rev 16… the seven bowls of wrath (2)

Revelation 16

1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”

2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.

3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.

4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say,

“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. 6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”

8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.

10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.

12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. 14 For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) 16 And they (he) assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

The Seventh Bowl

17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. 21 And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.

In studying Revelation the issue of deciding what is symbolic and what is literal is constant . Often it is not easy to be sure. We should normally start from the premise that we are normally reading symbolism. Symbolic representations of ultimate things are given to help us imagine what is otherwise beyond our grasp. Truth is conveyed through symbolism not necessarily intended to be taken literally. Yet not all is symbolic, Sometimes literal observations are laced through the symbolic. Are we to see the plagues as literal plagues? Or are they symbolic? Is the Euphrates literally dried to make way for kings from the East? Is there a real end-time battle at Megiddo in Israel? Is Babylon a real city or a symbol? These kind of questions are not always easy to answer. And certainly for a number of them I don’t know. We can, however, learn what is really important in the chapter even if we cannot always answer these questions. Often the really important things are obvious.

The bowls are the third and final series of judgements (preceded by the seals and trumpets). They are commissioned from heaven (v1) leaving us in no doubt these judgements are a divine initiative. These judgements bring God’s wrath to a conclusion (Jer 10:25). They are much more absolute than the previous judgements of the seals and trumpets, They are bookended by a ‘loud voice from the temple’ that commissions the bowls in v1 and announces their completion in v17. The voice, which comes from the throne, seems to be the voice of God (Cf. Isa 66:6). As with the seals and trumpets there is a (brief) interlude between the sixth and seventh bowl.

Like the judgements of the trumpets the bowls draw from the plagues of Egypt. The parallels with the plagues of Egypt are clear. Boils, sea of blood, darkness and frogs feature in both the bowls and the plagues of Egypt. Both Egypt and the kingdom of the beast act in defiance of God and persecute his people; the outcome is divine judgement. In the final kingdom of the beast there is even less inclination to repent than in Egypt. Instead they curse God (v9).

The bowls are poured out, largely at least, on the kingdom off the Beast. The first bowl is poured out on the earth but affects only those ‘who had the mark of the beast and worshipped its image’. They are covered in painful sores. Judgement is targeted at wilful idolatry. Possibly there remain countries that do not belong to the empire of the Beast just as there were countries that did not belong to Rome. Probably the main point is that the people of God are shielded from this judgement just as Israel was sheltered in Goshen from the plagues in Egypt (Ex 8:22,23).

The first two judgements like the fourth and fifth are complementary. The first two fall respectively on the land and sea. The fourth scorches with the sun and the fifth brings darkness. It is strange how lines cross. It was the dispensationalist writers i read who were more likely to treat the plagues symbolically and the final battle literally while others were inclined to treat the plagues literally (at least within the vision) and the battle metaphorically.

The plagues were certainly literal in Egypt and may well be real again. Climate change may even be part of God’s means to bring about such things. The wide scale pollution (the seas and rivers turned to blood). What is emphasised is death. The plague brings death. If literally true the ecological and economic consequences would be immense. Civilisation depends on the sea. God’s judgements will disrupt life and bring death.

Such judgements inevitably raise questions about the justice of God. A hostile world will accuse God of injustice and malevolency. God often only exists when things go wrong and someone is needed to blame. The angel in charge of the waters (angels not gods have responsibilities in creation) insists God is ‘just and true’. His justice as with all biblical justice is based on reaping what you sow and receiving what you give. It is ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘life for life’ (Ex 21:23). Thus those who shed blood, drink blood; they get what they deserve. The blood shed is that of God’s people, those the beast has persecuted. The altar (which earlier had souls under it) is personified and echoes the sentiments of the angel of the waters. Into the world God’s long anticipated judgement has come. God has come to judge. Perhaps that is why we are told God is he ‘who is and who was’. He is no longer ‘to come’ for he has now come.

The following two plagues ‘scorching sun and darkness’ (spiritual or literal) are devastating but it they do not prompt repentance. Instead they provoke cursing.. Such is the wickedness of the human heart. In neither pleasure nor pain do men seek God or glorify him (Roms 1:18-32). Darkness is a frequent sign of judgement in the OT (Joel 2:30,31; Isa 13:9-13, Ezek 32:6-8) while it seems in the Greco-Roman world fiery heat could be a sign of divine wrath. The first four bowls are about nature while the last three are more obviously political. In the fifth the throne of the beast was attacked.

The sixth bowl as with the sixth seal and sixth trumpet brings us to the brink of the end. We are expecting a dramatic judgement but we are told simply that the Euphrates is dried to make way for the kings from the East. In fact no catastrophe happens in the sixth bowl. Instead the Satanic trinity assemble the nations for battle. The great day of God Almighty is approaching, the day of the Lord (Zeph 1:14 Ezek 30:3). History is coming to a climax.

