John heard a loud voice coming from the sanctuary, directing the seven angels to pour out the bowls of God’s wrath upon the earth. Evidently this action is thus represented as occurring at God’s command. (16:1)
The pouring out of the first bowl brought suffering to those having the mark of the beast and worshiping its image. Their affliction came to be a bad and painful sore or ulcer. (16:2) This may well have reminded John of the plague of boils that came upon the Egyptians in the time of Moses. (Exodus 9:8-11; the Greek word in Revelation 16:2 for “sore” is the same word found in the Septuagint in Exodus 9:9, 10, 11.) Apparently the hurtful result from following a God-dishonoring course is here revealed as being like a serious ulcerous condition having a deadly outcome.
When the second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, the water came to be like the blood of a corpse, and all the creatures in the sea died. (16:3) The plague is depicted as far more devastating in proportion than the one occurring after the blowing of the second trumpet, which only affected a portion of the sea creatures. (8:8) This apparently serves to illustrate that the final plagues (or consequences from a God-defiant course) are of far greater severity. The plague is also reminiscent of one of the plagues that came upon Egypt. There is a difference, however. In ancient Egypt, the sea was not affected, and so the resemblance is closer to what occurred upon the pouring out of the third bowl. (Exodus 7:17-21)
Subsequent to the pouring out of the third bowl, the rivers and springs of water turned into blood. (Compare 8:10, 11, where the reference is to a similar plague on a smaller scale.) The “angel of the waters” (likely signifying the angel having control over the waters) then declared, “You are righteous, the one who is and who was [see 1:8], O Holy One, for you have executed justice [regarding] these things. Because they have shed the blood of holy ones and prophets, so you have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” A voice from the altar, probably representing the blood of the holy ones and prophets that had been shed (compare Genesis 4:10), added a confirmatory response, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and righteous are your judgments.” (16:4-7)
The angel’s proclamation and the voice from the altar thus confirm that the plagues are expressions of retributive justice. All who have defiantly set themselves in opposition to God’s ways would experience the dire consequences of their abhorrent course. Divine judgments are just and in harmony with truth (the actual state of affairs).
The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun. As a result, the heat from the sun became so intense that earth’s inhabitants found it unbearable. Instead of repenting of their evil ways and giving God glory or humbly acknowledging him as having rightly executed justice, they blasphemed the name of God or cursed him on account of their suffering. (16:8, 9) The reference to God’s “authority over these plagues” suggests that those defying God would be aware that they were experiencing the outpouring of his anger. Their refusal to repent and glorify God appears to indicate that, even at this crucial time, they could have changed and become recipients of divine mercy.
The pouring out of the fifth bowl upon the throne of the beast led to its kingdom being darkened. As in the case of the plague of darkness that affected ancient Egypt, apparently the entire realm over which the beast exercised control would be plunged into darkness. (Exodus 10:21, 22) This could point to an intensification of cruelty and ruthless oppression from the beastly ruling authority and its total inability to deal with the consequences of retributive justice. The “throne of the beast” may designate the location from which power is exercised. Those under the beast’s control bit their tongues in pain. Again, instead of repenting of their deeds, they blasphemed or cursed the God of heaven on account of their pains and sores. (16:10, 11) Already following the pouring out of the first bowl, earth’s inhabitants were plagued with a painful sore. This suggests that the effect of the plagues is cumulative and, unlike the plagues that affected ancient Egypt, continue in force.
The sixth angel poured his bowl upon the Euphrates River and its water dried up, evidently preparing the way for the kings from the rising of the sun to vanquish “Babylon the great.” In the case of ancient Babylon, Cyrus diverted the waters of the Euphrates that served as part of the city’s defenses, and this made it possible for his forces to take the city. (Isaiah 44:27, 28; 45:1, 2) Greek historian Herodotus of the fifth century BCE wrote (I, 191, 192) that, by his diversion of the Euphrates, Cyrus “made the stream to sink till its former channel could be forded. When this happened, the Persians who were posted with this intent made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk about to the height of the middle of a man’s thigh.” John would have known that Cyrus came from the east and was designated as God’s “anointed” or appointed one and served as his instrument for bringing about the fall of Babylon. Later, John heard a proclamation that credited the destruction of “Babylon the great” to the Most High. (17:17; 19:1, 2) So it may be that the “kings from the rising of the sun” designate the Almighty and his “anointed one,” Jesus Christ. (16:12)
Next John saw three unclean spirits that looked like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (evidently the two-horned beast [13:11]). According to the terms of the law, frogs were unclean creatures. Appropriately, therefore, the unclean spirits were portrayed as resembling frogs. These demonic spirits performed signs, apparently designed to delude people and garner their support for defying the Most High. The three unclean spirits went forth to the kings of the whole habitable earth to assemble them for “the war of the great day of God the Almighty.” Such a gathering of the kings or rulers would include their subjects. (16:13, 14)
Apparently because the execution of divine judgment would come suddenly and unsuspectedly upon all opposers of the Almighty, John heard the announcement, “Look! I am coming as a thief. Fortunate is the one remaining awake and keeping his garments, that he may not walk naked and people see his shame.” (16:15) These words evidently serve both as encouragement and as a warning, emphasizing the need to be awake and prepared before the execution of God’s vengeance in order to be among the fortunate, blessed, or happy ones because of being found in a divinely approved state. (Compare Luke 21:34-36.) The Scriptures indicate that Christ’s genuine disciples would have been found in this approved condition and then removed from the earthly scene just prior to the decisive time. (1 Corinthians 15:51-53; 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10; 4:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10) Accordingly, professed believers who are not identified as genuine and approved by their course of life and activity would find themselves on earth during the time for executing judgment. The shame of their nakedness would then be exposed, revealing them to be persons who were spiritually asleep and unprepared.
The place to which the unclean spirits gather the kings of the earth and their armies is called Harmagedon in Hebrew, meaning “Mount Megiddo.” No location in ancient Israel was called “Mount Megiddo,” but anciently the valley lying to the west of the city of Megiddo proved to be the scene for decisive battles. The name, therefore, may call attention to the fact that those defying the Most High would suffer total defeat. (16:16)
The seventh angel poured his bowl upon the air. A loud voice out of the sanctuary, directly from the throne (apparently from the one seated on the throne or the Almighty), declared, “It has been accomplished,” evidently indicating that his wrath has been fully expressed. Manifestations of God’s presence for judgment followed. There were lightnings, voices, thunders, and an earthquake of unparalleled strength in human history. Babylon the great, the “great city,” split into three parts, totally devastating it. The cities of the nations or cities other than those represented by Babylon the great fell or crashed in ruins. For her guilt, God would remember Babylon the great and make her drink from “the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.” This would mean her complete end, with no hope of recovery. No place would provide refuge from God’s wrath, for all islands fled and mountains as places for hiding disappeared so as not to be found. Huge hailstones, weighing a talent each (perhaps weighing about 75 pounds [if the talent is reckoned according to its weight among the ancient Hebrews]), descended upon rebellious humans. The tremendous weight of the hailstones appears to serve as a pictorial representation of the intensity of the final plague. Unlike the more positive response of some of the Egyptians when Moses announced the impending plague of hail (Exodus 9:13-25), the ungodly persisted in an unrepentant state and blasphemed or cursed God. (16:17-21)