The Fifth Plague

16:10-11 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds. (NASB)

The fifth plague confirms, like the first plague (16:2), that the plagues specifically target those within the kingdom of the Beast.

The transition from the fourth to the fifth bowls is most striking. The one had been the fiery, scorching, blinding brightness of the sun; the next is an impenetrable darkness, bringing cold and misery.

The Beast receives its throne and power and great authority from the Dragon (13:2). In the article on the seven headed beasts of Revelation it is argued that the Dragon, when it has seven heads and ten horns, and stands before the woman, ready to devour her Child (12:3-4), represents the fourth kingdom of Daniel 7, which is identified in the study of Daniel 7 as the Roman Empire. The article on the seven headed beasts also argues, because it the Sea Beast inherits characteristics from each of the four beasts of Daniel (Rev 13:2), that the Sea Beast is the same as the 11th horn that comes forth from this fourth beast of Daniel 7. The Sea Beast is therefore, in some way, a continuation of the Roman Empire, and receives its throne in that sense from the Roman Empire.

Symbolic versus Literal Interpretations

A literal interpretation might be that a literal chemical is poured on a literal throne resulting in a literal darkness in a literal kingdom. However, the throne must be figurative because the throne is received from the Roman Empire, and the kingdom must be figurative because all the peoples of the world worship it (13:3, 4) and the Beast’s kingdom is therefore world-wide.

Criticism often levied against symbolic interpretations is that there are so many different symbolic interpretations that most (all?) of them clearly must be wrong. It is agreed that most symbolic interpretations are wrong, but then a literal interpretation is always wrong. Literal interpretations are based on the assumption that something is literal unless clearly or specifically said to be symbolic. This cannot be a valid assumption. There are too many things that must clearly be symbolic, like fire flowing from the mouths of God’s witnesses, a flood of water pouring out of the mouth of the Dragon, a sword coming out of the mouth of Him who sits on a white horse, frogs coming out of the mouths of the Dragon, Beast and False prophets, and fire and smoke and brimstone coming out of the mouths of 200 million horses, to mention but a few. In a book where symbols are everywhere it is not valid to assume something is literal unless it cannot be literal. The context must be allowed to determine whether something is literal or symbolic, without the interpreter trying to apply some preconceived rule.

Another criticism against symbolic interpretations is that such interpretations are only limited by the interpreter’s imagination. It is agreed that creative interpretations cannot be correct. Symbolic interpretations should be based on a detailed comparison of Scripture with Scripture, and allowing Scripture to interpret itself. This does not guarantee a correct interpretation, often because interpreters come to the text with different a priori assumptions.

A criticism against literal interpretations is that it never ask what something means, and therefore fails to benefit from the message in the text. The next topic is a good example.

The beast’s throne is religious authority

The word “throne” appears in 35 verses in Revelation, of which 32 refers to the throne of God (4:2-3, 9-10; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:9-10, 15; 19:4; 21:5). His throne is in the temple (16:17) which is in heaven (11:19). In the center and around the throne are four living creatures full of eyes (4:6). Before His throne is a sea of glass, seven lamps of fire, which are the seven Spirits of God (4:5-6; 1:4) and the golden altar (8:3). Around His throne are 24 thrones on which 24 elders elders sit (Rev 4:4) and angels; myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands (5:11; 7:11). Out of His throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder (4:5), a loud voice (16:17; 19:5; 21:3), and the water of life, clear as crystal (22:1). Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne (3:21; 15:5). He is in the center of the throne (7:17; 5:6). The throne is called the throne of both God and of the Lamb (22:1) The 144,000 who had been purchased from the earth sing a new song before the throne (14:3). The final judgement is before a great white throne (20:11). All the dead stand before this throne; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books (20:12). Finally, in the eternal state, the throne of God will no longer be in heaven. It will be in the New Jerusalem (22:3).

Often in Revelation we find references to God’s throne without a direct reference to God. In these cases God’s throne is used as a symbol of His authority. For example, when Revelation refers to “the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (1:4), or the great multitude standing before the throne (7:9) it is actually saying the seven Spirits and the great multitude are before the Authority of the whole creation; the One that has the right to rule (see also 4:3-6, 10; 5:6, 11; 7:11; etc.). Also often in Revelation God is referred to as “Him who sit on the throne” (4:2, 9, 10; 5:1, 7, 13; etc.). This is equivalent to saying “Him Who has authority to rule”. Therefore, just as a throne is a symbol of a king’s authority, God’s throne represents His authority. Similarly the Beast’s throne is a symbol of its authority.

