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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Revelation 15

Verse 1


(Revelation 15-16)


This, the shortest chapter in Revelation, together with Revelation 16, for which it is merely the introduction, again takes us through the whole cycle of time to the eternal judgment (Revelation 16:17-21). Several times already the final judgment has been prophesied (Revelation 6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:14-20). Many have pointed out the remarkable resemblances between the seals, trumpets, and bowls. All are judgments of God; the areas affected by them are similar, especially in the trumpets and bowls sequences. Thus, in the trumpet series: (1) the earth; (2) the sea; (3) the rivers; (4) the sun; (5) the abyss, or throne of the beast; (6) the Euphrates; and (7) the final judgment are exactly the same as the things mentioned in the bowl sequence, and in the same order. Hendriksen thoroughly developed these parallels.[1]

There is also a progression. Whereas the trumpet judgments were restricted to "one third," the bowl judgments are not so limited. However, the woman, the dragon, and the two beasts of Revelation 12-14 are operative throughout exactly the same time period; namely, all the way to the end of time.

Some scholars, such as Ladd, view those chapters (Revelation 12-14) as "an interlude between the trumpets and bowls";[2] but as Roberson observed:

The seven bowls are usually classed with the seals and trumpets; and there obviously is a close affinity, particularly with the latter; but the connection with the woman and her enemies (Revelation 12-14) is even closer. They belong to the long struggle of the church in the world.[3]

The conclusion required by all of this was stated by William Milligan:

Nothing can more clearly prove that the Revelation of St. John was not written upon chronological principles than the scenes to which we are introduced in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the book.[4]

"These chapters describe the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ."[5] In all of these extensive views, "John is telling us something of what will happen in the end-time and something of what goes on in human history."[6] "The statement that these are the last plagues shows that the set of visions now commencing carries us clown to the end of the age."[7] The thought is not that of focusing all of the revelation upon the very end-time, but a bird's-eye view of all time subsequent to the prophecy, including the very end.

But the vision does not move immediately to the terrible judgments. "Once more there is a pause, as if the safety of God's people in the midst of all this sin and judgment could not be insisted on sufficiently."[8] The anticipatory, consolatory vision of the song of the redeemed is again heard (Revelation 15:2-4).

Lenski pointed out another relation between the seals, trumpets, and bowls: "The seals reveal, the trumpets announce, and the bowls execute the long-restrained anger of the living God."[9] Earle's excellent outline of this short chapter is:

I. The waiting angels (Revelation 15:1).

II. The victorious saints (Revelation 15:2-4).

III. The emerging angels (Revelation 15:5-8).[10]

[1] William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1956), p. 26.

[2] George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 203.

[3] Charles H. Roberson, Studies in Revelation (Tyler, Texas: P. D. Wilmeth, P.O. Box 3305,1957), p. 114.

[4] As quoted by Albertus Pieters, Studies in the Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1954), p. 241.

[5] William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 191.

[6] Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentaries, Vol. 20, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), p. 187.

[7] W. Boyd Carpenter, Ellicott's Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 604.

[8] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1085.

[9] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Revelation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p. 461.

[10] Ralph Earle, Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 10 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), p. 584.

And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels having seven plagues, which are the last, for in them is finished the wrath of God. (Revelation 15:1)

And I saw another sign in heaven ... Beasley-Murray connected this mention of the seven angels with "the seven angels that stand before God (Revelation 8:2),"[11] concluding that this structural parallelism between the trumpets and bowls corresponds to a parallelism in content. Lenski, however, did not agree, translating this expression without the article (the), "I saw ... seven angels,"[12] as in our version (ASV). The point would not appear to be important. The perfect number "seven" could also symbolize an innumerable company of angels waiting and ready to do the will of God. Hardly anything here is to be understood literally. Plummer observed that:

The last time this statement was made was in Revelation 12:1, where the history of the war between Satan and the church began ... Again, John returns to the beginning to trace the development of the punishments inflicted upon men for their worship of the devil.[13]

Seven plagues, which are the last ... This does not mean that they refer exclusively to the end. "Whenever in history the wicked fail to repent in answer to partial manifestations of God's anger in judgments, the final effusion of wrath follows."[14]

[11] G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, 1974), p. 234.

