Revelation 16 is directly continuous with chapter 15, which introduces the outpouring of the seven bowls of wrath. In 15:7, seven angels are each given a bowl filled with the wrath of God. Chapter 16 describes the plague that results when each of the bowls is poured out onto earth.
The following is my personal study of the chapter. I shall post a summary of commentaries on the chapter later.
John reports that he heard a loud voice from the “temple.” I have discussed this term in the commentary on chapter 15. I believe “sanctuary” is a better translation. It appears to me that the place is the part of heaven that served as a model for the Holy of Holies—the innermost room—of the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple. The loud voice possibly is the voice of God. The voice commands, or encourages, the angels to pour out the wrath that is in their bowls.
The first angel pours out his bowl and it causes painful sores on the people. The people who experience these sores are those who have the Mark of the Beast and have worshiped his image. The passage makes clear that the wrath of God is directed at the enemies of Christ and his people. These are the people who have participated in the empire of the Beast/Antichrist and have directed their worship toward him rather than God, in direct contradiction of the first and second commandments (no other gods and no graven image).
The second bowl is poured out into the sea and turns the sea to blood—“the blood of a corpse.” The blood of a corpse is clotted, so that is the image we have—an ocean that is a giant clot of blood. No longer does it function to sustain life and so every “living thing” (or “animal”) dies. There is no comment as to how this affects people, so we are left with our own conclusion that it would bring a sense of horror and would certainly affect fishermen and others who harvest sea life for food. It is also possible that ships could no longer navigate within the coagulated waters.
The third angel pours his bowl upon the fresh water sources—rivers and spring—and they also turn to blood. Now an angel who is “in charge of the waters” responds to this event. What does it mean that this angel is “in charge of the waters”? (A literal translation would be: “the angel of the waters.”) We are given a brief insight into God’s superintendence of the universe. It appears that God has delegated responsibility for various aspects of creation into the hands of various angels. Angels are perhaps mentioned more in Revelation than any other book of the Bible (I have not researched this.). We get a glimpse of how many and how varied and how powerful these angels are.
This particular angel responds to the transformation of the waters for which he is responsible. An analogy might be if the superintendent of a factory observed a group of people from corporate headquarters come into “his” factory and totally repurpose it. Though he had responsibility, he had to accept the decision of headquarters, yes, and even applaud that decision. So, this angel declares that the Lord is just. He is just because of his character. There need be no further rationale. So, the angel describes the Lord as the “Holy One” and the one “who is and was.” The Lord God is holy—absolutely perfect. And he is eternal. He is, present tense—a tense denoting continuing action—and past tense. So he has always been and always will be. This is true of only the Lord God. Therefore, by definition, this one is just: because he is holy and because he is God.
But not only is God just because of his character, but also he is just because he has made the correct decision regarding the earth-dwellers. They have shed blood, so they should drink blood. This is justice.
Now there is a response to the declaration of the angel of the waters. It is spoken by “the altar.” How can an altar speak? Well, this is an altar in heaven. Our experience on earth is that such a piece of furniture would be an “inanimate object.” But in heaven, that is evidently not the case. This altar, which serves the almighty God in heaven, is far more marvelous that anything a person might build on earth, and it can speak. It affirms that the almighty God makes “true and just” judgments. That is both frightening and reassuring. It is frightening because it means that there is no hiding nor are there any excuses or explanations to cover our evil. It is assuring because the Lord God will see perfectly well who is innocent as well as who is guilty. We learn far too often of people who have spent years behind bars for crimes that they did not commit. God would never make that kind of mistake.
The fourth plague inflicts injury to the earth-dwellers through the heat of the sun. The sequence is as follows: the bowl of wrath is poured on the sun. This “allows” the sun to scorch people with fire. The people are scorched by the heat. They curse the name of God.
