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 fury of God is finished.

The first judgements to be designated plagues are the fire, smoke and sulphur associated with the sixth trumpet, three in number. The seven last plagues bring the total up to ten, as in the Exodus. While the judgements of the earlier trumpets also express God’s anger and are severe enough to be regarded as plagues, the last are worse. This is the ‘tribulation such as has not been the like since the beginning of creation” (Mark 13:19). Israel will not be delivered from its oppressor until the tenth plague.

And I saw what seemed like a glass sea mingled with fire and those who have conquered, from the beast and from its image and from the number of its name, standing on the glass sea holding lyres of God. And they sing the song of Moses, 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, Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are sinless;
for all nations will come and worship before you;
for your righteous acts have been manifested.”
The ‘glass sea’ represents the subterranean waters of the deep, by means of which God brought to an end the antediluvian world (II Peter 3:6). It also represents the Red Sea.
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing. (Isa 51:10f)

Fire is now involved in the judgement. ‘Conquered from [ek] the beast’ is grammatically clipped, but the vision parallels that of the multitude ‘from every nation … coming from the great tribulation’ (Rev 7:14, cf. 16:13). Here those standing before the throne are Jews, having conquered because they refused to bow before the image of the beast or receive his mark, on pain of death. They are safe in heaven.

There are two songs of Moses in the Pentateuch: one in which he celebrated Yahweh’s triumph over Egypt (Ex 15) and one in which, just before they entered the Promised Land, he foretold Israel’s prosperity, unfaithfulness and exile (Deut 32). The former song is in mind. God’s servant (Ex 14:31), and indeed as though he were God himself (Ex 7:1), Moses inflicted misery on a country that had made Israel’s life a misery. The Lamb too was a ‘servant of God’ (Isa 53:7, Mark 10:45) and acted his full authority. Now he brings down judgement on the beast-Pharaoh. Those who have conquered through the power of the Lamb will sing a new song (of which we are given an excerpt) from a position after death on the other side of the Red Sea. It is from there that they observe God’s judgement of his enemies.

Some of the words come from Jeremiah (10:1-16), who points out that because God created the heavens and the earth, it is folly to worship images. The redeemed rejoice, 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, 102:22, Isa 2:3, 45:23, 66:23, Jer 16:19, Zeph 2:11, Zech 14:16). 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 the testimony in heaven was opened, and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, dressed 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 fury of God who lives for ever 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 vision connects with the end of chapter 11, where the temple in heaven opens and discloses the ark of the covenant. Jerusalem’s Temple (naos, sanctuary) was built according to the same God-given pattern as the Tabernacle, and in heaven they are one and the same. The Tabernacle (Heb. mishkan) was the dwelling in which God chose to dwell before the first temple was built. It consisted of a tent (Heb. ohel), partitioned by a curtain or veil, within which was ‘the ark of the testimony’. The ark enshrined the tablet inscribed with the ten commandments, witnessing God’s covenant with Israel, and this inner tent was therefore called the ‘tent of the testimony’ (Nu 9:15). The tent on the outer side of the veil contained the shining lamps of the menorah, symbolising the Law, and the bread, symbolising his presence among the people, in the outer tent. In due time God extended his testimony to the whole world. Christ the Word ‘became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’ (John 1:14), for his body was the sanctuary of God (John 2:21). After his ascension those who participated in his flesh and blood continued that witness, eventually to the ends of the earth.

The angels are similar in dress to the ‘one like a son of man’ seen at the beginning. Earlier, their golden bowls held the prayers of the saints (5:8); now they hold God’s wrath. The entrance to the temple closes as the angels leave. As on the day that Christ was crucified, his eye will not spare, and he will show no pity.

‘Fury’ is thumos, a word with an older meaning of ‘emotion’ or ‘passion’, distinct from orge, ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’. 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 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 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, according to Paul, the ‘wrath’ of God especially refers to the ‘day of wrath’, when God reveals his righteous judgement and ‘fury 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 and 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. ‘All our days pass away under your wrath’ (Ps 90:9). But the first death is not the end, for whoever trusts in Christ will rise to eternal life. The general resurrection at the end of the thousand years is the resurrection 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.

And I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of the fury of God on the earth.”

