(3) Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth.
Locusts are iconic characters in God’s judgments. Their introduction here provides great depth of meaning to the vision. The eighth plague of Egypt was locusts (Exodus 10:12). The Midianites and Amalekites were described as locusts against Israel (Judges 6:5, 7:12). Assyria and is described as locusts (Nahum 3:15-17). God raised up the nations against Babylon, describing the army as locusts (Jeremiah 51:27). The book of Joel makes the greatest use of the locust imagery. First, he describes a terrible plague of fourfold locusts (1:4) that is meant to warn them of their sins and motivate them to repent (1:13-14). In Joel 2:1-11, God describes a great army of locusts coming up against Israel. Notice the similarities to the vision in Revelation when Joel says: “Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like swift steeds, so they run. With a noise like chariots Over mountaintops they leap, Like the noise of a flaming fire that devours the stubble, Like a strong people set in battle array. Before them the people writhe in pain; All faces are drained of color.” Therefore, it is evident that the Lord uses the same language to describe national judgment against a people, and he is using the locust imagery here one last time against the Jewish nation (in the first century) to describe his judgment for their sins.
So, who then are the locusts in Revelation nine? Verse two already gave us clues that they are a swarm of Jews who were in very deep darkness, who knew the greatest depths of sin. They were a torment and a plague to the Jewish people. This depiction fits the rebellious Jewish zealots who gained great numbers and were agonizing to the rest of the Jewish people. So many of the Jews desired peace with their superior (Rome), but the seditious would not allow it. But how bad was it really? How closely could this locust imagery fit the Jewish rebels? Josephus provides much information on the zealots and the various sects of the seditious Jews. On one occasion, he said of the Sicarii:
“the Sicarii got together against those that were willing to submit to the Romans, and treated them in all respects as if they had been their enemies, both by plundering them of what they had, by driving away their cattle, and by setting fire to their houses; for they said that they differed not at all from foreigners, by betraying, in so cowardly a manner, that freedom which Jews thought worthy to be contended for to the utmost” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.8.1).
Of another sect, led by John Giscala, Josephus said:
“Yet did John demonstrate by his actions that these Sicarii were more moderate than he was himself, for he not only slew all such as gave him good counsel to do what was right, but treated them worst of all, as the most bitter enemies that he had among all the Citizens; nay, he filled his entire country with ten thousand instances of wickedness… [John] who was so mad in his impiety towards God, did not observe any rules of gentleness and common affection towards men.” (ibid).
Or another sect, led by Simon bar Giora, he reported:
“What mischief was there which Simon the son of Giora did not do? or what kind of abuses did he abstain from as to those very free-men who had set him up for a tyrant? What friendship or kindred were there that did not make him more bold in his daily murders? for they looked upon the doing of mischief to strangers only as a work beneath their courage, but thought their barbarity towards their nearest relations would be a glorious demonstration thereof. The Idumeans also strove with these men who should be guilty of the greatest madness! for they [all], vile wretches as they were, cut the throats of the high priests, that so no part of a religious regard to God might be preserved; they thence proceeded to destroy utterly the least remains of a political government, and introduced the most complete scene of iniquity in all instances that were practicable; under which scene that sort of people that were called zealots grew up, and who indeed corresponded to the name; for they imitated every wicked work; nor, if their memory suggested any evil thing that had formerly been done, did they avoid zealously to pursue the same; and although they gave themselves that name from their zeal for what was good, yet did it agree to them only by way of irony, on account of those they had unjustly treated by their wild and brutish disposition, or as thinking the greatest mischiefs to be the greatest good” (ibid).
The above is only a small narration from the many things which Josephus reports about this disastrous swarm of locusts. In other places he describes them as “a wild beast grown mad, which, for want of food from abroad, fell now upon eating its own flesh” (Wars, 5.1.1).
The seditious were such a plague upon the people that Vespasian was encouraged by the Romans to take advantage of the situation and attack Jerusalem with ease. Vespasian refused, believing it best to leave them alone to give them a chance to destroy themselves. He said that “a glorious success, quietly obtained, is more profitable than the danger of a battle” (Wars, 4.6.2).
Again, Josephus addresses the terror and heaviness of the zealots who were inside and outside of the walls of Jerusalem: “Now this Simon, who was without the wall, was a greater terror to the people than the Romans themselves, as were the zealots who were within it more heavy upon them than both of the other” (Wars, 4.9.10).
At a time when there were three different factions (swarms of locusts, figuratively) among the city of Jerusalem, Josephus records the agony:
“the city was engaged in a war on all sides, from these treacherous crowds of wicked men, the people of the city, between them, were like a great body torn in pieces. The aged men and the women were in such distress by their internal calamities, that they wished for the Romans, and earnestly hoped for an external war, in order to their delivery from their domestical miseries. The citizens themselves were under a terrible consternation and fear; nor had they any opportunity of taking counsel, and of changing their conduct; nor were there any hopes of coming to an agreement with their enemies; nor could such as had a mind flee away; for guards were set at all places, and the heads of the robbers, although they were seditious one against another in other respects, yet did they agree in killing those that were for peace with the Romans, or were suspected of an inclination to desert them, as their common enemies. They agreed in nothing but this, to kill those that were innocent. The noise also of those that were fighting was incessant, both by day and by night; but the lamentations of those that mourned exceeded the other; nor was there ever any occasion for them to leave off their lamentations, because their calamities came perpetually one upon another, although the deep consternation they were in prevented their outward wailing; but being constrained by their fear to conceal their inward passions, they were inwardly tormented, without daring to open their lips in groans” (Wars, 5.1.5).
Much in every way is the imagery of the locusts a fitting description of the Jewish zealots. Many have believed the locusts to be Romans, and I can understand why, however, the text does not permit me to agree with that. Sure, the Romans were mighty in number and deadly, and they were the utility that brought the ultimate end to God’s judgments against his old covenant people, but they are not the best fit for the interpretation of the locusts. We will see plenty of the Romans later in Revelation, but it is important to recognize that there is much more to the desolation of the Jews than the acts of the Romans.