Trumpets of Wrath (Part Three) (1 of 2)

by Roger McCay
11 September 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 9:13-21
Link to Audio Version

It is said that …

The difficulty some have in entering the doorway to the kingdom of God is like the experience of the boy who got his hand caught inside an expensive vase. His upset parents applied soap suds and cooking oil, without success. When they seemed ready to break the vase as the only way to release the hand, the frightened boy cried, ‘would it help if I let loose of the penny I’m holding?’[1]

So it is all too often with us. For unbelievers, such is their state of being. Yet, that grip on the penny can sometimes describe even us Christians. When it comes to repentance, we want the freedom of Christ, salvation and all its benefits, peace with God, joy in this life, and the hope of eternal life. But we hold tightly to our sin, even if it’s just a sin here or there, despite how worthless it is in comparison to the wealth of the Lord’s grace that awaits the repentant. And we do this despite our knowledge that our sin is an offense against the person who loves us most—the Lord himself. Indeed, paradoxically, it can be hard to repent. The allure of sin can be so captivating that it causes us, in our unrepentance, to act against common sense, persisting, even when faced with or experiencing the consequences for sin. We stubbornly hold onto that sin. We guiltily justify it. We do this knowing we need to repent. It’s a struggle, because to repent means we have to turn away from our sin. And we want the gratification of our sin despite ourselves. Such is the human heart. Who can understand it?

Now, in our passage today, in Rev. 9, the sixth trumpet is blown. The vision thus shifts from the demonic warfare unleashed with the fifth trumpet, the first woe (which God sent against Israel in the Jewish War, as we looked at a few weeks ago), and it shifts to the human warfare, which God sent against Israel, the second woe.

Of course, there is a lot of vivid symbolism in Rev. 9:13-21, and we’ll look at that a bit today. But keep in mind, this symbolism points to what, for us, are actual historic events. And the underlying reality of the vision can be simply summed up. This passage of the sixth trumpet boils down to being a dramatic and hyperbolic description of the armies (particularly the armies of the Roman Empire) that were arrayed against Jerusalem during the Jewish War (culminating in AD 70, at the siege of Jerusalem). And these armies were its instruments of justice that the Lord used to bring his wrath down upon the apostate Jews.

I could probably just stop there. That’s the answer to the riddle. But … the symbolism is not for nothing, and the reality it points to is rather fascinating. Plus, it all comes together to exhort us not to be stupid. Unlike the hard-hearted Jews, we must repent, and not be stubborn about holding on to our sin.

As a side note, due to time, I’ve had to break the sermon into two parts. Today we are going to look at vv. 9-19, as the Lord deploys his terrible instruments of his justice against the apostate Jews. Next week, Lord willing, we’ll move into vv. 20-21, with a focus on repentance.

So, let’s look at these instruments of the Lord’s justice, starting with vv. 13-14:

13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”

In v. 13, we read of “a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God.” We’ve seen the altar before, but what of these horns? And whose voice is it that we hear? First off, notice that the altar brings to mind the prayers of the martyrs of the fifth seal (“those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne”), who were under the heavenly altar, in Rev. 6:9-11. It also brings to mind the imprecatory prayers of the saints that were offered up on the heavenly altar with the incense, in Rev. 8:3-4. These prayers were cries for justice, including vindication and vengeance against the Lord’s enemies and the enemies of God’s people. I’ve spoken at length as to how the responsibility for the death of the saints, indeed the very death of the Lord Jesus, fell square on the shoulders of apostate Israel, and how Jesus had told them very specifically this justice would come down upon them—upon that very generation, the evil generation (as he put it in Matt. 12:45), the generation to whom he was speaking during his earthly ministry. So, I’m not going to go too deep into that now. But keep it in mind.

Now, the OT reference of the horns of the altar goes all the way back to Ex. 27, where the altar for the tabernacle was designed with these horns, after the heavenly pattern. There were two altars, the brazen altar (in the outer court) and the golden altar (the altar of incense) in the sanctuary. Both altars had four horns (one on each corner), and the horns came into play concerning the purification and the forgiveness of sin. At the brazen altar, the sin offering for an individual was given, with the blood of sacrifice put on the horns. At the golden altar, the blood of the purification offering for the priests and for the whole nation was likewise put on the horns. I’ll let you dig into the Pentateuch for all the details.

