The Seven Vials: Predestined Suffering in the Government of the World
Revelation 16:1-21
And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways…

And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth. And the first went, etc. "It is incredible," says Bishop Horsley, "to any one who has not made the experiment, what proficiency may be made by studying the Scriptures without any other commentary or exposition than what the different parts of the sacred volume naturally furnish for each other." Whoever has, with honesty of purpose and persevering endeavour studied the Bible for himself, will readily endorse this statement of the bishop. I would add to this, and say that it is incredible to any one who has not made the experiment, what an amount of priceless, vital, and practical truth can be got out of the Bible by studying its utterances in connection with the unbiassed reason and common sense of the human mind. Using these Apocalyptic visions of John as an illustration of the great truths dictated by reason and confirmed by the consciousness of every man, they come to us as a priceless revelation. The great truth which this chapter suggests to us, and strikingly illustrates, is that there is predestined suffering in the government of the world. There are "seven plagues," sufferings, that have been developing, still are being developed, and will be to the end. The abyss of agony contained in these seven plagues is immeasurable to all but the Infinite. The old dogma fabricated by the old makers of our theology, viz. that the physical suffering in the world is caused by sin, is an exploded fallacy, which all geological museums ridicule in mute laughter. Suffering is an element in the government of this world. Taking the whole of this chapter, we shall find it illustrative of three subjects, viz.

(1) that all the dispensations of this suffering are under the direction of God;

(2) that they have all a great moral purpose; and

(3) that they have all an influence coextensive with the universe. Observe -

I. ALL THE DISPENSATIONS OF THIS SUFFERING ARE UNDER THE DIRECTION OF GOD. "And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go you, ways [Go ye], and pour out the vials [seven bowls] of the wrath of God upon the earth" (ver. 1). From the very shrine of the Almighty, the holy of holies, he deals out and regulates every item of the sevenfold plagues.

1. He orders their agents. Each of the "seven angels" or messengers are sent forth by him. "Go your ways." The supreme Governor of the universe conducts his affairs through the agencies of others - a vast system of secondary instrumentalities. Thus, through all nature, he gives life, supports life, and takes away life. Albeit he sits at the head and is the absolute Author of all. There is not a pain that quivers in the nerve of any sentient being that comes not from him. He says, "Go your ways," and nothing moves but by his behests. He kills and he makes alive. Is not this a soothing and a strengthening thought under all the dispensations of sorrow?

2. He appoints their seasons. The "seven angels" do not all come together; each has its period. Every impulse that moves throughout the creation, whether it be to shake a leaf in the forest or to wheel systems throughout immensity, goes forth at his own time. All times and seasons are with him. When Shakespeare says, "Troubles come not singly, but in battalions," he is not right. Mercifully they do come singly to individuals and communities, some in one period of life and some in another. To man, collectively, they are ages apart - from the groans of Abel to the throes of the last judgment. There is not a drop of sorrow in any cup that comes not from Heaven.

3. He fixes their places. Each of the seven angels who, under God, are to dispense the plagues, has his place assigned him. Each had his "vial," or bowl, and each bowl had a place on which it was to be poured. The first came upon" the earth," the second on "the sea," the third upon "the rivers and fountains," the fourth upon "the sun," the fifth upon "the seat [throne] of the beast," the sixth upon "the great river Euphrates," and the seventh "into the air" (vers. 2-12). Whether there is a reference here to plagues in Egypt, or suffering elsewhere, I know not; no one does know, nor does it matter. They were phantoms that rolled like clouds in the vision of John, and as such they illustrate the grand truth that even the very scenes and seasons of all our sorrows come from him who is, and was, and is to be, the Everlasting Father.

4. He determines their character. The sufferings that came forth from the bowls were not of exactly the same kind or amount; some seemed more terrible and tremendous than others. It appeared as a painful "sore" upon the men of the earth; it was as "death" to those on the sea; it appeared as "blood" upon the fountains and the rivers; it appeared as scorching "fire" in the sun; it appeared as "darkness" and "torture" upon the throne of the beast; it appeared as a terrible "drought," and as the spirits of devils like "frogs," on the rolling Euphrates; and it appeared as terrible convulsions of nature in the air. How different in kind and amount are the sufferings dealt out to men! The sufferings of some are distinguished by physical diseases, some by social bereavements, some by secular losses and disappointments, some by mental perplexities, some by moral anguish, etc. "Every heart knoweth its own bitterness." So much, then, for the fact that all the dispensations of predestined sufferings are under the direction of God.

