Posted by: stpowen | October 12, 2013

Revelation (11) Chapters 15 &16. The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath

This is my eleventh article on the book of Revelation. The earlier ones can be found here:

Matthew 4:17. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-3. ‘But concerning times and seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace!” and “Safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labour pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.’

Read Revelation 15 & 16.

We come now to the last and most extreme section of Revelation dealing with God’s judgements on the earth. Once again we have a section of seven; we have had seven seals and seven trumpets, now we have seven bowls. According to the hermeneutical scheme that I’ve been adopting throughout, these are judgements of God that occur right through the time between the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus. This is in line with Matthew 24:7-8, 24.

However, we should be aware that there are other interpretations of this book. Many readers may have been taught the popular teaching of Pretribulational Premillennial Dispensationalism. This view takes the position that most of Revelation is set in a time after the true Church has been ‘raptured’ for a period of seven years. Its supporters look at 14:1-5 and say, “There we are! We’ve been taken up to heaven.” Such a view is worthy of respect, but I cannot agree with it. 16:15 seems to suggest rather strongly that believers remain on earth during the ‘Tribulation.’ Also the taking of Christians up to heaven before the reurn of Christ has no support in other passages dealing with the Last days. The word translated ‘rapture’ occurs only once in the Bible, in 1 Thes. 4:17, and there is no suggestion there that there is any pause between the rapture of believers and the coming of Christ.

v.1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous: seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them, the wrath of God is complete.’

We have already seen one great sign in heaven, in 12:1. Here we are given another vision of the throne room of God. We had one, longer vision in Chapter Four before the sign of the seven seals, and another in 8:1-6 before the seven trumpets. Here, the eight verses of Chapter 15 set the scene for what follows. The seven angels who previously held the trumpets are now carrying bowls or vials of God’s wrath. This is the last sequence of judgements; they fulfil the righteous anger of God against a rebellious world. All that remains is the return of Christ and the Final Judgement.

v.2 ‘And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God.’

We have seen the sea of glass before, in 4:6; it separates heaven from earth, purity from impurity. The glass aspect enables everyone to see the righteousness and holiness of God which are not hidden from the world. Here the glass is mixed with fire, symbolizing purification. It is a barrier that the impure may not cross. ‘But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (21:27; cf. Isaiah 35:8-10). But those who have overcome are there. They have won a threefold victory of the beast: they have not succumbed to his temptations (13:3), they have not bowed down to his image (13:15), nor have they carried his mark on their hand or forehead (13:16). They have not resisted Satan in their own power, of course. ‘Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37). ‘If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). They have crossed the sea of glass; they have, as it were, passed through the Red Sea into the Promised Land. On earth they were despised, and seemed to be losers, but now they are winners- they have the victory over the beast and they sing a victory song.

Vs. 3-4 ‘They sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and marvellous are Your works, Lord God Almighty!
Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!
Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name?
For you alone are holy, for all nations shall come and worship before You,
For Your judgements have been manifested.”’

We are told that these verses are the song of Moses and the Lamb. However, there is nothing described as the ‘song of the Lamb’ in Scripture, and They bear only a passing similarity with the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, or indeed with what is called the ‘Great Song of Moses’ in Deuteronomy 32. Here in Revelation, the verses are made up from quotation from the Psalms and Jeremiah, but to worry about such things is to miss the point. This song praises God’s majesty, His power, His holiness and His works and declares them to have been manifested before all people. It is the song of God’s people of all ages, both New and Old Testaments. In this it is in line with the 24 elders of 4:4 who represent the twelve Patriarchs and the twelve Apostles, and the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (21:12-14). There is only one people of God, redeemed from all ages, and they sing one song. They praise God’s works and look forward to His final victory. ‘All nations shall come and worship before You’ speaks of the great crowd standing before the throne before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).

Vs. 5-6. ‘After these things, I looked, and behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened. And out of the temple came the seven angels having the seven last plagues, clothed in pure bright linen, and having their chests girded with golden bands.’

Out from the presence of God, the holiest part of heaven, come seven angels. The ‘Testimony’ refers to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 31:18) which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, which was itself kept in the holiest place within the temple (11:19). These angels have the task of pouring out God’s wrath upon those who despise His commandments and reject His holy laws. It is worth reading Lev. 26:14ff is connection with this, and to do it prayerfully and with tears in the eyes for our own generation. Mankind cannot live indefinitely with impunity in defiance of God’s will The number of seven plagues refer to verse 21: ‘Then, if you walk contrary to Me, and are not willing to obey Me, I will bring on you seven times more plagues, according to your sins.’ The shining white linen of the angels speaks of their purity and holiness and the white sashes their power and seniority (Dan. 10:5; cf. Rev. 1:13).

Vs. 7-8. ‘Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever. The temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from His power, and no one was able to enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.’

Previously (5:8) we saw the four living creatures holding bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints. A part of those prayers came from the martyrs under the altar who asked, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”(6:10). God is now sending His angels to bring that very judgement upon His enemies. The bowls speak of the pouring out (16:1) of God’s wrath, and may remind us of texts like Jer. 1:13 and Rom. 1:18.

