace. It was all Jesus. He is the Lamb who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood. He snapped the power of Satan over our lives. Satan uses three primary weapons to control people. Lies, guilt, and fear. He uses lies. John 8:44, “he is a liar and the father of lies.” He lies to keep us fumbling around in darkness. He uses guilt. Colossians 2:14 pictures demonic rulers holding over us a certificate of debt that we owe because of sin. He uses fear. Hebrews 2:14 speaks of Satan using fear to enslave people. How can that change for anybody?
Jesus Christ. Jesus enters the darkness and speaks the truth. He exposes the lies and reveals glory. Jesus gives his life on the cross to cancel our debt. He takes away our guilt—get this, he removes that scorpion-sting of death, such that we can say with boldness, “O death, where is your sting?!” Jesus also entered death to overcome it by resurrection; and in that victory he destroys the one who has power over death, that is, the devil. We no longer bow to demons; we bow to the Lamb who sets us free! We no longer follow the prince of the power of the air; God made us alive. He has seated us with Jesus in the heavenly places—Jesus, who is above all rule, authority, and power.
Listen to the way God worked in 1 Thessalonians 1:5. It says, “[the gospel] came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” What was the result of them embracing the gospel of Jesus? Verse 9, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Jesus is your only escape from idolatry and from the evil one. Jesus is the only one who can seal you with his blood and protect you from demonic horrors. Rest in him today. Return to him today. Remember him now as we come to the table, but first let’s sing of us grace.
[i] Rev 6:10; 8:4.
[ii] The angel here could be the same angel of 20:1. He too holds the key to the abyss; although that angel simply “comes down from heaven;” and this angel is already “fallen.”
[iii] Notice the way “key” appears in Rev 1:18; 3:7; 20:1 to show authority over a certain realm.
[iv] Cf. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6.
[v] Cf. “crown” in Rev 6:2.
[vi] Cf. also 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6. If they’re related to the four angels of 7:1, it seems that John has represented the four angels of 9:14 by the four destructive winds of 7:1. In 9:14, the “winds” are now released.
[vii] Cf. also Deut 32:17; Ps 106:37.
[viii] For fuller treatment, see Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 166-71.
[ix] This builds on the observation of Buist M. Fanning, Revelation, ECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 307: “What we worship and how we conduct ourselves always go together. The ideology we adopt (even if we refuse to acknowledge the “religious” commitment that is at its core) affects our lifestyle and vice versa.”