Nor Did They Repent
Nor Did They Repent
by William Klock
As Israel was about to enter the promised land, the Lord summoned his people to a covenant ceremony. Moses divided the people, six tribes on Mount Gerizim, a symbol of blessing, and six on Mount Ebal, a symbol of cursing. The Levites recited the curses of the covenant and the people responded, “Amen”. At the end of the ceremony, Moses was clear that when the people swore their oath that day, they were swearing not only for themselves, but for the generations of Israel to come. The heart of the ceremony is in Deuteronomy 28. Verses 1-14 list the blessings of obedience. Versus 15-68 list the curses for disobedience. The events of the Jewish War, which lasted three-and-a-half years between a.d. 66 and a.d. 70 work through the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28 almost verse by verse—the war, the great tribulation, the fall of Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Jewish people fulfilling the curses of the covenant. When the Good Friday mob cried out “Crucify him!” to Pontius Pilate and answered him, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25), they invoked the curses of Deuteronomy 28. Moses warned that if Israel was unfaithful she would become like Sodom and Gomorrah—that she would become a monument to the Lord’s judgement. That monument would be a testament to the nations of the faithfulness of God. Here’s what Deuteronomy 29:24-28 says:
All the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’
I think we’re happy to think of the Lord’s faithfulness in terms of the covenant blessings, in terms of Jesus and the cross, the forgiveness of sins, and the creation of a new Israel. But we forget—or choose to ignore—the flip-side of that. We don’t like to think about God also revealing his faithfulness in unleashing the covenant curses on those who broke it. In both cases the Lord’s faithfulness if revealed to his people and to the nations.
So John’s vision announces this judgement on Israel once and for all for her breaking of the covenant and for the idolatry at the root of it. It comes after Israel’s God has sent his Messiah, after Israel’s God has created a new people, after Israel’s God has poured out his Spirit and sent apostles and prophets to declare what he has, in his love, mercy, and grace done for his people, after Israel’s God has given the nation forty years to repent of their idolatry, their unfaithfulness, their rejection of him. Now John hears the trumpets blowing for Jerusalem as they once blew for Jericho. At the end of Chapter 8 he wrote of the eagle, crying out, “Woe, woe, woe.” And now in Chapter 9 the fifth and sixth trumpets are sounded. Look at 9:1-2.
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. 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.
During Jesus’ ministry the devil was defeated. Jesus speaks of him falling from heaven and here he’s given the key to the bottomless pit. In Greek it’s the “abyss”, that place in the Old Testament symbolic of chaos and distant from both the Lord and his heavenly realm. The abyss was the source of the waters of the great flood. It was a metaphor for the place of the dead. It was where devils were held prisoner. And the Devil is given the key. Note: he does not take it; it is given to him. He was defeated at the cross. No matter how bad, how awful, how destructive things get, everything that John sees here happens under the Lord’s sovereign hand. So the abyss is unlocked, smoke rises, and an army is unleashed. John goes on:
Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 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. 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. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.
Again, a bunch of images from the Old Testament converge here. The plague of locusts means that Israel, because of her idolatry is now in the position of Egypt and under divine judgement. But John reports this vision in precise language drawn from the prophet Joel. The blowing of the trumpet, the air darkened, the locusts having the appearance of horses prepared for battle, their teeth like lion’s teeth, these all parallel Joel’s prophecy of judgement to come on Israel.
The five months here refers to the period between May and September when locusts normally made their appearance. What’s unusual in this case is that these locusts stay the whole five months. This may be a reference to the beginning of the Jewish War, which began in May of a.d. 66 when Gessius Florus slaughtered 3,600 of Jerusalem’s citizens. His reign of terror lasted five months, until September. But this had probably already happened by the time John wrote this, so I’m inclined to think that this is probably a reference to the final months of the siege of Jerusalem, which ran from April to August of a.d. 70. Either way, the point here is that Jesus had spent three years casting demons out of the house of Israel. Jesus had spent three years cleaning house, preparing his people to receive him. But instead they crucified him. Think back to the parable Jesus told about the house swept clean—we read Luke’s version as our Gospel this morning, now let me read Matthew’s, from 12:41-45.
