This plague is comprised of five verses. Perhaps the most important question is why the Euphrates has to dry up to prepare the way for the kings from the east. This question is addressed in the very last section of this article.
16:12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river, the Euphrates; and its water was dried up, so that the way would be prepared for the kings from the east. (NASB)
The Euphrates is world-wide.
All followers of the Beast receive sores in plague one (16:2). All sea and fresh water turn to blood in plagues two and three (16:3, 4). The sun scorches the whole earth in plague four (16:8). Even the darkness of the fifth plague is global because the beast rules the entire world: “All who dwell on the earth will worship him” (13:8). The first five plagues are therefore world-wide. Furthermore, there are no indication of fractions in the plagues, such as the quarter mentioned in the seals (6:8) and thirds mentioned in the trumpets (8:7, 8, 10, 12, etc.). It therefore seems logical that the drying up of the waters of the Euphrates in plague six should also be understood as a global event.
Literal interpretations sometimes think of the Euphrates as literally drying up to allow literal kings from the east of literal Babylon to attack the city. Given the ability today to send aircraft and missiles to almost any place on earth, this would indeed be a strange interpretation. A river might have deterred an army in the time Revelation was written, but certainly not today.
“Euphrates” symbolises all the peoples of the world.
The Euphrates is one of the oldest rivers of history, being one of the four rivers which was fed from Eden in the pre-flood world (Gen. 2:10). It is not likely that its modern source and location match that of the pre-flood Euphrates due to the great changes in geography which almost certainly attended the breakup of the fountains of the deep at the Flood. But the pre-flood Euphrates is probably not what Revelation directs our minds to.
After the flood the flood plain of the Euphrates was the site of the first human city (Babel). Much later, in the days of Daniel the prophet, it was the site of Nebuchadnezzar’s magnificent capital city Babylon. At that time the Euphrates flowed through the ancient city of Babylon—Israel’s great Old Testament enemy Babylon—providing its water source (Jeremiah 51:12-13, 63-64). As such, it was an integral part of the city, nurturing its crops and providing water for the city’s inhabitants. Without that river, Babylon could not survive.
In the Old Testament, therefore, the ancient enemy of Israel–Babylon, which destroyed their city and temple and exiled their people, was associated with the river Euphrates. Revelation twice use the name “Euphrates” and six times the name “Babylon”, but nowhere directly specifies a relationship between the two. But Revelation does say that Babylon “sits on many waters” (17:1) and “many waters” is used in Jeremiah 51:13 as a reference to the Euphrates. The historical relationship between Babylon and the Euphrates also implies a relationship between the Babylon and the Euphrates of Revelation. It is therefore logical that in Revelation the “Euphrates” is the same as the “many waters” on which Babylon sits (17:1).
But the “many waters” is defined by Revelation as the “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (17:15). In Revelation the Euphrates is therefore not a physical river, but the population of the entire world.
“Dried up” symbolises the end of Babylon’s corrupting influence, in preparation for the deliverance of God’s people.
The historical Euphrates was dried up in preparation for the escape of Israel from Babylon. According to the famous Greek historian Herodotus, and confirmed in modern times by the Cyrus Cylinder, Babylon was overthrown when Cyrus, the Persian king, diverted the Euphrates River that runs through the centre of Babylon, allowing the Persians to wade into the city unexpected. This was prophesied by Bible prophets:
“A sword against the Chaldeans,” declares the LORD, “And against the inhabitants of Babylon … “A drought on her waters, and they will be dried up! For it is a land of idols … (Jer. 50:35-38 NASB)
Therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am going to plead your case And exact full vengeance for you; And I will dry up her sea And make her fountain dry. (Jer. 51:36 NASB)
“It is I who says to the depth of the sea, ‘Be dried up!’ And I will make your rivers dry. It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.'” (Isa 44:27-28 NASB)
Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, Whom I have taken by the right hand, To subdue nations before him … To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: (Isa 45:1 NASB)
Revelation uses events and objects from the Old Testament to describe the future, but the meaning changes. As argued above the literal Euphrates became a symbol for the peoples of the whole world. Now we will also argue that “sits on many waters” (17:1) and “water was dried up” (16:12) have symbolic meanings in Revelation.