We observe in this chapter descriptions of God’s “management” of the universe. These descriptions seem odd and, perhaps to some, archaic and naïve. In this case, a bowl of wrath is poured onto the sun. I understand that to mean that the Lord God directs his attention to the sun as an instrument of his wrath. This results in permission being given to the sun. ESV uses “allowed.” Literally, the wording is: “it was given to it [the sun] to…” Or, it was “granted.” The thing that is granted is “to scorch people with fire.”
What does this mean? We are not given further explanation. However, what is implied is that there is some sort of ability within the sun to respond to orders from God. We can make a few observations regarding the universe from the Scripture:
· The Lord God created all things. Those things that pagans revered as gods are revealed in Genesis 1 to be the result of the creative power of God.
· In general, the Bible depicts people as having common-sense understandings of nature. For example, the fact that the axe head floated is understood to be a miracle that defied the normal experience that dense materials sink in water. (II Kings 6:1-7)
· There are, however, descriptions that are not strictly naturalistic. For example, the creation account in Genesis 1 includes a number of commands—“let there be”—that seem to be orders given by God to the universe and especially the earth. In some cases, the order is followed by a more detailed account of God’s creating activity, so it may be that, at least in some cases, the initial “command” is a statement of intention that is followed by the actual creative work.
· Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus Christ “upholds the universe [all things] by the word of his power.” This implies that the universe, though it has laws, many that are known and some that are still to be discovered, does not actually remain intact without the direction from the Second Person of the Trinity.
· Romans 8:18-23 depicts creation to be in a condition of futility. As it waits for the last days, it groans, waiting to “be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” This creation is groaning “in the pains of childbirth.” Thus, creation itself is waiting for the completion of our destiny as children of God.
With these observations in mind, we can say that from the heavenly point of view, the universe (including the “inanimate” universe) is responsive to the commands of God and to God’s grants of permission, such as the sun receives in verse 16:8.
The result is that the people were burned severely. One would imagine their burns were beyond the ordinary sunburn. Their response was to curse the name of God. Exactly what such a curse would sound like is not clear to me. Perhaps it was using the name of God blasphemously or perhaps it was simply using God’s name as a curse word. Or perhaps it was declaring a wish for something terrible to happen to God. Combined with their curses were two sins of omission.
First, they refused to repent. There are several references to repentance in Revelation. Repentance is called for in the letters to five of the seven churches. (chapters 2 and 3) After the 6th trumpet, it is noted that those who survived the plagues refused to repent. (9:20-21) Now, refusal to repent is observed as God pours out his wrath in these last seven plagues.
Second, they refused to give God the glory. Psalm 96:8 says: “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.” The failure to recognize the awesome glory of God is failure to see the Lord God as he really is. If God is a question mark, a theory, an hypothesis, then God has not been revealed to us. If we are unrepentant, then we do not have an appropriate conception of who God is. If we have met Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we have had a revelation of who God is. We embrace God as holy, righteous, and the judge of all the earth. We cling to God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. We rest in the hope of the ultimate victory of God. In this fullness of God, we glimpse the utter glory of God. These people, who curse God because they are in pain, have faint knowledge of the glory of God.
The fifth bowl is poured on the throne of the Beast. We can infer that this is a judgment upon the authority and power of the Beast. The Beast/Antichrist has ruled, evidently through raw military power, through the deceptive propaganda of the False Prophet, and through economic coercion. He has gained many converts who willingly worship him, as well as those who worship him out of fear. Now, the Lord God is endangering the position of authority which the Beast holds. The consequence of this judgment is that the kingdom of the Beast becomes dark. This could be a physical darkness, but it no doubt is also a description of the spiritual darkness. Such darkness means that
· The word of God is scarce.
· Knowledge of the gospel is meager.
· The basic rules of righteous behavior are ignored.
· All sorts of unrighteousness abounds—lying, cheating, stealing, killing, racism, war, sexual perversion and immorality, gossiping, hating.
· Fear, sadness/depression, hopelessness all cast a pall over the people.
If we reflect on these characteristics of spiritual darkness, we find that this a good description of much of the world that we live in today, including the United States.
