Seven bowls of judgement

In the previous study, we saw several allusions to the exodus from Egypt of God's people under the leadership of Moses. The Egyptian Pharaoh was only willing to let God's people go after the country had been devastated by a series of ten plagues. We are now about to see another series of judgements from God. This time, there will only be seven plagues, but they do repeat several of the characteristics of the plagues in Egypt. In both cases, God's purpose is to punish those who refuse to worship the one true God and turn instead to idols. At the same time, the plagues set free God's people to worship Him without hindrance and they separate the wicked from the faithful.

Revelation 16:1-9

In the opening of this chapter, a "mighty, thundering voice" is heard from the temple, giving God's instructions to the seven angels, who are holding the bowls of God's wrath, to pour them out onto the earth. This verbal command will refresh our understanding of the mighty sovereignty of God, as He shows that He has the final word. We shall also see the abject and abortive attempts of Satan to pervert the course of God's justice – the only real justice that exists. We need to remember the power of God and His absolute holiness, separated as He is from all sin and evil. We now see that the time has come to establish justice and pour out punishment onto the remaining inhabitants of the earth, in consequence of their wilful and deliberate rejection of His design for their lives.

These 'bowl judgements' are different from the 'trumpet judgements'. They are complete and final, whilst the previous, trumpet judgements were partial and still gave unbelievers the opportunity to repent. There is now no time left after these final, 'bowl judgements'. Those who remain undecided will suffer the consequences of the full onslaught of God's wrath. Those who have chosen to take the mark of the beast will not be in a position to change their minds. They have decided whom they wish to follow and have thrown in their lot with Satan. Accordingly, they will suffer the same fate as their self-appointed master, just slightly sooner than his ultimate destiny. (Revelation 16:1-2)

Bowl #1

The result of the pouring out of the first bowl is both excruciatingly painful and unsightly. However, this judgement is limited only to those who have allowed themselves to be marked with the seal of the beast. This is the exact opposite to what we see in the lives of believers. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they outwardly demonstrate Christ's presence within them, by being transformed. Their actions reflect His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit, which is outlined for us in Paul's letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Bowl #2

The contents of the second bowl produce death, but not one that directly affects human beings. Rather, it causes death for all forms of sea life, as the oceans turn into blood. Of course, this will affect the food chain and cause a shortage of food. Those nations that depend on the sea for their livelihood will discover that all they catch is inedible. The seawater will become a thick stew of death and blood, producing a putrid miasma. The wind will pick up this foul stench and blow it over land and sea, until every man, woman and child on earth is unable to escape the reality of this world-wide, calamitous, 'natural' disaster. This phenomenon is, of course, entirely un-natural. (Revelation 16:3)

Imagine a trip to the seaside at this time! It will be sickening, with the stench of rotting, animal carcasses hanging heavily in the air. Californians already experience a little of this when they encounter a 'red tide'. This phenomenon kills millions of fish and poisons those who eat any of the contaminated shellfish. (What happens is that tiny, one-celled organisms, known as 'dinoflagellates', which are a type of plankton, can, under certain circumstances, become prolific and toxic.) As yet, scientists have no answer to why these red tides occur, but they offer a ominous warning as to what is possible in God's creation and it is not difficult to envisage a disaster of the kind described by John in chapter sixteen. It may even be the case that the foundations for this 'plague' are even now being laid by human activity and the careless disregard for our environment that is prepared to use the sea as a dumping ground for much of our waste. Should this not make us think about the kind of future we might be storing up, as a consequence?

Bowl #3

The third bowl is poured out on the rivers and springs, turning them also into blood. A short pause for reflection leads us to realise that this will mean the loss of all drinking water on earth! The ecological disaster in the sea will be bad enough but, when all the sources of fresh water are permanently contaminated, mankind's horror will turn into desperation. These two plagues together remind us sharply of the plagues in Egypt. Back then, Pharaoh chose repeatedly to reject Moses' demand: to let God's people go. At that time, the Egyptians were able to dig beside the river Nile and find clean water. Indeed, the effects of most of the plagues were only temporary and all the water in Egypt became clean again, but here, there is no indication that things will revert to normal after this third bowl of judgement. Not only will the inhabitants of the earth be denied the previously plentiful seafood, but there will be no agriculture, because all the fresh water will be turned into blood and that will have a knock-on effect for the entire eco-system that relies on water. Everything will be polluted and consequently die. This judgement will begin the process of closing down all the natural systems of the earth, as we know them.

The significance of blood

Throughout the Bible, we see how God emphasises the importance of blood. From the time in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve sinned, the shedding of blood (by a sacrificial animal) was used to cover sin. God established His covenant with Abraham and sealed His promise in blood. (Genesis 15:17-21) The stories of Cain and Abel, Rahab and Jesus Himself, all show us that we cannot put too much emphasis on the significance of blood. “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood and, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)

In his gospel, the apostle, John, tells us that Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine. The water that had been intended for ceremonial washing under the law of Moses was replaced by the wine of the kingdom of God. Wine, for believers, also represents Christ's shed blood, when taken during the sacrament of holy communion. When Jesus said to the people of His day: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you", they were disgusted and offended. (John 6:53; 6:60) Jesus had to explain to them that, "the Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing." (John 6:63) However, for those who reject His words - "full of the Spirit and life" - all that will remain will be literally to drink blood. Those who reject the precious, saving blood of Christ, will have only natural blood instead.

The angel who carries out this judgement on God's behalf is totally unequivocal in acknowledging the justice of God's judgements. The blood of the martyred believers and prophets (who were chosen and sent by God into the world in a last-ditch effort to save people) was shed by the antichrist and his followers. Now, in turn, they will have only blood to drink. Even the altar speaks, echoing the praise of the angel for the justice of God's judgements. (This may well be the brazen altar in heaven, where the fires burn ceaselessly as the prayers of God's people and the lives of the martyrs are offered in sacrifice to Him.) For us, another important point to note is that, even in the midst of the horror being unleashed, the angel was continues to worship, praising God for who He is and for His almighty power. There is power in praise at all times - especially in testing times - so the power of worship can never be underestimated. Praise and worship blesses God and lifts us to a new perspective of who He is, while reminding us of all He has done. His passionate desire is to have an intimate relationship with us, so He longs for us to pour out our love to Him daily. As we worship, He draws near, because "He inhabits the praises of His people". (Psalm 22:3 - King James version) Worship is the ultimate honour we have and can offer, because of Jesus; it is also great preparation for our time in eternity!

Bowl #4

If we thought that the first three plagues were bad, we should consider the effects of the next one as the fourth angel pours out his bowl on the sun. (Revelation 16:8-9) The lack of food and water brought on by the previous two plagues may take a little time to affect everyone. Those in power will undoubtedly have built up stocks of food and water for emergencies, but vast numbers of ordinary people will probably be reduced fairly quickly to subsistence rations or starvation. We know that all life on our planet is highly dependent on water, together with light and heat from the sun. Climates and seasons vary throughout the world, but now the sun will be smitten by God. Its heat and radiation will greatly intensify. It will appear to be out of control and will burn up the vegetation, which it previously nourished. Anyone who goes out into the sunlight will be overcome by the searing heat. It will be so intense that ultraviolet rays will burn people's flesh and make life in the open almost practically impossible. People will be driven indoors or underground and there will be no refuge from cooling oceans, lakes or rain.

The combination of burning sun and no water will only further increase the intensity of their agony. What seems remarkable is that, even under these conditions, people will still be unwilling to turn to God for help. It seems that it will not cross their minds that the disaster and pain they are suffering has come about because of their refusal to acknowledge God's sovereignty in the world. Already in our own time, we can see that people are happily casting aside accumulated wisdom from hundreds of years that has found expression in long-established legal principles, social customs and religious celebrations. Fundamental laws (such as we see in the 'Ten Commandments') are being set aside or simply not enforced. The centrality of marriage and the concept of raising children in families has been extensively undermined. Celebrations such as Christmas and Easter have been totally changed in nature to become opportunities for commercial exploitation and all manner of excess.

In the face of such determined efforts to exclude God from our lives, it is vital that we, as Christians today, should demonstrate God's love in our world. We can do so by following the pattern that God has given us for getting the very best out of life. But, even when things go wrong (as they will), we can continue to show love in our family, to our friends, to our neighbours, to our work colleagues - even to those who resent us and try to bring us down! At such times, it can be a temptation to blame everything that is wrong in our lives on the Enemy. However, we need to beware of thinking that Satan is somehow all-knowing and all-powerful. He most certainly is not! Yes, he exploits human weakness and exaggerates our fears, but it is God alone who is all-knowing and all-powerful. He has set bounds and limitations on our Enemy's power and when we are "in Christ", he cannot touch us. If we can show that to others through the way in which we live our lives now, there is every hope that they will see through the Enemy's lies and deception and turn to God before it is too late.

