The Seven Bowls

A close look at the trumpet and bowl judgments will reveal their inescapable similarities. The only place where this is less than explicit is with the first in each series. But even then, there is similarity of language.

(1) With the first trumpet there is hail and fire mixed with blood thrown to the earth; 1/3 of the earth, trees, grass burned (1/3 denoting a partial or limited judgment). With the first bowl the earth and its inhabitants are afflicted with sores.

This corresponds to Exodus 9:22ff. (trumpet) and 8ff. (bowl).

(2) With the second trumpet 1/3 of the sea becomes blood and 1/3 of everything in it dies; 1/3 of the ships are destroyed (again, note the partial extent of the judgment). With the second bowl the sea again becomes blood, but now everything dies (indicating the full, or universal, expression of this judgment).

This corresponds to Exodus 7:17ff.

(3) With the third trumpet only 1/3 of the rivers, springs, and waters become bitter and many people die from drinking them. With the third bowl there is no limitation placed on how much of the rivers, springs, and waters are affected. Once again, many people die from drinking.

This corresponds to Exodus 7:17ff.

(4) With the fourth trumpet 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars are smitten and there is darkness (again, a partial judgment). With the fourth bowl again, the sun is the focal point, but it instead of bringing darkness a worse judgment is inflicted: they are scorched.

This corresponds to Exodus 10:21ff. (trumpet) and 9:22ff. (bowl).

(5) With the fifth trumpet unbelievers are tormented by locusts for five months (again, a specific, limited duration; hence, a partial judgment) and are in such pain that they long to die. Sun and air are darkened. With the fifth bowl unbelievers are tormented and their pain is so bad that they gnaw their tongues and blaspheme God. The kingdom of the beast is darkened. Note also that in the fifth trumpet the king over the locusts is Satan. In the fifth bowl the throne and kingdom of the beast are mentioned (described this way because in Rev. 13:2 Satan is said to have given the beast his throne).

This corresponds to Exodus 10:4ff. (trumpet) and 21ff. (bowl).

(6) With the sixth trumpet four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates are released and 1/3 of mankind is killed (again, partial judgment). Three demonic plagues that are associated with a huge army prepared for battle are responsible for killing them. With the sixth bowl the great river Euphrates is dried up and three demonic spirits gather the people for the final battle, Armageddon.

This corresponds to Exodus 8:2ff. (bowl).

(7) With the seventh trumpet we have reached the consummation. There are loud voices in heaven speaking. There is lightning, sounds, and peals of thunder. The temple of God is mentioned, as is the throne. Divine wrath comes upon unbelievers. There is an earthquake and a hailstorm (partial judgments). With the seventh bowl we have again reached the consummation (“It is done,” 16:15). There is a loud voice from heaven speaking. There is lightning, sounds, and peals of thunder. The temple of God is mentioned, as is the throne. Divine wrath again comes upon unbelievers. There is an incomparably great earthquake and a hailstorm with 100-pound hailstones (intensified, consummate judgments).

This corresponds to Exodus 9:22ff. and the Sinai theophany (19:16-19).

All three series of seven judgments (seals, trumpets, bowls) portray events and phenomena that occur repeatedly throughout the course of history between the first and second comings of Christ. All three series of seven judgments bring us to the consummation at the close of human history where we see the final judgment of unbelievers, the salvation and vindication of God’s people, and the full manifestation of the kingdom of Christ.

I’m not suggesting, as have some, that the 7 seals, 7 trumpets, and 7 bowls themselves, or at least the first six in each series, occur sequentially in history, as if the second in each series can’t occur until after the first, and the third can’t occur until after the second, and so on. According to my understanding of the text in Revelation, all (or at least the first six) of the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments are released by the Sovereign Christ at the beginning of the present inter-advent age. These judgments and plagues are thus descriptive of the commonplaces of human history, i.e., they can and do occur at any and all times throughout the course of the present age and do not necessarily sustain a temporal relationship to each other.

