Revelation sixteen describes all seven of the final set of plagues—the “bowl plagues” where seven angels pour out onto the earth “the wrath of God” (16:1). Unlike the partial destruction that the two early series of plagues (seals and trumpets) describe (in turn, one-quarter and one-third—perhaps the thunder plagues that were “sealed up” and not reported [10:4] would have told of one-half destruction), here the destruction is total (“every living thing in the sea died,” 16:3). With the seventh plague “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’” (16:17). Now, John’s reporting of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” is not done. We still have six more chapters and several important visions to go. But this is the final plague and the expanding circle of destruction has reached its climax. The dynamics of wrath and destruction seem to have reached their culmination here. We will need to think carefully about these plague visions and also consider what is to come in Revelation—all in light of the core visions we have already heard, especially chapter five’s vision of the triumph of the Lamb—before we draw conclusions about what is being communicated in this chapter.
The “loud voice from the temple” almost certainly is God’s voice telling the angels to “pour out on the earth” bowls of the “wrath of God” (16:1). We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet. To say the “loud voice” of God sets the angels loose to pour out their bowls allows some distance between God’s actual direct involvement on earth (most centrally characterized by the persevering love of the Lamb and his followers) and the outworking of God’s “wrath”—which is best seen as a more impersonal, indirect unfolding of cause and effect in a moral universe. The plagues that follow echo the plagues visited upon Egypt in the story of the exodus. We have been prepared for this by numerous allusions to the exodus earlier in the book and, most immediately, with the vision at the beginning of chapter fifteen. There we read of “those who had conquered the beast” (presumably the countless multitude of Revelation seven) singing “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” that that proclaimed the greatness and justness of God’s deeds that will bring “all nations [to] come and worship before [God, whose] judgments have been revealed” (15:3-4). As the plagues in Exodus are but a prequel to the salvation offered the children of Israel as a firstfruit to blessing all the families of the earth, so we may infer here that the plagues in chapter sixteen that echo the exodus plagues serve God’s “just deeds” of blessing all the families of the earth and evoking their worship. The actual plagues that occur when the bowls are emptied are quite similar to the exodus plagues, though each has its own distinctiveness. The first five plagues reflect the sense that part of the dynamic with “God’s wrath” is indeed a cause and effect series of consequences: Accept the mark of the Beast worship its image and now get “a foul and painful sore” (16:2). “Shed the blood of saints and prophets” and your “rivers and … springs of water … become blood” (16:4, 6). “Curse the name of God” and the sun will “scorch people with fire” (16:9). The effect, though, as we saw earlier in chapter nine, is that these plagues do not lead to repentance (16:11). In what follows here, through the end of chapter eighteen, we will not be given contrasting visions that point to God’s actual way of bringing about repentance and healing—the persevering love of the Lamb and his followers. The message in chapters sixteen through nineteen is of the fall of the Dragon’s kingdom. However, we know by now that the “purpose” of the plagues is not as God’s method of bringing about repentance. From the picture at the beginning of this plague vision (15:3-4) we do know that God still is at work bringing healing that will evoke worship for “all nations.” What we get in this series of visions through the end of chapter eighteen is a picture of the destruction of the destroyers of the earth—that is, the spiritual forces of evil whose destruction does allow the kings of the earth (presumably those who join with the forces of evil to wage what they think will be war against the Lamb) to find healing. That there is no repentance here as the bowls are poured out simply reinforces how powerful the hold the Dragon has on human society. The Dragon needs to go down before widespread repentance will happen. The cry of the angel in 16:5-7 reminds John’s readers of the means God uses to bring justice. As we saw in chapter fourteen and will see more clearly in chapters seventeen and eighteen, the Dragon’s acts to “shed the blood of saints and prophets” will lead to the Dragon, et al, “drinking blood” that is a poison to them. That is, the Dragon is not defeated by the Lamb’s people shedding blood, but by their willingness to live as faithful witnesses even to the point of having their own blood shed. This point is reinforced by the response of the altar, echoing 6:9-11: “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
The sixth bowl plague underscores the dynamics of the Dragon’s process of corrupting the kings of the earth. John sees “three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the Dragon, from the mouth of the Beast, and from the mouth of the False Prophet” (16:13). “These are demonic spirits, … who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14). This is a statement both of the actual nature of the ideologies that shape the politics of the kings of the earth—“demonic spirits”—and of the main focus of that politics—“assembling for war.” Read carefully, though, this vision gives a glimmer of hope for the kings of the earth and the nations. Their corrupt politics is fueled by the message they are getting from the Dragon and his cohorts. The source of militarism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism is not the inherent character of human political life, nor the sinful nature of the kings of the earth. These dynamics of domination (and self-destruction) come from outside. The hope is that as those spiritual forces are “destroyed” (as they will be) their effect will end and kings and nations may be set right and healed and operate in harmony with God’s will for humanity (as they will). It will be crucial as the story reaches its denouement that we notice what becomes of this assemblage gathered for battle. We get a hint already. The battle will happen on “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14). Surely the Dragon and the others do not have in mind this kind of “great day” as they join their forces. As it turns out, the great day when it comes will not involve an actual “battle” but only the capture and destruction of the “destroyers of the earth.” The forces that gather to do battle, with all their dynamics of power-over, death-dealing force, and fearfulness, will not set the terms of the actual battle. God does not gather a similar battle force in order to overpower the forces opposed to God. This should not surprise us based on what we have read in Revelation up to now. Several times we have been told of God’s victory, the way God “conquers” (and how God’s people are to conquer), and the weapons that provide the means to conquer. It has been persevering love and the willingness to witness to the way of the Lamb even to the death. We will see in chapter nineteen that “the great day of God the Almighty” reinforces that message. In the midst of the picture of the forces of the Dragon gathering for “battle,” we get a interruption, presumably from the “loud voice” of 16:1—a call to “stay awake and remain clothed” (16:15). This is best understood as a reminder not to let the methods of the Dragon determine how God’s people respond. Don’t be shaped by the Dragon’s seeming power and let that determine how you understand power. Do not respond to the sword with the sword. Remember the message throughout of the Lamb’s victory through persevering love—that will be all we need. “Harmagedon” (NRSV) or “Armageddon” (KJV, NIV) is not an actual place. Nor is there ever going to be a “Battle of Armageddon.” The reference alludes to ancient battles (see Judges 5:19; 2 Kings 23:29-30). Probably John’s point here is to underscore the self-deception of the Dragon and his minions to think there actually will be a battle. They gather at Armageddon simply to be captured and destroyed—not to fight.
The final plague signals the end of the plagues. It will be described in great detail in chapters seventeen and eighteen. The “great city,” that is “great Babylon,” is not forgotten by God (16:19). As will be stated in the longer story of Babylon’s fall to come, God’s method of taking down the great city is “wine-cup of the fury of God’s wrath” (16:19)—which we know to be the process of the faithful witness of the Lamb and his followers turning the system of domination on its head (“they have conquered … by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” 12:11). The various portents here, lightning, thunder, an earthquake “such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth,” splitting the great city into three parts, islands fleeing away, and huge hailstones, all symbolize the significance of the completion of God’s work. They are not to be taken literally and are not in the far-off future. In their midst, people are not destroyed but “curse God” (16:21). As history unfolds, the dynamics of domination fighting love lead to many mistaking God’s compassion and care for a curse. Again, it will take the destruction of the destroyers of the earth to free such people from such deception.