The Locusts Out Of The Abyss - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
1 And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.
2 And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.
3 And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
4 And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
5 And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.
6 And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
7 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.
8 And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
9 And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
10 And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
11 And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. 12 One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter.
In verse 13 of the preceding chapter we have a little parenthetical scene. An eagle flies in mid-heaven and announces a three-fold woe upon them that dwell on the earth by reason of the voices of the trumpets that are still to sound. Much has been made of this eagle, and people have speculated as to what this eagle might be. Some reach the conclusion that it is a member of the church triumphant who has already been taken to heaven, according to these interpreters, before these trumpets are sounded. We, on our part, cannot attach special significance to the identity of this eagle. We rather accept that it merely belongs to the symbolism of the entire scene that John, before the last three trumpets are sounded, beholds this eagle, the bird with its penetrating look, flying in mid-heaven and calling, "Woe, woe, woe, for them that dwell on the earth." In the meantime, it indicates that we may expect that the three trumpets which are still to sound will bring events which are quite different from those revealed thus far. The element of vengeance and suffering in them will be more pronounced. They will be most plainly visible as the day draws near when the Lord shall return in His final appearance. They indicate that the world gradually becomes ripe for judgment. Accordingly, we expect also that it will be more difficult to point out the exact historical realization of these last trumpets, seeing that they point to events which must for the most part still be fulfilled in the future.
The Description Of The Locusts
Our text speaks of the locusts out of the abyss.
First of all, we note that as the fifth angel sounds, John beholds a star fallen from heaven. It will be well to call your attention from the outset to two things. In the first place, there is the fact that this star does not fall from heaven at the moment when John hears the sound of the fifth trumpet. He does not say that he saw a star falling from heaven, but simply that his eye beholds a star that had already fallen from heaven at the moment when the trumpet sounds. John merely beholds that star now though the star had been cast out of heaven before. He beholds it at this particular moment because at the sound of the fifth trumpet that star begins to operate. This brings us to our second remark, namely, that this star is surely no star in the literal sense of the word, for the simple reason that the things which are told us of this star cannot be true of one of the heavenly luminaries that shine in the firmament of heaven. In the first place, it would already be an inconceivability that a star would fall from heaven and simply lie on the earth without any further effect. But above all, it would be impossible to maintain that this is a real star in the light of the fact that the star acts like a person with intellect and will. We read of this strange star that the key of the pit, of the abyss, was given him, and that as the key was received by him, he went and opened the pit of the abyss.
Whoever may be represented by this star, therefore, so much is certain from the outset, that it is not a real heavenly luminary, but some being who is able to receive and understand commands and to act accordingly. In harmony with what follows in the text, the supposition is not without grounds, as we shall see, that this star represents no one else but Satan himself. He is called in the Word of God the prince of the powers of the air (Ephesians 2:2), the prince of the demons (Mark 3:22). Of him the Savior speaks in language remarkably similar to this passage, namely, that He saw him fall as lightning out of heaven (Luke 10:18). And, as we hope to see presently, it is in that very capacity that he occurs also in the words of this particular passage.
This star, this prince of the devils, - or as he appears here, this prince of the abyss, - opens the pit of the abyss. The picture here given is that the abyss is a place beneath the surface of the earth, evidently widening according as it extends deeper below the surface, and therefore narrowest at the top, until it narrows down to a simple shaft, or, as it is called in our passage, a pit. This pit is locked, indicating that for the inhabitants it forms a prison from which they cannot at will escape. Nor is it thus, that they can attain their freedom merely at the command of their prince, the star. For evidently, according to the words of the passage we are now discussing, he does not hold the key of this abyss. It is not in his power, but it is given to him. In ordinary circumstances he does not have this key; but it is now given to him. And therewith he receives the power, and also the liberty evidently, to open the abyss over which he is prince.
He does so. And the result is terrible. Out of this abyss issues forth, in the first place, a terrible cloud of smoke, darkening the sun and the air. And out of the smoke gradually a tremendous host of locusts becomes visible.
Of locusts we read several times in Holy Writ. They are, whether literally or symbolically, the harbingers of the judgments of the Lord. Thus we read of them as constituting one of the ten plagues which fall on the land of Egypt by reason of its stubborn resistance and oppression of the people of God. Thus we also read of a plague of locusts which threatened the people of Israel in the second chapter of the prophecy of Joel. And a plague they certainly were. In the eastern countries an army of these locusts would sweep over an entire country that was rich in vegetation and would leave no green thing behind it.
