The judgment proper falls into the same two parts as the judgment just described under the fifth trumpet: (1) an opening or a "release" of demonic invaders against the earth and its inhabitants (vv. 13-16); (2) a detailed—and frightening—description of these invaders (vv. 17-19). The locusts of the previous vision were loosed from "the Abyss" by a fallen star (vv. 1-3), while in the present vision four angels are loosed from their place of restraint at the great river Euphrates (v. 14), far to the east of Patmos and Asia Minor. If the first invasion seemed to come from the pit of hell, the second is from "outside," from beyond the eastern borders of the Roman Empire. People in many cultures (including our own) have at times feared and hated the unknown or little-known peoples in distant lands. The Romans feared the Parthians beyond the Euphrates as a barbarian horde ready to sack the empire at the slightest sign of weakness. Some Americans from time to time have feared what they called the "yellow peril," whether from the Japanese in World War II, or from communist China and Korea in the Cold War, or Japan with its economic competition today. Those of a more imaginative bent fear aliens from outer space. The imagery of the sixth trumpet evokes just such cultural anxieties—and more.
The structure of the scene, in which one angel (the one blowing the trumpet) releases four terrible angels to kill a third of mankind (v. 15), evokes the earlier vision in which one angel cautioned four others not to send destructive winds over the earth "until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God" (7:1-3). In both instances the prospect is of judgment from the east (compare 7:2), and in both instances John hears a momentous number announced: 144,000 in chapter 7, promising hope and protection, and two hundred million here (v. 16), threatening death and destruction. The angels in this vision, kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year (v. 15) are suddenly transformed into a mounted army of staggering proportions, literally "two myriads of myriads" or twice ten thousand times ten thousand. The abrupt shift presupposes that the four angels are in charge of these demonic cavalry in much the same way that the four angels of 7:1-3 were in charge of the four winds. But instead of holding them back, they now release them to wreak havoc on the earth.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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