The First Four Vials - Rev. Herman Hoeksema

Behold He Cometh - Chapter 38Index to "Behold He Cometh"
(Revelation 16:1-9)

1 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.

2 And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.

3 And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.

4 And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.

5 And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus.

6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, , and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.

7 And I heard another out of the altar say; Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.

8 And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.

9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.


It will now be plain that Chapters 15 and 16 belong together, and that Chapter 15 constitutes a mighty prelude to the events pictured in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. There we found mention of the song of Moses and of the Lamb. We found that this song was sung at the occasion of the eve of the pouring out of the seven last plagues. Seven angels stand in battle array, ready to receive the command out of the temple to go and pour out the last of the plagues of God. They are brilliantly arrayed with costly, precious stones; and there is a reflection of the holiness of God in their very appearance. They have come forth out of the temple of God, which is filled with the smoke of His holiness, ready to fill all the earth and to reveal itself as wrath over the ungodly and oppressors of His people. And in their hands they hold seven vials, or bowls, filled with the wrath of God. When these shall have been poured out, God's wrath shall have been spent, and all is finished. This is indicated by the number seven, symbolic of completeness with a view to the coming of the kingdom in this dispensation. But this was also directly stated by John when he says that in these is finished the wrath of God. And this does not mean that the wrath of God is finished in these seven plagues with a view to eternity, but that this dispensation shall have been finished. The power which opposes the kingdom of God shall forever have been destroyed, and the way is open for the descent of the city of our God upon the new earth.

We found, in the second place, that these singers are described as those who have not worshipped the beast and his image, but who have been victorious. First of all, by those who are mentioned in this section are indicated those who have lived in the time of the greatest and most powerful manifestation of Antichrist. They have fought the battle at its very climax. They were deemed worthy to belong to the picked, or selected, forces of Christ. They are also undoubtedly worthy of receiving double honor and of being capable of occupying a special place in the new temple of God. But they are not the only ones. For, in the first place, the power of Antichrist rages throughout the ages, be it not in that form and with that power as it shall be revealed in the last time. In the second place, and for that reason, the battle is in principle the same throughout the ages, not only in the new dispensation but even in the old. And therefore God's people of all ages fight in principle against the beast. And finally, the subjective longing of all the children of God is for this day of the Lord, in which He may destroy the enemies and establish His kingdom in glory forever. And therefore, all believers here stand at the crystal sea, which is symbolic of the glory and holiness of God, now reflecting the wrath of the Almighty, and of which the Red Sea was a type.

In the third place, we had our attention called to the song itself. It was the song of Moses and of the Lamb. We found that this does not indicate two songs, but only one. It is the one song, and also the one multitude that sings this song, the song of Moses being typical of and essentially the same as the song of the Lamb. And we found in it but another indication that in eternity there shall not be two forces and two kinds of people of God, but one multitude, singing one and the same song, the song of Moses and of the Lamb. Moses is the type of Christ. He is the mediator of the old dispensation. He led his people out of bondage; so did Christ. He was pursued by the enemy; so are Christ and His people pursued by the enemy of God's kingdom. He led his people through the sea of salvation and of wrath at the same time, that is, the Red Sea; so does Christ finally cause His people to be delivered through the sea of the wrath of God that completely destroys the enemy and that is symbolized in the sea of glass. Moses, finally, taught his people to sing a song of deliverance and glory and triumph; so does Christ teach His people to sing of victory, to the glory of God. It is a song all of God, a song extolling the glory and holiness, the righteousness and the truth and justice of God as having become manifest in all His works and ways.

Now the command goes forth to the angels to pour out the bowls into the earth. Even though the angels have already received their vials of wrath, they must still wait for the command from the temple. For everything proceeds orderly even in the pouring out of the wrath of God, and only at the exact moment may. God's judgment begin. And therefore we are now called to discuss the seven last vials of the wrath of God. Four of these are mentioned in the passage we are now discussing.

The General Character Of The First Four Vials

In regard to the general character of these first four vials, or bowls, I want to call your attention, first of all, to the fact that we must not fall into the rut of false spiritualization and allegorization of the text. As with many portions of the Book of Revelation, so also with this part, this has been done by many.

