“But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk.” Revelation 9:20
When you hear the word “idolatry,” what images come to your mind? You may picture people bowing before gold, silver, or bronze statues representing gods or goddesses. Or perhaps you think of grotesque wooden or stone gargoyle-like figures often excavated by archaeologists. Some of you may associate idolatry with offering incense at the graves of dead ancestors or bowing down before their bones or ashes. Although some cultures and religions around the world observe such practices, that does not mean we are off the hook if we do not participate in these customs. 1
The truth is all of us are guilty of idolatry. Think about this depiction of idolatry in our society:
“Idolatry in our society is not so obvious but is just as real as it was in John’s day. By definition idolatry is turning an earthly thing into a god and worshiping it rather than the God of creation. Whatever we place ahead of God in our lives is our idol. Therefore, the modern world is replete with idols: money, possessions, power, pleasure, sex, success, fame, drugs. These are all tools of Satan, and there are countless stories in which these very things have tortured and killed those who pursue them. We must warn people of the cosmic powers in control of this secular world and call them to God.” 2
If you are still not convinced that you are guilty of idolatry, let me ask you a question or two. Where do you turn when you are anxious, hurting, lonely, stressed, or even wanting to celebrate? Some people look to alcohol, anger, cell phones, drugs, fame, fantasy, food, a hobby, material possessions, money, pornography, a romantic relationship, a shopping spree, sports, or their work to avoid unwanted feelings, memories, or thoughts or to celebrate an accomplishment. When we turn to these people or things instead of to God, we are practicing idolatry.
If we pursue these idols long enough and hard enough, they can harden our hearts and lead us to reject God. Rejecting God will lead to an ungodly lifestyle (Romans 1:18-32) which will either lead to discipline from a loving heavenly Father, if we are His children (Hebrews 12:5-11), or to wrath from a righteous divine Judge, if we are unbelievers (Revelation 9:13-21). 3
The book of Revelation records the coming wrath of God upon unsaved humanity because of their rejection of God and their practice of idolatry. As God’s judgments increase in severity, we might expect people to soften toward God and repent. But that is not the case. As God’s judgments increase in intensity throughout the book of Revelation, so does the rebellion of humankind.
Following the fifth trumpet judgment which unleashed across the face of the earth an army of demonic locusts from the abyss to torment people with a sting like that of a scorpion’s (9:1-12), the apostle John records the sixth trumpet judgment (9:13-21). “13 Then the sixth angel sounded: And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, 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 and day and month and year, were released to kill a third of mankind.” (Revelation 9:13-15). When “the sixth angel” blew his trumpet, John “heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar” (9:13). We saw earlier that the prayers of the saints were mingled with incense and ascended to God at this altar (cf. Revelation 8:3-4). Since this altar is associated with the prayers of God’s people, the voice from the altar may represent the next trumpet judgment that comes because of these prayers. 4
The voice told “the sixth angel” to “release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” (9:14). These four angelic creaturesmust be fallen angels because God’s angels are not bound (cf. Revelation 20:1-3; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). Scripture does not say when or why God bound these angels, but it would seem He restricted them as punishment. Perhaps He put them in prison when Satan rebelled against Him. 5
It is very significant that the scene of this judgment is “at the great river Euphrates” which flows through the heart of the Middle East. “Both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers originate in modern-day Turkey. The Euphrates snakes through Syria, flows straight through the center of Iraq, and then joins the Tigris before emptying into the Persian Gulf.” 6 Much of the book of Revelation revolves around the nation of Israel and its surrounding nations.
“The four angels bound at the Euphrates may be the spiritual powers of wickedness that stand behind four nations that will oppose God and His people during the coming Tribulation. Today the nations directly associated with the Euphrates River are Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. We can’t be sure what nations will exist in the future, but it may be that political borders before or during the Tribulation will change… Their power to influence the world may be limited today, but during the Tribulation the divine restraints will be lifted.” 7
The release of these four angels to execute this judgment will take place in God’s time for a specific “hour and day and month and year” (9:15). Notice that even the judgments directed by Satan are carried out under God’s authority.For over a period of thirteen months these angels will “kill a third of mankind.”
“The fourth seal (Revelation 6:7-8) resulted in a fourth of the earth’s people being killed. Here a third of the remainder were put to death. These two judgments alone, disregarding all intervening judgments, would account for the death of half the earth’s population. This fact is to be taken literally as it confirms the statement by Daniel (Daniel 12:1) and the words of Christ (Matthew 24:21) that the Great Tribulation will be without precedent and would end in the death of all mankind if it were not stopped by His second coming (Matt. 24:22).” 8
“Now the number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them.” (Revelation 9:16). These four angels would lead an “army” of “horsemen” numbering “two hundred million.” Some Bible students think these “horsemen” refer to a massive human army with modern-day weaponry. 9 But I believe these “horsemen” probably refer to the same demons associated with the fifth trumpet judgment (9:1-11). Hitchcock shares five reasons why this army is to be identified as an army of demons:
“First, the unleashing of this army is the sixth trumpet judgment. The fifth trumpet judgment is clearly a demonic invasion of earth, and the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments go together since they are the first two of three terrors’ (Revelation 8:13).
