THE WRATH OF GOD AND THE LAMB – [2] The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath – Revelation 16

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

The command comes from the sanctuary ‘Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth’. John then describes the vision of the seven angels, each going and pouring out his bowl and the ‘last plague’ [15:1] that it contained. This process is interrupted twice: once by the ‘angel in charge of the waters’ affirming the justice of God’s judgments which is then affirmed by ‘the altar’, and the second time by words spoken by Jesus Christ.

There are all sorts of difficulties in understanding this chapter. These include:

[1] The many and varied interpretations given to each of the seven expressions of God’s wrath. Even among scholars with the same ‘millennial’ view, interpretations differ.

[2] To what extent we are to view the physical phenomena listed as actual physical phenomena, and, conversely, to what extent we should see the physical phenomena as symbolic.

[3] The legitimacy or otherwise of interpreting various elements in these plagues as references to specific world leaders, nations, cities or events in a given era.

[4] The relationship of these seven bowls of wrath to the previous visions, in particular the seven trumpets, and to the visions yet to come.

[5] Whether or not these bowls of wrath are entirely about the final ‘day of wrath’ or include preliminary judgments also.

[6] A related question is: what is the relationship of these seven plagues to each other? Do they all occur simultaneously? Or are they about consecutive events? And, are they each symbolising one-off events, or events that each last for some time?

The approach taken in these studies – that Revelation is composed of seven parallel sections each covering the entire era from the first coming of Christ to the final judgment – facilitates our understanding of Chapters 15 and 16. So also does the belief expressed repeatedly in these studies that what we read here was relevant to its original readers, and is just as relevant to every generation of believers in every part of the world. We cannot bind these events to a specific historical, time-bound, location-bound manifestation of evil or of judgment which would render them meaningless to all other times and locations.

The redeemed are not mentioned in this vision of the out-pouring of God’s wrath in Revelation 16, except for the angel’s reference to their martyrdom in verse 6. They are beyond the reach of what is happening here, for we have seen the redeemed standing beside the ‘sea’ in the presence of God in 15:1-4, singing the song of the Lamb. This, in just these few words, refers to the first coming of Jesus Christ and its saving impact, for ‘the Lamb’ has already been identified as having the marks of slaughter upon him [5:6]. The entire age of witness and suffering is encompassed by the angel’s reference in 16:6. At the same time 15:2-4 takes us beyond the final judgment to the secure eternal position of the redeemed in the presence of God. From the perspective of the original readers, and of any believer who is suffering persecution and pressure because of their faith, these verses about the redeemed are the most important part of Chapters 15-16.

Note that when Moses sang his original song [Exodus 15] the redeemed from Egypt were already across the sea, and the enemy had already been exterminated. The sea through which they had travelled safely by God’s grace was the same sea that destroyed the enemy. The same glory of God that had saved them spelled death to the enemy. The same power of God that liberated them brought the enemy to its end. The redeemed sang the song of victory – exalting in the power and glory of God.

That power and glory of God, of which the full number of the redeemed from all the nations are singing, and which has brought them safely across the ‘sea’, is now also revealed in Chapter 16 as it executes the complete wrath of God upon the unrepentant.

Notes:
There seems to be a deliberate reference in Revelation 15 and 16 to the great redemptive action of God recorded in Exodus. While there are obvious differences, there are also a number of similarities:

(1) As mentioned above, in both the redeemed are seen on the safe side of the sea, singing of God’s power and justice.

(2) There is similarity of the plagues of Revelation 16 to some of the plagues experienced by Egypt in Exodus 7:14ff [plague of blood], 8:1ff [plague of frogs], plague of boils [9:8ff], plague of hail [9:13ff]; plague of darkness [10:21ff].

(3) The people of God are immune from both series of plagues.

(4) In both the reaction of the godless is further hardening of heart, rather than submission to God.

(5) In both the ‘enemy’ is soundly disposed of.