In the Old Testament Babylon is described as “you who dwell by many waters” (Jer. 51:13). This had a literal meaning. In Revelation Babylon is described as “the great harlot who sits on many waters” (17:1). But if we understand that the many waters symbolise the peoples of the world, then Babylon’s “sitting” on the “many waters” becomes a symbol for her corrupting influence over the peoples of the world:
… those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” (Rev 17:2 NASB)
Therefore the drying up of the Euphrates becomes a symbol for the end of her corrupting influence.
But even though physical objects and events became symbols in Revelation, the underlying meaning remains. As the Red Sea parted to allowed God’s people to flee from destruction (Ex. 14:21-22), and the Jordan physically dried up for Israel to cross into the Promised Land (Jos. 3:14-17; 4:22), and the physical Euphrates dried up before the release of Israel from Babylon, and to restore His people to their land, so the symbolic Euphrates in Revelation dries up to prepare for the deliverance of God’s end time people from symbolic Babylon.
The end of Babylon’s corrupting influence is only the beginning of her complete end; she is only finally destroyed in the seventh plague (16:19).
Babylon is mentioned in this discussion without an explanation of who she is. In the final section of the discussion of the sixth plague—see below—more is said about her.
“Kings from the east” are Jesus and those that are with Him when He returns.
The fact that both the “Euphrates” and “dried up” are symbols implies that the other major feature of Rev. 16:12—the kings from the east—may be a symbol as well.
Note the name “Cyrus” in two verses quoted above. He was the commander in chief of the allied forces of the kings of Media and Persia; the king of many kings:
Consecrate the nations against her, The kings of the Medes, Their governors and all their prefects, And every land of their dominion. (Jer. 51:28 NASB cf. 51:11).
Cyrus was also “from the east”:
“Who has aroused one from the east Whom He calls in righteousness to His feet? He delivers up nations before him And subdues kings. … (Isa 41:2 NASB)
a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country (Isa. 46:11).
Therefore, in the Old Testament, Cyrus and the kings under his command were literal “kings from the east” associated with the literal drying up the literal Euphrates. Revelation packs all three (Euphrates—dry up—kings) into a single verse. The very fact that something literal, of such importance in the Old Testament, finds its way to the pages of Revelation implies that it is used as symbol in Revelation. The question is what this symbol means.
To identify these kings, note that there are two groups of kings in the sixth plague:
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river, the Euphrates; and its water was dried up, so that the way would be prepared for the kings from the east. And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs; for they are 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 16:12-14 NASB)
These two groups of kings therefore stand in opposition to each other. Because the “kings of the whole world” oppose God, the “kings from the east” are probably God’s kings. Daniel and Revelation do not simply describe wars between political kings. These books focus on the cosmic war between God and Satan.
But we are able to identify these two groups of kings with certainty. Note that the verses quoted (16:12-14) above do not describe either of the two groups of kings. The drying up of the Euphrates is not the coming of the “kings from the east”, but only prepares their “way” (16:12). This implies they will be moving from one point to another. Arguably they will be moving towards the “kings of the whole world”. Similarly, we do not already see the “kings of the whole world” gathered. The text only describes the demons that go out to gather them. So where in Revelation is described the movement of the “kings from the east” and the “gathered” “kings of the whole world”?
We find them in Revelation 19; in the description on Jesus’s return. This section describes the kings of the earth “gathered” (19:19). The NASB uses the word “assembled”, but the KJV and many other translations use “gathered”. In the underlying Greek it is exactly the same word as in 16:14 and 16:16.
We also find a second group of kings in Revelation 19, because it says the kings of the earth are gathered “to make war against” the “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (19:16, 19). This Person “is called The Word of God” (19:13). Because He is the “King of kings”, He must be leading many kings.
A third link between Revelation 16 and 19 is the movement. While the “kings of the earth” are stationary in one place, the kings led by the “King of kings” move from heaven to earth. This is the “way” that has been prepared by the drying up of the Euphrates (16:12):
“The armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (19:13).
