(4) They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
This is unlike the eighth plague of Egypt where the locusts “ate every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left. So there remained nothing green on the trees or on the plants of the field throughout all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:15). These are obviously not literal locusts, for what plague of locusts could resist the green grass, plants, and trees? Their only interest is in devouring people. But not just anybody, only those Jews who were unfaithful to the covenant.
How were those who have the seal of God unaffected by this plague? Well, if they have the identifying mark on their forehead that they belong to God, then they are also the only people who will listen to God and follow his instructions. Jesus told his faithful to flee from all of Judea when they saw the Romans coming against Judea (Luke 21:20-21). That would have happened the first time that the Romans approached, under the order of Nero in 66 A.D. (it is now around 68-69 A.D. at the time of this letter). So, all the time that the zealots have been storming Jerusalem, the Christians are nowhere near there.
I’d like to point out that this verse (even this whole section) presents a great challenge to the late daters of Revelation. To fit their interpretation of the book, these locusts must be Roman, but if they are not coming up against those who have the seal of God, then who are they tormenting? Their POV only allows for two major players in the book: Rome vs. Christians, but this is a nice long section that refers to two groups of which the Christians are definitely not one. Some may suggest that the Romans are tormenting themselves, but if we are honest with ourselves (and the text) then we know that we can’t get that out of this chapter.
(5) They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone.
The number five is unusual at first glance, for it doesn’t seem to carry symbolism in scripture, nor is it signified elsewhere in Revelation. It is unlike the constant appearance of four, seven, three and a half, ten, and twelve, so its usefulness is related only to the symbolism of the locusts. In Israel, locusts emerge in the month of May, and disappear again at the end of September, a five-month period. This is undoubtedly the idea referred to in this vision, only here it is not a literal five months, but as five months indicate the full length of the locust season, it is symbolic of the full length of time which the zealot rebels will torment the Jews.
Remember, all this is happening because the Lamb pealed open the covenant scroll which found these individuals guilty. The terms of the covenant are clear for those who forsake it: “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:28-29)
“But not to kill them.” This statement is made in keeping with the symbolism. The point is not that no one literally died because of the locusts, for the reality is that many lost their lives. Whether you view the locusts as the Jewish zealots, or as the Roman army, both killed so many during those days. This detail seems to be in connection to the statement of verse six, how they long to die, but they cannot find death. This is also in connection to the five months. The time for the people to be tormented will not be over quickly, it will drag out and become too unbearable for them. For them, they see no end in sight, and therefore wish not that it will be over soon, but that they would just die. This plague did not “kill them,” though many certainly died; God had more to come in his judgment against this people.
“The torment of a scorpion when it stings.” This establishes where they get their power to cause pain. The picture of the locust, although devouring, is not a harmful picture to men, but if God also gave them the power of the scorpion tail, then man has a big problem. So, the sign that they have scorpion tails is used to complete the picture and explain their ability to harm in ways that a locust is not able.
(6) And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.
Those days were so bad in Judea that the citizens would long for death, but it would not come soon enough. This is a parallel to the opening of the sixth seal: “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’” (6:15-16).
(7) In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces,
Each detail of the appearance of the locusts will give us a different element to consider about their character. The appearances will vary greatly, from looking like horses, to men, to crossdressers, to royalty, to scorpions, to battle array. Each variant symbol gives us a more complete picture as to the nature of this group.
“Like horses prepared for battle.” They have trained themselves to have a seared conscience and to be fierce and fearless.
“Crowns of gold.” As God described to Ezekiel the great harlotry of the Jews, he mentioned that the people put “beautiful crowns on their heads” (Ezekiel 23:42). As vile and disgusting as they appeared, they still saw themselves as worthy. The crowns they wore were “stephanos,” i.e. victory wreaths. They not only saw themselves as victorious, but they would indeed be victors for the full length of their plague.
“Their faces were like human faces.” This symbol, that the locusts had faces in likeness to humans, points us in the direction that these oppressors were men, who only acted like bugs.