A. THOSE WHO EXPERIENCE THESE PLAGUES

As mentioned above, the redeemed are already secure in the presence of God. There are several facts in Chapter 16 that indicate that these plagues fell only on unbelievers:

[1] The bowls are the ‘bowls of God’s wrath’ – verse 1. The redeemed have already been delivered from God’s wrath by the death of Jesus Christ, and are therefore not subject to it.

Suggested reading:
John 3:36
Romans 5:9
1Thessalonians 1:10
1Thessalonians 5:9

[2] Verse 1 also states that this wrath is to be poured out ‘on the earth’. We have seen previously that the ‘inhabitants of the earth’ are frequently contrasted to the ‘saints’ in Revelation. The phrase ‘the earth’ in 16:1 refers to these ‘inhabitants of the earth’ who have refused to repent. It is upon them, not the redeemed, that God’s wrath is poured out.

[3] The first plague affects only those people ‘who had the mark of the beast and worshipped his image’. We have seen previously that it is ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ who worship the beast – ‘all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb’ [13:8].

[4] The second and third plagues turn all water to blood. It is obviously only the unrepentant who are impacted because an angel affirmed the justice of this plague by referring to the fact that those suffering from it ‘have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink’ [verse 6].

[5] The human response to the fourth, fifth and seventh plagues is refusal to repent [verses 9,11], refusal to glorify God [verses 9, 11], and cursing God [verses 9,11,21]. These are the actions of the godless, not the actions of the redeemed.

[6] The response to the sixth plague is deliberate and concerted defiance against God [verses 14,16].


B. COMPARING CHAPTER 16 TO PREVIOUS VISIONS

Various types of calamities have been reported in Revelation. These are:

Physical and economic difficulties experienced by the redeemed because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ [6:3-6; see also references in the letters to the seven churches].

Death that is common to believers and unbelievers alike [6:7-8].

Restricted preliminary judgments sent by God [8:6-13; 9:13-21; 11:13].

Events on the ‘day of judgment’, ‘the day of wrath’ [6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:8-20].

What we are reading in Chapter 16 parallels the events recorded in the last of the above.

This is not about what unbelievers are doing to believers: it is God’s wrath pouring out on the godless.

This is not restricted, preliminary judgments – they impacted only ‘a third’ of mankind, these are global. Because they were preliminary warnings or foretastes of the final judgment they bear some similarity to the final judgment. But also, because of this similarity the cut-off point between preliminary and final is not immediately clear to the human observer. To assume that it is would be extremely foolish. [See D.2.1 and E. below.]

Nor is it the ‘death’ that is common to believers and unbelievers. But here we need to pause and rephrase this statement, because, at a basic level the utter chaos and disintegration brought on by these seven plagues actually is the ‘death’ that we all deserve, but which God in his grace has held back during all those years between Genesis 3 and this complete out-pouring of his wrath.

When God warned in Genesis 2:17 ‘you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’ everything that we read of here in Revelation 16 was excluded by God’s gracious ‘No!’

Similarly, Moses spoke for God: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life … For the LORD is your life…’ [Deuteronomy 30:19,20].

Similarly, Ezekiel spoke for God: ‘Repent! Turn away from all your offences … and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die …? I take no pleasure in the death of anyone … Repent and live!’ [Ezekiel 18:30,32].

This out-pouring of God’s complete wrath, symbolised in these seven bowls, could have, in strict justice, occurred in Genesis 3. But God’s amazing grace had already planned redemption in advance, before he created the world: the Lamb was already slain, before the creation of the world. So the ‘death’ that came upon us in Genesis 3, although severe, and although impacting us in all aspects and relationships of our human existence, was an act of God’s indescribable grace, allowing room and time for the revelation of his mercy and room and time for our repentance.

But in Revelation 16, and the other passages listed in the final point above, and others we are yet to encounter in Revelation, the time for repentance is over. The real and ultimate ‘death’ has come. The ultimate reality excluded by the prohibition in Genesis 2:17 falls upon the inhabitants of the earth – upon all those whose names are not written in the book of the Lamb slain from the creation of the earth.

