The Seven Bowls of Wrath
When we come to chapter 15, we close out the interlude which began in chapter 12 and ran through chapter 14. In this interlude, we saw in a nutshell what was ultimately going on in Revelation. There is a war going on between Satan and God which finds its earthly counterparts in the Antichrist and the followers of Jesus Christ. The ultimate destiny of these 2 camps has already been determined—God’s people will reign with Christ, whereas the followers of the Antichrist will live forever in the lake of fire and brimstone.
Now that the interlude is over, John returns to the general flow of the Book of Revelation—the wrath God pours out upon rebellious mankind. Unfortunately, this interlude interrupted the flow of thought in Revelation. In the first 3 chapters, John introduced the churches of Asia Minor who were about to go through major tribulation. In chapters 4 and 5, John showed that God was still on His throne no matter what the external circumstances seemed to indicate and that Christ the Lamb was about to pour out God’s wrath upon the enemies of His people. The wrath of God began with the breaking of the 7 seals. The breaking of the 7th seal led to the blowing of the 7 trumpets; in fact, it might be right to say that the 7 trumpets make up the contents of the 7th seal. Now that the 7th trumpet has been blown, God is ready to pour out the 7 bowls of wrath upon the earth. It may just be that the contents of the 7th trumpet are the 7 bowls of wrath.
PREPARATION OF THE 7 BOWLS OF WRATH (15:1-8)
Just like the heavenly scene of chapters 4 and 5 prepared for the breaking of the 7 seals, and just as the angel with the censer at the altar prepared for the blowing of the 7 trumpets, so chapter 15 prepares for the pouring out of the 7 bowls of wrath. John claims that he saw another sign in heaven which was great and marvelous. The contents of this sign were 7 angels who had 7 plagues which were the last because when they were poured out upon the earth, God’s wrath would be finished. (The 7 angels might just possibly be the same 7 angels who blew the trumpets of wrath in chapters 8-9; they might just also possibly be the 7 archangels who constantly serve God.) Note that John claims that the wrath in these 7 plagues are the last. By “last” John means the last wrath God pours out upon the world during the tribulation. It is not the ultimate wrath because that awaits the white throne judgment when God will throw Satan and his followers into the lake of fire.
Before John finishes describing the scene of the 7 angels with the 7 plagues, John skips to another element in this sign. The crystal sea which is before the throne of God looks as if it is on fire because it is red in color. Now on that sea stand those martyrs who have emerged victorious in this struggle with the Antichrist. There are 2 possible interpretations to both the martyrs standing on the sea and the color of the sea. When John described God’s throne room in chapter 4, he claimed that a sea like crystal was before the throne of God. Most likely this sea represents the distance the holy God places between Himself and the rest of His creation. Note that in chapter 15, the sea does not separate Him from His people because they are standing on the sea. Furthermore, later when God descends to earth and creates a dwelling place not only for Himself but also for His people, there is no longer any sea. All distance between God and His people will have been removed. In fact, they shall see Him face to face (Rev. 21:1; 22:3). In chapter 15, we see that God is already in the process of removing the gulf which separates us from Him. The red color simply means either that God is angry at the Antichrist for the persecution of His people or that the fires of persecution have reached even up to heaven.
One view more intriguing and probably right is that the Red Sea in chapter 15 is parallel to the Red Sea of Ex. 14. The martyrs standing on the Red Sea have successfully escaped the persecutions of the Antichrist, just like the Israelites of Exodus escaped the persecution of Pharaoh. This view is supported by the next piece of information which states that the martyrs were singing the victorious song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. Whereas the contents of this song are not exactly the same as the contents of the song of Moses in Ex. 14, their themes are similar—praise to God who has given them victory over their enemies.
