The statistics are staggering. 10,623 casualties in the Revolutionary War. 6,765 casualties in the War of 1812. 17,435 casualties in the Mexican War. 970,227 casualties in the Civil War. 4,108 casualties in the Spanish-American War. 320,710 casualties in World War I. 1,078,162 casualties in World War II. 136,935 casualties in the Korean War. 211,471 casualties in the Vietnam War. 760 casualties in the Gulf War. And of course the numbers are still growing in the War on Terror. The numbers add up to 2,757,196, and that’s just American casualties! Expand those statistics to include the entire world, and the estimates reach over 200,000,000 casualties in the twentieth century alone! Expand those statistics all the way back to the time of Christ, and the numbers are mind-boggling!
When we consider the carnage of war, we begin to understand the statement “War is hell.” While we do not want to limit the horrors of hell to that which is experienced in this world, there is, nevertheless, an element of truth in that statement. The fifth and sixth trumpet blasts of Revelation 9 bring hell and war into close connection. The fifth trumpet sounds, confronting us with the unleashing of the hordes of hell, verses 1–12. The sixth trumpet sounds, confronting us with the horrors of war, verses 13–21.
The setting of the sixth trumpet blast is given in verses 13–15.
“Then the sixth angel sounded: And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’” The sixth trumpet is introduced by a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God. The sixth angel is commanded to release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.
The Four Angels
We have seen the significance of the number four in the book of Revelation: it indicates universality—the four corners of the earth, the four points of the compass. The significance of the four angels here is in the far-reaching sweep of their work. The work of these four angels will affect all the earth. Nothing will be left unaffected. No one will be left untouched. The work of these four angels is as extensive as the earth itself.
These four angels, we are told, are to be released from their bondage. They will come from beyond the great river Euphrates, that river that played such an important role in the history of Israel. The Assyrians came from beyond the Euphrates to rape and pillage the northern tribes of Israel, carrying them away into exile in 722 BC. The Babylonians came from beyond the Euphrates to rape and pillage the southern tribes of Judah, carrying them away into exile in 586 BC. Both came from beyond the river Euphrates as the implements of God’s judgment and wrath. They came as the rod of God to punish and inflict with untold carnage and casualty.
The imagery is clear. War is in view! The sixth trumpet blast has in view wars and rumors of wars— wars and rumors of wars that affect all the earth—wars and rumors of wars that touch all mankind. The sixth trumpet blast confronts us with the bloodbath of war, even the killing of a third of mankind.
Such large-scale butchery requires a vast army, and it is a vast army set before us here. John sees this mighty army, now released, riding forth, and he is astounded—astounded not by what he sees, for it is too vast to comprehend, but astounded by what he hears, for what he hears is the number of the horsemen. “The number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred million!” Note, that is just the horsemen! The cavalry alone numbers 200,000,000! That is only a small percentage of the army as a whole! This army is great! This army is vast! It is the consummate army!
The sixth trumpet has in view the totality of war from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His return. William Hendriksen writes: “The sixth trumpet describes war; not one particular war is indicated, but all wars, past, present, and future.” Here, then, is a composite picture of all wars that have occurred on the face of the earth from the time of Christ’s incarnation, and that will continue to occur until the time of His return: from the Barbarian sack of Rome to the Crusades; from the Hundred Years War between England and France to the Wars of the Ottoman Empire; from St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in France to the Spanish Armada; from the wars of Ivan the Terrible in Russia to the wars of Napoleon; from the American Revolution to the French Revolution; from World War I to World War II; from Mussolini to Stalin; from Hitler to Pol Pot; from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein; and on it goes.
The War Machine
In war we see the depravity of man’s heart. As Hendriksen remarks: “And now the same powers of darkness that carry on the work of destruction in the hearts of men change men into devils, as it were. For in times of war wicked men seem to become incarnate demons.” Such a description seems warranted based on the description of the army given in verses 17-19: “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. 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. 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.”
So perfect is this war machine that there is almost complete identification between the horses and the riders. They are united in purpose. They are united as to their intent. They are united to rape, pillage, wound, and kill. This is the bloodshed of war. This is the brutality and the carnage of war.
There is a constant emphasis upon that which proceeds from the mouth: out of the mouths of the horses came “fire, smoke, and brimstone” (v. 17). “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” (v. 18). “Their power is in their mouth” (v. 19). Why the emphasis upon the mouth? Because with the mouth they deceive! You know the deception that is war! One War was even dubbed “The War to End All Wars”!
