Revelation 15

An Exegetical Commentary

Blaine Robison, M.A.

 Published 10 June 2011; Revised 16 May 2014

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Scripture: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found here. The Revelation Scripture text is taken from the NASB (1977 Edition) and unless otherwise indicated other Scripture quotations are from the NASB 1995 Updated Edition. Other Bible versions are also quoted. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Most versions can be accessed on the Internet.

Ancient Sources: Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations. Works by early church fathers are available online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library or Early Christian Writings. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which was in use by Jews by the mid-2nd century BC. Citations for Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75-99 A.D.). Online.

Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from Walter Bauer, W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." Explanation of grammatical abbreviations and a pronunciation guide for New Testament Greek may be found here.

Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).

Sign of the Seven Angels (15:1-4)

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.

And I saw another sign: John sees the third great sign. (See 12:1 on “sign.”) Six times in the previous chapter John uses the expression "another angel." The phrase "another sign" continues the sequence of signs that tell the great story of God. Now, in the sign of the seven angels with the seven judgments, God reveals His plan to do justice for His Name, for His holiness and for His saints, bringing to a close His wrath on sin in this present age (cf. Rom 1:18-20; 5:18). in heaven: Grk. ouranos, the area above the earth that encompasses the sky, interstellar space and associated phenomena or the transcendent dwelling-place of God (Danker). See the note on 3:12. Given the narrative the follows the last location is meant.

This sign is characterized with a double superlative, great and marvelous, which indicates the impact of seeing a sign of great vividness and scope. “Marvelous” means amazing or that which causes a wonder (Rienecker). In the previous chapter six angels issue proclamations and initiate God’s wrath as portrayed in the winepress vision, but the mention of seven angels in this sign refers to a different group of angels, most likely of a higher order as indicated in vv. 5-6 below. who had seven plagues: Grk. plēgē. See 9:18 on “plagues.” The seven “plagues” are not illnesses or infectious diseases, but divinely directed judgments of the holy God who has had enough of sin and rebellion, as well as the persecution of His saints.

because in them the wrath: Grk. thumos. See 12:12 on “wrath.” of God is finished: Grk. teleo, aor. pass. ind., may mean (1) to bring to an end, finish, or complete something, such as completing a building (2) carry out, accomplish, perform, fulfill or keep something, to carry out the demands of, to keep the law (3) to pay. In the LXX teleo is found 30 times, translating eight different Hebrew words, particularly kalah, which in the active form may mean to bring to an end or to fulfill and in the passive form to consecrate (DNTT, II, 60).

God’s punishment began with the seven trumpets, but His wrath is brought to closure in the bowls, which is affirmed in three ways. First there are seven angels and seven judgments and the symbolic significance of “seven” representing completeness corresponds appropriately with the description of God’s wrath being concluded with their assignment. Another detail is that these judgments are the “last” acts of God’s wrath on the whole earth. If they are the last, then no more come after. That is, the sign of the seven last judgments is not a recapitulation account of the seals and trumpets, but a definite event that concludes God’s wrath on earth in the present age. The verb “is finished” contains the concept of achieving a purpose or completing a design.

The “wrath” mentioned here should not be confused with the Day of God’s Wrath (1 Thess 1:10), which occurs on the day the Son of Man returns with the armies of heaven to destroy the beast’s army (see 6:16 on the “day of the Lord”), or His eternal wrath that commences with the great white throne judgment in chapter twenty (cf. Matt 25:41, 46; 2 Thess 1:9f; Jude 1:7). God’s punishment on the beast and his followers began with the trumpet judgments and is completed in the bowl judgments. The major characteristic that distinguishes the seals and trumpets from the bowls of wrath is that prior to this point in the story the opportunity for repentance still existed. There was a parallel situation with ancient Egypt in which the Scripture says that Pharaoh hardened his heart or refused the opportunity to repent. However, beginning with the sixth plague the Scripture says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12), indicating that the opportunity for mercy had expired. Once the bowls judgments commence God’s mercy is no longer available. Similarly, the great white throne judgment confirms the eternal punishment already determined by the choices made in the present age.

2― And I saw, as it were, a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who 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.

