05 Mar 2023
Passage Revelation 15:5-16:21
Speaker Chris Haley
‘Wrath’ is not a word we use very often. So much so no one’s quite sure whether it should be pronounced wroth or wrath. The correct answer is… depends which country you’re in! Brits prefer wroth, Americans prefer wrath. The only time I’ve ever heard it used outside of a Biblical context is that great Star Trek Film: The Wrath of Khan! But personally I never thought Ricardo Montalban was that scary! Perhaps because I saw him on Fantasy Island, making people’s dreams come true. Anyway enough 80s pop culture references!
Wrath is a serious business, and this passage is heavy! As we meet the wrath of God being poured out on the Earth. This is part of series in Revelation and I can assure you that there have been more cheerful bits. This, however is not one of them! So let’s knuckle down and see what God has to say to us.
The Wrath of God is Being Revealed 15v5-8, 16:5-7
5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes round their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives for ever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished. (Revelation 15:5-8 ESV)
The vision of the trumpets really starts here. The temple is opened and seven angels dressed like Old Testament priests come out. With priestly bowls, that would usually be filled with fiery incense, but here they are filled with fiery wrath. I’ve also discovered this week some of them were used to collect the blood drained from the sacrifices (Zechariah 9:15) which might make more sense of what comes. This is the last set of seven judgements: judged, judged, judged. After this we’re done with these parallel judgements that we see in history- they are the last.
The bowls follow the same pattern as the trumpets, apart from the seventh one- all of them affect the same areas of our creation, earth, sea, rivers, even the same specific river mentioned. So, it’s not that the bowls happen after the trumpets. These are the same things described here, but the emphasis is different. The trumpets saw these events as warnings to humanity to repent. They were preventative. Here though the emphasis is judicial and retributory. This is not about prevention, it’s about punishment, and as a society as a whole we’ve tended to shy away from this idea of punishment.
His Majesties prison service for example has this as their ‘what we do’ statement: ‘We keep those sentenced to prison in custody, helping them lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released.’ The big idea is safety for the public now, and rehabilitation in the future, and believe me, those are good things! But there’s no mention of punishment for their crimes, it’s making sure they don’t commit more.
Here what we see here from God is punitive justice. It’s suffering that’s not there to not there to reform, not to rehabilitate, but to punish. His judgements have those effects- we see that in the seals and trumpets- but here the focus is purely on the punishment side of what He is doing. The saints cried out for justice, well here it is:
Revelation 16:5-7 ESV And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. 6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”
The mention of the altar takes us back to Seal 5 where they martyred saints are crying out for justice:
Revelation 6:9-10 ESV 9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
The very fact they are golden bowls takes us back to this too:
Revelation 5:8 ESV 8 …and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
This is justice and judgement in response to the prayers of the oppressed saints. This is His judgement, his vengeance on the world. Some might say this sounds very ‘unchristian’, but it’s exactly what we read in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:
Romans 12:19 ESV 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
It’s precisely because we know that justice will ultimately be done, that we have no need to repay evil for evil now, instead we can love our enemies, and show kindness to them, and leave the rest up to God, and God here acts for his people, acts for his saints. It’s not even the end, but in history he acts for his saints in judgement on the world. Again, Paul in Romans:
Romans 1:18 ESV 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Not just will be, but is! Where are the great oppressors of the saints of old now? The Roman Empire? Gone! The Assyrian Empire? Nineveh lies in dust! Babylon? A ruin. Not just a third, not just a chunk of it gone, ‘gone’ gone. Kaput- they are ex-persecutors. They are relics of history Whereas the saints are still here!
These plagues speak of the finality and totality of God’s judgement- and take us right into the final judgement. Final judgement will be covered in more detail though in the chapters to follow. You’ll notice as well if you’ve been with us in the series so far that there is no ‘church interlude’ between the sixth and the seventh plague. That’s because the church does not face the wrath of God in this way. The church is still here at this point- history has reset in the book- this is the same period as the seals and the trumpets.
And we do experience suffering, but we experience our sufferings as trumpets calling us to repentance, but never as God’s wrath being poured on us, because Christ took that wrath on himself on the cross. God’s wrath is the focus here, but there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! So the church are excluded in that sense from these judgements.
Throughout these bowls of wrath are referred to as ‘plagues’ and you should be able to spot some of the ten plagues in there as we go through. There are also strong links to the curses God promised to bring on Israel should they disobey in Deuteronomy 28. These are classic ways God judges. We’ll point these out as we go through. So this wrath is a thing now in our world- and that’s our second point- much longer than the other two
This Plays Out In The World We Live In ch16
The bowls follow exactly the same pattern as the trumpets. They affect the same things in the same order, but their affects are more dramatic, and total. So what are bowls of wrath?
Bowl 1: Earth (Boils and Sores) v1-2
1 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.” 2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshipped its image. (Revelation 16:1-2 ESV)
This plague mimics the plague of boils in Exodus 9. Painful boils and sores come out on people. They are tormented by their ill health. God also promised judgement by boils in Deuteronomy 28:
Deuteronomy 28:27 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumours and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed.
