The seven bowls of God’s anger

Revelation 15-16. The wrath of God is poured out on the world, culminating in the great Day of the Lord.

And I saw another sign in heaven, great and wondrous: seven angels with seven plagues, the last, for with them the anger of God is finished.

The first judgements to be designated plagues are the fire, smoke and sulphur associated with the sixth trumpet. The last plagues bring the total up to ten, as in the Exodus, and they are evidently sequential. While the judgements of the earlier trumpets also express God’s anger and are severe enough to be regarded as plagues (11:6), these last ten are even worse.

And I saw what seemed like a glass sea mingled with fire and those who conquered, from the beast and from its image and from the number of its name, standing on the glass sea holding lyres of God. They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and wondrous are your deeds,
Lord God, the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Who should not fear you, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy;
for all nations will come and worship before you;
for your acts of justice have been manifested.”
The ‘glass sea’ represents the celestial and subterranean waters by means of which God terminated the antediluvian world (II Peter 3:6), the source of today’s oceans. Now the earth is cleansed through fire. Without a participle such as ‘having come’, ‘from’ feels a little awkward; the sense is ‘they who come from the great tribulation’ (Rev 7:14, cf. 16:13). There are two songs of Moses in the Pentateuch, one in which he celebrated Yahweh’s triumph in the Exodus (Ex 15), the other in which he prophesied over Israel after their years in the wilderness (Deut 32). As well as the substitutionary sacrifice for Israel’s first-born, the Lamb is a second Moses (Deut 18:15) as well as the substitutionary sacrifice for Israel’s first-born. His song is in chapter 5, celebrating the greater Exodus of a people drawn from every nation. The bringing together of his and Moses’ songs makes explicit the parallel between the judgement on Egypt and the final judgement.

Some of the words come from Jeremiah 10, where it is emphasised that because God created the heavens and the earth, it is folly to worship idols. The redeemed in heaven rejoice, first-fruits and main harvest alike, and amplify the sound with lyres (citharas – also 5:8, 14:2). It is an interim state, for when Christ returns, they will return, and then every knee will bow before Almighty God (Ps 22:27, 65:2, 86:9, Isa 2:3, 45:23, 66:23). He is the king of the nations. Once they understand that, they cannot but fear him and glorify him.

After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, and with golden sashes around their chests. And one of the four animals gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls, full of the anger of God who lives forever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.

The temple (naos) was built according to the same God-given pattern as the tent of witness and in heaven they are one and the same. The Mosaic Tabernacle was a ‘tent of witness’ (the Greek rendering of ‘tent of meeting’, Ex 27:21) because, in its preservation of the tablet inscribed with the commandments, the basis of his covenant with Israel, it witnessed of who God was and what he had done. More than that, it was where he resided: “I will tabernacle among you” (Lev 26:11), in an itinerant booth clothed with animal skins. In due time, God extended that witness from Israel to the whole world. Christ the Word ‘became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’ (John 1:14). After his ascension, the Church became his body in the world and continued his witness, eventually to the ends of the earth.

The temple is closed. As on the day Christ was crucified, God withdraws his presence. He will no longer receive pleas for mercy. ‘Anger’ is thumos, a word with an older meaning of ‘emotion’ or ‘passion’, distinct from orge, ‘wrath’. In 14:10 it is translated ‘rage’. We have emotions because we are made in God’s likeness, and he has emotions. But uncontrolled anger is rarely good, and we should not give way to it (Eph 4:31, Col 3:8). God himself continually exercises makrothumia, ‘patience’ (Rom 2:4), for he does not will that anyone should perish but that they should repent (II Pet 3:9). Were it not for that patience, we should have died the moment we became acquainted with good and evil. Judgement is deferred to the end of life and to the end of the age. “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:48). But ultimately judgement must come. Thus, in Paul’s letter to the Romans the ‘wrath’ of God especially refers to the ‘day of wrath’ when God reveals his righteous judgement, and when ‘anger and wrath’ are the fate of those who do not obey the truth but unrighteousness (Rom 2:5-8). In this sense it equates with death, the termination of life, which is the consequence of sin. ‘Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath’ (Rom 5:9). A temporal ruler who orders capital punishment stands in the place of God and exacts his wrath (Rom 13:4). By nature we are children of disobedience (Eph 5:6, Col 3:6) and therefore children of wrath (Eph 2:3), because in Adam all die (Rom 5:19, I Cor 15:22). But the first death is not the end. Although we must all die, whoever trusts in Christ will rise to eternal life. The general resurrection at the end of the thousand years is of those who are not in Christ, but in Adam. Judged according to their deeds, many (not all) will be condemned and their sentence of death confirmed. Ultimately that is the wrath of God.