The martyrs praise God because His work are great and marvelous. Not only is the work of creation great and marvelous, not only are Christ’s death and resurrection great and marvelous—the wrath God pours out upon His enemies and the enemies of His people are great and marvelous. As horrible as these events will prove to be, the magnitude of them points to a God who is so great that He can afflict His enemies with them. Next, they praise God because His ways are righteous and true. This probably has a two-fold reference. First, the wrath God pours out upon His enemies is justified. They deserve the punishment God is in the process of inflicting upon them. Second, God allowing His people to suffer great persecution is righteous and just. One of the lamest reasons given for Christians being raptured before the tribulation is that it is not fair for us to go through the tribulation if we have already accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior before the Tribulation begins. How does that exempt us from suffering persecution at the hands of the Beast? It does not. Jesus Himself tangled with the Antichrist when He was on earth (John 17:12); therefore, we should expect no less. In fact, Paul claims in his discussion on the Tribulation that it is only right and just that Christians suffer tribulation. How can we expect to enter heaven without suffering any pain when Christ made heaven possible by suffering the greatest of pains? (See 2 Thess. 1:5). (Now if we were going to experience God’s wrath during the Tribulation, then we would have cause to complain because a good Father would never pour out wrath upon His children; however, God seals us for the very purpose of protecting us from His wrath during that time).
John concludes the hymn with the question: “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?” Whereas the truth is that many will not fear, it is also true that many will fear God and turn to Him for salvation. In fact, myriads upon myriads have come to Christ for salvation (Rev. 7:9-10). The past ten years alone have seen an incredible number of people come to Christ for salvation. In the early 80’s, my wife was fortunate to be working with one of the leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ named Paul Eshelmann. He had the vision of taking the Warner Brothers film called Jesus and distributing it worldwide. As a result of this, over 800 million have seen the film and over 40 million have come to Him for salvation. That’s just been in the last 10 years. Christianity has been around for 2000 years; therefore, how many more have come to the Lord for salvation? The fact that many have been saved could not be otherwise in light of the fact that God has accomplished such a great salvation for His people.
At this point, the Temple in heaven was opened. (John actually calls it “the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony”; why we shall discuss later). Out of the Temple emerge the 7 angels resembling priests dressed in white linen and girded around their chests with golden girdles. One of the 4 living creatures gives to each of the angels a bowl containing the wrath of God. The ancient world would use these kinds of bowls for the purpose of bringing incense to the altars. The altar in heaven in Revelation represents the martyred Christians who have been crying out for vengeance. The idea behind scene may be that God is pouring out wrath in direct response to the prayers of His people for deliverance.
At this point, smoke fills the Temple. In fact, during the entire period of the 7 bowls, the smoke fills the Temple to such an extent that none can enter it. The smoke represents the Shekinah cloud which symbolized God’s presence among His people. While the people were leaving Egypt, God led them by means of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The cloud represented God’s presence with His people. At times, the cloud would descend upon the Tabernacle beckoning Moses to come in and communicate with God. The reference to the cloud in Rev. 15 points to the same phenomenon. By flooding the Temple with His cloud (presence), God is communicating to the people that He is personally involved in the pouring out of His wrath upon rebellious mankind. God is not aloof when His people suffer; He takes it personally since the attack of the Antichrist is nothing less than attack against Him and His Son.
Back to the reference of the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony. The Tabernacle of Testimony was the technical name given to the tabernacle during Israel’s wanderings in the desert for 40 years. The tabernacle was given this name because the 10 commandments which were housed in the tabernacle served as a testimony to the people all that God expected of them. Now if you take this name for the Temple in heaven and combine it with the other references to Exodus in this chapter—the martyrs walking triumphantly over the Red Sea, the Song of Moses, and the Shekinah cloud, you come away with the distinct impression that John is viewing what happens in the tribulation in light of the Exodus event. In the Exodus event, the enemies of God’s people were persecuting them, while God was pouring out His wrath upon those enemies. All came to a climax when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites to the Red Sea where God decisively crushed the Egyptians once for all. It was the greatest event in the OT. That event gives us wonderful insight into the future. Once more the enemies of God will seem to have the upper hand as the Antichrist persecutes God’s people; however, just like God dramatically crushed the Egyptians at the Red Sea, so He will once more crush His enemies by means of the 7 bowls which are about to be poured out upon rebellious mankind.
POURING OUT THE SEVEN BOWLS OF WRATH (Rev. 16:1-21)
The First Bowl of Wrath (16:1-1-2)
At this point, God cries out from the Temple for the 7 angels to pour out their bowls of wrath upon the earth. After the first angel pours out his bowl of wrath, those who follow the Beast are afflicted with a loathsome and malignant sore—reminiscent of the 6th plague which God poured out upon the Egyptians.
Notice the difference between the trumpets/seals and bowls. First, whereas the trumpets and seals affected only a portion of mankind, 1/3 and 1/4 respectively, the bowls touch all mankind—except those followers of Christ. Second, whereas the trumpets do not directly affect mankind until the 5th trumpet, the bowls affect mankind starting with the first bowl of wrath.
The Second Bowl of Wrath (16:3)
The second angel pours out his bowl, resulting in the sea turning into blood and every living creature in the sea dying. This is similar to the first plague with which God afflicted the Egyptians—the Nile turning into blood.
The Third Bowl of Wrath (16:4-7)
The third angel pours out his bowl upon the fresh waters, that is, drinking water; this serves as a further extension of the first plague God poured out upon the Egyptians. At this point, John quotes the angel God has assigned to protect the fresh waters. You would think that this angel would be quite angry at the way God has treated his area of concern. God had demanded that he protect these waters for thousands of years, when all of a sudden God—not Satan—destroys these waters. His attitude is opposite to this though. Instead, he praises God because He is doing this very thing. According to this angel, God’s judgment is always just, that is, always commensurate with the crime. Those of us who are parents understand this. Whenever our children do something wrong, we try to administer the appropriate discipline. We mess up at times; however, most of us have our hearts in the right places and try to do the right thing. Well, the same is operating here. The followers of the Beast were so thirsty for blood—the blood of the saints, that God has given them for their punishment exactly what they wanted—blood. It may not be the blood they wanted; however, it is nevertheless still blood. (People need to be careful for what they ask for!)
After the angel speaks, the altar situated before God affirms that God’s judgments are righteous and true. Remember that the altar represents the martyrs who have been sacrificed because of their relationship with Christ. No longer is this a cry for vengeance. It is acknowledging that God’s wrath upon the Beast and his followers is just.
The Fourth Bowl of Wrath (16:8-9)
The fourth angel pours out his bowl upon the sun. This time instead of the sun and other celestial bodies losing their light like they did when the fourth angel sounded his trumpet, the fourth bowl intensifies the light and heat of the sun. Men are scorched from the fierce heat emanating from the sun. Note that whereas this bowl should have caused the people to stop in their rebellion against God, they simply refuse and continue to blaspheme God.
Whereas this continued rebellion may seem preposterous to us, we need to realize that this is the exact attitude that many people adopt in their attitude towards God. When I was watching the TV-made movie Nuremberg the other night, I was struck by the sheer obstinacy that Hitler and his followers displayed during the last days of the war. If they had capitulated a few weeks earlier, Germany would not have experienced the massive destruction she experienced during those weeks. Hitler and his followers though were determined to hold out at all costs even though it meant the annihilation of the German people. I’ve known people who’ll do anything and suffer anything before they’ll give up drinking, gambling, running around on their wives. Their actions may destroy themselves and their families, but they refuse to relinquish their sin. That same attitude is operating here.
The Fifth Bowl of Wrath (16:10-11)
The fifth angel pours out his bowl upon the very stronghold of the Beast, his throne. Darkness (the 9th plague in Exodus) engulfs the kingdom of the Beast. This Beast who had displayed miracles in the heavens is shown to be just what he really is, a charlatan loaded with tricks and nothing else—just tricks. This Antichrist is just a shadow of the real Christ and God, and this darkness reveals him to be that shadow. Once more the followers of the Beast re-fuse to relent; instead they continue to follow this shadow of Christ.
