Rev. 16:3 –The second [angel] poured out his bowl into the sea. It turned to blood like a dead man’s, and all life in the sea died. (HCSB)
The sea turned to blood
John records that the target of the second angel’s bowl of divine wrath is the sea, which turns to blood like a dead man’s. There are two key questions to be addressed here. First, what is meant by the “sea?” And second, what is the significance of the sea turning to blood “like a dead man’s?”
As we have noted in previous chapters, Bible scholars interpret the meaning of the sea differently in Revelation:
- Some understand it literally to mean the salty bodies of water that cover much of the earth’s surface. The seas turn red by the hand of God, or as a result of divinely orchestrated human battles; some argue that a bacterial “red tide” may be the cause of perishing sea life. The widespread death of people and/or animals in the sea would create a putrid environment that clogs the waterways with coagulating blood like a dead man’s.
- Others argue for a narrower but equally literal view, saying John is referring to the Mediterranean Sea, or to the waters between Patmos, where John is exiled, and Rome; this would include not only the Mediterranean Sea, but the Aegean, Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas. This presupposes that the bowl judgments are poured out on the known world of John’s day rather than on all the earth’s seas.
- Many preterists contend that the Sea of Galilee is in John’s view since that is where the Roman armies inflict a particularly horrifying slaughter of the Jews during their first-century rebellion against the empire. In fact, the result of the battle is that the sea becomes a floating tide of corpses, severed limbs and bloody pools.
- Some historicists say the sea depicts the ocean centuries later as the navies of France, Spain and Portugal suffer bloody defeats while defending a corrupt papacy. Matthew Henry suggests the bloody seas may describe “the whole system of [Papal Rome’s] religion, their false doctrines, their corrupt glosses, their superstitious rites, their idolatrous worship, their pardons, indulgences, a great conflux of wicked inventions and institutions, by which they maintain a trade and traffic advantageous to themselves, but injurious to all who deal with them…. God discovered not only the vanity and falsehood of their religion, but the pernicious and deadly nature of it – that the souls of men were poisoned by that which was pretended to be the sure means of their salvation” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 16:1-7).
- Still others take a symbolic approach, contending that the sea stands for the Gentile nations, or the restless mass of humanity in general.
Whether this vision is to be understood literally or figuratively, the sea turning to blood “like a dead man’s” conveys the idea of massive and complete death. The waters swell with putrefied corpses. Life’s blood has been spilled beyond the hope of healing. Death, destruction, and decay assault the eyes and inflame the nostrils. This is graphic, violent, sense-numbing death. Even if we take John’s description symbolically, the corruption of people, nations, and institutions is complete. The false doctrines are a stench in God’s nostrils. The corrupt practices of people, governments, and religious institutions are beyond repair; like corpses, they must be discarded. John seems here to be telling us that God’s punishment fits the crime. The wicked are so depraved nothing short of death will vindicate His holiness.
A first-century fulfillment?
There is no doubt the Sea of Galilee is the scene of a massive slaughter of Jews during their rebellion against Rome. If Revelation is written prior to 66 A.D., as many scholars contend, there is a remarkable fulfillment of this prophecy that plays out before the very eyes of John’s first-century readers. Jewish historian Josephus describes the massacre:
And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands; and indeed they were destroyed after various manners everywhere, till the rest, being put to flight, were forced to get upon the land, while the vessels encompassed them about (on the sea): but as many of these were repulsed when they were getting ashore, they were killed by the darts upon the lake; and the Romans leaped out of their vessels, and destroyed a great many more upon the land: one might then see the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped. And a terrible stink, and a very sad sight there was on the following days over that country; for as for the shores, they were full of shipwrecks, and of dead bodies all swelled; and as the dead bodies were inflamed by the sun, and putrefied, they corrupted the air, insomuch that the misery was not only the object of commiseration to the Jews, but to those that hated them, and had been the authors of that misery (Wars, III: 10:9, in Revelation: Four Views, p. 362).
Plagues and trumpets
The second bowl judgment corresponds to the first Egyptian plague in some respects (Ex. 7:21-25). The Nile River is turned to blood, fish die, a stench rises and the people have to dig wells in order to find suitable drinking water. However, the magicians of Pharaoh’s court are able to duplicate the miracle, and Pharaoh himself hardens his heart, goes into his palace and doesn’t give the matter a second thought. Similarly, in the second bowl judgment a body of water turns to turns to blood, all living creatures in the sea die, and the result is not repentance but, as we see later on, the wicked of the earth blaspheme God.