B.1 Comparing Revelation 16 with 6:12-17
Although 6:12-17 gives a briefer description of the Day of Judgment than Chapter 16, in both of these passages:

It is the day of God’s wrath - 6:16,17; 16:1.
There is a great earthquake - 6:12; 16:18-20.
There is darkness - 6:12,13; 16:10.
The mountains and islands are moved - 6:14; 16:20,
Men do not turn to God in repentance - 6:16,17; 16:9,11,14,21.

B.2 Comparing Revelation 16 with 11:15-19
Again, the description in Chapter 16 is more comprehensive. The vision of the seventh trumpet focuses more on the victory of God than on the out-pouring of his wrath. Even in the minimal references to the wrath and the judgment we find the following similarities:

God ‘wrath has come’ -11:18; 16:1.

The nations were angry – 11:18; 16:14,16.

It is the time of destruction of the unrepentant – 11:18; all of Chapter 16.

The justice of this wrath is noted – 11:18 ‘destroying those who destroy the earth’; 16:6.

There is clear awareness that this is the complete end of all that is evil, and of the judgment – 11:15,17; (15:1); 16:17.

There are ‘lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder’ – 11:19; 16:18.

There is an earthquake – 11:19; 16:18-20.

There is a great hailstorm – 11:19; 16:21.

B.3 Comparing Revelation 16 with 14:8-20
The vision of the day of wrath in 14 is far more comprehensive than those in chapters 6 and 11. At this point in Revelation the trilogy of evil has been revealed and the judgments poured out include reference to the impact of this trilogy.

The events are understood in terms of God’s wrath – 14:10,19; 16:1.

Reference is made to the wrath of God poured out on ‘Babylon’ – 14:8; 16:19.

The judgment falls on those who worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark – 14:9,11; 16:2.

Pain and painful sores are mentioned – 14:10 (burning sulphur, and torment); 16:2,10-11.

‘The earth’ is the focus of the judgment – 14:16; 16:1.

In both visions ‘angels’ are the agents of the judgment – 14:17-19; 16 – multiple references.

The justice of the judgment is indicated – 14:12 (there the knowledge of the judgment that will fall on their oppressors promotes the ‘patient endurance’ of the saints), 16:6.

But not everything that happens on ‘the last day’ has been described in these visions of the end. There are still other aspects that are not included. These are revealed in the following chapters which give us further visions of the end.

 

C. A BRIEF COMPARISON WITH LATER VISIONS

Revelation 15 and 16 focuses on the impact of ‘the last battle’ on ‘the inhabitants of the earth’. In Revelation 17 and 18 the focus is on what happens to ‘Babylon, the great harlot’. In Revelation 19 we learn the outcome for the ‘beast’ and the ‘false prophet’, and in Revelation 20, the outcome for the devil. These visions are not telling us about four different events, but about the same event, the one last battle, the last out-pouring of God’s wrath, as it impacts the five different ‘enemies’ of God and of the redeemed.

Also in Revelation 20 is, as something distinct from ‘the last battle’, is the day of judgment specifically as it relates to human beings. There ‘the dead’ all rise to come before the Judge, which includes all those died physically in the final out-pouring of God’s wrath.

 

D. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SEVEN PLAGUES?

The number of the plagues of God’s wrath is ‘seven’ – indicating the perfect expression of God’s wrath, the perfect judgment. It is perfect in that it is complete and it is perfect in that it is just and true.

The text of Revelation 15 and 16 give us some definite facts about these seven plagues:

They are the last plagues – 15:1.
The plagues occur when the seven angels pour out their bowls on the earth – 16:1.
The bowls are filled with God’s wrath. 15:7; 16:1.
They constitute the final and complete out-pouring of God’s wrath - 15:1; 16:17.

What we are reading here is a symbolic revelation of ‘the end of the world’. It is not the only symbolic description of ‘the end of the world’ given in Revelation, as we have seen above. This vision does not tell us everything about it, but it is ‘the end of the world’. This is the final out-pouring of the wrath of God, as viewed, primarily but not exclusively, from the perspective of its impact on ‘the inhabitants of the earth’.