When the bowl is poured out on the throne of the beast, its whole kingdom becomes darkened. There exists therefore a cause-effect relationship between the Beast’s throne and its kingdom. Damage to its authority results in damage to its whole kingdom. It is therefore important to understand what the beast’s authority is. What gives it the power to rule? Is it military might, or economic power, or perhaps religious authority? A further possibility is that miracles, frequently mentioned in Revelation (13:13; 16:14), may give the beast the power to rule.

The question is related to the question about the nature of the final conflict. More precisely: who will persecute God’s people (13:7, 15)? Is it the government, or perhaps the economic powers of the world, or is it another religion like Islam or is it perhaps the Church itself that is persecuting God’s people? The Sea Beast (11th horn) is identified in the study of Daniel 7. Its nature is therefore known, but the Sea Beast receives a fatal wound. The wound heals, but then another power—the Earth-Beast—takes over as the active force, creating an image to the Sea Beast. The question is therefore what the nature of the Earth Beast and of the Image is.

It is proposed here that the nature of the end time conflict is persecution by and within the Church, of God’s real people. This is based on the following:

1. Interpreted in the context of the surrounding plagues, the fifth plague means that the followers of the Beast thought they are worshiping the true God, but now realise that they are opposing God. They are therefore a religious group.

The fifth plague is very cryptic. It simply says that the plague is poured out on the throne of the Beast, and the Beast’s kingdom became darkened. The fifth plague therefore must be interpreted in terms of the preceding and subsequent plagues.

The first four plagues attack man’s whole environment—earth, sea, waters, heaven; compare 14:7—somehow without affecting the people that do not have the mark of the beast (16:2). This happens in the context of a world in which the people are polarised into two visibly delineated groups. The one group worships the Image because of the sign and wonders performed by the beast. The signs and wonders apparently clearly prove that the False Prophet is God’s true prophet. The minority group, on the other hand, is not willing to worship the Image, and are persecuted and killed because of their belief in the Creator (14:7). Once these two groups are clearly demarcated, the plagues start to fall, but do not affect the minority group. The peoples of the world therefore must begin to suspect they are wrong, and that the False Prophet is not God’s true representative.

In the sixth plague the waters of the Euphrates dries up. The Euphrates is the river on which ancient Babylon was situated, sustaining life in the city. In Revelation the end time Babylon is also represented as sitting on many waters (17:1), but in Revelation the “many waters” become a symbol for the peoples of the world (17:15) and “sitting” becomes a symbol for her corrupting influence over them (17:2). Drying up therefore implies that her influence over them wanes.

If the fifth plague is then interpreted in the context of the surrounding plagues, it must be something that adds to the evidence of the first four plagues to finally convince the people that the Beast power is not speaking for God, resulting in them cutting their umbilical cord with Babylon in the sixth plague. This implies that the people previously thought that the Beast represents God. This means that the Beast throne is religious authority.

2. In the Bible God’s people were always persecuted by people that pretend to speak for God, never by foreign nations.

The Beast will make war with the saints and to overcome them (13:7). In the Bible foreign nations never selectively persecuted God’s true people. It always was the people that pretended to be God’s people that persecute God’s real people. For instance, Jesus was killed by the Jews, manipulating the power of government to do it. It was the Jews that killed Stephan and also all the prophets of old, not foreign nations. Applying this principle to the end time, God’s people will be persecuted by their own community—the Church—because of what they believe and do.

3. The conflict in the letters is within the Church.

The nature of the conflict in the letters should be the same as the nature of the final conflict because the letters serve as introduction to the book of Revelation. A study of the letters, and specifically of the powers that oppose God’s people, will informs us that God’s people are not persecuted or threatened by forces outside the Church, but by forces within the Church. Twice we read in the letters of people who “say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9). The opposition of God’s people are referred as evil men “who call themselves apostles, and they are not” (2:2), and “the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess”, but she teaches God’s bond-servants to commit acts of immorality (2:20). Four times, therefore, we have indications that the powers that oppose God are from within the Church. This provides strong support for the proposal that the conflict at the end time will be within the Christian Church.

Some people might find the references to Jews confusing. An in depth separate article is available that discusses “Israel in Prophecy”. This is a critical study, and the point where the paths of interpreters separate.