But here, in Rev. 9, we have a voice coming from the horns of the heavenly altar. Now, my thought is that this points directly to the Lamb of God, the perfect and final sacrifice, whose blood was shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins of all who believe, and thus repent. What blood from any other sacrifice would have been put upon the horns of the heavenly altar (in either a figurative or literal sense)? Heb. 10:12-14:

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

So you see, the voice from the four horns was the Lord Jesus’s voice, tied to the blood of his sacrifice (murdered by the Jews). Thus, it was the Lamb who was slain, the only one worthy of opening the scroll, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, who gave the command for the carrying out the wrath of justice, in v. 14: “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”

Thus, armies of conquest were unleashed against Israel (hearkening to the first horseman, from the first seal, in Rev. 6:2). What then is the significance of the four angels who were bound and also the significance of the Euphrates River? There is a lot of speculation as to the answer of these, but I’ll try to hone in on some relevant ideas that fit the whole thrust of Revelation, as we’ve seen up to this point.

The four bound angels are evocative in their connotations. There is symbolism with the number four, particularly tied to angels, with the four winds, and four corners of the earth, in Rev. 7:1—indicating the whole world, even the heavens. This idea is in harmony with the term “the four winds” in the OT prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah, and how Jesus used the term in Matt. 24, in his Olivet Discourse. In Rev. 7, “the four angels standing at the four corners of the earth” were “holding back the four winds of the earth,” symbolic for holding back the forces of God’s wrath against Israel, until the Lord had sealed his people.

Now, it has been suggested that the four angels, in Rev. 9, were fallen angels, as they were bound and due to the pagan nature of the armies they represent, and that may be the case (although I’m not wholly convinced).[2] Regardless, here, and I think the focus, is the sense of unleashing. The wrath that was held back, in Rev. 7, is now released, and the angels of the forces arrayed against Israel set about their task of bringing their portion of God’s wrath upon Israel.

These forces are also representative of the whole world coming against Israel (“whole world” in the sense Paul used it in Rom. 10:18) … coming against Israel, gathered under the eagle of the armies of the Roman Empire. And note that the forces of Rome were not just made up of Romans. The army included auxiliaries gathered from different provinces (formerly nations), which Rome had subdued and brought into its empire. Tacitus explains in his Histories, “Titus Caesar … began to enjoy greater power and reputation, for provinces and armies now vied with one another in enthusiasm for him.”[3] So, the armies coming against the Jews, invading the Promised Land (the target of God’s wrath), were made up of nations from throughout the Roman Empire. Indeed, they were enthusiastic in their participation of destroying the nation of Israel.

The river Euphrates is also symbolic, with some literal elements. You may recall that it was the original boundary of the Promised Land, which God granted to Abraham and which God gave to Israel (Gen. 15:18; Deut. 11:24; Josh. 1:4). At the time of the events Revelation speaks to, during the Jewish War, the Euphrates River formed the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire. The river also had connotations tied to Israel’s spotted history. The prophets sometimes referred to the Euphrates River, signifying Assyria or Babylon (Isa. 7:20; 8:7; Jer. 46:10). Along these lines, as Philip Carrington has said, “From the River Euphrates had come Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, destroyers of Samaria and Jerusalem; by now the Euphrates has become a mere symbol for the quarter from which judgment is to come on Jerusalem.”[4] Thus, the reference John makes instantly brings to mind fierce empires sending armies against Israel as instruments of God’s judgment, justice, and wrath, in total conquest.