The links between Revelation 16 and 19, mentioned thus far, are:
- The gathered kings
- Two groups of kings
- The movement of the two groups
A fourth link may be added, namely that both sections actually mention five parties. On Satan’s side both sections refer to the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet and the gathered kings of the earth. It follows therefore that the fifth party mentioned, referred to as the “kings from the east” in 16:12, and the “kings” that are with Christ in 19:16, must refer to the same group. The “kings from the east” is therefore Jesus, and those that are with Him when He returns.
Supporting evidence for this conclusion includes:
TYPE: Cyrus is a type of Christ when He delivers God’s people. God used Cyrus and his kings to deliver His people from their oppressors and bring them back from captivity to their homeland (Jer. 50:33-34). God said: “He will build My city and let My people go free” (Isa. 45:13; cf. 44:28). God therefore calls him the “anointed one” (Isa. 45:1) and “My shepherd” (44:28). These most honourable titles (Isa. 45:4) were later reserved for Jesus.
EAST: “East” in Revelation is associated with God. The angel brings the seal of God from the east (7:2) and Jesus is called “the bright morning star” (22:16). “Morning” reminds us of the east, because the sun rises in the east, and the term in Greek for the east is literally “the rising of the sun”. “East” is also associated with God in the Old Testament:
and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the way of the east. And His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory (Eze. 43:2).
The darkness causes the drying up of the Euphrates.
The first four plagues only fall on people with the mark of the beast, while the persecuted minority are free from these plagues. The persecuting majority must therefore start to realise that they are wrong. Then, in the fifth plague, the messages of Revelation 18 are proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, destroying the Beast’s religious authority and convincing the people that the Beast’s kingdom is actually darkness. (See the discussion of the fifth plague.) This results in the people withdrawing their support from Babylon, symbolised by the drying up of the Euphrates. In this way the plagues follow each other logically.
An important question is why the water of the Euphrates has to dry up before the return of Jesus Christ. This question is deferred because the answer is given by what follows.
16:13 And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs; (NASB)
This is a turning point in the plagues. Up to this point in the plagues the Beast only suffered defeat. But now it seems as if the attack of the Beast power is renewed. It also seems as if the tactics of the Beast changes. Their claims to speak for the true God has been destroyed, resulting in the Beast losing popular support, symbolised by the Euphrates drying up, but the unclean spirits like frogs seem to give them renewed power to deceive.
The False Prophet is the beast out the earth.
Both the False Prophet and the Earth-Beast are described as performing miraculous signs on behalf of the Beast and deceiving the inhabitants of the earth (13:13-14; 19:20). They are therefore the same. The “Earth” is where it comes from. A “False Prophet” is what it is.
The False Prophet, although at first appearing like a lamb, speaks like a dragon (13:11)—He tells those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast (Rev. 13:14).
The False Prophet always appears in tandem with the Dragon and the Beast (Rev 13:1, 11, 12; 16:13; 19:20-20:2; 20:10). The Dragon appears first on the scene, as the “serpent of old” (12:9), but also represents the fourth Beast of Daniel 7 (the Roman Empire) when it tries to devour Jesus (12:4). (See the article on the seven headed beasts of Revelation.) Later it calls “The Beast” out of the sea (13:1). This Beast receives a deadly wound, but recovers (13:3). Then the false prophet arrives on the scene (13:11). These three then work together until the return of Christ, at which stage their paths separate. The Dragon spends the Millennium (thousand years) in the abyss (20:1-2), while the Beast and False Prophet are in the lake of fire (19:20). After the thousand years the Dragon joins the other two in the lake of fire, where they will remain “forever and ever” (20:10).
The Beast is the same as the fifth beast of Daniel 7 (the 11th horn), (see the article of the seven headed beasts of Revelation), and is identified in the discussion of Daniel 7. The False Prophet is identified in the discussion of Revelation 13.
What comes from mouths symbolises will and deeds.
In Revelation things often symbolically come out of mouths. “Fire, smoke and brimstone” come out of the mouths of the two hundred million horses in the sixth trumpet (9:16, 17). If anyone wants to harm God’s two witnesses, “fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies” (11:5). The Dragon, also represented as the serpent of old (Satan in the Garden of Eden) “poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman” in an effort to destroy her (12:15). (There are two women in Revelation. The Serpent tries to destroy the pure woman. The harlot woman is described in Revelation 17.) From Jesus’s “mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations” (19:15). At His return He will kill everyone that has the mark of the Beast with this sword (19:21).
