Revelation 15:1-8: Chapters 15 and 16 are one unit: The seven last plagues are announced in 15:1 and the last plague is referred to in 16:21 (People’s New Testament Commentary). This section represents John’s most thorough use of the exodus motif in Revelation (New Interpreters Study Bible).
Just as Exodus was “remembered history,” with events that may have been creatively remembered over time, a mixture of event and sacred memory with the point of proclaiming God’s redemptive activity, so these verses are a sort of pre-remembering, a projection of God’s redemptive activity into the future. The point is God’s redemptive activity and not the plagues themselves. These are literary devices, important literary devices, but literary devices nonetheless. Remember the difficult circumstances in which John and John’s churches find themselves. They deeply hope for an end to the world as they know it, and for a new world. There may be a streak of vengeance in John, so that he takes a bit too much delight in thinking about the end of the world – a natural human reaction akin to the words of Psalm 137 where the psalmist expressed deep anger and frustration during the Babylonian captivity: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We would not condone this as a course of action acceptable for Christian persons, but we understand it as an expression of a deeply oppressed people. We might do well to understand some of John’s writing in the same way.
In chapter 15, the seven plagues are announced and we are ushered into a worship scene. Just as the Israelites stood on the other side of the sea after leaving Egypt, so the redeemed of God gather by the sea to sing God’s praises. God is the just one and the true ruler of nations, not Caesar. God is to be glorified, not the emperor. To worship God now is to be working with the grain of the universe. Here is an interesting comment about verse 4: Biblical and apocalyptic tradition pictured the final triumph of God’s kingdom in two contrasting ways. In one picture, the pagan nations are defeated and destroyed in a climactic last battle…. In the other picture, the pagan nations are converted and become worshippers of the one God…. John juxtaposes these pictures without harmonizing them, including both in this one scene. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Again, the point is the final triumph of God’s way and a concomitant encouragement to live this way now, even if it is costly.
Revelation 16:1-21: The final series of eschatological woes is not a chronological continuation of the preceding ones. It refers to the same period but presents it from a different perspective. It is a vision of cosmic catastrophe in which the preceding visions are paralleled but intensified. Not merely a fourth or third of the world, but all the world is struck by the blow against the sun and by the darkness, and everything in the sea dies. Not just the earth, but the cosmos itself is struck. Human rebellion against God has infected creation itself. As the created world is not finally to be destroyed but to be renewed and redeemed, so it passes through the judgment. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
I just finished reading Rowan Williams’ book on Christian faith, Tokens of Trust, and I think he does a nice job discussion the concept of judgment. He argues that it is important to acknowledge that “there is a proper adult awareness of the risk of our habitual unwillingness to face truth.” He also argues that “we have to know the proper fear that the choices we make are capable of destroying us” (150, 151). This chapter is Revelation is poetic, metaphoric and borrows from other such sources (especially Exodus). Given some of the ecological disasters that humankind has wrought, some of these wild pictures don’t seem as unrealistic as we might hope they would be. I had a teacher who once said that it can be helpful to think of “the wrath of God” as God giving over humankind to the full consequences of their own actions. If ever the skies become black and sores break out widely around the world, some sort of ecological catastrophe would probably be to blame, and it would be the result of human action. I am not arguing that John predicts such things, for I don’t think he does. That’s not the nature of this work. I am arguing that the language of judgment can be appropriate for our encounters with horrendous events that have very human causes and that reveal to us our failures to acknowledge our limits, to speak truthfully to ourselves, to live truthfully.
The first plague is a plague of sores. The second is the death of sea life. In the third, echoing Exodus, the waters are turned into blood. The author sees this as just payback for the shed blood of God’s people. Is John taking a little too much delight in such “vengeance”? The fourth plague is an increase in the heat of the sun. Interestingly, the possibility of turning around is presented in a few places – but those suffering would not turn, would not repent. Even in the midst of tragedy, John offers a small word of hope. The kingdom of the beast is plunged into darkness with the fifth plague. The sixth plague dries up the river Euphrates. It seems less a plague than a prelude to further trouble. Demonic spirits come from the dragon, the beast and the false prophet and an army from the East is assembled to march to Armageddon/Harmageddon. I will say a word about this in a moment. When the seventh angel pours out his bowl we reach the dénouement – thunder and lightening and earthquakes and hailstones. That this is poetic is evident by the hundred pound hailstones that fall on people. They curse God for the hailstones, but would they even live through such a hailstorm?
Armageddon/Harmageddon: These are rather famous words among dispensationalists – the Battle of Armageddon. However, no battle is here described, nor is one described later (wait until chapter 19). These words are helpful as we read this passage: Popular interpretations of this text have often supposed that it predicts some great battle at Megiddo in northern Israel as part of the final events of history. These assumptions are mistaken, however. There is no “Meggido” in the text, and there is no mountain at Megiddo, which is located in an extensive plain. That John is writing “prophecy” does not mean that he is predicting historical events of the long-range future, but that he is presenting an inspired interpretation of contemporary events for the Christians of his own time. John does not predict any historical event beyond his own generation. Nor is there any description of a “battle”; the victory is announced without elaborating on any war. John uses traditional military imagery to portray the final victory of God, but in his own theology the decisive victory was already won at the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Revelation thus contains no descriptions of eschatological battles. (New Interpreters Study Bible). We will take this up again in chapter 19, but it is helpful here given some of the language that is often used in interpreting this book.
And what is the significant point John wants to make in all of this? One he has made time and again. In verse 15, there is a parenthetical word from the Christ. “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.” It is John’s way of reminding his readers and listeners that the visions are not to provide speculative information about the future, but are a challenge from the living Christ to orient their lives in the present toward the coming eschatological reality (New Interpreters Study Bible). John shares all these words of judgment to remind the readers that things can get bleak indeed, but our task as followers of the Christ is to follow that way in our lives. In the end, that way will prevail. In the midst of a very uncertain time – when we wonder about climate change, and energy, and food supplies and a planet whose population is stretching toward 7 billion, we are reminded to stay faithful to the Jesus way.