But the locusts mentioned here are of a very peculiar description. In general, indeed, their description is somewhat derived from the general appearance of the locust. Nevertheless, their appearance is entirely peculiar. They are in shape like horses that are prepared for war. Crowns of gold, or at least something that makes one think of crowns of gold, they wear on their heads. And they are protected with breastplates as it were of iron. Their faces are as the faces of men. And they have long hair, as the hair of women. But in contrast again with this human and even feminine appearance, they show teeth as the teeth of lions, and tails like the tails of scorpions. They come in orderly array, with a king by the name of Abaddon, or Apollyon, at their head. And as they pass, the sound of their wings makes one think of a tremendous army, with horses and chariots, rushing for war. Thus is their description.
Still more strange is their monstrous power. One might think, perhaps, that their description is merely an overdrawn picture of the imagination though the general traits of the ordinary locust are maintained. But this cannot be said of their power. In the first place, it is strange that these locusts have their power of destruction in their tails instead of in their mouth. And in the second place, it is also strange that they do not touch the grass or the crops or the trees or any green thing. Thirdly, it is peculiar that their power is limited to men, and that to those who have not the seal of God on their foreheads. And fourthly, it is also peculiar that they may not kill these men, but merely torture them, so that life becomes an awful burden to those who are struck by the locusts.
The Identity Of The Locusts
In answer to the question who these locusts are, we may limit the field of our investigation in two ways.
In the first place, we may deem it an established fact that they are not real locusts. We have always emphasized that in the Book of Revelation the text always plainly indicates whether we must take a certain passage literally or in the symbolical sense of the word. And surely, in this case the text is sufficiently clear to make us feel safe in asserting that real locusts are out of the question. In the first place, of course, there is their description. True, as we have -already said, real locusts might be described in terms of a strong imagination as horses running to battle, because indeed the locust resembles the horse, especially as to the shape of its head, and also because in the second chapter of Joel we find a somewhat similar description. But it is not true that the locust also has the face as of a man, that it possesses teeth like the teeth of a lion, that it has hair like the hair of women, and that it has a tail like that of a scorpion, in which its terrible power lies. But, secondly, there are clearer indications that Scripture does not intend to have us think here of real locusts. First of all, we must call your attention to their origin. They arise from the abyss, over which Satan is king. And they have as a king another angel, whose name is Abaddon, or Apollyon, the first of which is Hebrew, and the second Greek. Both of these names mean "Destroyer." Ordinary locusts surely do not have their dwelling-place in the abyss, whatever that abyss may be. Besides, their work is entirely different from that of ordinary locusts. They do not touch the grass and the trees or any green thing. But that is exactly what the locust devours. In an inconceivably short time the locust knows how to make a barren desert out of the most fruitful country, abounding in vegetation. These locusts, on the other hand, touch only men, and touch them not with their mouth but with their tails. And they cause these men to suffer the most fearful agony, pain comparable only to the pain caused by the sting of a scorpion, which, as travellers assure us, is well-nigh unbearable. All these things, therefore, establish it beyond a shadow of doubt that we would violate the purpose of the text if still we would maintain that they were real locusts. No, they are not real locusts, but they must be taken as symbols of something else. That they are described as monstrous locusts, infernal in their appearance and in their power, is merely because the locust actually constitutes one of the scourges wherewith the Lord visits the earth in His judgments.
Besides, and in the second place, we may also from the outset discard the interpretation which finds in these locusts the symbol of an army of men. This explanation constitutes, indeed, one of the favorite interpretations, especially of those interpreters who explain the Book of Revelation as being historically and successively fulfilled in the course of time. These locusts, so they say, are the symbols of the hordes of the Mohammedans that flooded parts of Asia, North Africa, and southern Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries of our era. In detail, these interpreters find in the description given of these locusts the picture of these Saracens as they rose from the East and swept the entire northern part of Africa, as well as the southern part of Europe, constituting an awful scourge upon the countries which they conquered.
