The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath
The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath
Brad Mills / General
Revelation / Wrath of God / Revelation 16:1–11
Although judgment is a dirty word in our culture, it is biblical. The holiness of God demands his wrath. Liberal pastors minimize God’s wrath in order to be accepted by the culture. But this comes at a great cost to the truth and sufficiency of Scripture. Arguing against this tendency, Richard Niebuhr described the liberal gospel in this way:
A God without wrath bought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.
When we remove the concepts of wrath and sin and judgment, we lose the ministry of a Christ who saves. Revelation is replete with the idea of God’s wrath as a righteous response to sin.
Chapter 15 introduced another judgment cycle— the seven bowls of God’s wrath. Like previous cycles, this one spans the whole gospel age between Christ’s first and second coming. Chapter 16 details the contents of those bowls.
Comparing the bowls and the trumpets reveals identical order: 1. Earth, 2. Sea, 3. Rivers, 4. Sun, 5. Darkness upon the wicked, 6. Euphrates, 7. World…final judgment. The bowls recapitulate the trumpets. They provide fuller description of the same judgments taking place throughout this age. Everyone enjoys God’s common grace, but the unrepentant also experience his judgment for sin. There are a number of ways this might be experienced in life, but it culminates upon Christ’s return.
Read Revelation 16.
1. The Vindication of God’s Wrath (1-7)
The sanctuary of the heavenly temple “was filled with smoke from the glory of God” (Re 15:8). So it is natural to assume that the loud voice belongs to God (1). He instructs the seven angels to pour out his wrath upon the earth.
If you want to avoid the subject of God’s wrath, you have to avoid this book. Revelation repeatedly reminds us that God takes sin seriously. It is an offense to his very nature. Couple this with John’s numerous allusions to the OT and we conclude that the whole counsel of God’s Word speaks of his wrath. It is simply unavoidable.
The first bowl results in “harmful and painful sores” upon those who were identified with the beast (2). This is parallel to the sixth plague of boils that fell upon the Egyptians (Ex. 9:8-12). It is the condemnation of those who reject the seal of God and receive the mark of the beast.
This is not literally fulfilled. Those worshiping false God’s do not walk out of their mosques, temples, and shrines covered with boils and sores. But the implication is that their beliefs have painful consequences. They are tormented with doubt and they suffer all manner of difficulties in life due to their false worldview.
Both the second and third bowls result in the sea and rivers becoming blood (3-4) just like the first plague in Exodus that turned the Nile river into blood (Ex. 7:14-24). And wherever there is the pouring out of blood in Revelation, it is related to suffering—either of Christ and his followers, or that of the wicked. These bowls target those associated with Babylon and the beast. This is the judgment of the corrupt system of the world.
All of the living creatures in the sea and rivers died which would lead to the death of many people due to the contaminated water supply. In the previous chapter we saw “the sea of glass” represented as calm and peaceful in heaven (Re 15:2). But the sea represents the realm of evil. God is pouring out judgment upon the systems in which the world places their trust. These bowl judgments are fulfilled when economic theories produce agony instead of profit. This might entail the devastations of famine and plagues that often accompany times of great depression.
As the people are about to raise their objections to the wrath of God, the angels declare God’s purpose in wrath (5-7). He pours out his wrath precisely because of his justice and holiness. It is a response to the wicked world that opposes him. In fact, idolators finally get “what they deserve!” when they suffer. This is especially true of those who persecute the church. Those who pour out the blood of the saints will receive blood to drink. This is the punishment that all sin deserves.
Charnock: A love of holiness cannot be without a hatred of everything that is contrary to it.
God’s wrath is natural. It is completely understandable in light of his holiness and justice. We ought to be highly skeptical of anyone preaching a God who knows nothing of wrath. That is not the God of the Bible. The complete absence of God’s wrath in the face of rampant sin and rebellion would call God’s justice and holiness into question. God’s wrath is the just response to sin. It is giving sinners “what they deserve” (6).
God’s wrath also protects his covenant community from the gates of hell. Just as the Israelites were freed from Egypt, so God rescues his covenant community throughout this present age of darkness. No worldly system will ever conquer the church. Despite all the suffering faulty worldviews might bring into the Church, we know who has the victory in the end!
Believers enjoy peace with God. With a proper understanding of God through Jesus Christ we rest from our labors and trust that God will vindicate his people at the end of the age. Of course, we also go through seasons of doubt and darkness. But, if we have been properly equipped, our theology provides us with the hope to endure until the end. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning!
The wrath of God is understandable. It’s the natural reaction of holiness against sin. What is surprising is whenever we don’t get what we deserve. That’s mercy.When God sent his Son to take our place upon the cross and die for our sins, we get his righteousness, and he takes upon himself our sin. That’s grace. It does not make sense. The fact that Jesus would willingly lay down his life for us, while we were enemies, is too incredible to fathom. But it’s true!
The recipients of that grace have a transformed view of God’s wrath. His grace turns our fear of His holiness into a pursuit of holiness. His grace turns a fear of His vengeance toward sin, into the recognition that he is preserving and caring for us as he vindicates us through his righteous judgment. His grace allows us to see his justice carried out upon the cross, and respond with a life lived in gratitude for our God and Savior.
› But this passage also reveals a more desperate…
2. The Reaction to God’s Wrath (8-16)
“The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun” (8) so that it scorched people with fire. Beams of light don’t shoot from the sun, scorching people. But immorality has consequences. Diseases along with emotional and psychological turmoil often destroy the lives of those who have rejected God and served idols of their own making.
Whereas economic hardship was experienced by believers in Asia Minor, God promised that the sun would not scorch them in heaven (Re 7:16). That promise is reversed for idolators. Whereas they might experience temporary success now, their lives will ultimately be destroyed by unrepentance. And that’s precisely how they respond. Instead of humbly themselves before the Lord, they curse him and refuse to give him the glory (9).
The same thing occurs after the fifth bowl resulting in darkness (10, cf. Ex 10:21-23). Those who experienced the plague of darkness “cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds” (11). The darkness represents the spiritual emptiness and despair that they seek to fill with more idols. But this darkness is only a taste of the eternal darkness that awaits (Matt 8:12).
Douglas Kelly: People who refuse to repent are determined not to recognize any connection between a life that displeases God and the pains and sores that follow.
Unbelievers will look at the problems we face in the world and shake their fist at God. They refuse to admit that their own sin has any bearing upon their suffering. They promote all kinds of immorality: abortion, sexual promiscuity, and homosexuality. They live in rebellion against God’s revealed will, but they excuse themselves when God brings judgment upon them.
The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates river which prepares the way for earthly kings to gather together at Armageddon where they might rise up against the Lamb (Re 17:14). Babylon, which stands for the world system, was located on the Euphrates. Beale argues that the drying up of the river implies God causing division within the world system.
This bowl alludes to God’s war with Pharoah in Exodus as well as the prophecy of the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezek. 38-39. These battles have been going on to one degree or another throughout this age, but they rise to a climax when Christ returns.
Satan responds by having the dragon, the beast and the false prophet release unclean frogs from their mouths (13). These are demonic spirits much like the locusts of ch.9. However, instead of tormenting people like the locusts, these frogs spread deception through “slick and slippery speech” (Phillips). Ultimately, with the help of these minions, Satan is gathering forces from the four corners of the world in order to prepare for the final battle. This sixth bowl is preparatory for the seventh.
Beale: The nations are deceived into thinking that they are gathering to exterminate the saints, but they are gathered together ultimately by God only in order to meet their own judgment at the hands of Jesus (Re 19:11-21).
But not all remain unrepentant. The scene here depicts those who remain in their sin. But some do indeed recognize their sinfulness, turn away from it in repentance, and place their faith in Christ. In doing so they prove that they were never marked by the beast, but in fact—God had sealed them for himself in eternity past!
And those who have been sealed by God ought to prepare for an onslaught of opposition to rise up against them. As Satan’s final defeat approaches, he will unleash all of his deceptive powers to bring the saints down with him. Persecution will likely increase as we near the end.
The visible church will suffer greatly. But we have the vision of the Church Triumphant gathered around the sea of glass to sustain us to the end. And Christ himself has reminded us that he is coming like a thief (15)! We must remain ready, clothed in the righteous deeds of the saints (Re 19:8-9), growing and maturing and expecting his return.
› We will conclude by briefly looking at the last section…
3. The Completion of God’s Wrath (17-21)
We were previously told that the bowls were the full expression of God’s wrath (Re 15:1). So it would make sense for this final bowl, like the final trumpet, to be an expression of that last judgment. John hears “a loud voice” once again (17). This time it declares “It is done!” We’re reminded of Christ’s cry on the “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). These two cries mark the opening and closing of the gospel age. Christ’s cry on the cross secured salvation for all who place their faith in him, and his cry of divine judgment at his return marks the completion of that salvation.
As judgment extends from God’s throne (18) the whole Satanic empire is split into three parts (19). This includes fall of “the cities of the nations”. It is not merely referring to the destruction of Rome or any one nation, but the end of the whole evil regime referred to as Babylon. She is forced to drink the cup of God’s wrath. This is a picture of the final judgment that will put an end to all who stand opposed to Christ and his Church. Every nation and institution will be overturned on the great day of God (20). Once again, at the end of this seventh bowl, people respond by cursing God (21).
If you have placed your faith in Christ alone for your salvation, then you can be assured that he drank the cup of God’s wrath for you. But if you reject him, you will drink the cup of God’s wrath on the day Christ returns.
The wrath of God reveals his power and glory and faithfulness while vindicating the persecuted saints.
Believers should long for the day of Christ’s return because we know it will magnify our view of God’s character. The final judgment represents the vindication of our persecuted brothers and sisters. On that day, all evil will be destroyed.
But until that day comes, how are we to live? That is the same question that Peter asked in his second epistle. Those waiting for a new heavens and a new earth are exhorted to endure.
2 Peter 3:14 ESV
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
Exported from Logos Bible Software, 9:08 AM January 13, 2020.