Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 16
The First Six Bowl Judgments
- 1And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go your ways and pour out the bowls of the wrath of God upon the earth.”
Commentary: This great voice speaking is the voice of God. He holds the vials of wrath and gives them to his messengers for them to carry out his wrath. This first bowl is poured onto the earth (land) signaling the first of the final phases of God's wrath, and it affects man directly. The people affected with this bowl are those who have worshipped the Beast, thus they are punished with horrible sores. These people have rejected God and all his teachings and their time of judgement has come. They are punished with these ugly and painful sores for their misdoings. Many experts relate this first bowl's plague to the sixth plague put onto the Egyptians. In Exodus 6, the Egyptians and their animals suffer from horrible boils to threaten the life of the Egyptians. However, the purposes of the sores that God sends appears to be unparalleled suffering. The sores serve to warn the people who have not given themselves over to Satan. It is a call telling the people to surrender their lives to the Lord.
- 2And the first went and poured out his bowl upon the earth, and there fell a foul and loathsome sore upon those who had the mark of the beast, and upon those who worshipped his image.
Commentary: It is interesting that the judgements are presented in the same order here as they are with the seven Trumpets. The following are affected in the same order: 1)the earth 2)the sea 3) the waterways 4) the sun 5)darkness comes 6)judgement from beyond the Euphrates 7)thunderous voices from heaven. This is a reference to the sixth plague (Exodus 9:8-12). The bowl poured unto the earth is for those who do not believe in Christ, but rather follow the Antichrist, or "the mark of the beast."
The "foul and loathsome sore" could be paralleled to the plague of boils that befell the Egyptians during the great Exodus, although their purposes are not the same. In Egypt, the sores were the first plague that could cause death, whereas in this case, it seems that they are just meant to cause great suffering.
- 3And the second angel poured out his bowl upon the sea, and it became as the blood of a dead man, and every living soul in the sea died.
Commentary: This has major implications for the world’s food supply and all whose livelihoods are connected with the oceans, because all of the fish and sea creatures has died. It may be that the image of the sea turning to blood is not intended to be taken literally, but is a symbolic way of saying that the sea will be full of death. This judgment parallels the first plague (Exodus 7:14-25).
- 4And the third angel poured out his bowl upon the rivers and springs of waters, and they became blood. 5And I heard the angel of the waters say, “You are righteous, O Lord, which are, and was, and will be, because you have judged thus, 6for they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink, for they are worthy of it.” 7And I heard another voice out of the altar say, “Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are your judgments.”
Commentary: This is what is termed “poetic justice.” If the second and third bowls are taken literally, there is now neither salt water nor fresh. The rivers and springs were the sources of drinking water, and now they have no clean drink water. It has been said that this is only right to do since they shed blood, they must now drink of the blood they shed.
It is important to take note of the author description of the angel as one "of the waters." This phrasing is very much in the tradition of apocalyptic literature and is consistent with other descriptions the author uses. In Revelation 14:18, there are angels that control the winds. This imagery is important because it allows the readers to see the world as the author might have. Regardless of which theory concerning the date of the Book of Revelation, everyone agrees that this piece of literature was written in ancient time. This means that John and everyone else was living in a pre-industrial world, perhaps a world that we would consider to be barely civilized. It is only after an industrial revolution that human beings began to truly dominate and exploit nature. Before industrialization, humans were able to use natural forces and resources to our advantage; however, we did not dominate those forces. As such, it may have seemed very logical that angels, messengers and representatives of God, might in fact have some influence or control, given to them by God, over the natural elements.
The angel of water takes time to worship God with a song of praise and say that God is righteous. Often in this book we have encountered worship of God in the middle of judgments. Some may be offended by this. How can one praise God in the middle of all this blood? This is not the praise of the haughty gleefully delighting in the death of nonbelievers and destruction of the world. Rather it is praise of God’s redemptive-judgment. God’s holiness includes love and mercy, as well as righteousness and justice. The nonbelievers have been given every chance to repent. Even now, in the face of complete annihilation, they refuse to accept God. God would not be the God he claims to be if such outright blasphemy were to continue unchecked, He has always been a virtuous God. This praise from the angels worshiping God is for being true to his nature – offering mercy to those who accept and then judging those who refuse it. 
- 8And the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and power was given to him to scorch people with fire, 9and people were scorched with great heat and blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
Commentary: There is much talk today about global warming, and this passage could be used by some as a sign that the events of Revelation are happening now. However, the intense heat of the fourth bowl judgment is presented as something which occurs suddenly, dramatically, and supernaturally, as an act of God.
Although it is implied that there is an opportunity for repentance, none is given. Early in the book the various punishments seem to be designed to bring forth some kind of repenting, but that point has passed and now it is time for punishment. This leads to more blasphemy, which further justifies God's punishment. Time and time again they have not given him proper glory, and this is the price that they must pay.
- 10And the fifth angel poured out his bowl upon the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was full of darkness, and they gnawed their tongues for pain 11and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they did not repent of their deeds.
Commentary: It is not quite clear what causes the pain in this instance, but experiments have shown that prolonged total darkness can have a damaging effect on the human psyche. The fact that the Beast's kingdom was turned to dark could be why people perceive Hell as a dim place. Even so, like Pharaoh before the Exodus, the hearts of the people are hardened to the point where even supernatural events will not move them. The fact that they refule to repent to God but rather speak blasphemy indicated they recognize their punishments but refuse to give up their rebellious ways. This judgments and the subsequent judgments of this chapter seemed aimed primarily at the beast and his Kingdom, whereas the previous judgments were of a somewhat natural nature and followed a similar structure to that of the Exodus plagues.
