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The Bowls of Wrath (Revelation 16)

Keeping in mind that the book of Revelation was written to the oppressed Christians of the time, let's look at the bowls of wrath.  Seven angels in glorious array were given seven bowls of wrath and directed by God to pour then out on the earth.  There is a lot of figurative language associated with this, no doubt in view of the fact that the means by which God would destroy the Roman Empire is being laid out for all who can comprehend the imagery to see.  Let's briefly revisit the consequences that would be wreaked on the already oppressed Christians if the imperial authorities could understand this letter.  God's message of perseverance and hope would turn into a death sentence for the Christians, thus rendering the message of Revelation a hindrance to the Christians rather than a help. 

The bowls containing God's wrath are obviously symbolic.  Wrath is not a material substance that can be contained in anything and be dispensed like one would pour water out on a flower bed.  The numeral seven represents the completeness of divine judgment upon an ungodly world.  Note that the term "wrath" is an affirmation that God will express his holy and just nature in retribution upon rebellious conduct. 

It is noteworthy that the first 4 bowls of wrath of John's vision was poured out upon nature but the direct effect was upon the ungodly men of the Imperial Roman Empire.  John used a lot of figurative language to make this vision seem unreal thus disguising the real meaning from the enemies of the Christians.  When the real is separated from the figurative, the bowls of wrath represent the partial destruction of the Roman Empire by natural phenomena.  The Roman historian Edward Gibbon recorded in his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 71, page 891, that one of the major reasons for the fall of Imperial Rome was a series of natural calamities which caused great unrest among the people throughout the Empire.  

The fifth and sixth bowls of wrath are poured out directly on man, indicating that God will use internal debauchery and external invasion to complete the fall of the Empire.  History bears out that this was indeed the case. 

The First Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:1-2
1 And I heard a great voice out of the temple, saying to the seven angels, Go ye, and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God into the earth.
2 And the first went, and poured out his bowl into the earth; and it became a noisome and grievous sore upon the men that had the mark of the beast, and that worshipped his image.

The first bowl of wrath was poured out upon the earth.  Poured out upon the Roman Empire, it affected only those who bore the mark of the beast and worshipped Domitian.  This plague paralleled the boil plague of Egypt in the days of Moses and caused grievous sores to come upon those who bowed to worship the emperor. 

The Second Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:3
And the second poured out his bowl into the sea; and it became blood as of a dead man; and every living soul died, (even) the things that were in the sea.

Immediately following the first plague, the second bowl of wrath was emptied out upon the sea.  The imagery paralleled the plague of Egypt where the Nile was turned to blood.  This is not to be taken literally, as God promised to protect the Christians who made their livelihood by the sea from His wrath.  What was intended here was to illustrate that God would use natural calamities of the sea to orchestrate, in part, the downfall of Rome.  Keep in mind that a significant portion of Rome's power lay in its trade expansion through conquering territories.  Major trade routes to the east were achieved by sea travel.  Closing these would seriously cripple Rome's ability to pursue trade in this and other directions.  Looking ahead briefly to chapter 18, we see a reference to the merchants who were said to weep and mourn over the loss of Roman commerce. 

The Third Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:4-7
4 And the third poured out his bowl into the rivers and the fountains of the waters; and it became blood.
5 And I heard the angel of the waters saying, Righteous art thou, who art and who wast, thou Holy One, because thou didst thus judge:
6 for they poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets, and blood hast thou given them to drink: they are worthy.
7 And I heard the altar saying, Yea, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.

The third bowl of wrath was poured out on the fresh water.  During this event, a voice was heard that proclaimed God's righteousness in this act.  The Roman Empire slaughtered so many Christians.  They literally made their blood flow like water.  It could be said that they drank of the blood of the Christians.  This bowl of wrath surely gave comfort to the Christians who had seen their blood spilled mercilessly.  God is assuring the Christians that the Roman Empire will drink of the blood they shed.  God's final words of judgment to Edom speak similarly of them suffering equally for what they had inflicted:

Obadiah 15-16
15 For the day of Jehovah is near upon all the nations: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy dealing shall return upon thine own head.
16 For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the nations drink continually; yea, they shall drink, and swallow down, and shall be as though they had not been.

The Fourth Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:8-9
8 And the fourth poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given unto it to scorch men with fire.
9 And men were scorched with great heat: and they blasphemed the name of God who hath the power over these plagues; and they repented not to give him glory.

