Revelation 16

Now I must say a little on the details of God’s judgments in Revelation 16. It is a painful subject and humbling, when we think that this is the declared end of man’s vaunted progress. I will endeavour, then, briefly to glance at these seven plagues. “And I heard a loud voice out of the temple, saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God unto the earth” (verse 1). Wrath is no longer restricted to the third or fourth part, but the whole scene is given up to judgment There is not only an increase of severity, but the whole of that which had once the light of God, and had far and wide enjoyed outward privileges, is in complete apostacy, and given up to His wrath.

“And the first went away and poured out his vial unto the earth; and there came a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and them which worshipped his image. And the second poured out his vial unto the sea,” etc.

The first four vials resembled the trumpets in this, that they both fall on the earth and sea, on the rivers and fountains of water, and finally on the sun. There may be certain differences; for in the trumpet it was the third part only of the sun that was smitten. Here it is simply said, “the sun.” Still it was the same sort of sphere. Further, I think the objects of these plagues, the earth, sea, etc., are not to be taken in a merely literal way. The language is symbolical. Not that there would be to my own mind the slightest difficulty in believing that God could do these things in a literal way, if this were His will. He has turned the waters of Egypt into blood, filled a kingdom with darkness, and inflicted plagues similar to what we have here: so that there is no difficulty in conceiving such a thing again. But the only question is, whether this is what we are to gather from the chapter before us. I think it is not; and that God here alludes to plagues that were once literal in the land of Egypt, but that are now referred to symbolically, representing certain judgments of God. First, the ordered and settled parts of the world are smitten as with an ulcerous distemper, where men were branded with subjection to the apostate civil power and his idolatry. Next, there is a judgment on the sea; that is, on the outside regions, where profession of life quite died out. The third, I conceive, represents by rivers people formed into a separate condition of nationality, like waters flowing in a distinct channel, under special local influence; and by the fountains rather the springs of a nation’s prosperity. All the active principles assume the form of death. The third judgment comes down to smaller details than the former ones. The fourth is on the public supreme authority.

In verses 5-7 we have a word or two which, when corrected or rightly read, adds to the full force and clearness of the passage. “Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast,” etc. I noted (on Rev. 11) that the words, “and shalt be,” were of no force at all here, and that another word is the best attested — the Holy One.” It is the very same word that occurs in Revelation 16:4 — the less usual one for “holy.” Before these vials are poured out, God is celebrated in His merciful holiness. “Thou art righteous.” This was plain, for God was pouring out His wrath upon men in their iniquity, just because He was righteous. But more than this — “which art and wast, the Holy One.” Before the vials are poured out, and now again while they are in course of pouring out, that remains true. The angel of the waters attests His graciousness, even while He was judging thus, which might have seemed to contradict it. He too, from below, answers to the song above. If the saints, at rest on the sea of glass, celebrate Him as merciful in holiness, the angel confirms it.

“For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou gavest them blood to drink; they are worthy” (verse 6). There was righteous retribution — they were worthy in an awful sense. “And I heard” not another out of the altar, but “I heard the altar say” (verse 7). It may seem extraordinary to speak of “the altar saying,” and no doubt the other words were put in because people thought it so strange. But there is nothing really contrary to prophetic usage if it he taken in a symbolical way. No person would intentionally foist a difficulty into scripture: but it is too common to try and remove that which is not understood out of the word, thus to make it plain according to ordinary modes of thought. Besides, you have what might prepare the way for it elsewhere. In Revelation 9:13, it is said, “I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God.” Here (Rev. 16) the figure goes farther: the voice is said to be that of the altar itself. To me it confirms what we have had various occasions to remark — the fact and impropriety of men’s meddling with scripture. “I heard the altar say” has great force for this reason. In an earlier part of the book, the souls of those that were “slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held,” were seen under the altar. Now here that altar which had witnessed their blood is said to cry out to God, and to own that His judgments are true and righteous. In the first book of the Bible, the earth is spoken of as crying out to God about the blood of Abel: much more should not the altar cry about the blood of God’s martyred saints? To my own mind it is uncommonly pertinent. If it had been merely an angel, this would have been a comparatively distant link; for an angel, though ministering for them who shall be heirs of salvation, does not enter so directly into their sufferings, and can scarcely be said to have immediate sympathy with them. But God not only had seen the bones of His slaughtered saints scattered upon the cold mountains, as poets sing, but regards His saints as so many burnt-offerings rising up before Him whose blood, or rather the altar which witnessed it, calls for indignation and wrath. The Lord may seem to slumber for a season, but when He awakes, as one out of sleep, He will surely avenge their blood on them that dwell on the earth. And now it is at hand. Great Babylon had not yet come into remembrance, though from the beginning the special corruptress of the truth, and drunken with the blood of the saints. But meanwhile the altar could not hold its peace, and the Lord listens and hears. For the God who heeds the groans of the creature will surely answer the altar’s cry about His slain ones.

“And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire” (verse 8). It is a judgment on the sun, the figure of supreme government; so that what ought to have been the means of light and comfort — that greater light which rules the day — now becomes the means of scorching men with fire. The effect of its tyranny is intolerable. “And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which had authority over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory” (verse 9).

And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the throne of the beast,” etc. (verse 10.) We are now entering upon a somewhat different class of judgments; for the last three vials differ from the first four, just as the last three trumpets had a different character from the rest. And so with the seals also. It is evident that the fifth, sixth, and seventh vials are apart from the preceding four. The judgment falls upon the throne of the beast and upon his kingdom — not upon the beast himself, who is apparently untouched by these vials. He is reserved for the judgment of the Lord Jesus Himself at His coming, and will be destroyed by His appearing. Here the stroke is merely upon the seat of his authority; and just as of old king Pharaoh was hardened, so here men blasphemed the God of heaven, and repented not of their deeds (verse 11). When God manifests Himself as the God of the earth, this will not be possible.

“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates, and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings” — not exactly of the east, but — “that are from the east might be prepared” (verse 12). The Euphrates was the great eastern boundary of the Roman empire: it was the regular line to which they carried their conquests. So that the drying up of the Euphrates would seem to mean that this side of the empire would be left open as a way for the eastern powers to come and mingle with those of the west, or to assault them. One effect of this vial, then, would be the removal of the eastern barrier, and thus the way of the kings from the east is prepared probably for the great closing conflicts.

But there is more than this. “I saw out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs”99 (ver. 13). It is just before the end. These murmuring spirits issued out of the mouth of the three powers which we have seen in Revelation 13: out of the dragon, the open enemy of Christ; out of the beast, the revived Roman Empire; and out of the false prophet, the ecclesiastical beast that had lamb-like horns, imitating Christ’s power, but now spoken of only in his deceptive religious character. “For they are the spirits of demons, working signs, who go forth unto the kings of the whole habitable world, to gather them unto the battle of [that] great day of God the Almighty.” This confirms what I have just stated about the Euphrates. It is a general collision of the kings of all the habitable world. Not only the western powers are arrayed for the war, but the eastern also. It is the great day.

But now comes an important parenthesis. As was shown under the sixth seal and the sixth trumpet, so here we find an interruption also. “Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame” (verse 15). It is the Lord coming, but then He is coming in judgment to surprise the earth; and this is the reason why the figure is used. The thief comes unexpected and unwelcome: still more unpalatable will be the Lord’s coming to the earth. But there will be saints to whom it will be welcome, to whom His appearing will bring deliverance by the judgment of their enemies. And they are enjoined to watch closely the daily life. “Behold, I come as a thief.” Not so the Lord presents Himself to us, save as telling us how He will appear to the world or the professing mass cast into it. When speaking to us He says, “Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” Need one say how much more blessed is this word? The idea of coming as a thief involves surprise. To us He will come as a gracious One, who loves that we should have the rest of our affections and our glory in and with Himself: this is our own proper portion and hope, Here it is not rapture to heaven, but Jewish deliverance by judgment.

Then, after closing the parenthesis, it is said, “And he gathered them together into a place, called in the Hebrew tongue, Armageddon.” It might seem strange that it should be said, “He gathered;” for in the fourteenth verse the evil spirits, or spirits of demons, were those that went forth to gather the kings together. The reason is this. In the language that the Holy Ghost employed, the word is capable of meaning either he or they gathered. There are certain cases where, in that language, it is doubtful whether “they” or “he” be meant; and this is one. The word “demons” is of such a nature, that the verb which has it for its subject might be either singular or plural. Here the subject is not expressed, so that it is quite optional as far as this is concerned: all depends upon the sense of the context. If it be “He gathered,” the reference of course is to God Almighty, who might be said to do it through the ‘intervention of these unclean spirits. If it be “they gathered, it would simply mean that the spirits of demons had accomplished the purpose for which they were sent forth. In verse 14, they proceeded to gather the kings; and in verse 16, the kings are gathered together.