It is only with the 7th in each series (and perhaps with the 6th trumpet and bowl) that we are assuredly at the close of history. In an earlier lesson I argued that it would be best to interpret the bowls as indicating that these judgments will progressively increase in their intensity and extent and that divine longsuffering and delay will eventually yield to final and consummative wrath. Upon further reflection, I do not think the contrast between the partial trumpet judgments and the complete bowl judgments is to be taken as indicating that the trumpets must first be sounded, bringing limited judgment, then to be followed by the outpouring of the bowls, which bring universal judgment. For this would be to say that there is a historical or chronological sequence between the trumpets and bowls, something I do not believe.

I now believe that the trumpet and bowl judgments are not only literarily and thematically parallel, but also temporally parallel. The fact that the trumpet judgments are partial and the bowl judgments are complete simply indicates that what can occur in a limited or partial manner at any point in history between the two advents of Christ, can also occur, at any point in history between the two advents of Christ, in a universal or more thorough-going manner. The effect or impact of these plagues of judgment on the unbelieving world is at one time and in one place restricted, while at another time in another place, widespread.

Clearly, this interpretive scheme is based on the belief that Revelation presents us with a description of principles and events that transpire throughout the entire course of church history, between the two advents of Jesus. In other words, contrary to the futurist interpretation, Revelation is not concerned merely with events at the close of history, immediately preceding the second advent. Rather, there are multiple sections in the book, each of which recapitulates the other, that is to say, each of which begins with the first coming of Christ and concludes with the second coming of Christ and the end of history. Each of these sections provides a series of progressively parallel visions that increase in their scope and intensity as they draw nearer to the consummation. This is what is called the principle of recapitulation.

Because of the extensive similarities between the trumpet and bowl judgments, I will not comment except where the latter goes beyond what is said of the former. For a more complete exposition of these judgments, see the material on the Trumpet Judgments elsewhere on the website.

v. 1

Clearly the imagery of seven “bowls” from which wrath is “poured out” into the earth is metaphorical of the execution of divine judgment. Thus it should come as no surprise to us if the actual content and effects of these judgments are metaphorical as well.

The First Bowl (16:2)

This judgment is based on the Egyptian plague of “boils breaking out with sores” (Exod. 9:9-11; see the summary in Deut. 28:27,35). As Beale says, “the punishment matches the crime: those who receive an idolatrous mark will be chastised by being given a penal mark” (814). Are these “loathsome and malignant” sores physically literal, or do they represent some form of suffering similar to that in the fifth trumpet (9:4-6,10) where men are psychologically and emotionally tormented by something likened to the sting of a scorpion? Probably the latter.

The Second Bowl (16:3)

This bowl, like the second trumpet, is based on Exod. 7:17-21 and the plague that turned the waters of the Nile river to blood. Unlike the trumpet judgment that affected 1/3 of all in the sea, the plague here affects all. Thus “the second bowl shows that what can be applied partially can also be applied universally at times throughout the inter-advent age. That is, at times the . . . plague extends throughout the entire earth and not merely part of it” (Beale, 815).

For an explanation of the nature of this plague as involving economic suffering caused by widespread famine, see the notes on 9:8-9.

Revelation 16:1-21
The Third Bowl (16:4-7)
Like the third trumpet in 9:10-11, this bowl judgment figuratively portrays the suffering and death incurred by those who rely on maritime commerce. See the parallel between 16:6 and 18:24 for support.

Aune contends that this verse (v. 5) “assumes a cosmos in which the various material elements are presided over by, or are personified by, particular angelic beings” (2”884). However, one need not draw such a conclusion. The “angel of the waters” (NIV, “angel in charge of the waters”; cf. 7:1; 14:18) simply refers to an angelic being who was given sovereignty over the waters by God to carry out his judgment against the economic prosperity that it produced. The precise nature of this judgment (“Thou hast given them blood to drink”) is not stated. Presumably it would be any form of suffering commensurate with that which unbelievers inflicted on believers.

Some have argued that the statement, “They deserve it” (NASB), should be rendered more literally, “They are worthy,” and applies to the “saints and prophets” of v. 6. The idea would be that the latter were innocent of that for which they were persecuted. More likely, however, is that “They deserve it” refers to unbelieving oppressors and the justice of God’s judgment against them.