Oddly, the announcement of darkness is followed by the reaction of the earth-dwellers to “the pain.” In the following verse, “pain and sores” are mentioned. It is not clear to me whether these wounds are a result of the current bowl of wrath or because of the sores of the first bowl and the burns of the fourth bowl. The reaction to their pain is, first, to gnaw their tongues and, second, to curse (literally, “blaspheme”) God. The fact that they gnaw their tongues seems to be an indication of the extreme misery of the people. They are in deep physical pain and plunged into deep spiritual darkness. In such a condition of hopelessness, they gnaw their tongues. They also continue to blame God rather than to appeal to God. And they refuse to recognize that their own sin is what has brought these judgments upon them. So they refuse to repent.
This passage is one of those points in Revelation that has captured the imagination of many. “The Battle of Armageddon” has become symbolic of the “end of the world,” of the beginning of the “post-apocalyptic world,” of “World War III,” and so forth.
The sixth bowl of wrath is poured out on the Euphrates river. Note that each of the bowl-judgments or plagues begins with a focused outpouring of God’s wrath on a particular place or category—the earth, the sea, fresh water, the sun, the throne of the Beast, and, in the sixth case, on the Euphrates river. The Euphrates River is sometimes called the “great river” (Genesis 15:18) or, simply, “the river” (II Samuel 10:16). It is the ultimate border of Israel (Genesis 15:18). It is not clear whether it is meant only to be the northern border or whether it was to serve as the northern and eastern border. Solomon briefly held control to the Euphrates at Tiphsah (I Kings 4:21-24). Tiphsah is about 70 miles east of Aleppo. In the time of the Roman Empire, the Euphrates was the western border of the Parthian Empire, which was a constant threat to the Romans.
The outpouring of wrath on the Euphrates is in order “to prepare the way for the kings from the east. The “kings from the east” possibly refers to the Parthians of that time. Certainly, Alexander had gone to India, so India also may have been included. The term “kings from the east” is a broad term that could include even the Chinese. The implication of the preparation of “the way” is to allow these kings to make war on the western powers. The Roman Empire would be in mind in John’s day. If we broaden this idea from a futurist viewpoint (see below), the making of “the way” is unleashing preparations for war. That this is war understood in John’s day to be between extremely powerful empires, it would be understood to be, in our day, a world war.
(“Futurist” is a term applied to those who interpret prophetic Scripture, especially Revelation, with an understanding that much of what Revelation depicts is yet future in its fulfillment.)
John now sees three unclean spirits emanating from the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. They look like frogs. The reader naturally is revolted at frogs coming out of mouths. This is, I believe, exactly the reaction that is intended. We need to recognize the filth of the spiritual forces arrayed against Christ and his church. We need to recognize the filthiness of sin. From petty gossip to horrific violence, all sin is ugly. These frogs are demonic spirits who seduce world leaders. They perform “signs,” which are miracles that communicate. Whether these miracles are spectacular is not so much the issue. It is possible that, in some cases, seducing spirits will simply enable their human mouthpieces to amaze some world leaders with their insight into the needs and motivations of those leaders. Whatever the nature of their miracles, the miracles will persuade the leaders to go to war.
Notice that the Lord uses evil in this case for his own purposes. We should not infer from this that God is the author of evil. God permits evil to take place and also sets limits on its extent. In this case, the demons are warmongerers, and they seduce warmongering world leaders to go to battle. The evil is already resident in the demons and in the hearts of the leaders. The outpouring of the sixth bowl of God’s wrath allows that evil to come to full boil in order that God may have the occasion to intervene to put an end to these enemies of Christ and his people.
The spirit of war within the hearts of these leaders, which is stirred up by the seducing spirits, leads them to enter into a unique battle that is scheduled for the “great day of God the Almighty.” Though some make fine distinctions, there seems to be one particular Day that is known by several names: the “Day of the Lord,” the “Day of Christ,” the “Day of God.” The Old Testament mentions of that day refer to several outcomes of God’s action.
