Revelation 16 (NRSV)
The Bowls of God’s Wrath
The descriptive details are not to be understood literally, but as contributing to the general effect of intense calamity and terror. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
What John’s hearers are now presented with is a repeated proclamation, with ever increasing intensity, that humanity must ultimately be held accountable for the choices it has made, if God is indeed the God of justice and faithfulness.
–Ian Boxall (and all following comments in green)
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”
Since no one could enter the temple (Revelation 15:8), this loud voice from the temple must be God Himself, who personally initiates the horrific judgment of the bowls.
2 So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.
This recalls the sixth Egyptian plague, which brought festering boils on the Egyptians and their livestock (Exodus 9:8-12). This horrid physical mark echoes the invisible but far more destructive branded mark of the monster (Revelation 13:16-17).
3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.
4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.
The actions of the second and third angels together reflect the first Egyptian plague, in which the River Nile, and the other waters of Egypt (its rivers, canals, ponds, and pools of water) turned to blood, killing all the fish (Exodus 7:14-24).
5 And I heard the angel of the waters say,
“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,
for you have judged these things;
6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
7 And I heard the altar respond,
“Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
your judgments are true and just!”
In contrast to the deadly blood of the plague, we see the life-giving blood of Jesus and praise the Lamb!
8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; 9 they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
“Scorched by the Sun” by Peter Olsen. ©1974-2009 Peter Olsen
The fourth bowl-plague, with its focus on the sun, brings to mind the the ninth plague of Egypt, in which darkness covered the land for three days (Exodus 10:21-29). But here the opposite effect occurs. Rather than the sun being darkened, it was permitted (a divine passive, expressing God’s ultimate control) to scorch people with fire, a sign of judgment.
10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.
“The Great Day of His Wrath,” by John Martin, 1853 (Tate Britain, London)
The fifth angel pours his bowl upon the throne of the monster. The result of this, namely that the monster’s royal rule was thrown into darkness, is a much closer parallel to the ninth Egyptian plague (Exodus 10:21-29). The response of the people, to curse God, shows their hardness of heart. The people who belong to the dark not only hate the light, they cannot comprehend the light and so they choose to remain where they are (as in another of John’s books, John 1:5 — And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.)
12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.
the plague of frogs from The Usborne Children’s Bible
The consequences of the sixth bowl evoke two scenes from the original Exodus narrative: the drying up of the waters of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:21-25), and the second Egyptian plague, which brought frogs (Exodus 8:1-15). The only other references to frogs in the Bible are in relation to this Exodus plague. Hearers of the Apocalypse would be in no doubt that the new Exodus journey, in which the Lamb leads a new people from “every nation and tribe, people and language,” had reached its climax.
15 (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”)
It seems to be the voice of Christ, reassuring the listeners that he has already defeated the powers of evil on the cross. He encourages them to stay awake and alert, with even their clothing clean and in a state of readiness.
Garments are pictures of spiritual and practical righteousness. We are given the righteousness of Jesus as a garment (Galatians 3:27), but we are also called to “put on” the nature of Jesus in terms of practical holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24).
16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
Har-Magedon, or its more popular spelling Armageddon, contains associations which run deep in the collective psyche of Western culture. In popular imagination it is associated with cosmic destruction and, since the middle of the twentieth century, nuclear war. Located literally on a map of the Middle East, it plays a prominent role in futurist “end-time” scenarios which have serious implications in the political arena. This is not a battle instigated by humanity, however. And in line with Revelation’s symbolic geography, it is not to be located at any particular spot on the earth’s surface. Rather, Revelation evokes memories of battles won and lost, anxieties about enemies still around, and traditions about the great battle yet to come. All these coalesce in the evocative name Har-Magedon.
17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!”
Again from John (John 19:30), from his account of the crucifixion — “It is finished.”
18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21 and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
God remembered. The idea that God remembers, both to save and to judge, is well established in the biblical tradition. This is not because God is some unforgiving tyrant who harbours grudges and store them up for the future. Rather it is because ultimately God does not forget his people, and what they have had to endure. There are times when earth calls to heaven for justice: genocide or violent rape, terrorism or cruel and dehumanizing dictatorships, are regarded as unacceptable even by fragile human standards of justice. Arrogance and oppression must not be allowed to go unchecked indefinitely. Here the final collapse of Babylon is announced.
Oh, to be clothed in the garment of righteousness from Jesus Christ! HERE is Hope Koehler (Wow! What a voice!) and The American Spiritual Ensemble with “I wanna be ready.”
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.