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Whatever the referents behind the horrific images of Revelation 9, the visions of mayhem and slaughter are clear enough. In war and plague, countless millions of human beings are slaughtered, one-third of humankind, some in great agony. Today I wish to focus on the closing verses of the chapter, setting this sweeping destruction in a certain framework.
(1) At one level, this destruction is the work of hell—more precisely, of “the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon” (Rev. 9:11), the Destroyer. There is no doubt this is also Satan, the Devil himself (cf. Rev. 12:7–9; 20:10). For all his efforts to entice human beings away from the God who made them and whose image they bear, Satan’s long-term goals for human beings are never benign. He may give temporary power or advantage to those who sell themselves to do evil, or to those who enter a Faustian pact with him, but his ultimate goal is the destruction of all human beings, or as many of them as he can harm, as ruthlessly, as painfully, as possible.
(2) For all that Satan himself is behind this destruction, in the larger narrative of the book, God himself has brought about this destruction as part of his righteous judgment. Satan is evil and powerful, but he is not all-powerful. Even at his most virulent he cannot escape God’s control—and God is able to use even Satan’s evil to bring about his purposes of righteous judgment on those who persist in their rebellion against God.
(3) So perverse are human beings that even the most devastating judgment frequently fails to get their attention or to drive them toward repentance. “The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Rev. 9:20–21).
Few statements are more discouraging. What is God to do? When he maintains order and stable times, his image-bearers drift away from him, indifferent to his blessings. When instead God responds in judgment, his image-bearers charge that God is unfair, or assign these things to blind circumstance, or exclusively to the Devil, or to alien deities who need placating. Apart from the intervention of the convicting work of the Spirit, few reflect deeply on how these disasters are calling to us in prophetic terms.
What disasters has the race of God’s image-bearers faced in the twentieth century? What is their message? How have most people responded?
Before reflecting briefly on the two visions of Zechariah 5, I must go back and add a note on Zechariah 3–4.
Chapters 3 and 4 clearly carry messianic overtones. For Zechariah 3, see the meditation for December 16: though the primary reference is to the reconstruction of 519 B.C., the stone (Zech. 3:9), the Branch (Zech. 3:8), and the temple all point beyond themselves. That significance is tied in Zechariah 4 to the two “sons of oil” (i.e., “the two who are anointed,” Zech. 4:14) who “serve the Lord of all the earth” (Zech. 4:14). In the historical context, the two are Zerubbabel the governor, who is also the Davidic prince, and Joshua the priest. The one rebuilds the temple; the other offers the sacrifices prescribed by the covenantal sacrificial system. These two “messiahs,” these two anointed ones, exercise complementary roles. Together the two point forward to the ultimate Davidic king and the ultimate priest. The people of Qumran (a monastic community by the Dead Sea, still operating in Jesus’ day) actually expected two different messiahs, one Davidic and one priestly. They did not know how both the kingly and the priestly functions would come together in one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.
The two visions of chapter 5 leave aside the messianic overtones of the previous two chapters and focus on the continuing lawlessness and violence in the land. Yet the change of theme is not arbitrary. One of the functions of the Davidic king was to enforce justice (Zech. 3:7; see 2 Sam. 15:2–3). Priests, too, were charged with administering justice (e.g., Deut. 17:9). The prophets foretold a time of perfect justice (Isa. 11:3–5; Jer. 23:5).
The first of the two visions (the flying scroll, Zech. 5:1–4) promises judgment on the lawless. The scroll represents the whole law, not least its sanctions on those who defy God. These are God’s words, and God’s words have the power to accomplish all of God’s purposes. The second vision, of the woman in a basket (Zech. 5:5–11), deals with the persistence of evil in the community. Because the Hebrew word for “wickedness” is feminine, it is personified in this vision as a woman—the Old Testament equivalent of the woman Babylon, the mother of prostitutes, in Revelation 17. Just as evil is often hidden, so is she—until she is exposed. The only answer is God’s: she is taken away to “Babylonia” (Zech. 5:11) where she belongs. Thus God removes sin from his people as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:11–12). He washes away the uncleanness of his people (Ezek. 36:25), and the filthy garments are replaced by clean ones (Zech. 3), or else we have no hope at all.
21:1 Jehoshaphat slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David, and Jehoram his son reigned in his place. 2 He had brothers, the sons of Jehoshaphat: Azariah, Jehiel, Zechariah, Azariah, Michael, and Shephatiah; all these were the sons of Jehoshaphat king of Israel.1 3 Their father gave them great gifts of silver, gold, and valuable possessions, together with fortified cities in Judah, but he gave the kingdom to Jehoram, because he was the firstborn. 4 When Jehoram had ascended the throne of his father and was established, he killed all his brothers with the sword, and also some of the princes of Israel. 5 Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. 6 And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. 7 Yet the LORD was not willing to destroy the house of David, because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever.
8 In his days Edom revolted from the rule of Judah and set up a king of their own. 9 Then Jehoram passed over with his commanders and all his chariots, and he rose by night and struck the Edomites who had surrounded him and his chariot commanders. 10 So Edom revolted from the rule of Judah to this day. At that time Libnah also revolted from his rule, because he had forsaken the LORD, the God of his fathers.
11 Moreover, he made high places in the hill country of Judah and led the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom and made Judah go astray. 12 And a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father, ‘Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, or in the ways of Asa king of Judah, 13 but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel and have enticed Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom, as the house of Ahab led Israel into whoredom, and also you have killed your brothers, of your father's house, who were better than you, 14 behold, the LORD will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, 15 and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out because of the disease, day by day.’”
16 And the LORD stirred up against Jehoram the anger2 of the Philistines and of the Arabians who are near the Ethiopians. 17 And they came up against Judah and invaded it and carried away all the possessions they found that belonged to the king's house, and also his sons and his wives, so that no son was left to him except Jehoahaz, his youngest son.
18 And after all this the LORD struck him in his bowels with an incurable disease. 19 In the course of time, at the end of two years, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great agony. His people made no fire in his honor, like the fires made for his fathers. 20 He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. And he departed with no one's regret. They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
9:1 And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.1 2 He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women's hair, and their teeth like lions' teeth; 9 they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10 They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.2
12 The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.
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.” 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. 16 The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 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 sapphire3 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.
20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
5:1 Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll. Its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.”1 3 Then he said to me, “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely2 shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side. 4 I will send it out, declares the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. And it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.”
5 Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, “Lift your eyes and see what this is that is going out.” 6 And I said, “What is it?” He said, “This is the basket3 that is going out.” And he said, “This is their iniquity4 in all the land.” 7 And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! 8 And he said, “This is Wickedness.” And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening.
9 Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. 10 Then I said to the angel who talked with me, “Where are they taking the basket?” 11 He said to me, “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.”
8:1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father1 who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave2 to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’3 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”4 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.