After chapter 14’s visions of judgment that actually focus on Jesus’ self-giving love, we turn in chapter 15 to the final series of plagues. Though there is a sense of progression moving from the seal plagues in chapter 6 through the trumpet plagues and now to the bowl plagues, these three series are best seen as three angles on the same picture. They do not actually portray three separate events but rather portray a deeper sense of urgency in relation to the one “event”—which is not one specific historical but a symbolic way of referring to the “three and a half years,” that is, the time between Jesus’ life and the final end.
Revelation 15:1-4—The great song of saving justice
As the book does numerous times amidst the recounting of various plague and trauma visions, here also we get a powerful vision of celebration. One of our big questions in interpreting Revelation is how we understand the relationship between the plagues and the celebrations. I would suggest, given the self-identification of the book as a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” given the centrality to the entire book of the vision in chapter five of the Lamb receiving the scroll, and given the ending vision of the New Jerusalem that portrays an amazingly inclusive sense of healing, we should see the celebrations as the fundamental reality.
We get intermittent celebratory visions throughout (7:9-17; 11:15-19; 12:10-12; 14:1-5; 15:2-4; 19:1-10) in order to keep front and center the assertion of the book that the plagues are actually part of God’s healing work. They are not pictures of autonomous punishment where God’s retributive justice wreaks vengeance on wrong-doing as one part of God’s victory to go along with the separate work of bringing salvation to the chosen ones. To the contrary, the plagues directly serve the healing work to the point that even the worst of God’s human enemies, the kings of the earth, find healing and end up in the New Jerusalem.
John sees seven angels whose presence brings God’s wrath to its fulfillment (15:1). It is crucial that we notice that the immediate consequence of the fulfilling of God’s wrath is seen in the song of celebration that links with the sight of these angels. Carrying on from the visions in chapter that referred to the “144,000” following the Lamb wherever he goes, to the need for the saints to endure, and to the importance of the blood flowing from the wine press (which we will see later plays a central role in bringing down the Great Harlot), here in 15:2, we hear of the victorious song coming from “those who had conquered the beast.” All of these figures—the “144,000,” the “saints,” the blood-shedders, and now the conquerers are all the same people. They gain the victory in the same way Jesus did: persevering love.
The content of the song tells us the point of everything the book as a whole tells about. The just God, “King of the nations,” is the one whom “all nations” will come to worship. This is the fruit of the work of the Lamb and the faithfulness of the Lamb’s followers: that the nations will be healed and worship rather than blaspheme God. Thus is borne out the hope of 1:5, that Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth,” and the promise of 21:24, that the “kings of the earth” will bring their “glory” into the New Jerusalem.
This song unites the stories of salvation from the Old Testament (“song of Moses”) with those from the New Testament (“song of the Lamb”). These together make up one song, a song celebrating God’s healing love that generated all of the healing elements of the biblical story from the calling of Abraham through the exodus, gift of Torah, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are all variations on the one theme of a merciful God respecting humanity’s freedom while patiently displaying love that cannot be defeated and that transforms those who trust in it and live in light of it. We must remember this song when we think about the plagues that follow in chapter 16.
These plagues (paradoxically, they are portrayed in various places in Revelation as in some sense the work both of the Dragon and the one on the throne) serve healing, even the healing of God’s greatest human enemies, “the kings of the earth.” They are not to be read as acts of autonomous, and end-in-itself kind of punishment. Nor are they to be read as random acts of destruction that happen outside of God’s providential care and movement of history toward healing.
To say that God’s wrath is “ended” with these plagues is not to say that God’s anger is completed with the total punishment of all of God’s enemies. To the contrary, in line with the picture we get elsewhere in Revelation of what God’s “wrath” is about, perhaps we best understanding the “ending” of God’s wrath here as the completion of God’s ways of using the dynamics of human freedom, the influence of the powers of evil, and the effect of allowing consequences to work themselves out actually to lead to the ultimate healing of creation. This process “ends” with the ultimate destruction, not of the worst human enemies of God (the “kings of the earth”) but with the destruction of the evil powers that lead human beings astray. And, in fact, in what follows in chapters 17-20 will precisely be more detailed accounts of how those evil powers go down—for the benefit, ultimately, of even “the kings of the earth.”
Revelation 15:5-8—Plagues from the Temple
Between the singing of the song of Moses and the Lamb and the actually outpouring from the seven bowls that chapters 16 recounts, John is given a picture of the angels that bear the bowls emerging from “the temple of the tent of witness in heaven” (15:5). The angels are given the bowls from “one of the four living creatures.”
To understand the meaning of this picture we need to review some of what we have seen earlier in Revelation. We first met the “four living creatures” back in chapter four, John’s first vision after he saw the door into heaven opened and was shown the great throne room. These creatures are there worshiping the one on the throne. Here in chapter 15, they seem to be agents of the one on the throne.
In the celebration that follows the Lamb being given the great scroll in chapter 5 (5:8), the four living creatures sing “a new song” in celebration and they are described as each one “holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints” (5:9). Then in the first series of plagues, the seals of the scroll being opened, we read of “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” crying out from “under the altar,” asking how long before God’s justice vindicates their “blood” (6:9-11).
Finally, in chapter 8:3-5 we read of an angel with “a golden censer” standing at the altar being given incense to burn along with the “prayers of the saints” that will rise “before God.”
So, the point being made in 15:5-8 seems to be that the vindication of the faithful followers of the Lamb is at hand. The faithful lives and the on-going prayers of the followers of the Lamb are powerful. They are portrayed here as motivating God’s response to complete the work of God’s “wrath.” Again, if we read carefully, we will note the connection between the healing work of the Lamb emphasized throughout the book but especially in chapter 5 and the outworking of God’s “wrath.” The four living creatures join in “a new song” as an immediate response to the Lamb receiving the scroll as a consequences of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice. Here in chapter 15, we learn of a song of celebration that essentially repeats the exact same content of chapter 5’s song: “All nations will come and worship before you.”
The role of the followers of the Lamb in all of this is simply to follow his way. When they follow, they be imitating his self-sacrificial love, perhaps even to the point of death. The consequence, we will learn, is that God’s restorative justice will bring healing to “all nations.”