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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter XVI
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





This chapter discloses the sevenfold series of judgments that came on Great Babylon, culminating in the seventh with the grand consummation of her doom. This series of vials bears a striking resemblance to the seven seals and also yet more to the seven trumpets which are substantially an expansion of the seventh seal. By successive visitations of judgment, blow after blow, upon the earth (v. 2); the sea (v. 3); rivers and fountains (vs. 4-7); the sun (vs. 8, 9); the throne of the beast (vs. 10, 11); the great Euphrates (vs. 12-16); and last, into the air (vs. 17-21)—the progress of devastation is indicated and the mind receives a deeper impression by the fuller expansion of the subject and the presentation of its special details; or rather by a succession of pictures, scene after scene of desolation, you come to feel that woes are gathered up from all the magazines of God's providential judgments—all the ministries of wasting, plague and deathtill the climax of horrors is reached at last in hail of a talent's weight, crashing down upon defenseless cities and their helpless populations.—To some extent we may trace resemblances here to the successive plagues on Egypt, yet here the scenes are not historic but ideal—a species of picture-paintingthings shown to the seer of Patmos for the purpose of making on his mind and on the minds of his readers the impression of successive judgments, diversified, vast in their range and scope, fearful in their character, terribly desolating in their final result. I can, not repress the conviction that those interpreters who dissociate these successive vials, who assume that they occur entirely and far apart from each other, one falling upon this nation in some given age of the world, another upon that, far remote in place and time, and so on through the entire seven, have greatly mistaken the whole drift of this vision. As the seven seals, so these seven vials, are parts of one grand whole. They fall, not upon many entirely distinct nationalities, but upon some one great central power, and upon others only as related to the controlling force at the center. As to time it is in my view quite clear that in the case of the vials, as in the case of the seals and trumpets, they stand not far remote from each other but in close proximity, so that the discrimination of the successive dates of their historic fulfillment is a matter of the least possible account. The series is designed to group together the providential blows that fell on Pagan Rome, the judgments which came in successive storm-blasts upon her, till, shaken to her deep foundations, at last she fell, and Imperial Rome was powerless!

1. And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.

Precisely rendered, the best manuscripts read—"Go, pour out the seven vials," etc. The great voice of command came forth from the temple where, according to Hebrew ideas, God was supposed to dwell to hear the prayers of his people. It was in answer to their prayer that these judgments came on their cruel oppressors. See chap. 6: 9-11.

2. And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshiped his image.

The vials follow the course of the trumpets in this, that the first plague causes suffering but does not take life. See especially the first, second, fourth and fifth trumpets.—This sore [ulcer], torturing and terrible, reminds us of the "boils and blains" of Egypt, and may be considered as an imitation of that plague. (Ex. 9: 9-11).—These judgments fell with exact discrimination, only upon those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image. So most of the plagues of Egypt discriminated in favor of Israel, smiting the Egyptians only.—Several of the most ancient manuscripts (Sinaitic and Alexandrine) render it probable that the true reading should be; not "upon" but into the earth, taking effect terribly.

3. And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.

The sea became not merely as blood—something resembling blood; but became blood, resembling that of a dying man, i. e., of one mortally wounded; real blood and in abundance, as when the life-sluices are opened. Of course in such an ocean no creature could live; no form of animal life could survive. Hence this symbol denotes destructive agencies. But it were vain to look for a literal fulfillment of this. Nor would it be in place to look for an era remarkable for marine disasters, or for a pestilence among the myriad populations of the great deep. Such interpretations lose sight of the purposed application of these symbols.

4. And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.

5. And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus.

6. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.

Here too we readily trace the analogy with the plagues on Egypt.—The angel of the waters is he who presides over the waters, it being assumed that God employs angelic agencies for whatever supernatural effects he may desire upon the elements in the material world. It was therefore solemnly significant and impressive that this angel should recognize the justice of God in this plague.—The most approved reading of v. 5 omits "O Lord," and in place of "and shall be," has the holy One, thus: "Righteous art thou who art and who wast, the Holy One, because thou hast judged thus." The last clause means, not, hast decreed or determined thus; but hast inflicted such judgments.—V. 6 sets forth the judgment after the type of the sin, to make it a vivid reminder to the sufferers of what they had done—thus, Because the blood of saints and prophets they have poured forth, therefore blood dost thou give them to drink! Worthy are they!—Their rivers and their fountains of water turned to blood would remind them of the rivers of blood they had made to flow from the ghastly wounds of slain prophets and saints of God.