The reference to people that call themselves Jews, but are not, would not make sense if taken literally. Why would only people that claim to be of Jewish descent be a danger to the Church? Why would they, and only they, be called a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9)? This reference must therefore be understood symbolically. In those early days most Christians were Jews, because for the first few years after the cross the gospel has been preached to Jews only (Acts 10:45; 11:18). Further, the believers thought of themselves as part of Israel. In fact, they thought of themselves as the only true Jews. The Jews that rejected Christ were considered as unfaithful. In Romans Paul explains that a true remnant remains, into which branches from the wild olive (non-Jews) have been grafted in, and natural branches (unbelieving Jews) have been cut off. In this context a person claiming to be a Jew, but that is not a Jew, would be somebody that claims to be a believer, but is not true a true believer.

4. The powers that persecute are described as a woman.

Revelation 17 uses a different set of symbols. Instead of the Dragon, Sea Beast and False Prophet of the previous chapters we find the symbols of a harlot woman—Babylon—sitting on a scarlet Beast (17:3). In this representation it is the harlot that persecutes God’s people (18:24).

In Revelation there are two women. The first is the pure woman (12:1); the bride of the Lamb (19:7). The second is this harlot Babylon, claiming she is “NOT A WIDOW” (18:7). She therefore claims to be the wife of the Lamb (compare 21:9).

By describing Babylon as a woman, the Author of Revelation is telling us that she is in some respects similar to, but in other respects very different from the woman representing God’s people. Since they are both woman, and since both Israel (in the Old Testament) and the Church (in the New Testament) are described as women, and as adulteress women when unfaithful, both women represent the Church. But the Bride is the true people of God. They are part of the Church, but called out of Babylon (18:4). The harlot woman Babylon is the false Church; the Church that “has become a dwelling place of demons” (18:2).

This explains the statement that the 144000 never defiled them with women (14:4). These women are the daughters of Babylon, because she is the mother of harlots (17:5). The fact that the 144,000 never defiled them with women means they never agreed with what Babylon does.

As mentioned, it is Babylon that persecutes God’s true people.  The conclusion is therefore again that the final conflict is a war within the Church; the faithful minority against the authority of the Church.

5. Signs and wonders

Moses performed “wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years” (Act 7:36 NASB). Jesus was “attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him” (Act 2:22; Heb. 2:4). The Lord confirmed the word of the apostles “by the signs that followed” (Mar 16:20 NASB). “… many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Act 2:43; Act 5:12).

However, in the end time conflict, the anti-God powers will be confirmed by signs and wonders. The Sea Beast “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men” (Rev 13:13 NASB). “He deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast … (Rev 13:14; Rev 19:20). In the sixth plague the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet will be assisted by “spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (Rev 16:14 NASB).

This has also been predicted elsewhere in the New Testament, but notice it is not a military or economic power that perform these sign and wonders. It will be done by people pretending to speak for the Christian God:

“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. (Mat 24:24; Mar 13:22)

“the man of lawlessness … who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. … that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders” (2Th 2:3, 4, 9 NASB).

6. The 11th horn of Daniel 7—the Beast of Revelation—blasphemes God, persecutes His saints and tries to change God’s law. This is the behaviour of false religion.

 The fourth beast of Daniel 7 is the Roman Empire, and the 11th horn—the Sea Beast of Revelation—grew out of it.  (Refer to the article on the seven headed beasts of Revelation.)  The Roman Empire’s right to rule was its military might.  But the 11th horn is said to be “different” (Dan 7:24).  It therefore does not necessarily follow that the throne of the beast (its authority) is military might.

The 11th horn wages war with the saints and overpower them (Dan 7:21).  He “will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time” (7:25).  This is the behaviour of false religion.  That it will try to “make alterations in times and in law” means it is Christian false religion.

7. The Beast power is described by religious and even Christian words such as “lamb”, “prophet” and “worship.

The word “worship” is used five times in Revelation 13 and 14.  Four times it is used for the people worshiping the beast (13:8, 12) and his image (13:15; 14:11), while the three angels warn the people to worship the Creator alone (14:7).  This last conflict may therefore be described as a battle of worship.

The Beast from the Earth at first looks like a lamb (13:11).  The word “lamb” occurs 32 times in Revelation, and only in this one instance it does not refer to Jesus Christ.  The Earth Beast therefore appears to be Christian, but eventually it is called the False Prophet (16:13; 19:20).  Both the words “lamb” and “prophet” implies its Christian religious nature.

The article on the identity of the 11th horn will provide further support for the conclusion that the Beast’s authority is religious in nature, and specifically for the statement that the issue in the end time is a war within the Church.

In summary, the Beast is the 11th horn of Daniel 7 (Rev 13:2), which is a continuation of the fourth Beast of Daniel, which is the Roman Empire.  By being a continuation of the Roman Empire, the Beast receives its power to rule (its authority) from the Roman Empire.  It therefore is not a literal throne.  In the same way as God’s throne represents His authority in Revelation, the Beast’s throne symbolises his authority, or “right to rule”.  In the fifth plague this authority suffers defeat.  The question is what the Beast’s authority is.  Some would believe it rules by military might.  Others believe it rules with the power of money.  It is proposed here that the Beast rules through religious authority, and specifically Christian religious authority.

The fifth plague, interpreted in the context of the surrounding plagues, must be something that convinces the people of the world that they are serving the wrong god.  They are therefore a religious group.  This does not prove that they are Christian, but other evidence point to the Christian nature of the persecuting powers at the end time:

  • It is always the people within the community of faith persecute God’s true people.  Outside groups never selectively persecute only God’s true people.
  • The opponents to God’s people in the letters to the Churches are inside the Church.
  • False religion is represented in Revelation as a woman, in contrast to the Bride of Christ.
  • The Beast will deceive through signs and wonders, and according to Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonica 2 this is what false teachers in the Church will do at the end time.
  • The 11th horn—the Beast of Revelation—will try to change times and laws.  This means it will try to change God’s laws, which implies it is within the Church.
  • The Beast is described as Christian by words such as “lamb” and “prophet”.

The beast’s throne is not the power of money 

A group of commentaries view Revelation as a general description of the war between good and evil.  They do not agree that the characters and events in Revelation were ever or will ever become real characters or events.  Some such commentaries interpret the evil powers of Revelation as the power of money.  It is true that, particularly in Revelation 18, economic power is prominent.  Babylon is clothed in wealth (17:4), and in Revelation clothes depict the nature of the entity.  Her merchants became rich from her (18:15).  They “were the great men of the earth” (18:23).

However, the Beast is not economic power in general, but a specific entity with a specific date of origin, arising out of specific other entities.  It comes out of the sea (13:1) looking like “a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the Dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2).  These are the four animals of Daniel 7, representing Babylon (lion), Mede-Persia (bear), Greece (leopard) and Rome (non-descript beast in Daniel 7—Dragon in Revelation).  It is not possible to say that economic wealth came into existence after these kingdoms or that economic power received something from each of them.

Furthermore, the Beast persecutes the saints and overpowers them (13:7).  Economic power never persecutes the true people of God selectively.  It is not able to distinguish between God’s true people and others.

The Beast’s authority is primarily religious in nature because its primary purpose is to oppose God, not to accumulate wealth.  Wealth is used as a tool by the Beast, but is not its ultimate purpose.

To return to the issue of literal interpretations; A literal interpretation never asks what something means, and therefore often fails to grasp the real meaning.  It does not ask what the throne of the Beast is, and therefore often explains the end time conflict as military in nature, which is inconsistent with the general message of the Bible.  The war on earth is a continuation of the war in heaven (12:7).  It revolves around much bigger issues than simply who is physically the strongest.  Jesus overcame by being a lamb (5:6).  He asked: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mat 26:53)  Similarly the war we are in is not physical.  God has all power in the universe, but that is not the point.

The darkness is the “loud cry”

The first four plagues target the beast’s followers and their environment (16:2), but the fifth plague targets the beast’s kingdom right at its foundation, and its authority wanes.  Previously “the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast … they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” (13:3, 4).  But now it suffers great humiliation before the eyes of the earth dwellers.

