39. The Besom of the Bowls

The Unveiling of Jesus Christ

The Concordant Version


CHAPTER 16:2-21

THE BESOM OF THE BOWLS

GOD'S judgments are just. To whom much is given much is required. It follows that the severest of His inflictions cannot be visited on all without discrimination. In consequence, some of the bowls are clearly localized. One falls on the throne of the wild beast, another on the Euphrates. This leads us to conclude that its intensive phases focus on the apostate nation, and deal with that limited area which is the special sphere of Yahweh's manifestation through His chosen people Israel.

Not only are the judgments confined in scope, but they are limited to the sphere of religion. We cannot repeat too often the fact that the judgments of the seals and trumpets are political, so were ushered in by a vision of the throne, but the bowls are religious, hence are preceded by the opening of the temple. Nor can we be too insistent on the further distinction between the two temple openings, the former disclosing the covenant, and concerned with Yahweh's care for His people, and the latter exposing the law, or testimony, to view, for the infraction of which He is about to deal with them in unrestrained fury.

The bowls are poured out upon the worshipers of the wild beast (16:2), on those who shed the blood of saints and prophets (16:6). They cause men to blaspheme God (16:11) and His name (16:9), and include the complete destruction of great Babylon. All of these have to do, not with political power, but with divine relationships. Human religion, as headed up in the wild beast and the false woman of Shinar's plain, receive the final and most fearful of God's visitations.

The term "vial," which is usually applied to these judgments, is inadequate and misleading. There were no vials used in the temple service. The messengers used the golden basins or bowls belonging to the divine ritual. A vial is usually a small, narrow vessel, with its opening no larger than its body. This utterly fails to impress the proper picture on our minds. During the concluding climax of the judgment era, the worship of God will consist in emptying the golden bowls of the temple, brimming with God's furious indignation, on those who usurp God's place upon the earth.

The bowls are given to the messengers by one of the animals. If we were allowed to speculate as to which one of them would fulfill this office, I suppose we would all agree that the vulture probably placed the bowls in the hands of the messengers. Neither the man nor the calf were suited to this task. The lion is associated with rule. But the vulture, with far-seeing vision, sweeping over the corrupt mass of humanity, might well prepare for a feast such as ends the outpouring of the bowls, when the birds are invited to God's great dinner (19:17).

After much meditation, we are convinced that it is impossible to identify the trumpets and bowls. They do not agree with each other. The lesson for us lies in their contrasts, rather than their likenesses. Neither can we make the bowls an expansion of the seventh trumpet. There can be little doubt that the seven trumpets are due to the opening of the seventh seal. There is a close concord in the figures used. Both are concerned with the political redemption of the earth. Not so with the bowls. They are not only widely separated from the seventh trumpet in the text, but the figures are incongruous, and they have different objects in view. In every detail, they differ from each other. Only in time are they associated, for all of the seven bowls seem to be poured out during the seventh trumpet's blast.

THE FIRST BOWL

In the previous section, the Israelitish votaries of the wild beast are warned that they will have no rest day and night if they worship the image or get the emblem of its name (14:11). The first bowl is the fulfillment of this threat. An ordinary boil or carbuncle is one of the most distressing and rest-breaking of afflictions. Most of us know this by sad experience. But the ulcers of the first bowl are not the common kind. They will be evil and malignant. There will be no rest, no respite from the pain, the distress, the desperate depression which comes when the body is transformed into a loathsome fountain of corruption.

The best commentary on the feelings of those afflicted is found in the book of Job. Though he did not curse God and die, as his wife would have him do, he begins his complaint by cursing his day and lamenting his very existence. As in his case, the worshipers of the wild beast will not take the calamity as a mere matter of health, but will undoubtedly discern the hand of God in it. They had been hounded by the emissaries of the wild beast. To escape death they had accepted his emblem. Now they could count on a little relief! But no. They are plagued with pains which preclude all rest, day or night.

