THE SEVEN VIALS.
(1) And I heard . . .—A great voice is heard out of the temple; it bids the angels pour out their vials “into the earth;” later on (Revelation 16:17) the voice is heard saying, “It is done.” The voice is then said to come from the throne; it seems likely that the voice of the first verse is the same—the divine voice from the throne itself.
(2) And the first . . .—Translate, And the first went forth, &c. The angel which receives the command departs and pours forth his vial upon the earth. All the vials are poured forth “into the earth” (Revelation 16:1) generally; the first angel pours his vial forth upon the earth, that is, the dry land. And there came an evil and painful sore upon the men (i.e., upon that part of the human race) who, &c. The plague falls on those who carry the mark of the beast, and who worship it. Like the plagues of Egypt, they are directed against those who aid the oppressor. The plague here described resembles the sixth of the Egyptian plagues, the plague of boils (comp. Exodus 9:8-12; Deuteronomy 28:27). Egypt is one type of the world-power; and the plagues are used as types also, and are not to be understood literally. The plague of the “evil sore” denotes some throbbing and hateful sore, perhaps spiritual or mental, which distracts attention and disturbs the personal serenity and self-complacency of the worshippers of the world-power.
(3) And the second angel . . .—Better, And the second (angel) poured out his vial on the sea, and it became blood as of a dead man, and every soul of life died (even) the things that were in the sea. The reference to the first of the Egyptian plagues is clear (Exodus 7:20; comp. Revelation 8:8-9). It has been remarked that “the Egyptian plagues stood in a very close connection with the natural state and circumstances of Egypt. The Nile, which was their strength, became worse than useless when its waters were turned to blood.” There is a similar feature here. The sea, out of which the wild beast rose, from which the world-power drew strength, is turned to blood, the blood as of a dead man, corrupt and loathsome. The sea represented the tumultuous impulses and passions of the masses; there is a certain healthy force in these, but under certain conditions, when devoted to selfishness and earthliness, they become corrupt and deadly. Ruled by God and by right, the voice of multitudes is melodious as the voice of the sea, and the free movement of peoples, like the ocean, a health-giving moral environment to nations; but swayed by impulse, or directed by worldliness, they become an element of corruption, killing every token of better life.
(4) And the third angel . . .—The third vial resembles the second in its effects. As it is poured out on the rivers and springs of waters, they become blood. It is not only the great sea which becomes blood, but all the merry streams and babbling brooks which carry their tribute of water seawards also turn corrupt. And this plague is acknowledged by heavenly voices as a just retribution (Revelation 16:5-7). The streams and rivers feed the sea; they are the powers and influences which go to the making up of the great popular sentiment; these are smitten by the same corruption. Men cannot worship worldliness or earthliness without degrading even those who contribute to their instruction, their recreations, and their joys, to the same level. When the public taste grows corrupt, the literature will, for example, become so in a more or less degree; the up-flowing tide will colour the down-coming stream. “The morality of a nation’s art,” writes a modern critic. “always rises to the level of morality in a nation’s manners. Morality takes care of itself, and always revenges any outrage which art may put upon its laws by either lowering the art that so offends, or extinguishing it” (Dallas, Gay Science, Vol. II., 16). It is true in even a wider sense. The loftier powers of imagination, the range of poetical elevation, are cramped and killed in a base, world-worshipping age. The streams of life grow putrid, the fresh and bright gifts of God are polluted, when the ocean of public thought is unwholesome.
(5) And I heard the angel of the waters . . .—That is, the angel who was set over the waters, or the angel who is, on the heavenly side, representative of the waters. (See Excursus A: On the Angels.) The angel acknowledges God’s righteousness. Thou art righteous . . . because Thou didst judge these things—i.e., because of the righteous law which these judgments manifested.
(5-7) But this state of things is declared to be a just retribution, and reasonably so; for the corruption arises because the true power of life has been rejected: it is the refusal of the good, the want of the life-giving element, which is the secret of all death, physical, moral, spiritual. “’Tis life we want when breath is scant.” The world-power and its worshippers have driven away goodness and faith, the elements of the higher life of man; they have slain the just and the righteous, who were the salt of the earth; they have rejected Christ, who is the life of men; how can they reap anything but decay and death? They slay the righteous; the death of righteousness leaves them nothing but the lifeless blood behind; they can no longer drink moral life from the good; there is but the legacy of death. “Blood of saints and prophets did they pour out; and blood didst Thou give them to drink.”
