Section 2 — "Things that shall be."

An Exposition of Revelation 4 — 22.

Part 5.

The Vials of Wrath. (Rev. 15, 16.)

The Character of the Judgment Coming (Rev. 15.)

The visions of the last chapter plainly reach to the end of judgment in the coming of the Lord Himself. The vials, therefore, cannot come after these or go beyond them: in fact, the coming of the Lord is not openly reached in them, though it may seem implied, for in the vials is filled up the wrath of God. But the coming of the Lord, although necessary to complete the judgment, is yet so much more than this, that it would seem even out of place in a vial of wrath. In the fourteenth chapter, where it is the Lamb's answer to the challenge of the enemy, He does indeed appear: He comes out Himself to answer. But in this also there is more than judgment. The manifestation of Antichrist is met by the manifestation of Christ, as the day antagonizes and chases away the night; but the day then is come. In the vials there is simply the destruction of the evil; and while the previous visions classify in a divine way the objects of wrath, the vials give us rather the history in detail, — the succession of events; though this, of course, like all else, has divine meaning in it. All history has: the difficulty is, with what is common history, to get the facts distinctly and in proportion, which the inspiration of Scripture-history secures for us. But along with this, we have here, what is obscured so much to men, heaven's action in earth's history; and heaven is acting in a more direct manner now that the end is at hand, and the wrath stored up for many generations is to burst upon the earth at last.

"And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, — seven angels having seven plagues — the last; for in them is finished the wrath of God."

The one bright word here is "FINISHED." For the earth at large, it is indeed so. Judgment comes, as we shall see, at the close of the millennium, upon a special, though, alas! a numerous class; but it is, nevertheless, not earth that rebels, nor can the hand that holds the sceptre be any more displaced. How the voice of the "everlasting gospel" sounds in that word, "finished"! But in proportion as the judgment is final now, so must it be complete, conclusive. All limitations are now removed: the rod of iron thoroughly does its work. As in the Lord's answer to His disciples' question as to this very period: "Wheresoever the carcass" — the corruption that provokes God's anger — "is, there will the eagles be gathered together."

But first — and this is the style of prophecy, as we have seen, — before the judgment strikes, the gathering clouds are for a moment parted, that we may see, not the whole good achieved, but the care of God over His own, who in this scene might seem to have found only defeat and forsaking. Only one righteous Man was ever really forsaken. And we are permitted to see how, in fact, He has but hidden in His own pavilion, from the strife of men, those who amid the battle drop down and are lost to sight. "And I saw as it were a sea of glass, mingled with fire; and those that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over the number of his name, standing upon the sea of glass, having harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, 'Great and marvelous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of ages. Who shall not fear, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for Thou only art holy; for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy righteous acts have been made manifest.'"

The sea of glass answers to the brazen sea — the laver of the temple; but it is glass, not water: purification is over, with the need of it; the fire mingled with it indicates what they have passed through, which God has used for blessing to their souls. That they are a special class cannot be questioned, — martyrs under the beast, who have found victory in defeat, and are perfected and at rest before the throne of God.

They sing a mingled song — of Moses and of the Lamb, conquerors as those who were delivered out of Egypt, but by the might of Him who goes forth as a "man of war" for the deliverance of His people. The song of the Lamb looks to the victories recorded in this book, in which the "works" of the Lord God Almighty of the Old Testament are repeated by Him who as King of the ages manifests thus His "ways" as true and righteous throughout the dispensations.*

{*There is an alternative reading accepted by most editors, — "nations," found in the Alexandrian and Vatican MSS., with the Ethiopic and Coptic versions. "Ages" is found in the Sinaitic and Ephraemi MSS., with the Vulgate. The Revised Version, with Westcott & Hort, prefer the latter, which has the oldest authority in its favor, and, I judge, the spiritual sense.}

Divine promises are being fulfilled: God is once more taking up the cause of His ancient people, while the sufferers in Christian times are no less being vindicated, and their enemies judged. Great Babylon, with the blood of the prophets in her skirts, comes into remembrance before God. He has not slept, when most He seemed to do so; and now acts in judgment that makes all men fear. Ripened iniquity, come to a head, wherever we may look, claims the harvest-sickle. The open challenge of the enemy brooks no delay in answering it. It is the only hope for the earth itself, which will learn righteousness when His judgments are in it. While the New Testament here coalesces with the voice of prophecy in the Old, and the cycle of the ages is completed and returns into itself, only with a Second Man, a new creation and the paradise of God. Truly Christ is "King of the ages."

And now the temple of the tabernacle of testimony is opened, where the ark of His covenant has been already seen. Faithful to that covenant now, in which Israel and the earth are together ordained to blessing, the seven angels with the seven last plagues issue forth as the result of that faithfulness. Thus they are arrayed in pure white linen, and girded with golden girdles: it is the glory of God in behalf of which they serve, as the bowls or vials are also golden, and filled with His wrath. From the glory of God and from His power smoke fills the temple. None can therefore approach to intercede. There can be no more delay: long-suffering patience is exhausted: "no one was able to enter into the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled."

