Revelation 16; The first four plagues

The closing of the temple in heaven in Revelation 15:8 is a major turning point in the history of mankind.  From this point in time forward, nobody will be saved.  Revelation 16 explains what happens on earth after the temple has been closed, and the plagues start to fall.  This happens 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 will be visible, for the people with the seal of God will be 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 that they are in the wrong.  How do they respond?  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 and who refused 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).

After this, John saw the seven angels receiving the seven last plagues and leaving the temple in heaven (15:5-7).

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, for the voice comes from the temple.  Since “no man was able to enter into the temple” (15:8), this must be the voice of God Himself.  As from 16:2 the focus shifts to the earth, describing the pouring out of the seven bowls upon the earth.

Not seven literal 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)

The people who …

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 have the mark of the beast and the people who worship his image are therefore not two categories of people, but one group.

The plagues follow after Revelation 13 and 14

The first plague is poured out upon the people who have received the mark of the beast.  The plagues are therefore 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 the distinction visible.

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.  The plagues are poured out while God’s people are still being killed because they refuse to worship the image (13:15), for the Image is trying 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.  The people of the world see this.  How they would respond 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:

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. 

16:4 Then the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. 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.” 

God already came.

Revelation usually describes God as “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4, 8; 4:8), referring to His eternal essence.  But 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 (11:17) God is described similarly, for “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (11:15).

The angel of the waters

The “angel of the waters” is the one who poured the plague on the water.   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, the mother of harlots.  She is “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (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 sits on the “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues” (17:15), which implies that she uses 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 this 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 2000 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 (13:7, 10) and his image (13:15) slaughter the saints during Satan’s final attempt to overthrow God’s plan.

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

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

The altar is a symbol of the martyred believers.

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

Golden altar: 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).

Altar of 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.”  It was therefore the voice from this altar which we heard before (6:9-11).  It is also 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 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. 

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.  But God’s people will somehow be protected from this scorching fire (16:2).

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

The plagues reveal.

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 they are.  Therefore, during this period of persecution, a distinction between the world and God’s people becomes clearly visible to everybody.  There will be 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 Babylon, the mother of harlots.)  Both groups claim to represent God on earth.  But in the view of the people of the world the people of God (13:8) are a dangerous sect.

Then the plagues start to fall, but only affect one of these groups, namely the majority—the followers of the beast (16:2).  Now the world can see that the despised minority do not suffer as a result of the plagues, and they must realize that they themselves are wrong and are fighting against God.  But they became 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 God.  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, namely that a person who has become unable to repent is said to have received the mark of the beast.

Because Revelation mentions that they did not repent, we need to assume that the opportunity for them to repent still exists, even at this late hour.  God’s hand of mercy is still being extended, but these multitudes will have none of it.  It is not that God does not want to forgive.  It is that men have become 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 refuse to 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:

Firstly, 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)

Secondly, the fourth seal is a summary of the previous three.

Thirdly, 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.

Fourthly,  the first four plagues similarly target the same four components of man’s environment, namely the earth, sea, waters and sun, and are therefore simply interpreted as plagues that will fall on the entire earth.

Fifthly, the first four of a series are described in much fewer words than the whole series:

– The first four seals cover only 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 four of each series, 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 are 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 in each series are much longer than the first four.  In each of the sevens we find an interlude between the sixth and the seventh, and these interlude provide background information which explains the last three of the series, which therefore also explain the entire 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 plagues (16:15) is discussed below.

Next: Fifth Plague

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