[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
(1) How does chapter 15 prepare for the seven bowls?
(2) Compare the seals, trumpets, and bowls. How are they related in the whole scheme of the book?
(3) What is the meaning of the “sea of glass” (15:2)? Does the imagery occur elsewhere in the book?
(4) To what does the conquering of the beast refer (15:2)? Who are the persons who have conquered? Where? When? How? Does this contradict 13:7?
(5) Why should their song be called “the song of Moses…and the song of the Lamb” (15:3)? What emphases mark the content of the song?
(6) Give careful attention to the emptying of the seven bowls (chapter 16)? What is associated with each bowl? Is any progression obvious? Any climax? What responses are indicated? How do these judgments compare with the two earlier series (seals and trumpets)? Does the imagery of these judgments recall any Old Testament material?
(7) How do the utterance of the angel and the response to it (16:5-7) compare with the song in 15:3-4?
(8) What figures do the symbols in 16:3 represent? How are they related to each other?
(9) What is meant by Armageddon (16:16)?
(10) What is the significance of the time element in 15:1,8; 16:17? How is the statement “It is done!” (16:17) to be understood? How is it related to the remainder of the paragraph (16:17-21)? To what does Babylon refer (16:19)?
15:1-8—The End Continued
Again (15:1) we come to the end, but we still have more to see before the New Jerusalem comes down. The bowl plagues are said here to be the final outpouring of God’s wrath.
Beside the sea (15:2) stood the faithful ones “who had conquered.” This scene of the victors standing on the shore of the heavenly sea with harps in their hands praising God (15:2) recalls Israel’s song of triumph ovr Egypt on th shore of the Red Sea. This scene is painted here as another message of encouragement and assurance of God’s control and mercy. It significantly comes just prior to the last series of plagues to afflict humankind.
This vision also highlights the idea that the struggle against the beast is actually a struggle against paying homage to his image or being marked with the number of his name. Again, at stake here are people’s loyalties and the continued faithfulness of the churches.
Like the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1), the victores sang “the song of Moses, the servant of God” (15:3), celebrating the triumph of God over the enemies of his people. However, because the victory has been won by no other weapons than the cross of Christ and the faithful witness of his followers, this song is also the “song of the Lamb.” The song holds out hope that the nations, in view of the just deeds of the Lord, will fear God and render God homage and worship (15:4). The promised result of God’s just deeds here is that “all nations shall come and worship [before God]” (15:4). These same nations are ruled by the beast in 13:7 and rage at God’s judgments in 11:18. The effect of God’s justice is not to destroy them but to convert them.
In 15:5 the temple is viewed as the tabernacle that contains the testimony to God’s abiding covenant and God’s moral demand on humankind (cf. the Old Testament law). The plagues that are about to be describe are in harmony with both aspects of God’s holiness. They judge the rebelliousness of the earth and ultimately fulfill God’s redemptive purpose for the earth.
The emptying of the bowls of God’s wrath (15:7) is a standard symbol used by the prophets to represent God’s judgments among people (cf. Ps. 75:8; Jer. 25:15ff.; 49:12ff.; Ezek. 23:33; Hab. 2:16).
The smoke that fills the temple (15:8) both reveals and hides the glory, awe, and mystery that surround God (Exod. 19:16-18; 40:34-38; 1 KIngs 8:11; Isa. 6:4). Only when the seven plagues were poured out was it possible again to enter the temple. God’s judgments remain a mystery until they have been executed. God’s “strange work” with Assyria (Isa. 28:31, NIV) is a good example of this.
The clear implication of this passage in its context next to chapter 16 is that the plagues and outpouring of God’s wrath are somehow part of God’s justice. The references to the song of Moses and the Lamb serve to tie the plagues in with the Exodus and the Christ event. The ultimate effect and central manifestations of God’s just deeds are salvific (i.e., the celebration of the conquerors and the worship of the nations focuses on the Lamb.) The conquerors celebrate because they hav, by conquering the beast, contributed not to the destruction of the nations, but to their coming to worship God.