But there are elements in the words of our text which simply make such an interpretation an impossibility, - elements which I find that these interpreters simply ignore and overlook. First of all, what does it mean that these locusts have their power in their tails? That seems to constitute an essential element in the passage we are now discussing. Yet this cannot be sufficiently explained on the supposition that they are the symbols of the Moslem army, or, in fact, of any army of human beings. Still more, the text makes the important statement that the people who have the seal of God on their foreheads must be left untouched. But was it not especially against the Christians that the fury of the Mohammedans raged? Or can it be said of any army in the world that they ever make a distinction between the people of God and the people of the world, and refuse to do the former any hurt? Still more: these locusts receive the command that they may not kill, but simply hurt men for five months. Granted now, for a moment, that it is permissible to take these five months in the symbolical sense, every day of them constituting one year, so that the entire period might be calculated as being one hundred fifty years, was it ever beheld of an army, - that of the Moslems surely not excluded, - that they did not kill, but merely hurt the enemy? Surely, all these objections, - facts so plainly and so emphatically mentioned in the passage, - are simply insurmountable. These locusts are not the symbol of an army of men.
Both these possibilities being ruled out, there is practically but one possibility left. And that one is indeed in harmony with the entire passage, as well as with the Scriptures in general, namely, that these locusts form an infernal army of demons let loose by Satan for a certain definite purpose. We know from the Word of God that Satan was not the only person who fell in the spiritual world, but that with him a veritable host of angels fell away from God into rebellion. We know not how many of the angels fell with their prince; nor is this important. But we certainly receive the impression that there were indeed thousands upon thousands who fell with Satan. Now what became of these evil angels? Plain it is that they have not yet received their final judgment and punishment. Also the angel world is still to be judged; and it shall not be judged until the great day of our Lord
Jesus Christ, when we shall judge them with Him. Satan still goeth about like a roaring lion. And also the evil spirits, direct subjects of his kingdom, are not confined to the place of their eternal torture. It may safely be said, therefore, of all these evil angels that although they have been cast out of heaven and no more enjoy the light of life in the presence of the Holy One, - which, of course, would be impossible, - yet they have not received their final sentence, and still must be made subject to their eternal punishment. In other words, in the literal sense of the word the devil and his angels are not yet in hell.
Where then are they?
It seems to us that Scripture makes a distinction. Also the lot of these fallen angels is not the same for all, and according to their different state they accomplish a different purpose in the economy of the present dispensation. In the first place, we read of evil spirits roaming about in desert places or being bound by the river Euphrates. In the second place, we learn from Scripture that there are a number of these evil spirits in aerial places, - perhaps the main army of them, Satan included. Paul calls the devil the "prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2). And he warns the Ephesians that they shall put on the whole armor of God: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places," (Ephesians 6:12). They seem to be at the disposal of Satan continually, and constantly to fight the battle with him against the realization of the kingdom of Christ. But in distinction from these devils, or demons, in the air, there is another division of the army of Satan. They are in the abyss. They are shut up. They do not have the liberty to roam about, except on special occasions. At the time of Jesus' public ministry, for instance, we find mention of one legion of them. And when they are cast out, they beseech the Lord that He may not send them back into the abyss. Peter also speaks of angels that have sinned and that have been committed unto pits of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment (II Peter 2:4). And Jude, verse 6, makes mention of "angels that kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation," which "he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." And of these latter evil spirits our text also makes mention. It tells us of them that they are in the pit. And the smoke which issues out of the abyss as it is opened evidently speaks to us of the fact that their proper habitation, the sphere in which they exist, is darkness. It tells us that the pit of this abyss is locked, so that they cannot issue forth from it at will. And since even the prince of this abyss must receive the key, it also tells us that these evil spirits are ultimately at the disposal of Christ. They cannot, leave their prison except at His bidding. They cannot perform their infernal purposes except when He deems it the proper time. Then He blows the trumpet and hands the key of the abyss to the prince, that he may let his armies go forth to battle.
What we have, therefore, in the words of the passage we are now discussing is nothing but the picture of the letting loose of one of the reserve forces of hell over the world of men.
