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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 16

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

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Verses 1-99

The First Vial. Chap. 16 vv. 1, 2

1. the vials ] Read, the seven vials .

upon the earth ] Lit., into the earth , here and in the next verse. Here “the earth” seems to mean the lower world generally, there the dry land only.

2. went ] Lit., went away , from the Angels’ place in Heaven before the Temple to the edge or “window” whence they can look down upon the earth.

a noisome and grievous sore ] The plagues that accompany these vials have a close analogy to those of the trumpets in ch. 8 sqq., and, like them, have some to the plagues of Egypt: here cf. Exodus 9:9 . The epithets translated “noisome and grievous” are somewhat more general: “bad and evil” would be perhaps their most exact equivalents.

The Second Vial, v. 3

3. Angel ] Should be omitted, reading the second , as we had “the first” before. So in vv. 4, 8, 10, 12, 17.

as the blood of a dead man ] Lit., blood as it were of a dead man . See Exodus 7:17 sqq., esp. 21. Compare in this Book ch. 8:8; but here the plague has a wider reach.

The Third Vial, vv. 4 7

4. the rivers … waters ] 8:10; see on 14:7.

5. the angel of the waters ] Here at least there is no question (see on 7:1, 14:18) that we have an elemental Angel; see Exc. I.

O Lord ] Should be omitted.

which art, and wast, and shalt be ] Read, which art and wast, the Holy One : the word for “holy” being the same as in 15:4. As the phrase for “which art and wast” is ungrammatical (see on 1:4), it is perhaps better to render “which is and which was.” For the omission of “which is to come,” cf. 11:17. Its virtual insertion here in the A. V. seems to be an oversight in translation, not a mistaken reading.

6. of saints and prophets ] See 11:18, 18:20.

for they are worthy ] Omit “for:” but we may compare 3:4, where a very different judgement is grounded on the same weighty words.

7. another out of ] Should be omitted: St John “heard the Altar” itself “say” what follows. Why the unusual image should be used of the Altar speaking, instead of a voice only coming from it (cf. 9:13), we cannot say: but perhaps 6:9 sqq. suggests why the Altar utters its Amen to God’s vengeance on the persecutors.

Even so ] Yea , as in 1:7, &c.

The Fourth Vial, vv. 8, 9

8. the sun ] Cf. 8:12; but there the light of the Sun is diminished, here his heat is increased. “Power” is not expressed in the original.

9. repented not to give him glory ] Contrast 11:13, which therefore cannot refer to the same judgements as here, nor (probably) to judgements on the same place or people.

The Fifth Vial, vv. 10, 11

10. the seat ] Better throne : see 13:2. The word is best taken quite literally, not in the vague sense of the “seat” of his empire.

darkness ] Exodus 10:21 ; ch. 9:2.

The Sixth Vial, vv. 12 16

12. Euphrates ] 9:14 sqq. Where Babylon confessedly stands for Rome, we should naturally understand the Euphrates to be used also in a symbolical sense, possibly as meaning the Tiber. But the Tiber is not a very “great river:” and the mention of “the kings of the east” (lit., the kings from the rising of the sun ) as needing to pass the Euphrates seems to mark it as meant literally.

the water thereof was dried up ] Referring to the way that the ancient Babylon was actually captured by Cyrus, by drawing off the water of the Euphrates into a reservoir, so as to make its bed passable for a few hours. Though not mentioned in Daniel 5:0 , nor by Cyrus in his lately discovered account of the capture, there seems no doubt that this incident is historical: the details given in Hdt. I. 191 agree exactly with those of the predictions in Isaiah 44:27 , 45:3; Jeremiah 50:38 , Jeremiah 50:44 , 51:Jeremiah 50:30-32 , Jeremiah 50:36 .

that the way &c.] Compare the prophecies of Cyrus’ advance in Isaiah 41:2 , Isaiah 41:25 . He is there spoken of as advancing on Babylon “from the East:” much more would any invader of Rome or the Roman Empire come from the East, if he had to cross the literal Euphrates.