We do not wish to suggest any doubt concerning the literal nature of this torment. We have no sympathy with the spiritualizing process which effectually saps all significance from the Scriptures. But this does not deny the possibility of a close correspondence between the physical fact and its spiritual force. An ulcer is the outward evidence of inward corruption. Apostasy from God is always followed by decadence in morals, mentality, and health. Severance from the life of God leads to the corruption of death. The first bowl simply corrected the false appearance of the apostates. The physical foulness comes to the surface. In this case, it also suggests a heart, rotten at the core.

The only trumpet which has anything to correspond with the ulcers is the torment of the scorpion-tailed locusts under the fifth sounding (9:5). That will last five months and never prove fatal. The serpent-tailed horses of the sixth trumpet (9:19) also seem to be instruments of torture, for they kill only with the fire and fumes and sulphur which issue out of their mouths.

THE SECOND BOWL

The sea is the scene of the second scourge. It became blood, not the warm, flowing fluid which fills our veins, but such as is found in the dead. It is useless to tell stories of how the sea looked like blood on some rare occasion. I myself have beheld it of brownish tinge for miles along the coast. At night, however, it presented one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. In the dense darkness, the breakers broke into a dazzling luminous spray which lined the strand with light. No such manifestation as this comes before us here. It is a most dire and dreadful disaster, for it brings death to all the denizens of the deep.

The first plague at the time of the Exodus corresponds to the second and third bowls. The waters were turned into blood. "And Yahweh is saying to Moses, 'Say to Aaron, "Take your rod and stretch out your hand on the waters of Egypt, on their rivers, on their streams, and on their ponds, and on all their confluences of water, and they are becoming blood." And blood will come to be in all the land of Egypt, also in wood and in stone.' And Moses and Aaron are doing so, according as Yahweh directs. And he is elevating the rod and is smiting the waters which are in the stream in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants. And all the waters which are in the stream are turned to blood. And the fish which are in the stream die, and the stream is stinking. And the Egyptians cannot drink the water from the stream. And there is coming to be blood in all the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:20,21).

The second trumpet seems to be very similar to the second bowl. In both the waters of the sea become blood. It affected, not only the creatures which are in the sea, but also the ships.

THE THIRD BOWL

In these days, it is not needful to stress the necessity of a pure water supply. Much of our health and enjoyment is absolutely dependent on fresh drinking water. And what could be more nauseating than blood, in place of the pure, sparkling fluid which refreshes and revives the soul? This infliction is especially for those who are blood guilty. They have shed the blood of God's saints. Now let them drink it! Nothing else could so effectively bring home to them the terrible nature of their crime, or so sicken them of their murderous deeds.

The third trumpet seems much the same as the third bowl, but then the rivers and springs were made bitter by being impregnated with absinth or wormwood, and many died of this poisonous drink.

THE FOURTH BOWL

Few of mankind realize how narrow are the confines of their existence. In space, they are limited to the surface of the earth. A few feet down, a few miles up, and the bars of death force them to stop. Another prison which effectually confines them is made by the extremes of heat and cold. Not more than two hundred degrees of Fahrenheit measures the limits of continuous existence. I have experienced twenty-seven degrees below zero, as well as a hundred seventeen above. Either was endurable. Neither was comfortable. Much more in either direction, without shelter, would mean death.

How terrible is it then, when the sun, the most beneficent of all God's creations, so far as man is concerned, bursts its beneficent bonds, and blasts men with overmuch blessing! Its rays are the very life of mankind. Now they become a scourge.

There is a marked contrast in the somewhat similar fourth trumpet. Both affect the sun. At that time a third of the heavenly luminaries were quenched in darkness. That would be terrifying, indeed, but not so severe as this scorching, searing, consuming sun, this erstwhile friend frowning in fearful fury on forsaken men.

The fourth bowl has no counterpart in the plagues of Egypt.

THE FIFTH BOWL

The fifth bowl seems to be the converse of the preceding one. The intense heat of the sun must have been accompanied: with the most brilliant illumination. Now all becomes dark. This stygian scourge seems to center about the throne of the wild beast. The ulcers of the first bowl still seem to stay with them. The miseries brought by the bloody springs and scorching sun still sear their souls. And the darkness does but deepen the direness of their doom. Such is the fate of those who worship God's enemies.

