The Bowl Judgments – Revelation 15–16

Read the Passage: Revelation 15-16

Reminder: The book of Revelation is structured around seven parallel sections, each describing the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. These sections can be delineated into chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22.

Prelude to Judgment (15:1–8)

Revelation 15–16 contains John’s fifth and shortest telling of the narrative of history. The most well-known event in this passage is the pouring out of the seven bowls of judgment in Rev. 16:1–21. These bowls are reminiscent of the seven seals of judgment in Rev. 6 and the seven trumpets of judgment in Rev. 8–11. Note that the bowls differ from the trumpets in that whereas trumpets warn of judgment, bowls pour out judgment upon those who fail to heed the warnings of the trumpets. The judgments poured out of the seven bowls are identified as: loathsome sores, the sea and fresh waters turning to blood, men being scorched, darkness and pain, the Euphrates river drying up, and the earth being utterly scorched. While these events are harsh, they need not be feared in an ultimate sense by God’s people, for these judgments are for those who reject Christ.

This fifth narrative of history is different from the previous four, for here John flips the chronology and begins with a vision of believers praising God for His works and His ways, including His judgment. John hears the church singing the song of Moses, which reminds us that the victory over Pharaoh’s army is a picture of judgment and of the salvation of God’s people. The glass and fire sea that John observes communicates God’s clear justice and judgment. In Rev. 15:5–8 John gives details about the seven angels he mentions in Rev. 15:1. John notes that these angels are given a golden bowl “full of the wrath of God” (Rev. 15:7). In practice, these bowls are poured out throughout history upon all those who reject the gospel. John’s observation that no one was able to enter the temple is a curious reference which may signify that prayer ought not to be made for those who have already judged and rejected by God.

First Four Bowls (16:1–9)

In Rev. 16:1 John hears a voice from the temple commanding the angels, “Go and pour out the bowls of the wrath of God upon the earth.” Clearly, this is the voice of God, who dwells within the temple (cf. Matt. 23:21; 1 Cor. 3:16). Within this larger passage it is significant that at Rev. 16:5 John refers to “the tabernacle of the testimony.” This is a reminder that judgment comes upon those who fail to keep the moral law, or the testimony, of God. The first bowl poured out upon the earth results in loathsome sores upon mankind. This is reminiscent of the sixth plague upon Egypt, which was painful boils upon the Egyptians (cf. Exod. 9:8–12). As we’ll see below, several of the bowl judgments are parallel to the plagues of Egypt. We are reminded here that God continually judges sin, the consequences of which are sometimes felt immediately, and at other times are revealed in the future.

The pouring out of the second bowl resulted in the sea turning into blood. This is reminiscent of the first plague upon Egypt, where the waters turned into blood (cf. Exod. 7:14–25). Note, too, that the second trumpet of Rev. 8:8–9 resulted in a third of the seas turning to blood. This is a reminder to us that maritime disasters, both natural and man-made, are ultimately a consequence of the fall, and may sometimes constitute divine judgment. Indeed, the same disaster may be both the result of natural evil, which is felt by believers, and the result of moral evil, which metes out judgment upon the wicked. The third bowl is similar to the first; however, this judgment is poured out upon the fresh waters, which likewise turn to blood. The fourth bowl resulted in men being scorched by the sun. Whereas believers are ultimately protected by God (cf. Rev. 7:16), the wicked are judged.

Five through Seven (16:10–21)

The fifth bowl results in darkness, which is similar to the ninth plague upon Egypt (cf. Exod. 10:21–29). While men love darkness (cf. John 3:19–20), the darkness of the bowl judgment causes anguish and blasphemy against God. When the sixth bowl is poured out, the Euphrates River is dried up. This allows an easier path for the kings of the East, which are symbolic of all the pagan nations, to attack God’s people. This attack is facilitated by demons, symbolized by three frogs in John’s vision, that are poured out upon the earth. Suddenly, however, Jesus Christ appears and gives victory to the church (cf. Rev. 16:15; 2 Pet. 3:10). The final bowl is poured out into the air and results in fantastic natural disasters, including thunder, lightning, a great earthquake, large hailstones, and the final destruction of Babylon. Such disasters communicate God’s judgment upon the wicked.

Application Questions:

  1. Why does the Bible sometimes reiterate the same narratives and teachings? What are the benefits, or the drawbacks, to the repetition of biblical materials?
  2. Does God hear the prayers of those who reject Him? How do we discern when, if ever, we should cease offering certain prayers (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 John 5:16)?
  3. What did Jesus mean, when teaching about suffering in the world, when He taught, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5)?
  4. How can we distinguish between suffering that is the result of natural evil (i.e., the fallen world) and suffering that is the result of moral evil (i.e., sin)?
  5. How can we explain the fact that when the bowls of judgment are poured upon the wicked, rather than repent, they curse God more (cf. Rev. 16:9, 21)?