In chapter 14 we read about the coming doom for the Roman Empire. Three angels have predicted its judgment: “The hour of judgment has come” (14:7), “Fallen, fallen in Babylon” (14:8), and “Drink the wine of God’s wrath poured full strength” (14:10). The sickles were swung over the earth, reaping the righteous and wicked. The wicked are described as being thrown “into the great winepress of the wrath of God” (14:19).
The other image to keep in mind from chapter 14 as we approach the fifteenth chapter is the warning of death for the Christians. The people of God are told to endure, calling for them to continue to keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus (14:12). But the gloomy doom is predicted: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” Chapter 15 of Revelation describes the preparations being made for the fulfillment of these prophecies of the coming doom against the Roman Empire.
Back Into Heaven (15:1-2)
The first two verses of chapter 15 turn attention to the throne room of heaven. In the new sign that appears, John sees a sign that is great and amazing. He sees seven angels with seven plagues. There are two important things we are told about these seven angels and the seven plagues they carry. First, these are the last of the judgments. Once these judgments are completed then the earth will be at rest. We are not going to have any more “sevens” in judgment. The seven bowls of wrath will be the last of the judgments. The second important thing to observe is why these are the last of the judgments. God’s wrath is finished with these seven bowls.
Standing beside the sea of glass mixed with fire are those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name. Conquering does not come by warring militarily with the beast but by remaining faithful and pure to the Lamb. These are the 144,000 of chapter 14 singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. Just like the new song, the song of Moses was a song of victory. Such are the words of their song.
The Song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3-8)
The song the conquerors sing praises God for his great and amazing deeds. His ways are just and all must fear him and glorify him. Chapter 14 has revealed God’s righteous acts as God is about to judge the beast for its sinfulness and killing of the people of God. Just as Israel praised God by the sea after he delivered them from Pharaoh, so the conquerors praise God for defeating the beast. This is another use of prophetic certainty. The beast is defeated even though it had not happened yet.
The door to the temple is opened again. I think the TNIV has a good rendering of this image. “After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened.” (Revelation 15:5 TNIV; NIV 2010)
We then see the seven angels each receiving a golden bowl full of the wrath of God. Bowls of wrath is an image used by Isaiah to describe God’s wrath coming to punish sinners.
Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering. (Isaiah 51:17 ESV)
Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; (Isaiah 51:22 ESV)
Verse 8 reminds us that these judgments are coming from God. The sanctuary is filled with smoke because God is about to act (Exodus 40:34-35; 2 Chronicles 5:13).
The Bowls Poured Out (16:1-16)
A loud voice commands the seven angels to pour out their bowls of wrath on the earth. As we read the bowls of wrath consider the similarities to the plagues poured out on Egypt in the days of Moses. The first bowl brings harmful and painful sores on those who have the mark of the beast and worship its image. The lack of description about this plague tells us that we are not to find literal details or meanings in these symbols. This chapter is simply revealing the pain and suffering that God is unleashing on those who are worshiping the beast rather than the Lamb. The sores parallel the painful boils of the Egyptian plagues.
The second bowl turns the sea to blood killing everything living thing in the sea. This judgment reminds us of the Nile turning the blood in the Egyptian plagues. The third bowl turns the rivers and springs of water into blood. The second and third bowls probably picture the economic devastation that God’s wrath will incur. One of the reasons for these judgments is given in verses 5-7. They are killing God’s servants and this wrath is deserved.
The fourth bowl pours out pain on the worshipers of the beast. Rather than repenting, the people curse God. They did not repent or give God glory. Thus, the judgments continue. The fifth bowl pours out judgment on the throne of the beast. It is “lights out” for the Roman Empire. The kingdom is plunged into darkness. Its day in the sun is over. Rather than repenting, the people curse God all the more and did not repent.
The sixth bowl is the first bowl that gives us any details. The brevity of the first five bowls is astonishing. The sixth bowl gives us more information about the judgments to come. The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates River. This is an imagery of a coming war and being overthrown by a rival nation. The drying up of the Euphrates River is how Cyrus conquered Babylon (Isaiah 11:15; 44:27-28; 50:2; 51:10). The kings coming from the east also has a couple prophetic references in Isaiah (Isaiah 41:2; 46:11). The sixth bowl envisions a nation coming from the east to battle.
Verse 13 shows the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet will do everything for survival. The unclean spirits remind us of the deceptive nature of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. The unclean spirits also remind us of their immorality through their paganism, idol worship, and Caesar worship. These three are full of uncleanness. The imagery of demons (unclean spirits) is used in the New Testament to speak of idolatrous worship.
No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20–21 ESV)
Finally, we see in the sixth bowl the assembling of the kings of the earth at the place called Armageddon. This is the only place in scriptures where the word of Armageddon occurs. Many false teachings have been made about the event of Armageddon. However, all that is revealed is that this is the place they will gather. The text does not say that there will be a battle there.
So what does Armageddon mean? It literally means “mount of Megiddo.” Now there is not a mount of Megiddo but we do read in the scriptures about a valley of Megiddo and cities of Megiddo. When we go through the Old Testament we see that several decisive battles occurred at Megiddo. Most interesting to me is the reference to the kings who went into battle and died. In 2 Kings 9:27 we see that Ahaziah, king of Judah was slain. In 2 Kings 23:29 and 2 Chronicles 35:22 King Josiah is slain in battle. Judges 5:19 speaks of kings fighting by the waters of Megiddo but failing to take the spoil. When we put all of these images together, we see that the work of Satan through the Roman empire and its religions will dry up and fail. They may assemble for battle but it is a decisive loss for Satan and the Roman empire. Gathering in Armageddon is a symbol of their destruction and judgment. We must remember that these bowls are images of God’s judgment, not information about the victory of Satan or the beast.
Verse 15 therefore gives a call to preparation for the people of God. God’s judgment will come like a thief. Be prepared. Stay awake. Do not be caught by surprise.
The Seventh Bowl (16:17-21)
The seven angel pours his bowl and makes the important declaration: “It is done!” The end has come for this world power. God’s cataclysmic wrath has come. A great earthquake describes is desolation since that is the way many cities were destroyed in ancient times, sometimes never to be rebuilt or inhabited again. The great city falls and the cities of the nations also fall. God fulfills his promise, making the nation drink the cup of God’s wrath full strength. The empire has fallen. The devastation was great and the people curse God from the plagues.
Chapters 17-18 are going to explain the details of this judgment that were summarized in chapter 16. The next two chapters are not new images of judgment but a fuller explanation of how this judgment will come and what its impact will be when the devastation comes.
1. God’s judgments come like a thief. Notice Revelation 16:15 again. “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!” No nation thought they would ever fall. No world power thought that they would be taken over by another. Yet history shows that nation after nation has risen and fallen. We must always be prepared to remain true to Jesus even if it becomes the time for our nation to receive judgment for its sins. Sometimes we think that we know if God would judge the United States of America. But God’s judgments come unexpectedly.
2. God’s final judgment will come like a thief. We must be prepared to remain faithful in the face of any national calamity. We must also be ready and prepared for the return of our Lord.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 ESV)