(6) For they have shed . . .—Better, Because they shed (not, “have shed,” but did shed, or pour out), and blood didst Thou give them; they are worthy. “For” is to be omitted; the sentence has a startling force without it. They—i.e., those enemies of all righteousness—are worthy; they receive the due reward of their deeds.
(7) And I heard . . .—Translate, And I heard (not “another out of the altar,” but) the altar saying, Even so, Lord God the Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments. The altar beneath which the souls of the martyrs cried, and on which the prayers of saints were offered, is represented as confirming the testimony to the just dealings of God.
(8, 9) And the fourth . . .—Better, And the fourth (angel) poured out his vial upon the sun; and it was given to it (the “sun,” not the “angel;” the rendering of the English version “unto him is misleading) to scorch men with fire. And men (i.e., those who were worshippers of the wild beast) were scorched . . . and did not repent to give him glory. The sun, the great source of light and warmth, whose beams call forth the flowers of the earth, becomes a power to blast, not to bless. This is another example of the way in which the things full of beneficence are turned into powers of sorrow to those who follow evil. Not only the pleasant gifts and influences, which, like streams, were made to gladden men, grow corrupt, but the very source of light and knowledge becomes a power to destroy. We may contrast this influence of the sun with the beneficent beams of the Sun of Righteousness. Christ rose as the light and sun upon the world, because He diffused the knowledge which gave life to men; but here we have a light and sun which scorches. There is a knowledge which withers while it illumines; there is a teaching which does not warm the heart, but dries both heart and conscience, and brings but pain. The result, painful as it is, does not work repentance. Suffering, without grace and humility, does not bless men; they grow angry; the fire hardens instead of purifying. The whole series of these judgments illustrate the awful truth that there is a stage in personal life, and in national and world life also, in which suffering loses its remedial force, because the character has become set, and even an occasional desire after higher things is no longer felt.
“When we in our viciousness
Grow hard, the wise gods seal our eyes,
In our own slime drop our clear judgments,
Make us adore our errors, and thus
We strut to our destruction.”
(10) And the fifth . . .—Better, The fifth angel poured out his vial upon the throne (not “the seat:” see Notes on Revelation 4:10; Revelation 13:2) of the wild beast. The vials of judgment gradually dissolve the integrity and organisation of the kingdom of the wild beast. The result of the principles on which it has been based begin to show themselves: first, moral disease in individuals; then a corrupt tone of national morals spreading into the higher orders of society; then the fierce pride of vaunted light which scorches. Where these are, disorganisation is not far off; evil goes out a murderer and comes home a suicide. The retribution comes home; the throne of the world-power, the very head and centre of its authority, is smitten.
And his kingdom was full of darkness.—And his kingdom was darkened. We have the counterpart of the Egyptian plague (Exodus 10:21-23); there was a typical force in that ancient plague: the kingdom which boasted itself so full of light becomes darkened. When men shut out the higher light, the smoke of their own candles will soon obscure the whole heaven. When moral evil is linked with intellectual light, the moral evil will be found the stronger; for we cannot have a sunbeam without the sun. “Take heed,” said Christ, “that the light that is in thee be not darkness.” There is a light that is darkness; the progress of evil bringing about its own retribution proves this conclusively.
(10, 11) But even the failure of their own light does not work repentance: they gnawed their tongues from their pain. Here is remorse and suffering. They are “unto themselves” (as the Book of Wisdom describes the Egyptians) “more grievous than the darkness” (Wisdom of Solomon 17:21); but there is no softening or humbling of themselves, no turning to God. They still love what God hates, and hate what He loves, for they blasphemed God, &c., and repented not of their works. Such is the wretched state of the world-power in the day when retributive evil overtakes it—darkness, pain, and inability to repent. Is it not a picture of the ultimate state of all sin? It is not a vast world-power alone which exhibits pain and confusion like this. It is to be seen over and over again in men and nations. The power of evil comes home and robs men of their accustomed guides. They are brought into darkness and trouble; the throne where the master-power of worldliness sat is cast down; the evil passion which was the unifying power of their life is deprived of the field of its power; then follows exasperation, anger at defeat, readiness to accuse others, but no blame of self, no repentance.