7. And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.

It is remarkable that the Sinaitic and Alexandrine manuscripts omit "another out of," and read simply and most briefly—"I heard the altar say"—as if the altar were itself personified, sympathizing with the suffering and praying martyrs who lay at its feet—(under the altar, is the phrase in chap. 6: 9-11). The altar utters the convictions of the holy in heaven, witnessing that God's ways in judgment on guilty Rome are true to his promise of protection and deliverance to his people—righteous in their relations to the eternal justice of his throne.

8. And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.

9. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.

This plague causes suffering but not immediate death. This vial poured upon the sun intensified its heat to scorching power upon these wicked men, almost roasting them alive. —In the last clause of v. 8, the more exact rendering is, not "power was given," but "it was given to it [the sun], or possibly to him [the angel] to scorch men with fire." The original will bear either construction equally well. But the meaning is that the heat of the sun was so increased that it scorched men, etc.—Note the result upon these hardened sinners. They did not repent but only blasphemed God the more. This is according to the nature of sinning moral agents. When sin has thoroughly gained the ascendency in the heart and the moral being gives himself up to sin, thenceforward rebellion becomes a madness and a desperation, showing how baseless is the hope and how contrary to the laws of a sinning moral nature is the expectation that the pains of hell will bring sinners to repentance. It is a moral impossibility. In the present world it is far more often the case that love melts than that fear subdues. But when even love loses its power and is only despised, what remains for the desperate rebel but the visitations of judgment, the madness and the woes of the lost!—It is remarkable that these predictions of the moral effects of God's visitations of pain on the guilty in this world should throw so much light on the nature of sin and the moral effect of suffering in the prison-house of the world to come.

10. And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain,

11. And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.

This plague also seems to have had for its function, torture, not death.—Upon the seat—i. e., throne of the beast, indicating that these judgments fell on Imperial Rome. The references to "the great city," and to "great Babylon" (v. 19) prove that all these terms—"the beast;" "the great city;" "great Babylon" are used interchangeably or nearly so, with only this distinction, that the beast and his horns look more directly to the imperial power, and the other terms—"city" and "Babylon," to the very city where that imperial power had its seat and center.—"Full of darkness," literally, was darkened, deeply shaded and overcast with gloom; oppressed with grievous calamity. As usual, darkness indicates great calamity, the dying out of hope, the pressure of terrible ills.—Here, too, as under the fourth vial, men suffer fearfully, but repent not. So far from repenting, they only blaspheme God the more desperately, with mad rage and the very spirit of Satanic rebellion.

12. And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.

This sixth vial has a somewhat striking analogy to the sixth trumpet (9: 14): "Loose the four angels who are bound in the great river Euphrates." The drying of the Euphrates may be in historic allusion to the drying of the Red Sea under the rod of Moses, to which Isaiah also alludes (Isa. 11: 15, 16), and not improbably to the drying of this very river-bed by Cyrus to prepare the way for the capture of Babylon. We have the fact of drying the bed of a great water in both eases; the very locality is given in the case of Cyrus. The underlying principle appears in both cases—God's supreme, providential agency, equal to any desired result of judgment and ruin on his enemies.—As to the historic facts predicted, it is well known that the Parthians from the great East beyond the Euphrates were in the age of John the only great power capable of measuring arms with Imperial Rome under the shock of their numbers and of their energy, Rome began to lose her prestige of victory and her long acknowledged superiority in arms; and soon the hordes from Northern Europe and Asia broke in upon her as if indeed the way of their kings had been prepared of God for the desolation of that great, idolatrous and persecuting city.

13. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

14. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.

It results from the nature of these symbolic visions that spirits become visible. The three unclean (i. e., loathsome, wicked, satanic) spirits take on the appearance of frogs—being held up by this symbol to our disgust, abhorrence, execration. They come forth out of the mouth of the great red dragon of chap. 12: 3; and out of the mouth of the beast of chap. 13: 1, 2; and out of the mouth of the false prophet of chap. 13: 11-15. But very noticeably the term "beast" in this last case is dropped and we have an explanatory term in its stead, i. e., the symbol shades off into or toward the reality. For I see not how we can for a moment doubt that the second beast (of chap. 13: 11-15) is precisely the same as the false prophet here and in 19: 20 and 20: 10. The descriptions given of his functions in chap. 13: 13, 14, and in 19: 20 suffice to decide this point with certainty. The first description is—"he doeth great wonders; maketh fire to come down from heaven in the sight of men; deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by his miracles," etc.—all in the interest of the first beast. In the latter passage (19: 20) "the beast was taken and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast," etc. The "false prophet" therefore is only another name for the beast which came out of the earth, "having two horns like a lamb, and who spake as a dragon."—All these three unclean spirits are further described—"spirits of devils working miracles," and their special mission as shown here is "to go forth and muster all the kings of the world to the battle of the great day of God Almighty." This is done by alluring them into the idolatries of old Rome and into her persecuting work against the saints of God. This of course would put them into antagonism against Almighty God and array them for that final battle which the visions of this prophecy portend.

15. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.

"Come as a thief," but only in the respect here indicated, i. e., not to steal—not to violate a precept of the moral law; but to come suddenly, with no immediate and special forewarning. The symbol contemplates the taking away of another's clothing surreptitiously, leaving him when he awoke with no garments to hide his shame. But of course such symbols must be construed within the limitations which the nature of the case demands.—The solemn admonition is, Watch; for else the coming of the Almighty in his judgments will find thee sleeping and leave thee naked and undone!

16. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.

Not "he"—any one individual—but they [the three unclean spirits] gathered them [the kings of the earth, v. 14] together. The place Armageddon (equal to Mount of Megiddo) takes its name by historic allusion from Megiddo, a place famed for battle and slaughter, where a host of Canaanites fell before Deborah and Barak (Judges 5: 19); and where the good Josiah was mortally wounded in battle with Pharaoh-nechoh (2 Kings 23: 29 and 2 Chron. 35: 20-25)—a scene which became the more memorable because of the great mourning over the fall of Josiah to which Zechariah alludes (12: 11). The significance here is essentially a place of immense slaughter. There the Almighty meets them for terrible retribution!

17. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and their came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.

These awful inflictions reach their crisis and consummation under the seventh vial. It is poured into the air, perhaps as being the supposed abode of the spirits from the pit, Satan being "the prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2: 2); or may it not be because, poured out upon the air, it was naturally diffused over all the realm of the beast, taking effect every-where?—The "great voice from the temple"—the recognized abode of the Great God who hears prayer—witnesses to the connection between the prayers of suffering martyrs and this crushing infliction upon the great persecuting power of the early Christian age. The proclamation made was tersely and terribly expressive—done, DONE! Imperial Rome goes down and is no more! So much was shown and said in this heavenly vision.

18. And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.

The old manuscripts exhibit some diversity in the order of the three words—"voices;" thunders; lightnings; with the best authorities for this: "lightning and voices and thunder." This diversity may be due to some doubt whether there were any articulate voices other than the echoes of the thunder, the two last words in the preferred order expressing but one idea—"and voices of the awful thunder."—The earthquake was Nature's witness to the footsteps of God, coming in his fearful retributions! The same symbol was the last antecedent forewarning of the first dread catastrophe (11: 13). What could be more significant, what more terrific! as if the solid earth were trembling and giving way because it could not endure the face of the Almighty in the great day of his wrath!

19. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.

This great Babylon is the same whose fall was proclaimed by the second angel (14: 8); the same which is represented by the "great harlot" and the "woman" (17: 1-6, 18), and whose fall is the theme of chap. 18.—Her sins of idolatry and cruel oppression and persecution of the saints come up before God, remembered for retribution, and now the time has come for her to drink the wine-cup of his indignation. The great city seen in vision as "divided into three parts" probably indicates in general that it was utterly demolished, its imperial power broken down and brought to nought.—The phrase, "the cities of the nations," the Sinaiti manuscript gives, "the city;" in the singular, apparently taking it as another designation of Rome herself, the queen city of the nations. But the mass of authorities are for the plural, which must be understood to refer to the powers represented by the ten horns of chap. 17: 12-17: in other words, the outlying provinces and kingdoms that were long tributary to Rome; that sinned with her, to some extent turned against her in the era of her decline, but finally suffered a similar doom of righteous retribution.

20. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.

The scene is fearful and the language vividly descriptive. Ever island fled; not a mountain could be found—literally, "mountain were not found." How can even the great rock formations of our globe that underlie the islands and make the huge mountains, endure the dreadful presence of the Almighty in the day of his avenging retributions upon the "mother of harlots and abominations of the earth!" (17: 5.)

21. And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great.

The Attic talent is estimated at fifty-seven pounds troy and the Jewish at one hundred and fourteen. Hail-stones of such weight fall like bomb-shot or cannon balls. The vial poured into the air is bringing forth its fruit in this terrific storm!—Again we are told that men repent not under this last and most fearful infliction, but only blaspheme God the more.—The historic fulfillment of this catalogue of woes will be more appropriately presented at the close of the yet more detailed description in chap. 18.

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