Chapter 15: Seven Last Plagues

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

The Song of Victory (15:1-4J

  1. And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished.
  2. And I saw, as it were, a Sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had come off victorious from the Beast and from his image and from the number of his name, standing on the Sea of glass, holding harps of God.
  3. And they sing the song of Moses the bond-servant of God and the song of the Lamb, saying:

Great and marvelous are Thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Thy ways, Thou King of the nations.

  1. Who will not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?
    For Thou alone art holy;
    For all the nations will come and worship before Thee,
    For Thy righteous acts have been revealed.

1          St. John now tells us of another sign in heaven, great and marvelous. Twice before he has shown us a great sign in heaven: the Woman clothed with the sun (12:1), and the great red Dragon (12:3). As Farrer says, it is “as though everything in 12-14 had been the working out of that mighty conflict, and the next act were now to begin.”[1] This new sign initiates the climax of the book: seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished. There is no reason to assume that these must be the “last” plagues in an ultimate, absolute, and universal sense; rather, in terms of the specifically limited purpose and scope of the Book of Revelation, they comprise the final outpouring of God’s wrath, His great cosmic Judgment against Jerusalem, abolishing the Old Covenant world-order once and for all. Like that of the Trumpets, this series of judgments is to be performed by seven angels (as we shall see in the following chapter, there are several parallels between the proclamations sounded by the Trumpets and the libations poured from the Chalices). This opening statement is more or less the superscription to the rest of the book, and is explained in the following verses.

2          The vision begins: St. John sees, as it were, a Sea of glass, the crystal Sea before God’s Throne (4:6), corresponding to the sapphire “pavement” seen by Moses on the Holy Mountain (Ex. 24:10), the blue crystal “firmament” through which Ezekiel passed in his ascension in the Glory-Cloud (Ezek. 1:26), and the brazen Sea (the Laver) in the Temple (1 Kings 7:23-26). In this vision, however, the Sea is no longer blue, but red: The glass is mixed with fire. The imagery ties this vision to the last scene in Chapter 14, that of the great river of blood running the whole length of the Land, a truly Red Sea, through which the righteous have been delivered, but in which their enemies were destroyed. Now St. John pictures the saints rejoicing at the water’s edge like Moses and the Israelites after the original Red Sea crossing (Ex. 14:30-31; 15:1-21), victorious over the monster from the deep; literally, they are those overcoming or the conquerors, “for it is the abiding character of ‘conqueror’ on which emphasis is laid, and not the fact of conquest.”[2] The description of their conquest is threefold: They have come off victorious from the Beast and from his image and from the number of his name.

At the seashore, on the lip of the font, the conquerors offer praise: Standing on the Sea of glass, holding harps of God, they comprise the new priestly Temple choir that stands at the cleansing Laver, by which they were sanctified. St. Paul described the Red Sea deliverance as a “baptism” of God’s people (1 Cor. 10:1-2), and the Tribulation was indeed the Church’s baptism of fire: “So the great glass bowl of the sea is seen ‘filled with a fiery mixture.’ What the Israelites are brought through to salvation, their persecutors undergo to their destruction; Pharaoh and his hosts perish in the returning waters. And so we know that the baptism of fire must fall on the people of Antichrist; the vision of the bowls [Chalices] will show us how.”[3]