It should be clear that these are not literal things coming out of literal mouths. The mouth is the organ which reflects the will as evidenced by one’s words. For example, the Earth-Beast (the False Prophet) “spoke as a dragon” (13:12), which means “he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence” (Rev 13:12-13). Another example is the image, which will “speak and cause as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (13:15). What comes from mouths therefore represents the character’s will and actions.
The unclean spirits symbolise the doctrines of demons
The question is then; what are the “unclean spirits” coming out of the mouths of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet? The next verse (16:14) explains the unclean spirits as demons. In the Gospels the term “unclean spirit” is used interchangeably with “demon.” (Mark 1:27, 34; 3:11, 15; 6:7; etc.) We find several stories where Jesus cast out such spirits (Mar 1:23; 5). Jesus healed a man in a synagogue who had an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-27). In the country of the Gadarenes Jesus cast out a legion of unclean spirits into a herd of pigs (Mark 5:2-13). When Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two, He gave them power over unclean spirits (Mark 6:7, 12). The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was attributing an unclean spirit to Jesus (Mark 3:30).
It is not proposed that literal demons come out of the mouths of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet, but rather that they represent the persuasive and deceptive propaganda which in the last days will lead men to an unconditional commitment to the cause of evil. Paul calls false teaching the doctrine of demons:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron. (1Ti. 4:1-2)
“Like frogs” indicate the repulsiveness of the unclean spirits.
Some believe the demons are compared to frogs because frogs catch their prey with their tongues. Others see some symbolic meaning in the fact that the frogs were the last plague on Egypt which the Egyptian wizards were able to replicate. The view here is that the frogs must be understood like the unclean and hateful birds, which are also mentioned with unclean spirits (18:2), namely simply something that highlights the repulsiveness of the unclean spirits in the sight of God.
16:14 for they are 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. (NASB)
Demons are angels that were deceived by Satan to rebel against God (Rev. 12:4).
The demonic realm is real. The manipulation of the kings will be so complete that they themselves will think they are following their own will, but it is the demons who drag them forward.
Signs are supernatural manifestations of various kinds.
Signs constitute a means by which Satan works through human agencies. The dazzling miracles will enchant and deceive the whole world. They will “authenticate” the claims of power and authority of the person performing them, and succeeds in uniting the world behind his purpose:
Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, (2Th 2:8-11 NASB)
false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See I have told you beforehand” (Mtt. 24:24 cf. Mark 13:22).
He (beast from the earth) performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men. And 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, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life. (Rev 13:13-14 NASB)
Please note that in all three instances quoted the purpose of the miracles are to deceive. Signs may be legitimate miracles, but that does not mean it is the power of God. All it means is that it is supernatural:
“If a prophet … arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods … and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet … for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 13:1-3 NASB)
The gathered kings are not the Image of the Beast.
In Revelation 13 the evil trio of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet are mentioned (13:1, 2, 11, 12). The False Prophet deceives the peoples of the world through miracles to create an image to the Beast (13:14). It is then the Image that kills and otherwise persecutes God’s people (13:15-17). Because it is through signs and wonders that both the Image is created (13:14) and the kings gathered (16:14), and because it is the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet that create the Image and gather the kings, one might be inclined to think that the Image is the same as the gathered kings.
However, they are not the same. It is the Image that gives the people the mark of the beast (13:16). The Image is therefore created before people are given the mark. The kings, on the other hand, are gathered after the plagues start to fall on the people with the mark. The kings are therefore gathered after the mark is given to the people.
16:15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame.”) (NASB)
To come like a thief means it is not possible to know when Christ will return.
Sometimes the “coming like a thief” is used to justify an invisible and inaudible rapture seven years before the visible return of Christ. However, “coming like a thief” does not indicate that the event is inaudible or invisible. It indicates that the event is not predictable. It means that nobody would know when Jesus will return:
… if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Mtt. 24:42-44)
… be like men who wait for their master, when he will return … they may open to him immediately. … if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched … Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Luke 12:35-40)
… For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them … But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. … Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. (1Th. 5:1-6)
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2Pe 3:10 NASB) (See also Rev 3:3)
Coming like a thief therefore consistently indicates unpredictability. Notice also in the verses quoted that the Lord’s coming like a thief is associated with “sudden destruction”, “heavens will pass away with a roar” and “the earth and its works will be burned up”. “Coming like a thief” clearly does not refer to something inaudible or invisible. In two of the verses quoted it is indicated twice that it is the “day of the Lord” that come like a thief.
