True and Just Are Your Judgments
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 16:1–11
If you surveyed opinions on the wrath of God, you’d soon discover that people have problems with it. I don’t just mean atheists like Richard Dawkins who describes Christian teaching on God’s wrath as a form of child abuse.[i] I mean professing Christians struggle with it.
Richard Niebuhr once observed how liberal Christianity diminishes God’s wrath to the point of preaching a different gospel. They believe “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[ii] J. I. Packer made a similar observation in his book Knowing God: “The modern habit throughout the Christian church is to play [down the wrath of God]…To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex, and self-will, the church mumbles on about God’s kindness but says virtually nothing about his judgment.”[iii] I have another book by Paul Copan, in which he answers those who object that God’s wrath against the Canaanites makes him a moral monster.
People struggle with the wrath of God. But when we come to the Scriptures, the apostles and prophets speak of God’s wrath without embarrassment. They find it terrifying. It raises some of the gloomiest laments and woes. But without hesitation, they announce God’s wrath and acknowledge it as right. Revelation is no exception. Coming to chapter 16, we encounter God’s wrath against the Beast and his kingdom. What should we make of it? Is God’s anger a good thing? Is it right? How should we respond?
Hopefully, by the end of verse 11, we can say with heaven, “True and just are your judgments, O Lord God Almighty.” Hear the word of the Lord from verse 1…
1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” 2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. 3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. 4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. 6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” 8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. 10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
Last time we gathered, John introduced seven angels with seven plagues. These plagues come in response to the boasts of God’s enemies. In 13:4, people are so impressed by the Beast they shout, “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?” God then answers with a sign that undermines their boasts. Seven angels appear with seven bowls filled with God’s wrath. With them, God will topple the Beast’s throne and dash his kingdom to pieces. But to understand them better, let’s ask a few questions…
How should we approach these seven bowls?
First, how should we approach these seven bowls? A first thing to remember is their origin. In 15:6, these seven angels come from God’s temple in heaven, the place of God’s enthroned presence. These bowls of wrath come from God.
God will “pour out” the bowls. Sometimes “pouring out” appears with blessings, like when God “pours out” the Holy Spirit. Here it appears with curses/wrath. When you trace this back to the prophets, “pouring out” wrath meant God was enacting a judgment on earth. He caused terrible consequences like draught, famine, sword, pestilence, or simply handing people over to their own devices. He’d remove the restraint and let evil run its course.[iv] The same sorts of events transpire with the bowls.
But something else you’ll notice are allusions to the plagues on Egypt. Perhaps you thought that yourself when you heard painful sores, water to blood, darkness. Again, Revelation depicts our salvation as a new and greater exodus; and part of getting his people out of Egypt was God judging their oppressors. He will do likewise for the church. God sent plagues on Egypt in response to his people’s cries. The same happens in Revelation. The martyrs cry under the altar, “How long, O Lord…” Their prayers have filled the bowls. Now, God pours out judgment on their oppressors.
Also, Exodus 12:12 views the plagues on Egypt as God executing judgment on the false gods of Egypt. The plagues proved that there was none like Yahweh in all the earth (Exod 9:14). He turned creation against Egypt to demonstrate his power, so that everyone might know that the earth is the Lord’s. He alone is glorious in power. Same with the bowl judgments. So, how should we approach these bowls? They are judgments from the presence of God enacted against the enemies of God for the sake of the people of God to the praise of the glory of God. Whatever details we might not yet understand fully, we can all agree there and make that our starting point.
What do these bowls represent?
Having said that, let’s answer a second question: what do these bowls represent? We’ll only discuss the first five and save six and seven for next Sunday. But broadly speaking, they represent judgments against the Beast and his followers. We see that especially in verse 2. It starts with a bowl of God’s wrath poured out “on the earth.” But notice, it doesn’t affect land and trees. It harms the Beast’s followers. “Harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the Beast and worshiped its image.” Remember how God protected Israel when he dumped plagues on the Egyptians. Same here. In the bowl judgments, God will target only his enemies.
