The Command to Pour out the Vials (16:1)
16:1 And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.
The seven angels to whom were given the seven plagues symbolized in the seven vials are now commanded to pour out their divine judgment upon the earth. The voice is undoubtedly the voice of God which is described as coming out of the Temple and as being a “great” voice (Gr., megale„s), a word which occurs frequently in this chapter. The word great is mentioned again in connection with the great voice (v. 17), great heat (v. 9), the great river Euphrates (v. 12), that great day of God Almighty (v. 14), a great earthquake, “so mighty an earthquake, and so great” (v. 18), the great city (v. 19), great Babylon (v. 19), a great hail (v. 21), and the “exceeding great” plague (v. 21). As J. B. Smith expresses it, “This is the great chapter of the Bible.”270
The seven vials thus introduced and itemized in this chapter have often been compared to the seven seals and to the seven trumpets, especially the latter. One form of interpretation has been to view the vials as merely an enlargement on the trumpet judgments corresponding numerically to them. There is undoubtedly much similarity between the trumpet judgments and the judgments inflicted by the pouring out of the vials of the wrath of God. In both the trumpets and the vials, the first in the series deals with the earth, the second with the sea, the third with rivers and fountains of water, the fourth with the sun, the fifth with darkness, the sixth with the Euphrates River, and the seventh with lightnings, thunders, and a great earthquake. The principle is often overlooked, however, that similarities do not prove identity. A careful study of the seven vials as compared to the seven trumpets will reveal numerous differences. The first four trumpet judgments deal only with one-third of the earth, while the vial judgments seem to be universal in their application and greater in intensity. The position is therefore taken in this exposition that the vial judgments are subsequent to the trumpet judgments and proceed out of and constitute the seventh trumpet. The judgments described in the trumpet pronouncements and the vial pronouncements fall in rapid succession like trip-hammer blows, and they all will be consummated within a short period of time toward the close of the great tribulation. The vial judgments, the climax of God’s divine dealings with a blasphemous earth, lead up to the second coming of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Alford in commenting on the phrase “the seven last plagues” writes, “There can then be no doubt here, not only that the series reaches on to the time of the end, but that the whole of it is to be placed close to the same time.”271
The First Vial (16:2)
16:2 And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.
With the pouring out of the first vial, a terrible judgment falls upon men who have the mark of the beast. There is a notable contrast between the first vial and the first trumpet, in that the first trumpet (8:7) burns up a third part of the trees and all the green grass. Here the judgment is specifically upon men and is directed to a particular group of men, namely, the beast worshipers who have received the mark of the beast. The judgment is described as a sore or ulcer (Gr., helkos) which is bad (Gr., kakos) and evil or malignant (Gr., pone„ros). The judgment is in the form of a physical affliction of unusual severity bringing widespread suffering. Smith notes that helkos used here to describe the sore is the word selected by the translators of the Old Testament into Greek (the LXX) for the boils inflicted on the Egyptians in Exodus 9:9-11.272
Confirmation that the vial judgments occur late in the great tribulation is given in the record that the first vial judgment falls on those who are worshipers of the beast’s image. This image apparently is established in the early part of the great tribulation, the last half of the seven-year period preceding the second coming (13:14-17). Almost everyone seems to comply with the demand that all men worship the beast and receive his mark. The vial judgment, therefore, follows this edict. The only ones who escape the judgment are those who have refused to obey the edict of the beast, the few individuals who trust in Christ in those evil days. From 13:8 it would appear that only a small fraction of the earth’s population resists the blandishments of the beast. The warning given in 14:9-11 is now reinforced in a preliminary judgment which anticipates the ultimate doom of the beast worshipers.
The Second Vial (16:3)
16:3 And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.
The second vial is poured out upon the sea with the result that the sea becomes as blood (literally “it became blood as of a dead man”), and every living soul in the sea dies. As in the second trumpet in 8:8, the analogy seems to be to the first of the ten plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7:20-25) which killed all the fish in the Nile River and made the water unfit to drink. In all these cases it is possible that the sea does not become literally human blood but that it corresponds to it in appearance and loathsomeness.273 The area of the judgment is similar to that of the second trumpet where one-third of the sea is turned to blood and one-third of the creatures of the sea die. Here the judgment is universal. The reference to the sea may be limited to the Mediterranean, but the same word would be used if the judgment extended to all large bodies of water. In the latter event, a major portion of the earth would be involved in the judgment as most of the earth is covered with water.