I saw … a sea of glass: John next observed that the sign included the “sea of glass” that he had first seen when he was called up to heaven (see 4:6 on “sea of glass”). mixed: Grk. mignumi, perf. pass. part., means to mix, mingle or blend something with something else. The perfect participle emphasizes both the physical characteristic of the Sea and its permanency. with fire: On closer examination John notes that fire seemed to be a physical property of the glass. Fire often signifies judgment since it is used in judgment, but given what follows it probably represents the fires of persecution, making the sea a memorial to sacrificial service (1 Cor 3:13, 15; 1 Pet 1:7).

those who come off victorious: Grk. nikaō, pres. act. part., lit. "the ones overcoming." See the note on 2:7 for "overcoming." Johnson suggests the crowd is the 144,000 elect of Israel (7:4; 14:1), perhaps influenced by the mention of the Song of Moses in the next verse. However, there is no specific mention of the 144,000 and the multitude is identified as having overcome three trials: the dictatorial rule of the beast, the imposition of idolatry and the marking of the population. While a spiritual interpretation might be made of these trials to fit any century, the context of the narrative and the specific mention of the “number of his name” point to those who must endure the final onslaught of Satan at the end of the age.

Here is the paradox that Yeshua introduced to His disciples. The only way to gain life is by dying (John 12:24). The saints will not succumb to the slick merchandizing and promises of a world-class politician or to his intimidation and rage when slickness fails. The saints will refuse to believe in talking statues or magic solutions the beast claims to possess for world problems. The saints will refuse to go along with the crowd and reject worldly popularity for heavenly acceptance. The saints also know their blood will become the price for refusing the mark of the beast’s number or name and refusing to serve Satan’s regent. The beast may overcome the saints for a season (13:7), but in reality the victory belongs to the saints.

standing on: Grk. epi, prep. can mean “at,” “by” or “near” in the sense of proximity. the sea of glass: While the NASB depicts the saints who overcame the beast (12:11) as standing on the sea, the Complete Jewish Bible’s use of “standing by” is to be preferred as more logical. holding harps of God: Grk. kithara, a hand-held musical instrument, having strings and a wooden frame. See the note on 5:8 where the angelic elders play the same instrument.

This scene of the victors standing next to the heavenly sea with harps in their hands and praising God recalls Israel’s song of triumph over Pharaoh’s army on the eastern shore of the Red Sea (Rienecker). Perhaps the harps are issued to accompany the singing mentioned in the next verse. The harp is a special feature of heaven and as with the white robe, white stone and other blessings, the harp indicates the provision for joyous celebration. In this life there is no universal distribution of musical talent, but God does not supply equipment in heaven without imparting the requisite ability for use.

3― And they sang 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!

And they sang the song of Moses: In contrast to the 144,000 who sang a “new song” by an unnamed composer (perhaps the Lord), the saints in this scene sing two songs of celebration. The first song was penned by Moses the servant of God. (See 1:1 on “bond-servant.”) Three songs in Scripture are attributed to Moses (Ex 15:1ff; Deut 31:30; 32:1-43; Ps 90). Of these songs the one the Israelites sang by the Red Sea after their deliverance from Pharaoh seems most appropriate to this occasion and the vision of the martyrs standing next to the sea of glass as victors over the beast. In the ancient synagogue the Jews quoted the entirety of the Red Sea song in the daily morning service and again in the twice-daily blessing after the Shema as a reminder of their victorious redemption from Egyptian bondage (Stern). The Song of Moses was also part of the morning service in the Jerusalem temple (Edersheim 54). Thus, the victorious Body of the Messiah, the complete commonwealth of Israel, celebrates her true Sabbath or eternal rest by singing the music of Moses.

the song of the Lamb: The phrases “of Moses” and “of the Lamb” are in the genitive case. The genitive may be (1) an objective genitive, i.e., Moses and the Lamb are the subjects of the songs, which would only be true of one; (2) a genitive of possession, i.e., the songs belong to Moses and the Lamb; or (3) a subjective genitive, i.e., the songs were composed by Moses and the Lamb. The context would support the subjective genitive.

The song of the Lamb addresses God with a series of titles that pay tribute to His character. Stern suggests that the Lamb sings this song, and while that may be expected as Moses sang with the Hebrew multitude (Ex 15:1), the text says “they sang,” referring to the multitude. The people of God have been blessed over the centuries with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16) written by great composers beginning in biblical times with Moses, David and Levitical writers. Yet, in heaven new songs will still be created with which to praise the great Savior. Some scholars confuse the pronouncements of the martyrs as lyrics from a song of Moses, but the grammatical construction clearly identifies what follows as belonging to the song of the Lamb. After all, the text of the song of Moses is already known and would not need to be repeated here. There are certainly parallels between the two songs and together they serve to emphasize that the old and new covenants are one, because both songs proclaim that salvation is accomplished by the mighty God.