The Vials of Wrath. (Rev. 16.)

The vials of wrath are now poured out upon the earth at the bidding of a great voice from the temple. The wrath of God is no mere ebullition of passion that carries away the subject of it. It waits the word from the sanctuary; and at length that eventful word is spoken. Completing the divine judgments, the range of the vials is not narrower than that of the prophetic earth, and in this, differ from the trumpet-series which otherwise they much resemble. Another resemblance which is significant is to the plagues of Egypt, which were at once a testimony to the world and for the deliverance of Israel. Israel is here also in her last crisis of trouble, and waiting for deliverance, for which these judgments, no doubt, prepare the way, though that which alone accomplishes it, the coming of the Lord Himself, is not plainly included.

The first vial is poured out distinctively, in contrast with the sea and rivers, etc., upon the earth, like the first trumpet-judgment; but the effect is different: an evil and grievous sore breaks out upon those that have the mark of the beast, and that worship his image. In Egypt such a plague routed their wise men so that they could not stand before Moses. According to the natural meaning of such a figure, it would speak of inward corruption which is made now to appear outwardly in what is painful, loathsome, and disfiguring; those who had accepted the beast's mark being thus otherwise marked and branded with what is a sign of their moral condition. As the apostle shows (Rom. 1) idolatry is itself the sign of corruption which would degrade God into creature semblance in order to give free rein to its lusts. Here it is openly the worship of the image of him whom Scripture stamps as the "beast," which those branded with his mark give themselves up to. The excesses of the French revolution, when God was dethroned to make way for a prostitute on the altar of Notre Dame, if they be not, as some have thought them, the fulfillment of this vial, may yet sufficiently picture to us how it may be fulfilled in a time of trouble such as never was before, and, thank God, such as never will be afterward.

The second vial is poured out on the sea, and the sea becomes like the blood of a dead man, and every living soul dies in the sea. Here we have the second trumpet in its effect upon the sea, but without the limitation there. And there seems a difference also, in that the blood is as of a dead man. It cannot be that it is merely dead blood, for all blood shed becomes that almost at once, and the sea turned into blood would by itself suggest death without the addition. Would it not rather seem to be, that the blood of a dead man, while it is indeed dead blood, is also that which has not been shed? Life has not been violently taken, but lost through disease or natural decay. Thus in the law that which had died of itself was forbidden as food, because it spoke of internal corruption, as the life still vigorous when the blood was shed did not. If this thought be the true one, then the state imaged under the second vial is not that of strife and bloodshed among the nations, but of professed spiritual life gone, which the addition, "Every living soul died in the sea," affirms as complete. Life there might be in hunted and outlawed men, no longer recognized as part of the nations; but the mass was dead. This seems to me the only thought that gives consistently the full force of the expressions.

The third vial is poured out upon the rivers and fountains of waters, the sphere affected by the third trumpet; but in the trumpet they are made bitter, now they become blood, which, as owned to be the judgment of God upon persecutors, seems clearly to speak of bloodshed: they are given blood to drink. Where naturally there should be only sources of refreshment, as perhaps in family life, there are found instead strife and the hand of violence. The angel of the waters may be in this case the representative of that tender care of the Creator over the creature-life, which in this case comes to be against the persecutor and applauds His judgments; as the altar does, upon which the lives of the martyrs have been poured out to God.

This seems to consist well with what has been given as the interpretation of the second seal.

The fourth angel pours his vial upon the sun, and it scorches men with its heat; but they only blaspheme God's name, and repent not. Here, as often, the head of civil authority seems to be represented; and Napoleon's career has been taken as in the historical application the fulfillment of it. In him after the immorality, apostasy, and bloodshed of that memorable revolution, imperial power blazed out in a destructive fierceness, that might well be symbolized as scorching heat. There was splendor enough, but it was not "a pleasant sight to behold the sun:" the nation over which he ruled was oppressed with "glory," and soon manifested how its vitality had been exhausted by its hot-house growth. His career was brief; and briefer still in proportion to its intensity will be the closing despotism, which will be followed by the kingdom of the Son of Man, and the display of a true glory unseen by the world before. Then shall that be fulfilled which is written: "the Sun shall not smite thee by day," and how great will be the joy of this that is added, "thy Sun shall no more go down; … the Lord shall be thine everlasting Light." (Isa. 60:20.)

The fifth vial is poured out, and the meteoric blaze is passed. Poured on the throne of the beast, darkness spreads over his kingdom. It is the foreshadow of that final withdrawal of light, the "outer darkness" of that awful time, when they who have so often bidden God withdraw from them will be taken at their word. But who out of hell can tell what that will be? The sun has ascribed to it by the science of the day more than ever was before done; but who at any time could have said to the glowing sun, Depart from me: I desire darkness? Yet this is what they say to God.