The Third Vial (16:4-7)
16:4-7 And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy. And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.
The third in the series of judgments extends the turning of water into blood to rivers and fountains, apparently with the same devastating effect, though the results of the judgment are not mentioned. Though some have taken rivers and fountains to be symbolic, there is no reason for not taking this in the literal sense as the sea in the second vial and the men in the first vial. The physical affliction stems from spiritual apostasy.
At this point John hears one described as “the angel of the waters” deliver a justification of God for this judgment. The angel is apparently a holy angel who has some jurisdiction over water. There is a remarkable variety of ministries assigned to angels as recorded in Revelation. The angel declares that because men have shed the blood of saints and prophets, God is righteous in judging them in kind in that they are given blood to drink. Even as the saints are worthy of rest and reward, so the wicked are worthy of divine chastening and judgment. The bloodletting during the great tribulation, as saints are slaughtered by the thousands, is without parallel in the history of the race. Christ Himself declares it will be a time of trouble without precedent (Matt. 24:21). The multitude of martyrs in heaven is revealed in chapter 7. The eternal God, the One which is, and was, and shall be (v. 5), though awaiting the proper time, is inexorable in His judgment of those who persecuted the saints.
The statement of die angel of the waters is confirmed by another voice out of the altar, another angel who declares that God, who is almighty, true, and righteous, manifests these attributes in His divine judgments. The phrase “another out of in verse 7, though omitted in some manuscripts, is obviously the meaning of the verse, as the utterance must come from a being rather than from the altar itself. Combining the judgment of the second and third vials, it appears that all water is turned into blood, constituting a universal testimony to all men that God will avenge his martyred saints.
The Fourth Vial (16:8-9)
16:8-9 And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.
Like the fourth trumpet, the fourth vial is a judgment which affects the starry heaven, specifically the sun. In the fourth trumpet the judgment extends to a third part of the sun, moon, and stars, resulting in the darkening of a third part of the day and of the night. By contrast, the fourth vial relates only to the sun and increases rather than decreases the sun’s intensity with the result that men are scorched with fire. The divine judgment thus inflicted, apparently upon the entire earth, does not bring men to repentance but only increases their blasphemy, even though they recognize that the plague comes from the God whom they reject. The expression “and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire” is rendered, according to the best manuscripts, “and it was given to him [the sun] to scorch the men with fire.” The use of the article with “men” seems to refer the judgment to the same class as in verses 2, 5, and 6. The article is also used in connection with the men mentioned in verse 9 (literally “the men”). The implication is that saints in this period who are true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ will not suffer from this plague, and possibly creatures other than men may also escape. The wishful thinking of some that men would repent if they only knew the power and righteous judgment of God is shattered by frequent mention in this chapter of the hardness of the human heart in the face of the most stringent and evident divine discipline (cf. w. 11, 21).
The Fifth Vial (16:10-11)
16:10-11 And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.
The fifth judgment resulting from the pouring out of the fifth vial is directed to the throne of the beast and his subjects. The result of the judgment is darkness, pain, and the accumulated effect of the preceding judgment when sores were inflicted as in the first vial. The noun clause “the seat of the beast” is more accurately “the throne of the beast” (Gr., thronos). The beast is probably the first beast of Revelation 13. As in the fifth trumpet and in the ninth plague of Egypt (Exodus 10:21-23), there is darkness over the earth, but this is only part of the divine judgment. As in both trumpet and vial judgments, there is also pain and torment. The wicked in their suffering are declared to gnaw their tongues for pain, a description of severe agony. The sores inflicted in the first vial were, in this judgment, aggravated and increased. Again, we have the sad note that they blasphemed God as the author of these judgments and did not repent of their deeds. Though they are declared once more in verse 21 to have blasphemed God, this is the last reference to their failure to repent (cf. 2:21; 9:20-21; 16:9). The Scriptures plainly refute the notion that wicked men will quickly repent when faced with catastrophic warnings of judgment. When confronted with the righteous judgment of God, their blasphemy is deepened and their evil purpose is accentuated.
The Sixth Vial (16:12-16)
16:12-16 And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
The sixth vial has occasioned more comment on the part of expositors than any of the preceding vials, and numerous interpretations have been offered. As the sixth vial is poured out, its particular objective is the great Euphrates River. As the result of judgment, the water of the river is dried up and the way of the kings of the East is thereby prepared. The most natural explanation is the best, namely, that this is the judgment which actually dries up the great Euphrates River, thereby preparing for an invasion from the East.
