I’ve been saying it several times now, but after the seven seals, we had the seven trumpets. And after the seven trumpets, we had the seven signs. And now, after the seven signs, we come to the seven bowls of God’s wrath. The seven seals were about all the woes and troubles which happen in the world in these, the last days. The seven trumpets announced how the Lord punishes the wicked with all kinds of temporal punishments in these, the last days. And the seven signs were about how the dragon persecutes the church in these, the last days. However, John also saw the church triumphant in heaven, singing a new song of praise to God; and he saw the coming judgment on the wicked, for they will be made to drink from the cup of God’s wrath. He saw the harvest of the righteous, gathered safely in to eternal life; and he also saw the harvest of the wicked who will be thrown into the winepress of God’s wrath. So, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven signs. And now seven bowls of God’s wrath.
The seven bowls in Revelation 15 and 16 clearly remind us of the plagues which God sent on the Egyptians in the days of Moses. So, that tells us that these seven bowls are about God’s judgment on the wicked, because just as the Lord sent plagues on the Egyptians to punish them for their wickedness towards the Israelites, so these bowls of God’s wrath are for punishing the wicked.
But the seven bowls in Revelation 15 and 16 also remind us of the seven trumpets. So, the first trumpet announced how hail, fire and blood was hurled down on the earth; and the first bowl in Revelation 16 is poured out on the earth. The second trumpet announced how the sea became blood; and here, the second bowl is poured out on the sea which becomes blood. The third trumpet announced how the rivers were poisoned; and here, the third bowl is also poured out on the rivers. The fourth trumpet announced how the sun, moon and stars were struck; and here, the fourth bowl is poured out on the sun. The fifth trumpet announced how the sun and sky were darkened by smoke and locusts appeared which tormented the people; and here, the fifth bowl is poured out on the throne of the beast so that his kingdom is darkened and his people are in anguish. The sixth trumpet announced how four angels were bound at the Euphrates; and here, the sixth bowl is poured out on the Euphrates. The seventh trumpet announced the coming of the Lord; and here, the seventh bowl also depicts the coming of the Lord.
So, the seven bowls of God’s wrath remind us of the seven trumpets. But there’s a difference: with the trumpets, there was a kind of restraint. So, for instance, after the second trumpet, a third of the sea turned to blood and a third of the living creatures in the sea died. However, after the second bowl was poured out, all the sea turned to blood and every living thing in the sea died. So, there’s a multiplication and an intensification of the punishments.
When will these things take place? Well, when we read a book, normally everything happens in chronological order. So, first this happened; and then this happened; and after that, this happened. That’s what we expect when we read a book. And so, plenty of people assume the same thing is happening here, so that after all the events described by the seven seals take place, all the events described by the seven trumpets will take place. And after they take place, all the events described by the seven signs will take place. And after they’re happened, then all the events described by the seven bowls will take place. It’s one thing after another in chronological order. That’s what we expect. But the book of Revelation is different; and I’ve been saying all along that in all these different visions, John is describing what takes place throughout the course of these, the last days in which we live. So, the events described by the seven bowls don’t happen after the events described by the seven signs have taken place. These things are happening concurrently. So, in these, the last days, we can expect the Devil to persecute the church. That’s what the seven signs depicted. But in these, the last days, we can also expect God to pour out his wrath on the ungodly through all kinds of temporal punishments which they are made to suffer. That’s what the seven bowls are depicting. That’s what we can expect until, of course, the Lord comes again.
And the final thing to say here, by way of introduction, is that once again we’re dealing here with pictures and images and symbols which need to be interpreted and not taken literally. John is seeing pictures and symbols which represent and symbolise God’s wrath against the ungodly and the temporal punishments he sends on the wicked in these, the last days in which we live, before the great and terrible Day of Judgment arrives.
Verses 5 to 8
Having said all that by way of introduction, let’s turn to the details. And in verse 5 of chapter 15 John tells us how he was able to look into heaven and he saw how the temple, or the Tabernacle, was opened. And out of the temple, there came these seven angels with seven plagues. Of course, the fact that these angels came out of the temple, where God dwells, means that these angels come from God himself. He’s the one who will send these angels to pour out his wrath on the world. And then, one of the four living creatures, who stands before the throne of the Lord, gave them seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God.
And in verse 1 of chapter 16, John tells us how he heard a loud voice from the temple — perhaps the voice of God — commanding the angels to go and to pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.
So, the first angel poured his bowl on the land; and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people. But the sores don’t break out on everyone, but only on those who have the mark of the beast and who worship his image. In other words, God’s wrath is poured out on those who have rejected him and who have sided with the Devil.
The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea; and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died.
The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water; and they too became like blood. But, before moving on to the fourth angel, John heard an angel announce that God’s judgments are just. Why are God’s judgments just? Because he’s punishing those who have shed the blood of his saints and prophets; he’s paying back those who have persecuted his people; and just as they have shed the blood of the saints, so now, as punishment, they have been given blood to drink, which is what they deserve for what they have done. So, we can imagine them going to the river for water; but the water has gone, and there’s only blood for them to drink now. Well, it’s an image, isn’t it? It’s a picture to represent the way God punishes those who hurt and harm his people.