Great and marvelous are Thy works: The song declares that the Lord’s works are all “great and marvelous,” the same phrase used in 15:1 to describe the sign of the seven angels (cf. Ps 92:5; 98:1; 111:2; 139:14). There just are not enough superlatives to extol all the Lord’s accomplishments. His ways are also “righteous and true” (cf. Deut 32:4; Ps 145:17), which contrasts with man’s ways that are full of pride, corrupt and prone to deception (Rom 3:10-13). The term “righteous” can also refer to justice, especially in His judgments of men, and God is “true” or faithful to His promises to do justice for His people who have suffered so many tribulations in this life. Nebuchadnezzar’s experience of these attributes finally brought him to faith in the God of Israel, so that he declared, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Dan 4:37). The song of the Lamb likewise bids the saints to remember God’s character and works in their lives and be humbled by His majesty.

The title Lord God, the Almighty (cf. 11:17-18; Amos 4:13) is used five times in Revelation but nowhere else in the apostolic writings. As far as is possible in human language, these three words summarize all that God is. He is “Lord,” Master of all. He is “God,” the Creator, who brought all into existence. He is the “Almighty” and possesses all the power He needs to carry out His will. The equivalent power attributed to the universe and man by evolutionists flies in the face of reality (cf. Jer 13:23). In John’s day the Roman emperors were beginning to use the titles of deity. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian and Titus had been officially declared divine after their deaths by the Roman Senate, and the last three had used the term DIVUS (divine) on their coins. Domitian, who sent John to Patmos, went a step further and demanded that he be addressed as Dominus et Deus (Lord and God). For John the only Lord God was the One who offered the perfect sacrifice and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

King of the nations: The KJV’s translation “King of saints” is a late reading in the Greek text with no substantial support. Metzger identifies only six MSS with “King of the saints,” whereas 27 MSS have “King of the nations” (cf. Jer 10:7; Zech 14:9). Interestingly, there are 22 MSS with “King of the ages.” It may be that the MS copyists substituted "ages" for “nations” in a failure to recognize the allusion to Hebrew prophecy and an attempt to conform this text to 1 Timothy 1:17. “Nations” is more in accord with the context here (Mounce).

The title "King of the nations" repeats one of the Hebrew names of God found in Jeremiah 10:7, “Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You.” The title emphasizes that God is qualified to rule due to being preeminent in wisdom, and thus is worthy of respect and worship. The title also points to a future reality. Zechariah prophesied, “And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9). God’s salvation is not restricted to the Jews but includes people of all Gentile nations who are willing to worship and serve the Lord (Ps 22:28; 72:11; Jer 10:7; Dan 7:14; Zech 14:16; Luke 2:32; 13:29). Taken out of context one might interpret “all the nations” as referring to universal salvation, that every single Gentile from the past, present and future would be saved. However, the phrase more likely has the same meaning as “all Israel” in Romans 11:26. In his commentary on “all Israel,” Stern observes that it does not mean every single Jew past, present and future, but Israel as a nation (Stern 421). God’s covenant was with a people, not merely individuals. The song reveals that every Gentile nation will have representation in God’s Kingdom.

4― “Who will not fear, 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.”

Who will not fear: The song of the Lamb asks an important rhetorical and theological question – “who will not fear You?” Jeremiah posed the same question, “Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You” (Jer 10:7). The question assumes a positive answer, even though the reality is that the majority of people in the world have no fear of God (cf. Luke 18:2; Rom 3:18). The fear of the Lord needs to be correctly understood. Many believe “fear” to be incompatible with the knowledge of Yeshua bearing the penalty for sin as John says, “because fear involves punishment” (1 John 4:18), and the true disciple is not afraid of facing God but has confidence that he will hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet, there are a number of passages in which the fear of God is a positive virtue (Matt 10:28; Acts 5:5, 11; 9:31; 13:16, 26; 16:29; 2 Cor 5:11; 7:1; Eph 5:21; 6:5; Phil 2:12; 1 Pet 1:17; 2:17). The best working definition of the fear of the Lord was offered by Solomon, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov 8:13). In other words, as a positive virtue a person who fears God develops the same attitude toward evil as God. The song follows up the rhetorical question with three reasons why God should be feared and glorified. (See 4:9 on “give glory.”)

