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.
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.
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.
4. And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became as blood.
5. 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.
6. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.
7. And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.
8. And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.
9. 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. Revelation 16:1-9
It will now be plain that chapters 15 and 16 belong together, and that chapter 15 constitutes a mighty prelude to the events pictured in the sixteenth chapter of our book. There we found mention of the song of Moses and of the Lamb. We found that this song was sung at the occasion of the eve of the pouring out of the seven last plagues. Seven angels stand in battle array, ready to receive the command out of the temple to go and pour out the last of the plagues of God. They are brilliantly arrayed with costly, precious stones; and there is a reflection of the holiness of God in their very appearance. They have come forth out of the temple of God, which is filled with the smoke of His holiness, ready to fill all the earth and to reveal itself as wrath over the ungodly and oppressors of His people. And in their hands they hold seven vials, or bowls, filled with the wrath of God. When these shall have been poured out, God’s wrath shall have been spent, and all is finished. This is indicated by the number seven, symbolic of completeness with a view to the coming of the kingdom in this dispensation. But this was also directly stated by John when he says that in these is finished the wrath of God. And this does not mean that the wrath of God is finished in these seven plagues with a view to eternity, but that this dispensation shall have been finished. The power that opposes the kingdom of God shall forever have been destroyed, and the way is open for the descent of the city of our God upon the new earth.
We found, in the second place, that these singers are indicated as those that have not worshipped the beast and his image, but that they have been victorious. First of all, by these that are mentioned in this section are indicated those that have lived in the time of the greatest and most powerful manifestation of Antichrist. They have fought the battle at its very climax. They were deemed worthy to belong to the picked, or selected, forces of Christ. They are also undoubtedly worthy of receiving double honor and of being capable of occupying a special place in the new temple of God. But they are not the only ones. For, in the first place, the power of Antichrist rages throughout the ages, be it not in that form and with that power as it shall be revealed in the last time. In the second place, and for that reason, the battle is in principle the same throughout the ages, not only in the new dispensation but even in the old. And therefore God’s people of all ages fight in principle against the beast. And finally, the subjective longing of all the children of God is for this day of the Lord, in the which He may destroy the enemies and establish His kingdom in glory forever. And therefore, all believers here stand at the crystal sea, which is symbolic of the glory and holiness of God, now reflecting the wrath of the Almighty, and of which the Red Sea was a type.
In the third place, we had our attention called to the song itself. It was the song of Moses and of the Lamb. We found that this does not indicate two songs, but only one. It is the one song, and also the one multitude that sings this song, the song of Moses being typical of and essentially the same as the song of the Lamb. And we found in it but another indication that in eternity there shall not be two forces and two kinds of people of God, but one multitude, singing one and the same song, the song of Moses and of the Lamb. Moses is the type of Christ. He is the mediator of the old dispensation. He led his people out of bondage; so did Christ. He was pursued by the enemy; so are Christ and His people pursued by the enemy of God’s kingdom. He led his people through the sea of salvation and of wrath at the same time, that is, the Red Sea; so does Christ finally cause His people to be delivered through the sea of the wrath of God that completely destroys the enemy and that is symbolized in the sea of glass. Moses, finally, taught his people to sing a song of deliverance and glory and triumph; so does Christ teach His people to sing of victory, to the glory of God. It is a song all of God, a song extolling the glory and holiness, the righteousness and the truth and justice of God as having become manifest in all His works and ways.
Now the command goes forth to the angels to pour out the bowls into the earth. Even though the angels have already received their vials of wrath, they must still wait for the command from the temple. For everything proceeds orderly even in the pouring out of the wrath of God, and only at the exact moment may God’s judgment begin. And therefore we are now called to discuss the seven last vials of the wrath of God. Four of these are mentioned in the passage we are now discussing.
