Chapter 16 contains the account of the outpouring of the seven bowls of God’s wrath upon the earth. There are a number of parallels between this series of judgments and those of the seven trumpets in chapters 8 and 9. For example, in both series, the first four plagues are visited upon the earth, sea, inland waters, and heavenly bodies in turn; the fifth brings darkness and pain; the sixth hordes of invaders from the direction of the River Euphrates. Both series of judgments, the trumpets and the bowls, draw heavily for their symbolism on the plagues that were visited upon Egypt at the time of Israel’s exodus. [Cf. Mounts, 291] But throughout there is an intensification in this last series of judgments. In the plagues of the seven trumpets one-third of the earth was burned, one-third of the sea became blood, but here the destruction is total. What is more, in the case of the seven bowls there is no interlude separating the sixth and the seventh as there was an interlude between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals and the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets. Here the seventh follows immediately upon the sixth. “…with the coming of [these] last plagues the hour for repentance has passed, and the series hurries uninterrupted to its climax.” [Caird, 201] So we may, I think, safely say that the bowls both recapitulate the previous two series of judgments – the seals and the trumpets – and carry the course of divine judgment forward to the end.
- The sixth plague of Egypt was of boils (Exod. 9:9-11).
- The first of the Egyptian plagues was of water turned to blood (7:20-21).
- The angel reminds us that the judgments that we see the Lord visiting upon the earth are, in fact, mankind’s just deserts. They are precisely what those who suffer them deserve.
The altar is a personification, perhaps especially of the praying saints in heaven such as we heard in 6:10 and 8:3-5. The voice of the altar confirms that these punishments are not arbitrary or capricious but are just responses to human evil. [Ladd, 211]
- Darkness was the ninth plague in Egypt. In 13:5-6 we read that the beast uttered blasphemies. Now we read that his followers among human beings do as he did. In other words, men have “wholly taken on the character of the false god they serve.” [Caird, 202] That is always the problem with false gods, with idolatry. Men become like the idols they serve: as small, lifeless, and foolish as they.
- The Euphrates marked the eastern boundary of the Roman empire beyond which lived the much-feared Parthians, whose horsemen had conquered the lands from the Euphrates to the Indus, in what is now Pakistan, and had, more than once, threatened Rome with invasion from the east. In the thought world of the first century, hordes from the east represented the greatest military threat to peace and prosperity. The sixth trumpet, if you remember, also heralded the appearance of a great host of armed horsemen from the east who brought death to a third of mankind. Had Revelation been written today the image might well have been that of world-wide terrorism or some confrontation ending in a nuclear exchange.
Here it is not said what the kings of the east would cross the Euphrates to do. Would they make war on the people of the west, that is, would they be the instrument of Babylon’s doom – the world system breaking apart through internal division and insurrection (something predicted at the end of the next chapter) –, or does this refer to the gathering of the nations to make war upon the Messiah and his host, such as we read again in 19:19?
- We had mentioned this false trinity before: the dragon (i.e. Satan), the first Beast of chapter 13, and the second beast of chapter 13 who is here referred to as the false prophet. The evil spirits are the agents of their deceptive but persuasive propaganda, convincing the world to offer itself to their program of rebellion against God. Frogs were unclean and croaked loudly, an apt description of the PR machine of Satan’s kingdom.
“The great day of God Almighty” is the grand finale of human history. It is the fulfillment of every previous “day of the Lord” and the consummation of the battle between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of the Lord Christ.
- The gathering of the nations against the Lord and his kingdom will be a time of crisis for the saints as well, so a word of warning to them is interjected into the narrative. It was Jesus himself, you remember, who said that he would come as unexpectedly as a thief (Matt. 24:42-44) and Paul picks up that thought about the Second Coming in his letters as well (1 Thess. 5:2). The faithful, in other words, know what the world does not and, therefore, should be alert and ready. For them the coming of the Lord will be a grand deliverance from the tragic situation into which the unbelieving world will have plunged itself. This is the third of seven such beatitudes (“Blessed is he…) that are scattered throughout the book of Revelation, the first at 1:3.
The point of keeping the believer keeping his clothes with him is to be ready, in contrast to the man who sleeps and is caught naked when surprised in the middle of the night. [Beale, 837]
- After the exhortation to the saints John resumes the narrative of the gathering of the kings for battle against the Lord. Here we have introduced one of the most famous of all the biblical place names and one that has entered the language of many nations as a synonym for final catastrophe.
Even here, however, there is a difficulty for literalist interpreters of Revelation. “Armageddon” in Hebrew means “Mount Megiddo.” But there is no such mount. Megiddo is, in fact, a plain that is part of the valley of Jezreel between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. It is, in fact, one of history’s famous battlefields. The Egyptian Pharaoh, Tuthmosis III fought there in 1468 B.C; Barak and Deborah vanquished the Canaanite king Jabin at Megiddo; Ahaziah was slain by Jehu there and Josiah by the Egyptians in Jeremiah’s day. In modern times the English general Lord Allenby fought the Turks and was victorious there in 1917. He is even known to history as Allenby of Megiddo. But Megiddo is not a mountain. There is no entirely satisfactory explanation for John’s description of Megiddo as a mountain and perhaps it is best to treat it as another symbol, created by combining various biblical ideas into one. Just as numbers can be symbols so can place names. Ezekiel prophesied an eschatological battle on the mountains of Israel (38:8, 21) and Megiddo was a famous battlefield. Armageddon thus stands for the last battle. As a symbol it does not therefore suggest that John was envisioning an actual battle between armies at the end of history in northern Palestine. Indeed, in 14:20 the same battle is said to occur “outside the city,” in that case probably Jerusalem, perhaps Babylon or Rome. But none of those cities is near Megiddo.
- The sounding of the last trumpet (11:15) likewise brought the announcement of the realization of the kingdom of God. And it too was followed, as here, by natural phenomena symbolic of divine power and judgment.
- God used earthquake and hail in the OT in the judgment of the enemies of his people. The principal impression of this last judgment visited upon man is its finality: the complete collapse and destruction of godless civilization.
It is here, in chapter 16, that the popular approaches to the interpretation of the book of Revelation typically get very interesting. Preachers of this stripe hold audiences spellbound as they explain how these events are coming to pass before our very eyes. Each of the plagues in turn represents some new development by which we can chart the progress of history to its end. The sea turning to blood is likely to be some sort of “red tide” – some environmental disaster – or, perhaps, the effect on sea life caused by nuclear war. The scorching sun of the fourth plague will result from the depleting of the ozone layer and from global warming. And the armies from the east? Perhaps some 200 million soldiers from the orient will be able to move into the area of a revived Roman empire (the European Union?) because that kingdom will have been plunged into darkness by the fifth bowl. Perhaps a regional blackout caused, again, by an environmental disaster or nuclear exchange. They will cross the Euphrates on dry land because of the Russians’ recent construction of a dam near the headwaters of the Euphrates. And, of course, Armageddon. Armies coming from here and there to meet on the battle field of a final world war. Of course, interpreters of this type take Armageddon to be the very valley of Megiddo, southwest of the Sea of Galilee. And so they go on as they have for two centuries now. I grew up listening with rapt attention to such scenarios drawn supposedly from Ezekiel and Revelation and corresponding, as anyone could see, to the news we were reading in our daily papers.
We associate this way of thinking about the prophesies of Revelation 16 with the system of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism with its penchant for thinking both that the end of history is upon us and that, therefore, we can read the signs in our newspapers and see the prophesies of Ezekiel and Revelation coming to pass before our eyes. This was and is the approach of Hal Lindsey, of many radio preachers, and of a long line of Bible teachers, many of them godly and good men, including the authors of the immensely popular Left Behind books.
I have already said that I don’t think we should interpret Revelation in this fashion and that for several reasons. First, in such a reading of Revelation John’s original readers would have had no idea whatsoever what he was going on about. John’s book would have been for them a secret code for which they were lacking the key. Most of what was predicted in the book would have been incomprehensible to them. But that is very clearly not what John is intending. He intends his readers to know what he is talking about and, even more, to know what it means for them. He was not describing a string of highly specific and particular events in some long distant future that they would have no way of understanding. He was describing the course of history from their time to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in way that helped them to understand the meaning of that history and their place and calling in it.