The river Euphrates here called “the great” is one of the prominent rivers of the world and forms the eastern boundary of the ancient Roman Empire as well as the prophesied eastern boundary of the land which God promised to the seed of Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Deut. 1:7; 11:24; Joshua 1:4). In Genesis 15:18, Deuteronomy 1:7, and Joshua 1:4, it is called “the great river Euphrates” as it is here. These references seem to establish unmistakably the geographic usage in this passage. In Isaiah 11:15 and Zechariah 10:11 there is a similar prediction of the drying up of the Euphrates River, though the name of the river is not mentioned.
Alford interprets the passage in this way:
In order to understand what we have read, we must carefully bear in mind the context. From what follows under this same vial, we learn that the kings of the whole earth are about to be gathered together to the great battle against God, in which He shall be victorious, and they shall utterly perish. The time is now come for this gathering: and by the drying up of the Euphrates, the way of those kings who are to come to it from the East is made ready. This is the only understanding of these words which will suit the context, or the requirements of this series of prophecies. For to suppose the conversion of Eastern nations, or the gathering together of Christian princes, to be meant, or to regard the words as relating to any auspicious event, is to introduce a totally incongruous feature into the series of vials, which confessedly represents the “seven last plagues.”274
The purpose of the drying up of the Euphrates is indicated as a preparation for “the way of the kings of the east.” Through the centuries, commentators particularly of the postmillennial and the historical schools have guessed at the identity of the kings of the East, and as many as fifty different interpretations have been advanced.275 The very number of these interpretations is their refutation. The passage is best understood as referring to the kings of the East, literally, of the “sunrising,” referring to Oriental rulers who will descend upon the Middle East in connection with the final world conflict described a few verses later. The reasons seem to be weak for taking this prediction in other than its literal meaning. The rising power of parts of the Orient in our day in countries such as Japan, China, India, as well as lesser nations, makes such an invasion a reasonable prediction.
In verses 13-16 John has an additional vision introduced by the phrase “and I saw” which is parenthetical in nature but a commentary upon the sixth vial and somehow related to it. In his vision he sees three unclean spirits like frogs in appearance coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. The source of these unclean spirits is the world ruler specified as the beast, his associate the beast who is the false prophet, and the dragon himself which is Satan (cf. 12:9; 13:1-8,11-18). There is no need for speculation as to the identity of the three unclean spirits, as too many commentators have done, attempting to link these spirits to some contemporary personage. They are specified in verse 14 as spirits of demons (Gr., daimonio„n) and should be so interpreted. These wicked spirits are declared to work miracles (cf. 13:12-15) and are commissioned to gather the kings of the entire earth to the battle described as “the battle of that great day of God Almighty.” As such, they are the emissaries of the unholy trinity of verse 13, namely, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet, a counterfeit of the true triune God.
While many commentators have agreed that this is the prelude for the great battle climaxing in the second coming of Christ, some have been confused as to the details. The battle (Gr., polemos) is probably better translated “war” in contrast to mache„, which is properly a battle or fighting (cf. James 4:1 where both words are used). What is in view here is something more than a military engagement. It is rather a major war. The evidence, however, seems to point to the conclusion that this is a climax of a series of military events described in Daniel 11:40-45, where the reference to the “tidings out of the east” (Dan. 11:44) may have this invasion in view.
The major problem is how a war is possible when there is a world government under the control of Satan and the beast. Some have interpreted this as a gathering of forces in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. More probably, it reflects a conflict among the nations themselves in the latter portion of the great tribulation as the world empire so hastily put together begins to disintegrate. The armies of the world contending for honors on the battlefield at the very time of the second coming of Christ do all turn, however, and combine their efforts against Christ and His army from heaven when the glory of the second coming appears in the heavens. It will be the final challenge to divine sovereignty and power as the military might of the world of that day will be engaged in fighting on the very day that Christ returns (cf. Zech. 14:1-3). It is significant that the battle itself bears the name of “that great day of God Almighty.” In the battle the omnipotence of God will be fully demonstrated. The phrase “unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world” is best rendered according to the Greek text “unto the kings of the whole inhabited earth” (Gr., oikoumene„).