The ninth plague, when Moses stood before Pharaoh, corresponds to the fifth calamity. "And Yahweh is saying to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand to the heavens and there is coming to be darkness over the land of Egypt, and a darkness causing them to grope.' And Moses is stretching out his hand to the heavens and there comes to be a gloomy darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They see not one another and no man rose from that under him three days. And for the sons of Israel there came to be light in their dwellings" (Exodus 10:21-23).

The fifth trumpet has little in common with the fifth bowl. Yet there is darkness also, due to the smoke from the abyss. And even in those days will men seek death, though they will not be able to find it.

THE SIXTH BOWL

The sixth bowl has a very strange mission. It is sent to dry up the Euphrates river. It would be interesting to know all the "interpretations" which this has provoked. I have been assured that it is a prediction of the gradual decay of the Turkish empire. But it is somewhat difficult to see how this would prepare a road for the kings of the orient. Indeed, all explanations of this sort need far more explaining than the literal fact.

But this is not the only preparation for the great mobilization of earth's armies against Yahweh and His Anointed. It is not an easy matter to convince a world so diverse in its peoples and prejudices that all should combine against a handful of Jews in Palestine. Not long before, the orient and the occident had engaged in the greatest of all wars, and its animosities had not died down. Such a concentration of troops seems unreasonable. Hence it is necessary to call in the aid of the unseen world. Unclean spirits of demons proclaim a crusade in every land; and rouse the military ardor of the peoples by performing miraculous signs.

Can we blame the unbelievers of that day for heeding these supernatural signs? Today there are many of the Lord's own saints who prefer a miracle, or that which seems to be one, to His express declaration. They take it as an axiom that all which savors of the superhuman is of God. It is far more likely to be of the evil one. As we approach the end time we may expect more and more demoniac interference in human affairs, and this especially in the sphere of religion, true as well as false.

These demons will be invisible. The fact that they come out of the mouth of the dragon and the wild beast and the false prophet suggests that all that the world will perceive will be a proclamation from the world rulers, which will be attested to each one by some sign which no man can imitate. Doubtless, these are some of the strong delusions of the end time (2 Thess.2:11). But back of the demons, and of the false prophet and the wild beast and the dragon, is God. They are being mobilized, not to destroy Jerusalem and the holy people, but to be themselves destroyed in the great day of God Almighty.

But what of the saints in Jerusalem? Can we imagine how they must feel when the whole world is gathering its armies against them? It is significant that the narrative does not merely turn aside to tell us about them. Rather, the Lord interrupts to speak to them. "Lo! I am coming as a thief! Happy is he who is watching and keeping his garments, that he may not be walking naked and they may be observing his indecency!" When all hope seems gone and the extermination of the saints seems inevitable, then they receive His promise: "I am coming!" Today, He is our only expectation. How much more so then, at the very crisis of man's madness against Yahweh and His people!

We do not watch for His coming to us. There is nothing for our eyes to see. Such signs as there are, in the world, in the church, in the land of Israel, and among the Jews, all point to His promise to them, not to us. We wait for God's Son from heaven. But they must watch. The reference seems to be to the temple guard. At intervals during the night they were inspected, to see that they were vigilant. Should one fall asleep his cloak was taken from him, and he had to endure the shame, coupled with the contempt of his fellows due to one who proved unfaithful. How often has our God warned them of that day! To them, He comes as a thief. Therefore, they must watch.

It has become quite the thing for politicians to embellish their highest flights of oratory with figures from the Bible. William Jennings Bryan's "cross of gold" became a slogan. So with the phrase "We stand at Armageddon, and battle for the Lord." Few, if any, seem to have seen how unfortunate the reference is. Those who stand at Armageddon will battle against the Lord. No one on His side stands at Armageddon. Moreover, no battle will occur in the mountains of Megiddo. The slaughter will occur in the plain below, extending from Esdraelon to Bozra, nearly two hundred miles.

As the battle which follows the mobilization at Armageddon does not seem to be included under the sixth bowl, and is fully described in a later chapter (19:11-21), we will not consider it at this time. As it is the very closing scene under the bowls, it is better to defer it until we have fully considered the fate of Babylon the great.