Nor does the darkness work repentance: "They gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven, because of their pains and sores, and repented not of their deeds." Such is the hardening character of sin; and such is the impotence of judgment in itself to break the heart and subdue the soul to God.

So far, spite of the general character of the vials, they seem to have to do almost entirely with the beast and his followers; and these are, as we know, the principal enemies of Israel, and the boldest in defiance of God, at the time of the end. Nevertheless there are other adversaries besides those of the new risen empire of the west. The king of the north or of Greece is evidently in opposition at the close to the "king"in the land of Israel, who is the viceroy of the beast in Judea. (Dan. 11.) This king of Greece also, if mighty, is so "not by his own power." (Dan. 8:24.) There is behind him, in fact, a mightier prince, who in Ezek. 38 — 39, comes clearly into view as head of many eastern nations, Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal; Persia, Cush and Phut with the house of Togarmah, (Armenia,) being confederate with him. This is not the place to look at the people to whom all these names refer. Magog, the first of them, by common consent, stands for the Scythians, who, "mixed with the Medes," says Fausset, "became the Sarmatians, whence sprang the Russians." Rosh is thus by more than sound connected with Russia, as Meshech and Tubal may have given their names, but slightly changed, to Moscow and Tobolsk. The connection with Persia and Armenia, and with Greece no less, is easily intelligible at the present day.

Here are powers, then, outside the revived Roman empire, which we find in relation with Israel at the time of the end, and which will find their place in the valley of Jehoshaphat ("Jehovah's judgment") in the day when the Lord sits there to judge all the nations round about. (Joel 3:12.) Accordingly now, under the sixth vial, the way is prepared for this, and the gathering is accomplished. The sixth vial is poured out upon "the great river Euphrates," the effect being that the water is dried up," that the ways of the kings of the east may be prepared." The Euphrates is the scene also of the sixth trumpet, which would seem to give but a previous incursion of the same powers that are contemplated here, the door being now set widely open for them by the drying up of the river, the boundary of the Roman empire in the past. In the trumpet there was but an inroad upon the empire; now there is much more than this: it is the gathering for the great day of God Almighty!

Accordingly all the powers of evil are at work: three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet; for they are the spirits of demons, working miracles, who go forth unto the kings of the whole world, to gather them together unto the war of the great day of God Almighty! … And they gathered them together unto the place which is called in Hebrew Har-Magedon."

The frogs are creatures of slime and of the night, blatant, impudent impotents, cheap orators, who can yet gather men for serious work. Here, those brought together little know whom they go to meet; but this is the common history of men revealed in its true character. The cross has shown it to us on the one side; the conflict of the last days shows it on the other. The vail of the world is removed, and it is seen here what influences carry them: the dragon, the spirit of a wisdom which, being, "earthly," is "sensual, devilish" (James 3:15); the "beast," the influence of power, which apostate from God is bestial (Ps. 49:20,); the "false prophet," the inspiration of hopes that are not of God: so the mass are led.

Har-magedon is the "mount of slaughter." We read of Megiddo in the Old Testament as a "valley," not a mountain; whether it refers to this or no, the phrase seems equivalent to the "mountain of the slain," a mountain of heaped up corpses. To this, ignorant of what is before them, they are gathered.

A note of urgent warning is interjected here: no need of declaring the Speaker! "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame." It is to the world Christ's coming will be that of a thief; for "in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh." "Blessed is he that watcheth" is, as we see by the closing words, a solemn warning to the heedless. Who will be ready at this time to hear? In any case, wisdom will utter its voice; and none shall go out to meet unwarned the doom of the rebellious. Good it is to find just in this place, whether heeded or not, the pleading of mercy. Not the less terrible on that account the doom that comes.

And now the seventh angel pours his vial into the air. Of "the power of the air" Satan is the prince (Eph. 2:2), and all Satan's realm is shaken. A great voice breaks out of the throne, saying, It is done; and there are lightnings, and voices, and thunders, — the "voices" showing the lightnings and thunders between which they come to be no mere natural tempest, but divinely guided judgment. There is an unparalleled convulsion; and the great city (Babylon or, as it is applied here, Rome) is divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations generally fall. It is added as to a special object of the divine judgment, — "And Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give unto her the cup of wine of the fierceness of His wrath." This is in brief what is given presently in detail. Babylon has only once before been named in Revelation; but the two following chapters treat of it in full.

Then "every island fled away:" as I suppose, there is no isolation of any from the storm; "and the mountains were not found:" no power so great but it is humbled and brought low. "And a great hail, every stone about a talent weight, fell down from God out of heaven upon men: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great."

In the hail the effect of God's withdrawal from men is seen in judgment. The source of light and heat are one; and for the soul God is the source: the hail speaks not of mere withdrawal, but of this becoming a pitiless storm of judgment which subdues all, except, alas! the heart of man which, while his anguish owns the power from which he suffers, remains in its hard impenitency the witness and justification of the wrath it has brought down.