And I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of the anger of God on the earth.”
So the first went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and a harmful and painful sore came on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshipped its image.

The call was to ‘worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water’ (14:7). Man enjoys all that God has created for him, but shows no gratitude, refusing even to acknowledge him. Now he learns that these things cannot be taken for granted. One by one the bowls of wrath are poured on these same parts of the created world, beginning with the earth.

In the sixth plague of the Exodus, the boils that broke out on people’s skin were caused by a fine dust that settled on the land. The angel’s pouring of the bowl’s contents on the earth suggests something similar: a toxic powder originating from outer space, its effects exacerbated by extreme heat. The plague is part of the torment referred to in 14:10f.

And the second poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood, like a corpse, and every living soul died that was in the sea.

An animal is a being that has the breath or spirit of life (Gen 1:21, 30); ‘living soul’ is pleonastic, for a soul is necessarily living. The judgement of the second trumpet was restricted to a third of the ocean; now the whole ocean is affected. The blood is that of dead animals.

And the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and into the springs of water, and they became blood.

Again, in the catastrophe of the third trumpet, only a third of the rivers became polluted. By implication, the judgement now is global. “I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering” (Isa 50:2f).

And I heard the angel of the waters say,
“Just are you, who is, and who was, the Holy One,
for these were your judgements;
for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets
and you have given them blood to drink.
They are worthy of it”
And I heard from the altar,
“Yes, Lord God the Almighty,
true and just are your judgments!”

Outside of grace, God’s concept of justice is not fundamentally different from man’s. “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obad 15). “Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you” (II Chron 24:20). “By the judgement you judge by, you will be judged, and with the measure you measure with, it will be measured back to you” (Matt 7:2). The beast and his associates poured out the blood of the saints and the 144,000 prophets; now God pours out his anger on them by giving them blood to drink. ‘Worthy’ is an ironical echo of 5:9. The voices from the altar are those of the martyrs themselves (6:9).

And the fourth poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the great heat, and they reviled the name of God who had power over these plagues. And they did not give him glory by repenting.

Spiritually, the only-begotten Son of God is the light of the world; whoever follows him will not walk in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12). Physically, the sun is the light of the world. Without it there would be no photosynthesis – no oxygen, no food. The sun rises on the evil and the good alike, and life depends entirely on it. Jesus Christ existed before the world, and everything that was made was made through him. The visible world was therefore made so as to reflect the invisible.

The sun is no longer beneficent. Previously only implied (8:7), it is now explicitly the source of the fire, as it spews forth superhot plasma. The atmosphere heats up, and wild fires become common. People are aware, however, that the ultimate cause is God. Unlike Job, who suffered innocently, they curse God. They do not heed the call to ascribe glory to him who is holy, and acknowledge their failure to be like him (14:7). Fire purifies, or it destroys.

And the fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became dark. And they gnawed their tongues in anguish and reviled the God of heaven for their anguish and sores. And they did not repent of their deeds.

Clouds envelop the Earth. The sun becomes black as sackcloth.