The fourth bowl of wrath was emptied out upon the sun which then sent out scorching rays to burn the wicked.  Those upon whom the rays fell were so hardened in their hearts that they refused to see this as an act of divine retribution and added blasphemy to their already sin cursed lives.  John gives credit to God as having power over the plagues that were coming.  The Christians to who this was written were here told that God is in charge of what's going on. 

Of significance also is the wording, "and they repented not to give him glory".  This reveals that the oppressors were given the chance to repent.  This should bring great comfort to those who believe they have gone too far and can never repent and come back to God.  Even after all the horrible things done to the Christians, the people of the Roman Empire still were given an opportunity to avoid God's eternal wrath which is far more severe and lasting than His wrath executed on earth.  We can see God's longsuffering and patience at work here in His efforts to reach those who worshipped under the beast and to present them with every opportunity to avoid His eternal wrath.  This calls to mind God's reluctance to destroy Nineveh when He sent Jonah to preach to them in hopes of converting them from their evil ways.

But, they repented not and gave not any glory to God.  The subjects of the beast, (Imperial Rome), had so taken in his spirit and absorbed his characteristics that instead of repenting and turning to God, they rebelled against God's efforts to turn them, hardened their hearts just like Pharaoh and rebelled against His efforts to soften them.  Even the scorching heat of God's wrath unleashed with the sun could not mellow their rebellious hearts, rather it hardened them. 

The fourth bowl completes the first section of plagues involving earth, sea, waters and the sun.

The Fifth Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:10-11
10 And the fifth poured out his bowl upon the throne of the beast; and his kingdom was darkened; and they gnawed their tongues for pain,
11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they repented not of their works.

And now we see the fifth bowl of wrath being poured out on the throne of the beast, (Domitian), and his entire kingdom is darkened.  This imagery is reflective of Psalms 69:23-24, "Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; and make their loins continually to shake. Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of thine anger overtake them."  Beginning at the throne, the kingdom is darkened so that the eyes of the leaders lose their ability to see how their kingdom needs to be managed.  They are turning a blind eye to the priorities of managing a world wide empire and turning them instead to the inner pleasures of wicked debauchery.  They feel secure in their power so they become blind to the needs of the empire.  The Roman Empire is by no means the only power on earth that came to demise because of this. 

The Romans who are faithful to the Empire and its emperor worship see it happening, they are in anguish over it, yet in their stubborn pride, they continue to refuse to accept that this internally evil system of government cannot possibly be worthy of their worship so they "repented not of their works," rather choosing to blame and blaspheme the one to whom they should have turned.

Romans 1:21-25
21 because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.
22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.
24 Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves:
25 for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

The Sixth Bowl of Wrath

Revelation 16:12
And the sixth poured out his bowl upon the great river, the (river) Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way might be made ready for the kings that (come) from the sunrising.

The sixth bowl of wrath was said to be poured out directly on the Euphrates River causing it to dry up.  The Euphrates River formed the eastern boundary of the Imperial Roman Empire.  Beyond the river was the Parthian nation which had been in rebellion to the empire throughout its existence.  The ancient city of Babylon was finally destroyed in 539 B.C. when the Persians diverted the Euphrates River and entered the city underneath its protective walls, (cf. Jeremiah 50:38; 51:36).  That historical event formed the imagery that the Christians would identify the overthrow of God's enemies with.  Again, this imagery is used to conceal the real meaning from the Roman authorities.  The drying up of the Euphrates signified to the oppressed Christians that the Roman Empire was now vulnerable to external invasion by the Parthian kings.  The external invasion did indeed occur, after which, The mighty Roman Empire was reduced to a declining world power. 

The Vision of the Three Frogs

Rev 16:13-16
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, as it were frogs: 
14 for they are spirits of demons, working signs; which go forth unto the kings of the whole world, to gather them together unto the war of the great day of God, the Almighty. 
15(Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.) 
16 And they gathered them together into the place which is called in Hebrew Har-Magedon. 

A break is given between the sixth and seventh symbols.  God has provided a way for the Parthians to attack the Roman Empire.  The Parthian kings were Rome's bitterest most aggressive enemies.  The text of Revelation 17:14 indicates that the kings of the earth are being gathered to do battle.  Rome recognized the danger of a Parthian invasion and was moving to ally the nations within the Roman empire to battle against this deadly foe.

We read that three unclean spirits in the form of frogs appear through the mouths of the dragon, (Satan), the sea beast, (Domitian), and the earth beast, (the Roman Concilia).  The frogs were not literal and had a significant meaning to the Christians of the day.  A study of Leviticus 11:9-12 reveals that all animals that lived in the water but did not have fins or scales were to be regarded as an abomination to the Israelites.  They were loathsome creatures not to be eaten nor touched in any way.  Thus we see that the three frogs represent to the Christians of the time vile creatures who are to be rejected and viewed as abominations.  

These three symbolic frogs are said to be "spirits of demons" which are sent out by the dragon, the sea and the earth beast to deceive and rally the kings of the world to defeat the coming invasion by the Parthian kings.  They are successful in deceiving the kings and they all unite in a place called "Har Megadon" to do battle against the invading force.  Only the gathering of forces is mentioned here.  The actual battle does not take place until later in Revelation.  

The words "Har-Megedon" more familiarly known as "Armageddon" means the "mount of Megiddo."  John was describing the mustering of forces at a place called the Mount of Megiddo.  This was a Hebrew battlefield which had historical significance because this was where Gideon defeated the Midianites, King Saul was defeated by the Philistines, Barak and Deborah overthrew Jabin, (Judges 5:12-19), Jehu killed Ahaziah with an arrow, (2 Kings 9:27), and Josiah was defeated by Pharoah-Necho, (2 Chronicles 35:22).  In the minds of the Hebrew Christians, Megiddo was a place where decisive conflicts took place.  Therefore Har-Megedon fitly symbolizes to the Christians of the day, a battlefield where the forces of God and the forces of evil meet in deadly conflict to determine the earthly future of God's people.  A more extensive study of the battlefield of Megiddo and Armageddon will follow after we have concluded the study on the bowls of wrath.  

Revelation 16:15
(Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.) 

The entire core message of Revelation is for the Christian to persevere against all persecution no matter what the personal consequences to their earthly persons.  God remains in charge and those who endure and remain in righteousness will be victorious in the end.  This message is repeated over and over throughout the text and Revelation 16:15 is a repetition of this exhortation.  The coming as of a thief, (cf Revelation 3:3), was imagery introduced by Jesus during His earthly ministry to encourage constant watch and preparedness for His coming, (cf Luke 12:39).  This imagery was used by the apostles as well in reference to the day of the Lord, (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; 2 Peter 3:10).  It is therefore impossible to know the day of the Lord's coming for the final judgment.  

"Blessed is he that watcheth"

Matt 24:42-51
42 Watch therefore: for Ye know not on what day your Lord cometh. 
43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken through. 
44 Therefore be Ye also ready; for in an hour that Ye think not the Son of man cometh. 
45 Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath set over his household, to give them their food in due season? 
46 Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. 
47 Verily I say unto you, that he will set him over all that he hath. 
48 But if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord tarrieth; 
49 and shall begin to beat his fellow-servants, and shall eat and drink with the drunken; 
50 the lord of that servant shall come in a day when he expecteth not, and in an hour when he knoweth not, 
51 and shall cut him asunder, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. 

"and keepeth his garments"

The Christian "puts on Christ" or clothes himself with Christ at baptism, (Galatians 3:27).  In scripture, the inspired writers illustrated Christ and God's righteousness as something the Christian figuratively wears upon His person.  Sin is illustrated as spots and blemishes on one's garments, (Jude 23).  The Psalmist referred to cursing as being like a garment that clothed the unrighteous, (Ps 109:18-19), so the imagery of garments represents to the Christian that which he adorns himself with be it righteousness or unrighteousness.  A blessing is given to those Christians who keep their garments in the state it was when they clothed themselves with Christ.

"lest he walk naked, and they see his shame"

2 Cor 5:1-3
1 For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. 
2 For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven: 
3 if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. 

The present tense of the verbs, "watcheth" and "keepeth" indicate a continuous effort necessitating a daily watchfulness.  The Christians were exhorted to be continuously on guard, watching and keeping themselves clean in all appearance.  The application of this for us today is that since this was required of the Christians to which Revelation was written, so also must it apply to all Christians thereafter.  God is no respect of persons, (Romans 2:11).  God is not going to require Christians who were being slaughtered for their faith to remain righteous and let all the rest of the Christians living afterwards to slide by.  Let us also watch and keep our garments lest we be be found naked and in shame.

The Seventh Bowl of Wrath

Rev 16:17-21

17 And the seventh poured out his bowl upon the air; and there came forth a great voice out of the temple, from the throne, saying, It is done: 
18 and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunders; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since there were men upon the earth, so great an earthquake, so mighty. 
19 And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and Babylon the great was remembered in the sight of God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. 
20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. 
21 And great hail, (every stone) about the weight of a talent, cometh down out of heaven upon men: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof is exceeding great. 

