(13) Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God,
At the sounding of the sixth trumpet John hears a voice coming from the four horns of the altar. This is the same altar we saw early, which was surrounded by the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God (6:9-11). They were crying out with a loud voice, asking the Lord “how long before you will judge an avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then we see this golden altar again, in 8:3-5, when an angel offers the prayers of the saints to God before turning to cast the fires from the altar to the earth, signaling the judgment of God. This is the spot where prayers go up. This is the spot where faithful souls cry for vengeance. This is the spot where God also answers these prayers and these cries. That the altar is brought forth again in the vision is indicative of God acting in a capacity that is an answer to prayer.
(14) saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” (15) So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind.
Judgment is unfolding in the vision, but we also learn this judgment was predetermined and planned. There is nothing sudden about this! This is no quick call to bring desolation upon a people! The call to unleash judgment was to “the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates,” this means they were stationed there like military generals, waiting for the preplanned attack on the enemy.
“The great river Euphrates” has significant history with Israel. This river forms the northern and eastern border of Israel. This is where the Assyrian army crossed to lay Israel desolate and to punish Judah severely. This is where the Babylonian army crossed on several occasions and beat on Judah, and ultimately laying Judah desolate. This river is an established symbol and byword, it is a figure of God using a heathen army to make his unfaithful people desolate. This is what the Lord had warned them if they break the covenant which he made with them:
“Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young. It shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish. “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 28:47-52).
“The four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year.” That there were four angels is no surprise. Already we have seen much in the book that is fourfold and foursquare. It indicates the fullness of what is happening; God is not halfway prepared to judge the Jews, he is fully prepared. These four generals are prepared to release their troops (who we will learn about in the next verse). The text manifests how specific God is with judging a people. He hasn’t just appointed a certain year to judge, but a unique hour, in a certain day, in a certain month, that is in a certain year.
“Released to kill a third of mankind.” While God is fully prepared to judge, this does not mean that he is not finished warning the people. Even still, this is a very stern warning to kill a third of mankind (figuratively). The desolation is not complete (like it will be in chapters 18-19), this is a fraction, like in 8:7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, reminding us that we are still in the phase of the seven trumpet warnings, and we are also still in the midst of the three woes of warning. This statement speaks of a partial punishment which gives the Jews opportunity to repent (9:20-21).
(16) The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number.
The number of the troops is not 200 million as many commentators say. The number given is twice that of 10,000 times 10,000, which of course equals 200 million, but were not supposed to take it that far. If God wanted us to think of the troops as 200 million, then he would have said that. He wants us to think of them as “twice ten thousand times ten thousand.” John said: “I heard their number.” He didn’t hear 200 million! It would be 200 million if the number of the troops were literal, but this is a vision, a figure. There is symbolism of completeness in the number 10,000. There is added pressure to see the completeness of God’s army by the hefty multiplication of 10,000. So, instead of considering these troops to be 200 million and therefore a really great army, we ought to consider them as a complete army, the fullness of God’s force.
(17) And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. (18) By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.
Who are these “mounted troops” of verse sixteen on these terrifying horses of verse seventeen? Many have guess that they are the Romans, which is partly accurate, however, we are missing the point if we walk away from this thinking that the sixth trumpet is the Romans. No, this is about the Lamb. The description of these troops, being “twice ten thousand times ten thousand” is not a fitting numerical for the Roman army, but with the Lamb and his armies of heaven (19:14), the Roman army can have this likeness. As grand and as strong as the Romans were, they could not live up to these figurative details unless the Lamb was using them for his own utility. God did a similar thing with the Babylonian army in Habakkuk 1:7-11:
“They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
Without God’s permission, there is nothing that man can do, no matter how great and mighty they think they are (remember Goliath?). But if God is using them to accomplish his purpose, there is no stopping them. That is what we are seeing in the details of both the Babylonian army and the Roman army! They are depicted as otherworldly, because the fierceness of the wrath of God is leading them. Who can stand?
“They wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur.” The color of their armor reflects what they will accomplish: “fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” Their breastplates are tri-colored. First, there is orange, referring to the fire which they will bring down on the people. Second is sapphire, which is a deep blue, a figure of the dark smoke that will fill the sky. Third, there is bright yellow, referring to the sulfur raining down God’s judgment.
“By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed.” The fire, smoke, and sulfur are three plagues coming from the mouths of the horses. This is more classic language symbolizing the truth that God is bringing judgment upon the people. The idea that “a third of mankind” was killed is discussed in back in verse fifteen.
(19) For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.
The power is in both their mouths and their tails. The mouths (and the heads) of the horses were previously described as that of a lion (v.17). As this exceedingly great army charges against Jerusalem, their power is in their fierceness and strength like the jaws of a lion, and with their roar they send forth desolation.
“Their tails are like serpents with heads.” This is a new detail provided near the end. The horses also have tails that look like snakes. They not only look like snakes, but they act in that capacity as well. The snake-like tails have heads, and by use of their snake-like heads they hurt men.
Therefore, this great army of horses (and their riders which we hear almost nothing about) is described as having two heads, one in front and one behind. Each head has the power to harm. There is no escaping these horsemen. They will get you with the plagues coming out of their mouths, but if you dodge that, the coiled snake we strike from behind. God will accomplish his purpose with them.
(20) The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, (21) nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
With the conclusion of the sixth trumpet, God’s warnings to the people are running out and their day of reckoning is quickly approaching; but there is no response from the Jewish people. It seems that they have become like those of Noah’s days, when “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Josephus, the Jewish historian, also believed that God was punishing the Jews for their sins; he remarks that they were so blind and miserable that they could not see the signs of the coming destruction, nor call to mind the Old Testament prophecies regarding the destruction, nor could they see that God had been reproving them.
“Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself. While they did not attend, nor give credit to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation. But like men infatuated, without either eyes to see, or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them” (Josephus, Wars, 6.5.3).