the kings of the east ] Rather, from the east . In 17:16 we hear of the kings of the earth combining to attack Babylon, and the Euphrates may be dried up, only that the kings from the east may be able to advance to bear their part in the assault. But why do they specially need their “way to be prepared”? The Euphrates is a far less impassable frontier than the Alps or the Mediterranean: it was in fact in St John’s day the weak side of the empire. And probably in this fact we may see the key to the prophecy. In Daniel 8:8 , Daniel 11:4 we have the division of Alexander’s empire described as “toward the four winds of heaven:” in 11:5, 6 the Egyptian and Asiatic kingdoms are designated as “the kings of the south and of the north.” It is implied therefore that the kings of Macedon are kings of the West: and it remains that the other great and permanent kingdom (of smaller ephemeral ones there were more than four) which arose from the dissolution of Alexander’s shall be “the kings of the east.” Now this designation obliges us to think of the Parthians , the longest-lived of all the Alexandrine kingdoms, and the only one surviving in St John’s day. This differed from the others, in respect that its royal dynasty was native, not Macedonian, but it was not the less a portion of Alexander’s empire, inheriting his traditions. (The veneer of Greek culture existing among the Arsacidae is well illustrated by the grim story of the performance of the Bacchae at the time of the death of Crassus: it is instructive also to look at the series of coins engraved in Smith’s Dictionary s.v. Arsacidae , where we see Hellenic types gradually giving way to Assyrian.) In Enoch liv. 9 we hear of “the chiefs of the east among the Parthians and Medes:” that passage throws no real light on this, except as shewing who “the kings of the east” were understood to be, by a person familiar with the same ideas as St John. Now in St John’s time (whether the earlier or later date be assigned to the vision) there were apprehensions of a Parthian invasion of the empire on behalf of a pseudo-Nero (Tac. Hist. I. ii. 3), i.e. a shadow of Antichrist: and it is likely that St John’s prophecy is expressed (as so many O. T. prophecies are) in terms of the present political situation. But it had no immediate fulfilment: the danger from Parthia under Domitian passed off, and soon afterwards its power was broken for ever by Trajan. But its place was taken in time by the Sassanian kingdom of Persia, which remained for three centuries the most formidable enemy of Rome. Then, as Parthia had been broken by Trajan and fell before Persia, so Persia, broken by Heraclius, fell before the Arabs, who endangered the existence, and actually appropriated great part, of the Eastern Empire. To them succeeded the Turks, before whom it fell.

Now while no event in this series can be called a definite or precise fulfilment of St John’s prophecy, we may hold that this habitual relation of “the kings of the east” to the Roman empire supplies a number of typical or partial fulfilments. A pseudo-Nero, made emperor by a Parthian conquest of Rome, and ruling (as might be expected) in Nero’s spirit, would have been almost a real Antichrist: and for such a revelation of Antichrist St John’s immediate readers were meant to be prepared. Again, in the conquests and persecutions of Sapor and Chosroes, of Omar, Mohammed, and Suleiman, it was intended that the Christians of the empire should see the approaches and threatenings of the kingdom of Antichrist. But the empire whether Roman, Byzantine, or Austrian continued to “withhold, that he may be revealed in his season”; and its modern representatives will continue to do so “until it be taken out of the way: and then shall that Wicked be revealed.”

It may be observed that Daniel 11:40 sqq. seems to imply that the political situation in the East in the days of Antichrist will be not unlike that in the days of Antiochus: for while it is certain that the early part of that chapter applies to the latter, it is hard to regard the passage beginning at v. 36 as adequately fulfilled in him. Humanly speaking, it does not seem that the changes now going on in the east are as capable of producing a conquering empire, as they are of producing an antichristian fanaticism: but qui vivra verra .

13. And I saw &c.] Between the sixth and seventh vial, as between the sixth and seventh seal, and between the sixth and seventh trumpet, there appears a vision that has nothing to do with the series in which it is inserted, but which marks the near approach of the final conflict between the kingdoms of light and of darkness. But here we have the preparation for the conflict on the side of the latter, not, as in the two other places, of the former.

unclean spirits ] This phrase is in the Gospels usually synonymous with “devils” or rather “demons.” But here the term “spirit” seems to be rather used in the sense of “inspiring power,” they are called in the next verse “spirits of demons.” See St John’s I. Ep. 4:3; 1 Timothy 4:1 , which probably refer to the same order of things as this: also 1 Samuel 16:14 &c. (note especially “he prophesied,” 18:10), 1 Kings 22:21 sqq.

like frogs ] There may be a reference to the plague of Egypt, Exodus 8:2 sqq., but the parallel is not close. Frogs were proverbial for their constant and meaningless noise, which some think helps us to interpret the likeness. If so, one would be tempted to connect it with St Hippolytus’ view mentioned on 17:12.

the false prophet ] Identified by 19:20 with the second beast of 13:11.

14. devils ] Strictly demons : see on v. 13.

miracles ] Strictly signs , as in 13:14. One may notice, that this is the word always used for miracles in St John’s Gospel.

go forth unto the kings &c.] See 19:19, and cf. 20:3, 8.

the battle ] 17:14, 19:19 21.

15. Behold, I come ] St John apparently hears, and writes down as he hears, the words of Christ spoken in the midst of his vision.

as a thief ] See 3:3 and references.