For Thou alone art holy: “For Thou…art” is supplied since the Grk. sentence contains only the words “only holy” (Marshall). The Hebrew original probably was a statement of the divine title, “Only Holy One.” Rabbinic writings often refer to God as HaKadosh, barukh ha, “the Holy One, blessed be he” (Stern 833). Since MSS had no punctuation the question would then read “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name, O Only Holy One?”

The word "holy" is Grk. hosios, which means undefiled by sin, free from wickedness, pure, holy (Rienecker). Hosios occurs only nine times in the apostolic writings (Acts 2:27; 13:34, 35; 1 Thess 2:10; 1 Tim 2:8; Titus 1:8; Heb 7:26; Rev 15:4; 16:5) and only three times is it not used to refer to God or the Messiah. In the LXX hosios translates two words used to describe God – yashar, meaning “upright” (Deut 32:4) and hasid, meaning “kind” (Ps 145:17) (DNTT, II, 237). In the apostolic writings the usual word for “holy” to which the saints aspire is hagios, which means to be set apart. Cf. 3:7 on “holy.”

The first reason to fear God is that only God is intrinsically holy, and being holy God cannot and will not tolerate sin. The Father’s hatred of evil is so strong that He sent the Son not merely to atone for sin, but to destroy the power of sin and remove sin from His people (John 12:31; 1 John 3:8). The revelation of God’s holiness echoes the declaration of Yeshua, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Any holiness the saints possess is derived from Him. In addition, God is the only person who is consistently holy and even the best saints in Scripture at times fell short of His glory (and still do! Rom 3:23). While the apostles repeatedly urged the early disciples to pursue holiness of life (Eph 1:4; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15) and maintained that sanctification should be the condition of the heart (Rom 6:22; 1 Pet 3:15), they never boasted of being “holy.” Only God can say, “I am.” Personal testimonies of early disciples are appropriately modest in the face of God’s holiness, a lesson all disciples of Yeshua should take to heart (John 1:27; Acts 10:25-26; Phil 3:8-15; 1 Tim 1:12-16). (See 20:6 on the holiness of the saints.)

FOR ALL THE NATIONS WILL COME AND WORSHIP BEFORE THEE: This statement is a prophecy of David, “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and they shall glorify Your name” (Ps 86:9; cf. Isa 66:23). In anticipation of the millennial kingdom Zechariah prophesied, “Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Zech 14:9). Other Scripture passages anticipate the worship of the nations, e.g., Isaiah 2:2-3; 49:22-23; 60:3; 66:18, 23-24; Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:20-22. Most assuredly “that in honor of the name given Yeshua, every knee will bow - in heaven, on earth and under the earth and every tongue will acknowledge that Yeshua the Messiah is ADONAI - to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11 CJB). The prescient comment of the Apostle Paul foretold the Revelation scenes of the saints, the inhabitants of the earth and those released from Hades, all standing before God awaiting His verdict.

for Thy righteous acts: Grk. dikaioma primarily refers to a regulation, requirement, or commandment set forth in the Torah. Marshall translates the word as “ordinances.” The term is also used of any sovereign pronouncement (Danker). The translation of righteous "acts" or "deeds" (also ASV, CJB, HCSB, ESV, NIV, NLT) may be misleading. Although BAG says that dikaioma can mean a righteous deed the lexicon interprets its use in this verse as a sentence of condemnation. The CEV, KJV, RSV, and NRSV more appropriately translate the word as “judgments.”

have been revealed: Grk. phaneroo, aor. pass. ind., cause to be in a state or condition that makes observation possible (Danker). The clause seems to refer to the many events in history that reveal the divine nature through righteous judgment. God’s righteousness or justice was revealed in many judgments on the wicked and deliverance of His people in biblical history, but especially in the giving of the Torah to guide kingdom living and the sending of His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for the whole world (Ps 98:2; Rom 3:24-25). All of the decisions from the heavenly court are just and right and it is certainly fitting that the awesome God receive the fear that is due Him.