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
Jesus had swept the house of Israel clean, but in rejecting him they brought on themselves the curses of the covenant and became a generation possessed by devils. John goes on in verses 7-11:
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, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 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. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 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.
Josephus’ description of the violent and murderous Zealots who rampaged through Jerusalem is remarkable for its similarity to John’s description of these demons. Josephus says that the Zealots terrorized the people more than the Romans did.
“With an insatiable lust for loot, they ransacked the houses of the wealthy; the murder of men and the violation of women were their sport; they caroused on their spoils, with blood to wash them down, and from mere satiety unscrupulously indulged in effeminate practices, plaiting their hair and attiring themselves in women’s apparel, drenching themselves with perfumes and painting their eyelids to enhance their beauty. And not only did they imitate the dress, but also the passions of women, devising in their excess of lasciviousness unlawful pleasures and wallowing in a brothel in the city, which they polluted from end to end with their foul deeds. Yet, while they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous, and approaching with mincing steps they would suddenly become warriors and whipping out their swords from under their dyed mantles transfix whomever they met.”
For good reason does John describe the king of these devils as “Abaddon” and “Apollyon”—the Hebrew and Greek words for destruction. But John is clear that despite the authority given to them to wreak havoc, their destruction was limited to the apostate nation. Both the earth and those who had been sealed by the Lord as his own, those who bore the mark of baptism, were spared. Hell was unleashed on unbelieving Israel, but John writes in verse 12:
The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come.
The sixth angel steps forward. Look at verses 13-19:
Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 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. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 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 sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 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.
A voice speaks from the horns of the altar before God. With these words John encourages the faithful caught up in the midst of this time of tribulation. We’ve seen them worshiping and praying. The Lord hears them. The horns of the altar were projections at the four corners. Under the old covenant, when the nation—not just a person, but the nation—was guilty of sin, that sin was atoned for with a sacrifice made on the altar. The blood of that sacrifice was then then smeared on the horns of the altar of incense—the place here in the heavenly temple, where the prayers of the saints are received. The point here is that, first, the prayers of the faithful for both deliverance and for judgement on the wicked have been heard and, second, that their sins have been atoned for. The Lord will answer their prayers.
The voice cries out for the release of four angels, until now held back. They cross the Euphrates, the symbolic northeastern border of the promised land. The fifth trumpet unleashed the forces of hell on Jerusalem. Now the Roman armies—the 10th Legion and maybe others—are let loose on Judaea. The Greek literally says they number myriads of myriads, an idiomatic way of saying “many thousands”. And yet, again, we’re reminded that all of this is happening under the Lord’s sovereign hand. As I said last Sunday, it may have been the General Titus who defeated Jerusalem and pulled down the temple, but he did so as the Lord’s agent and in answer to the prayers of the saints for justice and vindication. John says that this army had been prepare down to the year, month, day, and hour. The description of the army is terrifying, drawing on various images from the prophets. David Chilton, I think, sums up the passage very aptly:
“An innumerable army is advancing upon Jerusalem from the Euphrates, the origin of Israel’s traditional enemies; it is a fierce, hostile, demonic force sent by God in answer to His people’s prayers for vengeance. In short, this army is the fulfillment of all the warnings in the law and the prophets of an avenging horde sent to punish the Covenant-breakers. The horrors described in Deuteronomy 28 were to be visited upon this evil generation. Moses had declared: You shall be driven mad by the sight of what you see (Deut. 28:34).”
And maybe that’s just it. We like to think that the damned, when confronted by the reality of the Lord’s judgement and given the chance, would fall on their faces before him in repentance. We might think that, but we would be wrong. As Moses says, the terror of the covenant curses brings not repentance but deeper madness. Theologians have a term for this: reprobation. Rebellion to deep that repentance is no longer possible. Without the grace of God, the wicked who reject him dig in their heels, doubling down on their idolatry, rebellion, and wickedness. The people of Jerusalem and Judaea in those days witnessed horrors we can only imagine: famine, mass murder, cannibalism, crucifixions of their fellow Jews at the rate of five-hundred a day, and instead of turning to the Lord, they devote themselves to the demonic pronouncements of false prophets and false messiahs who promised them victory. Josephus writes:
“Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by charlatans and pretended messengers of deity; while they neither heeded nor believed in the manifest portents that foretold the coming desolation, but, as if thunderstruck and bereft of eyes and mind, disregarded the plain warnings of God.”