(12) And the sixth . . .—Better, The sixth (angel) poured out his vial on the great river Euphrates; and its water was dried that the way of the kings who are from the rising of the sun might be prepared. The symbolical meaning of the Euphrates has been touched upon before. (See Notes on Revelation 9:14.) In the great age-long struggle between the kingdoms of Christ and the world the Euphrates represents the great separating boundary between the two kingdoms, as the literal Euphrates formed the barrier between Israel and the hostile northern and eastern kingdoms. It is the great impediment to war. It is true that there is a great interposed boundary of public opinion, which restrains evil from breaking forth in its ruder and more violent forms. Men may be hostile to spiritual religion, yet they scarcely like to shock public sentiment, or to incur the charge of depraving public morals; but there may come a time, after false principles have been taught, corrupt manners tolerated, and the light of better things darkened, when the public sentiment loses all sense of shame, and the decorums of life, which have acted as a breakwater against the tide of outrageous evil, are swept away: then is the Euphrates dried, and then may the hostile powers of evil, unrestrained by any considerations, unchecked by the popular conscience, cross boldly over and invade the whole sacred soil of human life. There have been times like this when shameless sin has walked forth, secure of public favour, to desecrate every sanctuary of purity and faith—when the most barbarous manners and the most unscrupulous violations of public faith and morals have been not only tolerated, but applauded. The “kings of the east” (or of the sun-rising) represent the forces of rude and open evil which have been long restrained. As the four barbarian and tyrant kings (Genesis 14:1-24) from the East invaded the land of promise in Abraham’s days, so the leaders of open and violent hate of right, purity, and Christ, have the way of their advance prepared. But certain agencies go forth to bring about this uprising of rude revolt against every sanctity of life.
(13, 14) And I saw . . .—Better, And I saw out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the wild beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, as it were frogs. For they are spirits of demons, doing signs, which go forth upon the kings of the whole world, to gather them together to the war of the great day of God the Almighty. Some have thought that the kings of the East are the representatives of the Christian powers, and that the drying up of the Euphrates is the preparation for their entrance into the land of promise. The general drift of the chapter seems to me to be adverse to this view. The two hostile kingdoms are being brought slowly into open antagonism; the great issues are to be brought to a decisive test; the time comes when a decision must be made: “If God be God, follow Him; if Baal, then follow him.” The situation becomes so strained that it is useless to keep up the appearance of a respectable neutrality, for forces have been at work which are gradually bringing all powers into the conflict. The forces which are at work preparing for this issue are evil forces; “unclean spirits,” little frogs, spirits of demons go forth to gather every world-power to the struggle. All this points to the final mobilisation of the hosts of evil for an attack upon the kingdom of Christ. Every impediment is removed, and the Euphrates is dried. The kings may advance: like the hosts of Pharaoh they may enter the dried-up sea in hot haste of their hatred of all righteousness. Evil is reckless now, and moves to its destruction; but it cannot so move without working upon men. Three evil spirits go forth for this purpose. There are three radical foes of Christ and His righteousness: the dragon, representing the hate of evil spirits; the wild beast, representing the hostility of world-power; the false prophet, representing the antagonism of world-culture and intellectualism—these three send forth each their emissary, appealing to the pride and passions of men. What are we to understand by them? We must consider their origin. The world-power would have us worship the things seen. It sends forth the spirit of earthliness, the spirit which works in the voluptuary, the ambitious, and the avaricious, the spirit which makes earthly things its end (Philippians 3:19). The world-culture sends forth its spirit of intellectualism, which denies the spiritual nature of man, and substitutes taste and culture for spirituality. The dragon sends forth the spirit of egotism, of proud, self-sufficient independence, which culminates in an utter hatred of the Creator. The three spirits combined make up that wisdom which St. James described as earthly, sensual (unspiritual, psychical), devilish (James 3:15). We may compare the three foes in the “Red Cross Knight:” Sansloy (without law), Sansfoy (without faith), and Sansjoy (without joy)—Spenser’s Faerie Queene. They are like frogs: here is a reference again to the Egyptian plagues.
These spirits gather all earthly powers to the war (not “battle”) of the great day of God the Almighty. The day which will test the power of combined evil, the day which, beginning in rash pride, will end in bitter defeat, to this the evil spirits lure their followers, as the false prophets lured Ahab to his overthrow at Ramoth-Gilead (1 Kings 22:20): such is one of the final aspects of evil. The voice of inclination is listened to as though it were prophetic. The suggestions of sinful desire are not only obeyed, but reverenced as oracles. The wicked hath an oracle of transgression in his heart (Psalms 36:1 et seq.).
