Then, the seventh poured out his ceremonial bowl upon the atmosphere, and a mighty voice came out of the innermost part of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It has come to be!”
Then a lightning bolt appeared and voices and thunders, and there came massive seismic activity the like which had never before occurred since humanity came to be upon the earth, seismic activity with such magnitude, so vast.
And the great city came to be into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell down, and Babylon the Great was called to mind in the presence of God, to give to her the cup of the wine of the passion of the wrath of [God].
Then every island fled, and mountains were not found.
And enormous hail, the weight of a talent, fell out of the sky upon the people, and the people blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, because the plague of it was exceedingly enormous.Revelation 16:17-21
Temblors and Tumblers
At the close of this chapter, the seventh bowl is tipped, and its contents spread throughout the earth’s atmosphere. Almost immediately, the earth reacts. Tectonic plates heave and groan. One by one, islands disappear beneath surging waves. Mountain ranges shudder and crumble as earth’s crust banks and yaws. It is the undoing of creation itself, an unraveling of the third day, when God had commanded earth’s land to rise up from the waters and create landmasses for trees and grass and flowers, and for all the creatures that run and fly about the earth.
Never before, the text exclaims, has there ever been in human history seismic activity of such magnitude as there is in this vision.
Then the focus zooms in on one great city, the city of Babylon. Even as all the cities erected by humankind collapse in heaps of rubble, this mighty edifice to humanity is broken apart into three pieces. It has drawn the attention of God, who has spoken from the throne, for now the time has come for Babylon to drink of the cup that contains the wine-red libation of God’s passion, God’s cleansing wrath of all that is wicked and evil, corrupt and murderous.
Then the sky itself breaks apart into giant chunks of hail that weigh nearly 130 pounds (nearly 60 kilos) a piece.
The koine Greek word used in this text is ἀήρ | aēr, from which the prefix “aero” is derived, and its first meaning is the air which surrounds the earth. Paul must have meant this layer of air when he spoke of meeting Jesus in the clouds.
“we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.”1 Thessalonians 4:17 (NRSV, italics added)
The rarified air of the farthest reach of earth’s atmospheric layers is a different Greek word: αἰθήρ | aither, or “ether.” The secondary meaning for ἀήρ | aēr pertains to the realm of demons, as Paul alluded to when he spoke of the spiritual forces of darkness.
“the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”Ephesians 2:2
A final meaning speaks of striving for no purpose, of speaking to no effect, without being understood. It is possible John meant all three meanings to be understood, for the disruption that rocked the planet was both physical and spiritual, and the blasphemies spewing from the people’s mouths up into the air had no effect, and no purpose but to vent their rage and pain.
Like futurist expositors, scholars in this camp consider this seventh bowl as yet-to-be-fulfilled, though it, too, is largely symbolic, as all the signs have been thus far. The bowl poured into the air portrays a darkening storm in the political and moral atmosphere of western Europe. Lightning and thunder, and the crashing sounds all depict the wars that will be triggered from this darkening.
Hail, specifically, falling from the sky possibly indicates judgment or trouble coming from France, the northernmost of those nations that were a part of the Roman church’s reach. Others suggest it will be a spiritual battle of some kind, while still others propose the kind of aerial battles that both World Wars were famous for.
Babylon is the focus, and most interpreters agree this will be God’s final dismantling and destruction of the Roman church into either three parts or in a series of three types of judgment. In the same vein, the cities that topple the world over will all have been associated with the Roman church.
Scholars tend to see the “air” as a symbol of Satan’s sphere, the atmosphere of earth, the very air humankind breathes. There has already been a reference to the poisoning of earth’s air earlier in John’s apocalypse.
Then the fifth angel sounded a trumpet and I beheld a star falling out the sky to the earth, and it was given to him the key of the pit of the abyss.
Then he opened the pit of the abyss, and smoke ascended out of the pit like the smoke of an enormous furnace, and the sun was obscured, and the air, from the smoke of the pit.Revelation 9:1-2
This visible filthying of the air is a vivid depiction of Satan’s evil infiltrating every aspect of earth’s spiritual air. God’s final judgment will disrupt the whole of Satan’s domain.
Taken literally, there will either be a massive, natural yet unprecedented seismic event, or one will be triggered artificially by full-scale nuclear conflict. Expositors point out this earthquake will come on the heels of World War III fought at Armageddon, which makes the release of all remaining nuclear warheads sound more plausible. Such an event would not only contaminate the whole globe’s atmosphere with radiation but would also rain vast amounts of debris around a wide path along those cities targeted for destruction.
John is possibly referring to the one city Babylon, or two cities—Babylon, and another “great city.” Some contenders might be Jerusalem as a spiritual Babylon, or Rome, or a rebuilt Babylon. Whichever the city, the earthquake is meant as a physical ruining.
Island and Mountain
Perhaps John is describing all spiritual and religious establishments, large and small, island sects and mountainous institutions will be swept away to nothing following the earthquake. Civilizations worldwide will be overthrown. Everything humankind has built up in its own glory will collapse, yet the people who are left will still rail against God, unwilling to accept defeat.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg