Nobody is saved during plagues. This is indicated by the empty temple (15:8), which symbolises that intercession and therefore salvation is no longer available, and by the repeated mention of unbelievers not repenting (v9, 11, 21).
Many believe that the plagues are punitive in nature. “Punitive” means it is for punishment only, without any saving purpose. In other words, God will “punish” the wicked for the sake of punishment only. Many also believe that the wicked that will be resurrected after the millennium, will then again be severely punished (either by burning forever or as long as “they deserve”), for no other reason but to make them suffer. This is the average Christian’s idea of a “loving God.”
These views are not supported in this commentary. But the question remains, why does a loving God, which dearly loves His creation, even the people that received the mark of the beast, torment men in the fearful manner described in Revelation 16 when there will be no opportunity for Intercession and salvation? Why doesn’t Christ return and end the reign of sin immediately after everybody have made their final choice?
The Egypt typology in the plagues can lead us to the answer.
Both the catastrophes that befell Egypt and the end time scourges are called plagues. Both the Egyptians and the end time plagues include sores, water turning to blood, darkness and frogs (Ex. 7:17-21; 8:2-13; 9:8-11; 10:21-23). The fact that the plagues of Egypt underlie the symbolism in Revelation 16 informs us that the principles are the same in both sets of plagues.
As Israel was enslaved and subjected to harsh treatment in Egypt, the persecution of God’s people (13:15) will act as catalyst for the end time plagues.
As in Egypt, the plagues testify to the authority of God. Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? (Ex. 5:1, 2) Then the LORD said to Moses … Go to Pharaoh … say to him … By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned to blood. (Ex. 7:14-17 NASB; see also 8:22)
As in Egypt, God will deliver His people and defeat their enemies through supernatural means.
We usually think of slavery as the problem God solved in sending the ten plagues on Egypt, and this is certainly correct. But the bigger issue, the one that fuelled the slavery problem, was false worship. The Egyptians worshiped the sun, the river, and other things. The Hebrews in Egypt did not have religious liberty. Moses was not free to teach them what they had, over generations, forgotten. Similarly during the end time plagues the bigger issue is false versus true worship. As in Egypt, the plagues are designed to demonstrate how false the claims of false religion are, and how futile the reliance was upon them:
‘For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments (Ex. 12:12 NASB)
But there is still a more profound principle involved. In redeeming Israel from Egypt God chose to act very visibly. In redeeming Israel from historical Babylon He acted less visibly. He sent strong forces against Babylon and arranged that these strong forces are favourable towards Israel. God could have done the same in the redemption of Israel from Egypt. Why did He act so visibly? He could have controlled events in such a way that people would not be able to see that He is at work. In contrast, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and that His purpose was to instruct the Egyptians and the nations of the true God:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them, (Exo 10:1 NASB)
“Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” (Exo 14:4 NASB; see also 7:3; 4:21; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8)
The deliverance from Egypt served as visible lesson to the peoples of the world. He wanted to instruct His people, and perhaps also the other nations, through the plagues. In His mercy He wanted them to learn of the existence and power of the real God:
“TheEgyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.” (Exo 7:5 NASB)
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.” (Rom 9:17 NASB)
It is therefore concluded here that the same applies to the end time plagues, namely that the end time plagues serve as a visible lesson. It is submitted that God will not let people suffer simply for the sake of punishment. But the question is, for whom is it a lesson, what is that lesson, and why is the lesson needed?
RESPONSES TO THE PLAGUES
Revelation chapter 16 consists of descriptions of the plagues, but also includes responses to the plagues:
- The response of unbelievers; not repent + blaspheme God (16:9, 11, 21)
- Warning to the believers to watch their clothes (16:15)
- Declarations of the righteousness of God’s judgements (15:3-4; 16:5-7; 19:2)
Most commentaries spend much time on the plagues, with fleeting references to the responses to the plagues. It is proposed here is that the responses to the plagues contain the real messages to us, because they explain the plagues.
