REVELATION - CHAPTER 16
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
16:1. “And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials (bowls) of the wrath of God upon the earth.”
There seems little doubt that the “great voice” is that of God Himself. He Who has for so long commanded blessing upon men, is seen now, His patience exhausted, commanding the outpouring of judgment.
These bowl judgments are the last to be poured out upon a rebel earth prior to the Lord’s return to end the Tribulation and inaugurate His millennial kingdom. Whether “the earth” is to be taken literally, or as symbolic of Israel, is of little importance, for while that time is specifically designated as “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer 30:7), it is made equally clear that it will be also a time of terrible trouble for the whole world.
16:2. “And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.”
The respite purchased by compromise will be brief. Those who will have saved their lives by receiving the mark of the beast, and by bowing to his image, will discover the folly of having averted momentary wrath, but at the cost of incurring the eternal anger of God. It is a foolish transaction that buys a little earthly peace at the cost of eternal misery.
There is every reason to conclude that this “noisome and grievous sore” will be literal, for there is very obvious similarity between these judgments and those visited upon Egypt in the days of Moses. The exact nature of this plague is not revealed, but the present scourge of aids, and the ravages wrought by past epidemics (some of which killed millions), assure us that these final plagues will be terrible beyond description.
That these plagues are poured out during the final three and a half years of the Tribulation era, is confirmed by the fact that they will be poured upon those who will have worshiped the beast or his image, and it is clear that that worship won’t begin until the Beast’s seizure of the harlot church at the end of the first three and a half years of that seven year era.
Someone has aptly commented that these loathsome sores will be the outward physical evidence of the inward spiritual corruption that will have produced the worship of the beast.
16:3. “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.”
As with the first vial, it would seem that the language here is also literal. Against a symbolic interpretation is the necessity of viewing the sea as representing the masses of unconverted humanity. The symbol would then translate into the death of all men, a fact refuted by the remainder of this chapter, and by many other Scriptures.
While there has been speculation as to the possibility that man himself, misusing nuclear power, will accomplish this destruction, it seems clear that this is a visitation from God, man’s only part in it being to suffer under this universal judgment that will destroy the sea and everything connected with it. (It is interesting to note that in Ex 15:8 relative to God’s judgments on Egypt in the days of Moses, we read also of the congealing of the waters, “And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the depths of the sea.”
The blood of a dead man congeals. Such, apparently, will be the condition of all sea water as a result of this terrible calamity. He Who congealed the waters of the Red Sea long ago has the power to congeal the waters of all the seas.
Those expositors who take the sea (in this present context) to be representative of unconverted humanity, declare that the death described here is spiritual, and is the description of earth’s masses as God sees them. This view, however, is untenable, for it makes the outpouring of the vial the cause of the condition, whereas it is man’s condition that precipitates the judgment.
While there is obvious similarity, it is clear that the second trumpet and the second vial are two different judgments. Under the trumpet, only one-third of the sea will be affected. That the vial judgments fall near the end of the Tribulation is also clear, not only from their character, but also from what is said of them: they are the seven last plagues.
16:4. “And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.”
The similarity to the first plague upon Egypt simply reinforces the conclusion that those plagues which preceded Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, were but foreshadowings of those Tribulation judgments that will result in her final deliverance from the bondage of her last oppressor.
Various suggestions have been offered as to the significance of the rivers and fountains of waters, some taking them to be representative of God’s Word (which, in fact, they usually are); others, that they represent the ordinary life of the nations. It is difficult, however, to see what lesson is to be understood if the language is symbolic. In the present context there doesn’t appear to be any need to go beyond a literal interpretation.
16:5. “And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus.”
Whether the reference is to an angel charged with the responsibility for earth’s fresh water, or to the angel entrusted with pouring out the third vial, is obscure, and isn’t important. The point being emphasized is his wholehearted approval of what God is doing.
16:6. “For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink, for they are worthy.”
The reason for the angelic approbation is given. Man has defied God, and shed the blood of His people. Since the days of Cain, who slew his righteous brother, until now, the blood of the righteous, spilled by the hatred of the unrighteous, has stained the earth and cried out to God. These judgments are God’s response to those cries. The day of retribution has come. God will avenge the blood of His own. The pools and river beds, filled always with water for man’s refreshment and cleansing, for his very life, are now filled with blood. The day of grace has ended; that of judgment, come. Refreshment, cleansing and life, literal as well as spiritual, are now beyond the reach of earth’s rebels. The blood they have shed with impunity they must now drink.
God’s mills may seem at times to grind with painful slowness, but they grind surely, and they grind to powder. Well has the prophet warned, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (He 10:31).
