Let the Word Speak!

Vision 5: The Seven Plagues of Wrath

Opening scene in heaven (15:1 – 15:4)

1 And I saw another sign [”portent”] in heaven, great and marvellous [”amazing”], seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up [”finished”] the wrath of God.

The word that the KJV translates as “filled up” is the Greek word teleo. This intentionally was the same Greek word used in John 19:30 when Jesus on the cross said, “it is finished.”

John alluded to the end to come with the silence at the end of the first vision and with the rejoicing at the end of the second. He used the image of harvesting twice at the end of the fourth vision to convey the final judgement that is the focus of this vision.

The term “marvelous” or “amazing,” is the Greek thaumaston, meaning “of wonder.” This word is also used in Matthew 21:42 to speak of God choosing the stone that the builders rejected. The context of both the Matthew account and the Revelation use of the word describes the action as being beyond human comprehension.

The words “great and amazing” seem odd in talking of “plagues,” because we think of punishment in human terms. When we rebuke another for doing wrong, our consciences remind us that we, too, have done wrong, and we feel guilt and pain. This final judgement is different from human judgement in so many ways. The purpose of this judgement is not to encourage human improvement, it is to restore God’s creation to how it is supposed to be. The wrath of God is the essence of His opposition to the evil inflicted on His creation, finally brought to bear after millennia of patiently waiting, after providing countless opportunities for individuals to turn away from evil. There is no more opportunity to change for the unbelievers in this judgement — they have rejected all the opportunities, and as in the parable of the waiting bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13, the door has been shut. This judge is not unholy man, it is all-knowing, holy God.

2 And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on [”beside”] the sea of glass, having the harps of God.
3 And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, …

These are those martyrs who have persevered, now in celebration, the continuation of those who stood on the mountain before the Lamb and sang in 14:1-3. They stand in the presence of God before the throne, standing by the sea of glass described in Revelation 4:6. Here, the description of the sea expands to include imbedded fire, possibly as a parallel to the Red Sea. Just as the Israelites led by Moses celebrated after God delivered them from the Egyptians at crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), and faithful Jews sung the same song at every Sabbath evening service, these faithful sing and celebrate God’s deliverance of them from evil.

As an aside, there is also a Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses at the end of his life gives final words to Joshua and the Israelites. This text could also refer to that song, but more likely the song at the Red Sea.

… saying,
Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty;
just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.
4 Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy:
for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.

This song, of all those in Revelation, particularly fits Hebrew poetry meter, and uses many quotes from the Old Testament. In Psalm 86:9-10, “all nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify thy name. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.” In Psalm 145:17, “the Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings.” In Jeremiah 10:7, “Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For that is your due; among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is no one like you.”

Notice that in this song, the martyrs say nothing of their own perseverance, the pain and suffering they went through, or the works that they did for God while on earth — the total focus of their song is on the amazing wonder of God. We should be humbled when we think of the message that these saints offer to God for worship, and measure our own worship and devotion against their standard.

The seven angels of wrath introduced (15:5-16:1)

5 And after that I looked, and, behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened:
6 And the seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven plagues, clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles.

The term “tent of testimony” or “tent of witness” is found in the Greek Old Testament as the translation for the “tent of meeting,” the Tabernacle, in Exodus 40:34. The Tabernacle is referenced repeatedly in Revelation as the center of true worship and the presence of God. However, Moses’ Tabernacle was a temporary, transient dwelling, showing God’s willingness to identify with his faithful sojourners here on earth, with the promise to come of a permanent New Heaven and New Earth.

That this scene follows the worship of the faithful is one more reminder that the most powerful action that Christians can do is to pray and worship. These seven angels came directly from worship, garbed to indicate that they are from the court of God. The Greek word for their clothing is linon, for linen, although some manuscripts read lithon, for stone, but that seems evidence of some ancient scribe’s poor penmanship!

7 And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials [”bowls”] full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.

The bowls themselves come from the four living creatures, who in chapter 4 and later are those that are directly at the throne leading in praise. These bowls (phialas) were more like what we would call saucers, flat so that they could be emptied quickly, and was the same implement used in 5:8 by the 24 elders to carry the prayers of the saints. So there is no misunderstanding that the content of these saucers is small, these bowls are described as being full of the wrath of God.

8 And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled.

Smoke harkens back to the days of Moses, where God went with the Israelites in the wilderness as a column of smoke and fire, and when they had settled and erected the tent of the Tabernacle, God inhabited the tabernacle as smoke. This event is recorded in 1 Kings 8:10-11, where God’s presence in smoke was so intense that the priests could not stay in the house of the Lord. These images give no doubt that God is personally involved in expressing His wrath and handing down the judgement that follows.

16:1 And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials [bowls] of the wrath of God upon the earth.

The voice in the temple was God, for no one else could be in the temple because of the presence of God.

The plagues of wrath

When Revelation 15:1 refers to the contents of these bowls as plagues, one set of imagery that comes to mind is the sequence of plagues in Exodus that Moses called on the nation of Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Another relevant image is found in Leviticus 26:14-39, where God warns these same Israelites that were freed by His plagues that He would send worse plagues to them if they refused to follow His will. Therefore, these bowls of wrath complete the promise that God made about humanity’s defiance of His will.