God is sovereign over all our lives and it is He who controls every aspect of them. Every day, He provides for us our 'daily bread' and so much more besides. He surrounds us with His protection and equips us with skills and the wit to make our way in the world. He provides us with challenges to develop us, but He also gives us family and friends so that we do not have to face life alone. He gives us all we need for health in body, mind and spirit. This is not to say that we shall never suffer from illnesses and pains, loneliness or depression, but we can always turn to Him and to those around us for help and healing. The real danger lies in thinking that we can be self-sufficient and do not need God's help. This was the beginning of our Enemy's pride and downfall. It was what tempted Eve and then Adam to think that they could step out on their own and ignore God's word. Let's not follow the same well-worn path ourselves. That road ends with disaster heaped upon disaster and a dogged determination never to 'give in' to God and accept His help.

Bowl #5

The fifth angel pours out his bowl on the throne of the beast so that darkness covers his kingdom. (Revelation 16:10-11) The world of the antichrist will quickly change from being the well-oiled, administrative and economic powerhouse that it was supposed to be and start to break down and disintegrate. It seems that it will not just be the light of the sun that is diminished, but the power and influence of the antichrist and his servants. Indeed, some believe that it speaks of the very light of God gradually being extinguished around the world. It is not immediately apparent why the darkness intensifies the pain being felt by people, but it could have something to do with the total breakdown of law and order and the complete lack of any support from the antichrist and his government.

From the mention in verse eleven of people suffering from their sores (which had been resulted from the first judgement bowl), it suggests that the outpouring of the bowls will take place very quickly. It is also interesting to see that John repeats the comment about people reacting to these judgements by railing against God and refusing to turn back from their choices or acknowledge God's sovereignty in their lives. It might be thought that people would quickly surrender when faced with such overwhelming odds but, if anything, each new judgement only seems to reinforce their determination to stand their ground against Him.

Have we ever held God responsible for the results of our own sinful desires and actions? Have we ever thought of Him as our tormentor, rather than the loving, heavenly Father that He longs to be? If so, we need to remember what the apostle, James, said: "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me', for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone." (James 1:13) We know that God will never tempt us, but He will allow the testing of our faith and He has given us the gift of discernment to distinguish between testing and temptation. At the same time, we know that Satan most certainly does tempt us and we need to be alert and sober minded if we are to stay on the narrow path that leads to life. (1 Peter 5:8-9) Pride can be very difficult to overcome. Often, we choose to wallow in our own disobedience, rather than to say 'sorry' and ask God to restore our relationship. It is so important to praise the Lord daily for who He is, to ask Him for our daily needs, the forgiveness of our sins and help to forgive others. In this way, we can remain in His presence and know His power to avoid and overcome temptation. In other words, the most 'power-full prayer' is the one that Jesus Himself taught us! (Matthew 6:9-13)

Bowl #6

As the sixth angel pours out his bowl, there is no great catastrophe, but the waters of the River Euphrates are dried up. As with the darkness after the previous bowl, the effect of the last three judgements is not as direct as the first four, but prepares things for a climactic, final battle: the battle of Armageddon. The Euphrates forms the north-east border of the land originally promised by God to the people of Israel. This drying up of the River Euphrates again puts us in mind of the exodus from Egypt under Moses, when God dried up the Red Sea to allow Israel to escape from Egypt and (eventually) enter the 'Promised Land' from the West. On this occasion, it will allow armies from the East to invade the land of Israel. The description of frogs coming out of the mouths of the antichrist, the beast and the second beast (now called "the false prophet") signify a diplomatic campaign to gather together a huge army of nations from the East.

Frogs are ugly, unclean creatures that John understands to be demons who will persuade "the kings of the earth" to gather for battle against the people of Israel. They will come together at 'Har-Magedon' - the 'mountain of Megiddo'. 'Megiddo' means a 'place of troops' or 'place of slaughter'. Various sites have been suggested as the location for this rendezvous point but, given the size of the armies likely to be involved, it is probable that it will include much of the entire area 'between the River and the Sea'. This will be the prelude for the last battle in human history with the forces of Satan ranged against the people of God.