The church will be on earth during the plagues.
While Dispensationalists postulates a secret rapture which would come at an hour the world does not expect, they also hold that the timing of the events after the rapture—often referred to by Dispensationalists as the Tribulation–is not subject to uncertainty. They hold that numerous time-indicators in the Bible give a precise number of days between the secret rapture and the visible return of Christ. Further, in their view the rapture occurs in Revelation 4:1, while the plagues are poured out later.
But then we have a contradiction when 16:15 uses the familiar NT expression “coming like a thief” to indicate unexpectedness. Dispensationalists therefore propose that 16:15 refers to events before 4:1. It is agreed that the warning in 16:15 is very similar to the advice to the churches. To the Church in Sardis He says:
… I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (Rev 3:3 NASB)
To the Church in Laodicea He says:
I advise you to buy from Me … white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed … (Rev 3:18 NASB)
Added together, these two verses sound very similar to 16:15. It is therefore same warning, given to the same people, at the same time. However, it is not agreed with Dispensationalists that the warning in 16:15 belongs before a secret rapture. Rather, the interpretation here is that the Church would still be on earth during the plagues.
Keeping one’s clothes symbolises righteous behaviour or good works.
Consistent with the image of the surprise coming of a thief, the image portrayed by 16:15 is of a person having disrobed and fallen asleep, and then awakened by surprise and forced to parade about naked.
In Revelation garments is often use to symbolise one’s spiritual condition. Revelation sometimes uses “defiled garments” (3:4) or nakedness (3:17-18) as a symbol for sin, while “white” or “clean” garments (3:4-5; 6:11; 19:8) symbolise the spiritual condition of the people who “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The righteous deeds we therefore receive from God. He is the Source of all that is good.
Note that God’s people are urged to “keep their clothes” (16:15). Unlike the Laodiceans (3:18), they are not to advised to buy white garments. Consistent with the idea that entrance into the temple is barred and the time for repentance has therefore passed when the plagues fall, Rev 16:15 is only a call to God’s people, not a call to sinners for repentance. This is consistent with the message in Revelation 18, which also is only a call to God’s people (18:4).
Saints are called to courage in 16:15 because the world is uniting against them.
The message of 16:15 is brought to the believers at the time the demons gather the kings of the earth. Revelation 16:15 explains the issue in the final plagues. No war between nations is in view here. The climax of Revelation is a far more serious evil in God’s sight: apostate religious forces will lead ALL political and religious powers on earth to unite in one common cause, waging war against God’s people!
The interlude is not missing.
Many commentators mention that the customary interlude between the sixth and seventh elements of the sequence seems to be missing in the plagues. However, the interludes are not between the sixth and seventh, but part of the sixth:
In the sixth seal the peoples of the world try to hide from “Him who sits on the throne” and ask “who is able to stand” (6:16, 17). They are therefore asking who are able to stand before the throne of God. Then follows a description of the 144,000 (7:1-8), but they are not presented as standing before the throne. Then the innumerable multitude is presented (7:9-17), and they áre standing before the throne.Because the innumerable multitude is standing before the throne, it is concluded that they are the answer to the question above. The description of the innumerable multitude is there the continuation after the question, while the 144,000 is an interruption. Further, because the seventh seal only follows in chapter 8, the description of the innumerable multitude is part of the sixth seal. The interruption is therefore not between the sixth and seven seals, but part of the sixth seal.
In the trumpets the sixth trumpet ends (11:14) with a “great earthquake” and the unbelievers being terrified giving glory to the God of heaven (11:13). The interruption, starting with 10:1, is therefore not between the sixth and seventh, but also part of the sixth.
The same applies to the sixth plague, where the plague is interrupted by the warning to believers to keep their clothes (16:15). The interlude is therefore still there—part of the sixth plague—but much shorter.
16:16 And they gathered them together to the place which in Hebrew is called Har-Magedon. (NASB)
The gathering is described here, but not the war for which they are gathered (16:14).