Three times (16:9, 11, 21) it is said that the people blaspheme God and do not repent, as if the purpose is to see whether they would. Remember that before the plagues start to fall, the people of the world are divided into two clearly demarcated groups. The people with the mark of the beast are not allowed to buy and sell. The others are not. Remember also that the plagues only fall on one of the two groups, namely the large group with the mark of the Beast (16:2). They must therefore become increasingly aware of some sort of supernatural support for the hated minority. The plagues therefore lead men to increasingly realize that they have been fighting against God. But instead of repenting, they curse Him even more bitterly than ever and become even more resolute in their opposition. Those suffering from the plagues refuse to admit themselves wrong, even in the face of these severe judgments that would lead honest contrite men to amend their ways. It is therefore concluded that one purpose of the plagues is to show that these people are hardened beyond repentance. The plagues serve to graphically demonstrate and to reveal the spirit of rebellion which controls their hearts, and to show what becomes of God’s beautiful creatures when they separate themselves from Him. As it is put in the warning with respect to Armageddon, men will walk about naked and all will see their shame (16:15). Armageddon is where God reveals what really is inside people, as Paul also wrote:
on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:16 NASB)
Sin changed people. There is a point where it becomes impossible for a person to freely turn to God. Then that person has received the mark of the beast, or stated in different words, committed the unpardonable sin. Then that person cannot be saved, not because God does not want to save the person. Something has changed in that individual which makes it impossible to become one with God again:
but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. (2Ch 36:16 NASB)
The plagues are not some arbitrary punishment. It has an eternal purpose and benefit. The tares as it were are proved to be tares, (cf. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) When those being tested have passed the point of no return, God continues to test them to provide abundant witness of their unwillingness and inability to return. They refuse to yield to His will and show themselves to be what they really are; devoted servants to Satan. The refusal to repent proves them to be unalterably opposed to God.
The second category of response to the plagues is the warning to God’s people to “keep their clothes” (16:15). The plagues follow and continue the period of the most intense persecution of believers ever. Under the extremely difficult circumstances created by the plagues, their persecutors continue to blaspheme God, and therefore continue to persecute the saints. God will withdraw His restraining Spirit, to allow the lost to do whatever they want to God’s people. This trial will test the characters of the saints. It will show what have become of sinners who were washed clean with the blood of Christ. The plagues will demonstrate that the remnant would rather die than disobey God.
The third type of response to the plagues is praise to God for His righteous judgements. Satan is called the accuser by Revelation (12:10). He accuses God of poor judgement, for instance in the case of Job (Job 1:9, 10) and Joshua (Zech. 3:1). Throughout history Satan has maligned the character of God who sentenced Satan and his angels to the lake of fire (Matt. 25:41). The plagues prove to the intelligent creatures of the universe that the distinction that God made between the peoples of the world is faultless. It proves that the people that follow the beast are so hardened that they would not repent even under the most trying circumstances. The plagues also prove that the people with the seal of God are willing to forsake everything for the promise of God. Together these issues prove thatGod judged rightly, as confirmed in the plagues (16:5, 7) and afterwards (19:2). This is a major purpose of the plagues.
LOVE REQUIRES UNDERSTANDING
The question is who needs to learn these lessons, and why. To answer these questions require some abstract thinking.
A fundamental principle, easily overlooked due Revelation’s graphic word pictures, is that God’s government is based on unconditional love. He loves all His creatures. He loved them so much He was willing to die for them (John 3:16). And He wants us to love Him. That is the greatest commandment (Mat 22:37-38), but love cannot be commanded. Love that is commanded is no love. Fear cannot generate love. Love can only be generated by an appreciation of the other’s character. You can only love somebody that you know and understand. Therefore God wants us to know and understand Him. He wants us to trust Him. He wants us to understand and agree with His decisions and actions.