A further interesting aspect of the Laver image comes from the Chronicler’s story of the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon: “Then he stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands. Now Solomon had made a bronze laver,[4] five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the midst of the court; and he stood on it, knelt on his knees in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven” to perform the prayer of dedication (2 Chron. 6:12-13). This was not the great Laver in the southeast corner of the Temple (the dimensions of which are recorded in 2 Chron. 4:2-5), but one of several bronze lavers constructed by Solomon (cf. 2 Chron. 4:6, 14). Solomon stood on this “sea” before the Altar and offered his supplication, thanking God for His mighty works, invoking His righteous judgments, and entreating Him for the conversion of all nations (2 Chron. 6:14-42; cf. Rev. 15:3-4). Immediately afterward, we read: “When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the Glory of the LORD filled the House. And the priests could not enter into the House of the LORD, because the Glory of the LORD filled the LORD’S House” (2 Chron. 7:1-2). Similarly, at the end of the prayer of the saints standing on the Sea, the seven angels are given chalices filled with fiery wrath, which will fall upon the Land to consume apostate Israel as a whole burnt sacrifice; the Glory fills the Temple, and no one is able to enter until the sacrifice is consumed (Rev. 15:5-8).

Another passage parallel to this is Zechariah 12, which pictures Jerusalem as a cup of drunkenness to the nations (Zech. 12:2; cf. Rev. 14:8-10), a laver of fire that will consume the heathen (Zech. 12:6; Rev. 15:2). The irony of Revelation, as we have seen repeatedly, is that first-century Israel herself has taken the place of the heathen nations in the prophecies: She is consumed in the fiery laver – the Lake of Fire – while the Church, having passed through the holocaust, inherits salvation.

3          We saw in the Introduction to Part Five that the Song of Moses… and the Song of the Lamb refers to the Song of Witness which Moses and Joshua (= Jesus, the Lamb) taught to the children of Israel at the border of the Promised Land (Deut. 31-32). The imagery, however, is taken from Exodus 15, which records Moses’ Song of triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (two other Biblical paraphrases of Moses’ Song in Exodus are Isaiah 12 and Habakkuk 3). It is important to note that both Songs of Moses are firmly rooted in history: Both proclaim that the salvation God provides is His victory in this world, over the heathen of this world. These saints through Christ are overcomers, in time and on earth. As R. J. Rushdoony says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the area of His victory. The issue of the kingdom’s battle will be no more a flight from history than was the incarnation and the atonement. God the Son did not enter history in order to surrender it. He came to redeem His elect, assert His crown rights, make manifest the implications of His victory, and then to re-create all things in terms of His sovereign will.”[5]

St. John’s text of the Song of Moses does not actually quote from either Exodus 15 or Deuteronomy 32, although some of its phrasing contains faint echoes of the latter; however, as Farrer observes, “it is characteristic of St. John that he is content with having made the references; the beautiful psalm he puts into the mouths of the saints is a cento of phrases from all over the psalter and elsewhere.”[6] Edersheim comments on the relationship of this scene to the Sabbath services in the Temple: “It is the Sabbath of the Church; and as on the Sabbath, besides the psalm for the day [Ps. 92] at the ordinary sacrifice, they sang at the additional Sabbatic sacrifice [Num. 28:9-10], in the morning, the Song of Moses, in Deuteronomy 32, and in the evening that in Exodus 15, so the victorious Church celebrates her true Sabbath of rest by singing this same ‘Song of Moses and of the Lamb,’ only in language that expresses the fullest meaning of the Sabbath songs in the Temple.”[7]

It is probably impossible to track down the Song’s Old Testament allusions completely, but I have at least noted some of them: Great and marvelous are Thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty (Ex. 34:10; Deut. 32:3-4; 1 Chron. 16:8-12; Ps. 92:5; 111:2; 139:14; Isa. 47:4; Jer. 10:16; Amos 4:13; cf. Rev. 1:8); St. John makes it clear that the saints are not merely making a general statement of fact, but instead are specifically referring to the “great and marvelous” final judgments in which “the wrath of God is finished” (15:1). Righteous and true are Thy ways (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 145:17; Hos. 14:9); again, God is said to be “righteous and true” with special reference to His saving judgments, delivering the Church and destroying His enemies (cf. 16:7). “In seasons of tribulation on earth, when the worldly power appears to triumph over the church, she has often been led to doubt the greatness of God’s works, the justice and truth of His ways; to doubt whether He were really the king of the heathen. Now this doubt is put to shame; it is dispelled by deeds; the clouds, which veiled the glory of God from her eyes, are made entirely to vanish.”[8] Thou King of the nations (Ps. 22:28; 47:2, 7-8; 82:8; cf. 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15; Rev. 1:5; 19:16); as Ruler of all nations He moves the armies of earth to fulfill His purposes in judgment; He smashes them for their rebellion; and He brings them to repentance.

