Chapters 15-16 comprise the vision-cycle of seven “bowls” (fia/lai), the third of the three major seven-vision cycles in the book of Revelation. All three variously depict the great Judgment that is to come upon the earth at the end time. The first cycle of seven seals (chap. 6) primarily describe the period of distress (qli/yi$) which precedes the return of Jesus and the great Judgment; however the last two seals, in my view, refer more properly to the time of Judgment (6:12-17; 8:1-2). The second cycle of seven trumpets (chaps. 8-9), by contrast, provide a vivid description of the Judgment on earth. This final cycle of seven bowls presents the earthly Judgment again, in even more dramatic terms. We can see the parallel (and interlocking) structure of these cycles:
The Bowl-cycle is connected with a separate visionary theme and set of symbols—the fall of the great city Babylon, and the harvest (wine-press) imagery for the Judgment. Indeed, the latter vision-set brackets the Bowl-cycle, forming a comprehensive depiction of the Great Judgment:
“And I saw another sign in the heaven, great and wondrous: seven Messengers holding the last seven (thing)s to strike—(last in) that the (angry) impulse of God is completed in them.” (v. 1)
The language here matches that of 12:1, speaking of a “great sign” (shmei=on me/ga) visible in the heavens. There it referred to a vision of the People of God (the Woman), in the context of a great conflict (with the Dragon). Here in 15:1ff, by contrast, the conflict for the People of God (believers, children of the Woman [12:17]) is over—they have been delivered, with the coming of the Son of Man (Jesus, 14:14ff), and now the great Judgment for the people on earth will begin (14:17ff).
This Judgment, to be unleashed by the heavenly Messengers (cf. the previous note), is described as a set of seven plhgai/. The noun plhgh/ fundamentally means something (a blow, etc) that is struck. It can refer specifically to disease or natural disaster—i.e. something that strikes humankind—and, according to the ancient religious mindset, it is God who strikes the blow. Here, of course, it is no ordinary disease or disaster—rather it represents God’s great (and final) punishment upon the wickedness of humankind. Almost certainly, the historical tradition of the “Plagues” of Egypt (Exod 7-12) is in view.
For those who would (attempt to) read the visions of Revelation in a strict chronological sense, the punishments of the Bowl-visions are events which occur, in sequence, after those of the Trumpet-visions have taken place. While this is true in terms of the literary and narrative sequence of the visions, I believe it is a gross mistake to read them as a concrete sequence of specific, actual events. The cyclical nature of the visions (cf. above), and the way the symbolism is developed, would seem to make this absolutely clear. Moreover, the language here in verse 1 indicates the significance of the adjective “last” (e&sxato$) in context: it refers to the completion (vb tele/w) of God’s desire to punish wickedness—that is to say, His desire (qumo/$, “impulse”, 14:8, 10, 19) is finally realized and fulfilled through the Judgment.
“And I saw (something) as a (crystal) clear sea having been mixed with fire, and the (one)s (hav)ing been victorious (from) out of the wild animal—and out of its image and out of the number of its name—having (now) stood upon the (crystal) clear sea, holding harps of God.” (v. 2)
This “crystal-clear” (u(a/lino$) sea refers back to the heavenly throne-vision in chapter 4 (v. 6), and generally derives from Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the vision of Ezekiel (1:22, 26; cf. 1 Enoch 4:2; 2 Enoch 4:2; Koester, p. 631), and the ancient cosmological idea of God (El-YHWH) enthroned (or standing) over the primeval waters (Gen 1:6-7; Ps 104:2-3; 148:4, etc); cf. also the clear blue pavement in the theophany of Exod 24:10. The image played a significant role in Jewish mystical tradition, the visionary-ascent (Merkabah/Hekhalot) traditions, which included the idea that the one who ‘ascends’ might mistakenly think that he was in danger of being overcome by a flood of water—when, in fact, it is not physical water at all, but a manifestation of the heavenly splendor of God’s throne (b. „agigah 14b, Tosefta; Greater Hekhalot chap. 19).