(15) Behold, I come . . .—Translate, Behold, I come as a thief. It is the oft-repeated Scripture warning (Revelation 3:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3; 2 Peter 3:10. Comp. Luke 12:35-40). It reminds us not only that our Lord may come unexpectedly, but that He may even come and we be unaware. There is one day when He will come, and every eye will behold Him; but He comes in various ways and forms to bless and to test man. Blessed are they who are ready, watching. But vigilance is not enough: the garments must be kept. The powers of evil are abroad. Sloth and pleasure may counsel ease, and tempt the watcher to lay aside his garments and take rest and sleep. The earnest watcher desires, like St. Paul, to be found in Christ, clad in the true righteousness of faith (Philippians 3:9).
(16) And he gathered . . .—Better, He gathered them together to the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon. Armageddon is the mountain of Megiddo. It is the high table-land surrounded by hills which was the great battle-field of the Holy Land. There the fortunes of dynasties and kingdoms have been decided; there the cause of liberty has triumphed; there kings fought and fell; there Gideon and Barak were victorious; there Ahaziah and Josiah were slain. The old battle-ground becomes the symbol of the decisive struggle. It is raised in meaning: it is a type, not a locality. The war of principles, the war of morals, the war of fashion culminates in an Armageddon. The progress of the spiritual struggle in individual men must lead in the same way to a mountain of decision, where the long-wavering heart must take sides, and the set of the character be determined. “There is no waving of banners and no prancing of horses’ hoofs; the warfare is spiritual, so that there is in sight neither camp nor foe.” It is that conflict which emerges out of various opinions and diverse principles: “the religious tendencies of the times” are (as we have been reminded) powers marshalling themselves for the battle of Armageddon. We must not look for great and startling signs: the kingdom and the conflict of the kingdom is within and around us (Luke 17:20-21).
(17) And the seventh . . .—Translate, And the seventh (angel) poured out his vial upon the air, and there came forth a voice out of the temple, from the throne, saying, It is done. The results of the outpouring of this vial are described in the following verses; but before these are seen, the voice from the throne—God’s own voice (see Revelation 16:1)—proclaims, as though rejoicing in the near approach of the happy end, “It is done.” The close of these scenes of sin and suffering is now at hand, for the last of the last plagues has been sent forth.
(18) And there were voices . . .—There is some variety in the order of the words in different MSS. There were lightnings, and voices, and thunders (comp. Revelation 8:5; Revelation 11:19); there was a great earthquake, such as was not from the time there was a man upon the earth. The earthquake, which is the shaking down of the kingdom of evil (comp. Hebrews 12:26-29), completes the overthrow of which the earlier judgments have been precursors. The throne of the wild beast has been visited, the centre of his power smitten; now the metropolis of his empire is about to fall. And the great city (i.e., Babylon, the symbol of the world-power’s capital) became into three parts. It lost its power of cohesion. The three evil spirits endeavoured to unite all powers in one grand assault, but there is no natural cohesion among those whose only bond is hatred of good. The first convulsion shakes them to pieces, and the cities of the nations fall. Every subordinate power in which the earthly element was mingled (comp. Daniel 2:41-44) is overthrown in the earthquake, even as every tree which the “Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13); and great Babylon was remembered before God, &c. The features of the overthrow of Babylon are described more fully later on (Revelation 17, 18), where the various aspects of evil in the great metropolis of the world-power are dealt with (Revelation 17:1-7; Revelation 18:1-3). The fall of Pagan Rome is but one illustration of the overthrow of Babylon.
(20) And every island fled.—So wide-spread are the effects of the earthquake; the convulsion tests every spot; there is only one kingdom which cannot be shaken. (Comp. Daniel 2:44; Daniel 6:26; Hebrews 10:28.)
(21) And there fell. . . .—And a great hail, as of a talent in weight, descends from the heaven on men. There is again a reference to the Egyptian plagues. But we may also call to mind the great defeat of the enemies of Israel at Beth-horon (Joshua 10:1-11), when “the Lord cast down great stones from heaven.” Such an overthrow awaits every confederacy that sets itself in array against the kingdom of the righteous King. The discomfiture and the plague works no repentance; the men blaspheme God because of the hail, for great is its plague exceedingly. The proud, hard spirit which still hates the good remains: thus is sin its own worst penalty. As an illustration of this hard, unsubdued spirit, we may call to mind Capaneus, in Dante’s Inferno, and the words in which Virgil addresses him:—
“Thou art more punished, in that this thy pride
Lives yet unquenched; no torment save thy rage
Were to thy fury pain proportioned full.
The unrepentant state of those upon whom the vials are poured is to be contrasted with the different result of the earthquake in Revelation 11:13, when men gave glory to the God of heaven.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Revelation 16". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany