- And the sixth angel poured out his bowl upon the great river, the Euphrates; and its water was dried up, that the way might be prepared for the kings from the east [sunrising]. (Revelation 16:12)
The kings from the east in Revelation 16:12 are generally assumed to be enemies of God, an army headed up by the frog-demons of 16:13 who oppose Almighty God. The burden of this essay is to argue that this interpretation is incorrect.
The political-preterist type of interpretation says that this refers to Roman legions brought from the area of the Euphrates, where they guarded the border with Parthia, to help destroy Jerusalem. The immediate problem with this interpretation is that clearly the kings from the east are on the other side of the Euphrates and cross it to invade the land, yet everyone knows that the Parthians had nothing to do with the destruction of Jerusalem We need to search for a better interpretation.
(I view my own approach as “Biblical-theological Preterism” as opposed to “Political Preterism.” The political-preterist type of interpretation views Revelation as a series of codes for events found in Josephus and other writers. It is a kind of “ancient newspaper exegesis.” Josephus is not the clue to Revelation. The clue to Revelation is the rest of the Bible. Though Revelation does indeed deal with the period between ad 30 & 70, it is primarily concerned with spiritual/ecclesiastical matters, often invisible to the eye, not with the Jewish-Roman War. The battles are spiritual, not military. Of courses all preterists must deal with both aspects, and all do. It is a matter of which approach has priority and emphasis.)
The clues are here. First, the river dries up so that this army can enter the land. This alludes to Abraham’s first entry into the land from Ur of the Chaldees, and also to the drying up of the Jordan when Israel entered Canaan. The Euphrates is the farthest boundary of Canaan and the holy land. Jerusalem has been called Sodom – center of Canaanite wickedness – already (11:8), so the notion of an army of saints attacking wicked Canaan-Israel can be entertained as a distinct possibility. In terms of such an interpretation, the frog-demon army of the Beasts and Babylon is the enemy of the Godly kings of the east.
Of course, it must be granted at once that God brought pagan armies across the Euphrates to punish wayward Israel in the Old Creation period, and so by itself the fact that this army crosses the Euphrates does not establish whether it is an army of the Godly or an army of the ungodly under providential control. Either way, however, a literal interpretation is impossible, for the Roman army did not cross the Euphrates to enter the holy land. But there are other considerations as well. To wit:
Second, the only other person who comes from the east, from the sunrising, is the angel of 7:2. This angel is generally granted to be Jesus Himself, who ascends “from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God.” After all, “as lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt. 24:27). Thus, the direction the congregation faces in worship is called “liturgical east,” for we worship in expectation of His coming to meet with us. Accordingly, the “kings from the sunrising” would be the Lord’s own army, not the Roman army under His providential superintendence.
Is there any way to confirm this interpretation? I believe so. We can start with Revelation 7:1-2. There we see four angels standing at the four corners of the (holy) land, holding back the four winds of the land. Then the Sunrise Angel tells them to hold off in their destructive work until the saints are sealed. These angels reappear at the sixth trumpet (compare the sixth libation-bowl). In 9:13-14, when the sixth angel sounds his trumpet, a Voice from the golden altar – Christ – tells the sixth trumpet-angel to release the four angels, who have now moved to the Euphrates. This is the only other reference to the Euphrates in Revelation, and being in the sixth trumpet, is parallel in concept to Euphrates in the sixth libation-bowl. Then the four angels move out and kill a third of mankind.
This is a Godly (angelic) army, not a demonic one. The demonic army, which torments men, is pictured in the fifth trumpet (9:1-11). Their king is Satan. They come from the pit. Not so the “angel army” of the sixth trumpet. Their King is Jesus, the Sunrise Angel. They come from the Euphrates, invading the land as God’s holy people.
This “angel army,” supervised by the four angels, consists of two myriads of myriads (2 x 10,000 x 10,000 = 200,000,000). The army is also spoken of as the four winds of the earth in 7:1. It consists of horses and riders, not of locust-scorpions that just look like horses (ct. 9:3-8).
