The actual cycle of seven bowl-visions occurs in chapter 16, the drama of the scene having been built up in the prior two chapters, especially the vision in chap. 15. The seven Messengers (Angels) hold seven “plagues” (plhgai/)—disasters sent by God which are to “strike” the earth. The motif of the bowls (“offering-dishes”, fia/lai) is related to the image of wine poured out on the earth as a symbol of Judgment (cf. the previous note). The two sets of images are combined, so that the “plagues” are poured out of the dishes; the historical tradition of the Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-12) very much influences the imagery of these visions.
The earlier trumpet-cycle of visions also depicted the great Judgment upon the earth; however, in that cycle, the focus was on the wickedness of humankind generally, while here the bowl-visions more properly emphasize the judgment of the nations. In particular, the first five visions are centered on the domain and influence of the Sea-creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) from chapter 13, as was the vision in 14:9-11. Note the thematic structure of the first four visions:
- Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
- Vision 2: Judgment upon the Sea—turned to blood
- Vision 3: Judgment upon the Sea (its waters) as they exist on/in the earth—also turned to blood
- Vision 4: A burning of all human beings (i.e. those who ‘belong’ to the Sea-creature)
- Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
The outer visions 1 and 4 target humankind as those belonging to the Sea-creature, while the inner visions 2 and 3 directly target the Sea itself.
“And I heard a great voice out of the shrine saying to the seven Messengers: ‘Lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go away] and pour out onto the earth the seven (thing)s of the impulse of God (that are) to strike!'” (v. 1)
As the Messengers, in these visions of chaps. 15-16, repeatedly come out of the heavenly sanctuary (nao/$), now a “great voice” is heard (also in verse 17). Since no other Messenger is mentioned, presumably it is God Himself now who speaks, giving the command for the Judgment to begin. In terms of the action that is involved, “pouring out”, this continues the wine motif, confirmed by the use again of the noun qumo/$ (“impulse”) associating the wine-cup/bowl with the anger of God and His desire to punish wickedness. It is this divine anger that is “poured out” upon humankind in the Judgment; for more on the traditional nature of this idiom, cf. its use in the Prophets (Psalm 69:24; Jer 7:20; 10:25; Ezek 7:8; Zeph 3:8; Koester, p. 646), in addition to Joel 3:13ff and the previously cited wine references (note on 14:9-13).
Verse 2: First Vision
“And the first (Messenger) went from (there) and poured out his offering-dish onto the earth—and there came to be a bad and evil wound (left) upon (all) the men holding the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] its image.” (v. 2)
As in the vision of 14:9ff, the first bowl-vision (and first “plague”) is directed at all people who worship the Sea-creature (chap. 13) and who receive its engraved ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) indicating that they belong to it. The punishment matches the sin—they receive a painful ‘mark’ (e%lko$) on their body. The noun e%lko$ indicates a wound or cut, possibly related to the verb e%lkw, signifying a pulling or tearing of the skin, etc. It can refer specifically to a ‘wound’ that is the result of disease or illness—a festering sore, ulcer, abcess, etc. While this alludes to the plague in Exodus 9:8-12 (e%lko$ being used in the LXX, v. 9), it is the parallel with the “mark” of the Sea-creature that is especially being emphasized.
Verses 3-7: Second and Third Visions
“And the second (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the sea—and it came to be blood, (as of) a dead (person), and every soul of life [i.e. living soul] died off, (all) the (thing)s in the sea. And the third (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the rivers and the fountains of waters—and it (also) came to be blood (there). And I heard the Messenger of the waters saying: ‘Just are you, the (One) being and the (One who) was, the right/pure (One), that you judged these (thing)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they poured out the blood of holy (one)s and foretellers [i.e. prophets]—and (now) you have given them blood to drink, (for) they are brought (into the balance)!’ And I heard the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] saying (in return): ‘Yes, Lord God the All-mighty, true and just are your judgments!'” (vv. 3-7)
Even as human beings were given a painful wound for their worship of the Sea-creature, so the very Sea itself is given a similar ‘wound’ and turned into blood—the thick, congealed blood of a “dead person”. As a result, all living beings in the sea die off. While this vision refers to a plague upon the natural world (echoing the plague on the Nile, etc, in Exodus 7:14-21), it is clear that the symbolism properly applies to the wickedness of the human government of the world—in other words, the earth as the domain of the Sea-creature. I would interpret the two visions here as follows:
- Vision 2: The Sea—the dark, chaotic realm of evil, out of which the Sea-creature rises
- Vision 3: The rivers and fountains = the presence of the Sea (waters) on/in the Earth, i.e. the domain of the Earth-creature, who acts on behalf of the Sea-creature
The reference to the “Messenger of the waters” is parallel to the Messenger controlling the fire in 14:18—both reflect the ancient cosmological idea that the natural features and phenomena of the world are controlled by divine/heavenly beings, and, indeed, the visions of Revelation make considerable use of this idea within the drama of the narrative. However, the message of this Angel refers not to the “waters” as a natural feature, but as a symbolic manifestation of the evil power of the “Sea” in its functioning power on earth. According to the visionary logic of the scenes in chapter 13, this refers to the domain of the Earth-creature who works on behalf of the Sea-creature. It is said that “they” poured out the blood of holy ones and prophets, meaning that they persecuted and killed the people of God—both the earlier ones of Israel, and, subsequently, believers in Christ (cf. Matt 23:31, 37 par). The end-time persecution in the period of distress is primarily in view (7:14; chaps. 12-13). Who are “they”? The worldly rulers and powers—specifically the Roman imperial government and its local/regional vassals, though it could just as well apply to any wicked earthly government throughout history. As in the first vision, the punishment here fits the sin: they poured out blood, and now blood has been poured out for them to drink. This is also expressed by the adjective a&cio$, rather difficult to render in English; I have tried to preserve the fundamental meaning of the idiom, that of something brought into balance, i.e. weighed out so that its value and worth is determined. Here it is the scales of justice that are in view, the wickedness of human beings weighed out, balanced by a proper and proportionate punishment.
