Biblical Studies (NT)/V. THE SEVEN BOWLS
REVELATION: VISIONS OF THE END
V. The Seven Bowls
NOTE: Revelation is an enigmatic work which presents a challenge for interpreters. While most of the ideas presented in these lessons can easily be found in numerous published works, they are not presented here as definitive, but as a starting point for further analysis and discussion.
The Bowl Judgments
Just as the last of the seven seals unexpectedly begins a whole new series of catastrophes, so the last trumpet heralds the beginning of yet a third series of disasters, more devastating than anything we have yet seen. These are the "bowl judgments". The bowls, filled with the wrath of God, are poured out on the earth by seven angels. When they are finished, the earth is all but destroyed.
The first bowl causes “a foul and loathsome sore” to come upon those who have the mark of the beast.
The second bowl causes the sea to turn to blood, and everything within it to die. This has major implications for the world’s food supply and all whose livelihoods are connected with the oceans. It may be that the image of the sea turning to blood is not intended to be taken literally, but is a symbolic way of saying that the sea will be full of death. However, when we read the description of the next bowl, we begin to wonder.
The third bowl causes the fresh water to turn to blood, “for they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink” (16:6). This is what is termed “poetic justice.” If the second and third bowls are taken literally, there is neither salt water nor fresh. Clearly, the end is near.
The fourth bowl is poured on the sun, and it scorches the earth and its people with intense heat. There is much talk today about global warming. However, the intense heat of the fourth bowl judgment is presented as something which occurs suddenly, dramatically, and supernaturally, as an act of God.
The fifth bowl brings total darkness and causes great pain. It is not quite clear what causes the pain in this instance, but experiments have shown that prolonged total darkness can have a damaging effect on the human psyche. Even so, like Pharaoh before the Exodus, the hearts of the people are hardened to the point where even supernatural events will not move them. John says, “They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds” (16:11).
When the sixth bowl is poured out, the stage is set for the greatest and most famous of battles: Armageddon (16:16). The name is the Hebrew form of Mt. Megiddo, a location in northern Israel, though whether this exact location is implied is open to interpretation. John writes:
- I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of demons, performing signs which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.” (16:13-14)
These demons may be understood as the spirits of the dragon, beast, and false prophet, themselves, or as emissaries for them which go out to deal with the nations. They are corrupt, for they are described as “unclean.” They have more than convincing words with which to manipulate the earth’s leaders, but go out performing “signs.” Whatever these signs may be, they are sufficiently compelling to bring the nations together for the world’s last and greatest battle. At this time, the Euphrates River is dried up to make way for the armies of the east. This appears to be an act of God, rather than Satan, which indicates that the powers of heaven are also preparing for the battle, and that they intend to meet the forces of evil in a final and decisive confrontation.
Up to this point, we have been listening to the words of John. We have not heard from Jesus directly since the messages to the seven Asian churches in the first three chapters. In the middle of this passage about the sixth bowl, we unexpectedly hear the voice of Jesus again: “Behold, I am coming…” (16:15). Immediately following this announcement comes the climax of the whole tribulation. John writes, “The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” (16:17). There is an earthquake so big that “every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (16:20). This is a more extreme form of the sixth seal, where “every mountain and island was moved out of its place” (6:14).
The words, “It is done!”, remind us of Jesus’ last words on the cross (Jn 19:30). They are said here at the completion of the tribulation which is said to occur at the end of this age. The same words are repeated at the completion of the Last Judgment at the end of the world (21:6).
The word Babylon is now used for the first time in Revelation. John writes, “Great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath” (16:19). Babylon is personified as a woman, who is seen sitting on a scarlet beast. She is described as the “mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (17:5). John says, “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). The scarlet beast upon which Babylon rides is described as having seven heads and ten horns (17:3). The beast from the sea in Chapter 13 (Antichrist) and the dragon of Chapter 12 (Satan) are also described as having seven heads and ten horns, which implies that these three (Satan, the Antichrist, and Babylon) are connected.
Concerning the seven heads, there is a dual symbolism, which is often the case with Biblical prophecy. Firstly, we are told that “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits” (17:9). With regard to the seven mountains on which the woman sits, the angel gives us another clue: “The woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Babylon, then, is associated with a city. That city was the head of a great empire in John’s time, for it “reigns over the kings of the earth.” Furthermore, it is located on seven mountains. This, of course, can be none other than Rome, which was the capital of the empire in John’s time, and it is a well-known fact that it is built on seven hills.
Babylon does not represent a city per se, however, but the institutions of power which are located within it, and these might find their home in different locations at different times in history. This becomes apparent when we consider the seven kings which the heads also represent. The angel says, “There are seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time. And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven” (17:10-11). Many scholars believe that Israel is a key to understanding Biblical prophecy. Applying that concept here, we can interpret the kings as representing the seven nations which have ruled over Israel (not the land, but the people) during its history. The empire about which the angel says, “One is,” is Rome, which ruled Israel in John’s time. The angel says, “Five have fallen.” These are the empires which had formerly ruled Israel: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. Together with Rome, these account for six of the seven. At the time of writing, the seventh had “not yet come.” Since then, however, another empire has arisen which ruled over Israel -- the British Empire, which ruled Israel from 1917 until Israel's independence in 1948 (see British Mandate of Palestine). True to the prophecy, British rule lasted only “a short time,” but it is deeply significant, because it means that all seven of the empires have now come and gone. The time is ripe for the “beast that was, and is not,” who is “also the eighth, and is of the seven.” According to this interpretation, therefore, one of the seven will be resurrected in some form.
The angel says, “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast” (17:12-13). The author speaks of these kings as yet in the future. They appear to represent a ten-nation confederation over which the Antichrist has control. Needless to say, there has been much speculation over which nations these might be.
Babylon as Symbol
Babylon is a complex concept in Revelation. It is associated with a city which is the seat of international power; with the empires which have ruled over Israel throughout history; with a confederation of ten nations in service of the Antichrist; with false religion, or the manipulation of religious institutions for ungodly ends; and with the abuse of power in general. Babylon is opposed to Christianity, for it is "drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). The Babylonian system gains total control by usurping both political and religious power. In its most consummated form, it features the Antichrist as a political leader who presents himself as a savior to the people of the world and insists on being worshiped as the incarnation of God. The false prophet, in cooperation with the Antichrist, and under the pretense of being a great man of God, is the most powerful religious leader in the world. With the influence of his office, he proclaims the Antichrist to be the Messiah and people are forced to worship him as such.
The Battle of Armageddon
At this point, Satan's victory seems to be complete, but it is shortlived. He barely has time to establish his authority before Christ appears, no longer the sacrificial lamb, but “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (19:16). He rides forth to do battle with Satan in a final showdown between the forces of good and evil. The outcome is that the forces of Antichrist are completely destroyed. John writes:
- The beast was taken, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded out of the mouth of him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh. And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. (19:20-21; 20:1-2)
Just as Christ is described by Paul as “the firstfruits of the resurrection” (1 Cor 15:20), the Antichrist and the false prophet are the firstfruits of the lake of fire, for they are sent there in the first judgment at the end of this age. In Revelation, no one else goes there until the last judgment, at the end of the world. Satan and the followers of the Antichrist are imprisoned in the abyss, or bottomless pit, for a thousand years (the Millennium).
After the downfall of Babylon, there is a great celebration in heaven, followed by the announcement of the marriage of the Lamb. The Lamb is Christ. The wife symbolizes the people of God. The angel says to John: “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” (19:9). These inherit the Earth where they live in peace for a thousand years. Although there are other passages in the Bible which speak of an age of peace, only Revelation tells us how long it lasts. The word millennium simply means one thousand years and could refer to any thousand-year period, but through common usage, the Millennium has come to be understood as referring to the age of peace of Revelation. In the Millennium, the forces of darkness have no power on the Earth. It is a time of love and unity, of peace and harmony. Isaiah says, “They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9).
The Last Judgment
At the end of the Millenium, Satan and his followers are released from the bottomless pit. He again gathers together a huge army to make war against the people of God, but God destroys his army directly by raining fire down upon it. John writes, “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).
After the banishment of Satan to the lake of fire comes the Last Judgment, also known as the Great White Throne Judgment, after the description given by John of the heavenly throne from which judgment is dispensed (20:11). The Earth has served its purpose and there is no longer a place for it. It vanishes before the face of him who sits on the throne. All who were not a part of the first resurrection at the time of the tribulation now come before the throne for judgment. This is the second resurrection. John writes, “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:13-15). Just as the Bible speaks of two births (the physical and the spiritual), it speaks of two deaths. The first death is physical death, and as we see in the foregoing passage, the second is the lake of fire.
While the Antichrist and False Prophet, who are thrown into the lake of fire before the Millennium, are said in Revelation to suffer eternal torments, the length of time is not stated for those who are banished to the lake of fire at the last judgment. The description of the lake of fire as the "second death" implies that the souls of those who go there at the last judgment do not live forever, but die, either immediately or after a suitable period of punishment. Many people believe that the souls of the lost will, nevertheless, suffer eternally, and offer scriptural passages to support their argument. Others offer passages which indicate that the nature of God only allows for punishment until such a time as justice has been served, and no more. There are therefore conflicting viewpoints on the subject.
The New Jerusalem
There now begins a completely new order of creation. The world as we know it has passed away and John sees a completely new heaven and earth. There is a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, specially prepared by God for his people. John writes:
- The tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them and be their God. And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (21:3-4)
At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden so that they might be denied access to the "tree of life" (symbolizing eternal life) in their corrupt state (Gen 3:22-24). Now, at the end of Revelation, the tree of life reappears. John sees the tree in the middle of the New Jerusalem, "and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (22:2). In Genesis, the earth is cursed because of Adam's sin (Gen 3:17). In the New Jerusalem, "there will be no more curse" (Rev 22:3). In Genesis, the eternal paradise is lost. In Revelation, it is restored.
The Supreme Riddle
There is much in Revelation that is hard to understand, and even that which seems clear is probably understood only partially. Revelation is the supreme riddle which has perplexed the greatest of minds for two thousand years, yet it never loses its fascination. Rather, its fascination seems to increase, especially in these modern times when many people are convinced that the events it describes are just around the corner, historically speaking. In spite of its difficulties, its major themes are abundantly clear: the ultimate triumph of good over evil; the judgment of all before the throne of God; the presence of evil forces (both spiritual and physical) which have great power on the Earth, and their ultimate reckoning; the sovereignty of God; the reward of the faithful; and the coming of Christ to establish his kingdom at the appointed time. In the meantime, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still... He who is righteous, let him be righteous still” (22:11), but "whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (22:17).
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