And much like the destruction to which the Euphrates hearkened, so came the armies of the Roman Empire during the Jewish War. And it should be no surprise, by now, that this hearkens back to the number four. It may be significant that the Romans had four legions of soldiers stationed at the Euphrates. Tacitus, in his Annals describes their deployment, “Beginning with Syria, all within the entire tract of country stretching as far as the Euphrates, was kept in restraint by four legions.”[5] And Josephus also records that Titus was followed by “three thousand drawn from … the river Euphrates.”[6]

But before we get to the description of the mighty army of Rome, in Rev. 9, take a look at v. 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.”

Here we see that the mission of the four angels (carried out by the armies of Rome) was under the Lord’s sovereign control. And they were operating according to his sovereign plan and preordination. They were “prepared,” which would include divine planning, empowerment, and emplacement, in order to attack Israel at a preordained time designated by the Lord—“prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year.” And like the demons had constraints to their operations, in their attack upon the Jews, these armies had constraints placed upon them by the Lord. But, in contrast to the demons, these constraints did allow for the killing of a certain number of the people of Israel, symbolically spoken of here as “a third” of the people. And note that “mankind” is not the best translation of the Greek, here in v. 15 (due to context). The word is literally “the men” (τῶν ἀνθρώπων), and an acceptable translation, perhaps preferable, is “the people.” So, “a third of the people,” meaning the people of Israel; the conquest would not involve killing all the people, but it would involve the killing of a significant portion of them.

Now, let’s take a look at the might and terror of the conquering army, symbolically described in vv. 16-19. Verse 16: “The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number.”

So, the number given of the mounted troops of the army is astronomical. If you do the math you’ll see “twice ten thousand times ten thousand” equals 200,000,000. It is estimated that the entire population of the world, in the first century, was 200,000,000, so it is an inconceivable number of troops, especially to a first-century reader. And this army would march “soon,” as the time was “near,” meaning shortly after John recorded his vision, circa. AD 65 (Rev. 1:1, 3). The number also hearkens to the incalculable number of Daniel, in Dan. 7:10, and to the Psalmist’s numbering of the chariots of God, in Ps. 68:17—symbolic numbers expressing an innumerable multitude. Thus, 200,000,000 is obviously a completely symbolic number in this highly symbolic book, given for dramatic impact. The point of the number was to emphasize the vast size and strength of the army coming against Israel, a force that their tiny nation had absolutely no possible chance of countering, especially since God was sending these forces against them. Like Ken Gentry put it, “It’s as if there were 200 million soldiers out there, ready to attack.”[7]

John next gives us a description of this overwhelming, powerful army. Verses 17-19:

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 [also translated as hyacinth] 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. 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 language John uses here is dramatic, not literal (like the beast in Dan. 7:7), but the image portrayed gives the attacking army the sense of a beautiful terror. Beautiful, with the colors of their breastplates harmonizing with the colors of the plagues of war coming out of their mouths. Milton Terry observes, “The fire would represent red, the yellow hyacinth a dark blue like that of smoke, and the brimstone a yellow color.” [8] The colors are magnificent, but the effect is monstrous, with the horses having the fearsome heads of lions breathing the plagues of the destruction of war. And in such a way, according to the Lord Jesus’ command, a third of the people were killed.

As for v. 19, it has the effect of saying, as Terry points out: “They spread destruction before them and behind them.”[9] And note, also, how John hearkens to Joel 2:3, which says, concerning the armies of the nations that would bring destruction upon Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.: “Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.”

So, does the Roman Army fit this description? I’ve mentioned the ties with Euphrates, but those ties are largely circumstantial. Yet, by this description (vv. 17-19), was the Roman Army so mighty and terrible?

History tells us it was. Books have been written on this fact. Rome’s army was one of the most powerful and formidable forces in the history of mankind, particular to their age. They are the reason the Roman Empire overcame nation after nation, building a massive empire that lasted over a thousand years.[10]

Josephus (who fought against and then spent time with the army) tells us, “The Roman power became invincible, chiefly by their readiness in obeying orders, and the constant exercise of their arms.”[11] As Gentry points out, “The Roman Army was the first professional military by any empire. They were paid; they retired after 20 years’ service; and they had professional training; they had arms supplied to them; they constantly were going through training; they were a professional army.”[12] Today, we see that as normal, for it is how we are here in the U.S., but back then that was revolutionary, and it put Rome as number one. Nations with non-professional forces had no chance whatsoever, like the provincials of Palestine.

