Every island fled – Revelation 16:20-21

Previously: “It is done!” – Revelation 16:17-19

The scripture

Rev. 16:20 – Every island fled, and the mountains disappeared. 21 Enormous hailstones, each weighing about 100 pounds, fell from the sky on people, and they blasphemed God for the plague of hail because that plague was extremely severe. (HCSB)

HailstormEvery island fled

Verse 20 reads, “Every island fled, and the mountains disappeared.” Some translations say the islands “disappeared” or “vanished.” There is a similar image from the sixth seal in Rev. 6:14. We are told that “every mountain and island was moved from its place.” All of creation is shaken violently in preparation for its renovation into new heavens and a new earth, although some see this in figurative terms as the dramatic end to the times of the Jews and/or the Roman Empire.

Those who see this passage as a prelude to the return of Christ note that Rev. 21:1 tells us that the first heaven and earth have passed away and the sea exists no more.

Isaiah pictures a day when the Lord of Hosts is coming “against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up – it will be humbled – against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up, against all the oaks of Bashan, against all the high mountains, against all the lofty hills, against every high tower, against every fortified wall, against every ship of Tarshish, and against every splendid sea vessel. So human pride will be brought low, and the loftiness of men will be humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa. 2:12-17).

Eighteenth century scholar John Gill writes that “this may signify the utter extirpation of all the antichristian powers in every shape, whether on islands or on the continent; for this day of the Lord will be upon every high mountain and hill, to bring them low, and the Lord alone shall be exalted” (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, found in http://bible.cc/revelation/16-20.htm).

Many times in scripture creation is spoken of in human terms, particularly as giving a response to the Creator. For example, in Ps. 19:1 we are told, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands.” While created things don’t actually speak or sing, they reflect the glory of God, which is the reason the apostle Paul writes that the observation of God’s created world holds the unbeliever “without excuse” for rejecting Him. Specifically, he writes, “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has showed it to them. From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).

In a similar fashion, John is using apocalyptic language – often used by Old Testament prophets – to show that just as the created order declares the majesty of God, it also responds to His divine wrath upon a sinful and fallen world.

Finally, this may be an allusion to Zech. 14, in which the prophet foresees the day when “Yahweh will become King over all the earth … All the land from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem will be changed into a plain. But Jerusalem will be raised up and will remain on its site from the Benjamin Gate to the place of the First Gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the royal winepresses. People will live there, and never again will there be a curse of complete destruction. So Jerusalem will dwell in security” (vv. 9-11).

Old Testament phrases having to do with great topographical changes often refer to God’s pending judgment on Israel, cataclysmic end-time events or the exalted presence of the Lord on earth. For example, Ps. 97:5 tells us, “The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord.” Micah 1:4 records that “The mountains will melt beneath Him, and the valleys will split apart, like wax near a fire, like water cascading down a mountainside.” And Nah. 1:5 reads, “The mountains quake before Him, and the hills melt; the earth trembles at His presence – the world and all who live in it.”

Throughout Revelation, John borrows extensively from Old Testament imagery, and in his vision of the seventh bowl he deploys such language to illustrate God’s measured wrath.

Enormous hailstones … fell from the sky

According to National Geographic, the largest hailstones ever recovered in the United States were nearly the size of soccer balls and weighed about 1.5 pounds. The heaviest hailstone on record, according to Wikipedia, was found in 1986 in Bangladesh and weighed 2.25 pounds. Large hailstones can fall at speeds faster than 100 miles per hour and contain foreign matter such as pebbles, twigs, nuts, and insects. Hail causes nearly $1 billion in damage to property and crops annually in the U.S. alone.

It is difficult to imagine hailstones like the ones John describes, enormous hailstones weighing about 100 pounds each and falling on people. Is this literally an end-times disaster of unprecedented proportions, or is John describing something to which first-century readers can relate?

