The first bowl – Revelation 16:1-2

Previously: The sanctuary was filled with smoke – Revelation 15:8

The scripture

Rev. 16:1 –Then I heard a loud voice from the sanctuary saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” 2 The first went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and severely painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image. (HCSB)

JudgmentIn chapter 15 the angels prepare to deliver God’s wrath against the inhabitants of the earth. They emerge from the heavenly sanctuary dressed in priestly garb and are given bowls filled with the seven plagues with which “God’s wrath will be completed” (Rev. 15:1). As they leave the temple, it fills with smoke generated by the glory and power of God. No one is allowed to return to the sanctuary until the seven last plagues are carried out.

A loud voice from the sanctuary tells the angels to pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. The first angel, without hesitation, obeys, and the result is “severely painful sores.”

I heard a loud voice

As the bowl judgments are about to begin, John hears a loud voice from the sanctuary directed to the seven angels who will complete God’s wrath. The voice says, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth” (v. 1). Whose voice does John hear? It may be a mighty angel empowered to exercise God’s wrath upon the earth’s wicked, especially since he speaks of the Lord in the third person (“God’s wrath”). Or it could be the Lord’s voice thundering from the sanctuary because it is His wrath being poured out at precisely the time He has ordained, and because we are told in the previous chapter that no one may enter the sanctuary until the final round of judgments is complete. In either case, it is an authoritative voice that prompts the angels’ obedience without delay.

As we noted before, Revelation should not be understood as unfolding in chronological order. Rather, it may be viewed almost as a spiral that covers much of the same ground from different perspectives. This is illustrated in our current passage of study. Revelation 15 and 16 go together and are, according to some commentators, the last of the three terrible “woes” introduced in Revelation 8. They also may be rolled into the seventh trumpet judgment. In addition, in chapter 11 we see the temple of God opened in heaven, and that same temple appears once again in Revelation 15 and 16. In chapter 11 the elders announce that the great day of the judgment of Almighty God is come, and now we see that day in the bowl judgments.

In Revelation 8, before the sounding of the seven trumpets, an angel emerges from the heavenly temple, takes coals from the altar, and after placing them in a censer flings them upward toward God. The smoke of that incense symbolizes the prayers of the saints ascending to heaven. The same angel then turns and directs the contents of the censer toward the earth, where the fury of God’s judgment now visits the unrepentant.

“The same figure occurs here,” according to W.A. Criswell. “The holiness and the fragrance of the prayers and intercessions of God’s saints ascend up before the throne of grace. But to a people who will not turn and will not repent and will not believe in the Lord Jesus, every one of those censers with every element of its fragrance, every prayer of its intercession, every facet of its appeal, becomes one of damnation and judgment” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, Vol. 4, p. 174).

Two perspectives

Consider what is about to happen from two perspectives. First, there is the wonder of God’s grace. All of us are vile sinners. We all deserve God’s wrath. The horrible consequences of our rebellion against God are evident from the moment Adam falls. And yet at that very moment, God promises a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). He provides a temporary means of atonement through the blood of innocent and spotless animals, and He condescends to meet with people and reside with them, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. At last, the signs and shadows are fulfilled as the Son of God appears in human flesh – the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God – and His substitutionary and sacrificial death on the cross satisfies God’s justice and extends to all people His mercy and grace. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are granted to those who hear and believe the gospel message (John 5:24). And there is the promise that when Messiah returns He will set things right as He creates new heavens and a new earth. That is one perspective – the reality that we all deserve the seven bowls of wrath but instead are graciously offered the cup of communion with holy God.

But there is another perspective. It is a sad truth that countless people from around the world have rejected the revelation of God in creation, conscience and Christ. They have chosen sin over the Savior. They have stopped up their ears at the preaching of the gospel, resisted the wooing of the Holy Spirit, closed the covers of God’s written word, and shaken their fists toward heaven when they see His holy judgment falling. Those who say they will have no God, that they prefer life on earth apart from Him, will have their way in time and eternity. God does not impose His grace on anyone. He pours out His wrath on unbelievers because His holiness demands judgment for sin. What more could He lovingly do for those who despise Him than lay their sins upon His Son’s shoulders and spill His blood to buy their pardon? But they won’t have it. They trample His blood beneath their feet, and in so doing they invite the consequences of their rebellion. God’s grace and wrath are in no way contradictory; they are divinely complementary.

Like a surgeon who must excise a cancerous growth, a husbandman who must prune diseased branches, a metal worker who must skim off the dross, the Lord must separate the wicked from the righteous. Yes, the wheat and tares grow together for a season. The good and bad fish share the same waters. The sheep and goats graze together. But not forever. There is a time of evaluation and separation – a day of reckoning. And the booming voice from the sanctuary declares that the day of reckoning has come.

The pouring out of the bowls of wrath is drawn from the Old Testament notion of God’s wrath as something that is poured out. To cite just three examples, the Psalmist beseeches God concerning his enemies, “Pour out Your rage on them, and let Your burning anger overtaken them” (Ps. 69:24). Jeremiah cries out for the Lord to consume the nations as they consumed Judah: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that don’t recognize You and on the families that don’t call on Your name, for they have consumed Jacob; they have consumed him and finished him off and made his homeland desolate” (Jer. 10:25). And God’s fierce anger against the wicked nations is captured in this statement: “Therefore, wait for Me – this is the Lord’s declaration – until the day I rise up for plunder. For My decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, in order to pour out My indignation on them, all My burning anger; for the whole earth will be consumed by the fire of My jealousy” (Zeph. 3:8).

One other note should be made before we move on. The voice commands the angels to pour out the bowls of God’s wrath on the “earth.” As noted previously, some interpreters understand this to mean Israel, while others see it as established human institutions, and still others as the whole of the created world in relation to heaven as God’s throne. Whichever view is correct, it is clear that the objects of God’s wrath are those who have rejected Him and His gracious offer of redemption.

Severely painful sores broke out

The first angel pours out his bowl on the earth and “severely painful sores” break out on the people who had “the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image” (v. 2). This recalls the sixth plague in Egypt, in which Moses throws furnace soot toward heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. It becomes fine dust over the land of Egypt, and as it settles on man and beast it becomes “festering boils” (Ex. 9:8-11). Like the plague in ancient times, which tormented only the Egyptians, this judgment touches only those who have the mark of the beast and who worship his image; God’s people are spared. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened so that he will not let the Israelites go, and in a similar fashion the earth’s wicked who suffer the first bowl judgment show no signs of repenting. In fact, in a short while they will blaspheme the God of heaven while gnawing their tongues in pain (Rev. 16:9-11).

Some commentators also see this plague as related to Deuteronomy 28, in which Moses lays out the blessings and curses of God’s covenant with His people. If they do not obey the Lord and follow all His commands and statutes, curses will overtake them, Moses warns: “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, tumors, a festering rash, and scabies, from which you cannot be cured…. The Lord will afflict you with painful and incurable boils on your knees and thighs – from the sole of your foot to the top of your head” (Deut. 23:27, 35). Those who reject God’s covenant are singled out for the curses in Old Testament times, just as those who reject God’s grace are the objects of His wrath in the first bowl judgment.

It is telling that those who take the mark of the beast on their heads and hands – quite possibly an analogy for their thoughts and actions – now suffer literal marks upon their bodies that identify them as disciples of the beast. “As they submitted to the mark of the beast, so they must bear the mark of the avenging God” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 16:2).

Four major views of the first bowl judgment

How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the first bowl judgment?

Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – are divided concerning the recipient of the bowl judgments. Some say Jerusalem is the object of wrath, while others argue that while the first half of the book deals with Jerusalem, the second half concerns Rome. Depending on which view one takes, those who have taken the mark of the beast either are Jews in Palestine who have rejected their Messiah in favor of Caesar, or citizens of the Roman Empire in general. Since one of the themes of Revelation is that Jerusalem has become the new Egypt and the church the new Israel, then the plague parallels that which came upon Egypt in Ex. 9:8-12. While the plague may be understood symbolically, literal boils and rashes almost certainly became an epidemic in besieged Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Dead bodies are piled high, and blood and sewage run in the street, providing the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases.

Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – believe this plague is the first in a series of calamities to befall the papacy. The men who have the mark of the beast are those who sustain the power of the Roman church. The majority of historicist commentators relate this first plague to the French Revolution, which strikes a major blow to the papacy but does not yet overthrow it. The severely painful sores are the moral corruption, atheism and dissolution of society spread over the societies where the pope is venerated. “The Revolution was aimed at the power of the papacy,” writes Steve Gregg, “and in five years two million people were slain, including 24,000 priests. Forty thousand churches were made into stables. The power of the popes was broken” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 356).

Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – see these events unfolding during the Tribulation and upon those who worship the Antichrist. They are perhaps very late in the Tribulation, leading to the return of Christ. Some futurists see the plagues symbolically, as moral corruption or apostate conditions, but many hold true to their literalist interpretation. One even argues that the painful sores are the result of radiation from nuclear explosions. At least one commentator, however, suggest both a spiritual and a literal fulfillment of the plagues. The sores apparently are incurable since the victims of the plague are still in torment when the fifth seal is poured out.

Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – view these plagues as symbolic reminders of how oppressive the world is under Satan’s domination. Just as the people of Egypt suffer for their refusal to let God’s people go, unbelievers throughout the church age face dire circumstances at the hands of the evil one. Some see the bowl and trumpet judgments running concurrently. The severely painful sores are understood literally or figuratively, or even both, but in any case the consequences are calamitous. Understanding these judgments symbolically provides comfort for believers in John’s day but also give hope to believers throughout the church age as they are persecuted by the political and religious devotees to Satan.

Next: The second bowl judgment – Revelation 16:3