INTRODUCTION TO THE PLAGUES OF REVELATION 16
The seven plagues in Revelation 16 are actually part of the series of events that we refer to as the Return of Christ. The plagues will be preceded by the persecution of Christians by other Christians. These two groups will differ in doctrines but the more important difference is that the persecuting group will display Satan’s attitude of force and persecution. The people with the mark of the beast will be orthodox Christians for they will accept the doctrines that have been developed over the centuries and classify and persecute other Christians as dangerous heretics. The same doctrinal controversies which we see today in the church will form the basis for that persecution. The difference, compared to today, will be in how much power GOD ALLOWS Satan to persecute His true people. (See Introduction to the Plagues of Revelation 16.)
FIRST FOUR PLAGUES ARE NON-SPECIFIC
Revelation has seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowl plagues. Some interpreters spend more time on the first four of a series than on the last three. This article proposes that the first four of each of these series of seven are general and should NOT BE INDIVIDUALLY INTERPRETED. But the last three in each series are specific and individually interpreted. In each of the series of seven, we also find an interlude between the sixth and the seventh. These interludes provide essential background information that explains the entire series. (See The First Four Plagues are non-specific.)
FIRST BOWL – EARTH
“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.” (Revelation 16:2)
In Revelation 13, the people of the earth, on demand of the false prophet, establish the IMAGE OF THE BEAST (13:14). This image then attempts to compel all people to worship (obey) itself 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 different groups of people, but one and the same group.
GOD’S PEOPLE PROTECTED
The plagues are poured out while God’s people are still being killed because they refuse to worship (obey) the image (13:15). But then the plagues start to fall ONLY on the worshipers of the beast (Revelation 16:2, 10). God’s people do not suffer from the plagues. The worshipers of the beast must now realize that they are working against God. How do they respond? Will they repent? This is discussed below.
SECOND BOWL – SEA
“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.” (Revelation 16:3)
Here, God destroys His creation. That which God so lavishly created on the fifth day, He utterly destroys by means of the second 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:
“God created … every living thing …
with which the waters abounded, according to their kind
… And God saw that it was GOOD“ (Genesis 1:20-23)!
THIRD BOWL- WATERS
16:4 … 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.“
WHO ARE AND WHO WERE
Revelation often describes God as “Him who IS and who WAS and who is TO COME” (1:4, 8; 4:8). This identifies God as eternal. But the “is to come”-part is omitted in Revelation 16:5 because, as concluded in a previous article, the plagues are part of the RETURN OF CHRIST. Fortunes are being reversed. When the plagues start, God’s people are persecuted, but when the plagues come to an end, the worshipers of the beast are dead, as explained below.
The seventh trumpet (11:17) similarly omits the “is to come”-part, describing God only as He “who are and who were,” for at that point in time Christ has already come:
”the kingdom of the world HAS BECOME
the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (11:15).
Revelation consists of several sections, each ending with the return of Christ. For a discussion of this, see Are the events in Revelation in a strict chronological sequence?
POURED OUT THE BLOOD OF SAINTS
Later in Revelation, we will read about the harlot Babylon, the mother of harlots:
She is “drunk with the BLOOD of the saints” (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).
God’s enemies 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 mentioned this in His parables:
“The vine-growers took his slaves and BEAT one,
and KILLED another, and STONES a third.” (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.
GOD JUDGES FAIRLY.
“And I heard the altar saying,
‘Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
TRUE AND RIGHTEOUS are Your judgments.’”
The angel has said basically the same thing:
“RIGHTEOUS ARE YOU …
because You judged these things” (v5-6)
Both the angel and the altar confirm that God’s decisions are “true and righteous.” This relates to the purpose of the plagues, which is to serve as “demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). This is discussed below.
One does not normally expect altars 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” altar (8:3), from which rises “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints” (8:4), is also called the altar of incense. It was INSIDE the Jewish temple. In Revelation, this altar is “before the throne” (8:3) and therefore “in the temple” (Revelation 16:17), which is IN HEAVEN (11:19).
Altar of burnt offerings: In Revelation 6 John saw “underneath THE ALTAR the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (6:9). This “altar” was symbolized by the Jewish altar of burnt offerings, which was OUTSIDE the temple. In represents the martyrdom of Christ and His people. This altar is ON EARTH because that is where God’s people are persecuted and killed.
The altar in Revelation 16:7 is probably the altar of burnt offering because it is not identified as “golden” and because it responds to the statement in the previous verse about the pouring out of “the blood of saints and prophets.”
In the fifth seal,
“The souls of those who had been slain …
cried out … How long, O Lord, holy and true,
will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” (6:9-10).
The plagues are the answer to this request. In the plagues, the long delay in God’s judgment comes to an end, and the third plague-angel says,
“They poured out the blood of saints and prophets,
and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (16:6).
FOURTH BOWL – SUN
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 stimulates plant growth, and regulates climate and many other processes necessary to maintain life. But now it sends forth an excess of heat that torments men and destroys life. But, somehow, God’s people will be protected from this scorching fire (16:2).
The sins of the people that worship (obey) the image of the beast include that they persecute God’s people (13:15). Since they refuse to repent, it means that God’s people are still being persecuted.
PURPOSE OF THE PLAGUES
While the angel of the water and the altar praise God for His final judgments (16:5-7), the worshipers of the beat curse Him.
When the plagues start to fall, but they only affect the worshipers of the beast (16:2). The people with the mark of the beast can see that the despised minority do not suffer the consequences of the plagues, and they must realize that they themselves are opposing God. But they have become so entrenched in their ways that they are UNABLE TO REPENT (16:9, 11, 21). Even in the face of the devastation around them, their hearts are set against God in such hatred that all they can do is to continue on their evil ways, and curse God.
God knows that nothing will convince those, who have taken the mark of the beast, to repent. God’s creatures, however, do not have His knowledge. The PURPOSE OF THE PLAGUES is to prove to all intelligent beings in the universe that the worshipers of the beast have passed an invisible point of no return, and are unable to repent from their hatred, even under the most severe circumstance.
The plagues will, therefore, show that God is right when He destroys them, which He will do in the last plague.
MARK OF THE BEAST
That is actually the meaning of the MARK OF THE BEAST. Rephrased, 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 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 these people have become unable to change.
God is identified as He “who are and who were” because the plagues are part of the RETURN OF CHRIST. These are the LAST plagues. When they end, all the people with the mark of the beast are dead.
The first four bowls target the earth, sea, waters and the sun, but God’s people are protected from the plagues. The people with the mark of the beast can see this, but they have become so entrenched in their ways that they are UNABLE TO REPENT. Even in the face of the devastation around them, their hearts are set against God in such hatred that all they can do is to continue on their evil ways, and curse God.
Both the third angel and the altar—a symbol of the martyrdom of God’s people—confirm that God’s decisions are “true and righteous.” This is the PURPOSE OF THE PLAGUES, namely to demonstrate that God is just, namely to prove to all the universe that the worshipers of the beast are unable to repent from their hatred, even under the most severe circumstance. The plagues will, therefore, show that God is right when He destroys them, which He will do in the last plague.
That is actually the meaning of the MARK OF THE BEAST. God is always willing to save, but a person who has become unable to repent is said to have received the mark of the beast.
Next: Fifth Plague