The drama and suspense of the onset of the great Judgment builds in this second heavenly scene (15:5-8). In the previous note, we examined the scene of the People of God (believers) standing upon the crystal-clear sea, in front of God’s throne (implied), singing a song of praise to God for his deliverance. The sea was “mixed with fire”, indicating the punishment-aspect of the Judgment and anticipating the Bowl-cycle of visions. The seven Messengers (Angels) holding these “plagues” (plhgai/) were already mentioned in verse 1, along with an announcement of the Judgment.
“And with [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw—and the shrine of the tent of witness in the heaven was opened, and the seven Messengers holding the seven (thing)s to strike came out of the shrine, having been sunk [i.e. clothed] in clean (and) bright linen (garments) fastened around the chest (as they stood with) golden belts.”
The seven heavenly Messengers (Angels) are described here in some detail, both in terms of the setting of their appearance and the clothing they wear. Again, from a literary standpoint, this allows the suspense of the scene to build. The shining white (linen) garments with golden belts matches the earlier description of the exalted Jesus (1:13-14); it is traditional imagery, depicting purity, holiness, and heavenly splendor, applicable to the righteous in heaven (3:4; 7:14; 19:8), and, more broadly, to the People of God in their heavenly aspect (4:4; 19:14).
As in the visions of chapter 14, these Messengers come out of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”), the Temple being used as a symbol for God’s dwelling (in heaven); it also represents the place where the People of God gather to worship. The altar (of incense) is in the Temple sanctuary, and its fire symbolizes the end-time Judgment (8:3-5; 14:10-11, 18). The reference to the Temple as the “tent of the witness” is one of several images from the Exodus narratives that have been introduced into the Judgment scene here. In verse 3, the song sung by the People of God is called “the song of Moses”, referring to the song of praise, attributed to Moses, set after Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt and crossing the Sea (Exod 15:1-18). The seven Messengers are said to hold plhgai/, literally things which strike, often in the sense of disease or natural disaster that ‘strikes’ humankind. The English “plague” derives from Greek plhgh/ (pl¢g¢¡), and the Bowl-visions certainly reflect the historical tradition of the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7-12). As for the “tent of witness”, it is a reference to the portable tent-shrine (‘tabernacle’) of the Exodus/Wilderness period. More properly called the “tent of (the) appointed (meeting)” (du@om lh#a)), the name “tent of the witness” is better rendered from the Hebrew as “tent of the agreement” (td%u@h* lh#a), Num 17:7-8 [Heb 22-23]), in reference to the tablet(s) recording the binding agreement (covenant) established between YHWH and Israel, stored in the golden chest that served as the “throne” of YHWH in the shrine. Both the tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and later Temple were built after a similar pattern, and served a common purpose for the People of God (Israel); however, the image of the tent-shrine is more appropriate here, in terms of its (Mosaic) connection with the “plagues” of Egypt, etc, but also because of its more immediate association with the cloud/fire of God’s presence. This is alluded to by the image of the smoke (kapno/$) of His presence that fills the shrine in this scene, also serving as an image for the smoke of His fiery anger.
“And one out of the four living (being)s gave to the seven Messengers seven offering-dishes [fia/lai] being full of the (angry) impulse [qumo/$] of God, the (One) living into the Ages of the Ages. And the shrine was made full of smoke out of the splendor of God and out of His power, and no one was able to come into the shrine until the seven (thing)s to strike (held by) the seven Messengers should be completed.”
The parallelism of these two sets of images is clear enough. The offering-dishes are filled with the angry impulse of God (i.e. to punish wickedness), and the sanctuary is filled (same verb gem[i/z]w) with the smoke of His splendor and power. The Greek word fia/lh generally refers to a broad, flat dish such as that used in religious offerings, particularly libations—i.e. offerings of wine. This fits perfectly with the earlier image of the Judgment as a cup of wine to be poured out upon the earth (14:8, 10, 19-20); there the same word qumo/$ (“impulse”) was used, referring to God’s anger and desire to punish wickedness. As noted above, the “smoke” (kapno/$) is a dual-image, signifying both the presence of God in the sanctuary and His anger which will be expressed as a fiery Judgment. The final statement in verse 8 again draws upon the ancient Tent-shrine traditions, limiting access to the sanctuary, so that even the officiating priests could not enter (Exod 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron 5:13-14; 7:1-2; cf. also Lev 16:13, etc; Koester, p. 645-6).
The Messengers already hold the seven “plagues” which will strike the earth; the motif of the offering-dishes is a literary device which gives to the vision-cycle a powerful dramatic and ritual dimension. It also blends together two sets of images for depicting the Judgment: (1) the Exodus traditions with the Plagues of Egypt, and (2) the wine imagery of chapter 14. The sudden appearance of the “living beings”, which echoes back to the heavenly throne-vision of chapters 4-5, is also a dramatic device, but one which enhances the symbolism here in two respects: (1) it plays on the theme of God in the sanctuary as “the Living One”, and (2) it provides a subtle contrast to the Sea and Earth creatures of chapter 13, and the ‘living’ image of the Sea-creature that causes humankind to worship and obey the creature. The first five visions of this Judgment-cycle (16:1-11) are directed specifically against the world as the domain of the Sea-creature. These will be discussed in the next daily note.