If we would find an answer to the question as to what sort of plague does this sixth trumpet bring upon the world, and as to how it is historically realized, we must undoubtedly direct our attention, first of all, to the horses that are pictured in the vision and to their riders. John receives a vision of an awful and terrible-looking host of cavalry, two hundred million in number and with fearful description. And it is clear that this infernal troop of cavalry is the symbol of the plague that is to come. They form the agents that must accomplish it. True, we read that the four angels that are bound at the great river Euphrates are let loose at the determined hour and day and month and year, in order to kill the third part of men. And from this statement we might receive the impression that they, and not the cavalry, were the direct agents for this destruction. But farther on in the text we read differently. There we find that the plague is realized by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone that proceeds out of the mouth of the infernal horses. And the picture is evidently this, that the angels that are bound at the great river Euphrates exert their influence as soon as they are allowed, as soon as they are set loose, to set free this tremendous army of horsemen, in order that they may realize the plague. It is therefore in the first place to these horsemen that we have to direct our attention, in order to find the character of the plague.
And then we may undoubtedly say that they are not real horses. That this is true needs no proof. Their description is such that real horses are out of the question. They are horses with heads as of lions and with serpents’ tails. And these tails have heads. And with these tails these horses hurt. In a word, we have here a combination of the horse and lion and the serpent such as makes it impossible to think of real horses. Besides, we read of them that out of their mouths proceeds fire and smoke and brimstone, which also certainly is not true of real horses. And it is through this fire and smoke and brimstone that the plagues, through which one-third part of men are killed, are realized. Nor are they symbols of real cavalry as such. Again, this is contrary to the description that is given of them, especially the fact that they bring the plagues with the fire and smoke and brimstone that proceeds out of their mouths. Nor are there any indications in the text that we must understand these horses as symbols of evil spirits. Also this is rather impossible. Of the locusts we read that they came out of the abyss and that an evil angel was their king. Nothing of the kind is mentioned in this passage. Besides, we found that the effect of the locusts was spiritual, since they might not kill men, which is in harmony with the nature of demons. But the effect of this plague is physical, as is indicated by the text when it informs us that a third part of men must be killed. Hence, all that we can say from the outset is this, that these horses and their riders are the symbols of tremendous forces of destruction. With this general statement is in harmony their fierce appearance, as well as the fact that fire and smoke and brimstone proceeds out of their mouths. And with this also agrees the fact that they kill a third part of men.
But what destruction is meant here? In order to find an answer to this question we must study the appearance of these horses and their riders. Essential to this is, first of all, the fire and the smoke and the brimstone. They represent the three plagues. We read in vs. 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.” We find, therefore, that three plagues are coming over mankind,—plagues that find their symbols in fire and smoke and brimstone, and that are therefore as closely allied as these three symbols. Of what is the fire a symbol in the Bible? We find that it symbolizes anger (Ps. 39:3, 57:4, 78:21, etc.), jealousy (Ps. 79:5; Ezek. 36:5; Zeph. 1:18), vengeance (Deut. 32:22; Judges 12:1, etc.). And since the passions of anger, of jealousy, and of vengeance in the unholy sense of the word, as evidently they must be taken in the words of our passage, are the root cause of war, we find that fire is also taken time and again in Scripture as the symbol of war. Jeremiah, referring to war, prophesied that Jehovah shall kindle a fire against Jerusalem, Jer. 17:27, 21:14. And he prophesies that He shall kindle a fire against Babylon, again referring to war, Jer. 15:32. In Lamentations 4:11 we read: “The Lord kindled a fire in Zion which hath devoured the foundations thereof.” And in Amos 1:4 we are told: “But I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour the palaces thereof with shouting in the days of battle.” If you add to this that the first color of the breastplates of these monstrous horsemen is also that of fire, and add to this that the chief appearance of these monsters is that of the horse, which, as we have seen before, is the symbol of battle and irresistible onslaught, and add to this, thirdly, that the second or red horse, as we have seen in connection with the first four seals, is also the symbol of war, then I dare say the implication is plain that the plague of the sixth trumpet, by which one-third of men are killed, certainly refers to war.