In regard to the general character of these first four vials, or bowls, I want to call your attention, first of all, to the fact that we must not fall into the rut of false spiritualization and allegorization of the text. As with many portions of the book of Revelation, so also with this part this has been done by many. There are those that allegorize practically every element of the text and give it a spiritual meaning. When the text speaks of the earth, it has a different significance than the literal meaning. When it speaks of the sore boils, it means something spiritual. When it speaks of the sea, it refers to the sea of nations. And the rivers and fountains of water are spiritual rivers and spiritual fountains. When we read that the first vial is poured out upon the earth and causes a sore boil on those who worshipped the beast and his image, there are interpreters who inform us that this is a spiritual boil, a sore of the mind and of the heart, caused by the dissatisfaction that naturally follows all the service of idols, the sad disenchantment of all idolaters. Or, according to others, who can follow the book of Revelation and trace it page after page in the history of mankind in chronological order, it refers to the sore of infidelity that had been festering for a long time, but that ripened under the influence of such men as Paine, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and finally broke out in the terrible French Revolution. Or it is made to mean the corruption of the church just before the Reformation. The second angel pours out his vial into the sea, which means, of course, naval battles, coloring the sea red with the blood of the slain, turning the ocean into blood. And then it is made to refer especially to the naval battles that were fought between Protestant England and the Catholic countries of the continent between 1793 and 1815, resulting in the defeat of the Catholic naval powers and the victory of the Protestant one. Or, since the sea is the symbol of nations and tongues and tribes, the second vial is interpreted as referring in general to the disintegration of the papal power and the shaking off of the yoke of the pope by many kings and powers in Europe. The third angel pours out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters. And interpreters tell us in all seriousness and sincerity that we have here a prophecy of the victory of Napoleon in the regions of the Alps over the enemy at the very rivers of Switzerland, turning its rivers into blood by the many slain ones, his victorious entry into Rome, and the subjection of the pope. Or, it represents the corruption of the sources of life and thought in the spiritual sense of the word. And so, finally, the fourth vial is interpreted in different ways. It is poured out upon the sun. That sun is Napoleon, who receives power to scorch the nations of Europe by his military genius and becomes a veritable plague to all peoples of the continent. Or it is Christ, scorching those that reject His name with the fire of His wrath.
Such, and other interpretations, have been given of these first four vials. But we cannot agree with this method of interpretation of the book of Revelation. In the first place, as we have remarked time and again, we must not take anything in the spiritual sense unless the book plainly indicates such. That the beast that rises out of the earth is not a real animal, but something extraordinary, to be interpreted in the symbolical sense of the word, is something that needs no argument. Everyone admits that this is so. Its appearance, as well as all that he does, plainly indicates this. That the harvest in chapter 14 is not a real harvest of grain and grapes is also beyond dispute. The book indicates very clearly when we must think of symbolism and spiritualization. But surely that is not the case here. Our text speaks of the pouring out of the vials upon the earth, into the sea, and into the rivers and fountains of waters without anything else. It tells us that the fourth angel pours his vial upon the sun, and that the effect is that the sun increases terribly in heat, so that it scorches men. And there is absolutely no indication that we must or may interpret them in the spiritual sense. If nevertheless we attempt to do so without any indication and guide from the text, the question immediately arises as to which interpretation is the correct one. Are the rivers and fountains of waters springs of life and thought? Is the sore boil a symbol of the corruption of the church? Or is it the sore boil of infidelity? Is the sun Napoleon, or Christ, or perhaps something else? And who will answer these questions? The result is that we leave the book and its interpretation in despair, deeply dissatisfied and quite convinced that we have not hit upon the right interpretation, leaving it to the future perhaps—perhaps even to eternity—to unveil the hidden depths that here are concealed from our eye. So much as to the false allegorization of the text. And as to the historical interpretation, we have partly the same objection. Who will tell us exactly what period of history is represented by each plague? Is it the period of the Reformation ? Or is it that of the French Revolution? And, in the second place, it is entirely against the plain indication of the significance of the seven vials themselves. For we are plainly told that in these the wrath of God is finished. Each of these seven vials must pour out the wrath of God upon a certain sphere. And although the wrath of God is not finished to the full in each of them separately, yet it is certainly complete with a view to the sphere in which it is poured out. But what completion is there in the naval battles of 1793 to 1815? Did that color the entire sea, so that every living creature in it died? Or were they perhaps the last naval battles that were ever fought, so that the sea is never colored again? History of a later date reveals to us a radically different picture. If the sore boil that breaks out with the first vial is the sore of infidelity breaking out in the French Revolution, is it true then that there were never such vials poured out again? Was it the last of its kind? Was the wrath of God finished in that sphere? And if the third vial represents the battles of Napoleon fought over the rivers of Switzerland, is it true that it was the last battle of the kind? And did not God pour out these vials repeatedly in history? If the sun is Napoleon, are there then not many of these suns in later history? Indeed such interpretations of the Word of God can hardly be taken seriously, and they lead us to hopeless confusion.