“Second, fallen angels lead this armada just like they do in the fifth trumpet judgment. Thus, since the leaders are four demons, it makes sense that the troops they are leading are also demons (Revelation 9:15).
“Third, the fearsome description in Revelation 9:17-19 fits supernatural beings much better than modern warfare.
“Fourth, there are other examples in Scripture of supernatural armies of cavalry. Horses of fire swept Elijah up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). Horses and chariots of fire protected Elisha at Dothan (2 Kings 6:13-17). Heavenly horses and horsemen from the celestial realm introduce the reign of Christ (Revelation 19:14). The Lord Himself will return riding on a white horse (Revelation 19:11). It seems logical that Satan would parody the coming of the Kingdom with his own infernal cavalry.
“Fifth, the weapons—fire, brimstone, and smoke—are always supernatural weapons in the Bible, and Revelation associates them with hell four times (14:10-11; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8).” 10
This massive demonic army will serve again as instruments of judgment. As with the fifth trumpet, the agents of judgment here are described in terms of horses (cf. 9:7). 11 The combined Allied and Axis forces, at their peak in World War II, totaled about 70 million. 12 An angelic army of 200,000,000 demons is not hard to imagine. 13
The apostle John’s description of this demonic army is just as symbolic as his description of locusts in 9:7-10. Hence, the various elements described here are designed to portray the activity of the army, rather than depict how it will appear. 14
“17 And thus I saw the horses in the vision: those who sat on them had breastplates of fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulfur yellow; and the heads of the horses were like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and brimstone. 18 By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed—by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which came out of their mouths.” (Revelation 9:17-18). The horses and riders were covered with humanly indestructible red, blue (“hyacinth”), and yellow “breastplates; and the heads of the horses” were like “lions” – fierce and destructive. John declares that “out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and brimstone” which describes the extremely destructive nature of their attacks against people. The locusts of verse 10 could only inflict pain, but these demonic creatures have the power to kill, so that they destroy “one third of mankind.” 15
“Fire,” “smoke,” and “brimstone” are natural elements that God used to bring judgment in the past during similar situations (cf. Genesis 19:24, 28). So, the Lord may use them again, or they may represent other agents of destruction. “Plagues” are reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7:14ff; cf. Revelation 9:20; 11:6; 13:3, 12, 14; 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21; 18:4, 8; 21:9; 22:18). The repetition of the definite article “the” in the Greek text (tou) denotes that these are three distinct plagues. Together they will cause the largest death toll in human history so far (cf. 9:15). 16
“For their power is in their mouth and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they do harm.” (Revelation 9:19). This added description of the horses’ “power” being “in their mouth and in their tails” supports the conclusion that they represent demonic instruments of divine judgment other than natural horses. Some interpreters have suggested they represent modern weapons that shoot both forward and backward like missiles. The locusts had the “power” to hurt people “like scorpions” with “their tails” (9:10), but these horses have “power” to “kill… like serpents” with their “mouths and . . . tails,” which is even worse (cf. 9:15). 17
Catastrophic images may fill our minds as we try to imagine the chaos, confusion, grief, and overwhelming shock that will sweep across the earth at that time. What humans have experienced in natural disasters, military strikes, and terrorist attacks will be completely forgotten in light of these unprecedented events. Considering that a fourth of mankind will be killed during the fourth seal judgment (6:7-8) and another third will be lost to this massive army in the sixth trumpet judgment (9:13-19), we can estimate that over half of the world’s population will be eradicated and sent to meet their Creator and Judge by that time. 18 Nevertheless, many people will survive this blitzkrieg. What will happen to those who live through this onslaught? Will they look to their Maker and repent or change their mind so they can believe in the coming King and enter His coming kingdom on earth (cf. Mark 1:15; John 3:5-16)?