His enemies will suffer painful sores, much like Egypt suffered from boils in the sixth plague of Exodus 9. Deuteronomy 28:27 describes the boils that fell on the Egyptians as those “which cannot be healed.” That’s what these sores will be like. There’s no antidote from a doctor. Humanity will not cure it. Also, if you return to Exodus 9:11, what’s peculiar is that Moses says, “the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils…” With some of the plagues, the magicians were able to use their secret arts to replicate miracles. But in this case, they weren’t. God increasingly humiliated them before his servant. It wasn’t something they could control. Same with the first bowl. Painful sores on the Beast’s followers will humiliate them before his servant Jesus. The sores will undo the Beast’s followers.
Bowl number two then speaks of judgment falling on the sea. Verse 3, “the sea became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.” In 8:9, with the second trumpet, “a third of the living creatures died and a third of the ships were destroyed.” Here everything in the sea dies. This sounds like the first plague of Exodus 7:18, where all the fish died in the waters—only it’s worse.
But there’s more to it. Back in 13:1, there was a Beast that rose from the sea; and when we covered 10:2 I showed you a relief from first-century Rome—the statue with one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Rome was one manifestation of the Beast; and Rome acted like it ruled the seas. They controlled commerce on the seas. They made themselves rich using the seas. But here God upends everything. That’s why later in 18:19, “those whose trade is on the sea” weep and cry—in a moment all their wealth is gone. All that they’re left with is death. What’s the point? If you put your hope in the Beast’s power and riches, it will only leave you with death.
Bowl number three affects the rivers and the springs of water. In verse 4, they also become blood. Again, this recalls the first plague on Egypt when the water they would’ve enjoyed for drinking became filled with death. Exodus 7:18 says it made the Egyptians weary. So also here, God will leave the Beast’s followers weary with death. This stands in contrast to the Lamb’s followers. In 7:17, the Lamb’s followers drink from springs of living water. Not the Beast’s followers—their end is death.
I’ll come back to verses 5-7 in a minute. Move now to bowl number four in verse 8. “The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues.” This is the opposite of what God’s people enjoy. In 7:16, the Lord shelters them such that the sun does not strike them. Meaning, they’re not in a blistering wilderness any longer. That’s not the case for the Beast’s followers. In the end, creation itself—the sun—partners with God to make them miserable.
Then comes a fifth bowl of wrath in verse 10: “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores.” Darkness sounds like the ninth plague of Exodus 10. It was “a darkness to be felt,” Exodus 10:21 says. It was a “pitch darkness.” It was a darkness that isolated you and disabled you. That’s what God does to the Beast’s throne and his kingdom. Everyone who belongs to the Beast will be plunged into darkness. If you follow the Beast, God will leave you isolated and undone in a world of darkness.
That’s the first five bowls. In bowl one, God humiliates the Beast’s followers directly. In bowls two, three, and four, God undermines their economy and leaves them desperately thirsty in a scorching wilderness. Then in bowl five, God attacks the Beast’s throne and plunges his kingdom into a despairing darkness. In sum, these bowls represent the final undoing of the Beast’s kingdom. Who’s going to boast now in the Beast?
When are the bowls poured out?
A third question: when are the bowls poured out? Some might argue they’ve already happened. Others might say they run parallel to the seals and trumpets. But several things lead me another way. For starters, I understand the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl to signify the same event—the return of Christ. Each describes thunder, lightning, earthquake—all events that happen when God appears in the person of Jesus. Each series of seven takes us to the very end and then wraps back a bit to unveil more. If that’s true, then God pours out these bowls prior to Jesus’ return.
But then we encounter other clues, like 15:1 explaining how these seven bowls “are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.” Also, the seal judgments affect only a fourth of the earth, and the trumpets affect only a third of the earth, but the bowl judgments affect all the earth. There’s also no interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls like there was between the sixth and seventh seals and trumpets. In other words, there’s no more delay. The time for final judgment has arrived.
So, this is a drawing of how I see the bowls unfolding in history alongside the seals and trumpets. They bring us to judgments at the end of history but not limited to the last three and half years. You may put things together a little differently. There’s room for us to sharpen one another about these temporal details. Ultimately, we don’t know. But here’s what we do know: following the Beast into false worship leads to misery.
