And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had 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. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them. In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped 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 scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails like scorpions, with stings, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months. 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. The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come. 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 were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number. And this was how I saw the horses in my vision: the riders wore breastplates the colour of fire and of sapphire and of sulphur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulphur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulphur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm. The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.
A curious feature of John’s story is that people faced with the most terrible plagues still do not repent and change, but plough on regardless with their dissolute way of life. Is that realistic?
A curious feature of the world today is that for at least 30 years it has been public knowledge that burning fossil fuels, pumping carbon into the atmosphere and destroying species and habitats is fatal for life on earth. The worst plagues of locusts ever recorded hit parts of Africa last year. The whole world, rich and poor, has experienced a lethal plague.
Has humanity repented and changed? Well, not so as you would notice. Carbon emissions dropped only slightly in 2020 despite the lockdowns, and governments – including our own – are planning to recover from Covid by building new roads and new fossil fuelled power stations, by destroying more ancient woodlands and generally ploughing on regardless with our dissolute way of life.
These visions have never been more realistic. The willingness of humans to ignore the evidence of disaster that is staring them in the face is not some primitive fantasy – it is a description of our supposedly sophisticated modern life. As some people die, the rest seem determined to go on exploiting the earth for their own short-term gain – even at the expense of our own children.
Our conscious ignoring of all the evidence and carrying on regardless has coincided with my period in ordained ministry. I know that I have failed to heed – still less to sound – the warning trumpet. I am party to theft from the 98% of humanity whose annual income is less than that of a URC minister.
The greatest abuse of Revelation is to use it to call others only to repentance. But this trumpet sounds also for me.
Creator God, forgive us for treating you as a comforting teddy bear or a mascot for our way of life. As we read Revelation, may we know you as a God who warns us of our folly, who desires not the death of us sinners but rather that we should turn from our wickedness and live. While there is yet time, call us and all people to the repentance which your creation requires. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.