- 12And the sixth angel poured out his bowl upon the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, so that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.
Commentary: The stage is set for the greatest and most famous of battles: Armageddon, so named in Verse 16. The fact the Euphrates is identified specificially could be to emphasize that this is done by a divine source. Under normal circumstances, the Euphrates is too large to dry up by way of natural causes. It is also one of the most historically significant rivers in the whole world. It was the site of the first civilization in the area of Sumer and allowed travel between lands that were too far to travel to on foot.
Preparation for the Battle of Armageddon
- 13And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, 14for they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth to the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.
Commentary: These demons may be understood as the spirits of the dragon, beast, and false prophet, themselves, or as emissaries for them which go out to deal with the nations. They are corrupt, for they are described as “unclean.” They have more than convincing words with which to manipulate the earth’s leaders, but go out performing “signs.” Whatever these signs may be, they are sufficiently compelling to bring the nations together for the world’s last and greatest battle. It maybe that frogs were a bad omen and thus an understandable image to utilize, or it may simply be that the author uses frogs to continue to refer to the plagues of Egypt, the second of which was a plague of frogs (Exodus 8:1-15).
- 15“Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.”
Commentary: This verse is strikingly similar to Revelation 3:3: "Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If therefore you will not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you." As noted in the commentary for that verse, these words have strong allusions to the words of Jesus, as seen in Matthew 24:42-44, 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5, and 2 Peter 3:10. However, it is important to note that John does not specify whether these words actually come from Jesus.
The Greek word "aschemosune" is translated here as "shame," but it is actually a euphemism for male genitalia in Jewish contexts. Ben Witherington III notes that this image of a person being found naked symbolizes the lack of preparation for the last day (Ezekiel 23:24-29, 2 Corinthians 5:3). He goes on to note, "Captives in war were led away naked as part of their shaming."
The Lord provides some relief by saying that His day of return will come. He will come like a thief, meaning his return will not be known by any. All must wait, pray, and be prepared.
- 16And he gathered them together to a place called in the Hebrew tongue: Armageddon.
Commentary: The name is the Hebrew form of Mt. Megiddo, a location in northern Israel, though whether this exact location is implied is open to interpretation.
The location and determination of Armageddon (which also may be written with a rough breath as Har-magedon) is one of contention. Witherington notes that some consider the location to be the mountain of Megiddo, or a mountain of "marauding or attack," or even Rome's seven hills. Witherington suggests that the final battle will take place at the city of Megiddo, but Beasely Murray suggests that we ignore textual indications and imagine it as an event, not a place. But if so, why has John even written a name? There is no meaningful answer.
The Seventh Bowl
- 17And the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done.”
Commentary: The words, “It is done!”, remind us of Jesus’ last words on the cross (Jn 19:30). They are said here at the completion of the tribulation which is said to occur at the end of this age. The same words are repeated at the completion of the Last Judgment at the end of the world (21:6). Ben Witherington's commentary suggests that it is unlikely that the author of Revelation had the words of Jesus in mind, although there seems to be a parallel for the reader.
- 18And there were voices and thunders and lightenings; and there was a great earthquake and so great.
Commentary: These voices are coming from Heaven. It is announcing the victory. This emphasizes the violent natural events that are occurring because of God's wrath; in fact, the earthquake is so powerful that one of such a magnitude had not ever before plagued the earth. Lightning, thunder, and earthquakes were all believed to be caused by divine beings at the time this text was written, so it was natural for the people reading this to assume that God caused this natural event as well if one so powerful was to occur.
- 19And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.
Commentary: The great city being split into three parts may be a parallel to Zechariah 13:8, “It will come about in all the land [of Israel], declares the Lord, that two parts in it will be cut off and perish; but the third will be left in it." It is thought that the great city is Jerusalem (Revelation 11:8). Maybe in accordance to Zechariah, the two parts will be destroyed and one part will remain. But, it is unclear why the third part will remain. Zechariah 14:2 refers to God leaving people in Jerusalem, and other nations will come together to destroy Jerusalem. However, Zechariah 14:5 says that God will empty Jerusalem of his people with His angles before His arrival for the battle of Armageddon. The destruction of Jerusalem will be occur in Revelation 17 and 18. If Jerusalem is this great city, the other cities of the nations are Gentile nations, making the punishment for Jerusalem not as severe as the punishment of the Gentile nations This is the second time that Babylon has been mentioned in Revelation. Perhaps, God’s wrath on Babylon will be the worst the world has seen.
- 20And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.
Commentary: This is a more extreme form of the sixth seal, where “every mountain and island was moved out of its place” (6:14). This could mean the seizure of seaport and fortified towns.
- 21And there fell upon people a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent, and people blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, for the plague thereof was exceedingly great.
Witherington finds some meaning in the fact that the people, when subjected to the plagues, continue in their blasphemy rather than repenting and praising god. Perhaps what these people should be doing is praying and worshiping their oppressor. A talent is equivalent to about 3000 shekels which weigh about one hundred pounds each. The use of this word may be employed to illustrate the greatness of the ongoing oppression.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.