Revelation 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Locusts and Their King
Visitors to a recent exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston viewed huge models of a number of common garden insects, enlarged hundreds of times over. Such a visit makes us all grateful that God created the world and its creatures on the scale he did! John, building on the prophet Joel's comparisons of locusts to lions (Joel 1:6) or to horses galloping into battle (Joel 2:4), affords us a terrifying glimpse of what a different scale might look like. Such comparisons also occur in Middle Eastern poetry and folklore, both ancient and modern (see Beasley-Murray 1974:162). John's vivid description (vv. 7-10) serves to underscore and heighten the horror of the preceding account of the demonic invasion. We learn, for example, that the scorpionlike authority (v. 3) of the locusts was no abstraction, but that John perceived them with actual tails and stings like scorpions (v. 10), with the power to inflict intense physical pain. Small wonder that in those days people will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them (v. 6).
The awful description ends by introducing the locusts' king, the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon (v. 11). The Hebrew Abaddon is commonly translated "Destruction," and it is closely associated with "death" or "the grave" (see Job 26:6; 28:22; Ps 88:11; Prov 15:11). But instead of the word normally found in ancient Greek translations of these passages (Apoleia, "Destruction"), John uses the personalized Apollyon ("Destroyer"), in keeping with his point that this destructive power is personal--both a king and an angel. John Bunyan, in The Pilgrim's Progress, transformed Apollyon into an almost human adversary. Even though he had "scales like a fish . . . wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion," Apollyon reasoned with Christian like any human enemy to turn him from the path to which he was called, and finally engaged him in single combat (Sharrock 1987:102-5). "In all but the name," wrote H. B. Swete (1908:120), this Apollyon was "a creation of Bunyan."
In the book of Revelation, Apollyon is personal but far from human. Some interpreters (for example, Caird 1966:120) identify this king, or angel of the Abyss, with the fallen star that first released the terrible locusts from the shaft of the Abyss (v. 1). Although stars can sometimes represent angels in John's visions (as in 1:20), this angel is more likely one of the locusts from the Abyss. He is named in connection with John's description of them, and like them belongs to the Abyss itself, just as the angels of the seven congregations belong to their respective congregations (1:20; chaps. 2-3) or "the angel of the waters" (NRSV) in a later vision belongs to the "rivers and springs of water" that are turned to blood (16:4-5).
The point of the naming is to call attention to the destructive effects of the locust invasion (Beckwith 1922:563), in much the same manner that the name "Wormwood" calls attention to the bitter effects of that figure. If the result of the third trumpet (8:11) was "bitterness," the result of the fifth trumpet is "destruction." A still further possibility is that the name "Apollyon" was intended also to suggest the Greek god Apollo, who in John's time was widely associated with prophecy, and therefore in the minds of early Christians with false prophecy (see 6:1; Kerkeslager 1993:119). Just as "Wormwood" recalled biblical denunciation of false prophets (see Jer 23:15), so "Apollyon" calls to mind false prophecy in the Graeco-Roman world.
"Destruction" (whether in Hebrew or Greek) is more terrible than "bitterness," yet a voice now breaks in to remind us that even this is not the end: The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come (v. 12). Whether these are John's words or words that he hears, they recall the threefold "woe" of the eagle flying overhead in 8:13 and are to be understood as a continuation or resumption of that announcement. The same will be true in 11:14. John does not reintroduce the vulture or eagle here, but its presence is implied.