There is no place called Har-Magedon.
Har means mountain. Magedon is normally connected with Megiddo, an ancient fortress-city located on a plain in the southwest portion of the Valley of Jezreel (Jewish name) or Esdraelon (Greek name), some sixty miles north of Jerusalem. Har-Magedon would mean “the Mountain of Megiddo,” but here a difficulty arises: there is no Mount Megiddo. None of the solutions offered is especially persuasive:
Har-Magedon could be a reference to the hill country surrounding the Plain of Megiddo. More than two hundred battles have been fought in that region.
It could be a reference to Megiddo and Mount Carmel in the same breath. Mount Carmel hosted one of the most significant battles in Israel’s history—the battle in which the prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 King 18). This spiritual battle may stand behind the battle of Armageddon.
One frequent suggestion is that it refers to Ezekiel’s prophecy of a great eschatological slaughter of the nations on “the mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 38:8-21; 39:2, 4, 17) and then made the reference more specific by adding the name Megiddo as the place where so often in Israel’s history the enemies of God were destroyed.
Others interpret Har-Magedon without reference to Megiddo.
The symbolic context and the fact that there is no literal Har-Magedon indicate that it should be understood figuratively.
Armageddon is not a physical war, but God’s judgement between the sheep and the goats.
Literal interpreters understand Armageddon to be a literal war. They propose that all the armies of the world will fit into the Megiddo valley. This is not possible. A major part of warfare today is on sea and by air. Through missiles, aircraft and aircraft carriers a modern army can strike very precisely anywhere in the world. The interpretation of a literal war in this valley also does not fit with the global nature of the plagues.
To understand Armageddon it is important to understand that it is described in many places in the book of Revelation, even though the name Armageddon only appears in 16:16:
REVELATION 19: In the discussion of the “kings from the east” the many similarities between the sixth plague and Revelation 19 were noted. In both Revelation 16 and 19 there are two groups of kings (16:12, 14; 19:16, 19). In both the “kings of the earth” are gathered to one place (16:16; 19:19) while the other kings move from one place to another (16:12; 19:14). In both we find five parties; the Dragon, Beast, False Prophet, the “kings of the earth” and the other group of kings (16:12-14; 19:20; 20: 2). In both the kings are assembled together for war (16:14; 19:19). Both are also called “the day of God”. The sixth plague explicitly says that the kings are gathered for “the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (16:14), while Revelation 19 ends with all the people of the world dead (19:21). This—according to Isaiah 13:9 and Zephaniah 1:18—will happen on the “day of the Lord”. Then God “will exterminate all sinners” (Isa 13:9). “He will make a complete end, Indeed a terrifying one, Of all the inhabitants of the earth (Zeph. 1:18). The war at the end of Revelation 19 therefore also the “day of the Lord”. It is therefore concluded that the war at the end of Revelation 19 is also “the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (16:14). The “place” where this war takes places is called Armageddon in Hebrew (16:16).
HARVEST: The harvest at the end of Revelation 14 is also a description of Armageddon because, like the war at the end of Revelation 19 (19:15), it refers to the treading of the wine press (14:20).
SIXTH SEAL: The sixth seal is also the “day of the Lord” because it is described as the “great day of their wrath” (6:17), which links it to “the great day of God” in the sixth plague, for which the kings are gathered (16:14).
Once we understand that Armageddon is described repeatedly in Revelation, and that it is the war of the “day of the Lord” it is no longer possible to understand it as a literal war between the nations of the earth. It must be interpreted according to the frequent references in the Bible to the “day of the Lord”. The sixth plague is the only place in the Bible where the exact phrase “the great day of God, the Almighty” occurs. But the variations of this phrase “great day of the LORD” and “the day of the LORD” appear in nearly 30 verses.
An analysis of these verses reveals that the most frequently mentioned characteristic of this day is that it is presented as near and coming very quickly (Zeph. 1:7, 14; Isa 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1; 3:14; Oba 1:15).
We find the same principle in Revelation, where the predicted events are described as “the things which must soon take place” (1:1) and “the time is near” (22:10). Interpreters often want to interpret “near” as literal, but Revelation also contains a prophecy of a period of 1000 years. Could it literally be said that the events after the 1000 years are near? No, it is preferable to understand “near” figurative. It should rather be understood as a call to immediate repentance by us, to be contrasted to what the rich fool who thought himself save for many years to come:
“I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”‘ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ (Luk 12:18-20 NASB)
A second characteristic of that day is that “The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood” (Joel 2:31; Act 2:20). In Revelation, before it describes the peoples of the world hiding from the Lord in caves and under rocks, the sixth seal elaborates on these signs:
The sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind (6:12, 13)
A third characteristic of the “day of the Lord” is that it is “the day of the LORD’S anger” (Zep 2:2, 3) and “wrath” (Zep 1:18 NASB). It is “Cruel, with fury and burning anger” (Isa 13:9).
This is consistent with Revelation’s representation of that day. All the peoples of the world will scream “to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:16-17 NASB). And “He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. (Rev 19:15 NASB)
Fourthly, the “day of the Lord” is a day of “destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6; Joel 1:15). It “will make the land a desolation” (Isa 13:9). “All the earth will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy” (Zeph. 1:18). The heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2Pe 3:10).
This is also consistent with Revelation’s representation of that day: “The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (Rev 6:14 NASB). “Every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (Rev 16:20 NASB).
But the most important characteristic of the “day of the Lord” is that it is a day of judgement. “As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head” (Oba 1:15). Joel calls it “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). On that day clear and utter distinction will be made. God “will exterminate all sinners” (Isa 13:9). “He will make a complete end, Indeed a terrifying one, Of all the inhabitants of the earth (Zeph. 1:18). But God’s people will “be hidden in the day of the LORD’S anger” (Zeph. 2:3). They will “be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Co 5:5 NASB).
It is worth studying Joel’s powerful description of that day in more detail. Please note the many similarities to the three main Armageddon-passages in Revelation, highlighted in blue:
Proclaim this among the nations: ‘Prepare for war! Wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near, let them come up.’ Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am strong.’ Assemble and come, all you nations, and gather together all around. Cause your mighty ones to go down there, O LORD. Let the nations be wakened, and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; for the winepress is full, the vats overflow; for their wickedness is great. Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars will diminish their brightness. The LORD also will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; the heavens and earth will shake; but the LORD will be a shelter for his people, and the strength of the children of Israel. So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, dwelling in Zion my holy mountain. Then Jerusalem shall be holy, and no aliens shall ever pass through her again. (Joel 3:9-17)
Therefore, both Joel and Revelation, when describing the “day of the Lord”, refers to a harvest, a winepress, preparation for war, assemble and gather together, sickle, signs to the sun moon and stars and terrible earthquakes.
But more importantly, distinction will on that day be made between the lost and the redeemed. In the sixth seal the lost try to hide in the rocks and caves (6:15), while the saved stand before the throne (7:9). In the harvest the lost are symbolised by “the clusters from the vine of the earth” (14:18), which “was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles” (14:20). In contrast the saved is called the “harvest of the earth” (14:15) because they “have been purchased from among men” (14:4). In Revelation 19 the lost are killed (19:21), while the saved are described as “kings” (19:16). In Joel the wicked are trampled in the winepress while LORD will be a shelter for his people. This distinction is also described by the parable:
“All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. (Mat 25:32-33 NASB)
Joel’s valley of decision and Mount Magedon is therefore the same place. There God “will sit to judge” (Joel 3:12). After thousands of years of religious persecution, God will make distinction between His people and unbelievers at Armageddon.
The kings of the earth (Rev. 16:14) are therefore not gathered by the spirits of demons (Rev. 16:13) to a physical place, but to unity in mind and spirit. The kings of the earth are “gathered” in the sense that they are all convinced to join forces against the enemy of the world, namely the Lamb, represented by His people living on earth.
Why must the water dry up to prepare the way of the kings from the east?
Before the plagues are poured out, the Image of the Beast persecutes God’s people, and kills some of them (13:15; 14:13). We know they are not all killed because later—in the sixth plague—they are warned to keep their clothes (16:15). The Image is able to identify God’s people by their non-acceptance of the mark of the Beast (13:16-17). The peoples of the world are therefore divided into two clearly demarcated groups.
