First Four Bowls of Wrath

Synopsis:  The first four Bowls of Wrath destroy the economic infrastructure of the realm of the BeastRevelation 16:1-9.

Stormy Sea Aftermath - Photo by Igor Goryachev on Unsplash
By Igor Goryachev on Unsplash
The sevenfold series of the “Bowls of Wrath” concludes at the end of Chapter 16 of the book of Revelation with a final judgment scene that is accompanied by “flashes of lightning, and voices, and claps of thunder, and a great earthquake,” the same set of noisy events that concluded the series of Seven Seals and Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:1-6, 11:15-19, 16:17-21).
 This is the third of the sevenfold series of judgments in the book. As in the previous two series, this one also culminates in a final judgment scene:
  • The Seven Seals - (Revelation 6:1-8:1).
  • The Seven Trumpets - (Revelation 8:6-11:19).
  • The Seven Bowls of Wrath - (Revelation 15:1-16:21).
Old Testament imagery is employed to paint the background scenes of the “Seven Bowls of Wrath,” including the plagues of Egypt, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the defeat of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the “Song of Moses,” and the “Tent of Testimony” in the wilderness. Each of the seven “last plagues” in this series corresponds to one of the ten plagues of Egypt.

The targets of the plagues include the “inhabitants of the earth” that take the “mark of the Beast,” the authority of the Beast, and “Babylon, the Great City.” Though the Beast, the False Prophet, and the “kings of the earth” are gathered to war in the sixth bowl, their destruction is not described until their “battle” with the Rider on the White Horse (Revelation 19:17-21).

The punishments of the “inhabitants of the earth” and “Babylon” were announced in Revelation 14:6-10 (“The hour of judgment is come,” “Fallen is Babylon the great,” “If any man worships the beast and receives a mark on his forehead, he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God”). The Seven Bowls of Wrath detail these previously announced punishments.

The First Bowl (16:1-2)

A “great voice” from the Temple is heard, most probably the voice of God; at this point, no one can enter the Temple until the seven last plagues are exhausted.
  • (Revelation 16:1-2) – “And I heard a great voice out of the temple, saying to the seven angels, Go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God into the earth. And the first went and poured out his bowl into the earth; and it became a noisome and grievous sore upon the men that had the mark of the Beast and that worshipped his image.”
Pour out” translates the Greek verb ekcheƍ. It is used in Leviticus 4:12 in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament for the ashes from the burnt offerings that were “poured out.” The verb occurs only in the series of seven bowls each time an angel “pours out” the contents of his bowl, and when God is praised for punishing those who “poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets.” This is a verbal link to the martyrs under the altar in the fifth seal; since the wicked “poured out” the blood of the martyrs, God has “given them blood to drink” - (Revelation 6:9-11).

In the series of the “Seven Bowls of Wrath,” there is overlap with the Seven Trumpet “plagues.” Both series echo the original plagues of Egypt; both affect the earth, sea, freshwater, heavens, the Abyss/Beast’s kingdom, and the Euphrates River, and in the same literary sequence. But the “Seven Bowl” series is more complete. The seven trumpets harmed a third of their respective targets. In contrast, the plagues of the Seven Bowls destroy their intended targets completely.

The “noisome and grievous sore” alludes to the sixth plague inflicted on ancient Egypt. Irony may be intended - The men who took the “mark of the Beast” are now marred by terrible sores (Exodus 9:8-11).

The first plague is based on the plague of boils in Egypt. The “mark of the Beast” is linked to economic activity - All who refuse it are deprived economically. All men who received the mark are about to partake of their just deserts - “grievous sores.” This and the subsequent bowl judgments afflict all who have the Beast’s mark. This is not a separate group from the rest of mankind but includes all men who do not belong to the Lamb (Exodus 9:9-11, Deuteronomy 28:27).

The Second Bowl (16:3)
  • (Revelation 16:3) – “And the second poured out his bowl into the sea; and it became blood as of a dead man; and every living soul died, even the things that were in the sea.”
The second bowl echoes the first Egyptian plague when the waters of Egypt were turned to blood and its fish killed (Exodus 7:14-24). In the book of Revelation, the “sea” becomes like the blood of a dead man. The second trumpet turned a third of the “sea” into blood and destroyed a third of its living creatures. The second bowl now turns the entire sea into blood and kills every living thing in it.

Since the “inhabitants of the earth” do not live in the “sea,” why is there a plague that targets sea creatures? The “sea” symbolizes the mass of humanity hostile to God, the nations from which the Beast ascends. It is parallel to the Abyss, the source of the Beast and of demonic forces (Daniel 7:1-2, Revelation 7:1-3, 9:1-10, 12:12, 13:1, 20:8).

