After the first woe passed, the sixth angel sounded his trumpet. John heard a voice emanate from the horns of the golden altar. The voice said to the sixth angel,
“Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”
And four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand.
The horses and riders had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur. A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur that came out of their mouths. The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent. They did not stop worshipping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood – idols that cannot see, hear, nor walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality, or their thefts.
What the story means to us today
The second woe – God (reluctantly) inflicts judgement on non-believers
When the seventh seal was broken, seven angels were given trumpets to sound. The first four trumpets cause much havoc including hail and fire mixed with blood, a huge mountain thrown into the sea, a blazing star crashing to earth, and a third of the sky darkened. The first woe (of the “three woes”) is initiated by a trumpet blast sounded by the fifth angel that releases a swarm of apocalyptic locusts upon earth. Now we see the second woe — an even deadlier punishment than all others prior.
The events that arise from the sounding of the sixth trumpet are dreadful. Hundreds of millions of soldiers mounted on horses with heads of lions and smoke pouring from their mouths is a disturbing visual. But remember, God does not want to inflict pain or suffering on any of his creations. His only requirement is that the people repent and agree to follow God’s plan. As we see however, despite the horrific events that unfold and against all logic, many people still refuse to repent and instead, choose to continue leading immoral lives.
Additional thoughts and considerations
“Thirds” as a measurement in the ancient Near East
The verses tell us a third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur. To the Israelites, “thirds” was a figure of speech and did not necessarily mean a literal third just as “half-dozen” does not always mean a quantity of six in modern times. For instance, “I must have told him a half-dozen times” does not literally mean the person was instructed 6 times but rather, implies a large quantity. In ancient Israel, depending on the context, a “third” could be used to refer to a fractional amount of unprecise quantity.
At this point in the revelations, one-fourth have already been killed by Death and Hades (Revelation 6:8). Thus, in this part of John’s vision, we are told that a fractional number of the remaining population are killed.
The voice from the golden altar – an answer to the prayers of God’s people
When the sixth trumpet blasts, John hears a voice radiate from the golden altar instructing the sixth angel to release the four angels that were bound at the river Euphrates. We know from previous verses the golden altar (of incense) was used to present the prayers of God’s people to God. Thus, the events surrounding the sixth trumpet could be considered the answer to their prayers.
A two-hundred-million-man army purges a third of the earth
John hears the number of mounted troops as “twice ten thousand times ten thousand”. This equals a 200 million-man army – nearly three times the number of troops in World War II. Many historians believe an army this large would be impossible to manage. The army however, could be composed of both humans and supernatural (i.e. angelic) entities. The riders wear fiery red, dark blue, and sulfurous yellow giving them an otherworldly appearance and more importantly, their horses (with tails like snakes) inflict damage by expelling unearthly plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur from their mouths. There’s a good argument that the army is supernatural and not human.
The science and history behind the story
The significance of the Euphrates river
John tells us that four angels were kept ready, bound by the great river Euphrates. The Euphrates river is mentioned several times in the Bible. It is considered the easternmost border of the Roman empires and in many instances, Israel’s enemies hailed from the areas near it. It is not surprising that four angels were stationed there.
13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God. 14 It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. 16 The number of the mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand. I heard their number.
17 The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. 18 A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. 19 The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
20 The rest of mankind who 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. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
13–14 The sixth Angel trumpeted. I heard a voice speaking to the sixth Angel from the horns of the Golden Altar before God: “Let the Four Angels loose, the Angels confined at the great River Euphrates.”
15–19 The Four Angels were untied and let loose, Four Angels all prepared for the exact year, month, day, and even hour when they were to kill a third of the human race. The number of the army of horsemen was twice ten thousand times ten thousand. I heard the count and saw both horses and riders in my vision: fiery breastplates on the riders, lion heads on the horses breathing out fire and smoke and brimstone. With these three weapons—fire and smoke and brimstone—they killed a third of the human race. The horses killed with their mouths and tails; their serpent like tails also had heads that wreaked havoc.
20–21 The remaining men and women who weren’t killed by these weapons went on their merry way—didn’t change their way of life, didn’t quit worshiping demons, didn’t quit centering their lives around lumps of gold and silver and brass, hunks of stone and wood that couldn’t see or hear or move. There wasn’t a sign of a change of heart. They plunged right on in their murderous, occult, promiscuous, and thieving ways.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
9:13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a single voice coming from the horns on the golden altar that is before God, 9:14 saying to the sixth angel, the one holding the trumpet, “Set free the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates!” 9:15 Then the four angels who had been prepared for this hour, day, month, and year were set free to kill a third of humanity. 9:16 The number of soldiers on horseback was two hundred million; I heard their number. 9:17 Now this is what the horses and their riders looked like in my vision: The riders had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and sulfurous yellow in color. The heads of the horses looked like lions’ heads, and fire, smoke, and sulfur came out of their mouths. 9:18 A third of humanity was killed by these three plagues, that is, by the fire, the smoke, and the sulfur that came out of their mouths. 9:19 For the power of the horses resides in their mouths and in their tails, because their tails are like snakes, having heads that inflict injuries. 9:20 The rest of humanity, who had not been killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so that they did not stop worshiping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk about. 9:21 Furthermore, they did not repent of their murders, of their magic spells, of their sexual immorality, or of their stealing.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
13 And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, 14 Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. 15 And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and fa day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men. 16 And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 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: 21 Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.