We learn from Revelation 16 the following facts about the final and complete expression of God’s wrath:

[1] This complete and final expression of God’s wrath is global. In contrast to the preliminary judgments brought on by the first six of the trumpets it affects the whole earth. Human beings [16:2], the sea and all that is in it [16:3], the rivers and springs of water, and all who depend on them for life [16:4], the sun and the people upon whom the sun shines [16:8,9].

[2] This complete and final expression of God’s wrath is directed towards the throne and the kingdom of ‘the beast’ [16:10]. We are not told in this vision how it impacted the beast; that comes in Chapter 19. But we are told that this wrath poured out on the beast’s ‘throne’ and ‘kingdom’ also affected ‘men’ [16:11]. It is ‘men’ who are under the dominion of the beast – subject to his ‘throne’, his rule, and in his ‘kingdom’. When the angel pours out his bowl on the throne and kingdom of the beast he is pouring his bowl out on the inhabitants of the earth, for they make up his kingdom.

[3] This wrath comes when ‘the kings of the whole world’, deceived by ‘the dragon, the beast and the false prophet’, are united in their opposition against God [16:12-14,16].

D.1 What the angel of the waters and the ‘altar’ said – verses 5-7
The interruption of the description of the plagues by the ‘angel in charge of the waters’ stresses the justice of God’s ‘judgments’. His words are instructive:

He addresses God as ‘you who are and who were’ [verse 5], just as the twenty-four elders did in 11:17. Like them he omits the ‘and is to come’. In this event, this complete pouring out of God’s wrath, these ‘last’ plagues, he who ‘was to come’ has come. In Revelation 17-19 that coming will be described in some detail, particularly in Chapter 19.

He addresses God as ‘the Holy One’, the God of the Old Testament who alone is God and who alone is worthy of worship, and whose presence and reality exposes the worthlessness of the ‘gods’ of men and the insignificance of ‘the nations’.

He affirms the perfect justice of this outpouring of God’s wrath.

His affirmation of God’s pure justice is informed by his knowledge of history: the blood of all the people of God, from Abel through to Jesus Christ, and through to the end, shed by the inhabitants of the earth.

We then read that John ‘heard the altar respond’ to what the angel had said. The altar’s response was to affirm the truth and justice of God’s judgments. What is referred to here by ‘the altar’?  The most obvious answer is that it refers to the ‘souls’ of the martyrs which we have previously seen ‘under the altar’ [6:9-11] where they asked God how long it would be before he judged the inhabitants of the earth and avenged their blood. [Note: some translations have ‘another angel out of’ before ‘the altar’, based on some old manuscripts which are deemed less reliable than those on which more recent translations are based.]

D.2 The interjection of Jesus Christ – verse 15
This interjection, which interrupts the vision of the bowls of wrath, is not part of the actual vision. It is the first time John has heard the direct words of Jesus since the seven letters were dictated in Chapters 2 and 3. It is a particularly urgent and important interjection. It parallels a truth taught by Jesus, Paul and Peter in the context of teaching about the return of Jesus Christ in judgment. It is similar, also, to two statements made by Christ in the epilogue in Revelation 22:7 and12 in which he states that he is ‘coming soon’, sometimes translated as ‘coming quickly’.

D.2.1 I come like a thief …
The ‘end of the world’ is being described, and the potential for people to think that they can leave ‘repentance’ until they start seeing the ‘signs’ of the end is great. But such a mindset is both ignorant and arrogant. Although the elements of this vision make it seem that the ‘signs’ of the end will be quite visible and recognizable, Jesus here, and elsewhere, affirms that he ‘comes like a thief’ – that is to say, unexpectedly. Anticipation of his coming is not possible.

Matthew 24:43: ‘If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’

1Thessalonians 5:2.4: ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night … you are not in the darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief’.

2Peter 3:10: ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief’.

Revelation 3:3: ‘if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you’. See also 2:16 and 3:11 where Jesus says he is ‘coming quickly’.