16:1-2—First Bowl: Boils
The first bowl plague is like the Egyptian plague of boils in Exodus 9:10-11. Just as the boils came on people and beasts in Egypt apart from the Hebrews, so these “foul and evil sores” afflicted only “the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.” The act of worshiping falsehood would itself seem to be as a severe a punishment as any could be.
16:3—Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood
Bowl two concerns the sea, as did the second trumpet (8:9). There are many parallels between the bowls and the trumpets, but the bowls are final, the trumpets only partial. This is the final intensification of God’s judgment—the last chance.
16:4-7—Third Bowl: Rivers and Springs Turn to Blood
Bowl three shows the springs and rivers becoming like blood. Perhaps this is a reference to Babylon shedding Christians’ blood. But this action turns on itself. Babylon’s water supply is destroyed by what she herself does. Evil destroys itself. That is how God’s judgment works out.
God is called “just” twice here—first by the “angel of the waters,” the one pouring out the bowl which turns the rivers and springs of water into blood; and then by the “altar,” which apparently is a reference to 6:9-11, where John saw under the altar the souls of the martyrs who are crying out for God to avenge their blood.
The specific references to “justice” here have to do with God’s judgment on those who “have shed the blood of God’s saints and prophets” (16:6). In this judgment God gives blood shedders blood to drink through the agency of the angel who turned drinking water into blood. This seems like a clear case of “eye for an eye” retributive justice. But there is more to it than that.
The plagues are clearly stated to be instruments of God’s “wrath” (16:1). We saw earlier that the plague visions are John’s attempt to show that God is at work in the midst of the evils and catastrophes endemic in human history. The powers of evil are used by God for God’s own ultimate purposes—destroying the evil powers themselves and fully establishing the New Jerusalem.
The “wrath” in Revelation, while attributed to God, is the impersonal process within history of the process of evil being allowed to destroy itself. Revelation contains numerous references and allusions to the “cup of wrath” (14:10,19-20; 15:7; 18:6). The “cup of wrath” in the Old Testament is never used of what is to happen at the end of history. It always refrs to certain specific events in history, either in the past or in the near future. Most of John’s references to the wrath refer to the fall of Babylon, by which he meant the fall of the Roman Empire. This, he believed, was to be an event in future history, but not the last event. Nor was it to be an event brought about by direct divine action, but rather by the action of people in history—the kings from the East, inf act (cf. 17:16). To this event John applies the language of divine wrath. In so doing he is entirely in line with the Old Testament view of God’s wrath in not treating the wrath as purely eschatological. On the contrary, it is fundamentally the working out inhistory of the consequences of human sin.
God’s wrath here means that people reap what they sow, that evil rebounds on itself and is self-destructive. This process serves God’s purposes in two ways—first by moving people to repentance due to their experience of the destructive consequences of their rejection of God; and second (according to John’s visions) by culminating ultimately in the destruction of the evil powers and the establishment of the New Jerusalem on earth.
The theme of the first four bowls is that God’s creation itself takes vengeance on those that do harm. The land, the sea, the fresh water, and the sun all play a part. The principle seems to be that “whereby a person sins, thereby he or she is punished.” for example, the “mark of the beast” in 16:2 becomes ugly and painful sores—the symbol of its punishment. In 16:4-7, the ocean of “blood” which the worshipers of the beast have shed contaminates their own water supply. This image is picked up in chapter 17, where we see the harlot Babylon staggering to her appointed doom, drunk with the “blood of the saints and prophets.”
The images in chapter 16 bear a striking resemblance to the plagues of the Exodus. All seven judgments here repeat in varied ways the plagues of Egypt. The first four verses of chapter 15 indicate that these plagues conclude in a redemption greater than that from Egypt. This promised redemption is the subject of a full-fledged vision in chapters 21 and 22.