4          Who will not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? (Ex. 15:14-16; Jer. 10:6-7; cf. Rev. 14:7); this means, in language we are more familiar with: Who will not be converted? Who will not serve God, worship Him, and obey Him? The clear implication (to be made explicit in the next sentence) is that the overwhelming majority of all men will come into the salvation that God has provided in Jesus Christ. This is the great hope of the Old Covenant fathers, as numerous passages abundantly attest. For Thou alone art holy (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Ps. 99:3, 5, 9; Isa. 6:3; 57:5, 15; Hos. 11:9; cf. Matt. 19:17; 1 Tim. 6:16). God’s “holiness” in Scripture often refers not so much to His ethical qualities as to His unique majesty, His absolute transcendence and “otherness.” Yet this very “unapproachableness” is here stated to be the precise reason for His immanence, His nearness, His accessibility to all peoples. The doctrine is declared positively: For all the nations will come and worship before Thee, for Thy righteous acts have been revealed (1 Chron. 16:28-31; Ps. 2:8; 22:27; 65:2; 66:4; 67:1-7; 86:8-9; 117:1; Isa. 26:9; 66:23; Jer. 16:19); the conversion of all nations is both the ultimate goal and inevitable result of God’s judgments. The fall of Israel, St. John is telling the Church, will bring about the salvation of the world (and St. Paul extended the logic: Israel’s fall must therefore eventually produce her own restoration to the covenant; Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 23-32).

The Sanctuary Is Opened (15:5-8)

  1. After these things I looked, and the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in heaven was opened,
  2. and the seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the Temple. They were clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their breasts with golden girdles.
  3. And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.
  4. And the Temple was filled with smoke from the Glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter the Temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.

5          Now the scene changes, and we are shown the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in heaven, the “true Tabernacle” (Heb. 8:2), the divine Pattern, of which the Tabernacle on earth was a “copy and shadow” (Heb. 8:5; 9:11-12, 23-24; 10:1; Ex. 25:9,40; 26:30; Num. 8:4; Acts 7:44). St. John is very careful to use correct technical expressions for his imagery here, based on the Old Covenant order. The basic treaty document of the Covenant was the Decalogue; this was often called the Testimony, emphasizing its legal character as the record of the Covenant oath (Ex. 16:34; 25:16, 21-22; 31:18; 32:15; cf. Ps. 19:7; Isa. 8:16, 20). The Tabernacle, in which the Testimony was kept, was therefore called the Tabernacle of the Testimony (Ex. 38:21; Num. 1:50, 53; 9:15; 10:11; Acts 7:44). As we have seen, in Revelation the Temple (Greek naos) is the Sanctuary, or Holy Place (cf. 3:12; 7:15; 11:1-2, 19; 14:15, 17).

A major aspect of St. John’s message in Revelation is the coming of the New Covenant. In his theology (as in the rest of the New Testament), the Church is the naos, the Temple. The writer to the Hebrews shows that the Mosaic Tabernacle was both a copy of the heavenly Original and a foreshadowing of the Church in the New Covenant (Heb. 8:5; 10:1); St. John draws the conclusion, showing that these two, the heavenly Pattern and the final form, coalesce in the New Covenant age: The Church tabernacles in heaven. And, if the Temple is the Church, the Testimony is the New Covenant, the Testimony of Jesus (1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4).

6-7      The seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the Temple, in order to apply the Curses proclaimed by the Trumpets. As priests of the New Covenant, these angel-ministers are clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their breasts with golden girdles, in the image and likeness of their Lord 0:13; cf. Ex. 28:26-29, 39-43; Lev. 16:4).