Most importantly, in the context of Armageddon, He wants us to understand why He destroys people that we love. God desires everybody to understand that His decisions are right. He is not a dictator. He wants to be loved. He wants us to be completely convinced of His trustworthiness; that He can be trusted to always make the best decision for every person. That is why Armageddon is a revelation of what is really inside each person. Then we will understand the indescribable greatness and rightness of His love and judgement. Then we will all understand God as completely reliable and live in complete safety and trust is the wonderful, perfect world which He will create out of this mess on earth:
“Behold, I am making all things new” (21:5).
LOVE REQUIRES UNQUALIFIED FREEDOM
But the issue is actually more profound than this. Love is only love it is the result of free will. Therefore, all God’s creatures are completely free. The only obedience that God wants is the obedience that springs from love. Obedience that is forced, or based on fear, even in the slightest degree, is no obedience at all. God desires only the obedience of complete admiration and love.
Now this results in a weighty conclusion. If we fear that God will punish us if we do something that He does not like, then we are not completely free, and our obedience is forced. Therefore God’s intelligent creatures are free to do whatever they wish, without fear of retribution. Because love is the foundation of God’s government, we have to conclude that freedom is complete.
Satan was a “covering cherub” (Ezek. 18:16). He perhaps was the created being that was the closest to God, with the most complete understanding of Him, but still Satan sinned, because he did not fear punishment.
GOD MUST EARN THE RIGHT TO BRING EVIL TO AN END.
God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. (1Jn 1:5 NASB) God is love (1Jn 4:8, 16). Therefore God’s character is to allow unqualified freedom. Under the principle of complete, unqualified freedom God has no right to bring Satan and his government to an end. But the Bible is clear that Satan’s government will be eliminated. So let us try to probe this through a series of questions.
(1) Perhaps the most fundamental question about God’s character is why He allowed sin to develop in the first place. Why does sin exist? It is proposed here that God could have chosen to create robots, programmed to always say “i love you”. But He wanted to create free intelligent creatures, with the ability to say “no” to Him. This automatically created the potential for resistance to the will of the Father (sin).
(2) Why did He not “zap” Satan when he harboured the first thoughts of sin? He could have erased any memory of Satan from our minds, could He not? It is proposed here that that would be contrary to God’s character. We can take extreme comfort in the fact that God is not an exterminating dictator. God allows us freedom.
(3) Why did God not make an end to sin after Jesus won the victory on the cross? It is certainly obvious that God would make an end to sin as soon as possible. It is submitted here that the victory on the cross was sufficient for our salvation, but on the basis of the fact that sin is still alive and well 2000 years after the cross we must unfortunately conclude that the cross does not provide God with the right to make a complete end to evil.
(4) What would give God the right to make an end to evil? It is proposed here that the agreement of all His intelligent creatures (complete consensus for all eternity) is required before God can exterminate evil. God cannot afford to make an end to evil until all questions with respect to evil have been completely answered. Thus, and only thus, will evil be prevented from ever again erupting anywhere in the universe. In the new heavens and new earth the redeemed will exercise their complete freedom knowing what the end result of selfishness is.
Many people of God as a judge, wanting to condemn. God is not a judge. In the judgement scene in Daniel many thrones are set up, and the books were opened (Dan 7:9). It is therefore not only God that judge, and God does not need books. According to Revelation the judgement will be given to the saved (20:4). God wants His created being to judge for themselves. Obviously God knows and understands everything, but He wants us to understand. And once the universe agrees that this is the right thing to do, God will eliminate all destructive forces from the universe, and love will again be the source of all actions and decisions. If we want to compare God to a human professional, He is more of a doctor, trying to save.
WHO NEEDS ANSWERS?
Most people think that all sinless heavenly beings do not need more information to understand that rebellion against God is bad, but this is or at least was not so. We need to understand a little of how sin developed.
Sin existed before man was created, and was brought to earth by the Serpent of old (12:9).