Certainly the Lord is able to produce 100-pound hailstones. He sends sunshine on the evil and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). He rains fire and sulfur down on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). He causes the ground to split and swallow the wicked family of Korah (Num. 16:31-35). He causes a great fish to swallow Jonah. And He brings many plagues on Egypt in the form of natural disasters in the days of Moses. So enormous hailstones are not a problem to the Lord.

But it’s possible John is describing a first-century event to which his readers could relate.

Jewish historian Josephus records that in 70 A.D. the Romans bombard Jerusalem with large stones from catapults. “Now, the stones that were cast were the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and farther. The blow they gave was no way to be sustained, not only by those that stood first in the way, but by those that were beyond them for a great space. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them notice when the engines was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried out aloud in their own country language, ‘THE SON COMETH:’ so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves … down upon the ground; by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone, who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow” (Wars, V:6:3, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, pp. 394-95).

In the end, however, the wicked refuse to repent. Even Pharaoh shows signs of repentance under the hail (Exod. 9:27), although he relapses as soon as the crisis passes. But the targets of God’s wrath during the seventh bowl are so hardened that not even the crushing weight of unprecedented hailstones will bring them to their knees.

Four major views of the seventh bowl judgment

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

Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – point to the words, “It is done!” in verse 17 to argue that we’ve come at last to the end of a seemingly endless stream of judgments. Some believe the “great city” is Rome and note that Revelation 4-11 depicts the fall of Jerusalem, while chapters 13-19 speak of the fall of Rome. Others contend that only Israel’s capital city is in view throughout Revelation. The fall of pagan Rome occurs in 476 A.D., which would fulfill this vision if the Jerusalem-Rome view is correct. The other option calls for fulfillment in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem. The dividing of the city into three parts seems well suited to Jerusalem, echoing Ezek. 5:1-12, where the prophet shaves his head and divides his hair into three parts to symbolize what would happen the people – a third burned, a third killed with the sword, and a third scattered to the wind. In another sense, while Titus besieges Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Jews within the city split into three rival factions.

Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – believe the fulfillment of this judgment is yet to come. Many see this bowl as applying to the downfall of papal Rome. The earthquake, the disappearance of every island, and the great hail storm all symbolize the fearful nature of the judgment. The pouring out of the bowl into the air may indicate a supernatural cause, or it may picture aerial bombardment. Some historicists, however, see it as the demise of the moral and political atmosphere of Western Europe, followed the thundering, lightning, and noises that represent warfare. The division of the great city into three parts depicts the total destruction of the papacy, perhaps in a series of successive judgments. Overall, historicists tend to agree that the bowl judgments describe the calamities that weaken the papacy and prepare it for its ultimate fall.

Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – tend to see the “air” into which the bowl is emptied as Satan’s sphere. God now deals powerfully in wrath against the evil one’s domain. While Satan is cast out of heaven, he may still maintain part of the atmosphere immediately above the earth, thus upholding his claim as the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). The great earthquake either is a literal geological event or the shaking of the earth caused by a full-scale nuclear exchange. Babylon either is the rebuilt ancient city and the center of the Antichrist’s empire or it is Rome, the seat of the revived Roman Empire. In either case, the city is the special object of God’s wrath. The reference to every island fleeing and every mountain not found seems to symbolize the utter destruction of every spiritual and religious institution that man has built apart from God. The great hail may be taken literally, and there is no reason not to do so. In any case, it’s not sufficient to bring sinners to repentance for they are beyond it.

Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – suggest that the air is symbolic of the realm of Satan’s power. “It is done!” means the series of plagues is completed and the judgment of God on His enemies has reached its climax. The idea of the great earthquake affecting every island means the wrath of God reaches to the wicked, which have no place to hide. If bowl 6 brings wholesale destruction, bowl 7 brings total destruction. The shaking of the earth is predicted in Haggai 2:6 and expounded in Hebrews 12:26-27. Some identify Babylon with Rome, but others say John is using the seat of the evil empire to depict the final, complete destruction of all powers. The reference to hail probably is figurative, an echo of Isa. 28:17: “The hail will sweep away the refuge of lies.”

Next: The notorious prostitute – Revelation 17:1-6