THE SEVEN BOWLS OF THE WRATH OF GOD (Revelation 16:1-21 )
It will be better to read through the whole chapter before we study it in detail,
16:1-21 1 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying to the seven angels: Go, and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God 2 upon the earth. The first angel went away and poured out his bowl upon the earth, and there came an outbreak of evil and malignant ulcerous sores on the men who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped his image. 3 The second poured out his bowl upon the sea; and it became blood, like the blood of a dead man, and every living thing died of the things in the sea. 4 The third poured out his bowl upon the rivers and the 5 springs of waters, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying: You are just, you who are and who were, O Holy One, because you have delivered this 6 judgment. Because they poured out the blood of God's dedicated ones and of the prophets, you have given them blood to drink. They well deserved it. 7 And I heard the altar saying: Yes, O Lord, the Almighty, true and just are your judgments. 8 The fourth poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given 9 power to scorch men with fire; and men were scorched with a great scorching. And men flung their insults at the name of the God who had authority over the plagues, but they did not repent to give him glory. 10 The fifth poured out his bowl upon the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was wrapped in darkness, and men gnawed their tongues in anguish. 11 And men flung their insults at the God of heaven for their pains and their sores, but they did not repent from their deeds. 12 The sixth poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, that the way for the kings from the east might be prepared. 13 I saw three unclean spirits, like frogs, come from the mouth of the dragon, and the mouth of the beast, and the mouth 14 of the false prophet, for they are demonic spirits who perform signs, which go out to the kings of the whole inhabited world, to bring them together for war on the great day of God, the Almighty. 15 (Behold, I come like a thief. Blessed is he who is awake, and who keeps his garments so that he may not walk naked and so that his shame may not be exposed to the gaze of men.) 16 And they gathered them to the place that is called in Hebrew Har Maggedon. 17 The seventh poured out his bowl upon the air and there came a great voice from the Temple.. from the throne, saying: It is done! 18 And there came flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as never happened since mankind was upon the earth, so great was the earthquake. 19 And the great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. And the great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the wrath of 20 his anger. Every island fled and the mountains were not to be 21 found. Great hailstones, weighing as much as a hundredweight, descended from heaven upon men. And men hurled their insults at God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was exceedingly great.
Here we have the last terrible plagues. They have a certain connection with two things, the ten plagues in Egypt and the terrors which followed the sounding of the seven trumpets in Revelation 8:1-13; Revelation 9:1-21; Revelation 10:1-11; Revelation 11:1-19. It is worth while to set out the three lists in order to see the resemblances.
First, we set out the ten plagues when Moses confronted Pharaoh with the wrath of God.
(i) The water made into blood (Exodus 7:20-25).
(ii) The frogs (Exodus 8:5-14).
(iii) The lice (Exodus 8:16-18).
(iv) The flies (Exodus 8:20-24).
(v) The plague on the cattle (Exodus 9:3-6).
(vi) The boils and sores (Exodus 9:8-11).
(vii) The thunder and the hail (Exodus 9:22-26).
(viii) The locusts (Exodus 10:12-19).
(ix) The darkness (Exodus 10:21-23).
(x) The slaying of the first-born (Exodus 12:29-30).
Second, we set out the terrors which followed the sounding of the seven trumpets.
(i) The coming of hail, fire and blood, through which a
third part of the trees and all the green grass are
withered (Revelation 8:7).
(ii) The flaming mountain cast into the sea, whereby one
third of the sea becomes blood (Revelation 8:8).
(iii) The fall of the star Wormwood into the waters,
whereby the waters become bitter and poisonous
(iv) The smiting of one third of the sun and the moon and
the stars, whereby all is darkened (Revelation 8:12).
(v) The coming of the star who unlocks the pit of the
abyss, from which comes the smoke out of which come
the demonic locusts (Revelation 9:1-12).
(vi) The loosing of the four angels bound in the Euphrates
and the coming of the demonic cavalry from the east
(vii) The announcement of the final victory of God and of
the rebellious anger of the nations (Revelation 11:15).
Third, we set out the terrors of this chapter.
(i) The coming of the ulcerous sores upon men (Revelation 16:2).
(ii) The sea becoming like the blood of a dead man
(iii) The rivers and fountains becoming blood (Revelation 16:4).
(iv) The sun becoming scorchingly hot (Revelation 16:8).
(v) The darkness over the kingdom of the beast, and its
agony (Revelation 6:10).
