Revelation 15-16. Wrath is poured out on the world with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, culminating in the Day of the Lord.
The first scourges to be designated plagues were the fire, smoke and sulphur associated with the sixth trumpet, which were three in number. The seven last plagues bring the total to ten, as in the days before the Exodus. While the judgements of the trumpets also express God’s anger, these are worse. Israel will not be delivered from its oppressor until the tenth plague.
Fire is now involved in the judgement. ‘Conquering 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, where the verb of motion is also omitted). Throughout, they conquer because they refuse to bow before the image of the beast or receive his mark, even on pain of death. Therefore they stand on the sea, which is solid to them; they stand without fear before the throne, safe, like the 144,000, in heaven.
The Pentateuch records two songs: one in which Moses celebrated Yahweh’s triumph over Pharaoh (Ex 15) and one in which, just before Israel entered the Promised Land, he foretold the nation’s prosperity, unfaithfulness, exile and final deliverance (Deut 32). The song of triumph is in mind. As God’s servant, and as though he were God himself (Ex 14:31, 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). Now he brings down judgement on the beast-Pharaoh, and those who have conquered share in his victory, recognising no distinction between him and the Lord God Almighty. They sing from a position after death, on the other side of the sea. It is from there that they observe God’s judgement of his enemies.
The three tenses of the song are a variation on ‘who is, who was and who is to come’. Some of the words come from Jeremiah (Jer 10:1-16), who avers that because God created heaven and earth, it is folly to worship wooden images. The redeemed of Judah rejoice, and amplify their sound with lyres (citharas – also 5:8, 14:2). It is an interim state, for when Christ returns, they will return with him. All the nations will make the journey to Mount Zion and bow the knee before the Almighty (Ps 22:27, 65:2, 86:9, 102:22, Isa 45:23, 66:18, 23, Jer 3:17, 16:19, Zeph 2:11, Zech 14:16). Once men understand that he, the Lord God, is king, they cannot but fear and glorify him.
The vision connects with the end of chapter 11, where the temple in heaven opens to reveal the ark of the covenant and there follow ‘lightning, sounds, thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail’. Like the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem was the earthly representation of God’s dwelling-place, and it had the same design. Both consisted of a sanctuary partitioned by a curtain or veil. Within the inner sanctuary or tent was ‘the ark of the testimony’ and within the ark were the tablets inscribed with the ten commandments, summing up God’s law and covenant. The inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, was therefore called the ‘tent of the testimony’. (In Hebrew ‘Tabernacle’ meant ‘dwelling-place’ and ‘tent’ was a separate word; in the New Testament skene was the word for both.) The sanctuary on the outer side of the veil contained the bread and the shining lamps of the menorah, symbolising his daily presence and his light. In due time, the Word ‘became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’ (John 1:14). Christ’s body was the temple of God because it housed his Spirit (John 2:21), and he became the bread and the light. After his ascension those who participated in his body and spirit continued the testimony as they took his word from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Like him (1:13), the angels wear belts of gold (the significant point is what the belts are made of, not that they are wearing belts). Their golden bowls once held the prayers of the saints (5:8); now they hold the wine of God’s wrath. The entrance to the sanctuary closes as the angels leave, and silence falls (after 16:1) to complete the hour’s silence begun at the seventh seal. As when Christ was crucified, his eye will not spare; he will show no pity.
‘Fury’ is thumos, a stronger word than orge, ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’. We have emotions because we are made in God’s likeness, and he has emotions. But anger is rarely good and we should not be overcome by it (Eph 4:26, Col 3:8). God continually exercises makrothumia, ‘patience’ (Rom 2:4), for he does not will that anyone should perish but that they should repent. 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.
The wrath of God has a double reference. First, it refers to the punishment of death (Rom 4:15, 7:9f), because in Adam all die; we are by nature children of disobedience (Eph 5:6) and therefore of wrath (Eph 2:3, John 3:36). ‘All our days pass away under your wrath’ (Ps 90:9). A ruler who imposes the just sentence of death for a crime exacts the wrath of God on his behalf, for the sentence is the same (Rom 13:4); it is the fate of every soul at the resurrection who does not obey the truth but unrighteousness (Rom 2:5-8). But whoever is justified by the blood of Christ will be saved from wrath (Rom 5:9).
Second, it refers to a moment in history when there will be ‘tribulation and distress for every human soul that does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek’. For the Jews, this came to pass in the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-70 and 132-135. More than a million lost their lives, including many who had congregated in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover; the remaining population of Judaea was enslaved and deported (Ezek 5:1-13, Zech 13:8, Luke 21:21-24, 23:28-30; Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.9.3, Cassius Dio, Roman History 69.12.1-14.3). In their pursuit of national independence the Jews brought these calamities upon themselves. Ultimately, however, they came from God. The Jews had rejected God, so he rejected them, having warned them about the consequences often (Ezek 5:1-13, Zech 13:8, Mal 4:6, Matt 21:32-41).
In advance of the appearing of the Messiah, John the Baptist too warned about the wrath to come (Luke 3:7, 3:17). Though he could not say when it would happen, it would come upon Jews and Gentiles alike. Elsewhere it is described as the time of their ‘visitation’ (Luke 19:44, I Pet 2:12), and Jesus briefed his disciples about both episodes. Now it is the turn of the Gentiles. The boils on the skin, the extreme thirst, the intolerable heat anticipate in the land of the living the subsequent fate of the wicked, when they rise from the dead and are thrown into the lake of fire. Those in Israel who have survived the beast’s rule are protected from the radiation by a canopy of cloud (Isa 4:3-6).
The seven seals, the seven trumpets and the seven bowls all have the same structure, 4 + 2 + 1. So do the seven days of creation. 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 trumpets and bowls of wrath describe the undoing of creation – this wonderful, beautiful world.
|7 days of creation||7 seals||7 trumpets||7 bowls of wrath|
|1-4||Light, water, land, sun||Four horsemen||Land, sea, water, sun||Land, sea, water, sun|
|5||Animals of air and water||Persecution||Demonic locusts torment||Darkness|
|6||Animals of the land||Day of vengeance||Demonic horses kill||Armageddon|
God looks down to see if there are any who seek after him. All have corrupted themselves; all have turned away. With the seeing eye and the hearing ear, with his belly and his genitalia, man enjoys everything that God has given him, but the wealthier he becomes, the greater the sense that he owes it all to himself. The more he understands scientifically about nature, which he freely acknowledges to be wondrous, the less he sees God and the more he believes in his own intellectual power. He shows no gratitude. He shuts him out, refusing to ‘worship him who made the heaven and the land and sea and springs of water’ or even to acknowledge his existence. The vineyard of Europe is no longer producing fruit.
Although it seems unthinkable that God would destroy what he has made, we have been destroying it ourselves. According to the most realistic projections, by 2100 the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will have reached three times what it was in 1900. As forests burn and temperatures rise, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, plant and animal extinctions become more frequent. By casting fire on the earth, God concentrates into a few months the devastation that was set to happen anyway. Man learns that the creation cannot be taken for granted. One by one the bowls of wrath are poured out onto land and sea, the bodies of drinking water, the sun and the air. Fire is expressly mentioned only in relation to the fourth bowl.
In the sixth plague of the Exodus, the boils that broke out on the skin were caused by a fine air-borne dust – volcanic ash, to judge from the mimetic heavenward tossing of soot from a kiln (Ex 9:9, 19:18). The pouring of the bowl onto the land, from above the land, likewise indicates a physical cause. Possibly it will be an increase in X-ray and ultraviolet radiation arising from the weakening, if not collapse, of the planet’s magnetic shield, with extreme heat exacerbating the effects on the body. The sores are a mark corresponding to the beast’s mark. If the bowl is poured out globally, the implication is that people everywhere will have received the mark, not just in the Middle East.
The judgement of the second trumpet was restricted to a third of the ocean; now the whole ocean is affected. The blood of dead animals discolours the surface, animals that once had the breath or spirit of life (Gen 1:21, 30). Again, the physical cause is not stated, but one possibility is heat-induced hypoxia is a possibility, an intensification of the ‘marine heatwaves’ that have already become common (Limburg et al. 2020).
Terrestrial life depends on fresh water. In the catastrophe of the third trumpet, only a third of the rivers were polluted. The implication is that the judgement has become total. “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). Rivers and springs choke with the corpses.
And I heard the altar say, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”
One angel has authority over sea and land (10:2), another over the fire (14:18), another over the waters. The angel does not address God as ‘he who is to come’ because he has come, with his appearance at the seventh trumpet (11:17).
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 recompense shall return on your 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 polluted the land with the blood of the saints and the 144,000 prophets; now God pours out his fury on them by giving them blood to drink. Righteousness and justice are interrelated, because right action and the penalty for not acting rightly have to do with following or breaking God’s law; the nouns translate the same word, dikaiosune. From the altar the long-suffering martyrs voice their approval: God at last has given them justice (Luke 18:7). ‘They are worthy’ is an ironical echo of the acclamation of the Lamb in 5:9.
The sun is the light of the world. Without it there would be no photosynthesis – no oxygen therefore, no food, no life. It rises on the evil and good alike, and life depends on it. Spiritually, the Son of God is the light, the sun of righteousness that shines on all the world. For the visible world reflects the invisible.
The fire is part of the torment warned about (14:10f), directed chiefly against those who associate themselves with the beast. If previously only implied (8:7), the sun as it spews forth superhot plasma is now explicitly the source of the fire. It is no longer beneficent. The atmosphere heats up, plants are reduced to tinder and wildfires multiply. Men are aware that God is the ultimate cause of their tribulation, but unlike Job, who despite his innocence was also afflicted with ‘evil sores’, they curse God. It is the only retaliation left to them. They do not give him blessing and honour and glory (5:13). Repentance would have glorified God through being an acknowledgement of his justice and holiness.