The seventh bowl poured out upon the air symbolizes the complete retribution of God through the use of natural elements, earth water, fire, (the sun) and air.  The previous natural disturbances were not as severe as the ones after the outpouring of the seventh bowl.  There can be no doubt that there is a great deal of figurative language used here and so it would be in that God is describing the downfall of the Roman Empire and must protect the Christians from added persecutions by concealing the real message from the Roman authorities.  

A clue to figurative significance of the outpouring of the final bowl of wrath on the air may be found in Ephesians 2:2, "wherein Ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience;"  The prince of the powers of the air spoken of by Paul is undoubtedly Satan.  In view of the gathering forces for the upcoming battle of Har-Megedon mentioned earlier, it is reasonable to conclude that the final bowl of wrath will be poured out directly on the "powers of the air", or the powers of Satan.  The fifth bowl was poured out on the throne of the beast, the sixth bowl opened the way for invasion from hostile countries followed by a gathering of forces by the allies of Satan to his evil cause, followed then by the outpouring of God's wrath upon the entire sphere of Satan's operation.  Air would be an appropriate symbol representing the prevailing influence surrounding the Roman Empire.  Thus the course of the Empire which was evil to the core, characterized by lives of trespass and sin, ruled by the Satan, (prince of the powers of the air), who controlled his subjects by a spirit of rebellion and disobedience to God, is now going to brought under divine judgment.  

With the pouring of the seventh bowl, the Christians are again reminded that the forces of evil cannot win the battle.  With the outpouring of this last bowl of wrath, we are told that thunder and lightning from heaven and an earthquake unlike any other shakes the earth, all of which are manifestations of divine retribution.  The city of Rome is divided into three parts,  (the divine number) which symbolizes God's involvement in the overthrow of the city.  When this final action is finished, God's wrath on the beast and the false prophet is complete.  

The seven bowls of wrath represented three things which historian Edward Gibbons attributed to the ultimate fall of the Imperial Roman Empire: 1) natural calamity, 2) internal rottenness, and 3) external invasion.  All three of these were works of God which ultimately caused the doom of the Roman Empire.  It did no good for Rome to rally help from other nations, for God would destroy Rome irregardless of any help Satan may recruit.  The vision of the bowls of wrath were designed to set forth the assurance of ultimate triumph of righteousness over any and all evil that may be hurled at it.  The message to the Christians of of the day was that God is ruling and they must persevere and keep themselves in righteousness and in so doing they will achieve the ultimate victory.  The message for us is the same.  God cares for us and as long as we live in righteousness we too can triumph over any evil which can be hurled at us.

Romans 8:35-39

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 
36 Even as it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 
38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 
39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Church of Christ Lessons on the Revelation of Jesus Christ

1.  Understanding Revelation
2.  Symbolic Objects in Revelation
3.  Understanding the Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
4.  Identifying the Opposition Characters in Revelation
John's Introduction to the Churches of Asia

6.  John's Vision of Jesus Christ
7. The Church who Left Her First Love, Ephesus
8.  Smyrna, the Suffering Church
9.  Pergamum, the church in Hell's Headquarter
10.  Thyatira, the church that Condoned Sin
11. Sardis (The Dead Church)
12. Philadelphia (The Church With Opportunity)
13.  Laodicea (The Lukewarm Church)

14.  Letter to Your Church
15.  John's Throne Vision (chapter 4)
16.  God the Redeemer Revealed  (chapter 5)
17.  God the Avenger of His Children (Chapter 6)
18.  Who Will Be Able To Stand  (Chapter 7)
19.  The First Four Trumpets
(Chapter 8)
20.  The Fifth Trumpet (Chapter 9:1-12)
21.  The Sixth Trumpet Announcement (Chapter 9:13-21)
22. The Little Book and the Unutterable Thunders (Rev 10)
23.  The Seventh Trumpet Announcement (Rev 11)
24. The Conflict (Revelation 12)
25.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the First Beast)

26.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the Second Beast)

27.  Chapter 14 (The Victorious Lamb and the Redeemed)
28.  Revelation 14 (The Turning Point)
29.  Revelation 14 (The Sickle and the Winepress)
30.  Chapter 15 (Comfort for the Saints)
31.  Chapter 16 (Bowls of Wrath)
32.  Chapter 16 (The Battle of Armageddon)
33.  Chapter 17 (The Scarlet Woman)
34.  Chapter 18 (Fallen  is Babylon)

35.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Chapter 19)
36.  The Fall of Satan  (Chapter 20)
37.  Heaven, the Home of the Soul  (Chapter 21)
38.  The Spirit and the Bride Say Come  (Chapter 22)
39.  The Dating of the Revelation

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Revelation 21:5-7

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.  And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.  He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.