There are those who allegorize practically every element of the text and give it a spiritual meaning. When the text speaks of the earth, it has a different significance than the literal meaning. When it speaks of the sore boils, it means something spiritual. When it speaks of the sea, it refers to the sea of nations. And the rivers and fountains of water are spiritual rivers and spiritual fountains. When we read that the first vial is poured out upon the earth and causes a sore boil on those that worshipped the beast and his image, there are interpreters who inform us that this is a spiritual boil, a sore of the mind and of the heart, caused by the dissatisfaction which naturally follows all the service of idols, the sad disenchantment of all idolaters. Or, according to others, who can follow the Book of Revelation and trace it page after page in the history of mankind in chronological order, it refers to the sore of infidelity which had been festering for a long time, but which ripened under the influence of such men as Paine, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and finally broke out in the terrible French Revolution. Or it is made to mean the corruption of the church just before the Reformation. The second angel pours out his vial into the sea, which means, of course, naval battles, coloring the sea red with the blood of the slain, turning the ocean into blood. And then it is made to refer especially to the naval battles which were fought between Protestant England and the Catholic countries of the continent between 1793 and 1815, resulting in the defeat of the Catholic naval powers and the victory of the Protestant one. Or, since the sea is the symbol of nations and tongues and tribes, the second vial is interpreted as referring in general to the disintegration of the papal power and the shaking off of the yoke of the pope by many kings and powers in Europe. The third angel pours out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters. And interpreters tell us in all seriousness and sincerity that we have here a prophecy of the victory of Napoleon in the regions of the Alps over the enemy at the very rivers of Switzerland, turning its rivers into blood by the many slain ones, his victorious entry into Rome, and the subjection of the pope. Or, it represents the corruption of the sources of life and thought in the spiritual sense of the word. And so, finally, the fourth vial is interpreted in different ways. It is poured out upon the sun. That sun is Napoleon, who receives power to scorch the nations of Europe by his military genius and becomes a veritable plague to all peoples of the continent. Or it is Christ, scorching those who reject His name with the fire of His wrath.

Such, and other interpretations, have been given of these first four vials. But we cannot agree with this method of interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

In the first place, as we have remarked time and again, we must not take anything in the spiritual sense unless the book plainly indicates this. That the beast who rises out of the earth is not a real animal, but something extraordinary, to be interpreted in the symbolical sense of the word, is something which needs no argument. Everyone admits that this is so. Its appearance, as well as all that he does, plainly indicates this. That the harvest in Chapter 14 is not a real harvest of grain and grapes is also beyond dispute. The book indicates very clearly when we must think of symbolism and spiritualization. But surely that is not the case here. Our text speaks of the pouring out of the vials upon the earth, into the sea, and into the rivers and fountains of waters without anything else. It tells us that the fourth angel pours his vial upon the sun, and that the effect is that the sun increases terribly in heat, so that it scorches men. And there is absolutely no indication that we must or may interpret them in the spiritual sense. If nevertheless we attempt to do so without any indication and guide from the text, the question immediately arises as to which interpretation is the correct one. Are the rivers and fountains of waters springs of life and thought? Is the sore boil a symbol of the corruption of the church? Or is it the sore boil of infidelity? Is the sun Napoleon, or Christ, or perhaps something else? And who will answer these questions? The result is that we leave the book and its interpretation in despair, deeply dissatisfied and quite convinced that we have not hit upon the right interpretation, leaving it to the future perhaps, - perhaps even to eternity, - to unveil the hidden depths that here are concealed from our eye. So much as to the false allegorization of the text. As to the historical interpretation, we have partly the same objection. Who will tell us exactly what period of history is represented by each plague? Is it the period of the Reformation? Or is it that of the French Revolution?

In the second place, it is entirely against the plain indication of the significance of the seven vials themselves. For we are plainly told that in these the wrath of God is finished. Each of these seven vials must pour out the wrath of God upon a certain sphere. And although the wrath of God is not finished to the full in each of them separately, yet it is certainly complete with a view to the sphere in which it is poured out. But what completion is there in the naval battles of 1793 to 1$15? Did that color the entire sea, so that every living creature in it died? Or were they perhaps the last naval battles that were ever fought, so that the sea is never colored again? History of a later date reveals to us a radically different picture. If the sore boil that breaks out with the first vial is the sore of infidelity breaking out in the French Revolution, is it true then that there were never such vials poured out again? Was it the last of its kind? Was the wrath of God finished in that sphere? And if the third vial represents the battles of Napoleon fought over the rivers of Switzerland, is it- true that these were the last battles of the kind? And did not God pour out these vials repeatedly in history? If the sun is Napoleon, are there then not many of these suns in later history? Indeed, such interpretations of the Word of God can hardly be taken seriously; and they lead us to hopeless confusion. We maintain, therefore, that the first four vials refer to natural phenomena, - natural not in the sense that they shall not be extraordinary in measure and scope, for they surely shall be. But they are natural in this sense, that they all affect a sphere of nature. In other words, we take this portion in the literal sense of the word.

Of course, there is symbolism in the picture. John beholds a vision. And in one vision he beholds mighty things, things which will perhaps take years to be accomplished and completed. The vial is naturally symbolic. No one of us will imagine that in the end of time it will be possible that God pours His wrath into seven vials in the literal sense of the word and has them poured out upon the wicked world. Wrath is not a substance, and therefore cannot be poured out. There is no one who does not understand this.

