Then I heard a mighty voice out of the sanctuary saying to the seven angels, “Depart, you all, and pour out the seven vessels of the passion of God into the earth.”
Then the first one departed and poured out his broad and shallow ceremonial cup into the earth, and there came a hideous and painful festering wound upon the people who have the permanent imprint of the dangerous creature and who throw themselves prostrate in homage of its image.Revelation 16:1-2
As I read these lines, an image came to mind of this permanent, graven mark—whether etched into the skin like a branding iron, or inked into the skin like a tattoo—beginning to bloat, bubble, and ooze, with purple lines of poisoned capillaries beginning to spread out from its center. Depending on whether this mark was on the hands of such people, or their foreheads (or perhaps both), soon enough they would at least feel the painful festering of their injuries and see on each other the ugliness of their wounds.
The text does not say whether this is how the first calamity displayed itself, but it makes sense to me. The permanent Mark of the Beast may have at first seemed beautiful, may have at first made life easy. But at its core, it was an etching of untinctured evil, malevolent and cruelly deceptive, for its unwitting wearer bore it as a stamp of judgment and death.
The mark indicates the leadership received from the Roman Church, either as religious or secular power.
Year to the Day
Eerily, an early scholar, Robert Flemming the elder (1630 – 1694), who saw John’s Apocalypse from the perspective of church history, predicted the seven bowls of God’s wrath would be poured out on the remnants of Rome (either the erstwhile empire, or the church centered there) beginning in 1793 – 1794. To come to this remarkable prophecy, he used the day-for-a-year numbering system given in Chapters 11 through 13, beginning with the year 533, when Emperor Justinian named Mercurius (now John II), bishop of Rome, as overseer of all other bishops worldwide. Flemming further predicted this judgment would begin in either Italy or France.
He died before his own prophetic announcement was realized in the French Revolution.
Hideous and Painful Wound
Expositors point to the corruption, moral failure, loss of belief, and disintegration that happened during and the French Revolution as the poisonous wound God’s first judgment brought about.
Many lost their faith in disgust over the Roman Church’s dishonest gain, exploitation of people, unscrupulous use of church funds, and political manipulations. Anger turned to fanaticism. Two million people lost their lives, twenty-four thousand priests were put to death, and forty thousand churches were decommissioned to house horses and other farm animals.
Remember that scholars who see John’s Revelation prophecies fulfilled in 70 CE are divided on what the second half of the Apocalypse is addressing. Perhaps it is a third cycle of the same judgements viewed from a slightly different angle, thus still pertaining to the Jewish War of 66-70. Or, perhaps the second half of this book relates to God’s subsequent judgment upon the Roman Empire and its role in persecuting God’s own.
If Upon Jerusalem
Where the phrase ἡ γῆ | hē gē appears, “the land” should be read, rather than “the earth.” John is referring to the Land of Judea, and more rightly, the ancient land of the nation of Israel. Here, the bowl is poured out upon “the land,” meaning God’s judgment is visited upon Judea, and specifically the holy city of Jerusalem, now in rebellion against God.
Those who retain the indelible mark of the beast are Jews living in Palestine who rejected Jesus as Messiah, and instead swore their allegiance to emperor of Rome.
They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”John 19:15 (NRSVUE, italics added)
In keeping with the view that Israel now played the part of Egypt, and the Church had become the new Israel, then God’s judgment came in the same form as the plague of boils on Egypt. Moses had later described the true loathsomeness of these open sores as a warning to the Hebrews should they one day choose to reject God and go their own way.
The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with tumors, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed.
… The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.Deuteronomy 28:27, 35 (NRSVUE, emphases added)
Now Moses’s warning had come to pass.
Perhaps the lack of sanitation, the piling up of dead bodies, the filth and degeneration that was happening within the walls of besieged Jerusalem, such a horrifying condition would have been inevitable.
If Upon Rome
Otherwise, the seven trumpets and the seven bowls are the same sequence of events visited upon Rome.
The angels are all given their commands together, indicating God’s intention these judgments should come in quick succession.
Though the bowls of wrath are similar in their results to the trumpets, the calamities they cause are more acute, more extreme. So, commentators who tend to interpret John’s Apocalypse with a literal hermeneutic are willing to interpret at least some of the more extraordinary events as symbolic.
Still, all agree the bowl judgments come at the very end of the Great Tribulation as a crescendo leading to Christ’s Second Coming. All the dragon and its creatures’ agendas have been achieved.
- The whole of humanity – what is left, in any case – has become enslaved to the beasts, etched with its mark.
- Every living person now worships the first beast’s image, which has been erected in a central place.
- All who opposed the dragon and its creatures have been put to death. Evil is at the height of its power and seeming ascendancy.
The stage is set.
Radioactivity: The sores themselves may very well be the natural effect of fallout from the detonation of nuclear warheads, as was seen at the end of the second world war.
Supernatural activity: Or perhaps people will experience spiritual and emotional trauma as their depravity worsens. Moses warned of this very thing.
The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way, and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.
… you shall be continually abused and crushed and driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see.Deuteronomy 28:28-29, 33-34 (NRSVUE)
Both: God will cause the festering evil within humanity to manifest as visible oozing lacerations, their hideous and disgusting nature speaking volumes about what they represent.
No one will be able to cure this horrific condition, for it will continue to last through to the fifth libation of God’s judgment.
Because the smoke of God’s glory now fills the sanctuary, the voice that emanates from the temple must be God’s. It is by God’s personal command the seven angels are sent forth with their dread task.
Like the trumpets before them, the bowls will also follow the course of the plagues God sent on Egypt, reminding John’s audience of the spiritual reality behind the first Exodus, and the second Exodus to come. Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt had challenged God to a contest, with the people of God as their prize.
God would win this contest, too.
The seals and trumpets had acted as warnings, harming only a third each time. However, the bowls are judgment, causing complete devastation. It is possible the trumpets and bowls represent the same event, either as warning to those who turn to God or judgment to those who continue to reject God.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg