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. 9:13 – The sixth angel blew his trumpet. From the four horns of the gold altar that is before God, I heard a voice 14 say to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. 16 The number of mounted troops was 200 million; I heard their number. 17 This is how I saw the horses in my vision: The horsemen had breastplates that were fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulfur yellow. The heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and from their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur. 18 A third of the human race was killed by these three plagues—by the fire, the smoke, and the sulfur that came from their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, because their tails, like snakes, have heads, and they inflict injury with them. 20 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. 21 And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts. (HCSB)
The second woe is more devastating than the first. The fifth trumpet judgment – the first woe – results in torment at the hands of demonic “locusts.” But the sixth trumpet judgment yields death for a third of the human race.
It begins with the release of four angels who are “prepared” for this particularly gruesome season in human history. Joining the angels are 200 million mounted troops riding grotesque, fire-breathing horses with heads like lions and tails like poisonous snakes.
The result of this judgment is death for multitudes and shockingly hard-hearted rebellion against God by the survivors, who refuse to repent of their demon worship, murders, sorceries, sexual immorality and thefts.
Who are these angels? And where do they muster a mounted army of 200 million? Who are the fire-breathing horses, and how do their tails inflict injury? Finally, how can any human being, no matter how wicked, refuse to repent after witnessing such death and devastation? Let’s take a closer look at the details of this second woe.
The four horns of the gold altar
John hears a voice coming from the four horns of the gold altar before God. Remember from previous lessons that in the tabernacle and temple, there are two altars. First, there is the altar of bronze, located outside the sanctuary in the court and upon which sacrifices are offered; we encounter this altar in the fifth seal judgment as the martyred souls beneath it cry out to God for vengeance (Rev. 6:9-11). The second is the altar of gold, a smaller altar that stands in front of the veil and is used to burn incense, a picture of prayers ascending to God (see Ps. 141:2). In John’s vision of the sixth trumpet judgment, we see the altar of gold, the altar of burned incense and prayer.
We also encounter the altar of gold in Rev. 8:3-5. An angel with a gold incense burner is given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of the saints. The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, arises into the presence of the Lord, while the angel fills his incense burner with fire from the altar and hurls it to earth in a prelude to the seven trumpet judgments.
The significance of the altar is that it reminds us the Lord hears our prayers and answers them – not always in the way we want or in keeping with our deadlines, but according to His divine will and in His perfect timing. Quoting from Psalm 34, Peter writes to remind us that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are open to their request. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).
W.A. Criswell shares the following insight into the two altars:
Now, in the golden censer, fire was taken from the Altar of Sacrifice and carried to the Golden Altar, where incense was burned unto God. Blood was taken from the Altar of Sacrifice on the day of atonement and sprinkled on the four golden horns of the Alter of prayer. All of this ritual was to teach that prayer and worship are based upon sacrifice, the shedding of blood without which there is no remission of sins, and without which no man can come into the presence of God. Now, it is from the four horns that the awful cry comes to loose those four terrible angels bound over the river Euphrates. What an amazing thing! Heretofore, the blood of the sacrifice and the prayers of intercession have always been for mercy, that God would forgive us, that God would save us. But now the blood that cries and the voice that is raised is no longer for forgiveness, for salvation, for God’s mercy, but the voice is for judgment and damnation. Oh, the horror of it! How could such a thing be? For a very plain and simple reason: God’s way for a man to be saved is in the blood. This is the way for a man to meet God, through the great mediation of the High Priest, Jesus Christ. This is God’s propitiation for our sins (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 189).
Next: Release the four angels — Revelation 9:13-21
Rev. 5:8 – When He took the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Each one had a harp …
It’s worth noting that only harps and trumpets are mentioned as instruments of worship in Revelation. Not that other musical instruments necessarily are exempted from the throne room of God, but the focus is on these two. We know from previous study that trumpets in scripture often herald the arrival of a king, rally armies for battle, warn of pending judgment and play a key role in some Jewish feasts. So it’s no surprise that trumpets in Revelation serve many of these same purposes. But what about the harps?
According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the harp is the national instrument of the Hebrews. It was invented, we’re told in Gen. 4:21, by Jubal. Some think the Hebrew word for harp, kinnor, denotes the whole class of stringed instruments. Harps are used to accompany songs of cheerfulness and praise (Gen. 31:27; 2 Chron. 20:28; Ps. 33:2; 137:2). David plays the harp to soothe King Saul’s troubled soul (1 Sam. 16:23). And the 144,000, standing with the Lamb on Mt. Zion, are praising their Redeemer with a sound “like harpists playing on their harps” (Rev. 14:2). No doubt this stringed instrument is associated with peace, joy, and praise – fitting reasons for the elders and living creatures to employ them in worship.
… and gold bowls
The four living creatures and 24 elders also hold “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (v. 8). Evidently, incense symbolizes the prayers of the saints but is distinct from the prayers themselves (see Rev. 8:3-5). God does not need our prayers to be magically converted into fragrant smoke in order to receive or answer them; Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” before the throne (Rom. 8:26). Perhaps the gold bowls best represent the fact that our prayers are kept safe, delivered personally to Him, and are a fragrant aroma in His nostrils. Just as God inhabits the praises of His people, He welcomes their petitions, which waft before the throne like aromatic incense. In the context of Revelation, the pleas of the persecuted saints are heard and will be answered. David says it beautifully in Ps. 141:2: “May my prayer be set before You as incense, the raising of my hands as the evening offering.”
One further note: While the gold bowls represent the prayers of the saints, “[t]his gives not the least sanction to Rome’s dogma of our praying to saints. Though they be employed by God in some way unknown to us to present our prayers (nothing is said of their interceding for us), yet we are told to pray only to Him (Rev 19:10). Their own employment is praise (whence they all have harps): ours is prayer” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 5:8).
Next: And they sang a new song (Rev. 5:7-8)