The place of gathering that is mentioned here, called in Hebrew Armageddon, is, I think, an allusion to Judges 5:17. “The kings came and fought: then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo.” It was not that Megiddo was a place of any great size or note. God looks to the principle at issue. Israel was in a low state. There was a prophetess that the Lord used to inspire them with courage; and when encouraged by her, they won a great victory over their enemies. The same place is referred to in 2 Chron. 35:22, when Josiah received his death-wound in battle with the king of Egypt. But I doubt that this is the incident referred to by the Spirit of God here. For Megiddo in the day of the Judges was a memento of joy and triumph to Israel. In the time of Josiah it was a place of gloom; all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. It was “the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley100 of Megiddon” (Zech. 12:11), which led historically to the writing of the book of Lamentations. For this reason I think that Armageddon (i.e. the mountain of Megiddo) here refers not to the sorrow for Josiah in 2 Chronicles, but to the gathering and defeat of the Gentile kings in Judges. For here it is the Lord beating down the nations. He had been acknowledged as king of the nations in Rev. 15; and therefore, to make this an allusion to a time when the godly Jewish monarch was slain by a Gentile would be little appropriate. But to derive it from the day when Israel had been led on to victory even by a woman well fits into the scene that is here described, when the kings of the whole world will be gathered only for a more terrible destruction.

A few words must suffice for the last vial. “The seventh angel poured out his vial upon the air; and there come forth a loud voice from the temple [of heaven], from the throne, saying, It is done” (verse 17). This is a more penetrating judgment, and one more affecting men and their very life-breath than any we have yet seen. It is on the air, necessary to the existence of men. Symbolically it represents a judgment on something that is as essential to the life and comfort of men as that which we breathe. All is over as regards God’s wrath here poured out.

“And there were lightnings and voices and thunders: and there was a great earthquake, such as was not seen since a man was on the earth, so mighty an earthquake and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell,” etc. There was a vast and unexampled convulsion of civil associations — breaking up, not only what is called here “the great city” (which means all that was established within the Roman empire), but more than that, the cities of the nations fell; that is, it was the ruin of all that the nations outside Rome had built up politically. And furthermore, Babylon the great — that counterfeit of the bride, and hitherto successful system of religious evil, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth; Babylon the great — came up in remembrance before God to receive from Him the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath. The latter term, Babylon the great, refers rather to moral character or idolatry.

“And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And there fell upon men great hail, about the weight of a talent, out of heaven, and men blasphemed God,” etc. (verses 20, 21.) It is not necessary that I should speak particularly of the explanation offered by the leading historicalists. The hailstorm Mr. E. used to apply to some fearful infliction of France, the most northerly of the Papal kingdoms, much as he had surmised in the minor judgments, as be would say, of the seventh trumpet. And so it yet stands in the text of Horae Apoc., vol. iv. p. 23. But in a note he observes that many expositors prefer to explain it of the Russian power. “And in revising my work, and comparing this prophecy with one in Ezekiel 38, 39, which seems to point to Russia’s taking part in the great pre-millennial conflict, as will be noticed in the end of my next chapter, I cannot but incline to the same view. I observe that the great hail is here predicted as falling after, not before, the great city’s tri-partition.” Having already expressed ray opinion on the similar case of Rev. 11:19, and shown the error of connecting this verse with the seventh trumpet, which is the assumption of these writers, I need only remark that the reference to Ezekiel is peculiarly unhappy, because the scene there is Palestine, not the Papal empire or the west; and that the issue is not the infliction of a plague on others, and God blasphemed in consequence, but the utter discomfiture of the Prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, with his vast company, and God sanctified thereby. “And I will plead against him with pestilence, and with blood; and I will rain upon him, and upon his bands, and upon the many people that are with him, an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire and brimstone.” Thus it is God who plagues the invading Russian with great hailstones, not they who so fall on others. “Thus will I magnify myself, and sanctify myself (not then men blaspheming God because of the plague of the hail); and I will be known in the eyes of many nations; and they shall know that I am the Lord.” Indeed, the reader has simply to examine the context of the Jewish prophet in order to be satisfied of the absurdity of connecting that scene with the hailstorm of the seventh vial. For the Jews, nay, Israel as a whole, are supposed to be at that time restored and united in their own land, when Gog invades it through lust of conquest. There is no ground to think that such is the case under the vials. Neither does Mr. E. so judge, if I understand his remarks on the first occurrence of “Hallelujah” in Rev. 19, which he views as an indication of the conversion of the Jews, after the final catastrophe of Babylon, when the outpouring of the vials is completed and has marked the time for it.