The utterance of verse 15 is apparently a direct quotation from God Himself, though the text does not indicate it specifically. The pronouncement is made, “Behold, I come as a thief.” The expression is used of a sudden, unexpected coming which will result in judgment or loss on the part of the person overtaken. In Matthew 24:43 and Luke 12:39 the second coming of Christ is compared to the coming of a thief who will overtake those who do not watch. A similar warning is given to the church in Sardis (Rev. 3:3). In 2 Peter 3:10 and in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4 the day of the Lord is said to come as a thief. The unifying factor in all these passages is that the coming in view results in loss for those who are not ready.
The contrast between those who are overtaken by the Lord at His coming and those who are prepared by faith in Christ is expressed in the beatitude “Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.” (For previous beatitudes, see 1:3 and 14:13.) The symbolism of preservation of garments is not entirely clear from the passage. Some have construed this symbolism as the garments of salvation, but more probably the righteousness of the saints is symbolized, as expressed in their life and testimony (cf. 19:8). The saints will thus be protected from spiritual nakedness at the coming of the Lord. The saints in view here are evidently those still on earth who have been able to escape martyrdom even though remaining true to their Lord. It is probable that the beast will not be able to enforce his edict of death on those who are located in the outer reaches of his empire, and that he will not find all those who are in hiding (cf. Matt. 24:16).
The conclusion of the combined action of the sixth vial and the enticement of the demons is that the armies of the earth are gathered in the Middle East in a place described as Armageddon. Though the armies are lured by the demons under the direction of Satan, they nevertheless fulfill the Word of God. It is probable that the “he” of verse 16 refers to God Himself.
There has been considerable discussion concerning the meaning of the term “Armageddon,” taken by some to mean “Mount of Slaughter.” Geographically, it relates to the Mount of Megiddo located adjacent to the plain of Megiddo to the west and the large plain of Esdraelon to the northeast. Megiddo is the Hebrew word corresponding to the Greek word Armageddon. This area was the scene of many of the great battles of the Old Testament such as that of Barak and the Canaanites in Judges 4 and the victory of Gideon over the Midianites in Judges 7. Here also occurred the deaths of Saul and Josiah. The area, though it is a large one, is not sufficient for the armies of all the world, though the valley of Esdraelon is fourteen miles wide and twenty miles long. What this Scripture seems to indicate is that this area is the central point for the military conflict which ensues. Actually the armies are deployed over a 200-mile area up and down from this central location (cf. 14:20). At the time of the second coming, some of the armies are in Jerusalem itself (Zech. 14:1-3).
The difficulty of the historical interpretation of the book of Revelation is illustrated in the identification of Armageddon with World War I. Alexander Hardie, for instance, stated, “The last Great War of 1914-1918 which convulsed and disgraced humanity, was doubtless the predicted Armageddon.”276 History alone has proved countless theories of the historical school to be in error. In view of the fact that the second coming which brings this battle to a climax is still future, it is far better to regard this entire conflict as relating to the latter stages of the great tribulation.
The relationship between the drying up of the Euphrates and the battle that follows has sometimes been connected with the sixth trumpet in 9:13-21. In the sixth trumpet an army of 200 million men is loosed to slay a third part of men (9:15). This army is related to the Euphrates River even as the army of the kings of the East. Probably the best explanation is that the seven vials follow very rapidly after the trumpets and that the events such as a great invasion are pictured in their early stages in the sixth trumpet with a statement of their ultimate purpose that is actually realized in the sixth vial. The time sequence here may be in terms of days rather than months or years.
The Seventh Vial (16:17-21)
16:17-21 And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done. And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.
The vial of the seventh angel is declared to be poured out into the air and the resulting action is catastrophic. It is accompanied by a great voice out of the Temple in heaven and from the throne stating in emphatic terms, “It is done!” In the Greek, the statement is one word, gegonen, in the perfect tense, indicating action accomplished. It is the final act of God preceding the second coming of Christ.
There has been speculation as to why this vial should be poured into the air, inasmuch as Satan as the prince of the power of the air has already been cast down from heaven. The fact that Satan has been cast out of the third heaven, however, does not mean that he still does not have great power in the atmospheric heavens which are here in view. It is also clear in our modern day that the control of the air as well as space has become increasingly important in military matters. Undoubtedly air and space travel will increase rather than decrease as the end of the age comes upon the world. Some have compared this prophecy to Ezekiel 38:9, 16 where the host from the north is said to “ascend and come like a storm” and “like a cloud to cover the land.” While this may imply an air attack, it is perhaps reading too much into the passage to assume this. In any event the seventh vial, which is poured out in the air, has its principal resulting action on the earth as the verses which follow indicate. The solemn accompaniment of the affirmation “It is done” by the great voice from the Temple in heaven and from the throne is a most ominous introduction to this final judgment.
