The Bowl Judgments

Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #16)

Our studies in prophecy have now brought us to the last half of the tribulation period. Satan and his fellow rebellious angels have lost a second war in heaven. The Antichrist has either literally arisen from the dead after an assassination attempt or at least duped the world into believing that he has risen from the dead. Either way he is now possessed by a powerful demon. He has broken his treaty with Israel. He has taken over the Jewish temple. The world is worshiping him as a messianic figure. His False Prophet has erected an image to him in the Jewish temple. The False Prophet has also instituted a system of buying and selling that requires a special mark. Anyone who refuses to take this mark will either be put to death or be forced to live in hiding and survive as best he can. Okay, so where do things go from here? Let’s find out.

In Revelation 14:1-5, John says, “Then I looked, and behold a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him, one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.” We know who these 144,000 are because we met them in Revelation 7:1-8. They are the 144,000 Jewish evangelists who will take the gospel into all the world and win millions to Christ during the first half of the tribulation period. But here now, at the opening of chapter 14, their ministry is finished and they are standing with Jesus on what John calls “Mount Zion.” While it’s true that the earthly city of Jerusalem is referred to as Zion (2 Samuel 5:7, Psalm 87:2-3, etc.), Hebrews 12:22-24 leaves no doubt that there is also a heavenly Mount Zion. And it’s this heavenly Mount Zion where John sees the 144,000 standing.

How do we know this? We know it because the entire chapter describes a heavenly scene. John hears “a voice from heaven” (Revelation 14:2). He hears “the sound of harpists playing their harps” (Revelation 14:2). He hears the 144,000 singing a new song as they stand before the throne of God (Revelation 14:3). The four living creatures (some type of angels) are there (Revelation 14:3). The 24 elders (a group that represents the entirety of the raptured church) are there (Revelation 14:3). John sees an angel come out of the temple in heaven (Revelation 14:17). He sees another one come out from the altar in heaven (Revelation 14:18).  Even Jesus Himself moves from standing beside the 144,00 in verse 1 to sitting on a cloud in verses 14-16.

The question, then, is not, “Where are the 144,000 at this point in the tribulation period?” Clearly, they are in heaven. The question is, “How did they get there?” Unfortunately, that’s an answer that we simply aren’t given. This leaves us with two possibilities. Option 1: They were miraculously transported alive to heaven in a type of specialized event similar to the Rapture. Option 2: Once the time of their ministry on earth was finished, God dropped the protective seal (Revelation 7:1-4) they had enjoyed for the first half of the tribulation period and the Antichrist put them to death not long afterward.

No one can say for sure which of these options is correct, and any attempt to do so is mere speculation. That’s why I won’t even make an attempt. What I will do is draw your attention to the fact that, with the earthly departure of the 144,000, the evangelistic good the tribulation period produces will for the most part end.

I say “for the most part” because John does inform us that God will dispatch three angels from heaven to fly through the earth’s sky sometime during the last half of the tribulation period. The first angel will preach the gospel (Revelation 14:6-7). This is actually the only time in the entire Bible where an angel is commissioned to preach the gospel. The second angel will pronounce the soon-coming judgment upon “Babylon” (Revelation 14:8). (I’ll explain that in a later post.) The third angel will remind the earth’s inhabitants that anyone who takes the mark of the beast or worships the beast’s image will surely experience the eternal wrath of God (Revelation 14:9-11). I’ve heard these three angels described as God’s “mop up operation” to make sure that every last person in the closing half of the tribulation period has a chance to believe in Jesus as Savior and shun the lie that is the Antichrist.

Really, though, as amazing as these “preaching” angels will be, there won’t be many people saved after the midway point of the tribulation period. As a matter of fact, there is no record in The Revelation of anyone becoming a Christian after that midway point. It’s just not that kind of season for the earth and its inhabitants. Instead, it’s a season of God’s wrath.

As evidence of this, we should pay close attention to what Jesus is holding as John sees Him sitting upon that cloud in Revelation 14:14-16. He is holding a sickle. What’s He going to do with that sickle? John watches as He figuratively swings it over the earth and harvests the earth. You see, this is a heavenly scene that figuratively depicts what is about to happen upon the earth in the last three-and-a-half-years of the tribulation period. God’s sickle of judgment is about to be swung.

Jesus swinging the sickle in verses 14-16 typifies how grain was harvested in ancient times. Thus, there is no mention of anything flowing from the effect of the blade. In verses 17-20, however, yet another angel gets involved. This angel comes out of heaven’s temple holding his own sickle, and when he swings it over the earth it typifies how grapes were harvested. We know this because John talks about how the angel’s sickle “gathered the grapes from earth’s vineyard” (Holman Christian Standard translation) and “threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.” Some commentators believe these two different harvests speak of the two different groups who will be alive on the earth at Christ’s second coming. The Christians (the “wheat”) will be harvested in the sense of being rescued and welcomed into Christ’s 1,000 year kingdom on earth, and the lost (the “grapes”) will be harvested in the sense of being put to death and their souls banished to hell.

Like the juice that flows when clusters of grapes are thrown into a winepress and crushed, much blood will flow from the inhabitants of the earth as a result of God’s wrath (Revelation 14:17-19). This blood will flow especially high “outside the city (Jerusalem)” (Revelation 14:20). John describes a river of blood “up to the horses’ bridles” that runs for “one thousand six hundred furlongs.” That’s over four feet high and 200 miles long. This is surely a reference to the blood that will flow in and around the area of Jerusalem as a part of the lead up to and culmination of the battle of Armageddon. Perhaps the language is exaggerated. Then again, perhaps it isn’t. One thing is for sure: MUCH blood will be shed during the last days of the tribulation period.