Why are the bowls of wrath poured out?
Which brings me to another question: why are these bowls of wrath poured out? The text gives several answers. One is false worship. According to verse 2, it is those who worship the image of the Beast who are judged. Throughout Revelation, God alone is worthy of worship. 4:11, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Everyone owes God worship because he is their Creator. The problem is that people trade the Creator for lies. They do not worship God and give him thanks for everything. According to 13:4, people trade the truth about God for the lies of the Beast and they worship the Beast instead. For this, they deserve judgment.
Another reason that these bowls of wrath are poured out—persecution, the oppression of God’s people. Notice the explanation in verse 5: “I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed [or poured out] the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It’s what they deserve!’” They put to death God’s people and so God gives them death to drink. Notice how the altar answers as well—remember the altar is where the martyrs are in 6:9. Those who were killed for following Jesus, who’ve been crying for justice—they see these bowls and say, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”
Another reason for the bowls of wrath is hardness of heart. Remember, this final outpouring follows two series of lesser judgments that were meant to lead people to repentance. God has delayed and delayed the bowl judgments. He is patient. People shake their fist in God’s face and yet he still causes his sun to shine on them the next morning. He gives them breath. People deserve immediate judgment and yet he delays…
But only for so long. The time for repentance will eventually run out; and when the bowls come, the judgments will prove that those committed to the Beast had truly hardened themselves against God. Listen to the response in verse 9: “they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.” Verse 10, “they cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.” God is handing people over to what they deserve and ultimately to what they want in their hardened—an existence without God.
How should the bowls impact us?
Last question—a question we all need to wrestle with—how should these bowls impact us? One, these bowl judgments help us know God. If we’re not careful, we reduce our knowledge of God to those aspects we find easier to accept. God is creator. God is love. God is faithful. God is abundant in mercy. It’s easier for the church to speak of these things. But the bowls of wrath remind us that God is also holy, and holiness requires that he takes sin seriously. He is love, but genuine love abhors what is evil. He is faithful, but faithful to do what is right by his own goodness. These bowl judgments help us know that God is not one who tolerates evil. Evil displeases him.
At the same time, they show us that the wrath of God is always just and true. “Wrath” is a word we use to signify “a state of intense displeasure.”[v] In Scripture, Satan is said to have wrath—he’s in a fit of rage knowing his time is short. Humans are said to have wrath—Christians are even told to put away wrath. In both cases, we’d say there are problems with those expressions of wrath/anger. But when “wrath” describes God’s response to evil, it doesn’t come with all the deficiencies and imperfections like we find in his fallen creatures. No, as we see verse 5-7, heaven acknowledges that God’s wrath is an expression of his holiness. His wrath is just and true.
J. I. Packer once put it this way: God’s wrath is never “the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. God is only angry where anger is called for.” To know God means accepting all that he reveals about himself, including his wrath toward evil. Wrath is not an essential attribute of God. But toward evil, wrath is the necessary response of his holiness, goodness, and love.
This aspect of God’s self-revelation will also help you in defending the faith. People will sometimes object to Christianity on grounds that God is nothing but a crutch, that God is just a pragmatic way of dealing with the pains of life. But listen to the argument that R. C. Sproul makes in his book If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? He says this: “The Christian God has some ‘attractive’ features that might incline a person to embrace God as a narcotic to help him face the threatening character of life, but these are overwhelmingly outweighed by the trauma of encountering God. Though man may desire and create for himself a deity who meets his needs and provides him with innumerable benefits, he will not instinctively desire a God who is holy, omniscient, and sovereign.”[vi] He goes on later: “The psychologists continue to argue that men like to invent protective deities that will provide them with comfort and security. But they cannot argue that men would invent the intimidating Holy One of Israel.”[vii]
If people wanted a crutch, why would they dream up a God who will call them to account for their sins? What has happened instead is an encounter with the God who is there—the Creator of all things, the Holy One of Israel, who has revealed himself to us in the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ.
