Rev. 16:4 –The third [angel] poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 I heard the angel of the waters say: You are righteous, who is and who was, the Holy One, for You have decided these things. 6 Because they poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets, You also gave them blood to drink; they deserve it! 7 Then I heard someone from the altar say: Yes, Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments. (HCSB).
The rivers and springs became blood
The third bowl judgment is similar to the third trumpet judgment in which a third of the rivers and springs became bitter (Rev. 8:10-11). Now, however, it appears that all the fresh water is impacted as it turns to blood.
Some commentators who hold to figurative interpretations of this passage see the rivers and springs of water as “learned men” who, like streams, convey “the venom and poison of their errors and idolatries from the spring-head through the earth” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 16:1-7). The water turning to blood signifies the godly vengeance taken upon their lives for the physical and moral harm they have inflicted on the saints. Other interpreters see the rivers and springs as depicting the joys and pleasures of life, which are poisoned by sin.
While these graphic images capture well the corrupting work of sin and God’s judgment upon it, a literal view may be the best, especially if John is describing what takes place inside the walls of Jerusalem during the Roman siege in 70 A.D. We know that water sources became polluted. In addition, death was so widespread that streams of blood literally flowed in the streets. So complete was the devastation that Jewish factions within the walls sabotaged each other’s supplies and fought a civil war within their city’s gates. A local understanding of this vision is easier to fathom than worldwide poisoning of all drinking water. Of course, God is able to accomplish this – either by direct intervention or through indirect means such as natural disasters or nuclear warfare.
The point is clear: Those who persecute the bride of Christ will find judgment that fits the crime.
The angel of the waters
Next, John records a proclamation from “the angel of the waters” (v. 5a). This may reflect the Jewish apocalyptic terminology of 1 Enoch 66:2, written between the time of the Old and New Testaments. In ancient times it is common opinion among the Jews that angels preside over the elements. In rabbinic writing an angel named Admael has jurisdiction over the earth, while another presides over the cattle that feed on the grass. The rabbis write that God employs Rahab, the angel of the sea, to swallow up the waters at creation so the dry land might appear. Rahab disobeys, and God slays him. No doubt, John keeps these writings in view as he reports what he sees.
The idea of angels with jurisdiction over parts of creation is common in scripture as well. In Revelation alone we see four angels restraining the four winds (7:1). There is an angel over the abyss (9:11) and an angel who has authority over fire (14:18). So it should not be considered unusual that an angel is given charge over the waters.
God often delegates His supreme authority to created beings. Angels deliver messages, execute judgment, do battle with demons, and protect the righteous. Satan is described as “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), and even he and his demons are depicted at times as God’s servants; while they do their worst, God sovereignly uses their evil to judge the wicked and discipline the righteous. Finally, God grants people dominion over lands and their inhabitants. Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and watch over it” (Gen. 2:15). Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument of judgment against Judah yet does not escape the Lord’s retribution for his idolatry and evil. And the apostle Paul reminds Christians that we must “submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).
You gave them blood to drink
The angel of the waters delivers a short hymn that provides the reason for his actions: “You are righteous, who is and who was, the Holy One, for You have decided these things. Because they poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets, You also gave them blood to drink; they deserve it” (vv. 5b-6).
The angel begins by establishing the righteous character of God, whose judgment the angel is carrying out. The Lord is neither mean spirited nor vindictive. His judgment falls only after His grace and mercy have been rejected beyond the point of no return. When He slays, when He destroys, when He brings calamity, it is in keeping with the holiness of the One who could not love good if He did not punish evil.
Further, we should note that the Old Testament concept of God’s righteousness (Heb. sedaqa) refers to His saving acts in history. Gerhard von Rad notes that “from the earliest times onwards Israel celebrated Jahweh as the one who bestowed on his people the all-embracing gift of his righteousness. And this sedaqa (righteousness) bestowed on Israel is always a saving gift” (Old Testament Theology, 1:370, quoted in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey, p. 345). So, the righteous person is not one who lives up to a certain ethical or moral standard, but one granted a special relationship of acceptance in the presence of God. What this means in the context of the third bowl judgment is that God’s righteousness – His saving acts – include judgment upon the wicked, thus rescuing from evil those who enjoy a relationship with Him.