Before examining this army in more detail, we need to look at the background in Zechariah. In Zechariah 1, the first night vision, at sunset, God’s holy army appears as a company of horses ready to ride forth with the gospel, but restrained because the atonement has not been made. After the atonement, at midnight (passover) in Zechariah 3, the Church is empowered (Zech. 4) and the horses are pictured again in the eighth (sunrise) vision of Zechariah 6 riding forth to conquer the world of the Restoration Covenant era. They are called “the four winds of heaven.” But in Zechariah 2:6 it is the saints of the Restoration Covenant who are called the four winds of heaven. Thus, the horses of Zechariah 1 and the horses-and-chariots of Zechariah 6 picture the Old Creation Church, the earthly host of Yahweh of hosts. In Zechariah 14:20 these same horses, the saints, wear bells, like the High Priest, on which are inscribed “Holy to Yahweh,” from the High Priest’s crown. This is the holy army, the Church.
With this background, we are entitled to suggest that the army of Revelation 9:16-21, the army of the sixth trumpet, is a picture of the Church riding forth to kill God’s enemies with the gospel, which is a savor of life to some and a savor of death to others. It might be an angel-army, but I think we should first consider that it is the Church.
The commanders of this army are the four corner angels. The Old Testament term for the commander of the army is “corner” (Jud. 20:2; 1 Sam.14:38). There are four corners: the king and his three mighty men (1 Chron. 11:4-14). In the Gospels these are Jesus, Peter, James, and John. We are entitled to suggest that the Chief Corner(stone) of this army, the premier of the four angels, is Jesus Himself. The other three might be spirit-angels, or human angels, three captains of the Church on earth (symbolizing the company of the apostles).
The riders and horses are one entity. The riders have a breastplate of fire, hyacinth, and brimstone. This calls to mind the breastplate of the High Priest, which had fiery gold encasing precious stones, and “hyacinth” here means a stone of that smoky-blue color, probably jacinth. The ephod-robe of the High Priest, like the Tabernacle, was made essentially of the same smoky-blue/violet color, signifying God’s cloud. The brimstone is new, and points to the fact that the time of judgment has arrived.
The heads of the horses are like lions, thus kingly (compare the kings from the sunrising of 16:12). From their mouths proceed fire, hyacinth colored smoke, and brimstone, which kill a third of mankind.
The tails of the horses are like serpents, which also harm men. This does not mean that they are demonic, for this has already been identified as an angelically-supervised army. Rather, it means that those who reject the gospel are delivered over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5).
Now, the sixth trumpet continues all the way to 11:14. In 11:3-10 we are shown the two witnesses, apostle and prophet, who are Moses and Elijah and also Haggai and Zechariah (the two prophetic olive trees of Zechariah 4). We are told that “if anyone desires to harm them, fire comes out of their mouth and devours their enemies” (11:5). Notice that these are clearly human agents, whose work is symbolized as fire coming from their mouths. Notice also that there are two of them, corresponding I suggest to the two myriad myriads of the army.
Thus, while there seems to be angelic superintendence of this army, it is best to see the army as a symbol of the Church. It is not, n.b., the Romans.
We are now in a position to expand and deepen our interpretation of the sixth trumpet. The voice that calls for the four angels in 9:13 comes from the four horns of the altar of incense, the golden altar. The four horns at the four corners represent four mountain-peaks on the altar-mountain, for all altars are miniature holy mountains. They also signify the four corners of the land, for the altar-plateau is the holy land. As mountain-peaks at the four corners of the plateau, the corners guard the altar. Thus, the four angels of the four corners of the land are the four commanders, guardians of the land. It is fitting that they are summoned by the four horns of the altar.
But more so, this is the incense altar. The army that is summoned is the color of fire and smoke, the colors of burning incense. Incense is the prayers of the saints (5:8, 8:3). Accordingly, the army is an army of living incense. What does this mean? It might mean that the army carries forth the answer to the prayers of the saints, prayers for vengeance. In the light of what we have seen, however, this does not fit as well as the alternative, which is that this is a prayer army.
If we go back to 8:3-5, we find a description of Pentecost. Jesus takes incense (prayer) and adds it to the prayer-incense of the saints already on the altar. Then He takes the fire, which burns incense, and throws it to the earth. The fire is the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Thus, the people are incense, lit by God’s fire. Burning incense represents people sending up prayers to God, spending themselves before Him.