There also is a similarity between the second bowl and the second trumpet (Rev. 8:8-9), in which a third of the sea becomes blood and a third of the sea life is killed. In the second bowl judgment, however, the effect is complete as all life in the sea perishes.
These similarities lead some commentators to argue that the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments run on parallel tracks and describe the same events from different vantage points. However, there are so many differences between the judgments that it makes more sense to understand them as consecutive and partially overlapping.
Marvin Pate summarizes these competing views well:
Although historical allusions to John’s day can be detected in the seal judgments of Revelation 6, as well as throughout chapters 6-18 … the progressive dispensationalist [who sees us living in an “already/not yet” tension between the first and second comings of Christ] believes that the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic events contained in these chapters awaits the time of the Parousia [second coming of Christ]. The most significant evidence supporting this perspective is the relationship that exists between the three sets of judgment delineated in Revelation 6-18: seals (chap. 6), trumpets (chaps. 8-9), and bowls (chaps. 15-16). If one interprets these judgments as parallel, then it is possible to conclude that they were all accomplished in the first century, particularly in and around the circumstances of the fall of Jerusalem…. If, however, the three judgments encompassing the messianic woes are sequential and therefore intensifying in effect, then it is less likely that the totality of these events correspond to the first century. On the contrary, they point to a future era for their ultimate fulfillment (“A Progressive Dispensationalist View of Revelation,” Four Views on the Book of Revelation, pp. 161-62).
The possibility of multiple fulfillments
It is not unreasonable to see an immediate, an ongoing and an ultimate fulfillment for this judgment and other judgments in Revelation. History provides strong support for the view that much of Revelation (and the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25) is fulfilled in the judgment of Israel for her rejection of the Messiah. There also are periods throughout the church age when warfare, famine, plagues and natural disasters appear to be instruments of God’s divine retribution against the wicked – and even his firm hand of discipline on the church. None of this precludes the possibility of dark and wicked days ahead in which evil runs rampant and the God of history makes history Himself in unprecedented judgments that climax in His Son’s glorious and personal return to earth.
To see the possibility of multiple prophetic fulfillments in scripture, consider the “abomination of desolation” introduced in Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks (Dan. 9:20-27) and further described in Dan. 11:31-32. Many scholars agree that this prophecy becomes an unforgettable reality in 167 B.C. when Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes takes Jerusalem by force, abolishes the temple sacrifices, outlaws Sabbath observances, sacrifices a pig on the altar in the temple, and erects a statue of Zeus Olympus in the Holy of Holies. This leads to the Maccabean revolt and the temple’s rededication in 164 B.C., an event Jews still celebrate today during the festival of Chanukah.
Jesus refers to the “abomination that causes desolation” in Matt. 24:15-22, using that historic event to preview what will happen in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroy Jerusalem and tear down the temple so that literally no stone will be left unturned. Hank Hanegraaff writes, “In the Olivet Discourse [Matthew 24-25], Jesus had taken the quintessential Jewish nightmare and extended it to cosmic proportions. In the fullness of time, what Jesus declared desolate was desolated by Roman infidels. They destroyed the temple fortress and ended the daily sacrifice. This time the blood that desolated the sacred altar did not flow from the carcasses of unclean pigs, but from the corpses of unbelieving Pharisees. This time the Holy of Holies was not merely desecrated by the defiling statue of a pagan god, but was manifestly destroyed by the pathetic greed of despoiling soldiers. This time no Judas Maccabaeus intervened. Within a generation, the temple was not just desecrated, it was destroyed” (The Apocalypse Code, p. 88).
But perhaps this is not the final desolation. Most futurists believe another temple will be built in the days before Christ’s return. As temple ceremonies and sacrifices resume, the Antichrist will make and then break a covenant with the Jewish people, put a stop to sacrifice, desecrate the temple and declare himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:5-7). The Antichrist’s oppression will continue until God’s decreed destruction is poured out on him (Dan. 11:45; Rev. 19:20).
Discerning the audience
To be clear, commentators are not in unanimous agreement about the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. But historic events like those recorded in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes and later in the days of the Roman armies seem to sync well with the words Daniel recorded in the sixth century B.C. And the fact that some details – like a covenant between the Jews and the “coming prince” – have not been fulfilled lends credence to the possibility that a future “abomination of desolation” remains.
No doubt, the Book of Revelation is directed to first-century readers. All books of the Bible have an initial audience and a message that is contemporary for its time. That being said, one of the marvels of God’s Word is that it speaks to people in all ages of human history. Christians living in Asia Minor in the first generation after Christ’s earthly ministry are persecuted by Jewish religious leaders and by the Roman zealots of the cult of Caesar. They need to be encouraged to persevere in their faith; to understand that the wicked will be judged; and to take heart that the resurrected and glorified Christ is on His throne and in command.
Beyond the first century, those who witness the collapse of Rome, the Reformation, the wonders of modern travel and technology that lead to worldwide evangelization – and globally embraced counterfeit doctrines – see that Revelation is speaking to them. We have not yet witnessed the return of Christ, but perhaps these terrible judgments that John describes from his visions will be a prelude to His coming. We are foolish to be too dogmatic about our particular point of view, but we are equally unwise to strip away the Bible’s historical context, its relevance to all ages, and its accurate gaze into the distant future.
All life in the sea died
John records that “all life in the sea died.” The Greek literally says, “and every living psyche died, the things in the sea.” The word psyche in this case probably does not refer exclusively to human life, but to every living thing in the sea including animal life. Some commentators go so far as to argue that human life is not meant at all here, only animal life. Only in this verse and in Rev. 8:9 is psyche used for animal life with a specific view toward marine life.
So if we take this literally and apply it globally, it could mean that God is judging wicked humans and taking away a primary means by which they gather their food and carry out their commerce. Applied regionally or locally, the complete destruction of marine life would be a clear indication that this is an event beyond the pale of human effort – pointing to divine retribution.
We might also consider it hyperbole, which is used often in scripture. For example, in Matt. 7:19, Jesus says, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (emphasis mine). Jesus, of course, is using hyperbole to illustrate a biblical truth. He is contrasting His faithful witnesses with false prophets, whose fruit — that is, their doctrine or teaching — is bad. Just as a wise husbandman destroys bad trees to make room for good trees, and to keep the bad trees from stealing sunlight and soil from the good ones, the Lord will deal personally with false prophets.
If we consider this passage symbolically, we might understand it to mean that all of humanity has become so corrupt that it is beyond redemption. Human government, society, the political realm, and religious institutions have become so filled with sinfulness that there is no redeeming value in them any longer. So the Lord causes them to cease.
Whatever one’s perspective on this judgment, it’s important to see the bigger picture. God is pouring out His wrath on wicked people who hate Him and persecute His people. To this point, His wrath has been measured and reserved, but now it comes in full force.
Four major views of the second bowl judgment
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the second bowl judgment?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – may view the bloody sea symbolically to mean that the whole of Judea has become covered in uncleanness as a result of its quashed rebellion (A.D. 66-70) and now has become like the sea, a symbol of the Gentile nations. Others take the image more literally and point to a battle that occurs on the Sea of Galilee in which the Romans overtake fleeing Jews and massacre them upon the waters. Jewish historian Josephus writes that “one might then see the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies … and as the dead bodies were inflamed by the sun, and putrefied, they corrupted the air, insomuch that the misery was not only the object of commiseration to the Jews, but to those that hated them, and had been the authors of that misery” (Wars, III, 10:9, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 362).
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally believe the bloody sea refers to the great loss of life on the ocean as the naval forces fighting to sustain the papacy are destroyed – specifically the navies of France, Spain and Portugal. Fulfillment of this prophecy is found in a series of great naval disasters between the French and her allies from 1793 – 1815, during which nearly 200 ships, 300-400 frigates, and a large number of smaller boats are destroyed.
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided. Some view this prophecy symbolically, with the sea representing the nations in a restless state and the bowl symbolizing moral decay and spiritual death. Others argue that the sea only appears like blood, either as a result of human carnage or a “red tide,” which scientists have observed as a reddish microorganism that kills sea life. Still others believe the seas will become bloody either because of a literal plague by God or as the result of a global nuclear war.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – view this judgment symbolically. Some say that since the beast rose up out of the sea, which may symbolize all humanity, then the bloodiness depicts the moral and spiritual putrefaction of a dead society. Others argue that when God brings final punishment upon the wicked, He sometimes uses the sea as an instrument of His wrath, causing shipwrecks, tsunamis, and other disasters.
Next: The third bowl – Revelation 16:4-7