II. ALL THE DISPENSATIONS OF THIS SUFFERING HAVE A GREAT MORAL PURPOSE. The suffering of the sevenfold plagues is settled in the government of God for moral ends. These ends are not malignant, but merciful. They are not to ruin souls, but to save them. They are curative elements in the painful cup of life; they are storms to purify the moral atmosphere of the world. Disrobing these verses of all metaphorical incongruities, they suggest the grand purpose of God in all the dispensations of suffering. They appear to involve three things.

1. The righteous punishment of cruel persecution. "And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord [Righteous art thou], which art, and wast, and shalt be [thou Holy One], because thou hast judged thus. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy" (vers. 5, 6). To "shed blood" anyhow is one of the foulest crimes man can commit; it is an impious infraction of a fundamental law of Heaven, "Thou shalt not kill." Words which apply to man in every conceivable capacity and relation - to the hangman and the warrior as well as to the assassin. They speak as truly to Wolseley amidst his murdering exploits in the Soudan as to any other man on the face of the earth. Blood guiltiness is the chief of crimes. But to murder "prophets," good men and true teachers, is the chief of murders. For this Heaven would be avenged, and the whole intelligent universe will so recognize this as to break into the anthem, "Even so [yea], Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments" (ver. 7).

"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints," etc.


2. The righteous punishment of supreme worldliness. "And the fifth angel poured out his vial [bowl] upon the seat [throne] of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain" (ver. 10). Worldliness in the ascendant is indeed like this beast portrayed in the Apocalypse. It sits supreme; it has a throne, a crown, a sceptre that extends over all. Supreme worldliness, whether in the individual or the society, is a "beast" coarse and hideous; and this beast, with all its votaries, is to be crushed. The whole government of God moves in that direction. Truly "blessed is he that overcometh the world" - this "beast."

3. The overwhelming ruin of organized wrong. "And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath" (ver. 19). Great Babylon, what is it? The moral evils of the world organized into its metropolis. Falsehood, sensuality, pride, ambition, impiety, fraud, tyranny, embodied in a mighty city. This is the Babylon, and all unredeemed men are citizens in it. The Divine purpose is to destroy it. All his dispensations are against it, and will one day shiver it to pieces. "The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever." Wrong will not stand forever before right. Though mountains of ice may stand before the glowing sunbeams of a thousand summers, wrong is bound to fall ultimately before the right. Take courage; be of good cheer!

III. ALL THE DISPENSATIONS OF THIS SUFFERING HAVE AN INFLUENCE COEXTENSIVE WITH THE UNIVERSE. There was not a drop from the bowl in either of the angels' hands that terminated where it fell. The contents of these bowls are not like showers falling on the rocks in summer, which having touched them are then exhaled forever. No, they continue to operate. The bowl that fell on the earth became an evil and painful sore; that which fell on the sea became blood and death; that which fell upon the sun scorched mankind; that which fell on the beast spread darkness and agony in all directions; that which fell upon the Euphrates produced a drought, and drew out of the month of the dragon wild beasts and strange dragons; the bowl that poured out its contents on the air produced lightnings and thunders and earthquakes, causing Babylon to be riven asunder, and every mountain and valley to flee away (vers. 2-13, 19, 20). Observe:

1. Nothing in the world of mind terminates with itself. One thought leads to another, one impression produces another elsewhere, and so on. In matter the roll of an infant's marble shakes the massive globes of space. "No man liveth unto himself." Each step we give will touch chords that will vibrate through all the arches of immensity.

2. Whatever goes forth from mind exerts an influence on the domain of matter. These angels, unseen messengers of the Eternal, go forth from that shrine into which no eye has ever pierced - the secret place of him "who dwelleth in the light, whom no man hath seen or can see." Who are they? What eye has ever seen them? what ear has ever heard the rustle of their mystic wings? the "vials" or howls they bear in their mystic hands, what eye has seen them, and what hand has touched them? And yet these invisibilities from the invisible world produce an influence upon the material. Not only do sentient creatures from the earth and the waters and the air writhe and bleed and die, but inanimate matter also. The earth quakes, the mountains tremble at their influence. Human science seems to be reaching a point when we shall find that human minds in all directions exert an influence upon the forces and the operations of material nature. Mind is the primordial and presiding force of all forces. Morally, like Jacob on his stony pillow at Bethel, we are all dreaming, unconscious of the presence of the great Spirit. Ere long, however, we shall be wakened and exclaim, "Surely God is in this place, and I knew it not." - D.T.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.

WEB: I heard a loud voice out of the temple, saying to the seven angels, "Go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God on the earth!"

The Wrath of God
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