In response to the Angel’s message, the altar in heaven speaks. Again I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, even though the altar in the book of Revelation is generally understood to be the altar of incense (not animal sacrifice) that resides in the Temple sanctuary. However, in the fifth seal-vision (6:9ff), the idea of sacrifice is implied by the presence underneath the altar of the souls (of believers) who have been slain, and the emphasis here is also on believers being put to death by the wicked. Those souls in the seal-vision speak out in a loud voice, and the response from the altar here likely is meant to echo the earlier scene.
Verses 8-9: Fourth Vision
“And the fourth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sun—and it was given to it to burn the men (on earth) in fire. And the men were burned (with) a great burning, and (yet) they insulted the name of God, the (One) holding e)cousi/a [i.e. power/authority] over these (thing)s that strike (them), and they did not change (their) mind to give Him honor.” (vv. 8-9)
To the realms of Earth (i.e. the inhabited world of humankind) and Sea (the dark, turbulent world of evil) is now added that of the Sun. Again, on the surface this refers to a feature of the natural world; however, in the visionary logic of the narrative, here it more properly signifies the heavenly realm of light, righteousness, etc. In particular, it is a powerful image for the fire of God’s holy Judgment—i.e., the traditional motif of fire from heaven. This aspect of the Judgment has been expressed a number of ways (fire from the altar of incense, etc); now it relates to the natural heat human beings feel on earth from the sun—the sun itself serves as a vehicle for God’s fiery Judgment. The response of the afflicted population, as described here, could be taken to imply that humankind still had the opportunity to repent and turn to God, even after the Judgment had begun. In this respect the vision resembles the fifth and sixth of the earlier trumpet-cycle (chap. 9, note esp. verses 20-21).
Verses 10-11: Fifth Vision
“And the fifth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the ruling-seat of the wild animal—and its kingdom came to be darkened, and they squeezed their tongues out of the labor (they felt), and (still) they insulted the God of heaven (from) out of their labors and out of their wounds, (but) they did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of their works!” (vv. 10-11)
As noted above, these visions specifically target the domain of the Sea-creature, but here the point is made explicit, the plague being poured out directly on the ruling-seat (qro/no$, throne) of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on). Back in 2:13, the city of Pergamum was said to be the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan is”, due to its importance as a provincial center, the prominence of the imperial cult in the city, and, most importantly, because the believer Antipas was put to death there. All of these factors also serve to inform the symbolic domain of the Sea-creature (chap. 13), even though that domain cannot be limited to any specific geographical location. The Roman Empire and the Imperial cult is the most immediate point of reference for the symbolism, but, as we will see in the sixth and seventh visions, the imagery is considerably broader than the historic Roman rule of the first centuries.
The darkening that comes upon the creature’s kingdom is another direct allusion to the Exodus traditions and the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:21-29). Darkness was also a traditional image associated with the judgment to come upon nations and people on the “Day of YHWH” (Joel 2:10; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7-9) and was a common motif signifying (end-time) judgment (Mark 13:34 par; 15:33 par; Rev 6:12); moreover, any unusual darkness could be seen as an omen portending a coming disaster (cf. Koester, pp. 450, 649). Verse 10b-11 refers to the people in the Sea-creature’s kingdom, i.e. the human beings under its control, who belong to it and venerate the image, etc. It is not immediately clear what about the darkness causes the reaction of “squeezing” (or “chewing”) the tongue; most likely, it marks the cumulation of the experience of hardship and suffering in the midst of the Judgment. The noun po/no$ is used, which fundamentally means “labor, work, toil”, here more properly the suffering and pain that comes from hard labor. This hardship, along with the painful “mark” (e%lko$) on their bodies (cf. above), prompts humankind again to insult God (vb blasfhme/w). It would seem that people still have the opportunity to repent, but apparently none do. There is a bit of wordplay here involving the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) and the plural nouns po/noi (“labors”) and e&rga (“works”):
- People insult God “out of” their labors (po/noi), i.e. their hardship and suffering
- They do not repent “out of” their works (e&rga), i.e. their wicked behavior
The final two visions in the cycle (6 and 7) bring the scene of the great Judgment to a close, depicting the same judgment of the nations with a different set of symbols. We will explore these in the next daily note.