And therefore we maintain that the first four vials refer to natural phenomena—natural not in the sense that they shall not be extraordinary in measure and scope, for they surely shall be. But they are natural in this sense, that they all affect a sphere of nature. In other words, we take this portion in the literal sense of the word. Of course, there is symbolism in the picture. John beholds a vision. And in one vision he beholds mighty things, things that will perhaps take years to be accomplished and completed. The vial is naturally symbolic. No one of us will imagine that in the end of time it will be possible that God pours His wrath into seven vials in the literal sense of the word and has them poured out upon the wicked world. Wrath is not a substance, and therefore cannot be poured out. No one is there that does not understand this. But for the rest, we may safely take the portion in as literal a sense as possible and as referring to phenomena in nature. In the first place, we may never forget that it is necessary that by the seven last plagues creation is affected. The earth and the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters, yea, even the sun in its effect upon the earth, belong to the kingdom which God originally created with man as its head. And even though man became a subject of the kingdom of Satan, he yet knew in part how to subject the powers of the world to be subject unto his ends. And therefore, also that world must be subjected to the plagues of God. In the second place, as we have pointed out before, it is on that creation, on the earth and the sea and the rivers and fountains of water, that man is absolutely dependent. It is through them that God reaches man. It is through all kinds of agencies that God reaches the health of man and sends unto him sickness and disease. It is through affecting the atmosphere and the heat of the sun that God sends scarcity and famine. And thus God controls the history of the world also through affecting the various spheres of nature. In the third place, this is a plain indication of the text. First of all, let us notice that there are four of these vials. Do not say that we have arbitrarily separated them from the rest: for that is not the case. It is very plain that there is a difference between the first four and the rest. The first four all relate to different spheres of nature: the earth, the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters, the sun in the heavens are all affected by these first four vials. And they all form a part of nature. But the fifth vial is poured out upon the throne of the beast. The sixth prepares the battle of Armageddon. And the seventh is indeed poured out in the air, but is universal in its effect. And therefore we have here a group of four. Four is the number of the world as creation. And it is creation that is here immediately affected. Then, as we have said before, there is absolutely no reason to take the terms earth and sea, rivers and fountains of waters, and sun in a symbolic sense, since there is nothing in the text that warrants such an interpretation. And finally, there is an unmistakable correspondence between the first four vials and the first four trumpets. The first trumpet affects the earth; so does the first vial. The second trumpet affects the sea; so does the second vial. The third trumpet affects the rivers and fountains of waters; so does the third vial. The fourth trumpet affects the heavenly luminaries; so does the fourth vial. And since, as we proved at that time, the first four trumpets all relate to phenomena in nature, so it is also the case with the first four vials. And therefore, once more: the earth is the earth, the sea is the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters are exactly as indicated, and the sun is the heavenly luminary as we know it. The first four vials, therefore, represent the plagues of God in nature. And then, of course, these various spheres of nature as they affect in turn the world of man.