Next, the angel acknowledges God’s eternal nature. God is the One who is and who was, the Holy One. This harks back to previous declarations in Revelation. In John’s greeting to the seven churches, he expresses grace and peace “from the One who is, who was, and who is coming” (1:4). The Lord Himself declares to the churches, “I am the Alpha and the Omega … the One who is, who was, and who is coming, the Almighty” (1:8). The four living creatures around the throne in heaven never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is coming” (4:8). And the 24 elders before the throne worship God saying, “We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was” (11:17). God’s judgment on the wicked is not inflicted in a moment of heated anger; it is carried out in the context of an eternally existing God who sees the present in light of all that ever was or will be.
The Holy One
The angel calls God “the Holy One.” Rabbinic writings often refer to God as HaKadosh, barukh hu, “the Holy One, blessed be he.” A well-known prayer recited near the end of each synagogue service reads, “We bend the knee, bow and acknowledge before the supreme King of kings, HaKadosh, barukh hu [the Holy One, blessed be he] … that He is our God, there is none else.” David H. Stern writes, “Here too the reference is to God the Father, but in Ac 2:27, 13:35, quoting Psalm 16:10, the term applies to the Messiah” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 833).
“You have decided these things,” the angel says. God has determined to bring judgment upon the wicked, and the angel declares that this decision rests firmly in God’s righteous character, eternal nature, and holy being.
In eternity past, Yahweh decides to calls the universe into existence out of nothing. He creates angelic beings and entrusts them with authority, knowing some will rebel. He creates human beings and grants them responsibility, knowing they will fall and the world in which they live will groan beneath the weight of sin. Well in advance of these creative acts, He plans to send His Son as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Son gladly agrees; for the joy that is set before Him, He endures the cross and despises its shame. The Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in human hearts as God’s down payment on our future resurrection and a place in His eternal kingdom.
God determines that a day of reckoning will come when every person will stand before Him in final judgment. And today He lays before us a choice with eternal consequences: We may receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life by His grace through faith, based on the finished work of Christ; or, we may reject the Lamb of God and embrace the destiny determined for Satan and his demons – the lake of fire. Those on earth being given blood to drink have chosen this judgment. Though God has “decided these things,” He has not fatalistically decreed this judgment for these people, any more than He hardened the heart of pharaoh against the ruler’s own will.
In verse 6, the angel gives the reason for this judgment: “Because they poured out the blood of the saints and the prophets.” The significance of turning the water into blood is now clarified. Those who worshiped the beast are being judged in divine righteousness for the blood of the martyred saints (see Rev. 6:10) and prophets (see Rev. 10:5-7). Since this is predicted of the “earth dwellers” in Rev. 6:10-11, the “beast worshipers” and “earth dwellers” must be the same group of people.
It may be argued that this judgment is fulfilled, at least in some sense, in the first-century destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus minces no words in His woes against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, calling them “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs, “snakes,” and a “brood of vipers.” And He tells them, “You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ You therefore testify against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ sins! … This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and hound from town to town. So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. I assure you: All these things will come on this generation” (Matt. 23: 29-36, emphasis mine).
By 70 A.D. the Romans crush the Jewish revolt. Jerusalem is sacked. The temple is destroyed. Ceremonial Judaism is ended. More than 1.1 million Jews are dead, and the rest are scattered. The very generation of Jews that rejects the Messiah is now given blood to drink in exchange for the innocent blood it has shed. The apostle Paul states the principle in 2 Thess. 1:5-7, “It is a clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you [persecuted Christians] will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, since it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and [to reward] with rest you who are afflicted …”
The angel of the waters closes with these words about the beast worshipers, “[T]hey deserve it!”