Second, these bowl judgments remind us that the end of all sin and false worship is misery. We are susceptible of taking sin too lightly. That’s why Jerry Bridges wrote a book called Respectable Sins. He addresses sins like frustration, discontentment, ingratitude, impatience, irritability, judgmentalism, gossip. If not careful, we can treat these sins as no big deal. But these pictures of God’s wrath remind us what he thinks of sin. The bowls preserve in us a true fear of God and renew efforts to kill sin in our lives.
We could also consider the impact this vision would have on the Christians toying with compromise. Remember the letter that Jesus sent to the seven churches? The bowl judgments are part of that same letter. Pergamum and Thyatira compromised with idolatry. And we talked about what some of that idolatry looks like. I gave examples of Christians compromising with worldly ideas on sexuality. Others compromise with ideologies like critical theory and identity politics. Others so fuse their politics with Christianity, you’d think that the hope of the kingdom depends on America. Others champion autonomous self-determination or pragmatism.
Then there was Sardis and Laodicea. One was soiling their garments with the world. The other was getting comfortable with the riches of Babylon. The Beast also added some economic incentives—“Compromise with the Beast and we’ll let you buy and sell. You will be comfortable and safe when you compromise.” But the bowl judgments say, “Don’t believe those lies.” The Beast’s mark might make you comfortable for a while. But in the end, it will leave you miserable.
Also consider the drastic contrasts between the Beast’s followers and the Lamb’s followers. The Beast’s followers are humiliated before Jesus; Christians reign with Jesus. The Beast’s followers get a sea of blood; Christians get sea of glass in God’s presence. The Beast’s followers get a river of blood; Christians drink from the river of life. The Beast’s followers get scorched in a despairing wilderness; Christians coming out of tribulation are sheltered by God’s presence. The Beast’s followers get a kingdom plunged into darkness; Christ’s followers get a kingdom saturated with light.
Which do you want? It’s not too late. The end hasn’t come. God has preserved your life and let you hear his words before judgment. Listen to the bowls. Don’t harden your heart. Repent and give God glory. Before the Lamb pours out the bowls, he died to save you from the wrath to come. Jesus died and rose again to give you the kingdom of light and life. Believe on him. Entrust yourself to him. Follow his word and turn from any compromises with sin and false worship.
Finally, for those who belong to the Lamb, the bowl judgments should also come as a comfort. Outside of Christ, God’s wrath is bad news. But for the oppressed in Christ, God’s wrath is good news. Scripture often highlights the lingering reality that there’s often no justice for the innocent. The persecuted church is on the right side, doing the right things, seeking to follow Jesus. But they are regularly judged wrongly. Much like Jesus was treated unjustly, his followers are treated unjustly.
So throughout Scripture we hear God’s people crying, “How long, O Lord?” In Zechariah 1:12, the nations oppress God’s people and the faithful cry, “How long will you have no mercy?” David cries this way in Psalm 13:1. He’s facing workers of evil and cries, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever…How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Then again from Asaph in Psalm 74, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?” In Revelation 6:9, the martyrs cry, “How long…before you avenge our blood?”
Perhaps that echoes some of your own cries. Perhaps you have suffered at the hands of godless people and cry, “How long, O Lord?” You are not alone in these cries. These cries are rooted in a knowledge of God’s holiness and truthfulness. God hears these cries; they are not in vain. In his wrath, God will judge the wicked. Remember this good news when others mistreat you. Remember this good news when others reject your acts of kindness. Remember this good news when the path of love leads you to care for very hardened, difficult people. Remember this when others try to ruin you for holding fast to Jesus’ testimony. God sees you; and in righteous judgments he will not allow the wicked to prosper forever. The kingdom of the Beast will fall, and Jesus’ kingdom will be forever. Let’s now remind ourselves of this hope as we come to the Lord’s Supper.
[i] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 358.
[ii] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 193.
[iii] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 148.
[iv] E.g., Ps 79:6; Jer 10:25; Lam 2:4; 4:11; Ezek 20:13; Hos 5:10; Zeph 3:8.
[v] BDAG, s.v. “thumos.”
[vi] R. C. Sproul, If There’s a God, Why Are There Athiests (Orlando: Ligonier, 1997), 12.
[vii] Sproul, If There’s a God, 101.