(vi) The drying up of the Euphrates to open a way for the
hordes of the kings of the east (Revelation 16:12).
(vii) The pollution of the air and the accompanying terrors
in nature, the thunder, the earthquake, the lightning
and the hail (Revelation 16:17-21).
It is easy to see how many things these lists have in common--the hail, the darkness, the blood in the waters, the ulcerous sores, the coming of the terrible hordes from beyond the Euphrates. But in the Revelation there is this difference between the terrors which follow the trumpets and the terrors which follow the pouring out of the bowls. In the former the destruction is always limited, for instance, to one third of the earth; but in the latter the destruction is complete on the enemies of God.
In this final series of terrors John seems to have gathered together the horrors from all the stories of the avenging wrath of God and to have hurled them on the unbelieving world in one last terrible deluge of disaster.
The Terrors Of God (Revelation 16:1-11)
The voice from the temple is the voice of God who is despatching his angelic messengers with their terrors upon men.
The first terror is a plague of malignant and ulcerous sores. The word is the same as is used to describe the boils and the sores in the plague in Egypt (Exodus 9:8-11); the pains which will follow disobedience to God (Deuteronomy 28:35); the sores of the tortured Job (Job 2:7).
The second terror is the turning of the waters of the sea into blood; this and the following terror, the turning of the rivers and the springs into blood, is reminiscent of the turning of the waters of the Nile into blood in the days of the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7:17-21). It may be that the thought of a sea of blood came to John in Patmos; often there he must have seen the sea like blood in the dying splendour of the sunset.
In Hebrew thought every natural force--the wind, the sun, the rain, the waters--had its directing angel. These angels were the ministering servants of God, placed in charge of various departments of nature. It might have been thought that the angel of the waters would have been angry to see the waters turned into blood; but even he admits the justice of God's action. In Revelation 16:6 the reference is to actual persecution in the Roman Empire. God's dedicated ones are the members of the Christian Church; the prophets are not the Old Testament prophets but the prophets of the Christian Church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11), who, being the leaders of the Church, were always the first to suffer in any time of persecution. The grim punishment of those who have shed the blood of the leaders and of the rank and file of the Church is that the waters will be gone from the earth and there will be nothing but blood to drink.
In Revelation 16:7 the voice of the altar praises the justice of the judgments of God. This may be the voice of the angel of the altar, for the altar, too, had its angel; or the idea may be this. The altar in heaven is the place where both the prayers of his people and the lives of his martyrs are offered as a sacrifice to God; and the voice of the altar may be, so to speak, the voice of Christ's praying and suffering Church praising the justice of God when his wrath falls upon their persecutors.
The fourth terror is the scorching of the world by the sun; the fifth is the coming of the thick darkness, reminiscent of the darkness which came upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21-23).
In Revelation 16:9; Revelation 16:11 and Revelation 16:21 we have a kind of refrain which runs through this chapter. The men on whom these terrors fell cursed God--but they did not repent, impervious alike to the goodness and to the severity of God (Romans 11:22). It is the picture of men who had no doubt of the existence of God and even saw his hand in events--and who still went their own way.
We are bound to ask ourselves whether we are so very different. We do not doubt the existence of God; we know that God is interested in us and in the world which he has made; we are well aware of God's laws; we know his goodness and we know that sin has its punishment; and yet time and time again we go our own way.
The Hordes From The East (Revelation 16:12)
This gives us a picture of the drying up of the Euphrates and the opening of a way for the hordes of the east to descend upon the world.
One of the curious features of the Old Testament is the number of times when the drying up of the waters is a sign of the power of God. It was so at the Red Sea. "The Lord drove the sea back...and made the sea dry land" (Exodus 14:21). It was so at Jordan, when the people under Joshua passed through the river. "All the Israelites passed over on dry ground" (Joshua 3:17). In Isaiah the act of the power of God is that he will enable men to pass through the Egyptian sea dry-shod (Isaiah 11:16). The threat of God's vengeance in Jeremiah is: "I will dry up her sea, and make her fountain dry" (Jeremiah 51:36). "All the depths of the Nile," says Zechariah, "shall dry up" (Zechariah 10:11).