The word “deserve” in the Greek is axios and is used 41 times in the New Testament. It is used to describe something that is of comparable value or worth to something else and therefore may be translated “worthy.” For example, the redeemed are found worthy of their reward (Rev. 3:4); God is worthy of glory, honor, and power (Rev. 4:11); and the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scrolls (Rev. 5:2, 4, 9, 12).
But axios also describes an appropriate response to a particular person or activity, and in the New Testament it sometimes refers to those receiving a punishment of death; in other words, the punishment fits the crime. Pilate observes that Jesus has done nothing “worthy” of death, while one of the thieves who hangs next to Jesus tells the other thief, “We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:15, 41, emphasis mine). In the apostle Paul’s appeal to Caesar, he states, “If then I am doing wrong, or have done anything deserving of death, I do not refuse to die …” (Acts. 25:11, emphasis mine). And in Rom. 1:32, Paul writes that the unrighteous “know full well God’s just sentence – that those who practice such things deserve to die” (emphasis mine).
The word “deserve” as it applies in the case of the beast worshipers carries the full weight of justice since it is God, not fallible human beings, who bears the sword. As one commentator writes, “Pay back isn’t revenge; it’s justice” (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., 921).
Someone from the altar
Finally, John hears someone from the altar say, “Yes, Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”
We are not given the identity of this creature. Perhaps it is one of the seven angels who pour out the bowls of wrath. Or maybe it is the angel who takes fire from the altar and hurls it to the earth (Rev. 8:3-5), or the angel with authority over fire (Rev. 14:18), or one of the elders or living creatures. Any of these creatures may rightly praise God and acknowledge the perfection of His deeds. But the location of the voice – from the altar – may indicate that is connected in some way with the martyred saints beneath the altar (Rev. 6:9-10).
Jurgen Roloff offers this insight: “The altar appears personified here – indeed, it becomes a spokesman for the fallen martyrs whose souls lie at its feet (6:9). The request of the martyrs that God provide them with justice by means of his judgment is now fulfilled. By their hymn of praise they acknowledge that God has shown himself to be the Almighty and has established his power over history. At the same time they express that God’s wrath stands in the service of his truthfulness and justice. As is true in all his activity, so also is his wrathful judgment intended to create occasion for his saving will and to give its justice to those who have relied on his goodness and faithfulness” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 189).
Whoever is speaking, it’s clear that giving the wicked blood to drink is an appropriate response from a holy God toward a bloodthirsty band of murderers.
Four major views of the third bowl judgment
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the third bowl judgment?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – are divided as to whether this judgment and the others are directed against the Roman Empire and its capital city or against Jerusalem. Historical evidence seems to favor the latter view. The pollution of water sources does in fact occur during the siege of Jerusalem, and streams of actual blood flow through the city. The reason for this calamity is clear: the Jewish people have poured out the blood of the saints and prophets. Jesus cites this fact as the reason the blood of the righteous will be poured out in judgment on this generation (Matt. 23:31-36).
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally place this judgment with the third trumpet judgment, which also affects rivers and springs of water. Many historicists cite great battles fought upon the rivers of Europe beginning in the late 1790s, including Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. The reason for these bloody battles is that this is the region where popes have commanded the slaughter of the saints. These martyrs include the Lutherans, Moravians, Hussites, Albigenses, Waldenses, Vaudois and Huguenots.
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided as to whether the vision is to be taken symbolically or literally. Those who argue for a figurative interpretation say that all the joys of life, as depicted in fresh streams and fountains, are poisoned by sin. Literalists see these bodies of fresh water turning to blood in payment for the Antichrist’s slaughter of saints during the great tribulation.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – view the turning of waters to blood as a literary device to show that God’s punishment of sinners will fit their crimes. Some see this carried out over time as the wicked perish from drowning or poisoning. Most do not attempt to find a historical match, but some interpret these judgments as falling mostly on the Roman Empire.
Next: The fourth bowl – Revelation 16:8-9