"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Made Known to John" (Continued)

The End-Time Intensification as Seven Bowls (Rev. 15:1-16:21)

Having completed the freehand sketch that ran from the child's being born of the woman to his return as harvester, John now is ready to give the end-time as a final go. Indeed, with this series, he does not even propose to describe the end-time as a whole. Although he will again make use of the familiar rhythm of a seven-series, he makes it clear that he is treating only that interval running from item 6 on through the end, namely the final intensification of trauma, the rescue of the church, and the end itself. This compression means also that he will noticeably quicken the pace of the series as a whole; he deliberately is building to a climax.

Rev. 15:1-16:1, Introduction to the Bowls

1 Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
"Great and amazing are your deeds,
4 Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
    King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
    and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
    All nations will come
    and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed."
5 After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests. 7 Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever; and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.
1 I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, "Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God."

Unlike the earlier series, John gives this one a comparatively lengthy introduction and a very positive one. The bowls will be full of terrible things, and perhaps John wants to make us aware of the positive side of things in order to help carry us through the negative.

Within this scene are enough reminiscences of the Old Testament account of the exodus from Egypt to indicate that John most likely intends it as a conscious model. The exodus was a journey through trauma to liberation; and just so is the church's experience of the end-time. The important thing is not to become so overwhelmed by the trauma as to forget that it is liberation that is taking place.

Rev. 15:1 tells us that the bowls represent the final intensification, "which are the last." That the scene opens beside "the sea of glass" recalls the exodus scene of victory that took place on the far side of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea). The singers are "those who had won the victory over the beast"; the account in 12:11 already has told us how this was accomplished--by the sacrifice of the Lamb, by their testimony to that act, and by their willingness to put their lives where he had put his.

The song they sing is that "of Moses" and "of the Lamb" and it is but one song. As Moses led that people of God out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, so the Lamb leads the new people of God out of their slavery to Evil and this world; the Lamb is a new and greater Moses. The song is a hymn of praise to God for the wonder of his deeds, the justice, truth, and holiness of his ways. The note of universalism in Rev. 15:4 belongs in our growing collection of such passages.

Because this scene is built on exodus motifs, the old Tent of Testimony, the tabernacle, makes a more appropriate setting than the temple used heretofore. That no one can enter the sanctuary until the plagues are over may be recognition that, although necessary, the "wrath" of God is not his true work of holiness; as long as the bowl plagues are in progress, the "sanctuary" is not a completely appropriate location.

Rev. 16:2-11, Bowls 1-5: The Worst Plagues of All

2 So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.
3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.
4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters say, "You are just, 0 Holy One, who are and were,
    6 for you have judged these things;
because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!"
7 And I heard the altar respond,
"Yes, 0 Lord God, the Almighty,
    your judgments are true and just!"
8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch them with fire; 9 they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory. 10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

Following up the exodus theme, these bowl plagues show perhaps even more dependence upon the Old Testament account of the Egyptian plagues than those of the Trumpet Series did. Note that here the elements of restraint and limitation which marked the earlier end-time descriptions have all disappeared; Rev. 16:3 even specifies that "every living thing in the sea died." We are right at the end now; and John is intensifying the trauma with all stops out.

The break that normally comes after the fourth item, in this instance follows the third, for no clear reason. The content of that break (verses 5-7) includes important insights. The threefold ascription to God again has lost its final "who cometh," future term--we are close enough to the end that John considers that God has arrived. The thrust of the words from heaven is the assurance that, no matter how severe these punishments appear, they are just--in true proportion to the evil that infests the earth and the crime committed. The measure of that crime is specified as being the world's treatment of the church. The world crucified Jesus in the first place and has continued that enormity by slaughtering his saints, the very people who have most lovingly given themselves in service and witness for the world. The "altar" that cries in verse 7 may intend the saints underneath the altar who, in Rev. 6:9-10, cried, "How long, O Lord?"; the cry does celebrate the answering of that prayer.

In both Rev. 15:9 and 11--Bowls 4 and 5--there are references to the possibility of repentance. Even at this late point, no man's fate is finally fixed; the purpose behind even these terrible bowls is to move men to change their ways so that they can be saved; no one has to suffer these bowls if he chooses not to.

Rev. 16:12-21, Bowls 6 (Interlude) and 7: Collapse at Armageddon

12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15 ("See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.") 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, "It is done!" 18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21 and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.

Evidently Rev. 15:12-14 and 16 constitute Bowl 6, and the parenthesis of Rev 15:15 is the A-B Interlude. That the interlude is just a little out of place in this instance may be deliberate; it is important that Bowls 6 and 7 be read in continuity rather than as independent scenes.

Let us review how John handled this sequence in his freehand sketch and see its relationship to what he does here. There the Evil Trinity were introduced to seal their people with the beast's mark and give them domination over the commerce of the world; here, in Bowl 6, the Evil Trinity musters a great army from all over the world--at least something of a parallel. There, then, the Lamb and his people appeared on Mount Zion and sang a duet with heaven; here, in the interlude, the Lamb calls upon his people to be ready for his imminent coming to them--at least something of a parallel. There, finally, an angel proclaimed that Babylon had fallen; here, in Bowl 7, there is a fall of cities of somewhat wider scope than before, although Babylon is mentioned specifically and in language almost identical with that used in the previous scene--a very definite parallel.