The earthly “Sea” (qa/lassa), like the primeval waters, is dark, turbulent, and menacing, serving as a traditional symbol of chaos, death, and evil. This is certainly the idea in the chap. 13 visions, whereby the fabulous “wild animal” (qhri/on) comes up out of the Sea, in the presence (and under the influence of) the Dragon, who stands on the shore of the Sea (12:18). Here, by contrast, the “Sea” is clear, and believers are able to stand upon it without danger of being harmed. The preposition e)pi/ (“upon”) could mean upon the edge or shore of the sea, in which case there is a parallel with 12:18; however, I think it very possible that they stand on the surface of the sea, possibly alluding to the Exodus tradition of the People of God passing through (or over) the sea as if on dry land (Exod 14:22; 15:19).
Overall, this scene parallels that of 14:1-6, describing the People of God in terms of believers who resisted the influence of the evil Sea-creature during the period of distress (chap. 13). Here, too, believers hold heavenly harps and sing, after having been delivered from suffering, persecution, and the coming Judgment. Again the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) is used, as a characteristic of the faithful believer (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11)—i.e. victorious over the Sea-creature and its evil worldly power. The preposition e)k (“out of”) should probably be taken literally here, according to the imagery—i.e. believers are able to resist and escape from “out of” the clutches of the “wild animal”.
“And they sing the song of Moshe the slave [i.e. servant] of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:
‘Great and wondrous (are) your works, Lord God the All-mighty!
Just and true (are) your ways, King of the Nations!
Who will not fear (you), Lord, and give honor to your Name?
(in) that [i.e. because] you are holy,
(so) that all the nations will come and kiss toward [i.e. worship] (you) in your sight,
(in) that your just (action)s are made to shine forth!'” (vv. 3-4)
We should not think of two different songs being sung; rather, two different motifs and strands of tradition are brought together to symbolize the “song” that believers sing. It is fundamentally a song of salvation, praising God for His deliverance of His people. The “song of Moses” refers to the ancient poem of Exodus 15:1-18, set after the Israelites’ escape from the Egyptians (the wicked worldly power of the time), passing through the Sea to safety (including the destruction of the Egyptian forces). Similarly, believers escape from the power of the Sea-creature, effectively passing through that “Sea” (note esp. the wording in Exod 15:13). The “song of the Lamb” praises God for the deliverance He brings through the person and work of Jesus (his death and resurrection), and reflects the close connection between the redeemed, faithful believers and the Lamb in Rev 7:9-17 and 14:1-5.
The actual song here in vv. 3-4 draws upon the traditional language of Old Testament poetry, both in the Psalms (22:28; 35:10; 47:8; 72:1; 86:10; 89:8; 98:2; 111:2-4; 139:14, etc; Koester, pp. 632-3), and elsewhere in Scripture, including the great ancient songs attributed to Moses (Exod 15:1-18; Deut 32:1-43). It may be viewed as a hymn with two parallel strophes, each with a similar outline:
- Statement of the greatness/holiness of God (lines 1, 4)
- His authority over the nations and their submission (lines 2, 5)
- The Person (“Name”) and works of God are reason to give Him honor (lines 3, 6)
- Statement of the greatness/holiness of God (lines 1, 4)
The title “King of the Nations”, in particular, emphasizes the impending defeat of the Sea-creature, the fall of the Great City (Babylon), and the final Judgment of the nations. God is depicted in his traditional role (frequent in the Psalms) as Judge, whose judgments are just (di/kaio$) and true (a)lhqino/$). The idea that the nations will come to God and worship Him is part of traditional Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, going back to key oracles in the Prophets (esp. deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66)—at the end time, the nations will be subdued and will come to Jerusalem to give homage to God and His people. For more on this subject, and a summary of references, see the article on “Jews and Gentiles and the People of God”.
The Sea here is said to be crystal-clear and yet also “mixed with fire“. This symbolizes the two aspects of the end-time Judgment:
- The purity of believers and their deliverance—being gathered together at the coming of the Son of Man (return of Jesus), described in the grain harvest vision of 14:14-16 (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-17, etc).
- The wickedness of the world (non-believers) and their punishment—traditionally depicted, as here in Revelation, through the image of fire.