It is clear that Jesus assumes that there are some in the ‘visible church’ who are hearing or reading the words of Revelation, who have heard the truth of the Gospel, but have neither truly believed nor truly repented. They hold very loosely to the things they have been taught. It is to these in particular that his urgent interjection is addressed. If anyone is ‘hedging their bets’ or ‘sitting on the fence’ hanging onto their human independence and waiting for the last possible moment to really turn to Jesus, they are playing a fool’s game. He comes ‘like a thief’ – the day and the hour unannounced.

Similarly, there are also those in the ‘visible church’ who are the ‘redeemed’, members of the ‘church invisible’ ‘the saints’. But the pressure on believers, as we have seen throughout Revelation, is great. The temptation to take the easy way and ‘give in and give up’ is great. Jesus’ intrusion into the vision of the end in 16:15 is also aimed at all of us, as an urgent encouragement to us, not to succumb. The end is near, this end being symbolically revealed in this vision. Hang in there! Don’t give up! Stay awake! Keep trusting in him with whose righteousness you have been clothed!

D.2.2 Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him …
Jesus’ interjection is an urgent warning to be ready. It is addressed to John and to his readers: like the repeated warnings given elsewhere by Jesus and the apostles, it urges us to ‘watch’ and ‘be ready’ regardless of the pressures and the circumstances, because the day, the hour, of Christ’s coming cannot be identified in advance.

Suggested reading:
Matthew 24:42
Matthew 25:1-13
Mark 13:32-37
Luke 12:35-46
Romans 13:11-14
1Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
1Peter 4:7
2Peter 3:3-15

‘stays awake’ includes not only being awake, but being alert and watchful. In the above references it commands alertness in regard to all three manifestations of the pressure applied against the saints by the evil one – physical persecution, false teaching and moral temptations.

‘keeps his clothes with him … etc’ calls up the image of a soldier always ready for the battle, not sleeping naked, but always clothed.  The Bible uses this image of being clothed in two distinct ways [1] that we should put on the full armour of God – of which each item is God’s truth by which we are saved [Ephesians 6:10-17] – this protects us against the evil one’s deceptions and accusations; [2] that we should clothe ourselves with ‘the armour of light’ – with Christ instead of the deeds of darkness [Romans 13:12-14; Ephesians 4:20-24] – this protects us against the evil one’s temptations.

This interjection of Jesus Christ, interrupting the visions of his wrath, warns John’s readers to be ready when he comes – for he comes to get them first, immediately before this multi-faceted outpouring of wrath.


E. THE TIMING OF THESE PLAGUES

The interjection of Jesus – that he comes ‘like a thief’ – makes it difficult to uphold any thought that these seven plagues, these seven bowls of God’s wrath, occur in a consecutive sequence. If everyone knows that the sores come before the bloody sea, and the bloody sea before the bloody rivers and springs, and the bloody rivers and springs before the burning heat of the sun, and so on, then everyone also knows that they have more time in which to repent and can take a risk and have a final fling at wickedness before submitting to God.

But that is not the way it works. Jesus comes ‘like a thief’. Not like a train that moves from one station to the next so that his arrival can be timed and predicted because of a sequence that must be followed. No communication technology can give advance warning of his coming. No text messages, no internet networks, no communication satellites – nothing will be able to warn others anywhere on the globe. It will happen instantly, and it will happen globally.  

For the same reason, we will not see ‘the kings of the earth’ gathered together for battle at a place called ‘Armageddon’ (this is a symbolic reference indicating a decisive battle, a great slaughter), for that would immediately warn that Jesus was about to come. He comes ‘like a thief’.

These seven angels are together commanded to ‘Go, and pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth’ [16:1]. Together the calamities that come when God’s wrath is poured out ‘on the earth’ comprise the final and complete expression of God’s wrath – agony, heat and darkness, death, imploding cities, physical chaos, hard-hearted and hard-headed cursing of God even as death comes.  All of this, given in this symbolic vision, together, communicates the completeness, the horror and the inescapability of God’s wrath.

As we will see as we study the next two parallel sections of Revelation, the end, when it comes, comes with amazing and awesome rapidity.