The point it time when everybody has been sealed for eternity, either by acceptance of the mark of the Beast or the seal of God, is symbolised by the temple filling up “with smoke from the glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter the temple” (15:8). In the Old Testament Israelites went to the temple to obtain forgiveness for sins. The same applies in the New Testament, but the temple is now in heaven:
“He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebr. 2:17). “Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. (Heb 8:2 NASB) Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16 NASB)
Therefore, when the temple is closed for entrance (15:8), the time for “mercy” and “grace” has passed. From this point forward, nobody will repent.
Then the plagues start to fall, but only on the majority with the mark of the Beast (16:2). The people start to realise they are wrong. In the fifth plague the Beast’s kingdom is darkened when the plague falls on its throne. The Beast’s throne is interpreted as its religious authority. (See the discussion of the fifth plague.) Therefore, when the plague falls on its throne, it means that its religious authority suffers humiliation in the eyes of the peoples of the world. They then realise that the Beast’s claims to be speaking for the true God are false, symbolised by the darkness in his kingdom.
Then the Euphrates dries up. This is interpreted above as Babylon losing control over the peoples of the world. Babylon is identified in a separate article. In short, Babylon is the religious element of the trio of evil powers that we so frequently read about in Revelation; the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet. Therefore, when the Euphrates dries up, the Beast power loses its religious authority over the peoples of the world. They previously thought that the Beast represents the true God, but now they realise that it does not represent the true God.
But then there is a new development. Up to this point, in the plagues at least, the Beast power has suffered blow after blow. It is on its knees, but now receives renewed power in the form of “spirits of demons, performing signs” (16:14). The entrance on the scene of demons that perform signs is a new and intensified attack by the evil powers. Satanic powers are now allowed an even more direct involvement in the control of the peoples of the world. These spirits are so powerful that they are able “to go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (16:14).
Now follows an important but horrible conclusion; earlier the people thought they were serving the true God, but realise they do not. They realise they are actually controlled and led by Satan. When Satan sends his demons to gather the kings, they now realise know that they are serving Satan. It was argued before that the messages of Revelation 18 are proclaimed with the fifth plague. The people therefore understand that Babylon “has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit” (18:2), but at this stage they are so hardened that they find it impossible to change, and the miracle working spirits are able to convince them to follow Satan. The fact that the world is the kingdom of Satan is no longer covered by a cloak of deception. The people know they oppose the true God; the God of the Bible.
This brings us back to a question previously deferred, namely why does the Euphrates have to dry up before the return of Jesus? How is the new weapon of the Beast—the miracle working demons—different from what it used before? Stated differently; why do the people have to realise that the Beast is not speaking for God, but is actually speaking for Satan, before Jesus can return?
The answer to these questions is related to the purpose of the plagues, which is discussed in a separate article. The question is why Jesus does not return immediately when everybody is marked for eternity. In that article it is argued that the purpose of the plagues is to prove to all of God’s intelligent creatures, throughout the universe, that God’s judgement of people is right and perfect. God knows exactly what is in each person, but His intelligent creatures do not. Remember that this crisis on earth occurs against the backdrop of a rebellion against God’s government which originated in heaven, when a vast number of holy angels joined the ranks of Satan (Gen 3:1, read with Rev 20:2; Rev 12:4; Dan 10:13; Job 1:6). God wants His intelligent creature to understand His judgement because He wants them to trust Him completely. Therefore He does not simply judge between people. He proves to the universe that He judges right. Please read the article on the purpose of the plagues should a better explanation of this principle be required.
The reason why the drying up of the Euphrates paves the way for the kings from the east is related to this principle. Up to this point the peoples of the world thought they are Christian; or at least they thought they are following the true God. What would happen if the understood they are Satan’s followers? Would they then repent? This then is the final test that is required before Jesus may return to the world He created. The people must clearly understand they are following Satan. They must clearly understand the issues. And this they do, due to the mighty angel of Revelation 18 illuminating the whole world with his power. Now, in full realisation of what they do, people choose against God and for Satan. This is the final evidence required by God’s intelligent creatures. Now God has answered every question that any of His followers—peoples, angels and other beings—may ever ask with respect to His judgement. When all questions are answered, Jesus may return.
Next: Seventh Plague