THE DAY OF THE LORD
A VERY BRIEF SURVEY
In some cases, near-term events are considered to be the “Day of the Lord. For example, Isaiah chapters 5, 13, and 22 refer to either the destruction of Jerusalem by ancient Babylon or the overthrow of Babylon as the Day of the Lord.
In some cases, the “Day of the Lord,” refers to God’s ultimate dealing with Israel, either in judgment or salvation. Jeremiah 30:7-9 describes how “Jacob” will go through a time of distress but ultimately be saved out of it. In Ezekiel, the end-time includes Israel’s doom when God will pour out his wrath (7:5-8), but also will be a time when the Lord will bring Israel from all of the nations into their own land and when he will lead them like a shepherd (34:11-16). Chapters 38-39 describe a time when Gog and Magog attempt to invade Israel and are destroyed. Hosea describes a time when Israel will be as numerous as sand grains of the sea and when they will be known as “children of the living God” and when Judah and Israel will be united (Hosea 1:10-11, see also 2:16-23). Micah describes how the “mountain of the house of the Lord” in Israel will be the highest and the nations will come to be taught (Micah 4:1-6). Zephaniah tells of how the Lord will pour out indignation on the enemies of God’s people (Zephaniah 3:8). Zechariah describes how nations will war against Jerusalem but the Lord will protect her and destroy those who attack her (Zechariah 12:3-9) In another prophecy, he tells of how the Lord will fight those who attack Jerusalem and eventually it will dwell in security and living waters will flow from it (Zechariah 14:1-11) Those of the nations who survive their fight against Jerusalem will go every year to Jerusalem for the feast of booths (Zechariah 14:12-21). Malachi describes how the coming of the Lord will bring purity to the sons of Levi (Malachi 3:1-4). The righteous of Israel are promised that the Lord will make them his when he makes his “treasured possession” in the last day (Malachi 3:16-18). Malachi promises a “day” in which the arrogant of Israel will be burned but those who fear God will leap like calves (Malachi 4:1-5).
In some cases the Day involves ultimate judgment. For example Isaiah chapters 24-27 describe the ultimate destruction of the earth. Ezekiel 30:3 refers to a day of clouds and doom for the nations. Joel 3:14 describes multitudes in the valley of decision.
There also is mixed with the actions of the Lord on the Day of the Lord a promise of a coming Anointed One, who would eventually be called the Messiah. He would be the “root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:11). He would bring a time when the deaf will hear and blind will see (Isaiah 29:18). He would be a king who reigns in righteousness (Isaiah 32:1). He would be anointed to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of prison doors, and to proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2ff). The Messianic age would restore the land so that it would be like the garden of Eden (Ezekiel 36:33-36). In that time a fountain will come from the house of the Lord (Joel 3:18). Zechariah describes how the people of Israel will look on him whom they have pierced and mourn (Zechariah 12:10-11). In that day the Lord will be the king of the earth (Zechariah 14:11). Malachi promises that the Lord will “come suddenly to his temple” (Malachi 3:1-4).
RETURN TO COMMENTARY
Verse 16:15 interrupts the narrative of the vision with an announcement. One infers that the announcement comes from Jesus. This inference does not depend on the “red letters” in many Bibles (which print the words of Jesus in red letters). For one thing, the warning, “I come like a thief,” echoes Jesus’ message to Sardis in 3:3: “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” It also echoes the warning of Jesus in Matthew 24:43-44, in which he compares his return to the coming of a thief in the night. A second clue is the fact that the warning is in the first person singular, and Jesus is the only person that would fit the scenario.
The warning demands two actions—to stay awake and to keep one’s garments on. The demand to stay awake is found in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:42, for example), where the idea of Jesus’ coming like a thief is described. In some cases the verb may be translated “stay alert,” which conveys much the same meaning.