Deuteronomy 28:35 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.
‘As long as you’ve got your health’- that’s what they say, well these people haven’t. None of do ultimately- disease and infirmity dog us. I know it’s not exactly cheerful, but all of us will die from it, unless we’re run over by a bus or something first. I don’t want to get all political, but we’ve seen the power one tiny microscopic virus can do- setting the world in a panic and bringing it to its knees! We like to think we are so big and strong and advanced, but we haven’t even cured the common cold! And a flu can still put us out of action for days, if not weeks! If something else doesn’t get us first disease will get us all. It is part of God’s wrath on the world that microscopic organisms can take out who nations- despite our pretended power.
I say people get ill, but here it is specifically those who have worshipped the beast. As with the plagues in Egypt, many of them did not apply to the people of God. That does not mean God’s people don’t get ill- that simply is not true. We’re told about sick Christians in the New Testament, but it does mean we experience our illness differently. Not as judgement, or wrath, but sometimes as just because we’re part of our broken world, and its something that God will use for our good to make us more like Jesus.
Onto bowls 2 & 3…
Bowls 2 & 3: Sea & Rivers (Turned to Blood) v3-4
3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. 4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. (Revelation 16:3-4 ESV)
With the trumpets only a third of the sea is turned to blood, here all of it is. With the trumpets a third of the sea creatures die, well here all of them die. And all the rivers and springs are turned to blood too. This mirrors the first plague in Egypt when the Nile turned to blood and that lived in it died, but beyond that I think this is probably the toughest to get our heads round. Though the possibility of the bowls being filled with helps with the imagery, what it means in practice is not as clear.
There may be different nuances with the sea and the rivers. Some commentators make the sea about the Economy as most international trade with doomed Babylon was done by sea: this is mentioned in the coming chapters- that’s possible. Some make it about death at sea and in rivers- shipwrecks, sea battles, tsunamis, and other sea disasters. Some commentators with a different approach to the one we’re taking make this about the Gentiles pictured as a sort of sea of people. I’m not sure I agree with any of them entirely!
Mainly because in v6 it talks about the rivers certainly, as being given them to drink. We know its human because in v3 it’s the blood of a corpse. In the next chapter we will meet a drunk prostitute called ‘Babylon the Great’. A woman drunk on the blood of the saints-meaning that she killed them. Killing them is pictured as drinking their blood!
But it’s not without consequence- blood and wine imagery are mixed throughout the book- indeed throughout the Bible. This is a cup of staggering she’s given. So the judgement here is most likely violence and murder- similar to the war horseman in the seal in chapter 5, similar to the winepress being trodden and producing a river of blood in chapter 14. This is probably humanity reaping and causing its own destruction through war- the just dessert for their bloodthirstiness. What about bowls 4 & 5?
Bowl 4 & 5: Sun (Scorched by fierce heat/Darkness) v8-11
8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. 10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:8-11 ESV)
Bowls 4 & 5 are sun based plagues. A third of the sun was switched off with the trumpets-here instead the sun is turned up to 11, again promised in Deuteronomy 28 mixed in with some others:
Deuteronomy 28:22 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew.
People are scorched by the heat of the sun, increases in the Earth’s temperature. It’s hard to avoid the notion of global warming, though again this is not new, temperatures rose significantly about a thousand years ago to the point where England became a prominent wine growing region! It could also be linked with a growth in slavery as historically they were affected by the heat of the sun more than most. Equally, it could be susceptibility to the sun’s power- we all know the horrific dangers of over exposure to the sun!
Then in Bowl 5 the sun is switched off- at least on the throne of the beast. In the trumpets this was the trumpet that had the star fall to earth and cause darkness by smoke. It was also the one with the king of the abyss, Apollyon or Abaddon, here mirrored by the beast. The devil powered political persecutor of the church, but here darkness comes on the thrown of the beast. Empires rise and attack and oppress, but empires also fall- both are part of God’s judgement. Bowl six carries this demonic theme on…
Bowl 6: Frogs, The Euphrates & Armageddon v12-16
12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw, coming 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. 14 For they 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. 15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. (Revelation 16:12-16 ESV)
When bowl six is poured out the river Euphrates dries up, opening the way for the kings of the East to come. A similar thing happened at trumpet six- four angels bound at the river Euphrates are released and kill a third of mankind with a demonic army of 2 million, but here it’s kings beyond the Euphrates and they are accompanied by three demonic spirits pictured as frogs like a mini plague of frogs from Exodus 8, who perform signs and wonders to assemble people for battle on the day of the Lord.
They gather at Armageddon. Now for us Armageddon is associated with this end time great battle. Either that or Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler and a giant asteroid! But it’s not an accidental location. Armageddon is mentioned 12 times in the Old Testament, where it’s referred to as Megiddo. It was on the main road between Egypt and Mesopotamia, as such it saw a lot of action war wise: It’s the site of the battle between the Canaanites and Israel under Barak and Deborah in Judges 4 & 5, he battle between the Midianites and Israel under Gideon in Judges 6, the battle between the Philistines and Israel under King Saul 1 Samuel 31, the battle between Egypt & Assyria where King Josiah is killed in 2 Kings 23. It’s hard to know which incident is in mind- other than that this is a place where many battles take place- a sort of classic battle field where God’s people fight against their enemies.
