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, which are the last, for with them the anger of God is finished.

The first plagues to be so designated are the fire, smoke and sulphur associated with the sixth trumpet. The seven last plagues bring the total up to ten, as in the Exodus, and they are evidently sequential. The disasters of the earlier trumpets are also severe enough to be regarded as plagues (11:6) and as an expression of God’s anger, but the sense is that 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). Now the earth is cleansed through fire. Without a participle such as ‘coming’ or ‘having come’, ‘from’ is somewhat awkward; the sense is ‘they who come from the great tribulation’ (Rev 7:14, cf. 16:13). The song of Moses is set out in Exodus 15, including these lines:
Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
fearful in praises, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand:
the earth swallowed them.
In your love you led the people whom you redeemed;
by your strength you have guided them to your holy abode.

The Lamb is both a new Moses (Deut 18:15) and the substitutionary sacrifice for Israel’s first-born. His song, in chapter 5, celebrates the greater Exodus of a people drawn from every nation. The bringing together of the two 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 God created the heavens and the earth: the worship of idols is therefore folly. The redeemed in heaven rejoice, first-fruits and main harvest alike, and add to 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, 86:9, Isa 2:3, 45:23, 66:23). He is the king of the nations. When 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 living beings 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.

In heaven the temple (naos) and the tent of witness, or tabernacle, are one and the same. The Mosaic Tabernacle was a ‘tent of witness’ (the Greek rendering of ‘tent of meeting’) because, in its preservation of the tablet inscribed with the commandments which were the basis of God’s covenant with Israel, it witnessed of who God was and what he had done. Indeed, it was where he resided: “I will tabernacle among you,” (Lev 26:11) in a mobile house clothed with the skin of animals. Eventually, that witness was given by Christ: ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’ (John 1:14). After him, it was his body on earth, his Church, that gave witness, pointing to the true light and the Word written, and willing to die for his sake. Spiritually, she is the tabernacle in heaven (Rev 13:6).

The temple is closed. God will no longer receive pleas for mercy. ‘Anger’ is thumos, a word with an earlier meaning of ‘emotion’ or ‘passion’, distinct from orge, specifically ‘wrath’. We have emotions because we are made in God’s likeness, and he has emotions. 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 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 judgement of God on sin. ‘Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath’ (5:9). A temporal ruler who orders capital punishment stands in the place of God and exacts his wrath (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 this first death is not the end. Although we must all die once, whoever is in Christ will rise to eternal life. The general resurrection at the end of the thousand years is of all who are not in Christ, but in Adam. Judged according to their deeds, many 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. The bowls of wrath are poured on these parts of the created world one by one, beginning with the earth.

In the sixth plague of the Exodus, the boils that broke out on people’s skin were apparently caused by a fine dust, as it 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. 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 an example of pleonasm, 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.

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, this judgement is global.

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). “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 fierce heat, and they reviled the name of God who had power over these plagues. And they did not give him glory by repenting.

Previously only implied (8:7), the sun is now explicitly the source of the fire, as it spews forth superhot plasma. But although it is the proximal cause, people are aware 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.
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 stays awake and keeps hold of his clothes, 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). 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), analogous to the day of vengeance executed by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Elam and eventually Babylon itself after he, Yahweh, brought the kingdom of Israel to an end (Jer 46-51, Ezek 25-32, Zeph 2). They were the ‘whole world’ of that time, and their latter-day descendants are likely to be the ‘whole world’ that gathers for battle – not against God but against each other (Dan 11:44) – at Megiddo (Armageddon). Having destroyed his enemies, God will lead the Jews deported beyond the Euphrates back across the river into the promised land (Isa 11:14ff, 27:13):
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 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: “Stay awake, 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 stayed awake and not let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:42f). 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 the passion 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 have been going on in the background since the first trumpet. The earth- quake 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) and Zion becomes the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2). The sun becomes black as sackcloth. Celestial bodies fall to the earth like figs shaken from a tree. The first ‘great city’ was the tripartite conurbation of Resen, Nineveh and Calah (Gen 10:11), which took three days to cross (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. The great day of the Lord is the day when 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). The nations will besiege the city, capture it 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.

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.