The ‘smoke from the glory of God’ speaks of the glory and awfulness of God’s presence, when ‘the house of the LORD was filled with a cloud so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God’ (2 Chron. 5:13b-14). No one is able to enter the temple to sacrifice or intercede until the plagues are completed; God’s longsuffering is at an end and judgement is inevitable. It is worth considering Jer. 14:10-12 and perhaps Gen. 3:17 in this regard.

We now come to Chapter 16 and the actual descriptions of this pouring out of God’s wrath. It will readily be seen that the ‘Bowl’ judgements are in many respects similar to the ‘Trumpets’ of Chapters 8 & 9. The reader will do well to refer to these chapters. We decided that the ‘Trumpets’ are judgements that send out a warning to the world. When such judgements are not heeded by the world, as they tend to be (9:20-21), they must inevitably lead to more extreme and final judgements, as God’s patience and longsuffering eventually run out.

16:1-2. ‘Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the bowls of God’s wrath upon the earth.” So the first went and poured out his bowl upon the earth and a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshipped his image.’

It is undoubtedly the voice of God Himself who gives the command to the angels. This first bowl may remind us of the plague of boils upon the Egyptians (Exod. 9:8-12). It represents figuratively the consequences of sin. ‘Men…….committing what is shameful, and receiving in theselves the penalty of their error which was due’ (Rom. 1:27). Drug abuse, drunkenness and sexual uncleanness all leave their mark upon those who indulge in them, as do gluttony and sloth. With envy and hatred, the mark is inward and may be less apparent, but it is still there. At all events, we need to know that there are consequences for sin which will be deadly, either in this life or the next, unless God shows mercy (cf. Titus 3:3ff)
v.3. ‘Then the second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became blood as of a dead man. And every living creature in the sea died.’

The second bowl (v.3) is poured out upon the sea. This often stands for the mass of unsaved humanity. Isaiah 57:20 tells us; ‘The wicked are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.’ Others believe that the sea refers to international trade, which was in ancient times conducted largely by sea. Also, it is obviously possible to see this plague, and the subsequent ones, as ecological disasters. The reader will have to make up his own mind. In 8:8-9, the second trumpet caused a third of the sea to turn to blood, leading to the death of a third of the sea creatures. Here the judgement is much more severe; every living being in the sea dies. We remember God’s judgements on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also on the Canaanites. However we decide to interpret this verse, its message is that when men and women fail to heed God’s warnings to the world, further, more severe judgements will follow.

vs.4-6. ‘Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “You are righteous, O Lord, the One who is and who was and who is to be, because You have judged these things. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink, for it is their due.”’

The reference here to the rivers and springs could be to the inland waterways- that is, a recession in internal trade- or to civil war. We are reminded of the third trumpet (8:10-11) and also of the River Nile turning to blood (Exod. 7:19). When such a thing happens, the very means of life are being removed. These are fearful judgements, but the angel who has poured out this plague declares God to be righteous. God is just in all His judgements; men receive the rewards they deserve (Romans 2:3-11; Isaiah 49:25-26). Someone may ask, “Where is the love of God in all this?” If you want to see the love of God, you must look to the cross. The love of God is shown in that He doesn’t wipe us rebellious mortals out completely. Instead He has saved a vast crowd of undeserving sinners (7:9-10) at the cost of the blood of His own dear Son.

‘What was it, O our God, led Thee to give Thy Son;
To give Thy well-beloved for us by sin undone?
‘Twas love, unbounded love for us,
Led Thee to give Thy well-beloved.’

Yet we read in 6:10 that the martyrs under the throne of God cry out for justice. Here we see that their cry will be answered. The wicked, the corrupt and the persecutors will in due course receive the righteous sentence of God. That may happen in this present age; if not, it will certainly happen in the age to come.

Vs. 8-9. ‘Then the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and power was given to him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory.’

This bowl may refer to natural catastrophes such as drought, forest fires or crop failures. Such disasters should cause men to repent, but instead they curse God and rail against Him. They want to sin all they want and still have God bless them. They ignore God when things are going well, and then rail against Him when they go badly. It is worth mentioning that this plague does not affect God’s people in the same way (7:16; Isaiah 49:10; Psalm 121:6).

Vs. 10-11. ‘Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds.’

Here we have darkness inflicted, not upon the whole world, but upon the followers of Satan. The darkness is probably a moral affliction; the devil’s people are enslaved by ignorance and superstition as they put their belief in pseudo-sciences such as the theories of evolution and alien life on other planets. The Lamb’s followers do not have to share in such darkness. Just as the Ninth Plague upon Egypt did not affect the Israelites, who had light in all their dwelling (Exod. 10:23), so Christians are to walk in the light that God has given us in His word (1 John 1:7). We read that men ‘gnawed their tongues,’ perhaps to keep control of their rising panic, but even now they will not repent. They would not do so under the less severe punishments of the seven trumpets (9:20-21) and the will not do so now when the judgements become more extreme.