In the context of the whole book, it would seem that there are four major purposes of the plague visions. One is to serve as a serious warning to Christians not to conform to the surrounding culture, not to accept the mark of the beast. A second is to promise that the evil events of history are not ultimately independent from God’s purposes but in a mysterious way actually serve them. Third, in the context of the plagues John emphasizes that God is continually hoping for and seeking repentance on the part of those who dwell on the earth. A fourth purpose is to show that God’s wrath, in hating and destroying evil, serves the purpose of cleansing creation so that in the new creation things will be whole.
This passage emphasizes that the outworking of “wrath” is part of God’s justice. The implication is that evil has consequences, that it is self-destructive. The reality of God’s wrath is necessary for evil to be destroyed, which is the only way creation can ultimately be liberated. God’s wrath serves God’s redemptive purposes.
16:8-9—Fourth Bowl: Scorching Heat
In both 16:9 and 16:11 (bowls four and five) there are references to the possibility of repentance. Even at this late point, nobody’s fate is finally fixed. The purpose behind even these terrible bowls is to move people to change their ways so that they can be saved. None have to suffer these bowls if they choose not to. But it is possible to identify so completely with the beast that people continue, no matter what, to curse God.
16:10-11—Fifth Bowl: Darkness, Pain, and Chaos
The “throne of the beast” is Babylon, the city of rebellion against God. The picture here is of Satan invading the whole structure of society, as first planned by god, and perverting it to his own ends. The “world”—the organization of human society without reference to God—is the result. It is the satanic counterpart to God’s society, the community of faith. Upon this the fifth bowl is poured and darkness and confusion result. When God’s values are ignored, human society cannot function and it ultimately self-destructs.
16:12-16—Sixth Bowl: Evil Invasion from the East
The sixth bowl plague pictures, like the sixth trumpet (9:13-21), a terrible invasion from the east. This harkens both to Jewish and to Roman fears in order to underline the evil nature of the beast and the extreme danger he represents.
The frogs (16:13) were examples of unclean creatures. The beast, the dragon, and the false prophet all work together—a kind of “unholy trinity.” This “unholy trinity” is clearly behind the “kings of the whole world” (16:14), who are assembled to battle God—definitely a statement about political power in the world.
Significantly, when we get to the battle in chapter 19, there is no battle. The rider on the white horse simply captures the beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake. So what is going on here is, in a sense, a bluff. These armies do not have a chance. But they can deceive. People can think that they really do have ultimate power.
Hence the call to stay awake (16:15). In the face of the “greatness” of the kings of the earth, God’s people must remain awake. Otherwise they are doomed.
Beatitudes were used by Jewish and Christian prophets both to embody proverbial wisdom and to support an emergency appeal. This latter usage would seem to be in mind here (16:15). Unlike a direct command (wake up), “blessed is the one who stays awake” is a call for the readers to examine themselves (Am I awake?).
The origin and precise meaning of the term “Armageddon” (16:16) is unclear. Most likely it refers not to a specific place as much as to an event.
16:17-21—Seventh Bowl: The End
This final plague is of cosmic range, so the seventh angel poured his bowl “into the air.” This plague sweeps away time and history. Everything that has been constructed out of rebellion against God is destroyed.
The great city (16:19) is obviously Babylon (i.e., Rome). The catastrophe that John is seeing is a social and political catastrophe, not a natural one (as in 6:12-17). Afterwards, its victims are still there to blaspheme (16:21) and the onlookers are still there to lament (18:9-18). And the final judgment is still to come (20:6,11).
Chapter 15 presents another picture of the people of God—safe, victorious, and worshiping the Lamb. This comes as a word of reassurance prior to the great bowl judgments of chapters 16 to 18. They have “been victorious over the beast and his image,” a dramatic reversal over 13:7 where it is said that the beast conquered them. By following the pattern of Jesus, they defeated the beast even as the beast apparently defeated them.
The picture in 15:4 of all nations coming to worship God is also an important one prior to the plague judgments. God’s purpose is to destroy the destroyer of the earth for the sake of the nations. God is not seeking to destroy those who follow the beast, but only the beast itself.