Verse fifteen is an echo from Jesus' previous teaching, reinforced by the apostle, Paul. (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2) His second coming will be sudden and unexpected. It will catch out many people who were not expecting Jesus to appear on the earth again, least of all at this moment. For us now, this is a warning that we should live our lives in the expectation that the 'Last Day' may dawn at any time. We don't want to be found behaving in a way that will embarrass us when Jesus appears. It will also serve as an encouragement for any who become believers during the "tribulation".

Bowl #7

Finally, the seventh angel pours out his bowl, this time into the earth's atmosphere. (Revelation 16:17-21) The great voice comes out of the temple for the last time saying, “It is done!” After this there will be no temple in the new heaven. The voice is accompanied by "flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder", following the pattern of what happened at the end of the two previous series of judgements. (Revelation 8:5; 11:19) Once again, too, there is an earthquake, but this one is larger than any that has occurred before on earth. It splits the "great city" into three parts and the "cities of the nations" collapse.

It is not precisely clear to which city this refers. Some believe that it will be 'great Babylon' which will have been rebuilt (as the new epicentre of the antichrist's empire, in Iraq). Other Bible scholars think it could be Rome and some even see it as a symbolic reference to the United States of America. Perhaps a clearer reference is to be found here in Revelation itself: back in chapter eleven, John described the death of the two witnesses who were eventually killed by the antichrist in "the great city - which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt". (Revelation 11:8) This city was Jerusalem. (See study twenty-three)

Whichever city it may be, it will suffer the same fate as all the other cities of the nations, collapsing under the force of the great earthquake. John then mentions Babylon specifically. (Whether or not this links back to "the great city" is not clear, as we've said.) The next two chapters deal with the fall of Babylon in much greater detail, but it's clear that its downfall is one of the main consequences of this final 'bowl judgement'. John describes it as Babylon being given by God: "the cup filled with the wine of the fury of His wrath". (Revelation 16:19)

Another impact of the earthquake is a restructuring of the earth's surface in an echo of John the Baptist's words: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for Him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight , the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God's salvation". (Luke 3:4-6; Isaiah 40:3-5) It was common practice in Isaiah's time that, when a king or an emperor visited a location, all the roads would be made smooth for them. They would be levelled by removing the hills, smoothing out the dips and filling in the ruts. Isaiah took this analogy and used it to say that this is what would happen when the Lord came to His people. John the Baptist applied it to Jesus when He first came to earth as a human being and now John the apostle takes the analogy one step further, applying it to the divine preparations that will be made for the Lord's second coming to the earth at the end of the "tribulation". Not only will the roads be made flat, but every mountain will bow down before Him and every valley shall be exalted. The entire world will be straightened out as He comes to His world!

At the same time, John sees huge hailstones falling on people from the sky. Once again, as we've seen above with the earlier judgements, this only seems to drive people to curse God, rather than appeal to Him for mercy. Again there are parallels with the plagues seen in Egypt before the exodus and, more recently, with the sounding of the first trumpet. (Revelation 8:7) But still people choose to spurn the ruler of the universe. What a huge mistake! Judgement will come upon them like a thief in the night, but they hold on to their unshakeable belief in themselves, as the masters of their own destiny.

It is done!

The final words of Jesus on the cross were a triumphant cry: “It is finished!” He had completed His Father's work and covered the sins of the whole world with His own blood. It was a cry of victory! John records here the "loud voice from the throne" saying: "It is done!" This is the voice of God Himself, stating that His judgement is complete. The Greek verb used here is not the same as that uttered by Jesus. This is an ominous sentence of final judgement. If we reject the Saviour's victory, all that is left is the Judge's verdict.

Where will we choose to go when we die – to heaven or hell? “This is what the scripture says: 'If you hear God's voice today, do not be stubborn, as your ancestors were when they rebelled against God'”. (Hebrews 3:15) Let us choose now to seek Him with our whole heart. Jesus is the Lord of salvation. He alone is the one who is "the way, the truth and the life". (John 14:6) Only He can provide eternal life. The alternative is eternal death. So let us choose life, just as Joshua did long ago at Shechem, after the people of Israel had finally entered the promised land.

Now therefore, [reverently] fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and in truth; put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the [Euphrates] River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. But, as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. The people answered: 'Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods; For it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the peoples through whom we passed.'” (Joshua 24:14-17 - Amplified version)

What a wonderful affirmation of our faith in the one, true, living God!

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