The Temple Opened (15:5-8)

5― After these things I looked, and the temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened,

After these things: The scene of the saints beside the sea of glass passed from John’s sight. No specific time reference is given but there is a definite change of perspective. John saw the temple opened again. (See 3:12 and 11:19 on “temple of God.”) This time the temple is referred to as the “temple of the tabernacle of testimony,” perhaps because the last time the temple opened the ark appeared (11:19). The entire expression emphasizes that the sanctuary of heaven was the model for the tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wanderings (cf. Ex 25:9; Acts 7:44; Heb 9:1-11). It was called a tabernacle or tent of testimony because it contained the two tablets given to Moses (Ex 32:15; Num 17:7; 18:2; Deut 10:5).

6― and the seven angels who had the seven plagues came out of the temple, clothed in linen, clean and bright, and girded around their breasts with golden sashes.

the seven angels: Many times an angel is referred to in Revelation without any specific identification, but John mentions that the seven angels who now come out of the temple are the ones he saw previously (15:1). The angels wear special garments to signify their office and special assignment. (See 1:13 on Yeshua’s priestly garments.) Their clothing is not camouflaged or subdued, but both “clean and white.” This dual characteristic may have reminded John of the vestments worn by the ordinary Jewish priest. The vestment material was linen, or, more accurately, “’byssus,” the white shining cotton-stuff of Egypt (Edersheim 68). The two qualities of purity and brightness gave the wearing of the byssus vestment significant symbolic meaning. The addition of the golden sashes would make the angels look truly distinguished. These seven angels have been specially selected out of the millions available in God’s great army to carry out the solemn edict of the heavenly court.

7― 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.

seven golden bowls: Grk. phialē, “bowl,” denotes a wide shallow bowl (Mounce). BAG identifies phialē as a loanword from rabbinical literature. Phialē translates the Heb. mizraq in most instances in the LXX (Johnson). Mizraq is twice used to refer to drinking-bowls (Amos 6:6; Zech 9:15), but thirty times it referred to basins used in various ceremonial rituals and from which sacrificial blood was sprinkled, spattered or splashed (TWOT, II, 254). The use of “vial” in the KJV is misleading, since now a vial is a small glass bottle (Earle).

One of the special creatures that had been occupied with other duties (4:6) now goes to the altar, picks up the special bowls containing the terrible judgments and passes them to the angels who will carry out the judgments. In 5:8 golden bowls were full of incense, which represented the prayers of the saints. Since one of the prayers was for justice (6:10), pouring from the same type of bowl seems appropriate to represent God’s judgment. John’s narrative makes it clear that God directed the use of tangible containers, each filled with a substance that would initiate a deadly chain reaction once released. In every instance the bowl was emptied on something tangible, so there is nothing symbolic about the bowls, their contents or God’s wrath.

It should be noted that angels do not render judgment, but function strictly as agents in carrying out God’s decree. Indeed, the heavenly angels are never spoken of in Scripture as angry. God is again described as one who lives forever (1:8; 4:9), a way of saying that His sovereign reign endures through all the ages. Only God is intrinsically eternal, that is, God was not created and thus His “years” have no beginning and no end (Ps 102:27; Isa 43:10).

8― 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.

the temple was filled with smoke: Parallel incidents are recorded in Exodus 19:18; 40:34-35; 1 Kgs 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:4; Ezekiel 1:4. With the passing of the bowls the temple is immediately filled with smoke, representing the fullness of God’s glory and His power. the glory of God: The fullest revelation of the glory of God in Jewish thought, of course, would come from the Messiah (cf. John 1:18; 4:25; Heb 1:2) and thus the apostolic writings reflect the usage of the expression “the glory of God” as a euphemism for Yeshua (cf. John 1:14; 11:40; Acts 7:55; Rom 3:23; 5:2; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4-6). no one was able to enter: When Solomon’s temple was dedicated the cloud of the Lord was so intense in the temple that no one could remain in its presence (1 Kgs 8:10f). In like fashion man will not be able to stand when the bowls of wrath are poured out. What follows the mention of the smoke is a statement that has an important bearing on the timing of the gathering and resurrection of the saints. John says that no one was able to enter the temple until after the seven bowls of wrath had been poured out. “No one” is a very inclusive reference. In 3:12 the Lord promised that the overcomers would be made pillars in the temple of God and in 7:15 the angel says that the great tribulation martyrs will serve God in His temple day and night. However, these privileges cannot commence until after the seven bowls of wrath are concluded.

Copyright © 2011-2014 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.