The important thing to notice is that there is here no more of a war or an attack upon Babylon than there was previously. Granted, it looks for a while as though there will be, what with Evil's gathering its great army for battle; but the battle does not come off. John's picture still supports the view that Jesus' death-and-resurrection, the battle that got the dragon kicked out of the control room, was sufficient to do the job.

Let's look first at verse 15, the Interlude, so that we then can be free to treat Bowls 6 and 7 as a unit. The two sentences can be understood as the customary Parts A and B. John will not describe the parousia in connection with the Bowl Series; but here it is specified that that parousia is coordinate with the fall of Babylon, which is being described. Jesus' statement implies most strongly that Christians do not know and are not supposed to know ahead of time about the "when" of the end; the plea is rather for what we have been calling "perpetual expectancy."

Now to Bowl 6. Verse 12 indicates that Evil's big, last try is to be launched from beyond the Euphrates--where Babylon also is located, by the way--the traditional source for depredations against God's people. In verse 13, for the first time, John lists the three bosses of Evil as a definite trioó-as much as positive proof that he intends them as a conscious counterpart of the Trinity. Their appearing together at this time indicates something of the importance of this scene.

Look who form the first rank of Evilís armies! The kings of the earth--wouldnít you know?--very much in character! We havenít seen this crew for a while; but they will be very much with us from here on out.

The name of the place where the muster takes place is "Armageddon." (NRSV, "Harmagedon," which is closer to the Greek original). When John makes a deliberate effort to tell us that the word is Hebrew, he is as much as pointing us to an Old Testament source; but the reference is a real puzzle. The name combines two Hebrew terms--the first meaning "Mount" and the other being the place name "Megiddo" or "Megiddon." In the Old Testament, "Megiddo" is the name both of a plain and a city located on it. Two important battles did take place on this plain (one of which Israel won and one she lost), so the assumption is made that the spot was seen as a traditional site for battles fought in defense of Israel. But the biblical support for this view is very slight indeed. The term "Megiddo/Megiddon" occurs in the Old Testament a total of eight times. None of these has the remotest connection with a mountain; indeed, two of them refer to Megiddo as a "vale" or "valley." Only three of the eight references have to do with battle or war.

Mathias Rissi has proposed an entirely different interpretation of "Armageddon." He sees it as a reference to Isa. 14:12-15. The passage is speaking about "the king of Babylon" (Isa. 14:4) which, in Johnís terminology, would be an apt title for Antichrist. It reads:

How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven;
    I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon;
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
    I will make myself like the Most High."
But you are brought down to Sheol,
    to the depths of the Pit.

Elsewhere (Rev. 22:16) John has Jesus refer to himself as "the bright day star"; and according to his principle of symmetry, he easily could take Isaiahís as being a reference to the fake day star, Antichrist. Isaiahís scene itself fits perfectly into what John is doing here; it is a picture of Evil strutting and vaunting itself against God, attempting even to set itself up over him. Yet the effort has no chance of success; it will eventuate (or has eventuated) only in grand and total collapse. "How you have fallen!"

In the sixth line of the Isaiah quotation we find the words "on the mount of assembly." And if just one letter of that Hebrew phrase is changed, it will read "Armageddon." Rissiís theory is that John wrote "mount of assembly" but that an early copyist misunderstood the reference and so put it down to make the best sense he could understand, namely, "Armageddon."

Realize, first of all, that the matter is not a crucial oneóexcept for calendarizers who may want to sell seats and thus need to know just where the scene is to transpire. Otherwise, Johnís basic picture is not affected by oneís interpretation of "Armageddon." But we have the choice of sticking with the text as it has come to us, even though it results in a rather meaningless puzzle--or of being forced to change one letter, but getting a reading filled with the kind of symbolic significance for which John is noted. Personally, I am not inclined to push the matter; but I do find Rissiís argument quite convincing.

But here they are. The forces of Evil, like a bunch of street brawlers, have gathered under the drunken notion that they can "call out" God himself and take him on his own ground (I will sit on the mount of assembly [i.e., Armageddon] I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High"). Evil has been getting along so well on earth that the dragon has forgotten he can't even get to God any longer ("and there was no longer any place for them in heaven"). But then, I suppose it must be difficult to remember anything after your head has been cut off!

With Bowl 7, then--since frequently it is the only action required to break up so ill-conceived a venture--there comes an authoritative voice from the speaker on the squad car, "All right, boys, the party's over!" And it is! There isn't any fight; there doesn't have to be. The whole challenge simply collapses. As verse 20 has it, "and no mountains were to be found"--the mount of assembly has become a hole in the ground. "How you are fallen from heaven, O [fake] Day Star, son of Dawn!"

Rev. 16:29 says that "The great city was split into three parts." Earlier, in Rev. 11:8, John had used that phrase to designate "Jerusalem"; later in Rev. 17:18, he will use it in reference to Babylon." However, because Babylon is here named in series with "the great city," it makes sense to take it as intending Jerusalem. In that earlier scene where Jerusalem was called "the great city," after the two witnesses had been resurrected and called up to God, Jerusalem did take a terrific blow--which resulted in some repentance, you will recall. Although "Jerusalem" is the home of the church, she also has been sufficiently invaded by the world and involved with the world that she cannot escape its holocaust unscathed. Yet she is only split in three and will survive to become the new Jerusalem; it later will become clear that Babylonís destruction is total and final.

Copyright (c) 1974