Resisting Trump with Revelation  (28)

Revelation 16: the bowls of God’s wrath

Rev.16 with its bowls of God’s wrath is the third (fourth really but the seven thunders is not rolled out for us (Rev.10) series of seven reflecting the reality and intensity of God’s judgment on the world from Jesus’ resurrection to his return (the 42 weeks, 31/2 years, 1,260 days).

Each of the sevens (seals, trumpets, bowls) lead us to judgment and the kingdom of God but in degrees of intensification. The seals affected ¼ of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls 100% (perhaps the thunders would have been ½). This is likely a rhetorical device to reflect the inevitability and comprehensiveness of judgment. It’s not going to get better and no one gets out of it!
Here the Empire meet its match. It is not the ultimate dispenser of justice or arbiter of punishment. Instead, it is like all else subject to the dictates of divine justice and the reality of divine judgment. The church lives in a world under such judgment, struggles with everyone else under the effects of not only humanity’s sin but God’s judgment. This is what makes life and history so complex, ambiguous, and frustrating. And why claiming to be on the “right side of history” so perilous!
Once again, it is useful to remind ourselves that God’s wrath is not a reactive flare up of temper on God’s part nor a character flaw in the divine being. It is rather God’s “strong and settled opposition to all that is evil . . . arising out of God’s very nature.”[1] Grimsrud adds:

"We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet.”
The first five bowls pour out wrath that reflect impersonal processes similar to the plagues in Egypt. In the mist of these bowls, the angel of the waters says,
“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,     for you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
And I heard the altar respond,
“Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
                your judgments are true and just!”
Notice here that God is the one who is and was but not the one who is to come. This stresses that the judgment poured out is judgment in the midst of history not that awaiting us at the end. The past tense “judged” points in this direction as well. “It is what they deserve”: only those who insist on going their own way apart from and against God get what they deserve. Those who turn to God and Christ in repentance and faith receive what they don’t deserve, grace and mercy! However, as we saw earlier, judgment does not seem to effect repentance and turning to God. It’s the church’s role to declare and demonstrate that grace and mercy.
Darrell Johnson[2] explains five truths about judgment here we must keep in mind. Judgment is terrible, justified, comes only after time for repentance, “fits the crime,” and is just.
The sixth bowl announces foul spirits from the dragon and the two beast inciting the “kings of the world” (16:12-16) to gather at (H)Armageddon for a great final battle against God. I quote Grimsrud at length to clarify the thought of this controversial section of Revelation:
“The sixth bowl plague underscores the dynamics of the Dragon’s process of corrupting the kings of the earth. John sees ‘three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the Dragon, from the mouth of the Beast, and from the mouth of the False Prophet’ (16:13). ‘These are demonic spirits, … who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty’ (16:14). This is a statement both of the actual nature of the ideologies that shape the politics of the kings of the earth—‘demonic spirits’—and of the main focus of that politics—‘assembling for war.’ Read carefully, though, this vision gives a glimmer of hope for the kings of the earth and the nations. Their corrupt politics is fueled by the message they are getting from the Dragon and his cohorts. The source of militarism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism is not the inherent character of human political life, nor the sinful nature of the kings of the earth. These dynamics of domination (and self-destruction) come from outside. The hope is that as those spiritual forces are ‘destroyed’ (as they will be) their effect will end and kings and nations may be set right and healed and operate in harmony with God’s will for humanity (as they will). It will be crucial as the story reaches its denouement that we notice what becomes of this assemblage gathered for battle. We get a hint already. The battle will happen on ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ (16:14). Surely the Dragon and the others do not have in mind this kind of “great day” as they join their forces. As it turns out, the great day when it comes will not involve an actual ‘battle’ but only the capture and destruction of the ‘destroyers of the earth.’ The forces that gather to do battle, with all their dynamics of power-over, death-dealing force, and fearfulness, will not set the terms of the actual battle. God does not gather a similar battle force in order to overpower the forces opposed to God. This should not surprise us based on what we have read in Revelation up to now. Several times we have been told of God’s victory, the way God ‘conquers’ (and how God’s people are to conquer), and the weapons that provide the means to conquer. It has been persevering love and the willingness to witness to the way of the Lamb even to the death. We will see in chapter nineteen that ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ reinforces that message. In the midst of the picture of the forces of the Dragon gathering for ‘battle,’ we get an interruption, presumably from the ‘loud voice’ of 16:1—a call to ‘stay awake and remain clothed’ (16:15). This is best understood as a reminder not to let the methods of the Dragon determine how God’s people respond. Don’t be shaped by the Dragon’s seeming power and let that determine how you understand power. Do not respond to the sword with the sword. Remember the message throughout of the Lamb’s victory through persevering love—that will be all we need. ‘Harmagedon’ (NRSV) or ‘Armageddon’ (KJV, NIV) is not an actual place. Nor is there ever going to be a ‘Battle of Armageddon.’ The reference alludes to ancient battles (see Judges 5:19; 2 Kings 23:29-30). Probably John’s point here is to underscore the self-deception of the Dragon and his minions to think there actually will be a battle. They gather at Armageddon simply to be captured and destroyed—not to fight.”
Let’s recap:
-demonic forces gather the world for war based on their ideology of corruption, injustice, oppression, and violence.
-hope for their defeat keeps open a trust in God’s good reign to prevail and rule the world.
-God sets the terms of this conflict - ‘the great day of God the Almighty’ – indicating he is on control.
-this is further heightened by the fact that no battle occurs here or ever will, for (H)armaggedon is not a place but rather an allusion to ancient Israelite battles.
-The dragon and his minions are captured and destroyed.
-God “conquers” the way he always does in Revelation – “persevering love and the willingness to witness to the way of the Lamb even to the death.”
-this sixth bowl points to the self-deception of the dragon et al in fomenting the kings of the earth to this futile exercise.
This paragraph points to what is laid out more fully in coming chapters so we will pick it up in the comments there.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1955), 180.
[2]Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 290-291.


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