The Sixth Bowl of Wrath (16:12-16)
The bowl of the sixth angel dries up the river Euphrates thereby making it possible for the kings from the east to make war against an unnamed foe. When the sixth trumpet was sounded, the kings from the east with their 200 million-man army march against the Antichrist. This may be the case here; however, it may refer to a war they plan to wage against God Himself. John does not mention whether or not they realize their war is ultimately against God. Whether they realize it or not though, they are ultimately waging war against Him. In response to this, the Antichrist, Dragon, and False Prophet send out 3 frogs (demonic spirits spreading false propaganda) throughout the whole world to induce kings to join them in this war against God.
Note that it is at this place in Revelation—after God pours out the sixth bowl of wrath—that one of the most important themes of the Second Coming is mentioned: “Behold, I am coming like a thief.” Throughout the rest of the NT, this idea is used to depict the second coming of Christ. The unexpected nature of this image has been used by many to “prove” that the rapture will occur before the tribulation. Paul, however, claimed that whereas non-Christians would be overtaken by the second coming just like people who are overcome by thieves, Christians would not be overtaken by surprise (1 Thess. 5:4). Although the non-Christian and the followers of the Beast will be totally clue-less when these events occurs, Christians will know that Christ is about to return at any moment because of the events described in the Book of Revelation.
The Beast rallies his alliance at a place called “Armageddon.” Just exactly where is this place? Many NT scholars try to spiritualize this place completely by claiming that since the name means “Mount of Megiddo” and that no such mount occurs, the place is purely mythological and has no real geographical place. This is probably straining at a gnat. Whereas Megiddo itself is not located on a mountain, it nevertheless is surrounded by mountains. The Carmel mountain range where Elijah slew the priests of Baal is just to the west of Megiddo.
Moreover, the vicinity of Meggido has seen countless battles during the past 3000+ years. For example, Deborah and Barak slew the armies of Sisera in the valley of Megiddo. Gideon slew the Midianites in this valley (which also goes by the name of Jezreel). Pharaoh Neco slew Josiah at this location. Modern warfare has also seen battles on this spot. General Allenghby, the British general who along with Lawrence of Arabia drove the Turks out of Palestine, chose this very site for his last battle with them. He knew his NT and wanted this to be the final battle described in Revelation. As a result of this, he received the title “Allenghby of Armageddon.” As recent as the Six Days War in 1967, the Israelis were forced to wage war with the Syrians in this area. Finally, the prophet Zechariah predicted that the final battle would be waged here in the valley of Megiddo (Zech. 12:10-11).
Does all this mean that there will be a final battle fought in the valley of Megiddo? Until it happens, I cannot definitely say; however, I will say this—there sure is a lot in the Bible and in history to point to this. Why is this area still so important? Armageddon is so close to the Sea of Galilee which supplies 75% of the drinking water for the nation of Israel. If the Israelis give up to the Syrians the Golan Heights which lie to the east of the Sea of Galilee, their main supply of water will be in danger. Fighting could easily erupt in this region over this very issue. Time will tell; however, those who pooh pooh this need to take a closer look at what the Bible says and what history teaches us about this place.
The Seventh Bowl (16:17-21)
The seventh angel empties his bowl; however, this time the contents of the bowl do not fall upon the earth but upon the air. From this follow peals of thunder, sounds, lightning, and an earthquake which surpasses in intensity any earthquake which has struck the earth before. The islands flee, and the mountains are no longer found. The whole earth convulses with the pouring out of this bowl.
Although we will discuss this in greater detail when we come to Rev. 20, we need to show some parallels between what conservative Christians call the rapture and the last 2 bowls of wrath. First, the comment that Jesus is about to come like a thief does not occur at the beginning of Revelation when most conservative Christians believe the rapture will occur but at the end of the book. Second, notice that the last bowl hits the air. According to Paul (Eph. 2:1-3), the air is the stronghold of Satan. When Christ descends to the air to rapture His people, He does not sneak in the back door to overtake Satan; instead, He hits him right where he is strongest—in the air. That same idea may just be operating right here in the 7th bowl. By pouring out the bowl into the air, God is taking on Satan where he is supposed to be his strongest which makes it another parallel to the picture of the rapture spoken of in 1 Thess. 4:13-18.