Sin originated in Satan. God said of him: “You were blameless in your ways From the day you were created Until unrighteousness was found in you” (Ezek. 28:15). His sin was that he wanted to be the most adored being. He wanted to be adored even as God (Isa 14:13, 14). This sin developed because of his extraordinary beauty, as described by Ezekiel 18:13. This implies that his beauty exceeded that of the other heavenly beings. Logically sin did not spring up in Satan one bad morning. It developed over a long time. Knowing how God deals with sinners on earth, Satan must have been warned repeatedly of the consequences of the direction he was taking. Based on the principle of freedom God would have told Satan what the end result will be of his sin. But we know that eventually Satan gave himself over to sin.
But sin did not remain only with Satan. We know that he succeeded in leading a very large portion of the perfect angels away from God (Rev 12:7). He was therefore able to convince some of the angels, but the others not. What was Satan’s modus operandi? Satan obviously did not openly admit his intentions. He obviously covered his motives under a blanket of words, masterfully flattering the angels when they agree with him and accusing them of not willing to suffer for the best interest of the universe when they disagree with him. It was not clear from the beginning what the end result of Satan’s strategies would be. He marketed his strategies as evolvement to a higher state of being, beneficial to all, and consistent with God’s principles. He created in his followers a desire for power and self-reliance and to be honoured by fellow creatures. Many (most? all?) of the angels did not understand what the end of this new development will be, even those that stayed loyal to God. Therefore even the loyal angels need answers.
Satan is the extreme master debater. He, with the assistance of his myriads of angels, is able to put a convincing slant on anything. Against this verbal onslaught the purpose of the plagues is to provide answers to all the intelligentsia of the universe.
SIN DESTROYS, NOT GOD.
God had to let sin develop to where we are today, and also to where the world will be during the plagues, to provide answers. A further question which may be added to the list above is what causes the death of sinners. When God said in the garden of Eden “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17), was He saying that He will kill Adam and Eve, or did He say that the fruit are poisonous? It is submitted here that the purpose of the plagues is to prove that separation from God results in degeneration and finally destruction. The purpose is to understand that it is not God that destroys, but separation from God that destroys.
To elaborate on this principle: To reject God out of one’s life is to reject the source and the principle of life. God is the Source of everything, and He continually upholds everything by His power. He is not somewhere out there, while we carry on down here. No. We cannot see Him because He works at such a micro level that He is invisible to us. But still, the law of the universe is the law of love. He gives us everything. We return to Him a flood of love and thanksgiving. To disconnect this circuit of life is what Satan did, and that started the degeneration which eventually also engulfed our planet.
GOD WILL DESTROY
Once this principle is proven beyond doubt, namely that it is not God that destroys, but separation from God that destroys, then God will destroy the destroyers of the earth (Rev 11:18; compare 19:21). However:
‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! (Ezek. 33:11).
Through the plagues God’s justice in destroying the unbelievers and delivering the believers is made evident. It is proven that Satan’s followers will kill God’s people, as they would kill each other. It is proven abundantly that Satan’s kingdom is an evil that must be destroyed before there will be peace and freedom in the universe. Through the unconverted Satan is permitted to demonstrate what the universe would be like if he was allowed to control it. This gives God the right to destroy evil. This is the ultimate purpose of the plagues, namely to ratify the justice of God’s judgements. The plagues are described as “great and marvellous” (15:1) because because God’s judgements are wonderfully perfect. The justice of God in ending human history is made evident to men as well as angels:
For it is written, “AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.” (Rom 14:11 NASB; compare Isa 45:23)
so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (Php 2:10 NASB)
These plagues are therefore not vindictive. God is never vindictive, because He is Love.
GOD ONLY RELEASES THE PLAGUES ONCE HIS PEOPLE ARE READY.
God wants to make an end to sin as soon as possible because He hates sin and the results there-of. Furthermore, He is Almighty. He can do what He pleases. The question is therefore why He has not made an end to sin a long time ago. What is God waiting for? Why has He not made an end to sin immediately after Jesus’s victory on the cross?
One possible response is that God wants to give everybody time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). This is true with respect to individuals, but if this principle is applied to the world as a whole, the end will never come.
At some point in time God will make an end to the current world. To be able to do that, while still giving everybody ample opportunity to repent, He will create an intensified spiritual war on earth, by allowing Satan much increased influence on earth (Revelation 13), but at the same time by proclaiming the gospel with more power than ever before (Revelation 14). This will allow and also compel every thinking person to make a choice between God’s and Satan’s government. Thus God can make an end to the world while still giving everybody sufficient opportunity to repent.
But this still begs the question; why did God not bring this crisis about long ago, so as to bring an end to sin thousands of years ago? Certainly He wants to. The only reason can be that He is not able to do. If we look into Revelation for a reason, we find that He is delaying the end until there is a group of believers that are able stand in the time of utmost testing, when the winds are released:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev 7:1-3 NASB)
Now what has this to do with the plagues? Answer: The winds are the plagues. This may be proved as follows: Immediately before the plagues are poured out the world’s population is divided between two clearly demarcated groups:
After the seven plague angels are introduced (15:1), but before the plagues are poured out (16:2), we are shown “those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass” (15:2). This is therefore everybody that was victorious in the conflict of Revelation 13.
The plagues fall “on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image” (16:2). This is therefore all the other people of earth.
We find the same two contrasting groups of people in Revelation 13 and 14, but there the “victorious” group is called the 144,000:
The Image “causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead” (13:16). … the name of the beast or the number of his name
Although it is in the next chapter, only three verses later we read about the 144,000 with the seal of God on their foreheads (14:1).
The group in Revelation 13 is the same as the group in Revelation 16; both groups have the mark of the beast. This means that the other two groups are also the same; the “victorious ones” (15:2) are the 144,000 (14:1). The number of the 144,000 is therefore complete before the plagues are poured out (15:2). This means the plagues are held back until the 144,000 are sealed (ready). Therefore, God will not release the plagues before He has a group of people that are able to remain standing in this severe period of time, when the restraint of His Holy Spirit will be removed, and Satan will be able to do whatever he wants to God’s followers. God’s people will have to be able to remain standing for Him without the protection of the Holy Spirit.
The previous conclusion can also be proved in another way:
The sixth trumpet is the same as the plagues. (Only in these two sections we find the mention that the people repent not. See more detail in the discussion of the sixth trumpet.)
The sixth trumpet starts with the releasing of the winds. (Notice that four angels “hold back’ the winds (7:1), while four angels are release at the start of the sixth trumpet.)
This again means that the plagues (sixth trumpet), are held back until the 144,000 are sealed.
Satan has studied the Bible since it was written, and knows much better than we do what it says. And still He resists. The Bible is clear that Satan will never be reconciled to God. His end will be in the lake of fire (Rev 20:10). Therefore he tries his best to postpone his destination. And he has been successful for 2000 years since the cross. He knows that God cannot bring sin to an end before God has a group of followers that will not compromise their believe in God, even in the most severe situation, when—like Job—every support system will be taken away from them, and death at the hands of their enemies will seem sure. Therefore Satan does whatever he can to prevent God’s people from achieving that level of commitment. That is why Satan is working so hard to create division between churches and church members, and to lure God’s people into every form of temptation. His life depends on it.
But that is also why it is now time that we stop giving in to Satan temptations, and learn to always and in all respects follow God. This is probably the most important conclusion of this commentary.
The explanations offered here perhaps only scratch the surface of the real issues in the universe, but it is important to understand that this little planet is important in the universe wide conflict between good and evil. This planet is Satan’s last stronghold (12:9) because he lost the war in heaven (12:8). Here the final battles in the cosmic war will be fought. Are we ready?