There is an exact parallel between the actions of each bowl and the tribulations described with the seven trumpets earlier. In order, these seven trumpets and bowls strike the earth, the sea, the rivers and springs, the sun, create darkness, dry up the Euphrates, and invoke a loud voice from heaven. There are purposeful differences – the trumpets brought tribulation and affected a third of the world, while the bowls bring judgement and affect all the world. Also, these judgements immediately affect humanity, while the first of the tribulations directly affected nature.

The first three bowls (16:2 – 16:4)

2 And the first went, and poured out his vial [”bowl”] upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous [”ugly and painful”] sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.

This parallels the sixth Egyptian plague, in Exodus 9:8-12. There is also a parallel and contrast with the story of Job, where he was given “ugly and painful sores” in Job 2:1-10. Job’s response to “unearned” judgement was to praise God; the inhabitants of the earth, receiving “earned” judgement, will later be seen cursing God.

3 And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.
4 And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.

These two plagues parallel the first Egyptian plague, in Exodus 7:14-20, with the difference in Egypt, that there was only fresh water to afflict.

The two voices (16:5 – 16:7)

5 And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus.
6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.
7 And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.

In parallel to the fourth vision, there are two voices, representing a true witness, between the third and fourth angels and bowls. The message of this testimony is that God’s wrath is just, because it responds in kind to the evil that these unrepentant people have done.

There is no where else in scripture that a specific “angel of water” is mentioned. However, the identity given to this angel lends credibility the assessment of the fairness of the plague on the waters. This is also the only place where the altar speaks, although in 9:13, a voice came from among the four horns of the altar of incense. The altar in this case is appropriate as it relates to the sacrifice of the lives of the faithful.

Notice here again the reference to God who are and was, with no longer the need of a reference to He who is to come.

The fourth and fifth bowls (16:8 – 16:11)

8 And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.
9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.

The reaction of those on earth is a reminder that God’s mercy was so patient that everyone who might have repented and turned to God had done so, and all that were left on earth were those that would never follow God. This clarifies that although the time was up and the judgement had started, God was not “shutting the door” on the unrepentant, they were “slamming the door” on the only true Power.

10 And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain,
11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.

That this plague strikes the counterfeit throne of the first beast emphasizes the total defeat of the Satan and his forces.

The sixth bowl and Armageddon (16:12 – 16:16)

12 And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.

To first century Christians, the kings of the east would have meant the Parthians, and their leader would have been the Nero. This plague partially represents the fall of the Roman empire by removing the geographical barriers to a Parthian invasion. However, this image is not of the “good” Parthians fighting the “bad” Romans. John is showing that God is allowing, encouraging, even demanding all the world’s power to assemble and stand up to Him. God challenged Job in Job 38:3 to “gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you shall declare to me,” but Job responded correctly, with humility and repentance. In this final battle, Satan and his human followers have refused and will continue to refuse to repent.

There is a historical parallel to drying up the Euphrates, with a reference to this found in Isaiah 44:27-28. Cyrus the Persian found when he went to attack Babylon that the defenses of the city were too strong for his army to overcome. However, since the Euphrates River ran under the city walls, Cyrus came up with an inventive idea to divert the flow of the river. With this done, he marched his army under the city walls on the dry river bed and conquered the city. Since John uses Babylon frequently to refer to Rome, this historical reference provides another foretelling of the downfall of Rome.

13 And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

At one level, this is a reference to the plague of frogs in Exodus 8:2-14. It is also a reminder that these judgements were aimed at the evil trinity along with their followers. This evil theme is also seen in the instruction in Leviticus 11:10 that frogs were to be considered unclean and “detestable.” Frogs were widely considered as the epitome of empty rhetoric, or as Augustine wrote, “The frog is the most loquacious of vanities.” In the Persian religion, probably widely known in Asia Minor, frogs were the harbingers of plagues and the agents of the Power of darkness. With all this, there is also an absurdity to the forces that this false trinity can muster — not dominating lions, deadly leopards, ferocious bears, mighty oxen, or even goats — but frogs.

14 For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.

These frogs clearly represent superstitions, deceptions, and lies, in the form of demons in opposition to God, rallying everyone on earth in opposition to God. This brings about the ultimate end, the “great day of God.”

15 Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.

This verse is placed in parentheses in almost every modern translation. This quotation comes from the Risen Christ to John’s readers, with the omission of an identification of the speaker giving more emphasis that Christ is the source of the saying. The parallels to this message include Luke 12:35-40, in the context of Christ’s apocryphal teaching, Matthew 25:13, with the unprepared bridesmaids, and 1 Thessalonians 5:2-6, with a thief in the night. This repetition adds another condition to the analogies in chapters 2 and 3 of being either awake or asleep. With the churches in Asia Minor and the problem of “lukewarm” Christianity, Christ warns that those awake may be “ready,” but still could be humiliated by their nakedness and the lack of attention to their preparation.