It may well be that here John is actually remembering a famous incident in history. Herodotus tells us (1: 191) that when Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon he did so by drying up the Euphrates. The river flows right through the centre of Babylon. When Cyrus came to Babylon her defences seemed so strong that her capture seemed impossible. Cyrus formed a brilliant plan. He left one section of his army at Babylon and another he took up the river. By a magnificent engineering feat he temporarily deflected the course of the river into a lake. The level of the river dropped and in the end the channel of the river through Babylon became a dry road; along that road there was a breach in the defences and by that road the Persians gained an entry into Babylon, and the city fell.
John is using a picture which was engraved in the minds of all in his generation. The greatest enemies of Rome, the one nation she could not subjugate, were the Parthians who lived beyond the Euphrates. Their cavalry was the most dreaded force of fighting men in the world. For the cavalry of the Parthians to come sweeping across the Euphrates was a thought to strike terror into the bravest heart. Further, as we have already seen, it was to Parthia that Nero was said to have gone; and it was from Parthia that Nero redivivus was expected to come back; in other words, it was from across the Euphrates that the invasion of Antichrist was expected.
The Unclean Spirits Like Frogs (Revelation 16:13-16)
These four verses are full of problems which must be solved if their meaning is to become reasonably clear.
Three unclean spirits, like frogs, came out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.
In the Greek there is a kind of play on words. The unclean spirits came out of the mouths of the evil forces. The mouth is the organ of speech and speech is one of the most influential forces in the world. Now the word for spirit is pneuma (Greek #4151) which is also the word for breath. To say, therefore, that an evil spirit came out of a man's mouth is the same as to say that an evil breath came out of his mouth. As H. B. Swete puts it, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet "breathed forth evil influences."
It is said that the unclean spirits were like frogs.
(i) Frogs are connected with plagues. One of the plagues in Egypt was a plague of frogs (Exodus 8:5-11). "He sent frogs...which destroyed them," says the Psalmist (Psalms 78:45). "Their land swarmed with frogs even in the chambers of their kings" (Psalms 105:30).
(ii) Frogs are unclean animals. Although not mentioned by name, they are included by definition in the list of unclean things in the water and the sea which begins in Leviticus 11:10. The frog stands for an unclean influence.
(iii) Frogs are famous for their empty and continuous croaking--brekekekex coax coax, as Aristophanes transliterated it. "The frog," said Augustine, "is the most loquacious of vanities (Homily on Ps 77:27). The sound the frog makes is the symbol of meaningless speech.
(iv) In Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion, frogs are the bringer of plagues and the agent of Ahriman, the power of darkness, in his struggle against Ormuzd, the power of light. It is fairly certain that John would know this bit of Persian lore.
So, then, to say that frogs came out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet is to say that their words were like plagues, were unclean, were empty futilities, and were the allies of the power of the dark.
The False Prophet (Revelation 16:13-16 Continued)
Our next problem is to identify the false prophet. The dragon is identified as Satan (Revelation 12:3;Revelation 12:9). The beast, the Roman Empire with its Caesar worship, has already appeared inRevelation 13:1. But this is the first time the false prophet has appeared upon the scene. Since he appears without any explanation, we must assume that John believes that the reader already has the key to his identity.
The false prophet was a figure whom God's people were well warned to expect both in the Old and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament men are forbidden to listen to the false prophet, however impressive his signs may be, and it is laid down that the punishment for the false prophet is death (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). It was part of the regular duty of the Sanhedrin to deal with the false prophet and to condemn him to death. The Christian Church was warned that false Christs and false prophets would arise to seduce Christ's people (Mark 13:22). H. B. Swete says of these false prophets that the name covers a whole class--"magic-vendors, religious impostors, fanatics, whether deceivers or deceived, regarded as persons who falsely interpret the mind of God. True religion has no worse enemies and Satan no better allies."
The false prophet is mentioned here and in Revelation 19:20 and Revelation 20:10; if we place two passages together, we will find a clue to his identity. Revelation 19:20 tells us that in the end the false prophet was captured along with the beast and he is described as the person who worked miracles before the beast, and deceived those who had the mark of the beast and worshipped its image. In Revelation 13:13-14 we have a description of the second beast, the beast from the land; it is said that this second beast does great wonders...and that he deceives those who dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. That is to say, the works of the false prophet and the works of the second beast are identical; so, then, the false prophet and the beast from the land are to be identified. We have already seen that that beast is to be identified with the provincial organisation for the enforcement of emperor worship. The false prophet, then, stands for the organization which seeks to make men worship the emperor and abandon the worship of Jesus Christ.
A man who tries to introduce the worship of other gods, who tries to make men compromise with the state or with the world, who tries to seduce other men from the exclusive worship of God is always a false prophet.
Armageddon (Revelation 16:13-16 Continued)
__Revelation 16:1-21 __
We have still another problem to solve in this passage. The evil spirits went out and stirred up the kings of all the earth to bring them to battle. The idea of a final conflict between God and the forces of evil is an old one. We find it in Psalms 2:2 : "The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and his anointed."
This battle was to take place at what the King James and Revised Standard Versions call Armageddon (Greek #717). Moffatt has Harmagedon. The English Revised Version has Har-Magedon. Even the name is uncertain.
Magedon or Maggedon may well be connected with the name Megiddo (Hebrew #4023). Megiddo is in the Plain of Esdraelon, which was part of the great highway from Egypt to Damascus. From the most ancient times to the time of Napoleon it was one of the great battle-grounds of the world. This was the plain where Barak and Deborah overthrew Sisera and his chariots ( 5:19-21); where Ahaziah died by the arrows of Jehu (2 Kings 9:27); where the good Josiah perished in battle with Pharaoh Necho (2 Kings 23:29-30), a tragedy which burned itself into the Jewish mind and which the Jews never forgot (Zechariah 12:11). It was a battle-ground, as H. B. Swete says, "familiar to a student of Hebrew history."
Armageddon (Greek #717) would mean the city of Megiddo; Harmagedon would mean the mountain (compare har, Hebrew #2022) of Megiddo. It is most likely that the latter form is right, and yet the plain seems a much more likely battle-ground than the mountains. But there is another strand to add to this. When Ezekiel was describing the last struggle with Gog and Magog, he said that the final victory would be won in the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 38:8; Ezekiel 38:21; Ezekiel 39:2; Ezekiel 39:4; Ezekiel 39:17). It may well be that John spoke of the Mount of Megiddo to bring his story into line with the ancient prophecy.
By far the most likely view is that the word is Har-Magedon, and that it describes the region near Megiddo in the Plain of Esdraelon which was perhaps the most storied of all battle-grounds in Jewish history.
We must mention two other views of this strange word. Gunkel thought that it went back to the old Babylonian story of the struggle between Marduk, the creator, and Tiamat, the ancient power of chaos. But it is less than likely that John knew that story.
Another view connects it with Isaiah 14:13 where Lucifer is made to say: "Above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly." The Babylonians believed that there was a mountain called Aralu in the north country, which, rather like Olympus in Greece, was the home of the gods. Lucifer is going to take his seat among the gods; it has been suggested that the Mount of Mageddon is this mountain, and that the picture is of a last battle against the assembled gods in their own dwelling-place.
Nature At War (Revelation 16:17-21)
The seventh bowl was poured out upon the air. H. B. Swete speaks of "the air that all men breathe." If the air was polluted, the very life of man was attacked at its source. Nature became at war with man. That was what happened. There came lightning and thunder and earthquake. The first century was notable for earthquakes, but John says that, whatever horror the world has known from the shaking earth, the earthquake to come will far surpass them all.
The great Babylon, that is Rome, is split into three. Rome had thought that she could do as she liked with impunity--but now her sin was remembered and her fate was on the way. The mills of God may grind slowly but in the end there is no escape for sin.
The earthquake sank the islands and levelled the mountains. The last of the terrible features was a deadly hail in which the hailstones weighed as much as a hundredweight. Here is another recurring feature of the manifestations of the wrath of God. A devastating hail was part of the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:24). In the battle with the five Amorite kings at Beth-horon, under Joshua, there came a great hail upon the enemies of Israel so that more died by the hailstones than died by the sword (Joshua 10:11). Isaiah speaks of the tempest of hail and the destroying storm which God in his judgment will send (Isaiah 28:2). Ezekiel speaks of God pleading with men with pestilence and blood, and sending an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire, and brimstone (Ezekiel 38:22).
The emptying of the seven bowls of wrath upon the earth ends with the chorus which has run all through the chapter. The men to whom these things happened remained impervious to any appeal of God's love or God's anger. God has given men the terrible responsibility of being able to lock their hearts against him.
Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24 tell of the fall of Babylon. Revelation 17:1-18 is one of the most difficult in the Revelation. The best way in which to study it is first to read it as a whole; then to make certain general identifications and so to see the general line of thought in it; and finally to study it in some detail. This will involve a certain amount of repetition, but in a section like this repetition is necessary.