The second plague in Egypt has a slight resemblance to the sixth calamity in that frogs appear in each. "And Yahweh is saying to Moses, 'Say to Aaron, "Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and bring frogs on the land of Egypt."' And Aaron is stretching out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and frogs are ascending and covering the land of Egypt" (Ex.8:5,6 [in Hebrew 8:1,2]).

The sixth trumpet, or second woe, has points of likeness as well as difference. Both mention the Euphrates, and present the picture of hordes prepared to deal out death.

THE SEVENTH BOWL

The seventh bowl, like the seventh trumpet, is climacteric, and immediately precedes the Lord's advent in power. It is poured on the air, and lightnings and thunders and voices follow, as well as hail of prodigious size. Those who have not been in a severe hail storm little realize what a terrible thing it may become. The tiny pellets which usually fall may do little damage, but larger stones are destructive. I well remember the time a street car stopped before the apartment in which we lived, and all of its occupants crowded into our rooms without ceremony, for they were sorely frightened. A hailstone as large as a hen's egg had forced its way through the roof of the car, and they were afraid for their lives.

Imagine, then, what will happen when hail stones weighing nearly a hundred pounds apiece will crash down from the heavens. No barrage during the world war was so terrific. It will crush everything in its path and penetrate the very ground. There will be no hiding from its fierce onslaught. It is a wonder that any human being survives such a bombardment.

The seventh Egyptian plague corresponds to the seventh calamity, in that hail is found in both.

But the most prodigious manifestation under the seventh bowl is the great earthquake. There have been several severe local quakes within the memory of most of mankind. But none of these can be compared with this, the most fearful of those which are future. Mankind has not yet been called upon to endure so great a seismic disturbance. It would probably render the earth uninhabitable if such shocks were at all frequent.

The surface of the earth is full of signs which testify to tremendous upheavals in the past. Recently I examined the strata of an enormous rock. Its top was about eight thousand feet above sea level. Several thousand feet of it was visible. It probably descended deep into the heart of the mountain. Yet the strata of this tremendous stone were nearly perpendicular. Once it had reclined at right angles to its present position. Some awful force had torn it from its bed and thrust its towering pinnacles more than a mile into the clouds. Such a convulsion would almost surely annihilate every human being. It must have occurred before man was on the earth. The evidences of past upheavals are worldwide. The one hinted at in our text, and probably referred to in Genesis 1:2, seems to have strained and distorted the entire surface of the earth. All was shaken and shattered. No one who reads the rocks aright can agree with science, that all things continue as they were from the creation. Nature, as well as revelation, is cataclysmic. The history of the earth, both before and after man's advent, has been punctuated by cosmic calamities. It has shaken and shuddered, so that its surface is covered with the debris and wreckage of its former glory.

Once more will God shake the earth. Its severity can be faintly imagined from its effects. Every island flees. The mountains are not found. Both islands and mountains are protuberances, extending above the surrounding surface. The only difference is that the islands are in the sea and the mountains on the land. There will be a sudden lateral shock which will shear the mountains from their bases and scatter them on the plains. The water seems to preserve the islands intact, but they are removed to new locations.

There are very many interesting lines of thought suggested by this great quake. There can be little doubt that it comes, not merely as a means of judgment on mankind, but also as a preparation for the ensuing era, in which the physical conditions of life on the earth will be marvelously improved. It has been suggested that the present disagreement between the geographical north and the magnetic pole is the cause of much distress to mankind. A shock which would harmonize them might cause, not only the disasters of the seventh bowl, but also explain the superior physical conditions which mark the millennium.

The effect of such a severe quake on the cities of the world, no matter how modern their monoliths may be, must be little short of total destruction. In the terse words of the text, "the cities of the nations fall." All the marvelous architectural triumphs which make the cities of today such places of pride and pleasure will be wrecked in a moment. When the very mountains fall and the islands flee, man's puny habitations collapse in utter ruin. Jerusalem only seems to escape, yet is divided into three parts.

The greatest of all the cities of the end time will be Babylon. It is brought to remembrance before God, and He gives her the cup of the wine of His furious indignation, under the seventh bowl. So important is this theme that two long chapters are devoted to a detailed account of its career and destruction. This will form the subject of our next meditation.

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