John saw another great and astonishing sign in heaven. Seven angels had been entrusted with the seven last plagues, and these plagues would bring God’s anger against lawless humans to its completion. (15:1) John later saw the effect the plagues were to have on ungodly humankind. (16:2-21) Possibly the sign is described as being “great” because developments on earth would be reaching a climax and therefore would be of great significance. In relation to the final plagues, the sign may be regarded as inspiring awe, astonishment, or amazement.
Those who had triumphed over the beast and its image and the number of its name (the number that revealed its true identity) stood at what appeared to be a glassy sea mingled with fire. Although fire is a destructive element, it, like water, also can be used for cleansing purposes. According to the law, metal items were purified by first passing them through the fire and then the water of cleansing. (Numbers 31:21-23) So the glassy sea mingled with fire could indicate that all who approach God must be clean from his standpoint, for he is holy or pure in the absolute sense. (15:2)
With “harps of God” (divinely provided instruments suitable for rendering praise and thanksgiving to him), the victors sing the “song of Moses the slave of God and the song of the Lamb.” (15:2, 3) As conquerors who refused to adore the beast and its image, they are portrayed in the presence of God, indicating that they have been either resurrected or changed to be with the Lord Jesus Christ. This suggests that the outpouring of the final plagues occurs after all of Christ’s loyal disciples have been glorified, for it is not until the conquest has been completed that individuals can be called victors. The reference to the “song of Moses” would recall how the Israelites, on the eastern side of the Red Sea, sang a song of thanksgiving after being delivered from Pharaoh and his armies. Like the Israelites at that time, all the victors had experienced a marvelous deliverance. The song is also a “song of the Lamb,” for he conquered the world and made it possible for them to be fellow conquerors. (John 16:33; Hebrews 2:16-18) The complete focus of the song is on God. “Great and astonishing [are] your works, O Lord God the Almighty. Righteous and true [are] your ways, O King of the nations [O King of the ages (eternity), according to other Greek manuscripts]. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone [are] holy; for all the nations will come and worship before you, because your just judgments have been revealed.” (15:3, 4)
All of the Almighty’s deeds are outstanding and give rise to wonderment or amazement. In all his ways, he is just and adheres to the ultimate standard of truth, judging and acting on the basis of actuality and not appearances. He is the Sovereign.
The conquerors’ expressions of thanksgiving and praise indicate that, in view of the Almighty’s greatness and ultimate purity, a reverential fear or awe, coupled with praise, is the only proper response before him. At the same time, the song appears to reflect hope regarding humans yet on earth. The effect of God’s righteous judgments would be that persons from all nations would be moved to worship him. Even when expressing his wrath, the Almighty continues to be the God of love and compassion. (Compare Romans 2:4.)
Next John saw the temple, that is, the tent of witness in heaven opened. Seven angels, clothed in bright, clean linen and with golden girdles, then came out. They had been entrusted with the last seven plagues. Possibly the opening of the temple occurred when the screening curtain was pulled aside. Evidently because the ark of the covenant or the ark of the testimony was in the sanctuary, the sanctuary is called the “tent of witness.” In this case, the designation “tent of witness” could suggest that God would fulfill his testimony or solemn promise and would prove true to the covenant he had made. By reason of his covenant with his people and his testimony, he would render justice, and the pouring out of the final plagues served this very purpose. (15:5, 6; see the Note section.)
One of the living beings, likely the one initially mentioned first (the one with the lion’s face [4:7]), gave each of the seven angels a bowl filled with the wrath of the eternal God. Then the sanctuary became filled with a cloud from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until such time as the seven angels had completed their commission respecting the seven plagues. (15:7, 8) Evidently the cloud, because of being a manifestation of God’s presence, gave evidence of his glory and power about to be revealed through the execution of justice resulting from having humans experience the final plagues. That no one would be permitted to enter the sanctuary may have indicated that no prayerful appeal for mitigating the judgment would be heard. The portrayal may serve the same purpose as the Almighty’s words to Jeremiah (15:1, NRSV): “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people.”
It may be noted that, with the loyal disciples of God’s Son no longer being on the earthly scene, this would leave the world of mankind without the wholesome influence for good that believers exercise and so with even less restraint to pursue their God-dishonoring ways. The Most High’s totally abandoning humankind to the terrifying consequences of their disobedience would be an expression of his wrath. (Compare Romans 1:18-32.) The pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath may simply be a pictorial manner of revealing the horrors that would come upon humankind as they reap what they have sown. There is every reason to believe that the final crop of wickedness will yield frightful results. (Compare Luke 23:30, 31.)
Note: In 15:6, the reading línon (linen) has the oldest and best manuscript support. There are later manuscripts that say líthon (stone).