The vision which Jesus grants to John seems to follow a cyclical pattern: the opening of the seven seals led into the sounding of the seven trumpets (cf. Revelation 6:1-11:19). An interlude takes place between the sixth seal/trumpet and the seventh seal/trumpet (Revelation 7:1-17, 10:1-11:14). The images alternate between scenes of judgment and vindication. The 144,000 introduced in Revelation 7:1-8 are found again in Revelation 14:1-5; the seventh trumpet proclaimed the concluded judgment (Revelation 11:15-10) while judgment is seen again in Revelation 14:14-20. Therefore, we should not be surprised when the description of the seven bowl judgments amplify and reinforce these cycles (Revelation 15:1-16:21).
After having seen the earth reaped and gleaned, John then sees the seven angels with the seven plagues which will be poured out of seven bowls (Revelation 15:1, 7). He also sees the sea of glass as from Revelation 4:6 but this time as of fire, and near it those who conquered the beast, and they sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, praising the Lord God Almighty without any reference to themselves (Revelation 15:1-4). John then sees the sanctuary of the tent of witness opened, the seven angels with the seven bowls come forth, and such great smoke from the glory of God so that none could enter until the plagues were finished (Revelation 15:5-8).
The angels were then to pour out the bowls (Revelation 16:1). The seven bowls conclude a threefold pattern of sevens, indicating completeness: the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:1), the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11:19), and now the seven bowls (Revelation 16:1-21). These bowls are vessels whose contents are quickly and easily poured out, and they contain the wrath of God (Revelation 16:1). The events described follow the patterns of the plagues in Exodus 7:14-12:32 as well as the seven seals and seven trumpets but in a much more complete, thorough, and devastating way, indicating the finality of the judgment involved.
As the first four bowls are poured out, sores break out on those who bore the mark of the beast and prostrated before its image, the sea and the sources of fresh water were turned to blood, and the sun scorched people with fire (Revelation 16:2-9). These judgments are deemed appropriate since they exact justice upon those who killed the saints and prophets, and the people continue to blaspheme and do not repent.
The fifth bowl is poured out directly upon the throne of the beast and darkness covers his kingdom. This darkness is so profound that it causes great anguish among the people, and yet they still do not repent (Revelation 16:10-11). The sixth bowl is poured out upon the Euphrates river and its water is dried up; meanwhile, frogs come forth from the mouths of the dragon, beast, and false prophet (the second beast of Revelation 13:11-18), which are called unclean spirits who do signs and persuade the kings of the earth to assemble at “Armageddon” (Revelation 16:12-16).
One might expect a vast battle to begin, but as the seventh bowl is poured out, a voice comes forth from the temple proclaiming, “it is done” (Revelation 16:17). Flashes of lightning, thunder, and a great earthquake take place (Revelation 16:18; cf. Revelation 8:5, 11:19). Babylon, the great city, is divided into three parts by it, islands flee away, mountains are not to be found, and almost one hundred pound hailstones fall from the sky onto people (Revelation 16:19-21). They curse God because of the severity of the hail (Revelation 16:21).
People have sought to identify these descriptions with concrete historical events for centuries; the results are varied and tend to tell more about the interpreters than the text itself. As the seven seals indicated the sorts of judgments that were soon to happen, and the seven trumpets began to proclaim the execution of those judgments, so the seven bowls represent the completion and ultimate fulfillment of God’s judgments upon those who stand against Him: Satan, the world secular and religious powers empowered by Satan who arrogate against God, and those who follow after them. People rely on their health and the quality of their land and water; if they stand opposed to God, God removes these blessings from them. World powers rail at God and persecute His people: as God directly challenged the authority of Pharaoh and overthrew him, so will He do to Rome all other powers that may stand against him, attacking the very “throne of the beast.” People will conspire to go to war; God will meet them there. Whenever people arrogate against God and resist His purposes, the time will come when His wrath will be revealed. And, as before, despite the suffering and misery, people will remain rebellious and hardened against God (Isaiah 8:21, Jeremiah 5:3, 6:29-30, Ezekiel 24:13, Romans 1:21).
Meanwhile, the people of God stand and praise the Lord God Almighty. Some have died for their faith, but their “defeat” is really victory, for they have overcome the beast through their death. They proclaim the song of Moses and the Lamb, recounting both the victory of God over the oppressive pagan power in the days of the Exodus as well as the victory of God over the oppressive spiritual powers of darkness through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Exodus 15:1-18, Romans 8:1-2, 31-39, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 12:9). They no longer experience distress, pain, and misery as it is poured out upon those who oppose God (Revelation 7:16).
The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet cause great distress and pain for the people of God. Yet John is beginning to see their end: as God’s judgments were brought against Egypt, Assyria, Israel, and Babylon in turn, so they will come upon Rome and every other world power arrogating itself against the Lord God Almighty. The victory is in sight: Rome as the whore Babylon must first be introduced in her fullness, and disposed of in turn, and the grand pageant will reach its glorious end. Let us not be distressed by opposition or discouraged away from the faith; let us stay awake and obtain the blessing of the people of God!