And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden Chalices; presumably, this cherub is the one with the man’s face (4:7), since the other three have already appeared on the stage of the drama, and since St. John is proceeding systematically through the quarters of the Zodiac. We saw that he began in the Spring (Easter), with the sign of Taurus governing the Preamble and the Seven Letters; moved through Summer with Leo ruling the Seven Seals; continued through Autumn under Scorpio (the Eagle/Scorpion) and the Seven Trumpets; and now he arrives in Winter, with Aquarius, the Waterer, supervising the outpouring of the wrath of God from the Seven Chalices.

I have called these seven containers Chalices (rather than vials [KJV] or bowls [NASV]) to emphasize their character as a “negative sacrament.” From one perspective, the substance in the Chalices (God’s wrath, which is “hot,” cr. 14:10) seems to be fire, and several commentators have therefore seen the containers as incense-bowls (5:8; cf. 8:3-5). Yet the wicked are condemned in 14:10 to “drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger”; and, when the plagues are poured out, the “Angel of the waters” exults in the appropriateness of God’s justice: “For they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink” (16:6). A few verses later, St. John returns to the image of “the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath” (16:19). What is being modeled in heaven for the Church’s instruction on earth is the final excommunication of apostate Israel, when the Communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord is at long last denied to her. The angel-bishops, entrusted with the Sacramental sanctions of the covenant, are sent from the heavenly Temple itself, and from the Throne of God, to pour out upon her the Blood of the Covenant. Jesus warned the rebels of Israel that he would send His martyrs to them to be killed, “so that upon you may fall all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the Altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:35-36). Drinking Blood is inescapable: Either the ministers of the New Covenant will serve it to us in the Eucharist, or they will pour it out of their Chalices upon our heads.

Austin Farrer explains some of the Old Covenant imagery behind the symbol of the Chalices. “The ‘bowls,’ phialae, are libation-bowls. Now the libation, or drink-offering, was poured at the daily sacrifice just after the trumpets had begun to sound, so that by placing bowls in sequence to trumpets St. John maintains the sequence of ritual action that began with the slaughtered Lamb, continued in the incense-offering and passed into the trumpet-blasts. Because the drink-offering had such a position, it was the last ritual act, completing the service of the altar, and was proverbial in that connexion (Phil. 2:17). The drink-offering, as St. Paul implies, was poured upon the slaughtered victim, burning in the fire. Because there is no bloody sacrifice in heaven, the angels pour their libations upon the terrible holocaust of vengeance which divine justice makes on earth.”[9]

We should be reminded in this context of the purification offering, designed to atone for the defilement of a place, so that God could continue to dwell with His people (cf. comments on 9:13). If the whole nation sinned, so that the entire Land was defiled, the priests were required to perform special rites of purification: The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled seven times toward the veil before the Holy of Holies, then smeared on the four horns of the altar, and the remainder poured out at the foot of the altar (Lev. 4:13-21).[10] But in the outpoured plagues of the Chalice-judgments, this is reversed, as Philip Carrington points out: “This Blood, instead of bringing reconciliation, brings rejection and vengeance. Instead of being sprinkled seven times towards the veil, it is poured seven times on the Land. Instead of the appearance of the High Priest with the blood of reconciliation, we have Seven Angels with the Blood of Vengeance.”[11]

Why is the blood in Revelation no longer sprinkled toward the veil? Because Jesus’ blood has already been offered, and Israel has rejected it. As the writer to the Hebrews warned just before the Holocaust: “If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said: Vengeance is Mine, I will repay! And again: The Lord will judge His people! It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:26-31).

