Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.Revelation 9:2
Milton alludes to this passage in the great apostrophe towards the close of his Reformation in England, where he invites the Triune God on behalf of England's peace and purity. 'Look upon this, Thy poor and almost spent and expiring Church, leave her not thus a prey to these importunate wolves, that wait and think long till they devour Thy tender flock; these wild boars that have broke into Thy vineyard, and left the print of their polluting hoofs upon the souls of Thy servants. O let them not bring about their damned designs, that stand now at the entrance of the bottomless pit, expecting the watchword to open, and let out those dreadful locusts and scorpions, to reinvolve us in that pitchy cloud of infernal darkness, where we shall never more see the sun of Thy truth again, never hope for the cheerful dawn, never more hear the bird of morning sing. Be moved with pity at the afflicted state of this our shaken monarchy, that now lies labouring under her throes, and struggling against the grudges of more dreaded enemies.'
If God permit the lid of evil to be lifted as a test or as a punishment, the key remains in His hand to secure that lid again when He will. But if I lift any lid of evil, I have no power to shut off the dire escape from myself or from others: death and defilement I may let loose, but I cannot recapture.
—C. G. ROSSETTI.
Revelation 9:3 f
Coleridge, in his second Lay Sermon, sees political empirics, demagogues, and 'noisy and calumnious zealots' in the figures which 'St. John beheld in the apocalyptic vision as a compound of locust and scorpion. They are not,' he continues, 'of one place or of one season. They are the perennials of history; and though they may disappear for a time, they exist always in the egg, and need only a distempered atmosphere and an accidental ferment to start up into life and activity.' In a subsequent note he toys with the fancy that no other images 'could form more appropriate and significant exponents of a seditious and riotous multitude, with the mob-orators, their heads or leaders, than the thousands of pack-horses with heads resembling those of a roaring wild beast, with smoke, fire, and brimstone (that is, empty, unintelligible, incendiary, calumnious, and offensively foul language) issuing from their mouth'.
The Fictions of Sin
These mystical locusts have been very differently construed by various scholars, but it will be better and safer for us to agree that they personify the lusts and passions which destroy the soul, and which therefore destroy all things. The text suggests that sin effects great things, that it promises great things, and yet fails to give what it promises. The crown it boasts is not real, solid, golden, but a mere figure of speech—'as it were'. There is a terrible irony in sin.
I. There is no reality in the greatness that men seek in the spirit of selfishness and lust. Take a selfish conqueror, of whom Napoleon is the type. Take a selfish poet, and let Byron be our typical instance. Whatever is built on egotism, violence, covetousness, or any other form and quality of unrighteousness, inherits only an apparitional crown.
II. There is no reality in the wealth that is obtained unrighteously or used selfishly. (1) Look at illegitimate wealth—wealth gotten by immoral means. (2) And there is much the same deception and disappointment in all unspiritual wealth. Balzac built himself a splendid mansion, but when it was finished he had no money left wherewith to furnish it, and so he proceeded to furnish it in imagination: here, according to a ticket, hung a great picture, there stood a rich cabinet, yonder a superb table—the place fluttered with labels, but the realities were missing. It is much the same with the selfish, unspiritual rich. They have certificates, title deeds, receipts, parchments, bank books declaring the soundness of their investments, the reality of their estate, but their wealth is no fact in their deepest life, there is no corresponding sentiment in their brain and heart. Have no unrighteous wealth; it will only deceive and curse you.
III. There is no reality in the pleasure that sin promises. Seek genuine, solid satisfactions. During his last days Verlaine, the brilliant French poet, was occupied in covering the squalid furniture of his squalid rooms with gold paint. The reason of the poor fellow was gone, and it pleased his wild eye and disordered fancy to reckon the worthless furniture of his miserable lodging as the golden furniture of palaces. So the distempered soul drugged with the opium of vanity and passion looks upon base, vulgar, ugly, and ruinous things and habits as altogether beautiful and precious. But Verlaine's yellow furniture did not sell for gold, and the day inevitably comes when those who have lived a worldly and godless life awake to the vanity of the things and pursuits for which they gave and suffered so much. It is in the truth and grace and power of God in Christ that we realise all the rich and enduring satisfactions of the heart. There is no 'as it were' in Him. No mimic crown, no ghostly garland, no mocking prize.
—W. L. Watkinson, The Blind Spot, p. 267.
The Craft and Cruelty of Sin
Conspicuous in the Apocalypse are many strange creatures—locusts like horses, great dragons having seven heads and ten horns, a beast rising out of the sea having seven heads and ten horns, 'and the beast was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion'. The grotesque imagery of the Apocalypse has a moral significance which, above all things, must be fully understood and applied. These mixed, bizarre, inconceivable creatures—exaggerated scorpions, red dragons, huge locusts, and serpents represent the various forms and powers of evil, and they must be so interpreted. Let us therefore expound the text In this special light, and broadly consider its teachings on the craft and cruelty of sin.
I. The Craft of Sin.—'They had hair as the hair of women.' The soft, silken, shiny hair stands for the speciousness and persuasiveness of temptation. Evil circumvents us with deep and delicate snares, until even those who walk warily hardly walk surely. (1) Sometimes it affects the guise of love. (2) Sin often identifies itself with beauty. (3) Evil often assumes the festal aspect. (4) Sin often glides in as fashion. (5) Sin is sometimes incarnated as glory. (6) Finally, sin appeals to us in the guise of virtue and religion. The master-stroke of evil is to play itself off as holiness and devotion. Yet let us not forget that the secret of sin's fascination is in the distempered soul itself.
II. The Cruelty of Sin.—'Their teeth were as the teeth of lions.' How sharp and startling is the contrast presented in the text—woman's hair, lion's teeth! Yes; and how sharp and startling is the contrast between the beginnings and the endings of transgression! There is no cruelty like the cruelty of sin, and no suffering like that which it occasions. (1) Let us believe in the reality and seriousness of spiritual peril. We need to get the sobering thought into our heart, and we shall get it into our heart if we live much with Christ. (2) Let us seek salvation in the Spirit and grace of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ. Such is the power of evil in" the world, and such the guile of our own heart, that we can never successfully deal with temptation by mere knowledge and natural firmness. We must be illuminated, inspired, and fortified by the spirit of God freely acting through our whole being.
—W. L. Watkinson, The Bane and the Antidote, p. 149.
References.—IX. 12.—Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 462. IX. 14.—Ibid. p. 316. IX. 20.—Ibid. (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 276. X. 5, 6.—J. C. M. Bellew, Sermons, vol. i. p. 283. Expositor (5th Series), vol. iv. p. 156.
And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.
And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.
And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.
And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.
One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter.
And 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 which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates.
And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.
And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.
And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.
By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.
For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.
And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:
Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.