Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! 4 Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come. and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
The seven bowls demonstrate that Revelation does not adopt a rigid chronological order. The bowls of Ch 15 precede the harvests of Ch 14. After a long interlude (11-14) we come to the third ‘seven’ of divine judgements in revelation, the seven bowls or plagues. That they are plagues suggests parallels with Israel and Egypt, a parallel that will prove to be true (Ch 16). The earlier seven seals and trumpets brought limited judgements initially. In the bowls, the judgements are absolute. The bowls bring God’s wrath to a consummation The bowls are introduced in Ch 15 but not revealed until Ch 16. Such is the magnitude of the judgements contained in the bowls that like the dragon and the woman they constitute a great sign (Ch12).
The pause between introducing the bowls and revealing them serves to heighten anticipation of this ‘sign, great and amazing’. It also serves to reveal the security of God’s people in days of world convulsing judgements.
John is seeing events in heaven. Before the final cataclysmic judgements fall God’s people are seen in heaven. The scene is proleptic. The judgements are assumed to be past The heavenly congregation are they who ‘conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name’; they have withstood political, religious and economic pressure to conform. Their death has been their victory. The harps probably identify them with the 144,000 (Ch 14),
The scene is the heavenly court, the throne room of God. The sea of glass (the heavenly laver) is mingled with fire (4:6). In one sense heaven is tranquil however the judgements of God are reflected in the fire. Or perhaps the fire represents the suffering of God’s people. The redeemed singing beside the sea of glass (all is now tranquil in God’s presence) is perhaps an allusion to Israel’s victory song beside the Red Sea having crossed over (Ex !5). Certainly the song they sing is the song of Moses and the Lamb.
The song of Moses and the song of the Lamb are praise for the mighty judging and saving acts of God – the Lord God Almighty. God is the divine warrior. In language drawn from a variety of OT texts, the might of the Lord who rules the nations is extolled. Great and marvellous are his works, here principally works of judgement (Deut 28:59,60; Ex 34:10). He is holy just and true (v3). He is righteous in his acts (v4). Both in judgement and salvation the Lord is to be feared. ‘Who is like the beast’ (13:4) becomes ‘Who will not fear you’. Only God is king of the nations, not Caesar and not the beast. The song of Moses (Ex 15) is a celebration of God overthrowing evil powers opposed to him and his people. God’s ways involve salvation through judgement. As he saves his people, he judges the wicked. The song of the Lamb is similar in that it involves the judging of evil and the rescue of his people. At the cross in a greater way than in Egypt God’s power and glory is displayed; there evil is overthrown, his people saved and Christ triumphs. These are God’s ‘great and amazing deeds’. Both his saving and judging are acts of righteousness (Roms 1:16, 2:1-5). The end-time people of God echo these songs. They too know salvation through divine judgement. Such a judging and redeeming God is worthy of the worship of all nations (Ps 86:9; isa 2:2-4, 66:23; Jer 16:19 Cf. Phil 2:11).
John then sees the open temple. Being open connects it to events on earth. The tent of witness (Ex 38:21) was part of the wilderness wandering of Israel. It expressed God’s covenant promises to his people and God’s presence with his people. It symbolised security against enemies and their overthrow. Seen in heaven these are perhaps to be understood as new covenant promises. From the sanctuary come the seven angels whose judgements will rain on the enemies of God and his people. They are dressed in pure white linen suggesting their purity and righteousness and so fitness to punish. Priestly clothes for those from the sanctuary. Golden belts or sashes are found elsewhere (Dan 10:5, 1:13).
The golden bowls reminds us of the prayers of the church (5:8). Here their prayers are answered in the golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Cf Isa 51:17,22 bowl cups). As God’s bowl cup of wrath was directed against Babylon in Isaiah 51 so it is directed against End-time Babylon and its kingdom (Ch 16). God’s outrage against sin is vast. It will be expressed in the bowls and with these the wrath of God in history will be finished. God, however, is not finished; he lives for ever and ever. The sanctuary filled with smoke reflects his glory and power. Here that glory is his full expression in judgement and like Sinai the temple cannot be approached. When Isaiah saw the Lord the house was filled with smoke and Isaiah was undone (Ex 40:35; Isa 6:4).
And so before these final judgements fall the triumph and security of God’s people is affirmed. Neither the beast nor divine judgements on the world need be a cause for fear.