Blessed is he that watcheth ] The image is that of St Matthew 24:43 , though in the phrase there may be a reminiscence of the different image of St Luke 12:37 .

and keepeth his garments ] The forewarned householder sits up with his clothes on, and the thief will decamp as soon as he sees him. If he were not forewarned, he might hear the thief at work, and start naked out of bed, but would be too late for anything but a fruitless chase in unseemly and ridiculous guise. It seems quite irrelevant to fancy an allusion to the curious Jewish custom, that if a priest fell asleep on night duty in the Temple, his clothes were set on fire which of course would have the effect of making him throw them off, and run away naked.

his shame ] Lit. uncomeliness , as 1 Corinthians 12:23 .

The Muster for the Battle of Armageddon, v. 16

16. And he gathered them ] More probably, and they [the unclean spirits] gathered them . The sentence goes on from the end of v. 14, v. 15 being strictly parenthetical.

Armageddon ] The spelling which has the best authority is “Harmagedon.” The meaning, according as we read Ar or Har , is “the City” or “the Mountain of Megiddo.” But the insertion of “in the Hebrew tongue” perhaps indicates, that the meaning of the name Megiddo (which is apparently “cleaving”) is more important than the geographical note. There is some truth (though some exaggeration) in the description of the plain of Esdraelon as “the battle-field of Palestine:” but the only occasions when Megiddo is mentioned in connexion with a battle are Judges 5:19 , 2 Kings 23:29 (cf. Zechariah 12:11 ). Of course Megiddo or its neighbourhood (“the Mountain of Megiddo” might be Tabor or that conventionally called Little Hermon) may be the destined scene of the gathering and overthrow of the Antichristian powers: but it is hardly to be assumed as certain. In Zechariah 14:4 , Zechariah 14:5 the Mount of Olives, in Joel 3:12 the Valley of Jehoshaphat (wherever that is: it must be a proper name, though a significant one, but it is a convention, and an improbable one, that identifies it with the gorge of the Kidron) seem to be represented as the scene of the Judgement.

The Seventh Vial. Preliminaries of Judgement, vv. 17 21

17. into the air ] Lit. upon the air , according to the best reading.

of heaven ] Should be omitted, but of course it is the heavenly Temple that is meant. Here it seems that the Throne (that of 4:2) is inside it: but see on 4:6. Though coming from the Throne, this voice is not defined, like that of 21:5, as the voice of Him that sat on it: but comparing 21:6 it is possible we ought to take it so.

It is done ] More literally, it is come to pass : but the same word is used in St Luke 14:22 , where of course the A. V. is right. God’s great Judgement has not come to pass yet, but everything has been done to prepare for it. “One who had fired a train would say ‘It is done,’ though the explosion had not yet taken place,” and, we may add, might use the same words again when it had , as in 21:6.

18. voices, and thunders, and lightnings ] 8:5, 11:19. Here the best reading is lightnings and voices and thunders .

earthquake ] 6:12, 11:13: but this earthquake seems distinguished from those as surpassing them greatly in degree: unless the second of those be the local aspect of this.

such as was not , &c.] Cf. Daniel 12:1 ; St Matthew 24:21 .

19. the great city ] Probably Jerusalem , as in chap. 11:8. It seems pointless to suppose Babylon to be mentioned twice over: while on the other view there is a climax. Jerusalem is (or is to be) converted she is the City of God again, yet even she is sorely shaken (cf. 1 St Peter 4:17): other cities are wholly overthrown: while the City of God’s Enemy is to receive something more than overthrow.

was divided into ] There is probably a reminiscence of Zechariah 14:4 , Zechariah 14:5 .

three parts ] It is just possible that there may be a reference to the three parties of John, Eleazar, and Simon, into which Jerusalem was divided at the time of its siege by Titus. We have seen (on 11:13) that Jerusalem is to be converted at the very last: but 11:7, 8 prove that this will not happen till the war with Antichrist is at least begun: consequently, this verse may be concerned with the judgement on Jerusalem still infidel.

the cities of the nations ] Distinguished from Jerusalem on the one hand, and from Babylon on the other.

the cup of the wine &c.] See on 14:10.

20. every island &c.] See 6:14.

great hail ] 8:7, 11:19.

about the weight of a talent ] While natural hailstones weighing the sixtieth part of one are noticed as extraordinary. Some notice, that the stones thrown by the engines at the siege of Jerusalem are said to have been of a talent weight: but it would be far-fetched to suppose these referred to. In this verse at least, the judgement described cannot be on Jerusalem see on 11:13 fin.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Revelation 16". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/revelation-16.html. 1896.
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