Part 7. The 7 bowls (15:1—16:21)
7.1. Preparation for the bowl-plagues (15:1-8)
7.2. Plagues poured out (16:1-21)
† PICTURE: In the court of heaven, 7 angels are ready to pour out the final plagues. After a hymn sung by the victorious saints, the bowls are poured onto the earth. Seven plagues more destructive than any others in human history descend on the remaining people of the unbelieving world.
15:1 The action resumes from the end of ch.11. The blowing of the 7th trumpets brings forth the 7 bowls of judgment which are likely the third Woe announced in 11:14.
“Signs” point beyond themselves and disclose the theological meaning of history. The number “seven” speaks of the certainty and completeness of divine wrath against all unrighteousness.
The whole vision of 7 bowl plagues resembles in many ways to the typology of Egyptian plagues in Exodus.
15:2 The next 3 verses are an interlude of victory and praise before the ultimate plagues. Those who have emerged from their final battle with the beast stand victoriously upon the crystal surface before God’s throne. They are carrying the harps of God. In contrast to 4:6, the sea of crystal now looks different from before; it is described as “mixed with fire”, symbolically representing the wrath of God and His impending judgment. Some describe it as the “heavenly Red Sea” which will submerge God’s enemies.
15:3 The song of praise is for God’s marvelous acts. The song is one that begins with the song of God’s deliverance (from the enemies) which Moses and the people sang in Ex 15:1-18 and continues with the song of the Lamb which is about the Lamb’s greater deliverance (from sin). God is praised as great, marvelous, just, true, and holy (the last one describing God’s unapproachable majesty and power). He is also the everlasting sovereign as “King of the ages”.
15:4 Ex 15:11: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Here: “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?”
The structure of the hymn suggests that it may have been used in the liturgy of the early church. It begins with a classic example of synonymous parallelism (ABAB) in v.3; continues with the rhetorical question; ends with three responses to the question, each starting with “because” (Gr. oti) [note that the second “because”/”for” is omitted in the translation].
15:5 The heavenly temple now opens with the appearance of 7 angels who are sent directly from God. The temple is described as “the tabernacle of Testimony” (Num 17:7; 18:2) because the tent of God’s presence during the wilderness journey contained the two tablets of testimony brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moses.
15:6 Their robes of linen denote the noble and sacred nature of their office. The golden girdles are symbolic of royal and priestly functions.
15:7 The 7 bowls with the 7 devastating plagues are given to the 7 angels by the 4 living creatures, who are the special angels acting as guardians of the throne. The bowls contain the wrath of God. In ancient times, the bowl was a wide, shallow bowl, not a narrow-necked vial represented in some pictures.
15:8 The temple is now filled with smoke, symbolizing the glory and power of God (Ex 19:18; Isa 6:4). Once the time of final judgment has come, no one can stay the hand of God. The time for intercession is past.
16:1 The two series of trumpet plagues and bowl plagues are similar:  The first 4 plagues are closely related. In each series, the first 4 plagues are visited upon the earth, sea, inland waters, and heavenly bodies.  The final 3 are also related; they are more intense and involve the evil forces of deception and persecution. The 5th causes darkness and pain (16:10; 9:2,5-6); the 6th causes the invasion of enemy hordes from the vicinity of the Euphrates (16:12; 9:14-19).
The two series are also different:  The trumpel plagues are partial in their effect but the bowls are universal.  The trumpets allow for repentance while the bowls are the pouring of divine wrath without any call for repentance.  The trumpets involve a period of time while the bowls are poured out in rapid succession. The sores from the 1st bowl are still active at the 5th bowl plague (v.11).
The voice from the temple is likely the voice of God because no one is allowed to enter the temple until the 7 bowls are poured (15:8).
16:2 The 1st bowl brings loathsome and malignant sores on people. Those who once bore the mark of the beast are now visited by the “marks” of God. This is similar to the 6th Egyptian plague.
16:3 The 2nd bowl turns the sea into blood. It is like the blood of a dead person which coagulates and rots so that all sea life dies. This is similar to the 1st Egyptian plague.
16:4 The 3rd bowl turns inland waters (rivers and springs) into blood. These are the source of water consumed by people so that there will be a serious shortage of water.
16:5 “The angel in charge of the waters” is the angel who poured out his bowl upon the waters. God’s judgment is not vengeful. It is an expression of His just and righteous nature. God is described as the one who is and who was. The expression “who is to come” is no longer necessary because the final sequence of events has already begun.
16:6 God designs the punishment to fit the crime. Because they had poured out the blood of the saints, God has given them blood to drink.
16:7 The altar represents the testimony of the martyrs (6:9) and the prayers of the saints (8:3-5). It confirms the justice of God’s retributive act. It is significant that throughout Revelation the altar is connected with judgment (6:9; 8:3-5; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7).
16:8 The 4th bowl turns the sun into a source of intense heat that scorches the people on earth. The heat is emphasized with the expression “scorched with a great scorching.”
16:9 However, the heathen world respond to this great pain not with repentance but with blasphemy. Like Pharaoh, the plagues have hardened their hearts.
16:10 The 5th bowl turns the sky into darkness. “The throne of the beast” refers to his authority and dominion; at this point, the earth is under the dominion of the beast. The torments of darkness causes such agony that people gnaw their tongues. This is similar to the 9th Egyptian plague.
16:11 Again, the people respond with blasphemy. The pains and the sores indicate that the effect of the previous 4 plagues continues until at least this verse.
16:12 The 6th bowl causes the invasion of kings from the East. The Euphrates marked the eastern boundary of the land given by covenant to Abraham and his seed (Gen 15:18; Dt 1:7-8; Jos 1:3-4). It also separated the Roman Empire on the east from the much feared Parthians who conquered the entire territory from the Euphrates to the Indus.
The “kings from the East” has about 50 different interpretations, none of them definitive. They are a collection of kings of the whole world. Their expressed objective is to destroy Israel. However, their war is actually waged against Christ and the armies of heaven. The beginning of this final and ultimate war is described in 16:13-16; the participants of the war are described in 17:12-14; the end of the war is described in 19:11-21.
16:13 John sees 3 evil spirits coming out of the mouths of the evil triumvirate—the dragon, the beast (antichrist), and the false prophet. They are the source of persuasion and deception. Characteristics of them can be seen in today’s secular humanism and postmodernism.
The 3 spirits look like frogs, perhaps emphasizing their uncleanness and their endless croaking.
16:14 The evil triumvirate deceive the world with the performance of miraculous signs and all the political powers of the world follow them and form an army to destroy Israel. Israel believed that in the last days her enemies would gather to war against her (Eze 38—39; Zech 14; Joel 3). The day is called “the great day of God Almighty” because it is the day when God will reckon with the ungodly nations of the world.
16:15 With the evil forces gathered for the last battle, the believer will enter a period of supreme crisis. The faithful are admonished to be on the alert. Like a soldier, if he is not watchful, must run away naked because he has misplaced his clothing. [According to the Jewish Mishnah, if a member of the temple guard was caught asleep at his post, his clothes were taken off and burned, and he was sent away naked in disgrace.] In a spiritual sense, Christians must be alert in discerning the deceptive propaganda of Satan. Those who are successful in remaining faithful are promised a blessing in the future.
16:16 The gathering place Armageddon is an unknown location. The most common interpretation is the location Magedon, normally connected with the modern city of Megiddo. It is a city in northern Israel, southeast of the port of Haifa and not far from Nazareth, existing since ancient times, lying on the north side of the Carmel ridge and commanding the strategic pass between the coastal plain and the inland valley. It is one of history’s famous battlefields, with battles in 1468 BC, 609 BC (Jdg 4—5), and AD 1917.
Some people think that the Greek word is actually Harmagedon, “the Mountain of Megiddo” but there is no such mountain. Some think that it means Mount Carmel. Some suggest that the root of the Greek word means “to cut, attack, or maraud”; then Mt. Megiddo would mean “the marauding mountain”.
Some believe that the final battle will be fought just outside Jerusalem (see comment on 14:20). There is no definitive answer to the location. In any case, the exact location is not important.
16:17 At the pouring of the 7th bowl, God declares “All is over!” The pouring of the wrath of God is complete. Babylon the Great is destroyed.
16:18 Besides the lightning, rumblings, and thunder is a severe earthquake, more severe than any other earthquakes in history.
16:19 The great city refers to Babylon the Great in the following two chapters. That all the cities of the nations fall with Babylon may indicate that Babylon is the representation of the world political system. Some also identify Babylon as either Rome or Jerusalem.
God punishes Babylon for its persecution of His saints. God gives Babylon the “wine-cup of His passionate wrath” or “the winepress of the fierce anger of God.”
16:20 The severe earthquake causes every island to flee away and the mountains to disappear. This are probably the devastating effects of the violent earthquake as the whole earth is reshaped.
16:21 The storm of divine wrath reaches its climax with 100-pound hailstones (Jos 10:11; Eze 38:18-22). Notice that after each of the final 3 intense plagues, people’s reaction is to blaspheme God.
† This chapter describes the horrific judgment for those rebellious people at end time. However, this is not the only time that the wrath of God is poured on those who do not believe in Jesus. Non-believers are under the wrath of God during their lifetime as Jn 3:36 says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.” Even worse, they will be facing the wrath of God individually on Judgment Day as Ro 2:5 says: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” This thought should provide us a strong incentive to try to save our relatives and our friends from the wrath of God.