Chapter 16 pictures the bowl plagues—the final and total judgments. They have much in common with the earlier seals and trumpets, especially the trumpets. The main difference is their intensification. The seals pictured one-quarter destruction, the trumpets one-third. Here it is total. The connection between the three is not chronological (first one happens in history, then the next, and finally the bowl series), but rather is logical. God warns us in the midst of these tribulations. As people resist, the plagues intensify. If they/we continue resisting it, it will ultimately be too late.
The purpose of the plague visions is fourfold: (1) to warn Christians who were tempted to conform to their evil social environment, (2) to promise that the evil pictured here is not ultimately independent of from God’s purposes, (3) to indicate that God longs for repentance and that as long as history continues God seeks repentance, and (4) to show that God’s wrath serves the purpose of cleansing creation of evil.
Bowls five through seven, like seal six and trumpets five and six, picture a social-political catastrophe, not a natural one. Even after the seventh and last bowl, its victims are still there to blaspheme God (16:21) and the onlookers to lament (18:9-18). Everything is not literally destroyed. But God has pulled the rug out from under so-called civilization totally and decisively. The destroyer of the earth is finally totally destroyed and we are almost ready for the New Jerusalem to come down. But first, we will look more closely at the seventh trumpet in chapters 17 to 19 and then at the ceremonious judgment of good and evil in chapters 19 to 20.
Chapters 15 and 16 are notable in the book of Revelation for their emphasis on God’s justice. “Just” is a key term used in Revelation to describe God’s work. Why is God “just” in Revelation?
It is John’s intention to show that everything in human history is somehow used by God for the purpose of establishing the New Jerusalem. All of God’s “just deeds” are ultimately redemptive—for creation, for the faithful witnesses, and ultimately for the nations and the kins fo the earth (cf. 21:24).
It is Jacques Ellul’s conclusion in Apocalypse (New York: Seabury, 1977) that justice in Revelation is consistent with “the evangelical image of the justice of God which is the parables of the worker at the eleventh hour, and the lost sheep, and the pearl of great price, and the prodigal son, and the unfaithful steward—such is the justice of God. Neither retributive nor distributive. It is the justice of love itself, who cannot see the one he judges except through his love, and who is always able to find in that fallen miserable being the last tiny particle, invisible to any other than his love, and which he is going to gather up and save” (pp. 212-213).
There are indeed visions of destruction in Revelation (chapters 6 to 20), but they are bracketed by the overarching vision of God as Creator and Redeemer (chapters 4 to 5)—the one who makes all things new (chapters 21 and 22). Thus the carnage and chaos are within God’s plan and culminate in the fulfillment of human destiny in final union with God.
This final redemptive product of God’s just deeds is not simply a collection of individuals. John believed in a purpose for collective human history as well as for individual souls. Into the New Jerusalem are brought not only the souls of the faithful but the wealth and glory of the nations. Down the middle of the city’s streets are avenues of the trees of life, whose leaves provide healing for the nations. Every righteous achievement of people in the old order, however imperfect, will find its place in the healed and transfigured life of the New Jerusalem.
As in Exodus, so also in Revelation, the crucial event is not the plagues. Those do not exemplify God’s justice but only serve the true end of God’s justice: the redemption that leads to the new world.
The fulcrum of Revelation is not Jesus’ return and the descent of the city of God described in the closing visions. Rather it is the vision of God and the Lamb in chapters 4 and 5. The slain and risen Lamb pictured there has accomplished redemption. He has risen to the throne of God and has begun his reign with God. The turn of the ages lies in the past. The clearest and most decisive expression of God’s justice is the Christ event.
The Lamb in chapter 5 is also identified as the ruling Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Lamb that is slain is at the same time the hearer of seven horns (the symbol of complete power) and the seven spirits of God (the symbol of the fullness of the Holy Spirit). Revelation proclaims the paradox that the suffering and dying Christ is the victor.
John sees Jesus Christ as both the Redeemer and the Judge—not one after the other, but one because of the other. In two passages (14:14-20; 19:11-16) there is indeed a picture of judgment, but it is the judgment of the cross. Its intention is not to tell us that Christ and the saints will sometime in the future conquer and judge their enemies, but to tell us that by virtue of the victory won once for all on the Cross, Jesus and his faithful followers “are more than conquerors,” and that this applies to all post-incarnational history.
That Christ’s past historical death and resurrection are central is seen in the fact that the visions of Revelation never show him engaged in direct battle with the dragon. Nowhere does John mention such a battle, not even in the portrayal of Christ’s coming in 19:11-21. Christ has won his battle only as the Lamb who dies for the world (5:5,9; 3:21). Therefore, according to the interpretive hymn of 12:10-12, humankind’s possibility of victory over the dragon is found only “by the blood of the Lamb,” that is, in the death of Jesus for them and “by the word of their testimony,” whose content is the victory promised by the Lamb’s death.
This centrality of the Lamb in Revelation leads to a reversal of conventional wisdom regarding power and justice. The power of love is true justice. If the Lamb reigns over history, it is not as a crowned king, like Caesar, but as the incarnation of love itself, thelove which goes so far as to give itself, to abandon itself. His power is none other than the power of this kind of love.
The book of Revelation affirms that God’s just deeds accomplish the destruction of the evil powers which imprison humankind. John clearly differentiates between these powers, who are God’s real enemies, and human beings, for whose sake these powers must be destroyed.
A power of evil beyond the sinful wills of individuals (personified in Revelation by entities such as the beast, the dragon, the false prophet, and the harlot) is seen to be at work in the processes of history. It is destructive of all that is good in this world, and it exceeds the wit or strength of humankind to overcome it. Just as Christ by his redemptive deeds delivers from sin and brings the powers of the coming age into this world, so too, Christ alone can bring the struggle between the powers of good and evil for ultimate sovereignty over creation to its final conclusion.
It is perhaps here that John’s apocalyptic imagination is the most creative and profound. His visions show a procession of plagues (most it not all of which reflect natural and social catastrophes endemic in all eras of human history). Even after the worst of these plagues, human beings remain on the scene (cf. 16:21; 18:9-19). The culmination of the plagues is the destruction of Babylon (chapter 18) and the casting of the dragon, beast, and false prophet into the lake of fire (20:10). After this, John reports a vision of the New Jerusalem, where by the light of the glory of God “the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it” (21:24).
The goal of the “just deeds” of God, according to the overall message of Revelation, is not the punishment and destruction of people but rather the destruction of the destroyers of people.
Discipleship is not directly discussed much in Revelation, but it is nevertheless an important concern of John’s. A central aspect of this concern is the repeated exhortation to Christians to remain “pure,” to not conform to the society around them. Revelation speaks not only of judgment against the dehumanizing anti-God powers but also warns Christians not to give in to these powers’ very concrete pressrues. The book therefore begins with the seven letters, which form a section of censure and challenge to faithfulness. The injunctions, beatitudes, warnings, and promises which run through the book continue this function.
The only way that the followers of the Lamb participate in the battle versus the evil powers is to remain faithful throughout their lives. In that way they will conquer. This participation that Christians are called to in Revelation is, however, seen to be quite important. The church had been appointed by Christ to be a “kingdom of priests” (1:6; 5:10)—to mediate his royal and priestly authority to the whole world. Through the church the Lamb is to exercise his authority over the nations (1:5; 2:26f.; 11:15ff.; 12:5; 15:3-4; 17:14; 19:11ff.). Through the church he is to mediate God’s forgiveness and lead the world to repentance (3:7-9; 11:13; 14:6-7; 20:1-6). And all this Christians may achieve only by following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).
This means that the separation of the church from the world is thought of more in moral terms than physical. Christians are called upon to refrain from moral and spiritual impurity while acting as agents of God’s justice, maintaining “the testimony of Jesus,” and validating it with their lives in “the street of the great city.” It is by their own “just deeds” (dikaiomata, 19:8) that Christians bear witness to God’s “just deeds” (dikaiomata, 15:4).
The essential thrust of the message of Revelation regarding justice is that justice ultimately has more to do with concepts like correction, reconciliation, and restoration of relationships than with concepts like retribution and an “eye for an eye.” Like most of the rest of the Bible, Revelation strongly challenges any tendency to separate God’s love from God’s justice. God’s “just deeds” in Revelation serve God’s loving intention of making the New Jerusalem a reality. By doing so, they decisively bring about the healing of the nations (cf. 22:2).
It follows from this that a Christian concern for justice should always take a redemptive slant. Certainly injustice must be opposed, but never in a way that contradicts the dictates of love and reconciliation. Revelation 21 and 22 imply that the only way that the kings of the earth could make it into the New Jerusalem was to be converted (cf. 21:27). They did not make it as oppressors and worshipers of the beast. But the hope is that even they can be converted. They are not objectified as “enemies” and then disposed of.
In this perspective, “justice” is redefined to a certain extent—in the sense that it is considered with a different attitude and with different goals. Justice in Revelation is still concerned with brokenness in the world, scarcity, violation of moral norms, distribution of goods and services, and the like. But how I or someone else can get my or his or her due, how our self-interests can be balanced, how we can maintain a moral equilibrium in the world, how the punishment can fit the crime, etc.—these are not the questions of Revelation’s justice.
How the values of God’s kingdom can be incarnated in the human order, how social brokenness can be corrected for the good of all concerned, how enemies can be reconciled, how victim and offender can experience healing—these are Revelation’s questions of justice. Here is it recognized that something will be missing from the New Jerusalem if it is not also accessible to the kings of the earth (should they somehow be freed from the snares of the beast).
Revelation asserts that the short-term result of the saints’ “just deeds” would be their suffering. Jesus’ just deeds resulted in his death. The implication of this is that a Christian perspective on justice cannot expect to be rationally acceptable to everyone in the world (a criterion seemingly axiomatic for modern-day philosophical ethics). The message of Revelation points toward a perspective on justice which challenges Christians to justice as care for the outcasts and other needy, love of enemies, and self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom—a perspective based on the Christ event.
The theology of Revelation includes the affirmation that the way of the Lamb and his faithful followers is best for human society—indeed for all of creation. The book includes an implicit criticism of the worship of coercive power as ultimately satanic and idolatrous and thus totally self-defeating.
If this theology is at all true, then it would follow that the most socially “responsible” thing Christians can do would be to practice the Lamb’s justice in every way possible. Revelation promises that such practices will likely lead Christians to share in Jesus’ fate of martyrdom. It is not reading too much into history to assert that that promise has often been fulfilled and continues to be, daily, in our time. But Revelation also promises that the ultimate fate of Jesus—resurrection and exaltation—is also the fate of those who follow his way.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) What is the basis for the affirmation in 15:2 that God’s people have “conquered the beast”? Does their “success” have implications for our struggles versus modern-day “beasts”?
(2) What do you make of the connection in 15:3 of the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb? Is John making a statement of the unity regarding redemption in the Old Testament and in the New? Do you see unity or contradiction? What can we learn from the “song of Moses” (i.e., the Exodus event)?
(3) Why are God’s deeds called “just” (15:3)? Does this kind of justice have anything to say to contemporary human strivings for justice?
(4) Do you agree that the connection between these three series of plagues (seals, trumpets, bowls) is not chronological but logical? How does one’s answer to this question affect one’s interpretation of the book as a whole?
(5) 16:7 alludes back to 6:9-11? How do you understand God’s answer to the prayer in 6:9-11? Is this picture consistent with your view of God and God’s love for humankind? Why or why not?
(6) Do people “curse” God (cf. 16:9,11) today? Why do they? What is your attitude toward them?
(7) What might characterize people today who are faithful to the exhortation in 16:15? How seriously do you take the warning in that verse?
(8) Do you see God warning us in the midst of present-day personal and social tribulations? If so, what is God warning us about and what kind of response is appropriate?