Friday, April 12, 2013

The Seven Bowls of Revelation 16

Ancient Egyptian cursing bowl
Bowls were used by priests to bless and to curse. The curse or imprecatory prayer was inscribed inside the bowl and the one invoking the curse (offering the prayer) poured water from that bowl on the person, or on an effigy of the person, or on their property. The worst possible curse involved seven bowls or a seven-fold pouring. Cursing or "incantation bowls" such as the one shown have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This one is Egyptian and dates to 3000 B.C.

Alice C. Linsley

The scene in heaven

A sea of glass mingled with fire surrounds the temple of the tabernacle (Rev. 15:2). Out of the temple come seven angelic beings vested as priests. These may be angels created to serve God and man, or they may the deified elders (Houris/Horim) to which the Bible makes repeated reference. If so, these are the ruler-priests of Jesus' priestly line. The context of vindication of the saints and martyrs suggests this latter interpretation.

To each is given a bowl full of God's wrath (Rev. 15:7). The Greek word for wrath is orge, the same word that appears in Romans 1:18: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness."

Later this is made more emphatic in the phrase: "the wrath of the indignation of God" used in reference to the wine given to the "great Babylon." The Hebrew for this is chêmâh chêmâ' (khay-maw' khay-maw) and is an example of redoubling. Redoubling for emphasis or enhancement is typical of many Afro-Asiatic languages. This is a linguistic equivalent of parallelism in Hebrew poetry. Consider this example from Isaiah 10:5:

                     Woe to Assyria, the rod of My wrath
                     And the staff in whose hands is My indignation.

A manifestation of God's wrath is the smoke that fills the temple (16:8). The divine Presence is such that none can enter the temple, just as none could enter the earthly sanctuary once it filled with the glory of God (2 Chr. 7:2). Even the high priest could not enter, for the time for intercession is past. It is the time of judgment on the earth and upon those with the mark of the beast.

A similar image of the execution of God's wrath in found in Revelation 14. Here John's vision involves an angel who has authority over fire who sends forth another angel with a sickle. The sickle sweeps the earth and gathers the vintage and casts it into the great wine press of the indignation of God (Rev. 14:19). The sickle, the bowls of wrath, and the confrontation at Har-Meggido/Armageddon (Rev. 16:16) speak of the same final judgment on the enemies of Christ. Clearly, John's Apocalypse should not be read as a chronology of final events.

The scene on earth

A voice of great authority commands the angels to "Go and pour out the bowls of the wrath of God on the earth." In his book "The Apocalypse of St. John: A Revelation of Love and Power (Conciliar Press,) Fr. Lawrence Farley, notes a parallel to Isaiah 66:6: "A tumult from the city, a voice from the temple, a voice of the Lord that renders recompense to his enemies."

The seven bowls, like the seven plagues bring misery worldwide. There is a difference in the delivery of these miseries, however. The plagues come one after another, whereas the bowls are poured out simultaneously.

Bowl one brings disease; bowl two brings death to the seas; bowl three brings death to the fresh water; bowl four causes the sun to scorch men with fire; bowl five is poured on the throne of the beast and his kingdom turns to darkness. With the fifth bowl humans suffer great pain and "gnaw their tongues." Those marked by the beast blaspheme God repeatedly, but to no effect, for their judgment is certain. The bowls represent the final wrath upon those the enemies of God.

The cosmic symbolism of the seven bowls

The ancients conceived of the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn as celestial bowls. From these bowls God poured forth blessings and curses. In Revelation 16, angelic beings pour out curses from the seven bowls. God's wrath is directed against the enemies of God.

In the use of bowls for opposite purposes, we find an example of the binary worldview of Abraham's people. John H. Walton has noted, "Blessing and curse are common terms in Genesis from the initial blessing in Genesis 1 to the curses of Genesis 3, 4 and 9, and then to the juxtaposition of curse and blessing in Genesis 12:1-3."

The Horite Hebrew priests used bowls to pour blessings and curses. To be blessed was to be under divine protection and to be cursed was to be removed from divine protection. This is depicted in the narrative of the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. From Gerizim came the declaration of divine protection for those who follow the path of righteousness. The opposite was declared from Ebal (Deut. 11:26-30).