The invading army killed a third of the people. The ESV translates the Greek incorrectly as “a third of mankind”, but it’s just “a third of the men”. This is a judgement on Israel. The Lord must discipline his own children before he judges the nations. John goes on in verses 20-21, writing:
The rest of [the men—not “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, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Jesus warned that before the day of judgment came on Jerusalem, “there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). Josephus writes of multiple signs that took place at the beginning of the war. First, there was a blinding light that enveloped the altar on the Feast of Unleavened Bread in 66. What should have been a sign of warning was, instead, taken as a good omen. At the same feast the gates of the temple, despite being secured by iron bolts, were opened of their own accord—a sign of the temple’s coming doom, but one the people again chose to take as a good omen, despite several warnings. At the close of the Passover that year, at sunset, a host of chariots was seen in the sky, armed battalions in the clouds, circling the city. Fifty days later, at Pentecost, when the priests entered the temple, a great voice like a host cried out, “We are departing hence!” And later that year, a star hung over the city like a sword for an entire year. Josephus says that those who were wise interpreted the signs and concluded that Jerusalem was no longer the dwelling place of God. In a long denouncement of his fellow Jews for their idolatry, sins, and general unfaithfulness to the Lord, he said, “My belief…is that the Deity has fled the holy places and taken His stand on the side of those with whom you are now at war. Nay, an honourable man will fly from a wanton house and abhor its inmates, and can you persuade yourselves that God still remains with his household in their iniquity—God who sees every secret thing and hears what is buried in silence?” Josephus failed to grasp the significance of Jesus, but he understood very well the covenant Israel had with the Lord and the judgement she stood under for breaking it.
The Psalmist sums up the problem of idolatry. This is what Psalm 115:4-8 says:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
But then the terrifying thing about idolatry comes in verse 8:
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
“When a civilization turns idolatrous, its people are profoundly changed by that experience. In a kind of reverse sanctification, the idolater is transformed into the likeness of the object of his worship. Israel ‘went after worthlessness, and became worthless’ (Jer. 2:5).” Hosea gives the grim warning: Israel’s idolaters “became detestable like the thing they loved.” (Hosea 9:10).
Our own world is following the same path. We think we’re sophisticated because we no longer believe in gods like Mars and Venus, but we still make idols of the things they represented. And with our idolatry we’ve become increasingly decadent, foolish, and mad. The faith of Jesus, which for almost two millennia shaped out society is laughed at and rejected. Christians face, albeit to a lesser extent, the same rejects and pressures to conform that the people of those churches in Asia faced. Will it get worse for us? I think that’s inevitable, even if it doesn’t get as bad as it was for them. But whatever happens, Brothers and Sisters, we must remain faithful. We must reject idolatry wherever it turns up, and keep hold of Jesus with both hands. Revelation is about tribulation and perseverance and kingdom. It’s a call to faithfulness in light of faith and hope—faith and hope in his victory at the cross and ascension to his throne, faith and hope in the knowledge that he is King and always will be. As he has always cared for his people, he will care for us and one day we will know the age to come, the world finally set to rights, and the presence of the Lord in all his glory. Friends, love the Lord. We were his enemies, but he so loved us that he gave his own Son for our sake. In our baptism he has united us with Jesus, forgiven our sins, plunged us into his Spirit, and made us a people—a new people, freed from sin and death, a holy nation and a royal priesthood—a people for himself. Set aside every idolatry and every sin and embrace him. And go from here into the world as priests, mediating his kingdom and it’s blessings, and as prophets, proclaiming the good news that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, it is fitting that in your providence you have brought us to these passages of judgement during Lent. I pray that as we think on our baptismal vow to reject the sinful and idolatrous influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil, John’s words of warning and encouragement, his announcement of the judgement of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous, will prompt us to set aside everything else and to trust in you and you alone, knowing that you are our only source of hope and life and that you have called us to proclaim that hope and life to the nations. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
 The Jewish War IV.ix.10 (Loeb ed.)
 The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion, 1987), 251-252.
 The Jewish War VI.v.3 (Loeb ed.)
 Ibid V.i.3
 Ibid V.ix.4
 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation with American Society (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 295.