[12] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 453.

[13] A. Plummer, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 381.

[14] William Hendriksen as quoted by Morris, op. cit., p. 187.

Verse 2

And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and them that come off victorious from the beast, and from his image, and from the number of his name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God.

As it were a sea of glass mingled with fire ... Rist and a number of others believe that there is an indirect reference here to the Red Sea,[15] through which God delivered the first Israel from the wrath of Pharaoh; and the typology certainly fits, but Beckwith declared such an interpretation as "purely fanciful."[16] Perhaps it is best to view it as "symbolizing the majesty and holiness of God,"[17] as in Revelation 4:6. The group here assembled is clearly the host of the redeemed from earth, as in a number of similar visions throughout the prophecy. As for the glass sea, Lenski was sure that, "It is the same as that in Revelation 4:6."[18]

Having harps of God ... "These are symbolical of heavenly melodies."[19] "The harps are a symbol of their victory ... of praise and worship to God."[20] We prefer the view that sees the harps as symbols of the songs of the saints, especially of that song which this company was about to sing (Revelation 15:3). It is nothing short of phenomenal that a whole group of commentators go hog wild on this verse and find nothing at all in it except literal harps. Even Lenski identified them as "zithers of God on which to play the music of the glory song!"[21] Beasley-Murray saw "harps for the worship of God."[22] "They are holding the harps that God had given them."[23] Earle was certain that "these harpists sing as well as play."[24] Such literalisms are absolutely preposterous. As Pieters said:

Literalism is here hopeless. How could one put the wrath of God in a bowl and pour it on the sun?[25]

Actual harps in heaven? Who could believe such a thing? Is there also a department of cats to supply the cat gut strings? Ridiculous! Note that God "gave" these harps to the singers. What else could this be except the voices which were created by God? In the entire history of the world up to this time, that is the only musical instrument which God ever made; and we refuse to believe that he will enter into the manufacture of mechanical instruments of music in heaven. In Revelation 8:4, the "incense" is the prayers of the saints; here the "harps" are the songs of the redeemed, as the very next verse says. To literalize "harps" here, and then to declare that this constitutes divine approval of mechanical instruments in Christian worship, is just as unreasonable as it would be to declare the "incense" of Revelation 8:4 to be literal and as divine approval of the burning of sacred incense in Christian worship. We dare to affirm that not a single one of the exegetes who did this to the harps would dare to follow their own reasoning and apply it to the incense. How strange it is that the same scholars who have no trouble at all seeing the symbolical nature of these visions in the instance of the incense, lose all rationality when they come to the "harps."

[15] Martin Rist, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII (New York-Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957), p. 478.

[16] Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1919), p. 674.

[17] G. R. Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 235.

[18] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 455.

[19] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 383.

[20] George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 204.

[21] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 456.

[22] G. R. Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 235.

[23] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 197.

[24] Ralph Earle, op. cit., p. 585.

[25] Albertus Pieters, op. cit., p. 243.

Verse 3

And they sing the song of Moses the 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 ages.

And they sing the song of Moses ... and ... the Lamb ... Morris said of this, "They sing (presumably to their own harp accompaniment)."[26] At least, Morris named such a conclusion what it is; namely, a presumption, a presumption which we do not allow for a moment as in any sense valid. The notion of literal harps is simply not in this passage. The text says "they sing."

Of Moses and of the Lamb ... Perhaps no more is meant by this than the unity of the saints of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Moses was the grand Old Testament type of Christ. See extensive development of this in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 67-69. The song is that of redemption.

Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty ... Significantly, this song, made up of a blended collection of Old Testament texts, deals not with the overcoming of the saints, but with the mighty works of God. "There is not a single word about their own achievement."[27] Self is at last forgotten; selfishness is finally destroyed. In heaven, the song of Moses and the Lamb is exclusively an anthem of loving praise to the Almighty.