Satan has his regular troops. They are the powers of the air, the spiritual host of wickedness in high places. With them he always works. With them he always offers battle against the Christ and His people. And against them we must be armed with the whole armor of God. With these he always stands in close contact with his human servants on earth. Through them Satan influences the minds and hearts, the thoughts and the affections of men, so that he may be able to maintain his position as the prince of this world. And over against them Christ also has His angels, strengthening and protecting His people. Through this regular army of Satan, under the influence of them, develops what we call "the spirit of the age." If we say that the spirit of the present age is humanistic, we must not imagine that the development of the same has nothing to do with the regular hellish troops of the devil. On the contrary, also that spirit is come to the consciousness of the wicked world under the influence of the powers of the air. They are everywhere. They stand behind the throne of kings and emperors, as we learn, for instance, from the tenth chapter of the prophecy of Daniel. They control the minds of the leaders of the people. They influence the thoughts and the teachings of the infidel professors in our universities. And in a thousand ways they are influential in causing to develop the so-called "spirit of the age."
But of these our text does not speak. No, it speaks of special forces, of the reserve troops of hell, of the army of maneuver of the devil. Not of the powers of the air, but of the spirits of the abyss, who are commonly bound and imprisoned but who are let loose at the command of Christ over the wicked world, does the text speak.
The Work Of The Locusts
And what is the teaching of the Word with regard to these wicked spirits? When are they to be let loose? Whenever the world is ripening for judgment.
The sinner and the sinful world in general chooses to do the works of Satan and his kingdom. They choose to trample under foot the precepts of the Most High and to walk in ways of darkness. And therefore, entirely in harmony with their own choice the Lord surrenders them to the devil and his host. And as they continue and reach the stage of sin and evil in which they have fully surrendered themselves to the powers of darkness, He sends them more devils and more demons, that they may actually increase their sin and become ripe for the great day of the Lord. This we read time and again in Scripture. When the leaders of the Jews blaspheme the work of Jesus and prove that they love darkness rather than light, we find that Jesus begins to teach in parables for the very purpose that the things of the kingdom of heaven may remain hid to them. After Paul has given a description of the idolatry and foolishness of the heathen world, he continues to say: "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts." And again: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections." Hence we find this relation in Scripture. Man has surrendered himself to the service of the devil. In this service he stands in the power and under the influence of Satan and his host generally, and the powers of the air have dominion over him. The more he serves sin and Satan, the more this power of the evil hosts in high places is emphasized, until, when gradually the world becomes ripe for the judgments of God, this power is made stronger by the letting loose of the reserve forces of Satan, the evil spirits out of the abyss. And it is that emphasis of the power of Satan over the wicked world that is pictured in the words of our passage. Again, therefore, in harmony with the character of the trumpets, there is just a little emphasis of the general conditions. If the general influence of the powers of the air may be compared to one-fourth, the influence is now increased to one-third by the liberation of these locusts, of this infernal army of the reserve forces of the devil.
But what is the special work of these infernal spirits?
The text emphasizes that it is their task to torment men. With emphasis this is stated. Their power is as the power of scorpions. This power is in their tails. Their torment is as the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. They are not allowed to kill, but only to torment such as have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And the effect of this torment is such that in those days men seek death, but shall not be able to find it. They desire to die, but death fleeth from them. And they may torment these men who have not the seal of God on their foreheads for five months.
From the outset we may say that these five months have no other symbolical significance than this, that these infernal spirits may serve their full time. The five months are evidently in harmony with the picture that is given of the locusts. We are told that the time during which locusts may be expected is generally five months of the summer. Not as if any swarm of locusts would continually remain in a country for that length of time: for their work is generally finished much more quickly. But five months is the period of time during which they may be expected. And the meaning, therefore, is that these spirits may serve their full time and do as much harm as they possibly can.
But the question is: what is meant by this torment, and what is its nature?
The answer to this question we must seek, first of all, in the description of the locusts themselves. There is evidently a marked contrast between their front and their tails. Their appearance in front makes us think of war and victory, of power and glory, of intelligence and invention, of charm and fascination. For they look like horses prepared for battle. They wear crowns as of gold. They have teeth as the teeth of lions. They wear breastplates as it were breastplates of iron. They have faces as the faces of men. And they have hair like the hair of women. In a word, these spirits represent all that attracts the wicked world, all that which the world of sin considers the source of bliss and salvation. They are the spirits who play on the passions of men. Already the world has sought its happiness in power and dominion, in war and victory. These spirits emphasize these passions. Already the wicked world has sought help in vain philosophy, in following the lie, in science and invention, - all without God. These spirits simply must emphasize this passion, so that they seek their bliss still more exclusively in these things. Already the world has sought salvation in the satisfaction of its lion-like greed. These spirits must emphasize this sinful passion and cause it to glow still more. Already the sinful world has thrown itself in the arms of a sinful art, yea, in the charming pleasures of vile sin. These spirits must incite men to do still more, and to give themselves up to all the pleasures of sin. Such is their appearance: they appeal to the sinful passions of an already wicked world.