John writes, “20 But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Revelation 9:20-21). These three severe judgments (fire, smoke, brimstone) which resulted in the death of over half of the human population (6:8; 9:15) will not move the remaining unbelievers to “repent of the works of their hands” involving the worship of “idols” and “demons” who were responsible for their sufferings under the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments (9:20). Nor did these remaining unbelievers “repent of their murders or their sorceries.” The Greek word translated “sorceries” (pharmakon) implies the use of drugs. “The English word ‘pharmacy’ comes from it. The Greek word can refer to poisons, amulets, charms, magic spells, witchcraft, or any other object or practice that makes someone susceptible to sin (cf. Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 1 Samuel 28:7; Acts 8:9; 13:8; 19:13-15), and thus could be included as a form of idolatry.” 19
“Stupefying and hallucinatory drugs have been associated with sorcery and witchcraft for ages, yielding to their users’ strange visions and hallucinations, which they could interpret as oracles for the guidance of their clients. Also, they divested their users of the control of their own minds, making them easily available for possession and control by evil spirits.” 20
“As difficult as it is to believe, most people living during this awful time of judgment will become even more hardened against God. They will stubbornly hold onto their demon worship and idolatry (9:20). They will refuse to repent from murder, sorcery, immorality, and theft (9:21). In short, the survivors of the first several judgments will close their ears to God’s message of mercy and grace, choosing instead to accept the wrath that will continue to increase in severity.” 21
“The anti-God movement in America today is a harbinger of this tragic reality. It used to be that atheists were quiet about their beliefs, whispering here and there. Now, though, atheists and worshipers of false gods are becoming bolder. As Romans 1:21-25 explains, when people possess ample evidence of God’s activity but fail to honor or give thanks to him, He gives them over to the just consequences of their actions. Those consequences come in the form of passive wrath during the church age, in which God’s hand of restraint and protection are removed. But during the tribulation period, His wrath will be active. You can get a lot of stuff without God—money, popularity, notoriety. However, your soul will starve without him, and eventually you will face the Lord’s judgment.” 22
The horrific trumpet judgments which will take place during the last half of the Tribulation period are intended by God to bring unsaved people to repentance so they can get right with God through faith in Jesus Christ. But by that time most of the people living on the earth will be so hardened by sin that they will not turn to the Lord in repentance even though they know their repentance would stop God’s judgments from falling upon them (8:6-9:21).
Today many people know what it takes to escape eternity in the lake of fire – believing in Jesus for everlasting life – but because they love their sin more than the Savior, they refuse to believe in Christ. They would rather enjoy a life of sinful pleasures and then suffer for eternity separated from the One who loved them so much He was willing to die for them so they might live forever with Him in His heaven.
As Christians, we can love our sin so much we refuse to turn from it even though we know it would stop God’s painful discipline in our lives (James 1:14-16). Idolatry is not limited to the end times. It is a twenty-first century challenge that all of us face. What idols are enshrined in our own lives? Is there anyone or anything in our lives that is wooing us away from single-minded devotion to the one true God? Remember that some of these things may not be sinful in themselves; however, if they drive a wedge between us and our righteous Redeemer, they become destructive to our spiritual growth. 22
Take time today to go to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to show you anything or anyone that is taking God’s rightful place in your life. Ask your heavenly Father to forgive you and help you break free from their hold on your life.
Prayer: Gracious heavenly Father, thank You for this incredible revelation concerning the sixth trumpet judgment that will take place in the last half of the Tribulation period. More shocking than the terrible slaughter of a third of humankind by this demonic army of 200 million horsemen is the hardening of hearts among the people who survive such an onslaught. This makes my heart shudder knowing that their repentance would stop Your judgments from falling upon them. Likewise, many people today know that believing in Christ alone for eternal life would rescue them from an eternity in the lake of fire yet they refuse to believe in Him because they love their sin more than the Savior who died for them so they could have eternal life the moment they believe in Him. O, Father God, please soften peoples’ hearts today so they can escape these horrific judgments in the future. For those of us who are Your children, please help our hearts to be sensitive to Yours. Show us if there is anyone or anything in our lives that is taking Your rightful place. Forgive us for turning to idols instead of to You. Please enable us to break free from their hold on our lives so we may live the lives You created us to live for Your glory. In the matchless name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
1. Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Insights on Revelation, (Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary Book 15, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014 Kindle Edition), pg. 192.
2. Ibid., pg. 192 cites Grant R. Osborne, Revelation Verse by Verse, Osborne New Testament Commentaries (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2016), pg. 388.
3. Swindoll, pg. 193.
4. Bob Vacendak; Robert Wilkin; J. Bond; Gary Derickson; Brad Doskocil; Zane Hodges; Dwight Hunt; Shawn Leach. The Grace New Testament Commentary: Revised Edition (Grace Evangelical Society, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 1533.
5. Tom Constable, Notes on Revelation, 2017 Edition, pg. 114.
6. Swindoll, pp. 193-194.
7. Ibid., pg. 195.
8. John F. Walvoord, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Editors John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, (David C Cook, 2018 Kindle Edition), pg. 164.
9. Mark Hitchcock, The End: A Complete Overview of Bible Prophecy and the End of Days (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012 Kindle Edition), pg. 355 cites Ray C. Stedman, God’s Final Word: Understanding Revelation (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1991), pp. 194-195.
10. Ibid., pg. 356.
11. Tony Evans, CSB Bibles by Holman, The Tony Evans Bible Commentary (B & H Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 2389.
12. Constable, pp. 115-116 cites The World Almanac, 1971, Edited by L. H. Long (New York: Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1970), pg. 355.
13. Constable, pg. 116, says to “recall J. R. R. Tolkien’s army of Orcs in The Lord of the Rings.”
14. Vacendak, pg. 1533.
16. Constable, pg. 116.
18. Swindoll, pg. 197.
19. Constable, pg. 117.
20. Ibid., pp. 117-118 cites Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John, Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, Reprint ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, and Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), pg. 174.
21. Swindoll, pp. 197-198.
22. Evans, pg. 2390.
23. Ibid., pg. 200.