There seems little need to restrict the application to the slain saints of the Tribulation era only. This is the day referred to by Isaiah in chapter 61:2, where a comma separates “the acceptable year of the Lord,” from “the day of vengeance of our God.” The Lord Jesus Christ, when reading the passage (Lk 4:19), closed the book when He came to the comma, but the love that impelled that pause, prolonging it through twenty centuries of divine patience, is now restrained. The day of vengeance has come.
16:7. “And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.”
Since the statement is addressed to God, the implication seems to be that the speaker is another angel. The speaker’s identity, however, is unimportant: he simply expresses what must be the sentiment of all creation. Even the damned will yet be compelled to confess the righteousness of their judgment at the hand of the God Whose mercy they rejected.
16:8. “And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.”
Attempts to spiritualize the language which describes this fourth judgment, are no more successful than those that would spiritualize the first three. It seems better therefore to take the statement literally. Both Testaments confirm that there will be cosmic disturbances during the days of the great Tribulation.
16:9. “And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.”
The heart that is hardened in its rebellion against God will respond neither to love nor judgment, except by greater revolt and deeper hatred.
Two things are emphasized in this verse. God is the Author of the judgments, and His purpose is, if possible, to lead men to repentance. But those who refuse to glorify Him voluntarily by repenting and accepting His gift of eternal life, must yield that glory by compulsion. Though part of it will come from the darkness and hopeless despair of a lost eternity, the universal confession will be that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).
16:10. “And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain.”
While there might appear to be greater need to spiritualize the language of this tenth verse, the recorded attempts are no more satisfactory than in the case of the preceding four.
The need to spiritualize has arisen from the difficulty of envisioning darkness over the kingdom of the beast without there being darkness also in other places. It should be remembered, however, that the ninth plague in Egypt was of darkness, and darkness, moreover, of a miraculous character, “even darkness which may be felt” (Ex 10:21). In addition, it would seem that in the homes of the Egyptians even lights refused to burn, “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Ex 10:23).
Inability to understand how, should not lead to the conclusion that the God Who performed a miracle in the kingdom of Pharaoh is incapable of duplicating it in the kingdom of the beast - He is the God of miracles, Calvary being His greatest.
Something of the misery of these unrepentant sufferers may be gleaned from the words, “they gnawed their tongues for pain.” The combined effects of loathsome sores, scorching heat, and impenetrable darkness, will be agony beggaring description. Who refuses God’s blessing cannot refuse the dreadful alternative: His curse.
16:11. “And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.”
The extent to which the human heart can harden itself against God is exposed here. Not even the extremity of anguish will induce repentance. Under the stimulus of physical suffering these tortured rebels will simply crown their defiance of God by cursing Him!.
16:12. “And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.”
In chapter 9, under the sixth trumpet, the four angels imprisoned in the Euphrates are released for the purpose of assembling the two-hundred million man army by which one-third of humanity will be slain. Here under the sixth vial the Euphrates is dried up so that the vast army can start the march westward to begin that slaughter,
Against taking the language symbolically is the fact that Babylon represents false religion; and the Euphrates, the river of false doctrine that “waters” that realm, so that the drying up of the river would mean the “drying up” of all false doctrine, a fact contradicted by Scripture. It seems better therefore to take the language literally.
16:13. “And 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.”
As the late John Ritchie pointed out many years ago relative to this power, “It is Satanic, for it proceeds from the dragon’s mouth; it is political, for it comes from the Beast; it is apostate and deceiving, for it comes from the Antichrist - the false prophet.”
Why frogs should have been chosen as the symbols of these unclean spirits is unclear, though several thoughts suggest themselves. Frogs were the second plague visited upon Egypt (Ex 8:3), so that we may be intended to see associated with the activity of these unclean spirits, a visitation of God upon the unbelievers of the Tribulation era. Their coming out of the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet, however, indicates that the judgment will be connected in some way with Satan’s lies, and inasmuch as frogs are connected with water, and water is one of the symbols of the Word, the lesson appears to be that Satan then, as always, will be attempting to accomplish his ends by misuse and corruption of the written Word, and man’s acceptance of his lies will then, as always, bring down the judgment of God.
That this evil activity of the diabolic trinity will be carried out by men yielding themselves as Satan’s instruments, is indicated in 1 Ki 22 where a lying spirit sent from God led Ahab to his doom, by means of the false prophecy proceeding from the mouths of the 400 false prophets.
16:14. “For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.”
That demonic power, manifesting itself in miracles, will be employed in gathering the armies of earth to the terrible conflict that will destroy the kingdom of the Beast, and bring to an end the long period of Gentile dominion that began when the scepter passed from the hand of disobedient Israel into that of Nebuchadnezzar. That scepter will be placed again in Jewish hands as the Lord Jesus Christ inaugurates His millennial kingdom.
It is scarcely necessary to note that all of this Satanic activity takes place by God’s permission, and for the accomplishment of His Own purposes. It furnishes also another example of Satan’s many attempts to counterfeit divine reality, for as the ministry of Christ was validated by miracles, so will it be given to Satan to also work miracles to deceive the unbelievers of the Tribulation-age earth into accepting his beast king and false prophet.
The word “battle” has been used to translate the Greek word for war, and is therefore misleading, for Scripture indicates that this will be a campaign or war, a conflict of longer duration than simply a battle. This war, which will see the land of Israel ravished, will be ended abruptly by the Lord’s return.
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.”
Here we are reminded that there is more than one coming of Christ. While certainly the context leaves no question that the primary application is to His coming to end the Tribulation, and inaugurate His millennial kingdom, of practical importance for believers of this present age is His coming to rapture His Church.
His coming to end the Tribulation will be with preceding signs, and as has been discussed earlier, the exact date will be foreknown. That day when His feet will stand upon the Mount of Olives will be exactly seven years (of three hundred and sixty days each) from the day when Israel makes her “agreement with hell,” i.e., when the Beast signs the treaty that marks the beginning of Daniel’s seventieth week.
His coming to end the present age of grace, however, will be of a completely different character, the only feature common to both comings being that of suddenness and unexpectedness, like the coming of a thief. God would have us remember that prior to Christ’s coming to end the Tribulation, judge the nations, and establish His earthly kingdom, will be His coming to remove His Church from earth to heaven, by resurrection and translation. A blessing is pronounced upon the watchful saint.
“Keepeth his garments” is literally “keeps on his clothes.” The OT counterpart is the instruction relating to the dress of the Hebrews on the night of the Passover. They too, as they prepared to leave Egypt (type of the world), were to eat the Passover lamb, “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand.” They were to keep their garments on so as to be ready to leave immediately at the coming of morning.
Removal of the garments, of course, implies preparation for sleep. The warning is obvious. This is not the time for rest and sleep.
“... lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.” The alternative to being dressed and ready for the sudden appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ, is to be found wearing only sleeping attire. Would we have the Master come and find us idle when we should be working? “Sleeping” when we should be watching? The admonition has as much relevance to those of this age who will be raptured before the Tribulation begins, as to those who will be delivered by the Lord’s coming to end it.
16:16. “And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.”
However demonic the agents used to effect this great gathering of the armies of earth, it is God Who gathers them, He in His sovereignty selecting what instrument He pleases, all things being subject to His control.
It is impossible to forget that two thousand years ago the men of earth were gathered together unto a place called Calvary to shed the blood of God’s Son. That blood is now to be avenged. The same Satanic seduction that gathered earth’s rebels to Golgotha, will gather them again, but to a place called Armageddon hill of slaughter. This time it will be man’s blood that will be shed.
The reference to “the Hebrew tongue” would remind us that the Tribulation is particularly “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” and the land of Palestine the vortex of God’s outpoured wrath. (There is no place known specifically as Armageddon, and most commentators are agreed that the reference is to a place in the vicinity of Megiddo, or to the wider area known as the plain of Esdraelon).
16:17. “And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.”
The outpouring of this seventh vial or bowl concludes the judgments, and seems to be synchronous with the end of the Tribulation.
As at the beginning of the vial series, John “heard a great voice out of the temple,” so also at the conclusion, he hears again” a great voice out of the temple of heaven.” The first commissioned the angels to their work, the second declares that the charge has been fulfilled. The voice appears to be that of God Himself for it comes from the throne.
The relationship of the throne to the temple will be seen more clearly when we recall that in the earthly tabernacle God dwelt (symbolically had His throne), above the mercy seat between the cherubim.
This great cry which announces the completion of the great work of judgment reminds us that the great work of redemption was also ended with the same cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30; Mt 27:50).
16:18. “And there were voices and thunderings, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.”
Voices, thunders, and lightening are the frequent evidences of the reaction of a holy God to the ruin wrought by sin, as witness His descent to the top of Sinai in Exodus 19 at the giving of the law. Appropriately therefore the same signs precede the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth to end the Tribulation, and judge the nations prior to the inauguration of His millennial kingdom.
It is obscure why the vial producing these phenomena should be poured out into the air instead of upon the earth which will suffer so severely under them. One reason may be to focus the reader’s eye on heaven, the place from which earth’s judgments come. There are frequent OT references to the earth’s being made to tremble under God’s anger, e.g., 2 Sa 22:8-16, a portion which clearly goes beyond David’s experience, its ultimate application being to the Father’s response to man’s treatment of His Son. It is significant that at the death of Christ, “... the earth did quake, and the rocks rent....” (Mt 27:51.
There is no question that there have always been earthquakes, but it is significant that the media have made possible a worldwide awareness of them that was formerly impossible - and earthquakes are one of the signs that the end of the age is near (Mt 24:7).
16:19. “And 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 unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.”
Commentators have advanced conflicting views as to the identity of the great city, some identifying it as Rome; others, as Jerusalem; while yet a third school maintains that the reference is symbolically to the whole world, “man in organized community.” Chapter 17:18 however, leaves no doubt that the great city mentioned there is Rome, and since no other clue is given, it appears reasonable to assume that the term has the same meaning here.
As to the city’s being divided into three parts, the statement could certainly be literal, though it is much more likely that it is symbolic of the destruction of the political, economic, and religious systems that will be centered in Rome during the Tribulation.
The destruction of the cities of the nations may likewise be taken literally, though it is much more likely that the reference is symbolically to the complete dissolution of the whole social structure, for the destruction of the cities and the dissolution of the normal social order would be synonymous.
Babylon, on the other hand, is clearly used symbolically. That mighty city, referred to by its king Nebuchadnezzar as great Babylon which I have built was already in ruins in the days of Alexander the Great, and today nothing remains to mark the site but grass-covered mounds. There has never been, nor will there ever be a resurrection of the once great city, God Himself having declared, “And Babylon ... shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation” (Isa 13:19-20).
From the days of its founder Nimrod, it has been the source of all false religion, and certainly that is what is being portrayed in the present instance. The great apostate system which for the past 2000 years has been centered in Rome (having originated in Babylon), will, during the Tribulation, still be there, so that Rome, it seems, will be at the end what Babylon, its parent, was at the beginning: the center of the world’s political, religious, and commercial power. But as God destroyed original Babylon, so will He also destroy latter day Babylon, Rome. It is that final destruction that is referred to in this nineteenth verse, though the details are reserved for chapters 17 and 18.
The system that originated in literal Babylon, and that continues today in Rome, has intoxicated the nations with her golden cup of the wine of fornication, spiritual unchastity, unfaithfulness to God. Now her end is that she must drink the wine of God’s wrath, and share, with her deluded devotees, the eternal doom of her own spiritual master Satan.
A word of explanation may be in order here. It is to be noted that the religious system which originated in Babylon, and is now centered in Rome, will be ravaged by the beast (apparently at the mid point of the Tribulation, that pillage being detailed in Re 17, see particularly verse 16). This, however, is not the destruction of the system, but rather, its being brought under the control of a new head, the beast.
Ancient Babylon, and her successor, Rome, have always wielded great power, not only religiously, but politically and economically as well. Rome, however, has sought to disguise her political and economic power under the cloak of religion, and her success may be measured by the fact that few are aware that the Vatican is a temporal power whose ambassadors are assigned worldwide, like the ambassadors of any other sovereign state. Nor do most people have any conception of the vast wealth of the Roman Catholic “Church,” or of the enormous financial power she exercises over the affairs of virtually every nation on earth.
It is a mistake to conclude that the system will be destroyed by the beast at the midpoint of the Tribulation. It’s destruction will be synchronous with his own, at the end of that terrible era.
16:20. “And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.”
As has been noted already, islands may represent the local assemblies of believers in every age. The meaning here then, is that virtually all such local companies will be scattered. Mountains represent kingdoms and/or kings.
The very different geography of the millennial earth would, at first, appear to justify a literal interpretation of this verse, but against such an interpretation is the fact that we have here the disappearance of all islands and mountains, something that will not be true of the millennial earth. The language is symbolic, and is meant to declare the dissolution of all governmental systems, as represented by the removal of the mountains, and probably the scattering of individual congregations of believers as represented by the islands.
16:21. “And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.”
The early and latter rain sent down faithfully by the God Who delights to bless, causes the earth to yield her fruit for the good of man and beast; but here the rain has become hail, that is, water separated from heat. This speaks of love withdrawn. The time of mercy is ended. The day of wrath has come, for hail is invariably associated with divine judgment.
The similarity between these Tribulation-age judgments, and those that fell upon Egypt in the days of Moses, is inescapable (hail was the seventh plague to fall on Egypt), reminding us that the destruction of Egypt under those early judgments is but the foreshadowing of these final judgments that will devastate a rebel earth, and bring the emancipation, not only of the believing remnant of Israel, but of the believing Gentiles who will be found in every nation at the end of the Tribulation era.
Estimates of the weight of a talent range from 60 to 125 pounds, but the obvious fact is that even 60 pounds dropped upon man or beast is a destructive force of deadly proportions. Nothing will compel repentance however. Even in their misery these latter-day rebels will continue to blaspheme.