The Almighty ... "This title, which is ascribed to God nine times in Revelation, is found but once elsewhere in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:18)."[28]

Thou King of the ages ... The KJV has "King of the saints," and the ASV margin has "King of the nations." The passage is true, however it may be rendered.

[26] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 188.

[27] William Barclay, The Revelation of John (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 120.

[28] Robert H. Mounce, Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 288.

Verse 4

Who shall not fear, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy; for all the nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy righteous acts have been made manifest.

Who shall not fear the Lord ...? This is a rhetorical question meaning that all people shall indeed fear and honor God.

All nations shall come and worship thee ... Rist criticized this passage as being, "out of harmony with the belief expressed throughout Revelation that the nations shall stubbornly refuse to repent."[29] Such a criticism does not properly construe the meaning. It is everywhere taught in the prophecy that "an innumerable company" will be saved (Revelation 7:9) from "every tribe and tongue and nation and people." It is that company who are meant here. They are the true nations who shall come and worship before the Lord. When God is through with this world, all that remains of it will glorify God. "The Apocalyptist thus declares the absolutely universal recognition of God in the End."[30] "The teaching of the Scriptures is that in the end the whole universe will acknowledge the righteousness of all God's acts and verdicts."[31]

[29] Martin Rist, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII (New York-Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957), p. 479.

[30] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 675.

[31] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 459.

Verse 5

And after these things I saw, and the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened:

The temple of the tabernacle of the testimony ... "John is here seeing this picture, not in terms of the Jewish temple, but in terms of the ancient tabernacle."[32] In this, he joins so much of the rest of the New Testament in absolutely ignoring and bypassing the Jewish temple. "This phrase, tabernacle of the testimony is found in only one other place in the New Testament (Acts 7:44),"[33] where it occurs in the address of Stephen. One of the most significant things in the New Testament is this absolute bypassing of the Jewish temple by New Testament writers. The author of Hebrews is another conspicuous example. We have commented upon this extensively in this series: Commentary on Acts, pp. 142ff, Commentary on Mark, pp. 272ff, Commentary on 1Corinthians, pp. 50ff, and Commentary on 1Peter, pp. 192ff. It was the ancient tabernacle, not the Jewish temple, that was made like the pattern God showed to Moses.

[32] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 121.

[33] Martin Rist, op. cit., p. 479.

Verse 6

and there came out from the temple the seven angels that had the seven plagues, arrayed with precious stone, pure and bright, and girt about their breasts with golden girdles.

And there came out ... the seven angels ... All was in readiness for the judgment to be executed. The appearance of these angels seems to be significant, as indicated by the golden girdles resembling the apparel of Christ himself (Revelation 1:13), apparently conveying that they were wearing the livery of their Master and therefore engaged in his business, just as a jockey wears the colors of the owner in a horse race. The judgment belongs to Christ.

Arrayed with precious stone ... This is an additional description of the apparel of the angels. It is translated, "clothed in pure and white linen" in the KJV, which is undoubtedly correct. The way this change came about is interesting:

The word for linen is found in the Vatican and Sinaiticus manuscripts, and a very similar word meaning precious stone occurs in the Alexandrinus and the Codex Ephraemi manuscripts.[34] But the scholars of the ASV preferred precious stone, on the basis of the critical "law" that "the more difficult reading is likely to be the original."[35] But after ASV was published, the Chester Beatty Papyrus was found to support the KJV rendition.[36] On account of this, the RSV went back to the KJV translation.

It would be difficult indeed to find a better example of just how arbitrary and undependable the so-called "Lectio Difficilior" actually is. It has been invoked to justify a whole family of unjustifiable renditions. See "Excursus on New Testament Criticism" in my Commentary on James, 1,2 Peter 1,2, 3John and Jude, pp. 282-290.

[34] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 383.

[35] F. F. Bruce, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1969), p. 656.

[36] Martin Rist, op. cit., p. 480.

Verse 7

And one of the four living creatures gave unto the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.

Are these literal bowls? Not any more than the harps were literal harps, which means they were not in any sense literal. See under Revelation 15:2 for Pieters' comment on the absurdity of taking any of this literally.