16 And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.

There is a catch to the name of the location identified, for there is no “Har-Mageddon.” This name literally means the mountain of Mageddon, which most likely did not exist. The name “Mageddon” most likey refers to “Megiddo,” as Megiddo was the site of many battles, as in 2 Kings 9:14-27 and 2 Kings 23:29. However, Megiddo is a city in the flatlands on a key road in Palestine between the coastal plains and the Plain of Esdraelon. In this name may be a similar logic to that Samuel Butler used in his book Erewhon (”nowhere” spelled backwards), which was a satire of the English government. I believe John did not intend for the location of this final battle to be identified, so called it a contradictory name.

Another of these key battles in the vicinity of Megiddo is recorded in Judges 4:1-5:31, where Sisera had 900 iron chariots ready to attack the almost unarmed troops of Israel at Mount Tabor. However, the Lord fought and disabled the opposing army and their weapons, and they all were killed.

John brings us to the edge of the great final battle, but stops there, just as he has done in earlier visions. This final battle isn’t seen until chapter 19.

The last bowl – done! (16:17 – 16:21)

17 And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.

This loud voice, God’s voice, uses the perfect tense of the Greek verb, meaning “it has been accomplished and remains so forever.” The verb here is different from the earlier “it is finished,” carrying more of a meaning that it came to pass.

This final bowl was poured into the air, both a dramatic gesture from the angel and a direct confrontation to the three demonic frogs. In Ephesians 2:2, Paul makes reference to a common belief of the time that the air was the habitation of demons and evil spirits.

18 And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.

God’s power, indicated over and again by these signs, is now on earth in more completeness that ever in human history.

19 And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.
20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.
21 And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent [~100 pounds]: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.

Evil humanity, evil Babylon, and even the mountains and islands are “laid low” before God, so that all human structure completely collapses. John even uses a different word, plege, which means a “plague, wound, or calamity,” to distinguish this incident from the other plagues, so that this is understood as the decisive end event.

While the identity of the “great city” in this verse is not important, there is some disagreement in which city this means. Some interpret it to mean Jerusalem, especially in the context of the condemnation of Jerusalem for taking part in the killing of the two witnesses in 11:8. It is more likely Rome (=Babylon), because of the impact on the rest of “the cities of the nations” and the special condemnation of Babylon that follows.

In our wonderment of a God that readily “forgives and forgets,” we must remember that it is a “contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) that must ask for God’s forgiveness. God’s grace and God’s patience are incredible, but when rejected as great Babylon has done, God has an incredible memory!

Applicability for today

Charles Talbert draws on the progression of evil and judgement throughout the Bible to place these seven bowls of wrath in context. In Genesis chapters 6-9, God noted that evil was so widespread that only Noah and his family were saved when God passed judgement and destroyed the world by flood. There is an optimism God expressed towards sin in the world by this action, implying that with a fresh start and a dramatic sign of God’s power and love, that people would be faithful. Even though the only humans left on earth were those that had been saved because of their faithfulness, those who had seen God’s intervention in their lives, both Noah and his son, Ham, are recorded as sinning in Genesis 9:20-27.

The same story happens in the book of Exodus, as Moses leads the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through incredible signs of God’s power like the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 19, God leads the people to Mt. Sinai and shows His greatness and presence on top of the mountain, then calls Moses up the mountain to receive a covenant between God and His people. But in Exodus 32, we read that before Moses had returned from the presence of God, these people, within eyesight of God’s power and glory, had decided to make themselves a god in the image of a golden calf.

The book of Jeremiah describes the sin into which the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen, and describes the punishment that God will hand down in the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. Jeremiah then prophesies that the faithful remnant will be allowed to come out of Babylon and rebuild the nation. This came about such that the Jews that fell away from their beliefs stayed in Babylon and those that were true to God came back to rebuild Jerusalem. However, the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi portray that instead of the rebuilt Judah being faithful, the people were as sinful or moreso than they had been before the exile.

By the time of Christ, faithful Hebrew scholars recognized in these cycles of God’s patient punishment and restoration a sense of how sinful mankind truly is, and developed a deep pessimism towards Evil and humanity’s inability to resist it. No matter how good God is to people, or how clear and firm He is in conveying his will, we will give in to evil. Paul, a formidable Biblical scholar before he became a Christian missionary, states it eloquently in Romans 7:21-25:

21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

What God does at the End Time is consistent with this pessimistically realistic view of Evil and of humanity’s weakness to oppose evil. God obliterates Evil from the earth and does not allow Satan, his angels, or his followers to enter His new heaven and new earth. Only by this radical surgery can God restore the beauty and holiness of His creation.

What then does God expect from a Christian in this fight against Evil? Although redeemed, although we have God’s presence residing in our lives, we are hopelessly weak in opposing evil. Our strength, our wisdom, our resolve is futility. Anything that we can “do” or “say” will fail, except when we draw close to God in our prayer and our worship. While our humanistic view of life, with it’s emphasis on personal worth and “empowerment” would see worship and meditation as an interlude between meaningful activity, we must in humility recognize prayer as the only activity that we should choose to do for God, so that in our prayer, submission, and worship, God can choose for us what He wants us to do.

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