(8) their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;
The symbol that they had hair like women is such an unusual and surprising detail, but points to another aspect of their vile nature. Josephus gives a profound commentary to this verse (unwittingly), when he records the actions of the zealots under the leadership of John the Galilean:
He permitted them to do all things that any of them desired to do, while their inclination to plunder was insatiable, as was their zeal in searching the houses of the rich; and for the murdering of the men, and abusing of the women, it was sport to them. They also devoured what spoils they had taken, together with their blood, and indulged themselves in feminine wantonness, without any disturbance, till they were satiated therewith; while they decked their hair, and put on women’s garments, and were besmeared over with ointments; and that they might appear very comely, they had paints under their eyes, and imitated not only the ornaments, but also the lusts of women, and were guilty of such intolerable uncleanness, that they invented unlawful pleasures of that sort. And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city, as in a brothel-house, and defiled it entirely with their impure actions; nay, while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and when their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors, and drew their swords from under their finely dyed cloaks, and ran everybody through whom they alighted upon” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4.9.10).
What Josephus records is surely what the sign that they “had hair like women’s hair” was indicating. Their hair is a symbol of their vile passions which go against what is natural and fitting. They are unnatural, out of control, immersed in wickedness, and rebellious.
“Their teeth like lions’ teeth.” This is consistent with the language God used for the army of locusts which invaded the Israel of Joel’s generation: “For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness” (Joel 1:6). The symbol is that of strength and fierceness, such as are difficult to overcome.
(9) they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.
This verse is pounding the point further that this plague of people is overwhelmingly strong. They are prepared to fight with armory of iron. They are strong, and their noise is mighty. The noise of their wings alone is enough to cause so many to fear them. Josephus noted the fear which the people possessed toward the zealots: “The citizens themselves were under a terrible consternation and fear… 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” (Josephus, Wars, 5.1.5.).
(10) They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails.
See comments on verse five.
(11) They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.
See 9:1 for more comments on this angel. This angel has brought this plague upon the Jewish people just as God brought the plagues upon the Egyptians. This is judgment. We ought not accuse Satan to be behind all suffering and desolation. Have we not read the Old Testament? What did God do to the wicked world of Noah’s day? Or what happened in Sodom, Egypt, Assyria, Israel, Judah, and Babylon? Did not many suffer? Was this the cause of Satan? No, it was the judgments of God Almighty. As I mentioned in 9:1, many seek to make this angel to be a demon, or even Satan, himself, but it is more likely that God is in control of this fifth trumpet and the determined sufferings of the wicked people. What does Satan have to do with this anyway? Isn’t he interested in destroying the saints? But if the saints are not in this scene of suffering (9:4), why then is he after his own army? Certainly there are a lot of issues with forcing Satan to fit the angel of the bottomless pit.
“His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” His name given in Greek is natural for a letter that was originally written in Greek, however, why is there also the translation of his name in Hebrew? Before we get there, let’s speak English for a moment; the angels name is Destroyer. Now, what does the meaning of his name have to do with Hebrew? This is evidently pointing us in the direction of the Old Testament (which was written in Hebrew), and letting us know that we have seen this Abaddon before.
It is interesting that this reference to the Destroyer is brought up during the sounding of the seven trumpets, which have contained a lot of imagery from the plagues of Egypt. At the finale of the plagues of Egypt, Moses said “For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you” (Exodus 12:23). Moses spoke of the Destroyer coming into houses and striking firstborn ones, but the Destroyer would not come into a house where God saw blood around the door. This is an interesting thought, for in Revelation, the Destroyer unleashes the zealots to torture the unfaithful Jews, but all of the saints are unaffected by the torment, for they have the blood of Christ, our Passover; the Destroyer will not visit them.
Paul also mentions the Destroyer in 1 Corinthians 10:10, when he warns the brethren not to complain like the Israelites in the wilderness because some of them were “destroyed by the Destroyer,” referring to the event of the plague that swept through the people in Numbers fourteen.
It appears that we know this angel after all.
(12) The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.
This marks the end of the fifth trumpet, and the end of the first woe. We are reminded here that the eagle promised three woes (8:13), so that two are still to come in the sounding of the final two trumpets.