God's enemies are also the enemies of His chosen ones, as is evident in Genesis 12:3: "The one who curses you, I will curse." God removes from his protection and favor from those who curse Abraham's Seed. The bowls of Revelation 16 represent the full outpouring of God's final wrath on the enemies of Christ and those who belong to Christ.

In the temple dedicated to the Sun in Upper Egypt, at the ruins of Babian, there were seven urns. These represented the seven visible planets. The urns caught blessings from heaven in the form of rain. The six urns at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus Christ turned water to wine, speak of what is yet to be fulfilled in Jesus at the Cross and empty tomb. He who went down also ascended to the heights, taking captives and giving gifts to mankind (Eph. 4:9,10). Perhaps this is what Heraklitus of Ephesus meant when we wrote that "the path up and down is one and the same."

According to Heraklitus the heavenly bowls carried the stars and other celestial bodies. This notion was widespread in the ancient world and was used to explain the diurnal motion of the fixed stars as they revolved around a point above the north pole, and the apparent motions of the sun, the moon and planets.

This perception of the bowls spread with the Kushite expansion to Asia Minor and India. Today it is evident in the Hindu wedding ceremony of the Agharias in Orissa, India. The ceremony begins with the bride’s father delivering seven small earthen bowls to the bride. The bride is seated in the open, and seven women hold the bowls over her head one above the other. Water is then poured from one bowl into the other, each being filled in turn until all the water is poured on the bride's head. This symbolizes the celestial blessing upon the bride.

Though many churches baptize by immersion, use of a bowl to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is consistent with this ancient practice of blessing.

Double meaning of the number seven

The seven bowls of God's wrath symbolize final judgment. Seven also represents the grotesque appearance of the beast. “And I saw a beast coming up from the sea, having ten horns and seven heads…and upon its heads were the names of blasphemy… And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority.” (Rev. 12:18-13:2)

The richness of the number symbolism is found throughout John's Apocalypse. In Revelation 8 we read of the seventh seal, the seven angels, and the seven trumpets. The seventh seal announces divine visitation. The seven angels represent the seven churches, and the seven trumpets represent the fullness of divine mercy extended for the sake of those who might yet repent.

Seven is also a common number associated with weddings. In Jewish weddings the seven marriage blessings (Sheva Brachot) are recited under the huppah and the wedding feast lasts seven days. Seven days was the duration of the wedding feast for Samson (Judges 14:12) and for Queen Vashti (Esther 1:5-11).

The number seven represents God at rest and portrays a peaceful relationship between the Creator and the creation, between heaven and earth, and between husband and bride. Seven in reference to the Sun's coming forth as a bridegroom points to the eighth day, the great wedding banquet of the Lamb and the dawning of the eternal kingdom.

Related reading: Curses in GenesisWater and Blood; Rev. 12: The Woman, the Child and the Dragon; The Dragon and the Beast; Number Symbolism in Revelation; The Shock of Mohammad Atta's Afterlife


  1. I agree that the seven bowls represent the final judgment. And, while the number seven can also be used as a more positive symbol, I think the earlier seven trumpets are more similar to the bowls than to "divine mercy" for the sake of repenting. Like the bowls, the trumpets are also spoken of as "plagues," that affect similar parts of the earth (yet only a "third" of those parts, unlike "everything" with the bowls). The result is not repentance, but the seventh trumpet (which is also the final judgment). So I think the trumpets symbolize earlier "judgments" (from heaven, through its true prophets, like those in Rev. 11:1-13) that challenge the ("third" of the) earth (and its disobedient churches, like the 5 of the 7 churches that are warned to repent).

  2. Are you suggesting that churches, congregations and individuals exist that are beyond the need for repentance?

  3. the seven bowls symbolic of either blessing or cursing and being administered by angels, saints, priests or the deified elders shows the very interesting correspondence of some aspects of Biblical cosmology and the more ancient or archtypical Kushitic (Afro-Asiatic) cosmology. The use of seven bowls linked to astronomy in pre-Biblical ancient temple ritual and the use of seven bowls in the heavenly cosmic temple ritual of Revelation I also find most interesting.


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