In part one, we saw that the rise of Islam is prophesied in Revelation Nine, and we discussed the Fifth Trumpet and First Woe. In this article, we will continue to explore Revelation Nine, examining the Sixth Trumpet and Second Woe, after which we will discuss the time prophecies.
The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God. Rev. 9:13
The Hebrew sanctuary was a model of the original in heaven (Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5; Rev. 11:19; 15:5). There were two altars with horns on their four corners---the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard and the altar of incense in the first apartment---but the altar of incense was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 30:1-10), whereas the altar of burnt offering was overlaid with brass (Ex. 27:1-8). Hence, the heavenly original here referred to is the golden altar of incense.
The altar of incense is in the first apartment of the sanctuary, indicating that this prophecy concerns a time before the second apartment was opened, as it later would be (Rev. 11:19). This means that the anti-typical day of atonement, the investigative judgment, has not yet begun. Thus, we should expect that this prophecy will have been fulfilled prior to 1844.
Incense was burned on the golden altar every morning and evening, a perpetual sweet savor before God (Ex. 30:7-9). The incense symbolizes the prayers of God's people (Psalm 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4). Just prior to the sounding of the seven trumpets, an angel took a censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it to the earth (Rev. 8:5). This seems to indicate disapproval and disgust and likely portends that the prayers of Christendom would not be efficacious to spare them from the coming catastrophes symbolized by the seven trumpets.
In Bible prophecy, horns symbolize kings or nations (Dan. 8:15-27; Rev. 17:12). In this instance, the horns of the golden altar symbolize the kingly power of God, His power to establish kingdoms and pull them down (Dan. 4:17; Jer. 1:10; Luke 1:52). That the voice came from the horns of the golden altar symbolizes that the coming catastrophe would be a judgment from God, and an exercise of His ability to set up and pull down kingdoms.
It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 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. The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million. I heard their number. 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. 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. Rev. 9:14-19
Previously in John's visions, we see four angels holding back the four winds of strife (Rev. 7:1-4). Now, God commands them to loose destructive forces that had previously been held back. The River Euphrates symbolizes a barrier to invasion from the east. The Turks originated in south-central Asia, on the east side of the Euphrates River, and from there migrated across that river and into Palestine and Asia Minor.
The number two hundred million has no known significance. The number is variously translated as twice ten thousand times ten thousand, two myriads of myriads, and two hundred thousand thousand. Obviously, no mounted army of 200 million has ever been fielded, so the number is likely not intended literally. It seems intended to convey a numberless host, a huge force impossible to defeat.
The figure killed by this immense force is given as one third of mankind. Here we must understand that Scripture is not intended as a general history of the world. Rather, it is the story of redemption which focuses on the righteous line, the history of believers, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, to the Hebrews, and finally to the Christians. Since this prophecy points to events in the Christian era, it is concerned with the plight of Christians, not with all of mankind. Given that Christianity had primarily taken root in the post-Roman Mediterranean world, it is a fair estimate that, between the Arab and Turkish Muslim conquests, a third of Christendom was lost. In saying that a third of mankind was killed, the prophecy is predicting that a third part of the Christian world would be swept away; this prophecy was fulfilled by the loss of Christian North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor/modern Turkey.
This point is worth dwelling on, because the religious facts of the pre-Muslim Mediterranean world are today long lost in the mists of time. The most important bishoprics of the 4th through the 7th Centuries were Constantinople, Alexandria and Rome, and their relative importance was often ranked in that order. The Bishop of Rome was a titular first among equals, but the other two often had more real power because of the economic and political prominence of their cities. Of course, Alexandria was overrun by the Arab conquest and Constantinople by the Turkish phase of Islamic conquest.
Moreover, many of the most famous and influential “church fathers” were from places now well within the dar al-Islam (the “house of Islam”): Augustine (354-430 AD) was Bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria; Tertullian (160-225 AD) was Bishop of Carthage, now in Tunisia; Origen (185-254 AD) was from Alexandria, Egypt; Ignatius (35-110 AD) was Bishop of Antioch, now in Syria; and Polycarp (69-155 AD) was Bishop of Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey. The most noteworthy of the Greek-speaking fathers were from places that are now Islamic: Clement, Athanasius, and Cyril were all of Alexandria; John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus were Archbishops of Constantinople, Basil was of Ceasaria, Gregory of Nyssa hailed from what is now southern Turkey, and John of Damascus was obviously from Syria. Additionally, the “Seven Churches” of Revelation—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea—were all in Asia Minor, which today is thoroughly Muslim western Turkey. All of these places were predominantly Christian before the Arab and Turkish conquests made them predominantly Muslim.
