Locusts are large, easily caught insects that are a staple food source for many different species of fish, birds, animals, and even people. While locusts in small numbers are harmless, when they swarm in the millions, these insects can eat every plant for miles. Combatting locust outbreaks has been a major problem in Africa and the Middle East from ancient times to the present. It’s this devastating behavior that makes locusts a powerful symbol of destruction, demonic activity, and judgment. Read on to discover the significance and symbolism of locusts in the Bible.
What Are Locusts?
Locusts, or short-horned grasshoppers, include more than 10,000 different species of insects of the family Acrididae. The term is also used colloquially for a variety of different kinds of grasshoppers and cicadas. The 17-year cicada, for example, emerges in enormous numbers once every 17 years for one season, eats voraciously, mates, lays eggs, and dies.
Locusts tend to swarm in parts of the world where their habitat is tenuous: in arid or semi-arid zones, for example. A series of years of good rains can make food abundant and the numbers of these insects will expand exponentially. When drought returns, they take to the air in search of food and are carried long distances by strong winds. In 1869, swarms of locusts reached England from West Africa, and in 1889 a swarm estimated at 2,000 square miles in size crossed the Red Sea! When the wind dies down, locusts drop from the sky onto trees and crops and ravenously eat every green thing they can find, stripping the landscape in a matter of hours before taking flight again.
What Does the Bible Say About Locusts?
Locusts are the most frequently mentioned insects in the Bible. The main ways they appear are as a food source, a plague, a real or metaphorical army, and a prophetic symbol of demonic activity. Let’s check out some examples of each of these:
Locusts as a Food Source
Historically and today, many people use locusts as a protein-rich food source. Typically, their heads, tails, wings, and legs are removed. They can be eaten fresh, boiled, or chopped and mixed into other foods, like bread. They can also be dried or roasted to save for later. Dried locusts can be a crunchy treat like popcorn or potato chips. In the Jewish dietary law, locusts were a “clean” or kosher food. John the Baptist, a prophet and a cousin of Jesus, famously lived in the desert and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.
Locusts as a Plague
In ancient times when so many people lived at a subsistence level, a plague of locusts meant famine and death for thousands of people. A country weakened by such a plague could be easy pickings for surrounding enemies that were not so unfortunate. Here are a couple of examples of how the Bible describes locusts as a serious threat:
- Locusts were the 8th of the famous 10 plagues of Egypt that caused the Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to escape from slavery and leave to start their own country. The Bible says the locusts covered the ground until it looked black in every direction and did not leave behind a single green plant in the whole country.
- The Jewish law and the prophets predicted that if the people of Israel were disobedient to God, He would send locusts to eat their crops, but if they repented, God would restore what the locusts had eaten. Similarly, when King Solomon built the Jewish temple, God promised that if locusts were devouring their land, they could pray to God, and he would hear and remove the plague.
Locusts As An Army
Another way the Bible refers to locusts is to compare them to an army. It’s easy to see how this could be an apt comparison. In both cases, many thousands of individuals blanket the landscape, devastate peoples’ livelihoods, and leave in their wake misery, starvation, and death. One example of this usage is in the book of Judges, where at the time of Gideon, an army of Midianites covered the land as thick as locusts. In the story, God famously used Gideon with an army of only 300 men armed only with horns, torches, and clay pots to spook the enemy at night, so they began to kill one another and retreat. Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Babylonian empire would invade Egypt like a plague of locusts.
Proverbs, a book of wise sayings in the Bible, also compares locusts to an army but does so in an admiring way. Locusts are described as “small but wise” because they advance in ranks like a powerful army even though they do not have a king to lead them and form a strategy.
Locusts as a Demonic Manifestation
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, uses symbolism to describe the triumph of Jesus over the forces of evil. It combines the ideas of locusts as a plague and an army in a strange and terrifying prediction. As disasters strike the Earth, a swarm of “locusts” emerges from the smoke of Hell. These are no ordinary locusts, though. They have an unusual appearance, similar to horses with human-looking faces, long hair, wearing crowns, and with stingers on their tails. Unlike herbivorous locusts, these attack only people who have not been marked by God as saved. Their stings cause great suffering but not death.
Biblical scholars dispute greatly over how best to interpret Revelation and this specific prophecy. Some think they will be literal pests that will emerge as a plague in the future. Others wonder if their strange description is actually a picture of modern military hardware, such as helicopters or futuristic robot warriors. Many believe that demonic spirits are in view in this prediction. Rather than argue about the specifics, it’s useful to keep in mind that the central concern of this book of the Bible is to reassure God’s followers during the time of persecution they were living through. The basic message is that God’s enemies (both demonic and human) will instigate much suffering for God’s people, but that He will ultimately rescue them from it.
What If You are Non-Religious?
If you are not a religious person, you might not care what the Bible says about locusts. However, the Bible has been influential in Western cultures. Learning more about it can be useful for general cultural knowledge. For example, you might at times hear the phrase, “a disaster (or plague) of Biblical proportions.” Knowing the story of the 10 plagues of Egypt might help you better understand those types of references.
Science can take inspiration from these insects by looking into locusts as a food source or protein additive. Additionally, the swarm behavior of locusts and other insects is of great interest to robotics engineers. Studying swarms can help them find low-cost ways to complete large-scale tasks with numerous small robots or drones.
Finally, the symbolic prophecies of a strange locust swarm might remind us of the suffering of people in the world from war and disease. Though such images are unpleasant, they can help motivate us to do our part. How can we avoid being part of a mindless crowd that causes suffering to others? What can we do to ease the pain of others from war, famine, and disease? What can we do today to help reduce that kind of suffering in the future? These are just a few examples of how people, whether religious or not, can draw useful ideas from the inspirational writings of the Bible.
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