God’s Complete Wrath poured out
Like the vision of the "Woman and Dragon" this is another "great sign" designed to communicate truths about heaven which would otherwise be beyond our grasp. Although we must not take it absolutely literally, we must receive it with full seriousness since this is the very best imagery the Holy Spirit can find to teach us.
1. The Singing Multitude
The singing throng of vs.2-4 is the same "great multitude" which we previewed Revelation ch.6. We now see them at the end of the tribulation age. They stayed true to Christ and His gospel and so gained victory over the human agents of Satan. Their victory is sometimes a martyrs crown (12:11) or sometimes a life of faith completed (16:15). These are those who have "overcome" and have now entered on their inheritance. They are the fruits of Christ's harvesting of the earth which was mentioned in the previous chapter.
Although they have been victorious in every respect (the beast, his image and the number of his name) this is not a triumph of self-effort. We know this because they are singing songs of deliverence and praise, the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.
The two songs are mentioned together, probably to tell us that both the 144,000 servants of God out of Israel and the multitude out of all the nations are now together in one choir and sharing one hope and future together. Hence they sing in v4 that ALL NATIONS will come and worship before the Lord.
This song praises the "righteous acts" of God. His acts of judging and cleansing the world are in the foreground of our thoughts in this passage but we should not narrow this song of praise to just the business in hand, which is the outpouring of God's wrath. The glorious salvation of these singers through Christ's work on the cross is the greatest of all his acts. As God's righteous wrath is poured out His righteous rescue of believers appears even more wonderful.
2. Judgement Is Ready To Fall
In chapter fifteen the temple in heaven is made ready for the final acts of judgement.
The great sea in v.2 was anticipated in the bronze sea (a huge washing basin made of bronze) in Moses' temple. That sea was used to clean offerings which were being brought to God and it seems to represent the cleansing power of the Spirit. Here we see the sea glowing with the fire of God's wrath. If earth and heaven are to be joined in the new creation then the earth and mankind must be baptised in the sea of fire. God's day of wrath will cleanse the earth.
The white robes and golden sashes of the seven angels and the fact that they are coming out of the temple suggest that they are about to perform a holy and priestly task. They are presented with holy golden vessels by one of the four "living creatures" because it is the particular task of the four cherubim to guard the holiness of God and keep sin from His presence. Before fellowship between heaven and earth can be fully restored the earth must be purged of sin.
The power and glory now make an impenetrable smoke screen which forbids anyone from entering the temple. When the wrath falls men will find their access to God is closed and no prayer will be heard to defer or delay the inevitable.
What is being described in ch.16 is what happens ON EARTH in time so it is hard to tell how long the period of the bowls will last. It is obviously swift in comparison to the main time of the churches' witness and could be over very quickly. We should remember, though, that the seal period lasted forty years and v15 suggests it may go on long enough for Christians to become disheartened.
The bowls of wrath are a terrible necessity. Sin must be destroyed - either in the body of Christ on the cross or in mankind in our own flesh. The renewal of the earth will not be a painless process; the fire must fall.
3. God's Judgement Is Holy
God will be right to bring destruction to a rebellious planet! There is nothing in the Christian faith which is harder to accept (or more important to believe) than that God will punish the sin of the world and that - apart from Jesus Christ - there is no real hope for men and women. God's acts of judgement are not met with embarassed silence in heaven, they are positively praised.
Philosophically minded christians dislike the idea of God acting in history, particularly in judgement. (Strictly speaking, it is the angels acting on God's command). Nevertheless, the Lord of History is always in charge and disasters are as much part of His will as sunny days. The most horrific of all tragedies, the final woe of God's wrath, is a righteous act worthy of meditation and praise.
This day, which must surely be the most commonly forecast and most fully described day in the bible, is coming with a necessary inevitability. We saw in 14:7 that its announcement is an essential part of the gospel. Men and women who fail to live and speak in the light of the day of the Lord are tragically short sighted.
Christians in heaven will praise God's acts of judgement as righteous and holy. The Gold Bowls are shown to be like the holy pots of the earthly temple and this image tells us that the agents of wrath are performing a holy task when they rain destruction on the earth.
We find it difficult to imagine anger which is pure and holy because our own anger is nearly always the opposite! When we inflict pain and punishment on others it is usually wrong (except when we act as agents of justice - and even then we may be unjust or vicious). This is why we must leave judgement and vengeance to the Lord
What is wrong for man is right for God because His anger is not partial and His justice is perfect. His creatures have rebelled against him and have destroyed His creation. His response is dreadful but right. In all sin, even the most personal, God is the main injured party (Psalm 51:4).
We waver between giddy optimism and dark despair when we look into the future. Christians need to remember that there are dark days coming when every earthly hope will come to nothing. The days of the bowls of wrath. Beyond those days there is hope for mankind and our planet, but only in Jesus Christ; apart from Him every dream and achievement will perish.
1. Man's Environment Destroyed
The partial "environmental" upsets of the first four trumpets (see ch.8) are now matched by four total disasters (16:1-9). The world was originally God's gift to humanity to be a perfect home. It is no longer that and, even now, God's wrath is revealed when it turns against us and becomes a source of infection, poisoning and scorching.
When the time of judgement comes our environment will be shattered. As these disasters fall some people will only be able to see "natural" forces and human factors at work. But behind everything is the active rule of God.
It is tempting to see the current wave of ecological disasters as the beginning of this judgement but we should be restrained when we speculate. Such problems look more like the warnings of the trumpets rather than the end of the world but we can certainly see them as signs that the last Day is drawing nearer.
Land, sea, water and sky are all afflicted and become a curse instead of a blessing. The earth is not annihilated but it is ruined as a home for man. The order in which destruction is meted out in this chapter is the same as that in chapter eight but the difference is in the severity of the judgements. Under the trumpets mankind was able to limp on and make something of his world, now the destruction becomes total.
One particular crime of mankind is singled out at this moment as being particularly heinous. The inhabitants of the earth "shed the blood of your prophets and saints". Why is it that of all the innumerable crimes of the earth this should have been singled out? Simply because this is the clearest sign that this world is in rebellion against God. If mankind were really interested in God then his messengers would have been received with joy and honour - but the reverse has always been the true situation. False prophets thrive and die in their beds whilst true ones are slaughtered.
2. Spiritual Darkness And The Last Battle
The fifth and sixth bowls again are culminations of the fifth and sixth trumpets (ch.9). False beliefs and evil practices make us enemies of God so that even when we are afflicted we curse God rather than repent (16:11). On an international scale they lead to aggression and war (16:12-14).
The kingdom of the beast is thrown into darkness. When the light of the gospel is taken away societies become bestial. When ideologies like idealistic nationalism or Islam dominate the inevitable consequence is corruption and war.
There is a vicious circularity in the processes of spiritual darkening. In paganism men turned from the light of God in nature and so God abandoned them to progressively worsening sin and ignorance and its natural consequences (this process is described in Romans 1:18-32).
In the christian age a similar but more guilty and irredeemable cycle will happen to those who refuse to obey the light of the gospel. The end of this process is in vs10-11 where we find men suffering awful agonies in spiritual darkness but too hard-hearted to repent.
Armageddon is the last battle. God will use the very powers which man turned to (the dragon, the beast and the false prophet) to destroy him. This evil alliance has sometimes been called a counterfeit trinity but there is no need for drawing clever parallels which don't really fit. The point in v13 is that all the evil powers together will be working at full stretch to bring about this war.
The name "Armageddon" has entered our language to describe a final suicidal war by mankind on itself. The nuclear age has created the possibility of such a vast orgy of mutual destruction and we can imagine how the imagery of the Apocalypse might be fulfilled in the modern world. Such a fulfilment may occur, it may well be that the final war could be more destructive than the sum of all previous conflicts.
Whether these speculations are true or false, we should not forget who will be the Devil's main target in all this chaos. Satan does not war against himself (Mark 3:23-26). We already know who are the targets of this attack. Satan and his human agents are preparing for a final war against faithful christians (see 11:7, 12:17, 13:7). This is the ultimate fulfilment of the struggle described in Psalm 2:1,2.
It may serve the purpose of Satan to persecute the church in the context of a world-wide conflagration. When whole nations are gripped by fear and hatred they can be easily led into believing that Christians are unpatriotic or a cause of divine displeasure, particularly since we cannot "take the mark of the beast" by giving unconditional loyalty to any other than Christ.
Why should the armies of the world be pictured as gathered at Armageddon (which is a plain in northern Israel where many battles have been fought)? As usual, a strictly literal understanding is unhelpful. V15 tells us that the return of Christ will be a surprise but it wouldn't be much of a surprise if we noticed every fighting man in the world had been crammed onto a few square miles of Israeli soil!
We ask again, "why Armageddon"? It means "mountain (or, possibly, city) of Megiddo". This area in Israel was the sight of a great battle recorded in Judges chs. 4 & 5 when God himself fought for Israel (see Judges 4:15, 5:19,20). That battle prefigured the final struggle of the church when God himself will lay bare his arm and utterly defeat every power that stands against him and his people.
The particular mentioning of kings in 16:12,14 is an echo of both Judges 5:19 and Psalm 2:1. World leaders are pawns in this satanic game. The sixth bowl of God's wrath consists of abandoning the world to these anti-God powers with which it has flirted for so long. But the final exhibition of how debased man becomes in his godlessness is also the "great day of God Almighty".
3. The Intervention Of God
As the last crisis looms, heaven intervenes. The fall of Babylon in this chapter is a direct work of God while it is the work of the beast in 17:16. The next verse (17:17) explains how it is BOTH. God rules over the hearts of even the most evil men and societies. The devil may have conjured up the beast but the Almighty can can use even him as an instrument to bring about judgement.
The Earthquake is a symbol of civilisation shattered and every cultural landmark being destroyed in the last years of Old Earth. Although these are dreadful things to think about there is hope here. This is the very last outpouring of wrath on the earth. The angel's cry "It is done" corresponds to that last great cry of Jesus from the cross "it is finished" (John 19:30). In each case the wrath and judgement had been fully borne and was then over. God's anger, unlike his mercy, has a limit.
The fleeing of islands and mountains suggests that there will be no boltholes or refuges left for man. The vast hailstones from heaven are unavoidable. It is difficult to know whether everyone will actually be killed in this way or whether this is a sign of something else. The important thing to remember is that it comes FROM HEAVEN and men recognise it as such and react by cursing God to the very last.
Now that God's wrath has finished we are waiting to see Christ return as Lord of heaven and earth. The last day of the world is consistently promised in scripture as the day of his appearing. But this account of the seventh bowl is greatly extended and amplified so that we can see the fate of God's enemies. One by one, in the next four chapters, we see them and their fate clearly marked out. Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, Satan and, finally, every person who failed to overcome them, will all be judged, disarmed and consigned to hell. The last act of wrath is finally completed at the end of chapter 20.
This lengthening of the seventh bowl should not surprise us. We have seen the same thing happen with the seventh seal and the seventh trumpet and in Genesis the seventh day of creation includes all that follows.