The word for “garments” often refers to the outer robe or cloak rather than the tunic that was like an undergarment. So, a person who is going to bed would take off his cloak. If he were awakened suddenly and, say, rushed out into the street, he would be embarrassed. However, it is possible that being without garments here means literal nakedness. In either case, the person is exposed for all to see.
When one looks at the admonitions of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, the idea of watching, being awake, being alert is a spiritual matter as is the idea of being clothed. The issues are discussed in Matthew 24:36-51. It begins by comparing the coming of Jesus to the days of Noah. The people of Noah’s day were living life as they had always done, oblivious to spiritual issues. So the flood caught them unawares. He describes how the righteous and unrighteous will be doing identical things (working a field, grinding at a mill), but one will be taken for judgment and the other left standing (some believe it is the other way around: one taken in the Rapture and the other left standing). In the same way, some will be spiritually unalert and their house will be broken into—to their destruction. One will be a faithful servant who will be rewarded, and another will beat his fellow servants and become a drunkard and he will be “cut in pieces.” So, watchfulness is a spiritual condition of attentiveness to things of the Lord and living a life of obedience. In such a condition, one has a robe that is washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). They have not tossed their robes aside and settled into a long winter’s nap. They will be ready when Jesus comes.
The following verse, 16:16, briefly states that “they” brought “them” together to a place called Armageddon. I discovered a new wrinkle in the Greek language. In some cases, a singular verb might be used with a plural neuter subject. So, most translators have assumed that the evil spirits (the frogs) of verses 16:13-14 is the unexpressed subject of the verb “gathered” in 16:16. The verb is singular, but “spirit” is a neuter noun. This is a possible interpretation. However, it is also possible that the antecedent to the subject is either Jesus, who is quoted in verse 16:15, or God the Almighty, who is mentioned in 16:14. However, the facts—that the spirits are described as gathering the kings to battle in 16:14 and that the same verb (as an infinitive) is used in 16:14 (“assemble” or “gather”)—seem to favor “they,” the evil spirits, as the subject of the verb in 16:16.
The various commentaries will expound on Armageddon, as do many Bible study notes (for example NIVSB and ESVSB). From these one can learn that “Armageddon” is derived from Hebrew “Har Megiddo,” which means “mountain of Megiddo.” Megiddo is a town about 55 miles north-northwest of Jerusalem. It is not really a mountain, though it may have been somewhat elevated. It is described by Wikipedia as in a strategic location for trade routes because of its location on a pass through the mountains. It has been the site of several battles, including a battle during World War I.
In verses 16:14-16 we see brought together the following concepts:
· The battle on the great day of God the Almighty (16:14)
· The location of that battle at Armageddon (verse 16:16)
· The coming of Jesus (16:16)
· His coming like a thief (16:16)
· The need to be awake (16:16)
· The need to keep one’s garments on (16:16)
However, as we move from 16:16 to 16:17, all of these concepts seem to drop out of sight. New topics are dealt with and the Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ seem to fade into the background. This seems to be another instance of the style of Revelation. Many times events are anticipated that will come into full view later. So it seems that is true of the Battle of Armageddon. It will not be mentioned again, but it is very likely that the events of 19:11-21 are in fact the completion of that Battle.
There are three sequences of seven in Revelation—seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. In the first two sequences there is an interlude between the sixth and seventh in the series (see chapter 7 and 10:1-11:14). This is not true of the seven bowls. There are commonalities and differences in the seventh of the three sequences, as follows (events listed in the order found in the Scripture):
The seventh seal results in thunder, rumblings (or voices), lightning, and and earthquake.
The seventh trumpet results in lightning, rumblings, thunder, an earthquake, and hail.
The seventh bowl results in lightning, rumblings, thunder, the greatest of all earthquakes, and 100-pound hailstones.
The pattern throughout these sequences is that the plagues will get worse and worse.
The bowl judgment begins with the seventh angel pouring his bowl of wrath “into the air.” I am not sure the significance of this target. The one possible clue is Ephesians 2:1-2:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.
