1 And I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Depart and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God onto the earth.” 2 And the first went out and poured his bowl onto the earth, and there was a bad and painful sore upon the men who have the mark of the beast and worship his image. 3 And the second poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood as of a dead person, and every living soul, those in the sea, died.
Last time we discussed chapter 16 generally, making comparisons between the bowl, the trumpets, and the Exodus plagues. We noted, once again, how important the entire Exodus event is not only for these judgments, but for Revelation as a whole. As a picture of the gospel, God’s dealings with Israel with regard to Egypt is used by the Lord (through John) to show how He is dealing, and will ultimately deal, with fallen mankind. The way He freed Israel from bondage to Pharaoh and judged the Egyptians is a type of the way God has rescued His people from bondage to sin, and has secured their spiritual safety while He brings judgment upon the earth.
We are now ready to start digging into the bowl judgments in more detail. The chapter opens with a voice from the temple, which we understand to be the voice of the Lord. As previously noted, the temple is the place where God resides (symbolically, in any case). It makes sense, then, that the voice from the temple would be the Lord speaking.
God commands the angels with the seven bowls to commence pouring out the wrath of God toward the earth. In chapter 14, we saw two harvests. The first was Jesus harvesting his people from the earth. In the second, an angel harvested the earth-dwellers (i.e., those who are not the Lord’s) and threw them into the winepress of of the wrath of God. I think what we’re about to see is an expansion of this. That’s not to say the church has been physically removed from the earth during this time. Indeed, if we believe these judgments have been going on throughout the church age, that can’t be the case. The ultimate judgment is condemnation and eternal punishment, from which believers have been preserved through the blood of Christ shed for them. The believers’ security is that whatever the Lord may unleash upon the earth in terms of punishment, they have an eternity in His presence promised to them. The rest of the world does not.
The “bowls of the wrath of God” is definitely judgment language, echoing Hosea 5:10, Jeremiah 10:25, and several places in Ezekiel. In those passages, it is either God’s judgment against Israel for breaking their covenant with Him, or His judgment against those who attack God’s people that’s in view. Both concepts are relevant to Revelation, as we will see.
The first bowl delivers “a bad and painful sore” on all who bear the beast’s name. Most translations make this plural, but the Greek is singular. I don’t fault the translations for using the plural here since the singular makes for awkward English. The meaning of the verse doesn’t change whether it’s “sore” or “sores.” This is a sore that is experienced by a large number of people, so it’s not inappropriate to translate it “sores.” But why is the Greek singular? A possible reason is because John (under Holy Spirit inspiration) is underscoring the connection between this vision and the Exodus plague of sores. While God preserved Israel from the physical plagues, He warned them that if they did not keep His commands, they will experience suffering like the Egyptians did. In Deuteronomy 28:35, a passage where God is detailing some of the curses that will befall Israel if they are unfaithful to the covenant they made with Him, He threatens bad sores, presumably like the ones visited upon Egypt. However, the Hebrew is singular, as is the LXX (Greek Old Testament) translation.
Not only does this use of the singular connect Revelation 16:2 with Deuteronomy 28:35 in terms of the sores, but I think it makes another important point about the nature of God’s judgment. As I said, God warned Israel against breaking His covenant, and failing to keep His commands, i.e., the Law. We need to remember that it’s our failure to keep God’s Law that condemns us. That Law did not come into existence on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), but has been written on our hearts since Creation. That’s how God could hold Cain liable for murdering Abel, for example. “You shall not murder” was carved into the human soul before it was ever etched in stone. All of humanity is guilty of breaking God’s Law. Just take the first two commandments and it’s clear we are all born as Law-breakers. That’s why no-one is innocent before God. We are all justly condemned, and only the blood of Christ can save us from the penalty for that sin.
Are these sores literal? While I don’t rule out the possibility that God’s judgment may manifest itself physically, there are two main reasons why I think we’re supposed to understand the sores symbolically. First, the fact that the mark of the beast mentioned in the same verse is clearly symbolic (as we discussed previously, the mark on the forehead denotes ownership). It would be inconsistent to have a literal sore on those with a symbolic mark in this vision. Secondly, our understanding is these judgments aren’t something that’s going to happen in the future. These are judgments that God has been pouring out upon the earth since Christ’s ascension. If the sores are literal, we’d be able to identify the non-elect quite easily!
