Revelation 16

Chapter 16

     v1-4: Another "loud voice." It is God or the Lamb who speaks from the temple. So it is God who instructs the angels to pour out the bowls of wrath on the earth. There are many similarities between these and the trumpets of chapters 8-9. In context these bowls most likely are detailing the fall of Babylon described in the coming chapters (cf. 16v19, 18v8). What was experienced by Babylon in lesser judgments (8v6-12) is becomes more extreme and final. The sense is that the trumpets were preliminary judgments on Babylonian society whereas these are the completing judgments just before the end.
     Patterned on Egypt, the first means "harmful and painful sores." As with the trumpets, these could be literal - or figurative of spiritual torment. But a striking difference is their extent. The trumpets impact a third of the earth, sea, springs and daylight. These impact them all. It's more evidence against these being a mere recapitulation of the former ones. There are certainly similarities, but these are of a greater intensity and a different order and content. Yet as before, God's people are exempt. The plagues come only on those who bear the mark of the beast (meaning he owns them) and worshipping his image (honouring him as they should God).
     The second bowl causes the sea to become like blood and all within it to therefore die. The blood may therefore represent death. And this would seriously impact sea trade and food stocks, presumably impacting all peoples, Christians included. This suggests the plagues must be figurative as in context they are clearly only on the wicked (v6, 9). Indeed, in the book "sea" cam simply refer to ungodly peoples (17v1). The third angel's bowl causes springs of fresh water to become like blood too so the great liquid of life for humanity is contaminated, affecting all vegetation and livestock bringing famine.
     v5-7: Whereas the other 7s were split 4 and then 3 this begins with a 3. This may stress the immanence of the end. The angel in charge of the springs being contaminated speaks. It stresses God's justice and holiness in judgement as the unchanging God. How justice is expressed in the punishment fitting the crime - the sinner reaping what they sow. They are judged for shedding the blood of God's saints and prophets which are probably everyday believers and those who speak the gospel. And so God gives them "blood" to drink in the waters, a punishment related to their mouths from which they speak. It's reaffirmed that it's "what they deserve." And the altar responds as the place of atonement for sin to which the prayers of the persecuted ascend (6v9f). Not having paid for these, it agrees that God's judgements are "true and just." We can have no doubt of it. He is the "almighty" yet uses his power only to do what's right.
     v8-9: The question over whether the judgments are literal or figurative is particularly intriguing here as we face the impact of global warming and the resulting increase in temperature and desertification that follows. But the history of eccentric interpretation should make is cautious of a "this is that" approach. There may be a literal sense it becomes clear this judgment is being fulfilled, but quite possibly it refers simply to how God uses the creation against the wicked. Just as 7v16 uses these ideas to represent general suffering or perhaps natural hardship in particular, so may be the case here. If however, it refers to earthly famine (cf. Debut 32v22f) - added to the corrupted waters and physical afflictions that have preceded it, it is hard to see how the redeemed are exempt as they were in Egypt. Indeed 7v16 seems to assume they will suffer to a degree too. Perhaps it is in the torment these things bring those who follow Satan because they lack the hope of the redeemed within them. That may be hinted at by the fact these people "curse" God's name as so many do when they suffer, refusing to repent and glorify him as his people do - a concern throughout the book. In this they show themselves like the beast (13v1 etc). No doubt it entails charging God with injustice or denying his reality altogether.
     v10-11: The fifth angel's bowl is poured on the beast-ruler itself. The context suggests this means a judgment specifically on his rule and so kingdom, which is the centre and source of the world's corruption for which the other judgments come. Pergamum hints this may refer to all cultural centres of Babylonian rule (2v13). As previously "darkness" implies not simply the absence of light as the means of life and productivity, but perhaps the destruction of the kingdom upon which "the lights go out" (Is 8v21-22) - a foretaste of the darkness of hell, perhaps also spiritual deception. A figurative reading seems supported by what follows. Gnawing of tongues stresses anguish. And, again, God is cursed for the pain involved - and the sores of v2.
     The latter note suggests the bowls come in quick succession for the sores of bowl 1 to still be suffered when bowl 5 is emptied. We also read a second time that there is no repentance for wicked deeds (as 9v20). The similar responses to bowls 4 and 5 highlight the stubborn refusal, similar to that of Pharaoh when suffering his own plagues. The sense is that the greatest influencers of corrupting society may suffer more serious temporal judgment just before Christ returns.
     v12: The 6th angel and bowl confirms the focus on Babylon in being poured out on its river - the Euphrates. The strange thing is that it seems to prepare the way for "the Kings of the East" to engage in the battle of Armaggedon (v13-16). This is a battle against God's people (20v7-10) so how can this be a judgment on Babylon itself? One presumes either (a) because their armies first destroy Babylon, or (b) because their persecution of the saints provokes the ultimate destruction of all. The OT hints at the former as the drying up of the Euphrates is a judgment on Babylon itself and a means of his people's escape (Is 11v15, Jer 50v38). This is confirmed by 17v16. East is usually the region of deliverance just as the sun rises in the east, but the deliverance for God's people here is through destruction if the Babylonian system. It seems that prior to the final judgement then, the world will be at war with itself. As Babylon is figurative, this drying probably represents how it's life is cut off or how people turn from it, giving their allegiance to these hostile rulers who are rebelling against the very society that previously ruled them (17v18).
     v13: What follows is deception - unclean spirits from the mouths of Satan, the anti-Christ ruler and the false prophet that we must assume is the second beast that causes people to worship the first (13v12). One thinks of the unclean spirits God puts in the mouths of the prophets to bring about disaster for Ahab (1 Kgs 22v23). Yet here they are like frogs, probably to allude again to the plagues of the Exodus. And this does make this age spiritual not literal, but we should note that this is made explicit by the text, suggesting we might expect the same if the others were too.
     v14: The sense is that these  demons perform miraculous signs throughout the world to support their deception as the Christs supported his gospel. And so they bring Kings from through it the world into allegiance to the beast and assemble them for battle on "the great day of God Almighty" which we must assume to be the final day when he comes in judgment and salvation (cf. Ps 105v30). As the gathering might take more than 24 hour this should be read to mean the time of the end - the last event before the return of Christ.
     v15: This explains Christ's immediate declaration that he is coming "soon" and like a thief, so suddenly and when people are unprepared. It's strange when one considers we have just learnt what must precede it as this implies both delay and that people might then expect his return. The immanence of Christ's return doesn't therefore mean it could be any moment, but that it could always be within just a few years. And the unexpected nature of it refers to how unexpected it will be for those not on their gaurd - as Noah's flood (Matt 24v36-44). When we see the rulers massing against the world order and then the church (11v7, 19v19, 20v8, cf. Zech 14v2), we should be expectant as the first Christians were told not to be as Rome massed against Jerusalem (Mk 14-23).
     We are therefore told that those who stay awake are blessed in the sense that they are ready and so receive everlasting bliss. They keep their garments on, which is to keep trusting Christ so that their deeds are washed in his blood and they are clean and acceptable to God, doing righteous acts (7v14, 19v8-9). Not to keep them on is to fall into idolatry by following the beast, and so be exposed to God's eye of judgment, to that of believers and ultimately to all.  The things kept secret will be seem to the person's shame.
     v16: The gathering place of the kings and their armies is "Armaggedon." This is a plain two days walk north of Jerusalem where some of Israel's key battles took place (Judah 5v19-22, 2 Kgs 23v29, 2 Chr 35v22) and oppressors and false prophets were defeated. It might even refer to Mount Carmel, the ultimate symbol of confrontation (1 Kgs 18v19-46). This means it could well be figurative simply for the place in which God's people are attacked and so refer to persecution throughout the world. But we should not discount a literal interpretation. 20v9 pictures the armies surrounding "the camp of the saints" and Jerusalem, which could imply a gathering of believers in the countryside around the city making Armaggedon a possible centre-point for an advancing army gathered against them.
     v17: The 7th bowl is poured into the air - perhaps as the domain of Satan (9v2, Eph 2v1f) or to stress universality. The voice from the temple and throne must be that of God or the Lamb and announces with this judgment all is "done." This is the final temporal judgment before the parousia (the eternal judgment is to come, 21v6).
     v18-20: The effects are those of Sinai emphasising God's holy presence (Ex 19), and the earthquake surpassing all others stresses the seriousness and finality of this expression of God's wrath (cf. Dam 12v1). Zechariah 14v4-5 mentions an earthquake outside Jerusalem, and it is possible this accompanies it, suggesting the very fabric of creation in turmoil. What follows implies that. The great city that splits in three is Babylon. Three often being a division that leads to an end. And if Babylon represents all idolatrous society this means a worldwide earthquake. Indeed we're told the cities (ie. cultural centres) of the nations will fall, islands will flee and all mountains disappear (6v14) - elements of the removal of the old earth (20v11). With that comes hailstones weighing 7 stone or 100 pounds - each the weight of a child (cf. Dan 12v21). They fall from the sky denied "heaven" because of their divine source, and on the entire world! Yet still, we are told people will curse God in a stubborn denial of his justice rather than repent.
     What is being described is the destruction of the nations to be detailed in chapters 17-20. But at its heart is God causing Babylon to drain the cup "of the fury of his wrath." Finally, those who has blasphemed God, embraced immorality and persecuted the saints will receive justice.

Excursus : The relationship between the 7s

It is striking that bowls 6 and 7 pick up similar events to seal 6 (6v12f) and trumpet 6 (9v13-21). This doesn't necessarily imply recapitulation, against which there are significant arguments (see comment on chapter 8). If the trumpets follow or are a subset of the seventh seal and the bowls of the seventh trumpet, this gives an explanation. The shaking of creation in seal 6 details the impending "end" in a general sense and so briefly sums and anticipates the last events more specifically detailed in the trumpets and bowls. Many of the trumpet judgments are therefore similar to the content of seal 6. They are cataclysmic, include the removal of a mountain, falling stars, darkened sun and tormented individuals. The parallels between the trumpets and bowls are more striking. The order is the same: the earth, sea, fresh water, heavenly lights, rule of the beast, battle from Euphrates, and then completion. However, the bowls being a more extreme form of the trumpets discounts recapitulation. They could run in parallel showing how each judgment that heralds the end will increase. But the sense of chronology is strong. And so it seems more likely that after demonic hoards kill a third of mankind (trumpet 6), with the blowing of trumpet 7 the trumpet judgments now already taking place will intensify as the bowls are poured out.
     The seals then detail the general (not specific) events of history up to the end. With the 7th opened the events of the end are finally revealed as the scroll is opened. This is what we've been longing for since chapter 4. Finally justice on the persecutors of God's people, victory over evil and the eternal state. This futuristic nature of the book stresses this as the goal of history and the point when all struggles will be resolved. The trumpets then begin the final events. Their blasts show them to be warnings of the impending arrival of the Lord, intended to bring repentance. But none is found. The bowls then signify the final pouring out of God's wrath (larger than cups). With each 7 we sense God's patience as with the Exodus in seeking to wake people up through judgments, but to little avail. Though there are hints some will turn to him during these times.