The “loud cry” is the message of Revelation 18, so called because it starts with an angel that “cried out with a mighty voice” (18:2), while “the earth was illumined with his glory” (18:1).  This angel is followed by “another voice from heaven” (18:4).  This is apparently God Himself, because the voice says “Come out of her, my people” (18:4).  Curiously, the NASB does not capitalise the “my”.  Lastly a “strong angel” (18:21) illustrates how sudden Babylon’s fall will be.  Similar to the leaders of the seven churches that are called angels (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14), and similar to the three angel-messages of Revelation 14, these are not literal angels, nor a literal voice from heaven, but messages proclaimed on earth by people, driven by the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of this discussion is to investigate when, in the sequence of the events in Revelation, the messages of Revelation 18 will be proclaimed.  After the Sea Beast’s fatal wound is healed, the Earth-Beast will perform miracles to create the image to the Sea Beast (13:12-14).  Then the image will persecute and kill God’s people, and give the mark of the Beast to its followers (13:15-17).  Because the third of the three angels in Revelation 14 warns against the image and the mark of the Beast (14:9-11), and also because God’s people are urged to persevere, even onto death (14:12-13), the message of these three angels will sound simultaneous with the work of the image.  When every person has been marked for eternity, either with the mark of the Beast or the seal of God (14:1), the temple closes (15:8).  From this point onwards nobody will change side:

“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”  (Rev 22:11 NASB)

Then the plagues start to fall (16:1).  Babylon is finally destroyed in the seventh plague (16:19).  The question therefore is where in this sequence of events the messages of Revelation 18 fit.

The messages of Revelation 18 precede the destruction of Babylon.  This is clear from the future tenses used when referring to her destruction; her plagues will come” (18:8), “she will be burned up” (18:9), the kings “will weep” (18:10), the merchants “will stand at a distance” (18:15), “so will” Babylon be thrown down (18:21).  The messages of Revelation 18 are therefore proclaimed before the seventh plague, when Babylon is destroyed (16:19).

Both the mighty angel of Revelation 18 and the second of the three angel messages is Revelation 14 are world-wide (14:6; 18:1) and announce “Babylon is fallen” (14:8; 18:2), but the message of Revelation 18 is much more powerful and detailed.  Revelation 14:8 simply reads “And another angel, a second one, followed, saying” while Revelation 18 reads “another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illumined with his glory, And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying” (18:1, 2).  The angel in Revelation 18 also expands on the causes and implications of Babylon’s fall.

Because the three messages in Revelation 18 are described later in the book, and are much more detailed, and given in much more power than the three messages of Revelation 14, it would be fair to assume that they are different, with the messages in Revelation 18 later in time, when Babylon’s sins have matured fully.  Because the three messages of Revelation 14 are proclaimed while the image of the Beast is busy with its deadly work, the messages of Revelation 18 are therefore either proclaimed just before the plagues start to fall, or during the plagues.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that there is no call to repentance in Revelation 18.  While the messages of the three angels in Revelation 14 is to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (14:6), urging them to worship the Creator (14:7), instead of the Beast and its image (14:9), Revelation 18 does not contain a call to repentance, but is a message to God’s people only; “Come out of her, my people” (18:4).  It is therefore possible to conclude that the time for repentance is has passed and we are now in the time of the plagues.  Alternatively the plagues are about to be poured out.

There are three lines of thought that links Revelation 18 specifically to the fifth plague.  The first is the contrast between the darkness on the Beast’s kingdom in the fifth plague and the illumination of the whole world by the glory of the mighty angel of Revelation 18 (18:1).  This contrast links these two sections.  It implies that the fifth plague is the loud cry; a message from God, proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit and confirming the standing before God of the persecuted minority “sect”, resulting in humiliation for the religious authority of the Beast.  In Revelation 11 we note a similar recovery by God’s people, when the two witnesses come to life, after being dead for 3½ days, “and great fear fell upon those who were watching them” (11:11).

The second is the call to God’s people to come out of Babylon so that they would not receive of her plagues (18:4), coupled to the fact that the sixth and seventh plagues are particularly Babylon’s plagues:

  • The first five plagues are modelled on the plagues on Egypt, but that the sixth plague is modelled on the events around the fall of ancient Babylon (the waters drying up and the kings from the east).
  • Babylon is destroyed in the seventh plague (16:19).  This is confirmed by Revelation 18:5 which read “God has remembered her iniquities”.  Compare this to the seventh plague which reads “Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath” (16:19).  In both instances the word “remember” is used.  When God remembers something, it does not mean that He forgot.  It means that He acts.  In this case 16:19 tells us what He does, namely “to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath” (16:19).

If “her plagues” are understood as specifically the sixth and seventh plagues, then the call in Revelation 18 goes out just before these two plagues, and not before all seven plagues.