Back in verse 10 of chapter 6, the souls of those who had been slain and who were now kept safe under the altar of God in heaven asked how long would it be until their blood is avenged? And here in verse 7 of chapter 16 we read that when those who shed the blood of the saints are punished, the altar — and presumably John means the souls under the altar — responded and said that God’s judgment are true and just. So, finally, he has avenged them by punishing those who persecuted them.
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun; and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. Again, this is an image, a picture, which speaks to us of the ways God sends temporal punishments on the wicked in these, the last days. And those who were seared by the intense heat cursed the Lord and they refused to repent and to glorify him.
We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? When John heard the sound of the sixth trumpet and God sent horsemen to kill the wicked, the rest of mankind who saw it refused to repent. If they had repented, they would have discovered that God is gracious and merciful and willing to pardon. But they refused. And here, in chapter 16, once more the wicked refuse to repent.
After Adam disobeyed the Lord in the Garden, he and all his descendants fell into what our Catechism calls the state of sin and misery. It’s a state of sin because we now sin naturally. And it’s a state of misery because the fall brought us God’s displeasure and curse, so that we are by nature children of wrath and justly liable to all punishments in this world and in the world to come. So, every day, men and women and boys and girls experience God’s wrath and curse through the things they suffer and through the troubles they encounter and through the sorrow and pain they endure. These are all examples of God’s temporal punishments, the punishments the wicked suffer in this world. For the believer, of course, it’s different; and God uses these troubles to discipline us so that we grow stronger in the faith. But instead of repenting of their sin, and turning to Christ the Saviour, the wicked carry on in their sinful ways; and despite all the warnings along the way, they continue to travel along that broad road that leads eventually to destruction.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. The kingdom of the beast is the opposite of the kingdom of God; and it contains all those who have sided with the Devil. And John therefore describes their suffering and their refusal once more to repent.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the River Euphrates and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Well, in ancient history, the King of Persia came from the East and diverted the river Euphrates so that he could cross over it to attack and to destroy Babylon. And so, John’s vision is perhaps alluding to that event to speak of how the nations will gather to make war against the Lord and his people. But, of course, we’re also reminded of the day of Moses and how the Lord dried up the Red Sea to allow his people to cross safely to the other side. But when the Egyptians tried to cross over, they were destroyed. And that’s what is going to happen here, for those who cross over the Euphrates to make war on the Lord and his people will be destroyed; God is letting them gather together and he’s letting them advance against him so that he can defeat them.
And so, we read how these three evil spirits who looked like frogs came and gathered all of the kings of the world to battle against the Lord at this place called Armageddon. We’ll read more about this particular battle in subsequent chapters, because this is the last battle, when the unbelieving nations will gather one last time in an attempt to overthrow the Lord. But look at verse 15: when the nations gather together against the Lord, the Lord announces that he’s going to come, unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, to overthrow his enemies and to destroy them for good.
Therefore, God’s people should remain faithful. They should stay awake, with their clothes on. It’s a picture of readiness to stand firm and to fight against the temptations of the Devil and the enticement of the world. Believers must be alert and remain steadfast so that we will not give in to sin and temptation and to unbelief. For if we do, we will only be ashamed when the Lord comes again.
And finally there’s the seventh bowl which is poured out into the air; and there’s a voice from the heavenly temple which announces that it is done. What is done? God’s punishment on the wicked is done, because here he comes to punish his enemies for ever. And John describes the flashes of lightning, the rumblings, the peals of thunder, the tremendous earthquake. These are all signs of the coming of the Lord, recalling that time when he came to meet the Israelites at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses.
The great city, Babylon — which represents the wicked world — is split into three parts and all the cities of the nations are destroyed. Babylon is also given the cup of God’s wrath to drink. And the whole of creation is undone, for the islands flee away and the mountains could not be found. Huge hailstones fall from heaven on the people. And still, right to the very end, the wicked remain stubborn and hard hearted and they continue to curse the God who made them. The Day of Judgment has come, when God will punish the wicked for their sins. And the first creation has passed away. But, of course, God will make a new heavens and a new earth, where his believing people will live for ever.
It’s interesting that John says nothing here about evangelism. We read of the judgment to come, but John is not telling us these things so that we will go out to evangelise the nations. Why not? Well, there are other places in the Bible which speak of how God will send preachers into all the world to evangelise the nations. John, though, has got a different purpose in mind. He’s writing for believers who are being persecuted for their faith; and he’s saying to them to hold on. Hold on, because in the end, God will punish the wicked who have hurt you and harmed you and who refuse to repent. They won’t get away with it; and eventually justice will be done. So, hold on.
And remain faithful. Despite all the trials you’re now suffering, don’t give up the faith. Don’t give up the faith, because if you turn away from Christ the Saviour then you’re turning away from the only one who can save you from the wrath to come.
So, hold on and remain faithful. And when the Lord comes again, he’ll bring you and all his faithful people into the new heavens and the new earth to live with him for ever and ever in perfect peace and rest. So, hold on and remain faithful.