But this is not their final, and therefore, not their real task. It is not their essential characteristic. On the contrary, these evil spirits, whether they like it or not, have power to hurt men, such men as have not the seal of God on their forehead. Their tail-end is their real nature. These same spirits who have incited the wicked world to plunge still more deeply in sin and vile transgression fill the hearts of men with the darkness of despair. They are the spirits of pessimism. And after men have followed their inspiration, they find that their end is more bitter than death itself. Just as the children of God have sometimes a foretaste of the pleasures of heavenly glory because they walk in the way of God's covenant and of His precepts, so the children of the world, under the influence of these infernal locusts, are given a foretaste of the despair of hell. They follow their sinful ambition for power and victory to its very end. But despair follows in its wake. They give themselves to the satisfaction of their lion-like greed; but also this is immediately followed by a gloomy pessimism. The path of philosophy they tread to the end, only to look into the mocking eyes of the devil of despair and dissatisfaction. Art and pleasure and vile lust are worshipped as the saviors, until the dissatisfaction of them is proved and a gloomy pessimism is the result. Thus the purpose of these demons is to emphasize sin and all its pleasures and all its evil passions so that men follow them to the full, only to be tortured by them in the end by these same demons on the rack of pessimism and despair.
That this is actually the case is also evident from verse 6. The nature of their torment is, of course, purely spiritual; and it consists in a being tired of life, in a seeking of death: "And in those days men shall seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them."
Literally the state of these men, therefore, is one of the most gloomy pessimism.
Do not say that such a condition is inconceivable, for that would be beside the truth. Do not say that if men really seek death, they can find it in suicide: for then you do not know the heart of men. The meaning of this text is simply this, that the pessimism of men in those times is so great that they cannot even find the courage and the incentive to take their own lives. Not the suicide, who hastens to take his own life when all of life is despair, but he who desires to die and cannot find the courage to commit suicide is the living illustration of the most terrible pessimism in this world. These same spirits that torture them have not the power to kill them. They have power to hurt them, but nothing more.
Time and again such waves of pessimism have swept in limited proportions over the world. It swept over the world of Grecian civilization when all the efforts of sinful men to find the way to happiness along the road of sin and idolatry and vain philosophy and lusts failed absolutely. It swept the Roman world when it had cast itself into the arms of conquest and power, into the arms of luxury and dissipation. Gloomy pessimism was the result. It also has swept the modern world more than once whenever it has had to confess failure to find the road to happiness. What else is the spirit that prevails in the spheres of Spiritualism and Christian Science and Theosophy, yea, even of Buddhism and heathen religions, than the black smoke that is rising from the abyss?
But all these things are only a limited fulfillment of what is still to come upon the world. As the time draws near for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, as the world once more exhausts itself to work out its own salvation without Christ and without God, as it exerts itself to find this way in paths of war and conquest, in ways of philosophy and vain lies, in ways of lusts and vile pleasures, it will also become prepared more and more for the influence of these infernal locusts. And literally also this part of Revelation is still to be fulfilled, so that the state of utter despair will come upon the world of sin, and men will continue to follow the paths of sin and transgression and of blasphemy against the name of Jesus Christ. Then again men will seek death, but will not be able to find it. Not as if this state of universal pessimism will be the final state. On the contrary, the power of the locusts is limited to five months. It is only a preparation for still greater efforts and for the final public worship of the beast that comes out of the abyss. But surely, it will come; and the children of the world will then have a foretaste of the torments of hell.
Blessed is the comfort that is implied in these words. For those who have the seal of God on their forehead in those days, who do not follow the ways of the world and sin and lust and the lie, are protected by Christ Himself. From Him these locusts receive their power and authority. And that power is limited to the world of sin only. These sealed ones have put on the whole armor of God, and they are not generally under the influence of the powers of the air. Christ and all His holy angels protect them, so that they are not hurt. And though they more and more may have to fear the gloomy despair of the sinful world, it will remain literally true that the gates of hell shall never prevail against them.