The “prince of the power [authority] of the air” is obviously Satan. So, the air can be considered a component of Satan’s stronghold. The wrath of God will be poured on that stronghold.
Then, a voice comes from the temple (sanctuary), more specifically, from the throne. This possibly is implying that the voice is from God himself. His announcement: “It is done!” This is in the perfect tense, and it could be translated: “It has been done,” or “It has happened.” The perfect is an action in the past that brings about a present state according to Brooks and Winbery (104). The use in 16:17 seems to fit their category of “Intensive Perfect.” This category emphasizes the completed action and the finished product. The thing that has been done is the pouring out of the last bowl of God’s wrath. God has completed this phase of dealing with the earth-dwellers.
There follows the lightning and rumblings and so forth as indicated above. Two of these events are focused on—an earthquake and hail.
First there is the earthquake, which is described as unprecedented. The quake seems to involve most of the earth since verse 19 says the “cities of the nations fell.” The use of “nations” indicates the Gentiles. Also one particular city is singled out—the “great city.” It is split into three parts.
Then, another city is mentioned, or the “great city” is given a name—Babylon. Babylon is mentioned in the New Testament in the following ways. In Matthew 1, the Babylonian captivity is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. In Acts 7:43, Stephen mentions the Babylonian captivity. In I Peter 5:13, “she” who is in Babylon sends greetings to the recipients of Peter’s letter. Probably “she” refers to the church, and “Babylon” probably refers to Rome. Earlier, in Revelation 14:8 an angel announces that Babylon is fallen. Babylon in 16:19b is the object of God’s remembrance. It is as though now God recalls the sinfulness of this city. This is an antropomorphism projected upon God. We know that God is not forgetful, nor does he need memory aids to remind him. But the language of remembrance is really from the human viewpoint. In other words, as we observe the sequence of events, we see all these other plagues coming out of the wrath of God. Then, we see God’s wrath turn upon Babylon. It as though God suddenly remembers. The truth is that all the world now becomes mindful that God does not forget. And so, Babylon is given a cup of wine to drink—the wine of the fury of God’s wrath. This mention of Babylon is to be greatly expanded in the next two chapters.
The comment is then made that “every island fled away and no mountains were to be found.” Possibly these events are components of the great earthquake. Possibly they are metaphors for the severe terror and upheaval that is going on.
The second event is the hail. The hail stones are said to weigh about a “talent” (ESV: one hundred pounds). The United Bible Societies dictionary (Newman) says a talent is ninety pounds. (NIVSB gives 75 pounds.) Obviously these, like the earthquake, are unprecedented. They are described as falling from “heaven,” which could be the sky or from “heaven” in the usual sense of the special location of the throne of God. Whatever the case, the ultimate source of the hail is certainly the throne of God.
As in verses 16:9 and 16:11, the earth-dwellers curse God. The word, as in the other verses, is the word from which “blaspheme” is derived. They curse God because “the plague was so severe.” In a sense, these people are sitting in judgment upon God. Rather than admitting the severity of their sin and their need for forgiveness, they are judging that God is being too severe with them. They fail to realize that the severity is a measure of the depths of the depravity of their hearts. Only 90 pound hail stones can come close to getting their spiritual attention.
The seven bowls of wrath have been poured out in quick succession. Toward the end of the series, events take place that presage concepts and events that will be expanded in later chapters. The Battle of Armageddon is mentioned, and it is probably the same battle described in 19:11-21. Babylon is mentioned, and it is focused on in chapters 17 and 18.
Although the wrath of God that is poured out in these plagues is completed, so that “It is done!” is the pronouncement of the voice from the throne (16:17), in fact God’s final sentence upon sin is not completed until 20:11-15. These bowls of wrath differ from that final sentence. They are exhibitions of God’s wrath, but their purpose is that they will bring about repentance among sinful people. See 16:9 and 16:11. The hope of God is that all will come to repentance. (II Peter 3:9)
Brooks, James A. and Carlton L. Winbery. Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Newman, Barclay M., Jr. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament.
Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 2002