The seven seals, the seven trumpets and the seven bowls all have the structure 4 + 2 + 1. The seven days of creation also have that 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 wonderful, 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 and water Persecution Demonic locusts torment Pains and sores torment
   6 Animals of the land Day of vengeance Demonic horses kill Armageddon
   7 Sabbath Silence Redemption Destruction

The call is 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 the greater his wealth, the greater the sense that he does not need God and owes it all to himself. The more he understands scientifically about the works of God, the more he believes in his own intellectual power. He shows no gratitude and shuts God out, refusing to acknowledge even that he exists. God looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after him, but all have turned away. As in Sodom, there is no one who does good (Ps 53). Now man learns that the creation cannot be taken for granted. One by one the bowls of wrath are poured out from the created heaven onto the created Earth: the land, the sea, the sources of fresh water.

So the first went and poured out his bowl onto the land, and a harmful and painful sore came on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshipped its image.

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 pouring of the bowl onto the land, evidently from above, also indicates a physical cause. Possibly this is an increase in X-ray and ultraviolet radiation resulting from the weakening, if not 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 and directed chiefly against those who identify themselves with the beast.

And the second poured out his bowl onto 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 sea or ocean; now the whole ocean is affected, filled with the blood of dead animals. Again, the physical cause is not stated.

And the third angel poured out his bowl onto the rivers and on 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,
“Righteous are you, who is, and who was, sinless 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 one from the altar say,
“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, 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 Chr 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 fury on them by giving them blood to drink. From the altar the long-suffering martyrs voice their approval (6:9). ‘They are worthy’ is an ironical echo of the acclamation in 5:9. Righteousness and justice are interrelated (the adjectives translate the same word, dikaios), because right action and the penalty for not acting rightly have to do with following or breaking God’s law and covenant.

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. 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 (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 was 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. But people are aware that the ultimate cause is God. The angel of the waters does not address God as ‘he who is to come’ because he has come, with his appearance at the seventh trumpet (11:17), and those on earth live in that knowledge. Unlike innocently suffering Job, they curse God. They do not heed the call to ascribe glory to him who is holy. 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. They did not repent of their deeds.

Thick cloud envelops the Earth. The sun becomes black as sackcloth (Rev 6:12). The moon does not give its light (Isa 13:10, Mark 13:24). God seems utterly remote.

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 out of the mouth of the beast and out 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 keeps hold of 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). Along with the invisible dragon and the ‘son of destruction’, he forms a trinity analogous to the God of heaven, the Lamb and the two witnesses. 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-of-the-age equivalent of the ‘day of vengeance’ – lasting some years – which Yahweh visited upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Arabia, Elam and eventually Babylon itself, after doing away with 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 at the ancient settlement mound (tell) of Megiddo. Although Megiddo is where they gather, it is not necessarily where the final battle will take place. Other texts indicate that the battle will be at Jerusalem.

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 in the text 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. It is either the day of rapture or the subsequent day of wrath; of light or of darkness (I Thes 5:5). “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). Jesus exhorts us to make sure we do not get left behind.

And the seventh poured out his bowl on the air, and a loud voice came from 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 never been since mankind was on the earth, so great was that mighty earthquake. And the great city split into three parts. The cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the Great to give her the cup of the wine of the rage of his wrath. Every island fled, and mountains were not to be found. And great hailstones about a hundred pounds weight came down from heaven on mankind; 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 magnetic field – have been going on since the first trumpet, but with this last bowl, poured on the air, they intensify. The earthquake is the same as that at the opening of the sixth seal. 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. A global earthquake could only be triggered by something much deeper, namely 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 to 55 km per year. Movement in the core has accelerated more than threefold (Livermore et al. 2019).

A scene from the film 2012

The waters roar and foam, mountains and islands sink into the heart of the sea, the earth melts (Ps 46, Lu 21:25). all the foundations of the earth are shaken (Ps 82:5). 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.
“As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Dan 2:34f)

Seeing the mountains and every tall building crumbling, men cry to the rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of God!” (Rev 6:16). The heavens also shudder (Joel 3:16, Hag 2:6). Meteoroids fall on the earth like figs shaken from a tree. (A hundred pounds weight is far heavier than any hailstone.)

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