The seven bowls of God’s fury

Revelation 15-16. Wrath is poured out on the world with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, 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 scourges 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 to ten, as in 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.

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 ended 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, where the verb of motion is also omitted). They have conquered because they refused 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; they stand before the throne. Like the 144,000, they are safe in heaven.

The Pentateuch records two songs of Moses: one in which he 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 (Ex 14:31), and 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), acting with his full authority. Now he brings down judgement on the beast-Pharaoh. Those who have conquered through the power of the Lamb sing a new song (of which we are given an excerpt) from a position after death, figuratively 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 (Jer 10:1-16), who avers 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 in worship (Ps 22:27, 65:2, 86:9, 102:22, Isa 2:3, 45:23, 66:18, 23, Jer 3:17, 16:19, Zeph 2:11, Zech 14:1). 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 living beings 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 ended.

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 was built according to the same God-given pattern as the Tabernacle, for they embodied the same reality. The Tabernacle (Heb. mishkan) was where God chose to dwell before the building of the Temple. 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, a memorial of God’s covenant with Israel, and this inner tent was therefore called the ‘tent of the testimony’. The tent on the outer side of the veil contained the shining lamps of the menorah, symbolising the light of his word, and the bread, the manna of his body. In due time, when the Word ‘became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’ (John 1:14), God extended his testimony to the Gentiles; Christ’s body was the temple of God because it housed the Spirit of God (John 2:21). After his ascension those who participated in his flesh and blood continued that witness, as they took his word from Judaea to the ends of the earth.

The angels are similar in dress to the ‘one like a son of man’ seen at the beginning. 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. As on the day that Christ was crucified, his eye will not spare. He will show no pity.

‘Fury’ is thumos, a stronger word than 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 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.

The wrath of God has a double reference. First, it refers to the general resurrection when God reveals his righteous judgement and renders to each according to his works; it is the fate of every soul who does not obey the truth but unrighteousness (Rom 2:5-8). We are by nature children of disobedience (Eph 5:6, Col 3:6) and therefore of wrath (Eph 2:3, John 3:36), the punishment of death (Rom 4:15, 7:9f), because in Adam all die. ‘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). But whoever is justified by the blood of Christ will be saved from wrath (Rom 5:9).

Second, it refers to the ‘tribulation and distress for every human soul that does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,’ at a particular moment in history. For the Jews, this came to pass in the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-70 and 132-135. Jerusalem was razed to the ground, more than a million Jews lost their lives and 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). While the Jews brought these calamities upon themselves, ultimately they came from God, the Romans being his instruments of wrath. This was clear from his warning about the calamities long before they happened (Ezek 5:1-13, Zech 13:8, Mal 4:6, Luke 23:28-30). He rejected the Jews because they had rejected him (Matt 21:32-41, 27:25). Now it is the turn of the Gentiles.

In advance of the appearing of the Messiah, John the Baptist warned of the wrath that was to come. Though he could not say when it would happen, it would befall Jew and Gentile alike (Luke 3:7, 3:17). Elsewhere it is described as the time of their ‘visitation’ (Luke 19:44, I Pet 2:12). When Jesus briefed his disciples about the two episodes, he warned them in terms applicable to both (Luke 21:12-24). The visitation of God’s wrath on the Gentiles – boils on the skin, extreme thirst, intolerable heat – anticipates 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.

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. 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 seven trumpets and the seven bowls of wrath describe the undoing of creation – this wonderful, beautiful world.

Seven days of creation Seven seals Seven trumpets Seven 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 Pains and sores
   6 Animals of the land Day of vengeance Demonic horses kill Armageddon
   7 Sabbath Silence Redemption Destruction

God looks down to see if there are any who seek after him. All have turned away; there is no one who does good (Ps 53). With the seeing eye and the hearing ear, with his belly and his genitalia, man enjoys all that God has created for him, but the wealthier he becomes, 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. 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 that he exists. The vineyard of Europe is no longer producing fruit.

Although it seems unthinkable that God would destroy what he has made, in our collective unwillingness to change our lifestyles we have been destroying it ourselves. According to the most realistic projections, by 2100 atmospheric CO2 will have reached 900 ppm, three times what it was in 1900. The rate of increase has been increasing, and as at the time of writing it continues to increase. Temperatures rise, and 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 going 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.

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, from somewhere above the earth, also 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, the effects exacerbated by extreme heat. The plague is part of the torment described in 14:10f, directed chiefly against those who associate 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); as such it is a ‘living soul’. 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.

In the catastrophe of the third trumpet, only a third of the rivers became polluted. By implication, 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). People die odf thirst.

And I heard the angel of the waters say,
“Righteous are you, who is, and who was, sinless one,
for you have judged these things;
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 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 taking away their fresh water and 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. ‘They are worthy’ is an ironical echo of the acclamation of the Lamb in 5:9. From the altar the long-suffering martyrs voice their approval: at last God has given them justice (Luke 18:7).

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.

The sun is the light of the world. Without it there would be no photosynthesis – no oxygen, no food. It rises on the evil and the good alike, and life depends on it. Spiritually, the Son of God is the light of the world; whoever follows him will not walk in darkness (John 8:12). He existed before the world, and everything in creation was made through him. The visible reflects the invisible.

The sun is no longer beneficent. If 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 raging wild fires become common. But men 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 men know that. Unlike innocently suffering Job, they curse God. They do not heed the command to ascribe glory to the one who is holy.

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, and the sun becomes black as sackcloth (Rev 6:12). Even the moon does not give its light (Isa 13:10, Mark 13:24). The sanctuary is closed, and 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 dawning of the sun. And I saw out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet 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 is called in Hebrew Armageddon.

The scorching heat dries up the Euphrates, enabling the kings from the east to cross into Israel. The false prophet is the ‘beast with two horns like a lamb’ (13:11). Along with the invisible dragon and the other beast, the ‘son of destruction’, he forms a trinity analogous to the God of heaven, his Christ 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, 24:21-23, Joel 2:31, Zeph 3:8, Mal 4:1, II Pet 3:12), 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 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 the ancient settlement mound of Megiddo. Although they gather there, it is not necessarily where the final battle takes 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). Briefly its light will be sevenfold (Isa 30:26). The interruption in the text is as unexpected as the event itself. The day has a double meaning, for it is also the moment when the Lord comes for his own, to harvest the wheat rather than burn the chaff. 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 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 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 sun burns the earth and its works, in accordance with the ‘wrath of God from heaven’ revealed in the gospel (Rom 1:18, II Pet 3:10). The threshing-floor is purged (Luke 3:17).

The earthquake is that which dislodged mountains at the opening of the sixth seal. Earthquakes occur when tension is released between tectonic plates near the surface. 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 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 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.

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, Luke 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 – 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)

It has happened before. Just as 80 years ago Hamburg, Berlin, Coventry, Tokyo, Nagasaki were brought crashing to the ground, so will today’s cities. Men will look at the disintegrating 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). Meteoroids fall on the earth like figs shaken from a tree. (A hundred pounds weight is far heavier than any hailstone made of ice.) The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem also splits.

The wrath of God is finished (Rev 15:1), as it finally was for Jesus at the crucifixion (John 19:30). The Greek words ‘there was a great earthquake’ are the same as in Matthew 28:2, referring to Jesus’s resurrection. It seems likely that the earthquake which brings down Babylon the Great will also bring up Israel’s dead (Ezek 37:7). More on this when we come to chapter 21.

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 – reduced to carrion – is contrasted with those who celebrate the marriage of the Lamb.