The fact is, though, that even before the world gets to all that bloodshed, it will have to endure one final wave of seven judgments as the last half of the period opens. The old King James translation refers to these as the “vial judgments” but modern translations call them the Bowl Judgments. This name comes from the fact that each judgment involves an angel pouring out the contents of a bowl of judgment. John describes these seven judgments as “the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete” (Revelation 15:1). I’ll use the remainder of this post to examine the first four of these judgments.

Bowl Judgment #1 (Revelation 16:1-2): A Terrible Sore

John watched as the first angel poured out his bowl upon the earth, and “a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image” (Revelation 16:2). This sore is what we might think of as an ulcer on the skin. It is a running boil that oozes pus. Since it is “foul” it must give off a bad odor as well. In similar fashion, the sixth plague with which God struck Egypt was a plague of boils that broke out on people and animals (Exodus 9:9-11).

Any and all who have taken the mark of the beast will be afflicted with this sore. It’s possible that the sore will pop up in the location of the mark, either on the right hand or on the forehead. These sores will last for a while too. Revelation 16:11 indicates that people will still have them well into the fifth bowl judgment. And let’s not underestimate the irritation and pain of a sore. I get cranky when I get a fever blister on my lip!

Bowl Judgment #2 (Revelation 16:3): The Sea Turned To Blood

The second angel poured out his bowl upon the sea, and “it became blood as of a dead man; and every living creature in the sea died” (Revelation 16:3). We’ve seen this kind of thing before in The Revelation. As we studied the second trumpet judgment, we read about a great mountain burning with fire being thrown into the sea (Revelation 8:8). This mountain causes one-third of the sea to become “blood,” one-third of the sea’s living creatures to die, and one-third of the sea’s ships to be destroyed (Revelation 8:9). Here now with this second bowl judgment we have the entirety of the sea becoming like blood and every living creature in it dying.

I’ve always found it interesting that both these judgments affect the “sea” (singular) as opposed to the “seas” (plural). What should we make of this? One explanation is that John is speaking exclusively of the Mediterranean Sea. Remember that he was in exile on the island of Patmos, which is in the Aegean Sea, which is a part of the larger Mediterranean. A second explanation is that God’s perspective from heaven is that the earth’s various oceans total up to one big “sea” that covers 70% of the planet. A third explanation, one that sounds more provocative, is that by the time of the tribulation period the earth’s seas will have risen to a point high enough to flood over enough areas to actually merge and become one sea. But please don’t run off too far with that last explanation. I only included it to offer a bit of “outside the box” thinking.

As was the case with that second trumpet judgment, the question everyone wants answered is, “Is John talking about literal blood?” In my comments on that trumpet judgment, I mentioned that there is a phenomenon called a “red tide” in which billions of microorganisms die in a body of water and turn the water red. Another term for this natural occurrence is an “algae bloom.”

So, could this be what John saw? Maybe, but it seems doubtful. First, no “red tide” has ever covered an entire ocean. Second, John seems to make a point of emphasizing that he’s talking about literal blood when he says the blood is “as of a dead man” (Revelation 16:3). Regardless of whether or not the blood in the water is literal blood, the primary thing to understand about the second bowl judgment is that its scope and magnitude are far worse than the second trumpet judgment. We aren’t dealing with one-third of the salt waters and sea creatures this time; we’re dealing with all of them.

Bowl Judgment #3 (Revelation 16:4-7): The Fresh Waters Turned To Blood

The third angel poured out his bowl “on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood” (Revelation 16:4). Here again we’ve seen this kind of thing before in our walk through The Revelation. The third trumpet judgment gives us a great star that falls from heaven and makes one-third of the rivers and springs of water bitter. The difference in the third bowl judgment is that all of the rivers and springs of water become blood.

Again, is John describing literal blood? A straightforward reading does seem to point in that direction. In verses 5 and 6, the angel who poured out the third bowl explains that God has now judged those who shed the blood of saints and prophets in that He has given them blood to drink as their just due. Those martyred saints and prophets certainly didn’t shed algae blooms, did they?

Bowl Judgment #4 (Revelation 16:8-9): An Intensified Sun

The fourth angel poured out his bowl “on the sun, and power was given to him to scorch men with fire” (Revelation 16:8). During the fourth trumpet judgment a third of the sun, moon, and stars is darkened. The reverse happens, though, concerning the sun in the fourth bowl judgment. This is more evidence that the last half of the tribulation period will be much worse than the first half.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which the sun’s rays scorched people? Forget about vacationing at the beach or at the lake. Then again, apparently all those waters would be blood anyway. I suppose the people alive on the earth during this time will be forced to remain indoors during the day. And what about all the grass, trees, flowers, and herbs? Evidently, all that greenery will be burned up.

I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s and the dire warnings about how the spray from aerosol cans was depleting the ozone layer that protects the earth’s atmosphere from the harmful rays of the sun. This led to the worldwide phasing out of those types of products, a phasing out that is now almost complete. It just could be, though, that in the last half of the tribulation period the ozone layer will be weakened somehow, which will result in an intensified sun. On the other hand, the ozone layer could remain the same but the sun could start spewing out solar flares, go supernova altogether, or something like that.

Whatever the exact details will be, we might assume that all these ecological disasters will cause the earth’s inhabitants to turn to God and cry out to Him for help. But that assumption would be wrong. John says, “And men scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory” (Revelation 16:9).

The reality of the situation will be that once a person takes the mark of the beast, there won’t be any turning back spiritually. No matter what befalls that person, he/she will have lost the ability to turn to God. The only time these people will speak of Him will be when they curse Him, blaspheme His name, or blame Him for all their troubles. This is a rock-bottom state in which to exist, but it’s how the majority of the earth’s inhabitants in the tribulation period will live.

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