Summary: As terrifying as the monsters are that beset the faithful, God has given us an impregnable defense.
Are any of you wondering how on earth I am going to get from an army of invading locusts to Mother’s Day? I asked a colleague that question while I was up in NY last week at a conference on domestic violence, and she said, “That’s easy. It’s when your teenage boys bring their friends home for dinner.” I must admit I hadn’t thought of that. But there is a link, believe it or not.
This passage includes both the fifth and sixth trumpets, which as you may recall are part of what happens when Jesus opens the seventh and last seal on the scroll which reveals the whole plan of God to the waiting saints and angels. It features two armies, one of locusts which looked sort of like horses and one of horses with riders. Commentators can’t agree on whether these are human or demonic invaders. As usual, I think both interpretations are partially true.
The falling star that begins the passage may represent an angel’s moral fall - perhaps even Lucifer’s fall at the beginning of it all. In Isaiah he’s referred to as a fallen star, and remember, God’s time is not at all like ours. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a dramatic sign of descent from the heights of heaven to the opening of the dark world where evil lives. The people of John’s day would have believed that there was an actual place where the souls of evil beings were
imprisoned, and the fact that the locusts seem to appear out of the smoke that rises from the Abyss seems to give weight to the view that this is a demonic army.
And their description is hardly natural: Almost all of the mythologies of the day combined creatures to create even more terrifying supernatural images, mixing horses and humans and scorpions and so on. Besides, real locusts eat plants. These locusts are explicitly told not to hurt the growing things, but to sting people like scorpions. Another puzzling thing is that this army of locust/ scorpion/
horses only stings the people who don’t belong to God. Usually when one thinks of spiritual warfare one expects it to between good and evil, but here it’s between evil and not-quite-so-evil. But if you stop to think about it. It actually makes a certain amount of sense. God often uses great evil to turn a stampede, just as he used the Assyrians to get the Israelites’ attention.
On the other hand, some people think that this army refers to one of Rome’s enemies on their eastern frontier, the Parthians, with God using one set of bad guys to wipe out another set of bad guys to leave the stage clear for the good guys to mop up. But does it matter? The whole point is that God is control even over the extent to which evil is given room to operate, that the saints will be protected, and that the time they have to run loose is limited to a relatively short period. Of course, relatively short in God’s eyes can seem pretty long in ours.
Some modern scholars think these locusts sound an awful lot like Cobra helicopters with nerve gas in the tails. Well, that might be a bit of a stretch if we try to take that literally. But think about it - it is a modern equivalent of the terrifying reality of war’s destruction, so the image is valid - even if it’s not precise.
But then another army shows up, when the sixth trumpet is blown. This time it is more likely to make John’s readers think of the Parthians, because he mentions the river Euphrates - remember the Euphrates? That’s in Iraq, south of Baghdad. The Parthians came from the same area as the Babylonians and the Assyrians... Isn’t it amazing how often the same places pop up in Biblical history?
Anyway, as powerful as Rome was, they were never able to defeat the Parthian Empire. They held it back at the frontiers, but they could never keep it down.
Now, are the invaders from the east which John sees in his vision Rome’s first century enemy the Parthians? Are they Muslim armies that nibbled away at the borders of the Byzantine Empire from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries? Or the Mongol horde that conquered Russia in the thirteenth? Could they be the Islamic terrorists we face today? Or are they something else altogether? Yes. I believe that they are "all of the above."
Now, as Paul says in his second letter to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” [2 Tim 3:16] So we know that this has something to say to us. And no, it doesn’t mean that the ancient empire of Parthia is going to be revived and sent against a new Roman empire, although that’s argued in some circles. No, what it means is no enemy, no matter how frightening, can operate outside