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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Opening of the Abyss (9:1-6)
The Opening of the Abyss (9:1-6)

In John's vision of the fifth trumpet in Revelation, the power and promise given to Jesus' disciples in the Gospel of Luke is turned upside down. Here it is not Satan who falls from heaven to earth, but a star (9:1), recalling the star Wormwood a few verses earlier (8:11). The fact that this star had fallen does not imply some kind of defection or rebellion against God. It falls as any star might seem to fall, based on ancient observations of meteorites or comets (compare 6:13). This star, like Wormwood, is a messenger from God, but the judgment it brings is even more terrible. It does not strike the earth or poison the waters, but with the key to the shaft of the Abyss (v. 1) opens a pit into the very heart of the earth. From the pit, or Abyss, comes smoke like the smoke from a gigantic furnace, darkening the sun and sky (v. 2). "Then from the smoke," John writes, "came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth" (v. 3 NRSV). The situation is exactly the reverse of Luke 10:19. Instead of humans having "authority to trample on snakes and scorpions" and protection from "harm" or injury, the "authority" or power is that of scorpions (v. 3), and the strange demonic locusts that wield this authority use it precisely to harm or injure human beings (v. 4).

The words of woe just preceding this section (8:13) now begin to be borne out. The plagues introduced by the trumpets are getting worse and worse. The terrible locust plague now described is differentiated from the preceding four trumpets in that it affects humankind first of all, while the natural targets of natural locusts—grass, plants and trees—are protected (v. 4). These are no ordinary locusts, such as those that attacked Egypt in Moses' time (Ex 10:1-15). About them it was written, "Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again" (Ex 10:14). John's locusts are more like the locusts in Joel's vision centuries later, "A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white" (Joel 1:6-7; see also 2:1-11).

Joel's locust plague, like John's, heralds nothing less than "the Day of the Lord" (Joel 2:1, 11), yet in Joel the invaders are still part of the natural order. In John's vision they are supernatural demons from the Abyss. Natural locusts do not physically attack humans, but John's locusts do, with the sting of the scorpion (vv. 4-5). Natural locusts, according to a biblical proverb, have no king (Prov 30:27), but these locusts do—the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon (v. 11).

This brings us to another difference between the fifth trumpet and the first four. They were, as we have seen, judgments from God and from above, in keeping with the description in 8:5 of an angel who (in response to "the prayers of all the saints") took "fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth." The fifth trumpet, by contrast, introduces a judgment from below, from the Abyss, or deptes of the earth (vv. 1, 2, 11), and consequently from the evil powers that live under the earth, associated with death, destruction and the grave. God, of course, is still sovereign over the whole process, for the star . . . fallen from the sky (v. 1) was given the key to the Abyss, and the terrible locusts were given the sting of scorpions (v. 3) and were told not to harm plants or trees, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads (v. 4). As often in biblical language, the passive voice points to God as the one who does the "giving" and the "telling"—and who also sets limits to the judgment. John adds that the locusts were not given power to kill them, but only to torture them for five montes (v. 5).

The situation is reminiscent of the book of Job, where the righteous Job suffered terribly at Satan's hand, but only because God permitted Satan to put him to the test (see Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). The difference is that the ones suffering in connection with the fifth trumpet are not the righteous people of God, but rather "the inhabitants of the earth" (8:13), further described here as those who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads (v. 4). John's language shows that he remembers from his earlier vision the sealing of God's people on their foreheads for protection (7:3-8). Those "144,000" (7:4), transformed before John's eyes into "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (7:9), are the only ones spared from the terrible plague of locusts. For them, Jesus' promise of "authority" (Lk 10:19) still applies, with the caution Jesus added: "Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Lk 10:20). But for the moment we hear nothing of them.

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