Now of course, there are times when war is necessary and just. The government does not bear the sword for nothing. Yet even when it is necessary it is always horrific! Need we look at the statistics again? The victims may be only numbers to us, but each one had a father; each one had a mother; many had wives; many had husbands; many had children. They marched off to war, and never came marching home again… Such is the horror of war: it wipes out a third of mankind.
But then remember, we are still dealing with the trumpets. And what is the role of the trumpets, but to warn? The trumpets have been sounding from the time of Christ’s first coming until now, and they will continue to sound until the last trumpet, when Christ returns. We are still dealing with the trumpets; we are still dealing with God’s warnings.
That this sixth trumpet blast is intended as God’s warning to the world is evident from the result listed in verses 20–21: “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. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
The sixth trumpet sounds forth; it has been sounding from the time of Christ’s first coming, and will continue to sound until the time of Christ’s return. And what is the result? Man does not repent. World War I was fought, and only a generation later, World War II. World War II was fought, and only a generation later, Korea and Vietnam. Korea and Vietnam were fought and only a generation later the Gulf War. When America suffered through the terrorist attacks of September 11, there followed not only a renewed patriotism, but also many calls for our nation to return to God. Now, as we continue in the war on terror, not only has the patriotism of our country diminished, but the calls for our nation to return to God have been forgotten! The warning of the sixth trumpet goes unheeded! War does not lead to repentance!
Wars and rumors of wars ravage the earth, decimating mankind. Yet man does not heed the warning. Man does not repent. Could it be that we have simply become too familiar with the words: “terrorist attack”, “genocide”, “ethnic cleansing”, and “war”? Could it be that we have simply become callous to such things? We hear the daily reports of another American serviceman killed in Iraq, and we grieve for the family for a few moments, but then move on with our daily routines, proving that we remain unmoved. Yet each serviceman had a father and mother; many of them had a wife; many of them had children. Now they have become a statistic to add to the ever growing list. Yet each number had a name; each number had a face; each number had a family; each number had loved ones; each number had a life. Now each number lies dead. Do you remain unmoved?
You read the books on war; do you remain unmoved? You see movies depicting the carnage of war; do you remain unmoved? You tour the battlefields of Gettysburg; do you remain unmoved? You walk the beaches of Normandy; do you remain unmoved?! You run your hand over the countless names on the walls of the Vietnam Memorial; do you remain unmoved? You walk between the tombstones in Arlington Cemetery; do you remain unmoved? You stand with a small crowd at the cemetery on Memorial Day morning, the cold rain causing you to shiver, you watch the officer raise the trumpet to his lips, you hear him sound the plaintive notes of that sorrowful song “Taps”; the notes seem to linger in the air; do you remain unmoved?
You read Revelation 9:13–21 and you learn that each war, each rumor of war, each casualty is God’s trumpet blast warning the world of the judgment to come. Do you remain unmoved? Or are you so moved as to repent of your sin and seek your refuge in God alone? May God grant that it be so. For even as we consider this sixth trumpet blast in all of its horror, there is comfort for the saints of God. Remember from whence the voice arises summoning the sixth angel to sound: “Then the sixth angel sounded: and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God.” The voice originates from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God.
The Place of Refuge
In Old Testament times, a person looking for refuge and safety would flee into the tabernacle or temple, lay hold of the horns of the altar, bringing himself under the protection of God. It was as if God Himself were spreading His wings over him for his protection! So we are reminded that in Christ Jesus, we dwell beneath the shadow of the Almighty. We are reminded that in Christ Jesus, the living God Himself is our strong habitation. We are reminded that in Christ Jesus, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?”
Remember the words of verse 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.” The angels are prepared for the hour and day and month and year. In view here is not the hour and day and month and year of one particular battle; rather, the time references here are intended to impress upon you the sovereignty of God, who has ordained not only the year of each and every war, but the month, and not only the month of each and every war, but also the day, and not only the day of each and every war, but also the hour. God is, and ever remains, upon the throne.
The Lord knows those who are His, and should their lives be taken in battle, their death is precious in His sight, and though they die, they continue to live. The sword cannot separate the Christian from the love of God in Jesus Christ. War cannot separate the Christian from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yes, even in war, the Christian remains more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ!
Rev. Brian Vos is the Pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.