November 11: Revelation 16:17-21

Revelation 16:12-21, continued

The sixth vision (vv. 12-16) was examined in the previous note. We saw how that vision of the Judgment of the nations, presented after the pattern of nation-oracles in the Prophets (Joel 3, Zech 12, etc)—the “Day of YHWH” theme—was left unfulfilled. As in the prior Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles, there is a pause or interval after the sixth vision. Here the interval consists of the seventh vision itself, along with the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (17:1-19:3), before the scene in the sixth vision finally comes to a close.

Revelation 16:17-21: Seventh Vision

“And the seventh (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sky, and a great voice came out of the shrine, from the ruling-seat, saying: ‘It has come to be‘.” (v. 17)

Each of the seven Messengers (Angels) pours the dish in a different location; while this is not presented systematically, the locations generally correspond to four regions (and elements) that comprise the world:

    • Earth (gh=), earth, the dry land and domain of human beings, i.e. the inhabited world—Vision 1 (v. 1)
    • Sea (qa/lassa), water, also symbolizing the dark, chaotic domain (of evil)—Vision 2 & 3 (vv. 3ff)
    • Sun (h%lio$), fire, i.e. the heavenly domain from which the fiery Judgment (fire from heaven) comes—Vision 5 (v. 8)
    • Sky (a)h/r), air, the atmosphere and expanse of the sky, where winds blow, etc, traditionally signifying power and authority—Vision 7 (v. 17)

The significance of the sky or “air” here in the seventh vision probably has to do with two factors: (1) the atmosphere as the space in between heaven and earth, and (2) as a symbol of power, authority, control, etc. The immediate context is the Judgment on the nations—that is, earthly kingdoms and centers of power—symbolized primarily by the “great city” (Babylon). As previously noted, ancient Near Eastern cities were located on hills and elevated sites, and so here drawing appropriately upon the mountain-image, i.e. a place located between heaven and earth—above the earth (and the general human population), but beneath heaven (and the heavenly beings).

All of the visions in chapters 15-16 involve messages (and messengers) coming from out of the sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”) in heaven. Gradually, we are taken further back into the sanctuary, so that we see these messages coming, first from the altar in the sanctuary, and now from the innermost shrine (‘holy of holies’). The allusion here is to the golden chest (‘ark of the covenant’) which effectively served as the throne (qro/no$, “ruling-seat”) of YHWH in the ancient Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple. It represents the dwelling place of God among His People, and the “great voice” coming from it must be that of God Himself (as also in verse 1). The message consists of a single word: ge/gonen, “it has come to be”, a solemn announcement that the great Judgment is about to be fulfilled.

“And there came to be (lightning) flashes and voices and thunders, and there came to be a great shaking, such as (has) not come to be from the (time at) which man came to be upon the earth, a (mighty) shaking of such size as this!” (v. 18)

By pouring the dish upon the sky (the atmosphere), the initial effect is to cause terrifying celestial phenomena. In Israelite tradition, God (El-YHWH) was often association with the storm, and described with ancient storm-theophany images—lightning, thunder, wind, etc. The use of the word “voices” here is based on the traditional motif of thunder as the “voice” (Hebrew loq) of God. These same phenomena were manifest at the end of the Trumpet-cycle (11:19), and, indeed, such supernatural phenomena and upheavals of the natural order were a well-established part of Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic—a way of describing God’s end-time Judgment (cf. Mark 13:24-26 par; Rev 6:12-17, and prophetic passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7). In particular, the “shaking” (seismo/$), usually understood as that of an earthquake, is emphasized, since it is what will topple the “great city”.

The repeated use of the verb gi/nomai (4 times, aorist middle “came to be, has come to be”) stems from God’s voice declaring “it has come to be” (perfect passive, ge/gonen). It illustrates how God’s word governs completely the execution of the Judgment; most translations, unfortunately, totally ignore this important bit of wordplay.

“And the great city came to be into three parts—and the cities of the nations fell! And (so) Babilim the great was remembered in the sight of God—to give her the drinking-cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger.” (v. 19)

These are not two events, but two ways of describing the same event. Moreover, it should be obvious (if there was any doubt) that “the great city” and “Babylon the great” (14:8; chaps. 17-18) do not refer to an actual geographical location, but symbolize earthly/worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments. Two images are brought together to depict this judgment: (1) an earthquake, natural enough for the destruction of a city, and (2) the wine-cup (14:9-11, 17-20, and the motif of the offering-dishes being poured out). A full (four-fold) descriptive chain is used here for the wine-cup—”the cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger”, adding to the solemn power of the moment.

There is again an echo of God’s word (ge/gonen, “it has come to be”) at the opening of this verse: “it came to be” (e)ge/neto).

“And (then) the islands fled and the mountains were not found, and great falling (hail) as a talent-weight (size) stepped [i.e. came] down out of heaven upon the men (of earth), and (yet) the men insulted God out of the striking of the falling (hail), (in) that [i.e. because] the great striking of it was most violent.” (vv. 20-21)

This is an interesting juxtaposition of images that illustrates the unique visionary logic of the book of Revelation. The upheaval of the islands and mountains, itself a traditional image (Judg 5:5; Job 9:5-6ff; Psalm 18:7; 46:2-3; 97:5; 104:7, 32; Isa 40:4; 42:15; 54:10; Nah 1:5; Ezek 38:20; Mark 11:23 par; Rev 6:14-16), is suddenly transformed into a scene of giant hailstones falling from the sky. Very likely the latter image is another echo of the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 9:24), though, in an agricultural society, hail was a natural enough symbol of disaster and divine judgment (Isa 30:30; Josh 10:11; Ezek 38:22; Sirach 39:29). Overall, the imagery suggests massive boulder-like objects thrown about; the breakup of the mountains, etc, on earth is a fitting symbol for the breakdown and end of the current Age (6:14ff).

Even more important is the specific symbolism of the islands and mountains—both represent the nations and their power on earth. The association of the nations with islands goes back to Old Testament tradition (Psalm 72:10; Zeph 2:11; cf. also Sirach 47:16; 1 Macc 11:38). An island, as a protected location with direct access to the sea, could serve as an effective center of power, even the basis for an empire (ancient Crete being a notable example). Rome’s power, too, largely depended upon its control of the sea. A mountain as a symbol of (earthly) power is perhaps even more obvious. As previously noted, many cities in the ancient Near East were situated on hill-tops or elevated mounds, which likewise gave the city (and its rulers) protection and the opportunity to extend control over the surrounding populations. The great city “Babylon” is associated with seven mountains (or hills), identified with the seven heads of the Sea-creature, in 17:9 (to be discussed). Thus, the fall of cities could quite properly, and appropriately, be described in terms of a falling/crumbling mountain.

As in the fourth and fifth visions (vv. 9, 11; cf. also 9:20-21), humankind, faced with the Judgment, insults God (vb blasfhme/w). This suggests that, even up to the very end, people have the opportunity to repent and turn to God, but apparently none do; rather, their reaction serves to confirm their wicked nature, and that they are deserving of punishment.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the complex set of visions, interpretations, and visionary poetry that makes up the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (in chapters 17-18). We will seek to keep in mind throughout the place of these chapters in the overall context of the vision-cycle we have been studying.

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