There are some Bible passages that pose peculiar challenges to interpreters. These passages confront us with revelations of weirdness. We are faced with accepting and exploring this weird side of Scripture, or else with smoothing it over, perhaps by not actually dealing with it, but instead just pretending it is obscure, and on that basis, moving on. Episodes that qualify to be on the list of weird passages would include Genesis 6:1-4 and Joshua 10:11-14, but many could be added.
Certainly one of the strangest of these strange texts concerns the opening of the bottomless pit and “the angel of the bottomless pit” in Revelation 9. Here is how the passage opens:
Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit. Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. Their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:1-6)
As can be seen, this all happens once the fifth angel blows his trumpet. In the previous chapter, the sounding of the first four trumpets brought about the smiting of four parts of the created order: trees and vegetation; the seas; the waters; and the heavenly bodies (Rev. 8:8-13). With the fifth trumpet the focus changes. It is almost as if the four preceding dooms prepared the way for the creatures from the pit and their king. We read about him in verse 9:11:
And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon. (Revelation 9:11)
This is all very odd. How can we believe it? Let me set out the details which must be faced:
- A “star” falls from heaven to earth.
- This “star” is a “him” (autos), who handles a key.
- There is a bottomless pit on earth (on earth) that when opened is like a furnace.
- The smoke from the pit darkens an already darkened sun.
- Infernal “Locusts” come out of the pit and are commanded (by God?) what or who to attack. They are very particular.
- For a space of five months they torment those who do not have the seal of God.
Verses 7-10 describe these creatures, but I shall skip the description and focus upon the six things already listed. I want to look more closely at each item in the list. after that I shall turn my attention to the “angel of the bottomless pit” before providing an overall interpretation.
1. A “star” falls from heaven to earth.
By the time we reach chapter 9 we have already encountered “stars” in the Apocalypse. Revelation 1:20 is a good example. There we are told that the seven stars held in Jesus’ hand are “the angels of the seven churches.” Of course, in Revelation 1 the stars look like small stars (they do not look like angels as they appear as men – e.g. Rev. 21:17). I think it very possible that in Revelation 9:1 the falling star likewise looks like a small bright object, at least until it lands on earth. After that it is seen to be an angel.
The fact that the star was seen already “fallen” (perfect part.) is often taken to indicate that the angel is demonic (Beale, 492). But Beale adduces “proofs” for his view from extra-biblical sources and biblical texts like Luke 10:18, which concerns Satan, and which fits a different context (i.e. Satan’s fall from his exalted position versus this angel’s apparently being sent to the bottomless pit). It seems better to view this angel as a good angel fulfilling a commission (Thomas 2.27; Ladd, 129).
2. This “star” is a “him” (autos), who handles a key.
The fact that stars can represent angels is itself very suggestive. I am not the only one whose mind drifts over to Matthew 2:9-10 and the strange behavior of the star that guided the Magi. Whether that star was an angel or not the fact that angels as stars act to represent (as in Rev. 2 & 3) and perform specific duties (as in Rev. 9) is noteworthy.
The angel is given the key to the bottomless pit once he is in place. With it he opens it up. Notice that he is outside the pit whereas the “king” who eventually emerges comes out from within the pit (Rev. 9:11). Getting ahead of myself for a moment, I believe the “beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit” in Revelation 11:7 is this “king.”
3. There is a bottomless pit on earth that when opened is like a furnace.
Stop shifting in your seat. We are allowing the text to speak on its own terms. This is not to be dismissed either as representational picture painting or hollow earth conspiracy theory. The angel came deliberately down to earth for the purpose of opening a hatch or door in the earth. Now we could all cast the thought aside if it were not for the fact that there are passages in both Testaments which force us to take a really serious look at John’s words. Numbers 16:31-33 and Philippians 2:10 spring immediately to mind. I have always been minded to ponder Paul’s unflustered reference to “those under the earth,” noting (although with a certain unease) that he presents us with “”those in heaven” (check) and “those on earth” (check) before passing smoothly onto “those under the earth.”
So there is a place somewhere on the earth that marks the entrance to the “shaft of the abyss” or bottomless pit, inside of which are imprisoned some extremely nasty creatures and their king; an angel – or so I read it. The language points to the origin of the “king,” that is, “the angel” as the pit itself. Again, this means the angel with the key is not the same as the angel who emerges once the pit is opened. Tony Garland notes, “Later, an angel will be given the same key with which to lock Satan within the same compartment for the duration of the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:1-2).” It is intriguing to let the imagination roam a bit and to envisage this ghostly smoke belching into the air and these infernal things coming out.
Until recently I have read about these “locusts” with blinkers on, for I have always thought of them as invisible. They are not! Why then did I jump to a false conclusion? It was because of their king.
(To be continued.)
Photo: David Billings on
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.