Rev. 15:7 – One of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven gold bowls filled with the wrath of God who lives forever and ever. (HCSB)
Seven gold bowls
In verse 7 John writes, “One of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven gold bowls filled with the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.” The King James Version uses the term “vials” instead of “bowls,” as though they are bottles. The Greek word is phiale, which denotes a shallow pan or broad-rimmed chalice. Some commentators call them censers, the receptacles into which coals from the altar are placed and mingled with incense to burn unto God. “The breadth of the vials in their upper part would tend to cause their contents to pour out all at once, implying the overwhelming suddenness of the woes” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 15:7).
Note that one of the four living creatures gives these bowls to the angels. In Revelation 6 the four living creatures announce the first four seal judgments. The first living creature thunders, “Come!” and the white horse and its rider emerge. The second creature says “Come!” and the rider on the red horse bursts onto the scene. The third creature shouts “Come!” and the horseman on a black horse appears. Finally, the fourth creature says “Come!” and Death comes riding a pale green horse with Hades in hot pursuit. While the living creatures reside closely to the throne of God and lead angels and people in worship, they also are the standard bearers of God’s holiness as revealed in His wrath.
Rev. 15:1 – Then I saw another great and awe-inspiring sign in heaven: seven angels with the seven last plagues, for with them, God’s wrath will be completed. (HCSB)
This chapter describes the preparation in heaven for the final set of judgments. Seven angels emerge from the “tabernacle of testimony.” They are dressed in clean, bright linen with gold sashes around their chests. One of the four living creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl “filled with the wrath of God.” John informs us that with these final judgments “God’s wrath will be completed.”
John also views something like a sea of glass mixed with fire. Standing on the sea are those who have won victory over the beast. They have harps and sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. The sanctuary is filled with smoke from God’s glory, and no one may enter until the last seven judgments are complete.
Why are these judgments depicted as bowls filled with God’s wrath? Why does one of the four living creatures give the bowls to the angels? What is the sea of glass mixed with fire? Why are the people standing on the sea and holding harps? What are the songs of Moses and the Lamb? Why is there a sanctuary in heaven, and why is it filled with smoke?
Let’s search for answers.
Rev. 14:3 –They sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, but no one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (HCSB)
They sang a new song
John records in verse 3, “They sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, but no one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” Is this the same “new song” that the elders sing in chapter 5? And why are its melody and words limited to the 144,000?
Some commentators argue that the song here is different from the elders’ song in Revelation 5 because no one can learn it except the 144,000. Others contend it is the same song, which the elders, who represent both Old and New Covenant believers in Revelation 5, are able to teach the 144,000 in Revelation 14.
We are given the words to the elders’ song in Revelation 5: “You [the Lamb] are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals; because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed [people] for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). Perhaps these are the same words of the “new song” in Revelation 14, which those redeemed from the earth sing before heaven’s throne.
In any case, it appears this “new song” is a song of redemption, and the reason it’s confined to the 144,000 is because they are redeemed people. Unbelievers cannot legitimately sing this song because they have not experienced the salvation purchased with Christ’s blood. They may mouth the words, but their lip-synching will never exalt them to heavenly portals or entitle them to join the heavenly choir of equally vile sinners who have been wonderfully transformed by the blood of the Lamb.
Rev. 14:1 – Then I looked, and there on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with Him were 144,000 who had His name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of cascading waters and like the rumbling of loud thunder. The sound I heard was also like harpists playing on their harps. 3They sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, but no one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. They were redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. 5No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless. (HCSB)
In Revelation 7 we are introduced to 144,000 “slaves of our God … sealed from every tribe of the Israelites.” Now, we encounter 144,000 standing with the Lamb on the Mount Zion. They sing a new song that only they can learn in the presence of the four living creatures and the elders. They are described as ones “not defiled with women,” who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” They are redeemed from the earth as the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb,” and “they are blameless.”
Many questions arise as we read this passage:
- Who are these 144,000?
- Are they the same 144,000 we encounter in chapter 7?
- Is this number to be taken literally or figuratively?
- What is the new song that only they can learn?
- Is their virginity a reference to sexual purity, or does it mean something else?
- In what way are they “firstfruits” for God and the Lamb?
- And does their blamelessness mean they do not sin?
The identity of the 144,000 – here in Revelation 14 and in Revelation 7 – is a matter of much debate. Whether we can know with certainty who these redeemed people are depends in part on our willingness to challenge our preconceived notions and let the Scripture speak for itself. We must consider the genre of Revelation, the historical context, the meaning of key words and phrases, and the importance of numbers in Revelation. We also need to be willing to go as far as scripture takes us, but no further. With these cautions in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into these verses.
Next: There on Mount Zion stood the Lamb – Revelation 14:1
Rev. 6:7 – When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (HCSB).
A horseman named Death
Death is personified in this passage as a rider on a pale horse. This should not surprise us, as the inevitable end to life is depicted in many ways in scripture and folklore. In English, he is given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onward, is seen as a skeletal figure clothed in a black robe and hood, carrying a large scythe. In ancient Greece, death is sometimes depicted as a bearded, winged man, and sometimes as a young boy. His name is Thanatos, and his job is to escort departed souls to Hades. The Hindu scriptures speak of Yajarah, the lord of death, who rides a black buffalo and carries a lasso with which to bring souls to the underworld. The Lithuanians long ago named death Giltine, an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a poisonous tongue; they later adopted the image of the Grim Reaper.
In the Bible, we see death personified in a number of ways. In the Exodus, for example, the Lord Himself kills the first-born males not covered by the blood of the Passover lamb, while promising His faithful people He will not permit the “destroyer” to enter their homes (Ex. 12:23). In 2 Kings 19:35, “the Angel of the Lord” strikes dead 185,000 Assyrians who are encamped around Jerusalem. King David, whose people suffer the consequences of his sin of taking a military census, sees this same angel standing between earth and heaven, with his sword drawn (1 Chron. 21:16). Death, of course, also is described as a horseman, as in Rev. 6:7; as a ruler and enslaver (Rom. 7:24, 8:2); as just payment for sin (Rom. 6:23); and as an enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:26).
The word “death” is used about 400 times in scripture. New Bible Dictionary makes the following observation, “From one point of view death is the most natural of things: ‘man is destined to die once’ (Heb. 9:27). It may be accepted without rebellion: ‘Let me die the death of the righteous’ (Nu. 23:10). From another, it is most unnatural. It is the penalty for sin (Rom. 6:23), and is to be feared as such. Both points of view are found in the Bible; neither should be overlooked” (p. 265).
While death comes to every living thing, from house plants to people, is affects humans in a unique way. God has created us with souls and spirits that live beyond the grave. Only human beings are described as spiritually dead and in need of redemption. And only human beings are in danger of the second death, which is the lake of fire, or hell (Rev. 20:14). That’s why the apostle Paul could embrace death, for to him to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. That’s also why scripture warns the unbeliever to be afraid of death, for it leads inevitably to hell. In Adam’s sin, he brought two deaths upon mankind: physical and spiritual. All things die physically because of the curse of sin. But only human beings die spiritually and are separated from God. When Christ tasted death for every person (Heb. 2:9), He died twice. While on the cross, as He became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus was separated from God the Father, prompting Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). But having satisfied the Father’s wrath, and before dying physically, Jesus could declare, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit” (Luke 23:46); His relationship with the Father was restored, but that did not prevent His physical death.
Unbelievers are, in a sense, only two-thirds alive. They are alive, of course, in body. And their souls – minds, emotions, wills – are alive as well. But because of their sins, they are spiritually dead, cut off from the life of God and denied an intimate and everlasting relationship with Him. It is only when the Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of their sin and draws them to Christ that they are made spiritually alive (regenerated, or born again) and justified, or acquitted of their sins. This is all the work of God, even acting upon the human heart and enabling the one who once hated God to receive Him by faith.
Death rides hard upon a pale horse, and the abode of the dead (Hades) follows closely behind. He tramples the wicked beneath him, while Hades picks up the pieces. By the end of Revelation 6, the wicked are calling on the rocks to hide them from the wrath of God. It is curious that they do not call upon the wrathful God to forgive them. But it’s too late. They are beyond repentance, beyond grace, beyond mercy. Death comes. Hades follows. Judgment pursues. And the second death, the lake of fire, awaits.
For believers, however, death is perhaps best personified as an enemy who will be destroyed. The apostle Paul writes, quoting from Isaiah and Hosea, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54b-57).
W.A. Criswell writes, “Though I face death tomorrow, yet, if I face Him today, my home, my refuge is not in the grave. The glory of God is not under the ground. The glory of God is in the pavilions of the heavens. God’s people have their house and their home and their destiny beyond the skies. For God’s people there is glory and light and victory and heaven. That is the call the Lord extends in this day of grace to your heart” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 100).
Next: And Hades was following after him (Rev. 6:7-8)