Throughout the book of Acts we see that the deliverance of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked come in response to prayer. Thus, the weapon of Christian warfare is prayer. This is Liturgical Warfare. Heavenly incense is added to the earthly incense of the saints, which means that angels are added to the earthly Church to help her. This accounts for the size of the army of the sixth trumpet, for there were not two hundred million believers in the Firstfruits Church. We also see angels helping the Church in Acts.
I suggest, therefore, that the symbolism of the sixth trumpet is this: The army is an army of praying saints, an army of burning incense. The army proclaims with its mouth the new Kingdom of Prayer, a Kingdom made possible in a new way because heaven is now open and men now have full access to the Throne.
The specific prayers that arise from the blood of the saints are imprecatory prayers, prayers for vengeance (6:9-10). The first blood to cry for vengeance was that of Abel (Gen. 4:10). Cain was driven from the land and forced to wander, though he decided to build a false city anyway. This is what happened to Israel when she oppressed the poor and the prophets in the Old Testament: Assyria and Babylon sent her into wandering and captivity. In Zechariah 5, however, the wicked in Israel are pictured as building a new city of Cain, a new and evil Babel in the plains of Shinar, which houses a great harlot. This is the immediate background of the city of Babylon in Revelation. Zechariah sees this false Temple set up at the same time as the true Temple is restored (Zech. 4-5). Similarly, using Pauline language, the mystery of lawlessness arose as soon as the mystery of the Kingdom was proclaimed in the New Covenant. The false New Jerusalem of the Jews and Judaizers is Babylon the Great.
Abel was not immediately avenged, however. His blood was told to wait a while, and Cain was marked for temporary protection (cp. Rev. 6:11). When the full measure of wickedness was reached, God wiped out the city of Cain at the Flood. Similarly, the saints under the outer altar are told to wait until the full sum of wickedness and murder has been reached, at which time Babylon will be destroyed. We have previously seen that climax of oppression reached in Revelation 14, with the massacre of the Firstfruits Church.
With this background in mind, we can understand the nature of the prayer army of the sixth trumpet. They are the same as Enoch before the Flood, whose prophecy of doom is recorded in Jude 14-15 in language picked up specifically in Revelation 9:16, “Behold, the Lord came with His holy myriads, to execute judgment upon all, to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds, which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that the ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” Then Jude 16 identifies the ungodly in terms familiar from the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles: the Judaizing apostates.
Thus, the “killing” done by the incense army of the sixth trumpet is two-edged. The ungodly may be convicted, and repent, or they may be driven to the extent of wickedness, and eventually be destroyed with Babylon the Great.
In sum, the imprecatory prayers of the slain saints raises up a prayer-army of Enochs and Elijahs, who pray and preach against the ungodly. Their lion-mouths kill in the positive sense of converting the ungodly, while their serpent-tails drive the rest into greater and greater ungodliness.
With this as background we are on firm ground in identifying “the army of the kings from the sunrising” as the Church. This army is gathered against the army of the frog-demons for a great battle at Mount Megiddo (16:16).
What is this battle and how does it take place? I suggest that we have already studied it in our previous essay on Revelation 14:14-20. At the sixth trumpet, the army rides from the Euphrates to bring the gospel of judgment, transformation, and blessing to the land. After a period of victory, the two witnesses are killed in Jerusalem. These events constitute the partial, warning judgments of the trumpet sequence. Now we come to the full judgments of the libation-bowl sequence. God’s conquering army crosses the Euphrates into the promised land, doing war with the Beast and Sodom-Jerusalem at Mount Megiddo. The result is that God’s army is slain, but this is revealed to be the harvest of the saints. Like Enoch and Elijah they are called to heaven. Like Methuselah, they die just before the Flood comes. The apparent victory of the Jews over the Church is what seals their doom, and the seventh libation-bowl effects their destruction, leading to the fuller description of Babylon’s destruction in Revelation 17.
While it is certainly true that the physical destruction of Jerusalem was effected by the Romans (Rev. 17:16), the armies of the sixth trumpet and sixth libation-bowl are the Church, not Rome.
The proclamation of the gospel by the Church is here revealed as having, as part of its effect, the destruction of the old world, so as to make way for the new.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.