Second, this way of interpreting Revelation, as a kind of future newspaper, giving us an account of current events in our day – it is always our day – mistakes the nature of apocalyptic literature, the literary genre in which Revelation is written. Apocalyptic, heavily laden with visions and symbols, gives an account of history in very broad brush to reveal its central features and its overall meaning. Revelation is not a code book; it is a picture book. It is not a theological essay like Paul might have written. It is more like the rainbow or the water of baptism. [Vern Poythress] It is a magnificent account of the purpose of God in the world from the first century to its consummation.
Third, we have been treated to such interpretations of Revelation now for nearly 200 years and the progress of events have proved them wrong 100% of the time. In Spurgeon’s day, he “bewailed the influence of ‘twopenny-halfpenny prophets all crying out as one man that He will come in 1866 or 1867.” [I. Murray, The Puritan Hope, 85] And in regard to much of this school of biblical prophecy and its way of reading Revelation, the great London preacher said in a sermon, “We never know what we shall hear next, and perhaps it is a mercy that these absurdities are revealed one at a time, in order that we may be able to endure their stupidity without dying of amazement.” [MTP, xv, 8; in Murray, 259] Fact is, they were wrong; wrong over and over and over again; completely wrong. What they thought was so clear was not in fact the meaning of the biblical texts at all. Jesus didn’t come in their time; he hasn’t come since.
To be fair, however, it is hardly only in dispensationalism, a system of interpretation that originated first in Plymouth Brethren circles in the 1820s and 1830s, that we find this so-called newspaper exegesis. Even the greatest Christian thinkers have sometimes indulged in this approach to the later embarrassment of their reputations. Jonathan Edwards, for example, took the hail in 16:21 in this way:
“…by this hail seems chiefly to be meant such strong reasons and forcible arguments and demonstrations, that nothing will withstand them; and [they] will irresistibly beat down and immediately batter to pieces the kingdom of Antichrist, and kill men as to popery, as at one blow, as if they were dashed to pieces by stones from heaven.” [In Marsden, 90]
Edwards was a thinker, a logician, a maker of arguments and so it was natural for him to think of arguments bringing down the kingdom of Satan. He was sure in his day that the pope was the Anti-Christ. And he felt that new and better arguments were being formed in his day – he was forming some of them himself – and he expected that that they would bring down Satan’s kingdom in some 100 years, say about 1866. He wasn’t right either.
In each case, of course, these predictions depend for their interest, even their plausibility, on the assumption that it is all going to happen quite soon, even in our lifetimes. Otherwise it would be impossible to tell what the various statements of chapter 16 might mean and, in any case, it would be largely irrelevant to anyone living in the world generations or even millennia before any of these particular events were to come to pass. As first century people didn’t know what red tide was and had no conception of nuclear bombs, if these events will not unfold for another thousand years or ten thousand how could we possibly know in 2009 what they might involve? Indeed, of what importance is it to me today what particular ecological disaster might cause the sea to turn red thousands of years from now? Newspaper exegesis is interesting precisely because it excites us to think we can actually see specific biblical predictions unfolding before our eyes. But the problem with newspaper exegesis is that the news continues to change and yesterday’s understanding of Revelation 16 will have to change with it.
The Crimean War was to lead to Armageddon according to many dispensational interpreters in the mid-19th century. Apparently it didn’t. The Jewish/Palestinian conflict is now supposed to lead to it according to many present day writers of such scenarios. But what may be true a hundred years from now no one can imagine? If neither Gorbachev, Kissinger, nor Ronald Reagan were the Antichrist, who might he be? Reading Revelation this way, we have had an endless number of predictions made by mainstream evangelical authors and personalities over the past generation: that this political development would happen or that, that this war or that would result in this reshaping of the political landscape to conform to the picture we find in Revelation, and so on. But they have left a trail of dismal failure. Nothing has happened as we were told it would! It is, frankly, embarrassing. We give people in this way the idea that the Bible is a crock and that Christians are as sane and sensible as those folk who think that Nostradamus predicted almost every event in the 20th century!