As in the case of the final seal and the seventh trumpet (8:5; 11:19) the final vial is introduced by the sound of voices, thunderings, lightnings, and a great earthquake. The earthquake is declared to be greater than any previous earthquake. The earth literally convulses as the times of the Gentiles come to an end. The voices, thunders, and lightnings are the prelude to the earthquake which is the express judgment from God.
Verse 19 declares that “the great city” is split into “three parts” and that the other cities of the Gentile world fall. It is a picture of awesome destruction. The question has been raised as to the reference to the great city, inasmuch as Babylon is specifically mentioned later in the verse. Some have taken both references to indicate Babylon, others have identified the first great city of the verse as Jerusalem. In 11:8 Jerusalem is referred to as “the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” It is also clear that great topographical changes will take place around Jerusalem in connection with the judgments at the end of the age (cf. Zech. 14:4). There is therefore some justification for considering Jerusalem as a possible interpretation. There does not, however, seem to be any clear evidence that Jerusalem is destroyed with the judgments which overtake the earth at the end of the great tribulation. Babylon, however, according to Scripture, is destined to be completely destroyed. Whether this refers to Rome which is spiritual Babylon or, as some have understood it, to a rebuilt city of Babylon on the Euphrates, it is clear in any case that Babylon is the special object of the judgment of God, expressed graphically in the statement “to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.” Here the word for “wrath” is orge„, a strong word often related to thymos which refers to divine anger.277 This is the final judgment of this wicked city. The fact that the judgment is an earthquake seems to indicate that a literal city is in view, either Rome or rebuilt Babylon, and that the judgment results in its physical destruction. The time is just prior to the second coming of Christ.
Not only does every city of the world come under terrible judgment as a result of the great earthquake which leaves all monuments of men’s ingenuity in shambles, but the Scriptures also indicate great changes in the topography of the entire world. The sweeping statement is made in verse 20 that every island is affected and mountains disappear. The fierceness of the wrath of God in verse 19, literally the anger of His wrath, is manifested in the entire physical earth. The movement of the islands and mountains mentioned in 6:14 as stemming from the sixth seal is here carried to a more violent conclusion with apparently the entire earth radically changing its appearance. Such a judgment undoubtedly causes great loss of life and disruption of such world organization as may have remained up to this time. There does not seem to be any good reason for taking this verse in other than its literal meaning, coming as it does at the climax of the great tribulation when many other Scriptures indicate changes in topography including an entirely new appearance of the holy land itself.
In addition to mentioning the great earthquake which is the primary means of divine judgment in the seventh vial, verse 21 records a great hail with every stone about the weight of a talent. Though the talent in different periods of history varied in weight, the reference here seems to be to the talent weighing about 100 pounds and representing all that a man could normally carry. Such a hail from heaven falling upon men would have a devastating effect and would destroy much that was still left standing by the earthquake. It is a judgment compared to that of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but here extending over the entire earth. Although the judgment and its demonstration of the power and sovereignty of God are great, men are still unrepentant, and verse 21 concludes with the sad statement that “men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.” Chronologically the next event is that prophesied in 19:11 where Christ Himself descends from heaven to take over His kingdom on earth.
Though from the contemporary point of view all the details of these dramatic judgments are not immediately understood, the unmistakable impression of the Scriptures is that the whole world is being brought to the bar of justice before Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. There is no escape from divine judgment except for those who avail themselves of the grace of God in that day by faith in Jesus Christ. The utter perversity of human nature, which will reject the sovereignty of God in the face of such overwhelming evidence, confirms that even the lake of fire will not produce repentance on the part of those who have hardened their hearts against the grace of God.
270 A Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 228.
271 Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament, IV, 696.
272 Smith, p. 229.
273 Cf. Alford, IV, 697-98.
274 Ibid., IV, 700.
275 This conclusion is based on a survey of 100 commentaries on the book of Revelation.
276 A Study of the Book of Revelation, p. v.
277 Cf. discussion of 14:8.