The fourth bowl: Revelation 16:8-9
Previously: The third bowl – Revelation 16:4-7
Rev. 16:8 –The fourth [angel] poured out his bowl on the sun. He was given the power to burn people with fire, 9 and people were burned by the intense heat. So they blasphemed the name of God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory (HCSB).
And people were burned
The fourth angel pours out his bowl on the sun, resulting in intense heat that burns people. While the first three bowl judgments are directed toward the earthly elements – namely, the earth, sea, rivers and springs of water – the fourth judgment is aimed skyward, toward the light-bearing and warmth-giving orb that interacts with the earthly elements to sustain life.
This angel, like others we have encountered, is granted authority over some part of the physical universe. In this case, he is given the power to burn people, and he uses the fusion-powered heat of the sun to carry out his task. (Some versions, it must be noted, render the word “it” rather than “he,” indicating that the sun is personified as in Ps. 19:1-6.) At its core, the sun is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Even the coolest part of the sun – the sun spot – is 6,700 degrees Fahrenheit, several times hotter than the lava from a volcano (www.planetfacts.org).
The earth is about 93 million miles from the sun. As the earth circles the sun in an elliptical route, the distance between the two varies from about 91 million miles to 94.5 million miles, contributing to our seasons. While that fluctuating distance seems to leave a lot of wiggle room, the fact is that if the earth passed much closer to or farther from the sun, life would be far different here, if possible at all. God created the earth and the stellar heavens to support His special creation on earth, and He holds all things together (Col. 1:17).
If the fourth bowl judgment is to be taken literally, perhaps the Lord empowers the angel to move the earth and the sun a little closer together. Or, he may simply crank up the process by which the sun generates heat. In any case, people on earth feel the impact and are burned. It appears that the people burned are those who worship the beast, for we see that they blaspheme God and refuse to repent.
Elements from the skies
Unlike the first three bowl judgments, this plague does not parallel one of the plagues on Egypt. Instead of being darkened, as in Ex. 10:21-29, the sun’s fire is stoked to scorch earth’s inhabitants. This judgment, however, does relate in some respects to the first four trumpet judgments, in which elements from the skies rain down on the earth. The fourth trumpet in particular is in view, where a third of the sun is stuck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them are darkened. A third of the day is without light, and the night as well (Rev. 8:7-13). However, this time the sun’s power is not diminished but enhanced.
Jesus points to these dramatic developments in the heavens and their impact on earth in His Olivet Discourse: “Then there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars; and there will be anguish on the earth among nations bewildered by the roaring sea and waves. People will faint from fear and expectation of the things that are coming on the world, because the celestial powers will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).
The word translated “burned” is kaumatisai and means to scorch; literally, the phrase reads, “And it was given him to scorch men with fire.” This word is used only in two other places in the New Testament, Matt. 13:6 and Mark 4:6, where it refers to the impact of the sun on the seed that falls on rocky ground. Variations of the word are used in several other places in the New Testament, and the notion of consuming heat is implied in all of them.
The intense heat the wicked experience is an act of judgment that does not result in repentance; by all appearances, these blasphemers have stepped beyond the limits of God’s mercy. In contrast, the believers John sees coming out of the great tribulation “will no longer hunger; they will no longer thirst; the sun will no longer strike them, nor will any heat” (Rev. 7:16). Although this may speak of their ultimate deliverance from the harsh natural elements to which they are exposed as persecuted Christians, it could also speak about the relief God provides to those living on the earth during this particular judgment.
The source of their curse
Donald Grey Barnhouse writes, “One purpose in God striking the sun is found in the ages-long idolatry of men where they have worshiped the sun, moon, and stars rather than acknowledging their Creator. Thus, that which men have worshiped now becomes the source of their curse. ‘Men are to be taught that the very things in which they have trusted or to which they have given their worship are to be the sources of their most terrible punishments’” (Revelation, quoted in www.biblestudytools.com).
It should be noted that while many commentators understand the reference to scorching heat literally, others see this judgment figuratively. For example, some understand the sun to be Jesus (the “sun of righteousness,” Mal. 4:2), whose blazing glory and holiness will scorch the wicked – will “torture them, and fill them with envy, rage, and malice, because they will not be able to obscure this light, or stop the progress of it … they will, like the clay, be the more hardened by this light and heat, and will not repent of their sins and errors” (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, in www.bible.cc/revelation/16-8.htm).
Others see the sun as the scriptures, bringing burning conviction to the hearts of men. Indeed, God’s Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Still others equate the sun with political or religious leaders at various times in the church age, or with the first-century Jewish zealots who terrorize their fellow citizens within Jerusalem’s gates while the city is under siege.
One thing is clear: The intensity of the sun creates horrific suffering for those who have stubbornly refused the shelter beneath the Savior’s wings. And so in some respects their pain is self-inflicted. They know it. But they will not take responsibility for it.
So they blasphemed
What is the result of this agonizing judgment? “So they blasphemed the name of God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory” (v. 9b).
First, they blasphemed. Blasphemy is a transliteration of a Greek word literally meaning “to speak harm.” In the biblical context, blasphemy is an attitude of disrespect that finds expression in an act directed against the character of God, according to the Holman Bible Dictionary. In Old Testament times, blasphemy involves the actual pronunciation of God’s name with an attitude of disrespect, and is punishable by death (Lev. 24:14-16). This strikes such fear in the hearts of the Israelites that they withdraw the personal name Yahweh from common usage and replace it with Adonai (Lord). Even today, many Jews will not speak or write the name of God, substituting the moniker “G-d.”
People and nations are guilty of blasphemy. Israel is held accountable for blasphemy in the days of the golden calf and for its rough treatment of the Lord’s prophets. The enemies of Israel blaspheme God through their abuse of God’s people and their disrespect toward Israel’s God.
The New Testament broadens the concept of blasphemy to include actions against Christ, His church, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is considered a blasphemer when He forgives sins (Mark 2:5-7) and confesses to being the Messiah (Matt. 26:63-65). But the real blasphemers are those who deny Jesus and reject His claims of deity (Mark 15:29; Luke 22:65, 23:39). So first, those who worship the beast blaspheme God.
They refused to repent
Second, they refuse to repent and give God the glory. It appears there is still time for them to turn from their sins and receive forgiveness, but they stubbornly persist in their wicked ways. Their actions are similar to those suffering the consequences of the sixth trumpet judgment: “The rest of the people, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands to stop worshiping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which are not able to see hear, or walk. And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts” (Rev. 9:20-21).
Indeed, they give the same hard-hearted response pharaoh offers up when confronted with the punishing hand of God (see, for example, Ex. 7:22-23; 8:15; 9:7). Pharaoh believes himself to be the epitome of Ra, the sun god. As he hardens his heart against the one true and living God, the Lord simultaneously hardens pharaoh so that in the plagues against Egypt God will be revealed as the sovereign King of the universe. In a similar manner, the refusal of the beast worshipers to repent and acknowledge God provides the Lord with an occasion to once again show Himself the only One worthy of our devotion.
God has created us in His image and invites us to enjoy intimate fellowship with Him. He shares His unique name (Yahweh) and reveals Himself in creation, conscience and Christ. He sends His Son to ransom us from the slave market of sin. He sends His Holy Spirit to dwell within us, seal us, and empower us to serve. He gives us His written word. And He woos us and waits patiently for our response. There is no doubt that the people suffering from the intense heat of the sun have rejected God’s tender mercies. They have chosen life apart from Him, and He grants them their desire, which unwittingly includes the penalty of their sins.
R.B. Sloan comments:
Wrath brings grief even to the heart of God, but God will not coerce our love of Him. He has given His children their freedom, and He will not destroy their humanity by removing that freedom, even when His children stubbornly persist in using that freedom in rebellion against Him. Incredibly enough, in spite of the overwhelming mercies of God revealed through Jesus Christ, there will be those who refuse His mercies. In such cases the faithful God of creation and redemption will faithfully respond in keeping with His own nature and word by giving His rebellious sons and daughters what they have stubbornly insisted upon, namely, everlasting separation from Him. Surely, as God’s wrath, this is the height of torment and misery – to be separated from the One who is the true source of life, to be cut off from one’s merciful Creator and thus to experience everlastingly the eternal death that comes from the rejection of Him who is the source of everlasting life. But we must neither deny nor even lament the wisdom of God for His past or future assertions of wrath. Our God evidently loves righteousness, justice, and mercy to such an extent that He will not brook our cowardly tolerance of evil. We may not lightly dismiss the fact that heaven is neither silent nor embarrassed when evil is punished. Heaven rejoices at the justice and judgment of God (“The Revelation,” Holman Concise Bible Dictionary, D.S. Dockery, ed., pp. 677-78).
David Stern adds these thoughts: “Here is the New Testament’s most cogent description of the normal behavior of hardened sinners. They cursed the name of God … instead of turning from their sins, the result of which would have been to give him glory. Although God had the authority over these plagues, these unbelievers, in their irrationality, instead of entreating the only one who could help them, curse him. They recognize that God controls the plagues but blame him instead of themselves, since, being amoral and materialistic, they see no causal connection between their own sinful behavior and these events as judgment. They remain unrepentant throughout the chapter” (David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 834).
Four major views of the fourth bowl judgment
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the fourth bowl judgment?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – take the reference to the sun symbolically, perhaps as a figure of mighty political or religious leaders. Some, however, say the sun could refer to the leaders of the zealot sects that terrorize citizens hunkered behind the walls of Jerusalem as it is besieged by the Romans in the first century. Others argue for a later fulfillment as the sun symbolizes the Gothic and Vandal kings that attack Rome and bring the city to its knees.
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally believe the time of fulfillment overlaps the time of the second and third bowl judgments – that is, the years following the French Revolution. The sun symbolizes a ruler, perhaps Napoleon, who “scorched every kingdom in Europe, from Naples to Berlin, and from Lisbon to Moscow. Ancient kingdoms withered before the intense blaze of his power” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 368).
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided. Some understand the sun to represent the cruelty of the revived Roman Empire in the last days. Others take the reference to the sun literally, either as a supernatural increase in the sun’s power, or as a natural result of solar flares or the weakening of the atmosphere due to the exchange of nuclear weapons.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – avoid identifying the effects of the sun with any historic and futuristic event. Many idealists see this judgment repeated over and over again the wicked perish in harsh deserts or succumb to cancerous solar rays. What God gave us for good may also be an instrument of His divine retribution.
Next: The fifth bowl – Revelation 16:10-11