Bowls ... This is a very interesting word. "It meant (1) a shallow vessel used for drinking purposes,"[37] as in the case of Old King Cole who called for his pipe and his bowl; (2) a broad shallow vessel used for libations as in Revelation 5:8; and (3) it signified a funerary urn for the ashes of the dead."[38] "This word is found only in Revelation 5:8; 15:7; 16:1-17; 17:1; 21:9."[39]

Full of the wrath of God ... The bowls were not literal receptacles of any kind, as nothing literal could be a suitable container of the wrath of God. They rank with the incense, the harps, the horses, the trumpets, etc., as part of the imagery of the vision. The fact of their being "golden" speaks of the extreme value in God's purpose of judgment. "The wrath of God is simply the operation of God's righteous law against sin ... That law is adverse to evil, and will eventually root evil out."[40] The dramatic scenes of Revelation 16 are designed to symbolize just that.

The execution of God's wrath in the outpouring from the hands of these angels is directed against all evil. Many scholars make what appears to be a very limited application of these divine judgments. Beeson limited them to the wrath of God in the destruction of Jerusalem;[41] McDowell applied them to the great conflict between the Christ and the Caesars;"[42] Wilcock said they were directed against Babylon as a composite of both the sea-beast and the land-beast;[43] Roberts wrote, "These are the last plagues upon the pagan city of Rome";[44] Hinds saw them as "a series of events that will ultimately end the papal hierarchy and accomplish the destruction of the man of sin."[45] There was a measure of God's wrath fulfilled in all such things; but we refrain from identifying these judgments exclusively with any particular time-frame, as did Beasley-Murray, for example, who understood them as "messianic judgments of the last time."[46]

The overriding meaning of these bowls is that when people of any time, place, or circumstance have repeatedly flouted initial and repeated heavenly warnings (by judgments), there comes the time of total overthrow and destruction. This is nothing new. It has always been God's way, Pharaoh of the Old Testament being a classical example; and the Christian dispensation will provide other examples of the same phenomenon; indeed it has already done so.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ralph Earle, op. cit., p. 586.

[40] Boyd W. Carpenter, op. cit., p. 606.

[41] Ulrich R. Beeson, The Revelation (Little Rock: Ulrich R. Beeson, 1956), pp. 120,121.

[42] Edward A. McDowell, The Meaning and Message of the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1951), p. 152.

[43] Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 141.

[44] J. W. Roberts, The Revelation of John (Austin, Texas: The R. B. Sweet Company, 1974), p. 123.

[45] John T. Hinds, A Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1962), p. 223.

[46] G. R. Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 231.

Verse 8

And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and none was able to enter into the temple, until the seven plagues of the seven angels should be finished.

And the temple was filled with smoke ... "The main point of this is the inevitability of the plagues. When God's good time has come, nothing can stop final judgment."[47] This symbolizes the judicial hardening of the incorrigibly wicked. It will be recalled from Isaiah 6:4ff that the "smoke" from God's presence meant the prophecy of the hardening of Israel. So here, the smoke means that, in this situation, God's work of grace is finished. "None was able to enter into the temple." "The sanctuary is inaccessible ... the time for intercession is past."[48]

Rather than limit this to the end time, when this very condition of the human race will probably have occurred, why should it not also include the irrevocably wicked of any and all generations? It is a dreadful thing to contemplate, no matter how it may be interpreted. How dreadful must be that day, when for any man, or any nation, there comes the time when God's face is turned away, when his holy presence is obscured by smoke, and when prayer may receive no answer except the petitioner's agony. The bowls of the wrath of God were indeed once poured out upon rebellious Jerusalem, not because she rebelled against Rome, but because she had previously rebelled against God in the rejection of Christ. They were again poured out upon pagan Rome. When the vast wicked empire had finished with tormenting and persecuting the saints, and when the time came for God to humiliate her under the heel of the invader, the city fell in 476 A.D. From this it may be concluded that there is no world situation of entrenched wickedness anywhere on earth that has ever been safe, or ever will be safe, from the type of judgments signified by these bowls.

[47] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 191.

[48] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 656.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 15". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.