If the sores are not literal, how should we understand them? Perhaps, like the symbolic “mark” of the beast, the sores are a “mark” of God’s wrath. It’s not so much the sores themselves that are the judgment, but the suffering that goes along with them. In Deuteronomy 28, God’s judgment is said to come with madness–mental anguish and psychological turmoil. We also noted a similar reaction to the scorpion sting in Revelation 9:4-6, the fifth trumpet. Particularly striking is verse 6, which speaks of men “seeking death but not finding it.” This is a consequence of sin. When you disobey the Lord, and you live contrary to the way God designed for you to live, it should come as no surprise that you will experience all manner of psychological disordering. Granted, Christians are not immune to mental health issues, but even that is a result of the Fall. I think the point is that unbelievers, through their rebellion, expose themselves to the full consequences of their sin. And while the Christian can seek help and comfort in the Lord, no such help is available to the earth-dweller who has rejected the only true source of hope and healing.
The next bowl turns the sea into blood. There’s another clear parallel here with Exodus 7:17-25, the first of the Exodus plagues (and also the second trumpet, Revelation 8:8-9). In Exodus 7, the Lord turns the Nile into blood. All the fish die, the river stinks and becomes undrinkable. And it’s not just the Nile that’s affected. All the waters of Egypt become blood, “their rivers, their canals, and their ponds… there shall be blood throughout the land even in vessels of wood and vessels of stone.” Note, the water didn’t just have blood added to it. The water became blood. It literally turned from H2O to hemoglobin. The Egyptians resorted to digging beside the Nile to try to find usable water. In Revelation 8:8-9, a great mountain is thrown into the sea, and one-third of the sea becomes blood, killing one-third of the sea creatures and destroying one-third of the ships. Aside from the horror of dead fish floating on blood, the symbolism here is of economic disaster, and of famine. Fishing was a major industry in those days, and in the communities to which Revelation was originally addressed, this kind of catastrophe would have had devastating consequences.
Two phrases stand out to me in verse 3 as unusual. The first is “blood of a dead man” or “blood of a corpse” (Greek: haima hōs nekrou). This phrase is unique to Revelation 16:3 in the New Testament and the LXX. How is “blood of a dead man” different to “blood of a man”? Why qualify with the adjective “dead”? What’s the significance of that? It could be a counter-parallel to the idea of the “life blood” (Greek: haima psuchōn) that we see in Genesis 9:5, when the Lord tells Noah not to eat the blood of meat, or shed another man’s blood (i.e., commit murder). This isn’t life-blood but death-blood. But is it simply making the imagery more vivid? Maybe the fact that the dead were considered unclean, and blood was also thought of as ritually impure (as well as unsanitary), serves to double- or triple-underscore the utter uncleanliness and uselessness of water turned into blood.
One of our study group who used to be in law enforcement gave an interesting insight. It seems the blood of someone whose wound is mortal (i.e., they are dying) is a darker color than the blood of someone whose injury is non-life-threatening. It’s possible this “death blood” is what John is referring to, either to give us an indication of the blood’s color, or to affirm it’s association with death, uncleanliness, impurity, uselessness, and judgment.
Another suggestion is that John is indicating that this is blood shed unto death, not blood sacrificed unto life, like Jesus’ blood. Again, the point being that this is judgment against those who belong to the beast.
I don’t think any of these possibilities are mutually exclusive. Some or all of them are possible. After all, that’s the nature of symbolism. One symbol can represent layers of meaning.
The other phrase that stands out for me is “every living soul, those in the sea.” English translations usually smooth this out, but that’s a more literal rendering of the Greek. Why the qualification “those in the sea”? Isn’t it clear from the context that we’re talking about all the life in the sea, since the water has become blood?
The first thing to note is the use of the word “soul” (Greek: psuchē). This might suggest that John is referring only to humans, since only humans have a “soul.” However, the word can be used broadly to refer to “life”–that which animates all creatures. In this sense all animals, as well as humans, have a “soul.” This is certainly the ancient Greek understanding of the word, and this broader definition is perhaps behind some New Testament uses. For example, passages that refer to the taking of “life” (Matthew 2:20 and Romans 11:3, to name two) use psuchē.
Given that broader usage, it’s possible the reference here is to all life on earth being affected. We’ve seen the “sea” as a symbol of the source of all evil in the world, so this could refer to all the earth-dwellers. But I think the point here is that the sea turning into blood affects all the sea creatures, and John is simply emphasizing that every sea creature died. In Revelation 8, only one-third of the living creatures in the sea died. Here, it’s total annihilation. This indicates to me a progression over time. The world does not get the full blast of God’s judgment from day one. Over the last 2000 years, the Lord has restrained evil in the world, but now and then lifted His restraining hand that we might get a glimpse of the punishment our sin deserves. One day, that restraint will be lifted fully. And that’s what we’ll see in coming chapters when John gets a glimpse of that final day.
We’ll continue with the seven bowls next time…