Clouds of volcanic smoke and ash envelop the empire, the other part of the torment warned about (14:10). This is the day of thick darkness before Christ gathers his sheep, living and dead (Ezek 34:12). Day turns to night (Rev 6:12), and even the moon does not shine (Isa 13:10). God seems utterly remote. Men gnaw their blaspheming tongues and go on blaspheming, notwithstanding the pain.
The scorching heat dries up the Euphrates, the future boundary of Israel, and prepares the way for the kings to take the land, just as the Jordan became dry for Joshua (contrast Isa 40.3). Evidently earthquakes have destroyed the bridges. As at 7:2, ‘from the rising of the sun’ means ‘from the east’, but in Greek ‘of the sun’ can be omitted (so 21:13); the point of including it is ironic, for the sky is dark, and it is Christ – associated with the sun at 1:16 and 10:1 – who will rise from the east (Matt 24:27). The invisible dragon, the ‘son of destruction’ and the falsely prophesying ‘beast with two horns’ (13:11) are the earthly counterparts of God the Father, his Christ and Christ’s two witnesses.
The great day is the ‘Day of the Lord’ foreseen by the prophets (e.g. Isa 13:1-16, 24:21-23, Joel 2:31, Zeph 3:8, Mal 4:1, II Pet 3:12), equivalent to the ‘day of vengeance’ – lasting years – which in the 6th century BC Yahweh visited upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Arabia, Elam and eventually Babylon itself, after the kingdom of Judah was judged (Jer 46-51, Ezek 25-32, Zeph 2). Those countries were the ‘whole world’ at that time (Jer 25:26). Their descendants are, presumably, the ‘whole world’ whose leaders are persuaded by supernatural signs to gather at ‘Armageddon’, the hill (Heb. har) just west of Megiddo. Although they congregate there, it is not necessarily where the final battle will take place, and other texts indicate that the battle will be at Jerusalem. Jerusalem of course poses no threat after more than three years of foreign occupation. Rather, the kings await the imminent arrival of the Messiah himself. They expect to defeat him by force, just as when Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against Jerusalem in the reign of Hezekiah.
“Behold, I am coming like a thief!” recapitulates the warning given to the church at Sardis. The interruption is as unexpected as the event itself. While it is true that the Day will come like a thief (I Thes 5:2, II Pet 3:10), the Lord likens himself to a thief, plundering the house of the strong man (Matt 12:29). The Day can also refer to the moment when he takes his own. It is either the day of rapture or the subsequent day of wrath (Luke 17:22). “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 the time of night when the thief was coming, he would have been vigilant and not let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:42f). Jesus exhorts us to be ready, lest he strip us bare.
A loud voice breaks the silence in heaven. Lightning, noises and thunder have been going on intermittently since the first trumpet, but with this last bowl, poured on the the troposphere, the solar storms producing these effects intensify. The earth and its works are burned up, in accordance with the ‘wrath of God from heaven’ revealed in the gospel (II Pet 3:10, Rom 1:18). The threshing-floor is purged (Luke 3:17).
The mention of a particular earthquake immediately after ‘thunder’ confirms that the phenomena are all non-symbolic. Earthquakes occur when tension is released between tectonic plates. Most originate near the surface, all are local, and the shallower their origin, the greater the damage. A global earthquake could be triggered only by something deeper, involving movements in the outer core of the planet, the same kind as generate its magnetic field. In the last thirty years the rate at which magnetic north has shifted across the surface has accelerated from 0-15 km to 50-60 km per year. The shift is linked to accelerating movements in the core, though exactly what is happening there remains unknown. The earthquake is the same as caused mountains to crumble when the last seal was opened in chapter 6.
It has happened before, 80 years ago, when Berlin, Hamburg, Coventry, Stalingrad, Tokyo, and many other cities were all but obliterated. Men will look at the mountains and every tall building as it collapses and 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). The hailstones are meteors, for a hundred pounds weight (lit. talent) is far heavier than any frozen pellet of rain, and ice would be incongruous in the midst of fierce heat. The ‘stars’ fall on the earth like unripe figs shaken by the wind.
With that the wrath of God is finished (Rev 15:1), as it finally was for Jesus at the crucifixion (John 19:30). The words ‘there was a great earthquake’ are the same as in Matthew’s account of the resurrection. The earthquake that brings down Babylon the Great will also bring up Israel’s dead (Ezek 37:7).
The following chapters (17-19) reveal the character of Babylon the Great and utter a lament for her fall. The army of the beast and his prophet are reduced to carrion, while those attending the marriage of the Lamb feast and rejoice.