V.12. ‘Then the sixth angel poured out His bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared.’

There are several prophesies in the Bible about the Euphrates being dried up (eg. Isaiah 44:27f; Jer. 50:38). Historically they were fulfilled by King Cyrus who, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, diverted its waters so that his troops could enter Babylon secretly through the dry river bed. This is an example of God using a secular ruler to accomplish His will (Hab. 1:6; Isaiah 45:1ff; Prov. 21:1). Perhaps what we see here is a gathering of evil forces against God’s people, but actually in order to what God has already decreed (Prov. 21:30; Acts 4:27-28).

Vs.13-14. ‘And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.’

Frogs are described as unclean creatures in the Old Testament (Lev. 11:10). Here they represent the spirit of anti-Christ, the dragon (the ‘father of lies’– John 8:44), the beast and the false prophet forming a sort of unholy trinity to deceive the nations and to unite them in opposition to Christ. That these spirits are able to perform miraculous signs should not surprise us in the light of Matt. 24:24 and 2 Thes. 2:9. The sixth bowl, like the sixth seal and the sixth trumpet, refers to the time immediately before the end. As the time of our Lord’s return draws near, we may expect to see an increase in wickedness and in opposition to God.

Vs. 15-16. ‘”Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon.’

Beyond doubt, in verse 15 the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking; it is a repetition of Matt. 24:42-44. We are not to spend our time speculating on the Return of our Lord, but rather to be ready for His return at any time. There is a blessing for those who do so, the third of seven blessings in Revelation (cf. 1:3; 14:13; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). The reference to nakedness might put us in mind of 3:18 and the church of Laodicea. It is those who are wealthy in this world’s goods, complacent and self-satisfied, who will not be looking expectantly for the Return of the Lord Jesus.

Verse 16 is the only reference to ‘Armageddon’ in the Bible, and we should therefore be careful in speculating about what its significance might be. Literally, it means the city or mount of Megiddo. Several battles fought there are mentioned in the Bible (Judges 5:19; 2 Kings 9:27; 23:29; Zech. 12:11). A part of the Six day War was also fought there in 1967. It represents the final and visible defeat of Satan at the Coming of Christ (cf. 19:11ff). The end of the age is at hand; the seventh bowl is poised to be poured out.

Vs.17-18. ‘Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were noises and thundering and lightening, and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth.’

The final bowl is poured out into the air. Satan is prince of the power of the air, therefore the vial of God’s wrath is poured out upon his kingdom and upon his followers. The very voice of God announces its finality. As in the days of Noah, it is now too late for repentance, the great earthquake signifies that judgement has begun (cf. Gen. 6:11; Matt. 24:29).

Vs. 19-21. ‘Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of God’s wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent. Men blasphemed God because of the plague of hail, since that plague was exceedingly great.’

The ‘Great City’ symbolizes the world as it is opposed to God, especially as it is represented by luxury and worldly riches. We shall see it again as Babylon the Great in Chapters 17 and 18. Jerusalem is figured as the ‘Holy City’ in 11:2 and 21:2. However, we have seen in 11:8, that Jerusalem is also described as the great city. As Augustine showed in his great book, The City of God, it is not the physical city, but the people of God who are the true Jerusalem. The dividing of the city into three parts is an idiomatic expression meaning utter destruction. The cities of the nations represent those that are apart from God. Cain went ‘Out from the presence of the LORD’ and built himself a city (Gen 4:16-17). Judgement has come to all the seed of Cain. All the ideologies and philosophies that have opposed the knowledge of God are demolished. The ‘Cup of God’s wrath’ appears many times in the O.T. (eg. Isaiah 51:17; Nahum 1:6) as well as in 14:19-20. It symbolizes both temporal and final judgements that God imposes on those who stand against Him. But there is no such cup for those who trust in Christ, for He has drained the cup on their behalf, down to the very dregs (eg. Luke 22:42; John 18:11).

The reference is the islands fleeing away and the mountains disappearing symbolizes the destruction of the whole world on that day (2 Peter 3:10). The hailstorm reminds us of the plague upon Egypt, when everyone who did not take refuge from the storm was killed (Exod. 9:19, 25-6). Only those who have taken refuge in Christ Jesus will be safe on the Last Day (cf. Isaiah 32:2). Yet even now, when God’s judgements are both final and visible, there is no repentance towards God- there is hatred towards Him from the unredeemed right to the end.

These are sobering chapters and should be read not casually but with tears in our eyes, just as the Lord Jesus wept over unrepentant Jerusalem. They should also be read humbly, remembering that 3:16-17 was written to a church. There is a danger to the reformed churches that we may become luke-warm and complacent imagining that because we think we have our theology right, God is bound to be pleased with us. We need to be humble sober and watchful, for the things described in these chapters may be drawing very near indeed. It would be good to read prayerfully 2 Peter 3:10-18 right now.


  1. […] Revelation (11) The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath via Martin Marprelate […]

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