The second symbol that is used in connection with the sixth trumpet is that of smoke. Again we must turn to Scripture in order to find the meaning of it. Of course, first of all, we must take it in connection with the first symbol. It is related to the first. The fire is first; but also the smoke proceeds from the same source, namely, out of the mouths of the lions. And then I would say that the smoke, in connection with the fire, is the symbol of the desolation and destruction, and for that reason of the scarcity and famine, that follow in the wake of war. And this is but its natural result. This too is corroborated by other parts of Scripture. In Isaiah 34:10we find a description of the desolation that shall come upon Egypt in the words: “The smoke thereof shall go up forever.” If the red of the fire is symbolic of the heated passions of war, the blackness of the smoke is indicative of the desolation and hunger that follow war. Thus we find in Lamentations 4:8 that those who shall perish with hunger are described in the following words: “Their visage is blacker than coal.” And again, in the same Lamentations of the prophet we read that he complains: “Our skin is black like an oven because of the burning heat of the famine.” The blackness of the smoke, therefore, is the symbol of the desolation following war. It is indicative of scarcity and famine and of destruction in general. This is corroborated further by the second color in the breastplates of these monsters, corresponding to the smoke that proceeds out of the mouths of the lions. And it is corroborated also by the second main feature of these monster-animals, which is that of the lion, a picture of ravening hunger that can devour anything. Again it is corroborated by the third horse in the first four seals, which is the black horse, and which, as we have seen before, is the symbol of scarcity and want. Hence, also here we are safe in saying that the picture is rather strikingly referring to desolation and destruction, to want and famine, as they follow in the wake of war.
The third symbol, finally, that is representative of this particular plague is the brimstone, or sulphur, that proceeds out of the mouths of these monsters. Also here we may remark that this last plague must again have some connection with the former two, and, in fact, that there must be some kind of causal relationship between them and this particular plague. Hence, the suggestion is not far-fetched at all that we have here the picture of all kinds of pestilences as they naturally follow in the wake of war and desolation and hunger. This suggestion is confirmed, in the first place, by the nature of the sulphur, which suggests poisoning because of its gases. But also in the Word of God we find the same meaning. Rather generally we find sulphur as a symbol of desolation in Deuteronomy 29:23, where the desolation that shall come over the land of Israel is described as follows: “The whole land thereof is brimstone and salt and a burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein.” But more clearly we find a description of this in Ezekiel 38:22: “And I will plead against him with pestilence and with blood. And I will rain upon him and upon his bands and upon the many people that were with him an overflowing rain and great hailstones, fire and brimstone.” This is prophesied in connection with Gog and Magog, and therefore in a somewhat similar connection as in our passage of Revelation. Most naturally in this passage of Ezekiel the brimstone stands as a symbol of the pestilence. Again I find this corroborated by the third color in the breastplate of this cavalry, which is also that of brimstone. Confirmed it is, also, joy the last feature in the appearance of these monsters, namely, that of the sneaky and subtle serpent, which attacks unawares, so that no one notices him, like the pestilence. These serpents are found in the tails of the horses. And lastly, I find this corroborated by the last horse in the first four seals. That last horse presents the same color as the brimstone, namely, that of a pale green. And the name of that last horse is Death, mowing away one-fourth part of men by all kinds of means, also by the pestilence. And therefore I feel rather safe in maintaining that in this last plague we have the symbol of the noisome pestilence. All these taken together, as they are symbolized by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone, as well as by the horse and the lion and the serpent, as they show their resemblance to the second, third, and fourth horses of the first four seals, lead us to the conclusion that the plagues here pictured are those of war and famine and pestilence. These three cannot be separated. The one follows from the other. And in their inner connection they are here pictured as being together one awful monster, with the shape of a horse, a lion’s head, and the tail of a serpent, while from these monsters proceed the fire and the smoke and the brimstone. Upon this wicked world, steeped in sin, an awful war shall break forth, carrying hunger and desolation and pestilence in its wake.
But, so we ask further: what is the special nature of this war, and what is its special occasion? For that this is not a war like other wars, but different in its nature and scope, is plainly indicated in the fact that by these three one-third of men are killed. That is, as we have explained, more than in any other, ordinary war are killed. Ordinarily only one-fourth of men are killed by war and hunger and all kinds of diseases. But at the time of this war this will be increased to one-third. And therefore we have here a war of special proportions at least. In order to understand this, let me call your attention to the fact that in the history of the world, with its wars and progress, the main occurrences have been played on a very small part of the world’s stage. From Israel this history proceeded to Assyria, from Assyria to Babylonia, from Babylonia to Persia, from Persia to Greece, from Greece to Rome, from the Roman Empire to the nations of Europe and America. Always following a westerly direction, the history of the world has limited itself to only some of the nations of the world. And still there is a large part of men that have never yet played a part in its history although in late years they already appear on its stage. There is the yellow race, which evidently is just beginning to wake up to an important extent. And there are the nations that are living at the four corners of the earth, outside of the pale of civilization, and which in Scripture are known as Gog and Magog. If this relation is clear, then you are prepared to understand our contention that here in the sixth trumpet we have the first indication of the waking up of these other nations. For our text pictures to us, according to our deepest conviction, a war which is caused, by the inroads of these numberless nations into the so-called civilized and Christian nations.