Before God establishes His purposes in power, you see a moral accomplishment working either in His people or in the world. Thus, if God is to bring about a separation of His people by judgment, which we had in Revelation 15, I doubt not that His people are even now being separated graciously by the Spirit of God. If, on the other hand, there is to be a delusion over men’s hearts, so that even the judgments of God will only aggravate the evil to all appearance, something analogous is at work in our day. Is it not a fearful sign that Christians, in the face of such words as these, can look for any real amelioration of things as they are? Here we have the true closing scene disclosed by God after all the efforts and boasts of men. The most favoured part of the earth, its civilized and moral centre, is to be full of apostacy, and the wrath of God must be finished there. This must be ere the Lord Jesus Christ will come in glory to set up His kingdom; for He it is in person who shall deal with the beast. Under the vials it is God chastising in wrath. But what is the effect? Men blaspheme God. Instead of repenting, they become worse and worse at every step.

It is a terrible thing to see this evil morally spreading over the world; but the Lord is also separating, by faith and affection, to Himself. May we hold fast grace! We shall need it. It is the only place, not merely of privileges, but of security. What should we think of the man who would merely go as far as he thinks he must not to be lost — who wants to be saved, but withal to be allowed to sin as much as in his opinion he may, so as to escape at last? But as the Lord is separating by personal affection to Himself, where there is faith, so, on the other hand, the opposite of it we find where faith is lacking. God gives up men to delusion, and all that He does in the way of judgment only hardens them. Preparatorily this is going on now: men are yielding to and choosing their own delusions. The full pure truth is distasteful and dreaded. So that, in spite of God’s Spirit working to present truth with all simplicity to His people, men are obstinately comforting themselves with the dream that things after all are not so bad; that if there are things to be regretted, the remedy is at hand. For now there are so many ways of helping on the poor — such delightful minglings of the rich with them — such promising unions which invite all men to come together and join, spite of their little differences, for the great object of social advancement, the improvement of Christendom, and the regeneration of the world. But all this is founded on the miserable delusion which ignores and denies that God’s wrath is to be filled up and poured out upon Christendom. It is impossible that Christians, who realise that such judgments are near, could lend themselves to schemes which assume the very reverse. Suppose a person going to execution — what would be thought of a Christian man who, knowing this, would occupy the criminal’s time with chemical experiments, or a lecture on mechanics? Much less would one who feels the solemn truth that the world lies under such a sentence as God’s word declares. Christ alone is the power of God to set things right. When He comes, and not before, the tide of evil will be stemmed, and Satan bound: but not even divine judgments apart from Christ can avail.

May we be in earnest, always seeking to connect Christ with our testimony! That is the great practical purport of all for the present moment. Sometimes we may hinder blessing by presenting the truth, but not in Christ, if I may so say. The heart must be sadly perverted, if it refuses Him. The Lord grant that we may keep these two things before our souls — thorough separation from all that is of the world, and this place of victory held with joy, our hearts taking up the song of which the Lamb is the subject, as He alone gives us the power to sing it. May we ever think of the world as a judged scene, conscious of the terrible wrath it cannot escape! This will not make us distrustful of the power of Christ to deliver individuals, but it will preserve us from any insensibility as to either the world’s evil, or the divine judgment which awaits it.

99 Most readers of the Horae Apoc. will remember that, after giving evidence of the working of the frog-like unclean spirits in England (the draconic spirit of heathen-like anti-social infidelity, the Popish spirit, the Tractarian spirit), Mr. E recurs to the hopeful strain of a bright future for his country, and conjectures that France may be the country called to the bad pre-eminence of being the chief secular power employed by these demons to gather the world’s powers to the last great war of Armageddon. “There is a curious heraldic fact,” he adds, (vol. iii. pp. 533, 534) “accordant with this view, which (considering how frequently such national emblems have been had in view in the Apocalyptic figurations) I cannot permit myself to pass over in silence, though by no means wishing to insist much on it; viz., that, as the three spirits do each and all most assuredly energize in the French nation and priesthood, so their Apocalyptic symbol, the three frogs, are the old arms of France.” And then we have a plate in illustration of the alleged fact, with some subjoined annotations. Now, it happens that natural history comes in as an awkward witness here, for the “fact” turns out that Mr. E. confounds crapaud with grenouille; or, as the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana say (and so Court de Gebelin), cited by himself, the arms of France, as some affirm, bear three toads sable, etc. In a word, in order to convey correctly such a reference, the Greek should have been ὡς φρῦνοι, rather than βάτραχοι. Four other authors he produces say frogs; but this seems loose, and not to set aside the more precise word. Of course I think the point trilling in the extreme.

100 A mountain of course implies a valley. The singular variation of A ( ποταμόν, river) may have been either taken from the waters of Megiddon in Judges 5:9, or more probably was a blunder for τόπον, just as in Revelation 15 A C, three cursives, not to speak of some MSS. mentioned by Andreas, Bede, support λίθον, stone! for λίνον. The Harleian cursive of the eleventh century (5537) exhibits the still stranger ληνόν.