The Muslim conquest of so much of the Christian world would rightly have been seen as an epochal catastrophe for Christendom and the Christian religion. Christianity's birthplace along with several of its leading bishoprics and teaching centers were lost to Muslim domination. The notion that there would not be a Bible prophecy addressed to such earth-shaking events is symptomatic of a peculiar ignorance of history. We would expect to find a scriptural warning of this catastrophe, and indeed we do.
The colors that John saw on the breastplates are traditional Turkish colors, particularly red and yellow, which have figured prominently in Ottoman flags down through history. The Turks had a remarkable red dye known as “Turkey red” (originally developed in India) made from madder root by a very tedious and complex process, but the result is as striking and almost as lasting as the red in a garnet gemstone. (The British military later dyed their famous red coats with a madder root dye.) The Turks also came up with a bold yellow dye made from Persian berries. Blue has also figured prominently in Turkish cloth, though not as much as red and yellow. These colors identify the mounted host as Turkish.
The fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of the horses' mouths doubtless refers to the Turks' use of gunpowder. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese in the 9th Century, and came to the west over the trade route known as the silk road, which meant that it reached Muslim domains before reaching the Christian West. Muslim armies began using gunpowder as early as the middle 13th Century, about a hundred years before it came into use in the West. At the first Ottoman siege of Constantinople, in 1422, the Muslim forces deployed cannons. For the final conquest of Constantinople, in 1453, a Hungarian armorer cast a 27-foot long cannon that was used to lob massive stones at the ancient walls of the city This enormous and loud weapon doubtless left a deep impression on all who saw and heard it; it heralded a new kind of warfare, with exotic new weapons that belched fire and smoke.
We have seen that, in the first woe, “it was given to them that they may not kill them, but that they may be tormented . . .” But in the second woe the third of mankind is spoken of as being “killed.” Why is the Arab conquest called torture, whereas the Turkish conquest is compared to death? Perhaps because even though the Arab conquest stripped the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire of most of its territory, that empire still existed. The ancient seat of Constantine—that great center of Greek-speaking Christianity and scholarship—still stood and would continue to stand for seven more centuries after the Arab conquests. But that ended with the fall of Constantinople. After 1453, the Byzantine Empire was well and truly dead, never to return; its former territory was encompassed within the Ottoman Empire, and its proud capital was now the seat of that Muslim empire. Christendom was permanently dead and buried in that third of the old Roman Empire.
Christianity would continue to exist in pockets of the Muslim territories, and still does today. But those overrun by the Turks, and thereby exposed to their “tails that bite like snakes” (Rev. 9:19), would learn the same hard lessons that those conquered by the Arabs had previously learned—along with some new ones. To the usual terms of the dhimmi or “treaty” that we discussed in Part I, the Turks added a new form of oppression, unknown to the Arabs and not sanctioned by Islamic law: the devşirme, or “blood tax,” pursuant to which the Christians of Greece and southeastern Europe were required to give some of their children to the Turkish Sultan as slaves, to be raised as Muslims. These children were destined for the Janissaries (the Turkish professional military), the harem, or, in the case of select few of the best and the brightest, the administration of the Sultan's government. It has become fashionable in scholarly circles to argue that the poor Christian peasants were happy to have their children follow this path of advancement into an elite class of civil and military servants, but ask yourself whether you would like to have your children forcibly taken from you and raised as Muslims.
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.
This passage makes all the more obvious that the Islamic conquests were divine judgment upon the apostate Christianity of the middle ages. Eastern Christianity had fallen into a species of idolatry involving the veneration of murals, or wall paintings, known as icons. This degrading practice continued even after the chastening of Muslim domination (the Muslims being exemplary in their rejection of all types of image-making); indeed, the Eastern Orthodox still venerate icons today. Western Christianity had a similar problem with idolatry involving statuary. Statues of pagan deities, such as Jupiter, were brought into churches, given biblical names, and venerated; this encouraged pagans to join the Catholic Church, but unconverted idolaters corrupted the church from within. And, as Rev. 9:21 indicates, when the Second Commandment is violated, every type of degrading immorality follows in the train of the idolatry (Ex. 32:5-6; Rom. 1:21-27).
Sadly, the two thirds of Christendom still alive and intact after the Arab and Turkish Muslim conquests did not repent of the gross apostasy. If anything, the fallen church of the West was hardened in its rebellion against revealed truth and the God of heaven. The fall of Constantinople meant that a rival variant of Christianity was swept aside, leaving the Bishop of Rome to claim universal headship of the Christian Church. The Roman Church not only continued its apostasy and blasphemous pretensions, it grew ever worse.
A Note on the Time Prophecies
There are two time prophecies in these passages. Rev. 9:5 states, “They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months,” and Rev. 9:15 states, “These four angels had been kept ready for an hour, a day, a month and year, to kill a third of mankind.” Josiah Litch (1809-1886) was a prominent Methodist preacher in the Millerite movement in the years leading up to 1844. Litch agreed with William Miller on the day-year principle of prophetic interpretation, pursuant to which a day of prophetic time equaled one year of real or literal time; this was a commonly accepted principle of prophetic interpretation, including among Methodist commentators such as the noted Adam Clarke. Litch applied the Fifth and Sixth Trumpets to Islam, as did most in the historical school of prophetic interpretation, and hence sought an application of the time prophecies to the Ottoman Empire, which was very much a going concern in the late 1830s.
The five prophetic months of Rev. 9:5 equals 150 actual years. Litch anchored the beginning of this period to the Battle of Bapheus, which Edward Gibbon, in his monumental work “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” dates to July 27, 1299. Bapheus was the battle in which Osman/Othman, after whom the “Ottoman” Turks would be named (to distinguish them from the pre-existing Seljuk [or Seljuq] Turks), rose to prominence by inflicting a defeat on the Byzantine forces. Going forward 150 years from July 27, 1299 takes us to July, 27, 1449. Although Constantinople did not fall until May, 1453, Litch argued that the fact that the Byzantines were forced to seek the Turkish Sultan's intervention in a dispute regarding succession after the death of John VIII Palaiologos (1392-1448) –and hence Sultan Murad II crowned Constantine XI Palaiologos as the next (and, as it happened, the last) Byzantine Emperor—meant that Byzantium had effectively fallen under Turkish domination, and the capture of Constantinople four years later merely dramatically illustrated that reality. With the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the torture ended and the death began.
The next prophetic time period, “an hour, a day, a month, and a year,” equals 391 literal years, plus—if the “hour” is given a prophetic time value—two weeks. Writing in 1838, Josiah Litch predicted that the Turkish power would be overthrown sometime in August, 1840 (the prophetic period expiring on August 11, 1840). In 1840, a 16 year-old Sultan, Abdülmecid I, was at war with Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer of Albanian extraction. Ali had been sent as Ottoman viceroy to Egypt shortly after the end of Napoleon's brief invasion, but was a far more able administrator than the sultans he served, and he effectively established his own personal kingdom; by 1838 Ali was ready to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire. Ali had defeated the sultan's forces at the Battle of Nezib, and the commander of the modest Turkish fleet had just handed it over to Ali. At this point, the European powers--including Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia--intervened on behalf of the young sultan, signing in London, on July 15, 1840, a pact ordering Ali to withdraw from Syria and Lebanon, in return for which he and his descendants would be given hereditary rule of Egypt (which his descendants did rule until 1952).
This ultimatum, which the powers enforced by blockading the Nile and shelling Ali's positions in Lebanon and Syria, reached Ali in Egypt on August 11, 1840, the exact date Litch pointed to as the end of the prophetic time period of Revelation 9:15. There was a remarkable parallel to the beginning and end of the prophetic period: both were demarcated not by an absolute fall, but by a weakening to the point where old enemies were dictating terms. In 1449, the Byzantines were so weak that the Turks had dictated the Byzantine succession, and in 1840, the Ottoman Porte was so frail that the Christian powers dictated a modus vivendi to the sultan and his rogue viceroy, and enforced it on both. Ellen White writes of the encouragement that Litch's astonishingly successful prophetic interpretation brought to the Millerite movement, particularly in its vindication of the day-year principle:
When it became known, multitudes were convinced of the correctness of the principles of prophetic interpretation adopted by Miller and his associates, and a wonderful impetus was given to the advent movement. Men of learning and position united with Miller, both in preaching and in publishing his views, and from 1840 to 1844 the work rapidly extended (GC 335).
Although the Ottoman Empire did not fall until the First World War, its power to persecute Christians was interfered with. It was called “the sick man of Europe;” Britain and France propped it up mainly as a buffer against Russian imperial expansion; the frustration of Russia's attempts to expand its empire southward became such a fixture of Victorian-era British foreign policy that it became known as “the great game,” and assistance to the Turks (such as in the Crimean War) was part of this game. But Western help came with a price: the Turks were forced to abolish the jizyah (the poll tax on non-Muslims) and numerous other features of the ancient treaty or “dhimmi,” as the European powers competed with each other to be seen as the protectors of the Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire.