Rev. 16:3 –The second [angel] poured out his bowl into the sea. It turned to blood like a dead man’s, and all life in the sea died. (HCSB)
The sea turned to blood
John records that the target of the second angel’s bowl of divine wrath is the sea, which turns to blood like a dead man’s. There are two key questions to be addressed here. First, what is meant by the “sea?” And second, what is the significance of the sea turning to blood “like a dead man’s?”
As we have noted in previous chapters, Bible scholars interpret the meaning of the sea differently in Revelation:
- Some understand it literally to mean the salty bodies of water that cover much of the earth’s surface. The seas turn red by the hand of God, or as a result of divinely orchestrated human battles; some argue that a bacterial “red tide” may be the cause of perishing sea life. The widespread death of people and/or animals in the sea would create a putrid environment that clogs the waterways with coagulating blood like a dead man’s.
- Others argue for a narrower but equally literal view, saying John is referring to the Mediterranean Sea, or to the waters between Patmos, where John is exiled, and Rome; this would include not only the Mediterranean Sea, but the Aegean, Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas. This presupposes that the bowl judgments are poured out on the known world of John’s day rather than on all the earth’s seas.
- Many preterists contend that the Sea of Galilee is in John’s view since that is where the Roman armies inflict a particularly horrifying slaughter of the Jews during their first-century rebellion against the empire. In fact, the result of the battle is that the sea becomes a floating tide of corpses, severed limbs and bloody pools.
- Some historicists say the sea depicts the ocean centuries later as the navies of France, Spain and Portugal suffer bloody defeats while defending a corrupt papacy. Matthew Henry suggests the bloody seas may describe “the whole system of [Papal Rome’s] religion, their false doctrines, their corrupt glosses, their superstitious rites, their idolatrous worship, their pardons, indulgences, a great conflux of wicked inventions and institutions, by which they maintain a trade and traffic advantageous to themselves, but injurious to all who deal with them…. God discovered not only the vanity and falsehood of their religion, but the pernicious and deadly nature of it – that the souls of men were poisoned by that which was pretended to be the sure means of their salvation” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 16:1-7).
- Still others take a symbolic approach, contending that the sea stands for the Gentile nations, or the restless mass of humanity in general.
Whether this vision is to be understood literally or figuratively, the sea turning to blood “like a dead man’s” conveys the idea of massive and complete death. The waters swell with putrefied corpses. Life’s blood has been spilled beyond the hope of healing. Death, destruction, and decay assault the eyes and inflame the nostrils. This is graphic, violent, sense-numbing death. Even if we take John’s description symbolically, the corruption of people, nations, and institutions is complete. The false doctrines are a stench in God’s nostrils. The corrupt practices of people, governments, and religious institutions are beyond repair; like corpses, they must be discarded. John seems here to be telling us that God’s punishment fits the crime. The wicked are so depraved nothing short of death will vindicate His holiness.
Rev. 16:1 –Then I heard a loud voice from the sanctuary saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” 2 The first went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and severely painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image. (HCSB)
In chapter 15 the angels prepare to deliver God’s wrath against the inhabitants of the earth. They emerge from the heavenly sanctuary dressed in priestly garb and are given bowls filled with the seven plagues with which “God’s wrath will be completed” (Rev. 15:1). As they leave the temple, it fills with smoke generated by the glory and power of God. No one is allowed to return to the sanctuary until the seven last plagues are carried out.
A loud voice from the sanctuary tells the angels to pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. The first angel, without hesitation, obeys, and the result is “severely painful sores.”
Previously: A bow and a crown (Rev. 6:1-2)
Rev. 6:3 – When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4Then another horse went out, a fiery red one, and its horseman was empowered to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And a large sword was given to him (HCSB).
The opening of the second seal, like the first, is accompanied by one of the living creatures saying, “Come!” and a horse and rider bursting onto the scene. This is a horse of a different color, however – fiery red – and the horseman has been given the authority to plunge the world into warfare. While the first rider, on a white horse, is given a bow, the second rider is presented with a large sword. Let’s look more closely at these verses and see, first of all, if we may determine what this means to a first-century audience. Then we will explore the possibilities for today’s audience.
Jesus now breaks the second seal on the scroll. Remember that these seals likely are pieces of wax or clay that have been stamped with a ring or other metal object bearing the insignia of the owner. They identify the one who has authorized what’s been written, and the seal may be broken only by the designated authority, in this case the Lamb. Likely, as each seal is broken, it allows another portion of the scroll to be unraveled, until all seven seals are removed and the full message is revealed.
As the seal is opened, John hears the second living creature say, “Come!” As we learned in the last lesson, this call probably is not to John but to the horse and rider, who appear obediently.
Next: A fiery red horse (Rev. 6:3-4)