The Response to the Invasion (9:20-21)

For the first time, John gives full attention to the human response to these divine judgments. He has mentioned the human response twice before, but only in passing, as a way of dramatizing the severity of the judgments themselves, first in 6:15-17, where people hid in caves and cried out to the mountains to fall on them, and second in 9:6, where they desired death but did not find it. This time the human response is in spite of the severity of the judgment, not because of it. The point is made twice (vv. 20, 21) that these terrible judgments did not bring about repentance or a change of heart among those who were not killed.

It is natural to ask whether these plagues (v. 20) are the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur under the sixth trumpet (v. 18) or the whole trumpet series up to this point. But the question is moot because the three plagues of verse 18 are the only ones in the entire series specifically designed to be lethal to human beings (see v. 15). More illuminating is John's characterization of the rest of mankind that did not repent (vv. 20-21). His own moral values come to expression in his list of their vices: worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk (v. 20); also murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts (v. 21).

The vices John lists are characteristic of the Gentile world. John is at one with Judaism in his sharp denunciation of Graeco-Roman society. His list is based in part on the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17), which explicitly forbid idolatry, murder, adultery and theft. He stands squarely in the tradition of the prophet Jeremiah, who ridiculed idolatry in Babylon (Jer 10:1-16; compare the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah), and of the apostle Paul, who condemned Gentile idolatry and immorality (Rom 1:18-32) and equated idol worship with the worship of demons (1 Cor 10:19-20). John probably still has in mind those false prophets in Christian congregations who advocated "sexual immorality" and eating "food sacrificed to idols" (Rev 2:14-15, 20). John's disturbing vision is that none of the judgments described up to now have succeeded in bringing about repentance or any change of heart in an evil world. The surviving inhabitants of the earth are like Pharaoh in the face of the plagues on Egypt in Moses' time: their hearts are hardened and they will not repent. Exodus preserves the sovereignty of God by insisting that God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Ex 7:14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34-35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). No such statement occurs here. On the contrary, it appears that if God's purpose is to bring the world to repentance (compare 2 Pet 3:8-9), it has failed—at least for the time being.

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