The Fourth Bowl (16:8-9)
We noted in a previous lesson that often “the interruption of regular patterns of the heavenly light sources [such as the sun either being darkened or intensified] predominantly symbolizes a covenantal judgment. The symbolism of cosmic alteration indicates that people are to be judged because they have altered God’s moral laws, usually through idolatry” (Beale, 821; see Jer. 15:9; Amos 8:9). If one should ask what sort of suffering does this judgment bring, Rev. 7:16 may provide the answer. There the reward of the righteous in heaven is the reversal of their deprivation, primarily economic in nature, while on earth (“they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat”; cf. Isa. 49:10). Perhaps, then, this judgment in which they are scorched with heat from the sun entails economic hardship resulting in thirst and starvation, for which they blaspheme God.
Notwithstanding the tendency for people to resist the idea that God is the source of such judgments against unbelievers and the resultant suffering, v. 9 makes it clear that it is “God who has the power over these plagues” (whether seal, trumpet, or bowl plagues). It bears witness to the hardness of the human heart in sin that not even the inescapable recognition that God is the source of their misery leads to repentance! We see this again in v. 11.

The Fifth Bowl (16:10-11)
The “throne” most likely “symbolizes the seat of the world-wide dominion of the great satanic system of idolatry. . . . This system is plunged into spiritual darkness or disruption, bringing chaos on all who sought life and meaning in it” (Johnson, 154). See Exod. 10:22 where darkness came over the land of Egypt (which was likely a polemic against the sun god Ra, of whom Pharaoh was believed to be an incarnation). Darkness certainly symbolizes judgment (1 Sam. 2:9; Amos 5:20; Joel 2:2; Zeph. 1:15), as well as ignorance and wickedness (Ps. 82:5; Prov. 2:13; Eccles. 2:14), as well as death (Ps. 143:3). The impact of darkness on the beast’s sovereignty could entail internal strife, rebellion, or loss of political power. A symbolic interpretation of the “darkness” is necessary, insofar as literal darkness of itself cannot account for the intense “pain” that leads to the gnawing of their tongues. The latter could well include both emotional as well as physical anguish, the former in particular being the result of their experience of spiritual “darkness” and the realization of their separation from God.

The Sixth Bowl (16:12-16)
In the OT God’s deliverance of his people was achieved by the drying up of the Red Sea which allowed them to escape Pharaoh’s armies. A similar phenomenon later occurred with the Jordan river, allowing Israel to enter the promised land. Aune therefore suggests that “the drying up of the river Euphrates to allow the kings of the east to cross over it is the typological antithesis” of these earlier deliverances (2:891). His point is that whereas in these two OT cases the water is dried up to facilitate the deliverance of God’s people from his enemies, in Rev. the water is dried up to facilitate the attack on God’s people by his enemies.

On yet another occasion, God’s judgment of historical Babylon in the 6th century b.c. was achieved by the diversion of the Euphrates River which allowed the armies of Cyrus to enter the city and defeat it (see Isa. 11:15; 44:24-28; Jer. 50:33-38; 51:13,36; an event corroborated by the secular historians Xenophon and Herodotus). God raised up Cyrus “from the east” (Isa. 41:2-4,25-27; 46:11-13), “from the rising of the sun” (41:25), and used him to destroy Babylon. It seems clear that the language of Rev. 16:12ff. is based on this familiar typological pattern which John now universalizes. That is to say, what happened to one nation on a local and restricted geographical scale in the OT was a type of what will happen to all nations on a global and universal scale at the end of history.
The imagery of kings coming from the east, from the vicinity of the Euphrates, was standard OT prophetic language for the enemies of Israel coming to invade and destroy. G. B. Caird points out that “to the Roman the Euphrates was the eastern frontier, but to the Jew it was the northern frontier of Palestine, across which Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian invaders had come to impose their pagan sovereignty on the people of God. All the scriptural warnings about a foe from the north, therefore, find their echo in John’s blood-curdling vision” (122). On this see especially Isa. 5:26-29; 7:20; 8:7-8; 14:29-31; Jer. 1:14-15; 4:6-13; 6:1,22; 10:22; 13:20; Ezek. 38:6,15; 39:2; Joel 2:1-11,20-25; as well as Isa. 14:31; Jer. 25:9,26; 46-47 (esp. 46:4,22-23); 50:41-42; Ezek. 26:7-11.

That the judgment John describes here of “Babylon” is not literal Babylon is evident from numerous OT prophecies which foretold that Babylon “will be desolate forever” and “not rise again” (Jer. 28:39 LXX; 50:39-40; 51:24-26,62-64; Isa. 13:19-22.

Craig Keener comments:
“In the nineteenth century most Protestants identified the kings of the East either with the Turks or with the lost tribes of Israel. After the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Japan became the new favorite of the prophecy movement until and during the Second World War. After Japan’s defeat and the ascent of Communist China, this ‘yellow peril’ has become the new backdrop for modern Western interpretations of the ‘kings from the East.’ On this view, the invasion from Communist China and the rest of Asia will require the rest of the world’s army to mobilize to fight them. This perspective reflects a total lack of understanding of what the Euphrates River represented to ancient hearers in the Mediterranean world. To be sure, the Parthians were no longer a kingdom; but a geographical equivalent would be closer to Iran and Iraq than to China. . . . My point is that there is nothing in this text to indicate east or south Asia’s role in general or China’s role in particular; this reading of ‘kings from the East’ is a wholesale guess based on the assumption that the current lineup of world powers is the final one, and it is uninformed by the most basic knowledge of how the expression was used in the ancient world” (398-99).

I want to mention in passing one intriguing interpretation put forth by Hans La Rondelle in his book Chariots of Salvation: The Biblical Drama of Armageddon (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publ. Association, 1987). La Rondelle contends that the “kings from the east” (Rev. 16:12) are in fact the celestial or angelic armies whom Christ himself will lead on that final day in judgment against his enemies. Thus the “kings of the east” are the same as the “armies which are in heaven” (Rev. 19:14) that accompany Jesus at his second coming. He explains: “As the commander of the angelic legions of heaven, Christ will descend from the eastern skies to wage war against the united ‘kings of the earth’ and their armies ([Rev. 19:] verse 19). The ‘kings from the East’ thus appear in opposition to the ‘kings of the earth,’ a cosmic contrast between heaven and earth” (119).

The “water” of the Euphrates may, in fact, be symbolic of the peoples and nations who support the beast, as a comparison of Rev. 17:1 with 17:15 clearly indicates. “Therefore, the drying up of the Euphrates’ waters is a picture of how the multitudes of Babylon’s religious adherents throughout the world become disloyal to Babylon. Disenchantment with Babylon is a prelude to Babylon’s judgment and the final judgment itself. 17:16-18 states that ‘the kings of the earth,’ the political arm of the wicked world system, will turn against the economic-religious arm and destroy it” (Beale, 828).

Whereas v. 12 summarily explains the sixth bowl, vv. 13-16 provide the details. Here again we see the unholy triumvirate of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet (called that for the first time here). Their deceptive influence is portrayed through the imagery of three unclean, obviously demonic, spirits in the form or appearance of frogs, which obviously alludes to the frogs in the Exodus plague (8:1-15). In ancient Jewish literature frogs were viewed not only as ceremonially unclean but also as agents of destruction. Beale suggests that “the frogs and their croaking represent the confusion brought about by deception” (832). That the frogs are metaphorical is seen from the fact that they “perform signs” (v. 14). In other words, these demonic spirits utilize supernatural phenomena to deceive and thereby influence humans to follow after the beast (cf. 13:11ff.). The primary target of their deception is the kings of the earth, i.e., political leaders and authorities who align themselves with the principles of the beast in opposition to God.

Aune (2:894) points to the “traditional connection [in ancient literature] between evil spirits and the mouth or nostrils as a passageway for entering or leaving a person.”

They are specifically gathered together for “the war” (cf. 19:19; 20:8). The use of the definite article (“the”) points to a well-known war, the eschatological war often prophesied in the OT between God and his enemies (cf. Joel 2:11; Zeph. 1:14; Zech. 14:2-14). More on this below.

Verse 15 is a parenthetical exhortation addressed to believers to be vigilant lest they be caught unprepared on that great day. The picture is of a person who stays spiritually awake and alert, clothed in the righteous garments of Christ. For the image of physical nakedness as a symbol of spiritual shame often brought on by idolatry, see Rev. 3:18; 17:16 (cf. also Ezek. 16:36; 23:29; Nahum 3:5; Isa. 20:4).

The place of this eschatological war is called Har-Magedon (v. 16). This poses a problem for those who believe a literal battle at the literal site is in view, insofar as there is no such place as the Mountain of Megiddo (which would be the most literal rendering of the word). Megiddo was itself an ancient city and Canaanite stronghold located on a plain in the southwest region of the Valley of Jezreel or Esdraelon. Although situated on a tell (an artificial mound about 70 ft. high), it can hardly be regarded as a mountain! The valley of Megiddo was the strategic site of several (200, according to Johnson, [155]) significant battles in history (see Judges 4:6-16; 5:19; Judges 7; 1 Samuel 29:1; 31:1-7; 2 Kings 23:29-30; 2 Chron. 35:22-24). It makes sense that the vicinity would become a lasting symbol for the cosmic eschatological battle between good and evil. As Mounce accurately notes,

“Geography is not the major concern. Wherever it takes place, Armageddon is symbolic of the final overthrow of all the forces of evil by the might and power of God. The great conflict between God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist, good and evil, that lies behind the perplexing course of history will in the end issue in a final struggle in which God will emerge victorious and take with him all who have placed their faith in him. This is Har-Megedon” (302).

To put it simply, Armageddon is prophetic symbolism for the whole world in its collective defeat and judgment by Christ at his parousia. The imagery of war, of kings and nations doing battle on an all-too-familiar battlefield (Megiddo), is used as a metaphor of the consummate, cosmic, and decisive defeat by Christ of all his enemies (Satan, beast, false prophet, and all who bear the mark of the beast) on that final day.

The Seventh Bowl (16:17-21)
The imagery of “lightning, sounds, thunders, and a great earthquake” points to the final, consummate judgment at the end of the age (see 8:5 and 11:19). Whether or not there will be literal, physical lightning, thunder, and an earthquake is basically irrelevant and unrelated to John’s point. After all, how could these natural phenomena cause the downfall and judgment of principles and ideas and unholy opposition in the souls of men to the things of God? John is describing the final judgment that will come against the individual and collective resistance to the kingdom of God and His Lamb. Typical of OT prophetic literature, he uses the imagery of geographical and astronomical upheaval to make the point.

The “great city” (v. 19) is neither historical Jerusalem nor Rome, but trans-historical “Babylon the great,” the trans-cultural, trans-temporal collective embodiment of all cities of the earth, together with every political, economic, philosophical, moral, religious, and sociological power-base that opposes Christ and his kingdom (cf. 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21).

Additional dissolution of the cosmos is described in v. 20, a passage that is strikingly similar to Rev. 6:14 and 20:11. Is this displacement of islands and mountains physically literal, or is it another example of prophetic hyperbole? Probably the latter. “Mountains” are often symbolic of evil forces and/or earthly kingdoms (cf. Jer. 51:25-26; Zech. 4:7) and “islands” often represent Gentile nations or kings (Ps. 72:10; 97:1; Isa. 41:1; 45:16; 49:1,22; 51:5; 60:9; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 26:18; Zech. 2:11).

I should also point out, however, that “mountains” and “islands” here may be symbolic simply of the most stable features of the world, all of which are portrayed in the OT as being displaced, cast aside, shaken, moved, etc. as a result of the presence of the Lord and especially the manifestation of his judgments. See Judges 5:5; Pss. 18:7; 46:2-3; Isa. 5:25; 54:10; 64:1; Jer. 4:24; Ezek. 26:18; 38:20; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5; Hab. 1:6; Zech. 14:4. Few, if any, commentators would suggest that these OT texts describe literal or physical displacement or movement of mountains and islands. Why, then, would they insist on it here in Revelation?

In v. 21 the Exodus plague of hail is replicated, but with two significant changes: first, not merely one nation (Egypt) but the whole earth suffers from the plague, and second, the size of the hailstones is now said to be “one hundred pounds” (lit., “the weight of a talent”). Cf. also Ezek. 38:19-22. Is this “hailstorm” (and the size of the stones) physically literal, as it was in ancient Egypt, or should it be interpreted symbolically as is the case in vv. 18-20?