So what would those first century readers have gathered from Revelation 16 and the account of the seven bowls of God’s wrath being poured out on the earth? Well, as before with the seals and the trumpets, John’s vision adapts typical symbols of divine judgment drawn from biblical and natural history to describe the doom that overtakes mankind in unbelief throughout history and in a concentrated and final catastrophe at the end of history. He is telling the saints that victory will be ours! The images of John’s vision are broad brush pictures of the essential futility of human life apart from God and of the divine judgments imposed upon mankind because it refuses to acknowledge its Creator and live according to his will. The judgments, as we read elsewhere in Holy Scripture, come in many different forms. Human pain comes not only from natural disasters and wars but, as we know all too well in the 21st century, from the ways in which sin itself and the spirit of rebellion against God infects human life with every manner of spiritual disease and distemper. Lives are scorched and become covered with sores from within as well as without. Sin is often the punishment of sin and despair and futility and alienation and anger are often what blight and darken human life. It seems rather clear that we ought to read the bowls as repeating the history described in the trumpets, that is the judgments of the Lord that fall on mankind throughout the history between the Lord’s first and second coming. The last two bowls seem to represent the crisis at the end of history and the final conquest of the kingdom of Satan. [Cf. Beale, 810]
A first century reader would gather from this chapter the same lessons that have been taught throughout the book so far: 1) the moral/spiritual/political system of this world is organized in opposition to God by the unseen hand of the Devil and so is and remains opposed to the kingdom and the people of God; 2) that evil kingdom stands under divine judgment and must at last be destroyed, however much difficulty it may cause believers until it is; 3) that believers will often be caught up in the judgments visited upon mankind simply because they are part of mankind; they may bear the mark of the Lord and be safe from any ultimate harm but they live in a world being punished; and 4) it is the believer’s calling to remain spiritually alert, aware of his or her situation in the world, faithful to the Lord Jesus no matter the cost, in the confidence that such faith and loyalty will be vindicated in due time. That seems to me to be a much more sensible and contextual reading of chapter 16 than to see it as some elaborate account of what happened in A.D. 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem or as a blow by blow account of future events, one following the other, at some future time.
There is, however, something particularly striking in this account of history and its consummation that I want us to notice. We are, of course, as Christians always looking at unbelievers as potential believers. We hope that they will come to faith in Christ as we have. We have seen people who seemed to be very unlikely candidates for Christian faith embrace the gospel and begin to follow Jesus Christ and have rejoiced to witness the transformation of their lives. And, no doubt, on the strength of many texts in Holy Scripture, we may believe that up to nearly the very end of the age, people will be found realizing that they are sinners before a holy God, that the gospel offers them the forgiveness of their sins, that faith in Christ will lead to the renewal of their hearts and lives according to the truth, and in those convictions confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. At some point in history, near, perhaps very near its end, there will be that last convert, that last person to put faith and trust in Jesus and be saved. Perhaps for eternity to come he or she will be famous in the new heavens and the new earth as the last convert, the last person ever to be saved, as Abel will forever be known as the first human being ever to enter heaven. All of that is true; gloriously true. The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And it will continue to be so until the very end.
Indeed, as you know, there are many texts in the Bible to suggest that at some period at or near the end of history – however such a period is placed in the scheme of things – there is to be a great day of salvation, a time during which vast multitudes of people, Jews and Gentiles alike, will come en masse to faith, into the church, and be numbered among the saints of God. Paul seems to follow the OT prophets in describing such a time when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
But Revelation typically is not so cheerful. The future salvation of a great multitude is not its theme. Its theme is rather that of defiant unbelief. We are inclined to think that if the situation of man in unbelief becomes dismal, he will be more inclined to look up to God, and if his situation becomes genuinely terrible – because he is living at odds with his own nature as created in God’s image; because he is living contrary to the purpose for which God gave him life; because he is living as a rebel against God in God’s world – I say, if his situation becomes positively terrible – if his life is scorched and he is afflicted with sores and darkness – he would wise up; he would repent; he would see the obvious and turn to God. But it is not so!
