Rev. 16:10 –The fifth [angel] poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues from pain, 11 and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, yet they did not repent of their actions. (HCSB)
Plunged into darkness
There is a sense in which the fourth and fifth bowl judgments offer the wicked a preview of hell. In the fourth bowl judgment the sun scorches the beast’s worshipers, and in the fifth bowl judgment the beast’s kingdom is plunged into darkness. Hell often is described in terms of fiery torment. It is “the lake of fire and sulfur” (Rev. 20:10); “the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14-15); and “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8). Jesus describes it as “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Hell is where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). And it is a place where the rich man is “in agony in this flame” (Luke 16:24).
Jesus also describes separation from God as “outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13; 25:30).
Flame and darkness are fitting terms for God’s judgment upon sin and sinners. Fire consumes filth, and darkness aptly describes banishment from the presence of God, who is light (1 John 1:5). In John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself is “the light.” Note:
- John writes of Jesus, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
- John the Baptist comes as a witness “to testify about the light [Jesus], so that all might believe through him” (John 1:7).
- John describes Jesus as “The true light, who gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
- Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
- He further tells his disciples, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).
- Jesus tells a crowd, “The light will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. The one who walks in darkness doesn’t know where he’s going. While you have the light, believe in the light so that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36). And His concluding testimony is that He came into the world as light so that no one who believes in Him should remain in darkness (John 12:46).
The Greek word for light, phos, appears 23 times in the Gospel of John and 73 times in the New Testament. Most of the time it is used figuratively to depict holiness, purity, or godliness. Jesus uses the term in the Sermon on the Mount to portray the holy standard of conduct expected of His disciples (Matt. 5:14-16; 6:23).
Incredibly, however, “those in darkness prefer the darkness, at least until they accept the truth of God’s revelation in His Son and believe in the light” (HCSB Study Bible). Those who persist in their love of darkness ultimately will receive what they desire: eternal separation from God in “outer darkness.” The fifth bowl judgment seems to offer a foretaste of the blackness of hell.
It is fitting to recall that darkness is the ninth plague on Egypt, as there are similarities between the kingdoms of pharaoh and the Antichrist. Concerning the beast’s kingdom, the ESV Study Bible notes, “It is appropriate that a regime founded on deceit (Rev. 13:5, 13-14) should be plunged into darkness. Although reaping the anguish they have sown in rebellion, hardened people will react by cursing their just Judge rather than forsaking their self-destroying deeds. The refusal to repent shows the total depravity of those who dwell in the earth, and it shows the justice of eternal punishment” (p. 2485).
Darkness also corresponds to the fourth trumpet judgment (Rev. 8:12). If taken literally, this could be seen as a solar eclipse. But that does not seem severe enough. Could it be similar to the darkness that envelopes Jerusalem during the hours Jesus hangs on the cross? Certainly, the most heinous crime ever committed takes place on that day as the sinless Son of God bears humanity’s sin debt amidst farcical trials, severe beatings and cruel taunting. The darkness in the hearts of the beast and his worshipers is equally as black as the vile rejection of the Messiah on the day that He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
Jurgen Roloff comments, “In biblical language darkness is God’s punishment for evildoers who operate in aimlessness, despair, and fear (Wisdom 17). In precisely this way falls the proud empire, the beast’s realm of dominion, into darkness, as a consequence of its distance from God” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, pp. 189-90).
People gnawed their tongues and blasphemed
The recipients of the fifth bowl judgment are in excruciating pain. The Greek word translated “gnawed” – masaoami – is used only here in the New Testament and captures the anguish of those who find no relief from their torment. They may be gnawing their tongues because of the extreme cold caused by the extended darkness, the sores from the first bowl judgment (v. 2), the severe burns sustained during the fourth bowl judgment, or a combination of all three factors.
But their gesture may signal more than physical discomfort. “[T]he subjects of the antichristian kingdom … now become full of darkness, the worshippers of the beast, and his image; these will gnaw their tongues, which expresses their inward anguish and distress, their anger, wrath, and fury, their being filled with revenge, and yet in an incapacity to execute it, and will even be afraid to express it; and therefore will bite their tongues in madness; and this for pain, for the pain of their mind, at the sad and low estate of the antichristian kingdom” (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, found in http://bible.cc/revelation/16-10.htm).
In any case, their severe pain serves not as a prod to repent but as a goad to further blaspheme. It is clear they know their suffering comes at the hand of Almighty God and is directed toward their idolatrous worship of the beast. But rather than lay aside their allegiance to a defeated foe, they cling in futility to him and denounce the very One who can save them. The unsearchable folly of this mindset is understood only in the context of the heart’s utter depravity. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
The wicked would rather sever their tongues with their own teeth than acknowledge their sin and embrace the Savior.
Yet they did not repent
Blasphemy is the byproduct of the unrepentant heart. During the fourth bowl judgment the wicked blaspheme, and refuse to repent and give God glory. As their suffering becomes more intense with the fifth bowl judgment, they harden themselves even further and refuse to repent of their actions. There is a subtle but important distinction to be made between the response of the wicked to the fourth and fifth judgments. In the fourth, the worshipers of the beast refuse to acknowledge God, who is responsible for the plagues and against whom they have sinned. In the fifth judgment, however, they refuse to change their ways. As our words and deeds reveal the true condition of our hearts, so the refusal to change behavior follows a determined hostility toward God.
This is the last reference in Revelation to a failure to repent. In Rev. 2:21, the self-proclaimed prophetess Jezebel refuses to repent despite God’s long-suffering toward her. In Rev. 9:21, the survivors of the sixth trumpet judgment do not repent of their idol worship, murders, sorceries, sexual immorality, or thefts. And in Rev.16:9, the wicked refuse to repent of their unbelief.
Matthew Henry writes, “The heart of man is so desperately wicked, that the most severe miseries never will bring any to repent, without the special grace of God. Hell itself is filled with blasphemies; and those are ignorant of the history of human nature, of the Bible, and of their own hearts, who do not know that the more men suffer, and the more plainly they see the hand of God in their sufferings, the more furiously they often rage against him. Let sinners now seek repentance from Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, or they will have the anguish and horror of an unhumbled, impenitent, and desperate heart; thus adding to their guilt and misery through all eternity. Darkness is opposed to wisdom and knowledge, and forebodes the confusion and folly of the idolaters and followers of the beast. It is opposed to pleasure and joy, and signifies anguish and vexation of spirit” (Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, 16:8-11).
Four major views of the fifth bowl judgment
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the fifth bowl judgment?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the throne of the beast, upon which this bowl is poured, is the city of Rome. While most of the judgments in Revelation are aimed at apostate Israel, the heathen who join the Jews in their attacks on Christians come under condemnation as well. The darkness symbolizes political turmoil, which occurs when Nero commits suicide in 68 A.D., sending shock waves throughout the empire as self-appointed successors vie for power and persecute their own people. Alternatively, some preterists argue that John is describing the invasions that lead to the ultimate fall of Rome in the fifth century.
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – almost unanimously believe the throne of the beast is Rome. The darkness represents the calamity that befalls the Papacy in the late 1700s when the French strip the Vatican to its naked walls, remove the aged Pope Pius VI from power and place many of the clergy in fetters. Over the next 70 years the authority of the papal system deteriorates. Even so, this does not deter Rome from uttering new heresies, including those of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra (1870).
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – see the throne of the beast as that of the future Antichrist. The darkness may be literal, as in the days of Moses, enabling 200 million Oriental soldiers to move into the Middle East. Or it may be symbolic, depicting judicial blindness, madness and defiance. The “pains” and “sores” indicate that the beast and his followers are still suffering from earlier judgments, but they do not prevent those who oppose God from blaspheming His name.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – view the throne of the beast as representing the center of antichristian government. Some see this applying to Rome as it collapses in the fifth century, but even those idealists say it has a broader application that encompasses all those who oppose Christ. As Homer Hailey writes, “[W]herever world power is worshiped, there the beast has his throne” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 373). As for the darkness, it recalls the Egyptian plague that results in three days of darkness. Since worshipers of the beast prefer darkness to the light of the gospel, it is fitting that they are tormented by the very thing they embrace. Even so, they will not repent.
Next: The sixth bowl – Revelation 16:12-16