The nations assemble in a place called Armageddon. There is quite a bit that needs unpacked here. My comments are at best intended to stimulate reflection.

Firstly, the drying of the Euphrates and the kings of the East. In John’s day the Euphrates held at bay threats to Rome from the East such as the Parthians. According to Herodotus, when Cyrus the Persian invaded Babylon he did so by diverting and effectively drying the Euphrates (Cf. Isa 44::27,28; Jer 50:38). Both suggest the kings of the East are enemies of the beast and his empire (Isa 13; Jer 51:27,28). On the other hand, it may be God is facilitating the gathering of the nations for war. For although the beast summons it is actually the Lord who is gathering (Joel 3:1,2). Is the ‘he’ of v 16 ambiguous?

Armageddon, mentioned only here, seems to refer to Megiddo in Northern Israel 91kms from Jerusalem. It was the site of many battles against Israel not least the battle where Deborah overcame Sisera against impossible odds; the Lord gave them victory (Judgs 5). There too the last godly, if flawed, pre-exilic Davidic king, Josiah, was defeated (2 Chron 35:‘22). And so it is fitting that it should be the site of the final overthrow of the enemies of God and his people by the final godly Davidic king who will not be defeated but conquer takes place. Is the location literal or symbolic?

The beast is assembling his armies for war. Against whom? Against the kings from the East? Very possibly. Clearly he has invaded Israel for that is where Megiddo is. The OT envisages an invasion of the Holy Land by Antichrist. It describes an End-time attack on Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s plight is desperate and at that point the Lord comes from heaven to the Mount of Olives and overthrows her enemies (Dan 11:40-45; Joel 3:1-7; Zech 12-14; Mic 4:11-13)

The question is will these OT texts be fulfilled as they read or do they point forward to eschatological Israel, the church. Is it the church, citizens of the new Jerusalem, who are under attack by Antichrist or is it ethnic Israel? Is Armageddon to be understood literally or is it a symbol? Are these OT texts and this vision a metaphor for a final drive by Antichrist to eliminate the people of God? I find the detail of these OT texts draws me to the more literal interpretation but even as I write this I recognise OT texts are often interpreted in the NT in ways that are not immediately obvious in the OT but in retrospect make sense. To some extent we need to take into account that ‘Zechariah uses the language of “prophetic idiom,” i.e., the OT prophets speak of Messiah’s eternal kingdom using the language and limited frame of reference of their own physical, Israelite context.’ I have no final view at this point, even while standing on the shoulders of others.

The antichrist in Dan 11 seems all powerful. Yet we read ‘he shall come to his end with none to help him.’ (Dan 11:45). When Jerusalem is about to be crushed we read, ‘Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem’. Zechariah speaks of mourning on the plain of Megiddo (Zech 12:11).

In the sixth bowl the beast is gathering a huge army to fight the people of God and just at this point John has an interlude. It is the third of seven beatitudes in the book. It is written to the church to both encourage and warn. Its opening words are ‘behold I am coming like a thief”. Antichrist is attacking God’s people but he has not reckoned with the unexpected return of Christ. He will come to the Mount of Olives and bring all rebellion to an end (Zech 14:4; Acts 1:11). He has come like a thief (Matt 24:43; 1 Thess 5:2-4; 2 Pet 3:1) unexpectedly to deliver his people and judge the nations. Only his people, those who have kept awake and remained loyal to Christ (clothed and not naked) will rejoice on that day (2:2, 3:17).

The seventh bowl as with the seventh seal and seventh trumpet brings history to a conclusion. The loud voice from the temple again speaks (v1, 17). Here the focus is Babylon and the cities of the world. Civilisation and human culture collapses under the judgement of God. Indeed creation itself seems to be collapsing. On the cross Christ’s cry of ‘It is finished’ signalled the end of the divine wrath of his atoning ‘day of the Lord’ was complete. Here the wrath of of that final ‘day of the God almighty’ is completed. It is accompanied by familiar features of divine judgement, fearsome storms and earthquakes that express divine wrath. Yet once more God has shaken the earth (Hebs 12; Rev 6:12-14.8:5, 11:19 Cf. Joel 2:30,31). Only God has a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebs 12:28). Hail of enormous proportions (100lbs) rains down (Isa 30:30; Ex 9:18,24). Creation fights for its Creator. And the response is, we read, ‘they cursed God’. Not only do the nations refuse to repent they curse God.

There have been various glimpses of the end from various perspectives in Revelation. How Babylon and the Beast meet their end is yet to be revealed. We find this out in the following chapters. These chapters humble us before God. They cause us to question our ways and prompt us to find refuge in Christ. God has risen yet once more to shake the earth.


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