The weird thing about this battle is that there is no battle! Humanity rises up to fight… but there is no fight. This is no contest. It’s like Psalm 2
Psalm 2:1-6 ESV
1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
History is a tale of people setting themselves up against God; nations, kings, empires, but none of them stand. None of them make the slightest bit of impact. It’s like the opposite of what happens in Phillip Pulman’s ‘His Dark Materials’. Spoiler alert here, but at the end the main character Lyra goes to war with God, but instead of it being a great contest, God is dealt with virtually no issue. God in the books is a senile old man trapped in a bubble, and manipulated by those around him. Lyra pops the bubble- and it’s all over. Here God merely speaks and the battle is over- so Bowl Seven…
Bowl 7: A Voice from God v17-21
17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” (Revelation 16:17 ESV)
It’s just one word in Greek- ‘done’. It would be great if the word was the same as the one John records Jesus as speaking on the cross: ‘It is finished’, but it’s not, though ultimately that’s where the battle was won! What we do have here though is the end. The end, end.
And the rest of the book effectively deals with judgement day and beyond. As we had told to us in 15:1 these are ‘the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.’ That word ‘finished’ there is the word Jesus uses on the cross- it means has reached its goal, achieved its purpose. What God wanted to achieve with these plagues is done. All that remains is the final judgement day, and so the end comes again for the third time in the book:
8 And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. 21 And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe. (Revelation 16:18-21 ESV)
And with it the thunder, lightning an earthquake after the seventh seal in chapter 8, and the seventh trumpet in chapter 11, only this one is ramped up. The greatest ever earthquake
Islands flee away, mountains disappear, the cities of the nations fall, Jerusalem comes apart into chunks, hailstones as heavy as people fall from the sky. To put this in perspective the heaviest hailstone ever recorded was the size of a volleyball and weighed just under 2 pounds. These are fifty times that weight! A hundred pound one would be the size of medicine ball or a space hopper. The diameter would be about the size of a mountain bike wheel- imagine them falling from the sky. Of course this was another plague on Egypt, but we’re not told how big those hailstones were. The end has come, but instead of turning to God, they curse God, and so our last point…
Repentance and Readiness
Again and again our passage we’re told the reaction of the people:
Revelation 16:9 ESV 9 They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
Revelation 16:10b-11 ESV …People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
Revelation 16:21b ESV …and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.
The people seem to be aware in some way that God is doing this, but instead of turning to him, they turn further against Him, they curse Him. I once heard it said that the new atheists don’t believe in God, but they hate Him! And that’s what we see here, cursing God, yet refusing to believe in Him. There is no reformation of character, there is no turning to God, in the face of such horrific disaster. That is the response of the world, but if that’s your response, we’re not at the end yet, there’s time. Turn to God now, today- don’t face his full wrath at the end!
But what if we’re already believers, what should our response be? Verse 15:
Revelation 16:15 ESV 15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”)
This is a really enigmatic aside by the Lord Jesus to believers. He warns the reader that He is coming like a thief in the night. The whole point of that being we don’t know when he will return. There’s a website where it predicts how likely Jesus’ return is based on world events, but it’s almost the opposite! We don’t when Jesus will return. The signs he told us to look for: wars, rumours of wars, famines, earthquakes, false religion, Christian persecution, it could virtually be any time in the past 2,000 years! It could be today! We don’t know, that’s the point! The seals, the trumpets, the bowls, mark our age. They are what are world is like. So Jesus will come like a thief, at an hour we do not expect.
That’s why I shy away from an overly complex view of end times. ‘This must happen, then this, then that’. I’ve met believers who’ve told me Jesus can’t come back today, because xyz hasn’t happened. Well Jesus is coming like a thief, and we need to be ready today for him to return. What does being ready look like? Well it’s there in v15: Staying awake & staying dressed
Now that is not saying we never sleep just in case Jesus returns and we miss it. It’s not saying don’t take a bath just in case Jesus returns and you’re called to meet him in the air in your birthday suit! The picture is someone who is always alert and ready for action. They’re living their life in the light of and expecting, Jesus’ return. Like the firefighter who sleeps in their uniform, they know the call could come at any time! It’s the language Jesus uses in the Gospels when referring to his return:
Luke 12:35-36 35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks”
Don’t fall asleep on the job. Don’t give up waiting. Don’t get cynical and think he’s not coming back, he is! We need to be those getting on with his business while we wait. So when the boss comes back he doesn’t find us playing Candy Crush, or snoozing, when we should be doing kingdom work! If Jesus came back tomorrow would you be happy with how you’ve lived today? Would he be happy with how you’ve lived today?
Serve God ever day, you never know when He’ll return, not because we’ll face wroth or wrath or however you want to pronounce it, but because we want to please him, as good and faithful servants, good and faithful sons and daughters. So the world may seem like it’s falling apart, it is, but stay alert, stay awake and live for Jesus.