That is precisely St. John’s point here: Blood and fire are about to be poured out upon the Land of Israel from the Seven Chalices, which are full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever. Indeed, God’s eternal nature (“As I live forever!”) was given in the Song of Moses as a pledge of His vengeance against His enemies, and those who shed the blood of His servants (Deut. 32:40-43). Thus we are shown that the seven angels with the plagues come from the Tabernacle of the Testimony, bearing in their hands the curses of the Covenant; they come from the Temple, the Church, as ministers binding on earth the decrees of heaven against those who have rejected the Testimony of Jesus; and they come from the Throne of God Himself, having received their Chalices of wrath from one of the cherubs who carry God’s Throne (cf. 4:6).

8          At the dedication of both the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon, the Sanctuary was filled with smoke from the Glory of God and from His power; and no one was able to enter (see Ex. 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:11-14; 7:1-3). As we have seen, this phenomenon happened in connection with heavenly fire descending and consuming the sacrifices (Lev. 9:23-24; 2 Chron. 7:1-3). The filling of the Temple was thus both a sign of God’s gracious presence with His people and an awesome revelation of His terrible wrath against sinners, a warning that His fiery judgment would be sent forth from the Temple against those who rebelled against Him (for examples of this, see Lev. 10:1-3; Num. 11:1-3; 16:35).

With the coming of the New Covenant, the Church of Jesus Christ became the Temple of God. This new redemptive event was signaled by the Spirit’s filling the Church on the Day of Pentecost, as He had filled the Tabernacle and the Temple. As St. Peter declared, however, the Pentecostal outpouring would be accompanied at the end of the age by a Holocaustal outpouring as well: “Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke” (Acts 2:16-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32). For the Church to take full possession of her inheritance, for her to assume her proper place as the New Covenant Temple, the corrupt scaffold of the Old Covenant had to be thrown down and demolished. The first-generation Christians were continually exhorted to look forward to the fast-approaching Day when their adversaries would be consumed, and the Church “synagogued” as the definitive Temple (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1; Heb. 10:25). In the complete sense of New Covenant fullness and “perfection” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12), no one was able to enter the Temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished in the destruction of Old Covenant Israel.

E. W. Hengstenberg mentions a related aspect of this symbol: “So long as Israel was the people of the Lord the pillar of cloud exclaimed to all his enemies, ‘Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm.’ So here; that the temple is full of smoke, and no one is able to go into it, this is ‘a sign for believers, that the Lord in love to them was now going to complete the destruction of their enemies.’[12] Besides, we see quite plainly in Isaiah 6 the reason why none could enter in. If God manifests Himself in the whole glory of His nature, in the whole energy of His punitive righteousness, the creature must feel itself penetrated by a deep feeling of its nothingness – not merely the sinful creature, as there in the case of Isaiah, but also the finite, according to Job 4:18; 15:15…. Bengel[13] remarks, ‘When God pours out His fury, it is fit that even those who stand well with Him should withdraw for a little, and should restrain their inquiring looks. All should stand back in profound reverence, till by and by the sky become clear again.'”[14]

[1] Austin Farrer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 169.

[2] Henry Barclay Swete, Commentary on Revelation (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, [1911] 1977), p. 194.

[3] Farrer, pp. l70f.

[4] Heb. kiyyor, the standard word for laver: e.g. Ex. 30:18, 28; 40:7, 11, 30.

[5] Rousas John Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, [1970] 1978), p. 93.

[6] Farrer, p. 171.

[7] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 76.

[8] E. W. Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John, two vols. (Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack Publishing Co., [1851] 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 146f.

[9] Farrer, p. 174.

[10] See Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 86-103.

[11] Philip Carrington, The Meaning of the Revelation (London: SPCK, 1931), p. 262.

[12] C. F. J. ZiiIlig, Die Ojfenbarung Johannis erklärt (Stuttgart, 1834-40).

[13] J. A. Bengel, Erklärte Ojfenbarung Johannis (Stuttgart, 1740).

[14] Hengstenberg, Vol. 2, p. 153.