Shipwreck - Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash
Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash

The destruction of life in the “sea” may point to the cessation of the sea-borne commerce so vitally important to the nations and the economic health of the Roman Empire. Note well Revelation 9:9-19:
  • Woe to the great city in which all that had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her costliness, for in one hour is she made desolate.”
This plague anticipates the judgments against “Babylon,” She who sits on “many waters,” that is, “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (Revelation 17:15). Note the following:
  • (Revelation 17:6) - “I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.”
  • (Revelation 18:6) - “Render unto her even as she rendered, and double unto her the double according to her works: in the cup which she mingled, mingle unto her double.”
  • (Revelation 18:24) - “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all that have been slain upon the earth.”
The cessation of maritime commerce results in economic hardship, including commodity and food shortages. The second bowl’s contents point to the economic upheaval in the Beast’s empire with the resultant death, chaos and destruction.

The Third Bowl (16:4)
  • (Revelation 16:4) – “And the third poured out his bowl into the rivers and the fountains of the waters; and it became blood.”
The third bowl also alludes to the first Egyptian plague (Exodus 7:14-24), only this one impacts all sources of fresh water. Both the second and third bowls turn water “into blood,” which indicates a relationship between the two.

The second bowl affected the sea. The third bowl impacts the inland freshwater sources. Most likely, this plague causes further economic hardship. The sea is necessary for maritime commerce. Freshwater is necessary to sustain agriculture.

The ships of Rome carried a variety of goods to the “eternal city”; most importantly, the large grain-carrying ships from Egypt. Without the supply of Egyptian grain, the city experienced food shortages, inflated prices, and famine.

The “Angel of the Waters” (16:5-7)
  • (Revelation 16:5-7) – “And I heard the angel of the waters saying, Righteous are thou, who are and who was, thou Holy One, because thou did thus judge: for they poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets, and blood have you given them to drink: they are worthy. And I heard the altar saying, Yea, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”
An interjection is now made - The “angel of the waters.” This is the third angel who just poured out his bowl on the “fountains of the waters.” His declaration sums up the first three bowls and their justification (“They were given blood to drink because they poured out the blood of saints and prophets”). Note that in verse 9 “plagues” is plural.

The angel’s words anticipate the judicial pronouncements against Babylon - She persecuted the saints and caused the nations of the earth to drink the “wine of her fornications.” Her final downfall will be the result of the seventh bowl of wrath (Revelation 16:17-21).

They are worthy” refers to the martyrs, not to followers of the Beast. Elsewhere, in Revelation, “worthy” is positive and refers either to God, the Lamb, or to his followers. Because the martyrs overcame, they are now vindicated by the plagues unleashed against their persecutors (Revelation 3:4, 4:11, 5:9-12).

God is addressed as the one who “is and who was,” the same appellation given to Him previously; only earlier, God was the One “who is and who was and who is coming.” The third reference was dropped when the seventh trumpet sounded and, likewise, here also since He no longer “is coming” - Final judgment has arrived in the series of “Seven Bowls of Wrath” (Revelation 1:4, 1:8, 4:8, 11:17).

The altar’s voice is a link to the plea of the martyrs for vindication and to the prayers of the saints that unleashed the trumpet plagues. The “voice” confirms that the seven last plagues are God’s response to the prayers of the martyrs. The description of God as the “righteous and holy one who judges” echoes the previous plea of the martyrs - “How long, O Master, holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:9-11, 8:3-5).

The Fourth Bowl (16:8-9)
  • (Revelation 16:8-9) – “And the fourth poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given unto it to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat: and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues; and they repented not to give him glory.”
The fourth bowl parallels the fourth trumpet and echoes the ninth plague of Egypt. In both cases, the sun was darkened; however, now the fourth bowl causes scorching heat that burns the followers of the Beast. This contrasts with the martyrs who came out of the tribulation to be sheltered from the sun and guided by the Lamb to “fountains of waters of life” - (Revelation 7:16-17, 8:12, Exodus 10:21-29).

Rather than repent, men blaspheme the “name of God who has power over these plagues.” They deny their sufferings are due to God’s sovereign acts. “Blasphemy” or “slander” connects the “inhabitants of the earth” to the Beast - They have taken on its nature. Elsewhere, “blasphemy” is attributed to the Beast, Satan, and members of the “Synagogue of Satan” that accused the Church of Smyrna before local magistrates (Revelation 2:9, 13:6).


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