With the description of the breastplates, in Rev. 9:17, we note that the Roman infantry and cavalry both wore breastplates. Josephus: “the soldiers … marched with their breastplates on; as did the horsemen lead their horses in their fine trappings.”[13] And he goes on to describe the cavalry’s trappings:

The horsemen have a long sword on their right sides, and a long pole in their hand: a shield also lies by them obliquely on one side of their horses, with three or more darts that are borne in their quiver, having broad points, and no smaller than spears. They have also headpieces and breastplates, in like manner as have all the footmen. And for those that are chosen to be about the general, their armor no way differs from that of the horsemen belonging to other troops; and he always leads the legions forth, to whom the lot assigns that employment.[14]

So the Roman Army deployed against Israel, which included cavalry with fine trappings. And interestingly, as Gentry points out, ancient writers referred to cavalry as being “fire-breathers.”[15] We see this term used in both Virgil (who died in AD 19) and Ovid (who died in AD 17/18). Both Virgil and Ovid, famous Roman writers who wrote during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and both wrote of “invading troops and calvary as ‘fire-breathers.’”[16]  This is because the armies would cast fire upon the cities they attacked. They brought fire to their enemy, burning as they came and leaving smoldering ashes in their wake. So, this idea of a calvary “breathing fire” was familiar terminology in the first century, and John’s incorporation of the imagery makes perfect sense.

And, indeed, the Roman army brought fire to Jerusalem, burning the temple and the city—destroying it all.

So, next week, Lord willing, we’ll pick up from there. But let me exhort you with this: The Lord has said he is coming again bringing judgment, just like he said he was going to destroy Jerusalem. Like he fulfilled his promise then, he will fulfill his promise at “the hour, the day, the month, and the year” for which he has prepared. And on that day, what we call Judgment Day, it will be too late to repent. And that day can come upon us at any time. Even more, death is but one heartbeat away. Heb. 9:27 – “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Are you ready?

At the heart of Jesus’ message, in his earthly ministry, was this, “Repent and believe the gospel.” That is his call to you and I.

There are consequences for sin – both now and in eternity. The consequences now are just temporary, and we can still find forgiveness. But come Judgment Day—no chance. Don’t be like that little boy who won’t let go of the penny.

Whether you are a Christian or not, you are called to repent. For Christians it is a means of sanctification; you are saved and you live a life of repentance. For those who are not Christians, repentance is part and parcel with coming to Jesus in saving faith. The Lord means what he says, and he says there will be judgment on the unrepentant. But his Word also says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).” My friends, because God’s justice falls on the unrepentant, we must repent our sins.


[1] Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 300.

[2] Milton S. Terry, The Apocalypse of John, ed. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. and Jay Rogers (Chesnee, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2021; originally pub. 1898), 122.

[3] Tacitus, Tacitus: The Histories and The Annals: English Translation, ed. G. P. Goold, trans. Clifford H. Moore, vol. 2, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 175. Histories, 5.1.

[4] Philip Carrington, The Meaning of the Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 165.

[5] Tacitus, The Annals and The Histories, ed. Mortimer J. Adler, Second Edition., vol. 14, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 64–65; Annals, 4.5. See also Dio Cassius, 4:23

[6] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 699. The Wars of the Jews, 5.1.6.

[7] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series (Chesnee SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2012), DVD 2, lesson 10.

[8] Terry, 120.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I understand that the number of years the Empire lasted is debatable, depending on how you look at it. However, the point is made.

[11] Josephus, 634. The Wars of the Jews, 2.20.7.

[12] Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, DVD 2, lesson 10.

[13] Josephus, 715. The Wars of the Jews, 5.9.1.

[14] Ibid., 644.

[15] Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series, DVD 2, lesson 10.

[16] Ibid. Gentry references Virgil, Georgica, 2.140 and 3.85; and Ovid, Metamorphosies, 7.104.