This sad fact is often taught in the Bible and it is a key thought in Revelation as a whole and here in Revelation 16. When the judgments of the Lord begin to bite, when life turns dark and sour for the unbelieving, when it is clear that they will not surmount the problems of human life, rather than repent they blaspheme the name of God. They cursed the God of heaven because “of their pains and their sores.” Indeed, unable to escape the reach of his judgment, unable to find the fulfillment of life apart from him, rather than admit that they were licked and submit to God in hopes of their own happiness, they gather to do battle with the kingdom of God. The persecution of Christians is simply the world’s way of having at God. This determination to do evil, this unflappable commitment to the cause of the Evil One, this unwillingness to accept the futility of their rebellion against God on the part of unbelieving mankind is an important part of a biblical view of man and of human history. It is history’s most horrific example of man cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Sin is a virus that once it has taken control infects the entire person with a spiritual paralysis and also renders the afflicted blind to God’s hand and deaf to his voice. We might well have supposed that when people were struck by the black death, the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century – some cities losing two-thirds of their population – there would have been an outpouring of repentance and turning to God. But it was not so. Lawlessness and debauchery broke out everywhere the disease did and worsened as the plague worsened. [B. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 105, 128-129]
We see this reality all the time on a small scale. Sinful choices – alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling – lead to various forms of the disintegration of the soul. But keeping pace with the destructive power of the sin is the adamant refusal to repent of it, often even to admit its existence. The greater the grip the sin gains upon a life the further from reality the person moves until he is living in a dream world, isolated from everyone else, blaming everyone but himself, suffering the consequences of his choices but refusing to admit responsibility for them. His misery helps him not at all to wise up. He is under God’s judgment but the last thing that occurs to him to do is to turn to God in repentance and to admit his need for grace.
It is this fact, by the way, that explains in some significant measure the reality of hell. It is important for us to know this and to include this as part of our explanation for what is, of course, one of the principle objections that people have to the Christian faith. Hell would be hard to explain if it were inhabited by those now sorry for their sins, entirely aware of the foolishness of their unbelief, and wishing to repent. How could God continue to punish such people? But that is not what people will be like in hell. We see that here. God’s judgment does not bring them to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. It does not sweeten their spirits or soften their wills. They become still more defiantly unwilling to submit to God. This is the fearful thing about human sin. It creates a blindness and a hardness of heart so profound that nothing can penetrate, least of all the truth. Every tongue may finally confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but many tongues will make that confession bitterly and unrepentantly.
As C.S. Lewis memorably put it, the doors of hell are locked from the inside! The people there remain adamantly unwilling to have heaven on God’s terms, as they were when they lived in the world. And, of course, the worst part of hell will be the fact that those who are there must inhabit that world with people like themselves: angry, self-absorbed, thoughtless, and defiantly foolish.
Many of course, cannot be made to see themselves in such a description because it seems to them and even to others that they are bright, happy, likeable people. But, of course, who and what is a person really? What will that person be, what will he or she become when all the outward encouragements to goodness are removed, when the pressure is applied and when God’s judgment is finally and inescapably resting upon him or upon her? When their entire life’s project lies broken in the dust? We know in part and we know the true horror and power of sin only in part! When someone stands in our way, resentment, hatred and vindictiveness rise in our hearts. People so carefully and assiduously promote their own honor; but the honor of God is of no concern to them. What will become of them at the last?
For the non-Christian this text is a solemn warning to seek the Lord while he may be found and to call upon him while he is near. Don’t suppose; never suppose that you can always change your mind about God and salvation tomorrow. There comes a time when a person will never change his or her mind. To think: that person who can think of nothing else to do as the world comes crashing down around him or her but blaspheme God, that person might be me!
And for the believer it is another reminder to take every sin, especially the sins that so easily beset us, seriously. To refuse to give in to them. To allow them no entrance and no peace in your soul, lest they sink their hook and be impossible to get out and then over time take full control.
The fact that when the whole world falls upon them there are and will be so many human beings who can think of nothing else to do but blaspheme God should send a shudder down our spines and make us inflexibly determined that if they refuse to repent, we will repent every hour of every day; if they refuse to glorify God, we will make his glory every day the end and the object of our lives.
It matters not whether the Second Coming is soon or long years from now. As Martin Luther put it: “Each of us has his own Last Day when he dies.”