And the sixth poured out his bowl on the great river, the Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And out of the mouth of the dragon and of the mouth of the beast and of the mouth of the false prophet I saw three unclean spirits, like frogs. They are demonic spirits, performing signs that go out to the kings of the whole world to gather them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is vigilant and maintains his garments, that he may not go about naked and be exposed to shame.”) And he gathered them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

The scorching heat dries up many rivers, including the Euphrates. The false prophet is the ‘beast with two horns like a lamb’ (13:11). Preceded by a portentous darkening, the great day is the ‘day of the Lord’ foreseen by the prophets (e.g. Isa 13:1-16, 24:21f, Joel 2:31, Zeph 3:8, Mal 4:5), the end-time equivalent of the ‘day of vengeance’ – lasting some years – that he, Yahweh, brought about by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Elam and eventually Babylon itself, after he put an end to the kingdom of Israel (Jer 46-51, Ezek 25-32, Zeph 2). Those countries were the ‘whole world’ of that time. Their descendants are, presumably, the ‘whole world’ whose leaders are persuaded by supernatural signs to gather for battle at the tell (ancient settlement mound) of Megiddo: not against God, for they have already taken Jerusalem, but against each other (Dan 11:44).

The interjection – “Behold, I am coming like a thief!” – recapitulates warnings given to the churches at Sardis and Laodicea, apposite here because it is the day of the Lord that comes like a thief (I Thes 5:2, II Pet 3:10). The interruption is as unexpected as the event itself. The day has a double reference, for it is also the moment when the Lord comes for his own, to harvest the wheat rather than burn the tares: “Be vigilant, for you do not know at what hour your Lord is coming. Know this, that if the master of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been vigilant and not let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:42f). So it is either the day of rapture or the subsequent day of wrath; of light or of darkness (I Thes 5:5). Jesus exhorts us to make sure we do not get left behind.

And the seventh poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there was lightning and sounds and thunder, and there was a great earthquake such as has not been since man was on the earth, so great was that mighty earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to give her the cup of the wine of his anger and of his wrath. And every island fled, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones about a hundred pounds weight came down from heaven on the people; and they reviled God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was extremely severe.

Lightning, noises and thunder – effects of the solar wind interfering with the Earth’s magnetosphere – have been going on in the background since the first trumpet, but now, with the last bowl of anger, they intensify. The earthquake is the same as that at the opening of the sixth seal. The waters roar and foam, mountains and islands sink into the heart of the sea, the earth melts (Ps 46, Lu 21:25). As God lifts his voice, not only the earth but also the heavens shudder (Joel 3:16, Hag 2:6) and Zion becomes the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2). Celestial bodies fall to the earth like figs shaken from a tree. Whereas the first ‘great city’ was the tripartite conurbation of Resen, Nineveh and Calah (Gen 10:11, Jon 3:3), now it is global – the cities of Europe, Asia and America together – and it splits into three.

A scene from the film 2012

How the armies at Megiddo meet their end is not expressly stated in Revelation. On the great day of Yahweh they are slaughtered, and they cry to the rocks and mountains, “Fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of God!” (Rev 6:16). They are killed on the battlefield by a hail of meteoroids. However, the final battle will be at Jerusalem (Zech 14). After a siege, the nations will capture the city and send half of its inhabitants into exile. Then God will strike its assailants with a plague, so that their flesh rots while they are standing, and they panic and fight each other.

Having destroyed those who sought to destroy them, God will lead the Jews back from their exile in Egypt and beyond the Euphrates to the land of their inheritance (Isa 11:14ff, 27:13, 49:8-12):
But they will swoop down on the shoulder of the Philistines in the west,
and together they will plunder the people of the east.
They will put out their hand against Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will obey them.
And the Lord will utterly destroy the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead people across in sandals.
And there will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant that remains of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.

Thus, eventually, the remnant of Israel take part in the day of vengeance (also Isa 41:15, Obad 18, Zech 12:6).

The anger of God is done. The following chapters (17-19) portray ‘Babylon the Great’ in more detail, uttering a lament for her fall and contrasting the fate of those deceived by the beast and his prophet – now mere carrion – with those in heaven about to celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb.