Revelation 15-16. The wrath of God is poured out on the world, culminating in the great Day of the Lord.
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, these last ten are worse.
There are two songs of Moses in the Pentateuch: one in which he celebrated Yahweh’s triumph in the Exodus (Ex 15) and one 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). His song (ch. 5) celebrates the greater Exodus of a people drawn from every nation. The bringing together of his song 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.
The vision connects with end of chapter 11, where the temple in heaven opens and the ark of the covenant is seen within it. Jerusalem’s Temple (naos, sanctuary) was built according to the same God-given pattern as the Mosaic Tabernacle, and in heaven they are one and the same. The Tabernacle was the ‘tent of the testimony’ (Nu 9:15, and the regular LXX translation of the ‘tent/tabernacle of meeting’) because it contained the shining lamps (symbolising the Law), the bread of the presence (his presence) and ‘the ark of the testimony’, and the ark enshrined the tablet inscribed with the ten commandments, a witness to God’s covenant with Israel. These things witnessed of who God was and what he had done. More than that, the tent was where he resided: “I will tabernacle among you” (Lev 26:11), in an itinerant shelter clothed with 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). His body was the sanctuary of God’s presence (John 2:21), and after his ascension those who participated in his flesh and blood continued his witness, eventually to the ends of the earth.
The angels are similar in appearance to the ‘one like a son of man’ seen at the beginning. They hold the same golden bowls as held the prayers of the saints (5:8), but now these hold God’s anger. The temple is shut behind them. As on the day Christ was crucified, his eye will not spare and he will show no pity.
‘Anger’ is thumos, a word with an older meaning of ‘emotion’ or ‘passion’, distinct from orge, ‘wrath’. In 14:10 and 16:19 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). ‘All our days pass away under your wrath’ (Ps 90:9). 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 (but not all) will be condemned and their sentence of death confirmed. Ultimately that is the wrath of God.
By this stage the reader will have noticed that the three series of sevens – seven seals, seven trumpets, and now seven bowls of wrath – all have the structure 4 + 2 + 1. The seven days of creation have the same structure. During the first four days God formed the environments of the earth, during the fifth and sixth he created the animals to live in them, and on the seventh he rested. The three sevens in Revelation describe the undoing of creation. This beautiful world! Will God really destroy what he has made?
|Seven days of creation||Seven seals||Seven trumpets||Seven bowls of wrath|
|1-4||Light, waters, earth, sun||Four horsemen||Earth, sea, water, sun||Earth, sea, water, sun|
|5||Animals of air & water||Persecution||Demonic locusts torment||Pains and sores torment|
|6||Land animals||Day of vengeance||Demonic horses kill||Armageddon|
|7||Sabbath||Silence||Redemption||Fall of Babylon|
The call was to ‘worship him who made the heaven and the land and sea and springs of water’ (14:7). With the seeing eye and the hearing ear 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 land.
In the sixth plague of the Exodus, the boils that broke out on people’s skin were caused by a fine air-borne dust. The angel’s pouring of the bowl onto the land, evidently from above, also indicates a physical cause. Most probably this is a rise in X-ray and ultraviolet radiation resulting from the weakening or collapse of the planet’s magnetic shield, the effects exacerbated by extreme heat. The plague is part of the torment referred to in 14:10f.
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.
Again, in the catastrophe of the third trumpet, only a third of the rivers became polluted. By implication, the judgement now is total, 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).
Outside of grace, God’s concept of justice is not fundamentally different from man’s. “As you have done, so shall it 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. From the altar the long-suffering martyrs voice their approval (6:9). ‘Worthy’ is an ironical echo of 5:9.
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 innocently suffering Job, they curse God. They do not heed the call to ascribe glory to him who is holy, they do not acknowledge their failure to be like him. Fire purifies, or it destroys.
Clouds envelop the Earth. The sun becomes black as sackcloth. God seems utterly remote.
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 portentous darkness, 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 – which Yahweh visited upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Elam and eventually Babylon itself, having previously put an end to the kingdom of Israel (Jer 46-51, Ezek 25-32, Zeph 2). Those countries were the ‘whole world’ at 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.
Lightning, noises and thunder – effects of the solar wind interfering with the Earth’s magnetic field – have been going on in the background since the first trumpet, but now, with the last bowl of anger, poured on the air, they intensify. The earthquake is the same as that at the opening of the sixth seal. Generally, earthquakes occur when tension is released between two tectonic plates. Most originate near the surface of the Earth, all are local, and the shallower their origin, the greater the damage. The only conceivable trigger of a global earthquake is an acceleration of movements in the liquid outer core of the planet – the same kind of movements as generate its magnetic field. In the last thirty years the rate at which magnetic north has shifted across Earth’s surface has accelerated from 15 km per year to 55 km per year.
How the armies at Megiddo meet their end is not expressly stated. 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.
Thus, eventually, the remnant of Israel take part in the day of vengeance (also Isa 41:15, Obad 18, Mic 5:8, Zech 12:6, Mal 4:3).
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.