The third and last line of logic that links Revelation 18 to the fifth plague is the call to God’s people to “pay her back” and “to give her torment” (18:7).  This cannot be her final destruction in the seventh plague (16:19), because Babylon is not destroyed by God’s people, but by the “kings” (17:16), “for God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose” (17:17).  This means that God’s people must “pay her back” before she is destroyed in the seventh plague.  Babylon’s waters dry up in the sixth plague.  The Euphrates is the “many waters” on which Babylon sits (17:1), namely the peoples of the world (17:15).  When the Euphrates dries up it means that Babylon loses her influence over the peoples of the world, which is therefore also not something done by God’s people.  It therefore is possible that God’s people “pay her back” during the fifth plague, when the Beast’s kingdom is covered by darkness by God’s people when a powerful message is proclaimed through them, followed in the sixth plague by the peoples of the world turning their backs on Babylon, and followed by the complete destruction of Babylon by the kings of the earth in the seventh plague.

It is therefore concluded that the fifth plague is the proclamation of the messages of Revelation 18.  The darkness in the Beast’s kingdom is the result of the extremely powerful working of the Holy Spirit to confirm the persecuted minority, convincing the peoples of the world that light from their system of worship is actually spiritual darkness, while the persecuted minority, like the people of the land of Goshen (the Israelites in historical Egypt), had light in their homes.

Next: Sixth Plague

TO: General Table of Contents

Revelation 16; The first four plagues

The closing of the temple in heaven in Revelation 15 (15:8) is a major turning point in the history of mankind.  From this point in time onwards nobody will be saved.  Revelation 16 shows us what happens on earth after the temple has been closed.  The plagues start to fall at a time when the population of the world is divided into two groups; those with the mark of the beast, and those with the seal of God.  Somehow this distinction is visible, because the people with the seal of God are persecuted.  But these horrible plagues—malignant sores, water and sea turning to blood and a scorching sun—only affect the people with the mark of the beast.   They must see they are wrong.  How do they react?  Do they repent?

16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” (NASB)

Focus shifts from heaven to earth

In Revelation 15 we were shown heaven.  First John was shown those who refused to worship the Beast or to accept his mark.  He saw them standing on the sea of glass, before the throne of God in the temple in heaven (15:2-4).  He then saw the seven angels receiving the seven last plagues and leaving the temple in heaven (15:5-5).  Lastly he saw the temple in heaven becoming filled with the glory of God (15:8).

Rev 16:1 is still part of the heavenly scene, because the voice comes from the temple.  Since “no man was able to enter into the temple” (15:8), this is the voice of God Himself.  As from 16:2 the focus shifts to the earth.  Revelation 16 describes the actual pouring forth of the seven bowls upon the earth below.

Not literally seven bowls

It is obvious that the first angel does not pour a literal chemical from a literal bowl upon men who had received a literal mark inflicted by a literal beast.  These bowls are temple vessels associated with the altar of incense (Zech. 14:20; Num. 7:84; Rev 5:8).  Bowls are used here as symbols of the consequences of decisions taken in the temple in heaven.  Nor is the number seven to be understood literally.  In Revelation the number seven has to do with the completion of a process.  It is based on the first seven in the Bible, namely seven days of the week.  In Revelation, in any series of seven, the second follows after the first, the third after the second, and so forth, and the seventh is the last.  Seven therefore is symbolic for a “completed process”.  The number seven may therefore simply mean that plagues will be poured out until God’s purpose with them has been achieved.

16:2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth; and it became a loathsome and malignant sore on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image. (NASB)

In Revelation 13 the image of the beast is created by the people of the earth (13:14).  This image then causes all to worship the image and to receive the mark of the beast (13:15, 16).  The people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image are therefore not two categories of people, but one group.

The Plagues follow after Revelation 13 and 14

Because the first plague is poured out upon the people who have received the mark of the beast, the plagues are poured out after the image of the beast has been created and the mark has been enforced, and also after the proclamation of the third angel, which warns against the beast and its mark..

God makes visible distinction

The bowls are poured out on the (entire) earth (16:1), but only those who worship the Beast will receive God’s wrath (16:2, 10).  This is important for a proper understanding of the plagues.  Remember that the plagues are poured out while God’s people are still being killed because they do not worship the image (13:15), and while the image still tries to force them to accept the mark of the beast (13:16-17).  But then the plagues start to fall selectively on the followers of the beast (the majority of the peoples—13:8), while God’s people do not suffer from the plagues.  The people see this.  The question is how they would react to this information.

16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died. (NASB)

God destroys His own creation.

That which God so lavishly created on the fifth day, He utterly destroys by means of this plague.  We can’t help but think of how pleased the Lord was when He made all the plethora of sea life for man’s pleasure and benefit. We read in Genesis 1:20-23:

Then God said, ’Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.’ So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ So the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

Sea animals are “souls”.

Living “thing” translates living “psuché” (soul-KJV, YLT). The word for “soul” (psuché) is used for animal life as well as human life. Souls are not vapors or spirits. In Revelation 8:9 psuché is translated creatures, referring to marine life. In Genesis 8:1 the Hebrew equivalent (nephesh, “living thing”) is used similarly for animals. (cf. Job 12:10)

16:4-6 Then the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. (NASB) (5) And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; (6) for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” (NASB)

God already came.

Revelation usually describes God as “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4; 1:8; 4:8), referring to His eternal essence.  The “is to come” is omitted in 16:5 because He already came, in a sense.  Things have changed.  Everybody can see that God is making distinction between His people and non-believers.  In the seventh trumpet (Rev 11:17) He is described similarly, because “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (11:15).

The angel of the waters is the one who had poured the plague on the water.

Angel of the waters” is then simply a short way of referring to the angle that poured the plague into the waters.

Every one of us deserves the same judgement. It is only through grace that God’s people do not suffer this punishment.

The harlot Babylon murders God’s people.

Later in Revelation we will read about the harlot Babylon.  She is “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6).  “In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth” (18:24).  She the sits on the “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (Rev. 17:15) and therefore use them for her evil purposes.  The godless have shed the blood of saints and prophets throughout history (1K. 18:4; 19:4; 2K. 24:4; 2Chr. 24:21; Ps. 79:1-4; Jer. 2:30; Jer. 26:23; Lam. 4:13).  Jesus referred to it in His parables:

The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. (Mat 21:35-36 NASB)

Since the rejection of Messiah Jesus over 1900 years ago the toll of the shed blood of the saints has escalated dramatically.  Yet the persecutions of history will pale in comparison with that which befalls the saints in the crisis when the Beast (Rev. 13:7, 10) and his image (Rev. 13:15) slaughter the saints during Satan’s final attempt to overthrow the plan of God.

16:7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (NASB)

Both the angel (16:5) and the altar (16:7) confirm that God’s decisions are right.  This says something about the purpose of the plagues, as discussed below.

The altar is a symbol of the martyred believers

One does not normally expect an altar to speak. However, in apocalyptic literature anything is possible.  There were two altars in the Jewish temple area.  Both are mentioned in Revelation:

Golden: The “golden” (8:3) altar, from which rises “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints” (8:4), is the altar of incense, which was inside the Jewish temple.  In Revelation this altar is “before the throne” (8:3) and therefore “in the temple” (16:17), which is in heaven (11:19).

Burnt offerings: The altar on which people have symbolically “been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (6:9) is equivalent to the Jewish altar of burnt offerings, which was outside the temple.  It is possible to think of this altar as on earth, because that is where these people are killed and persecuted.

The altar in view in 16:7 is probably the altar of burnt offering because it is not identified as the “golden” altar and because it reacts to the statement in the previous verse (16:6) about the pouring out of “the blood of saints and prophets”.  The voice from this altar we therefore heard before in Revelation (6:9-11).  It is the voice of the martyrs, whose blood has been shed.  In 6:9-11 their blood, like the blood of Abel (Gen 4:10), speaks metaphorically at the beginning of the end-time crisis, anticipating “true and righteous” judgment between them and their enemies.  In 16:7 the same voice confirms the rightness of God’s judgments.

16:8-9 The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. (9) Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory. (NASB)

Normally the sun warms and cheers men and controls plant growth, climate and many other processes necessary to maintain life.  Now it sends forth an excess of heat that torments men and destroys life.  Evidently, believers will somehow be protected from this (16:2).

While voices praise God for His final judgments (16:5-7), earthly voices curse Him for His judgments.

The plagues reveal that the people with the mark of the beast are irredeemable.

The plagues are preceded by a period of intense persecution of God’s people (13:15-17).  But to persecute God’s people it must be clear who to persecute.  Therefore, during this period of persecution a distinction between the world and God’s people becomes clearly visible to everybody.  There is some visible mark that distinguishes the two groups.  In Revelation this is called the mark of the beast (13:16, 17) and the seal of God (14:1).  Both groups are religious.  (See the article on Babylon.)  Both groups claim to represent God on earth.  But the people of the world view the smaller group, namely the people of God (13:8), as a dangerous sect.

Then the plagues start to fall, but only effect one of these groups of people, namely the majority group—the followers of the beast (16:2).  Now the world can see that the despised minority is not affected by the plagues, and they must realize that they themselves are wrong and are fighting against God.  But they have be­come so hardened that they refuse to repent (16:9, 11, 21).  Even in the face of the devastation around them, their hearts are so set against Him in hatred that all they can do is to continue their pattern of cursing.  Those who have taken the mark of the beast are irredeemable in the sense that God knows that they will not repent, even under these terrible conditions.  But to prove to all intelligent beings in the universe that they are irredeemable, and therefore that God is right when He will destroys them, the plagues are poured out.  These people have reached the point of no return. This is the meaning of the mark of the beast.

Because Revelation mentions that they did not repent, we need to assume it was still possible for them to repent.  The opportunity for them to repent still exists, even at this late hour.  God’s hand of mercy is still being extended, but multitudes will have none of it.  It is not that God does not want to forgive.  It is that men do not want forgiveness.  They are unable to change.

God’s people are still persecuted.

The sins of the people of the world include the worship of the image of the beast and persecution of the saints (13:15).  Since they do not repent it means that the saints are still being persecuted.

The First Four of a series are general and non-specific

The first four of any series of seven in Revelation is seen in this commentary as general and highly figurative, and not individually interpreted.  Thus the first four seals (the four horsemen), the first four trumpets and the first four plagues are not individually interpreted.  This approach is justified as follows:

Entire earth:   In Revelation the number four symbolizes the entire earth (7:1).  This is also seen in the fact that four words are often used to describe the peoples of the world, where one word would have been sufficient:

      • tribe and tongue and people and nation (5:9)
      • nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues (7:9)
      • peoples and nations and tongues and kings (10:11)
      • peoples and tribes and tongues and nations (11:9)
      • tribe and people and tongue and nation (13:7)
      • nation and tribe and tongue and people (14:6)
      • peoples and nations and tongues and kings (17:15)

Fourth seal: The fourth seal is a summary of the previous three.

Trumpets: The first four trumpets respectively attack the earth, sea, waters and heavenly bodies (8:7-12).  Revelation describes the creation to be composed of those four components (“Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water”—14:7).  The first four trumpets are therefore simply viewed as an attack on man’s total environment.

Plagues: Similarly the first four plague targets the same four components of man’s environment, namely the earth, sea, waters and sun, and are there simply interpreted as plagues that will fall on the entire earth.

Brief: The first four of a series are described in much fewer words than the whole series: – The first four seals cover 8 of the 35 verses of the seals (6:1-8:1) – The first four trumpets cover 6 of the 63 verses of the trumpets (8:2-11:18) – The first four plagues cover 8 of the 84 verses of the plagues (16:1-19:21) It would therefore be wrong to spend much time on the first fours, and less on the remainder of the seals, trumpets and plagues, as some interpreters do.

The first four seals, trumpets and plagues are therefore understood as worldwide and general. By “highly figurative” is meant that not each object or event should be separately interpreted. The first four seal are various persecutions of God’s people. The first four trumpets are plagues on the unrepentant world, in order to bring them to repentance. Similarly the first four plagues various plagues. But as from the fifth (seal, trumpet and plague) very specific historical events are prophesied. They are also symbolic, but here most symbols should be individually interpreted. The descriptions of the fifth, sixth and seventh’s are much longer than the first four, and the interlude, which forms part of the sixth, provide background materials that explain the last three of a series, and therefore also explain the whole series:

  • The interlude in the seals reveal God’s people, indicating that the seals are about God’s people.
  • The interlude in the trumpets reveal the proclaiming of the gospel to a fallen world.
  • The interlude in the trumpets (16:15) is discussed below.

Next: Fifth Plague

TO: General Table of Contents

Why Revelation “by” and not “of” Jesus Christ?

The official name of the last book of the Bible is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ“.  Many commentators understand this to mean that it is a revelation about Jesus Christ, because of the wonderful revelation of Jesus which we find in the book. However, the book is clear; the purpose is “to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place” (1:1).

This is therefore “The Revelation of Jesus Christ“ in the sense that it has been provided by Him. Of all the books in the Bible, this is the book that came to us with the least interference by man. John just wrote down what he heard and saw. He did not try to interpret it.

We therefore have books by Paul and John and Luke and many other men. There is only one book directly by Jesus Christ.

TO: General Table of Contents