Chapter 15 introduces the seven angels tasked with unleashing the “seven last plagues on the earth,” and chapter 16 describes their effects. They are labeled “last” because they complete God’s “wrath.” The “seven bowls of wrath” comprise the third sevenfold series in Revelation, and all three culminate in “flashes of lightning, voices, and claps of thunder.”
The “seven bowls of wrath” employ images from the Exodus story, including the ten plagues of Egypt, Israel’s exodus, the overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the “Song of Moses,” and the “Tent of Testimony” from the wilderness. Each of the seven “last plagues” corresponds to one of the Egyptian plagues.
The targets of the “plagues” include the “inhabitants of the earth” that take the “mark of the beast,” the political authority of the “beast,” and the “great city, Babylon.”
“The seven last plagues” refers to their literary order, not to their chronological sequence. They are the “last ones” because they complete God’s “wrath” on his earthly opponents. The destruction unleashed previously by the “seven trumpets” was partial, but that of the “seven bowls” is total.
The punishments of the “inhabitants of the earth” and of “Babylon” announced in chapter 14 are detailed and enacted in chapter 16 by the “seven bowls of wrath”:
- “The hour of judgment is come.”
- “Fallen is Babylon the great.”
- “If any man worships the beast and receives a mark on his forehead, he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God.”
LITERARY STRUCTURE. The first paragraph is transitional. It introduces the “bowls of wrath” and concludes the literary unit that began after the “seventh trumpet” sounded – (Revelation 11:15-19, 12:1, 15:1-4).
The series of “bowls” is the final segment of the larger literary unit, which consists of seven visions. The commencement of each vision is marked by the formula, “and I saw,” or, “and behold”:
- The Dragon’s war against the woman and “her seed” – (12:1-17).
- The “Beast from the sea” – (13:1-10).
- The “Beast from the earth” – (13:11-18).
- The Lamb and the 144,000 “males” on Mount Zion – (14:1-5).
- Three angels announce the impending judgment – (14:6-13).
- The final judgment and the Son of Man’s “harvest” – (14:14-20).
- The “seven bowls of wrath” – (15:1-16:21).
The “seven trumpets” and “seven bowls” are parallel. In both, the first four judgments affect the earth, sea, freshwater supplies, and heavenly bodies, the fifth judgment causes darkness and pain, the sixth judgment unleashes malevolent hordes from beyond the Euphrates River, and the seventh concludes with the final judgment. Both series use language from the plagues of Egypt.
Chapter 15 is structurally parallel to the “seventh seal,” which introduced the seven angels with the “seven trumpets.” Before the angels began to sound, a worship scene ensued in preparation for the sounding of the “seven trumpets.” The “prayers of the saints” were offered on the “golden altar,” then the angel hurled fire from the altar onto the earth, resulting in “claps of thunders and voices and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” Likewise, in chapter 15, the victorious saints “sang the song of Moses and the Lamb” before the “seven angels” were released to empty the contents of their bowls – (Revelation 8:1-6).
And there are structural parallels between the “seven seals” and the “seven bowls of wrath.” In both series, the first four “seals” or “bowls” form a group distinct from the final three. In the “fifth seal,” the martyrs “under the altar” plead with God for vindication against the “inhabitants of the earth.” In the “fifth bowl,” the “inhabitants of the earth” are judged and curse God in response. The “sixth seal” ushers in the day of the “wrath of the Lamb and of the one who sits on the throne” from which no one escapes. Likewise, the “sixth bowl of wrath” results in the “battle of that great day of God the Almighty.”
The “seventh seal” produced a “half-hour of silence in heaven,” followed by “voices, claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” Likewise, the “seventh bowl” caused the “great voice from the sanctuary of heaven” to declare, “It is finished,” followed by “claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, and a great earthquake.” The thrice repeated series of thunder, lightning, voices, and the great earthquake demonstrate that all three series terminate at the same endpoint.
The “seven bowls of wrath” concluded when a “great voice from the sanctuary of the heaven” declared, “It is finished!” This was followed by the overthrow of the “great city, Babylon” and the “cities of the nations,” accompanied by a “great earthquake” and “great hail.”
Likewise, the “seven trumpets” concluded when “great voices in the heaven” declared the victory of the “Lamb” over the “kingdoms of the world” and the time of judgment, all followed by “flashes of lightning and voices, and claps of thunders and an earthquake and great hail.” The “great hail” is the common element added to the thunder, lightning, voices by both the “seven trumpets” and the “seven bowls of wrath.”
When the seventh angel emptied the “seventh bowl of wrath,” end-time “Babylon” fell, and “every island fled, and mountains were not found.” This, along with the “great earthquake came, such as came not since men came upon the earth,” is a verbal link to the opening of the “sixth seal,” the unveiling of the “day of the wrath of the Lamb” when:
“A great earthquake came, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts her winter figs, being shaken by a great wind, and the heavens departed as a scroll rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” – (Revelation 6:12-14).
All three sevenfold series move inexorably to the same point, the time of judgment when God overthrows His enemies and vindicates His saints, and each adds new elements to the picture. For example, the “sixth bowl” introduces the attack by “Gog and Magog,” the battle of “Armageddon” – (Revelation 11:7, 12:17, 13:7).
The Death, Resurrection, and Exaltation of Jesus liberated the people of God from bondage in “Egypt” – (“he freed us from our sins”). At present, the “saints” are in the “wilderness” during their sojourn to the greater “promised land,” the city of “New Jerusalem.”
In the interim, the saints who have been “redeemed from every nation by the blood of the Lamb” are summoned to persevere through whatever comes, bearing faithful witness along the way, and all while awaiting God’s final victory over His enemies, especially the “Dragon,” the “beast from the sea,” the “False Prophet,” and end-time “Babylon.”
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