But for the rest, we may safely take the portion in as literal a sense as possible and as referring to phenomena in nature. In the first place, we may never forget that it is necessary that by the seven last plagues creation is affected. The earth and the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters, yea, even the sun in its effect upon the earth, belong to the kingdom which God originally created with man as its head. And even though man became a subject of the kingdom of Satan, he yet knew in part how to subject the powers of the world to be subject unto his ends. And therefore, also that world must be subjected to the plagues of God. In the second place, as we have pointed out before, it is on that creation, on the earth and the sea and the rivers and fountains of water, that man is absolutely dependent. It is through them that God reaches man. It is through all kinds of agencies that God reaches the health of man and sends unto him sickness and disease. It is through affecting the atmosphere and the heat of the sun that God sends scarcity and famine. And thus God controls the history of the world also through affecting the various spheres of nature. In the third place, this is a plain indication of the text. First of all, let us notice that there are four of these vials. Do not say that we have arbitrarily separated them from the rest: for that is not the case. It is very plain that there is a difference between the first four and the rest. The first four all relate to different spheres of nature: the earth, the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters, the sun in the heavens are all affected by these first four vials. And they all form a part of nature. But the fifth vial is poured out upon the throne of the beast. The sixth prepares the battle of Armageddon. And the seventh is indeed poured out in the air, but is universal in its effect. And therefore we have here a group of four. Four is the number of the world as creation. And it is creation that is here immediately affected.

Then, as we have said before, there is absolutely no reason to take the terms earth and sea, rivers and fountains of waters, and sun in a symbolic sense, since there is nothing in the text that warrants such an interpreta tion. And, finally, there is an unmistakable correspondence between the first four vials and the first four trumpets. The first trumpet affects the earth; so does the first vial. The second trumpet affects the sea; so does the second vial. The third trumpet affects the rivers and fountains of waters; so does the third vial. The fourth trumpet affects the heavenly luminaries; so does the fourth vial. And since, as we proved at that time, the first four trumpets all relate to phenomena in nature, so it is also the case with the first four vials. And therefore, once more: the earth is the earth, the sea is the sea, the rivers and fountains of waters are exactly as indicated, and the sun is the heavenly luminary as we know it. The first four vials, therefore, represent the plagues of God in nature; and then, of course, these various spheres of nature as they affect in turn the world of man.

In the second place, we may also notice that these plagues this time are universal in their character. There is no exception. There is no escape from them. This is one of the characteristic distinctions between the vials and the trumpets.

Notice, in general, that there is progress in the succession of the seals and the trumpets and the vials. In connection with the seals we found that there was mention of one-fourth. And one-fourth, we found, indicates the regular rate of death and destruction upon the earth. Always one-fourth of men die. Always one-fourth of the crops is destroyed. Always one-fourth of the ships are lost. Always there is one-fourth of darkening of the sun, resulting in loss of crops. In the trumpets, however, we found that the one-fourth is changed to one-third, indicating that God at stated times and to control the history of the world and of the nations sends just a little more than the ordinary death-rate and destruction of crops, thus influencing the history of nations and of the world in general. But in the vials there is no mention of a fraction whatever. All of the earth is affected by the first vial. The entire sea is changed into blood by the second. All the rivers and fountains of water are poisoned by the third. And the sun scorches terribly and evidently affects the whole earth. This is also indicated in the difference between the symbols used. The trumpets indicated by their loud resounding that the judgment of God is very near and heavy. But the vials are completely emptied. God has emptied His wrath into the vials, and they again are emptied upon the earth. And therefore the wrath of God in these vials is complete.

Further, we may also notice that these plagues differ from those symbolized in the trumpets in that they do not affect the saints. The plagues of the trumpets naturally also were plagues for the children of the Most High. They were still on earth; and they suffered from the famine and sickness as well as the children of wrath, even though these plagues could not touch them as children of God. But the vials touch only the children of wrath, the worshippers of the beast. And I know of but one reason, namely, this, that the church has been taken away. At the beginning of these signs they have been taken up into glory, and they do not have to suffer because of these universal plagues. Even as in the plagues of Egypt the children of Israel were at first also affected, but with the latter plagues they were exempted, so in these vial-plagues the children of God do not suffer with the children of wrath for the simple reason that they have been taken up into glory.

Hence, we come to the conclusion that the plagues of these first four vials are plagues affecting nature in its various spheres; that they are universal in their character, leaving no exception; and that only the worshippers of the beast are troubled by them. This also indicates that these vials are poured out almost at the very end of time.

The Individual Significance Of The First Four Vials

If now we try to explain these four vials in their individual significance, we may say, first of all, that it behooves us to be careful. The history of these vials belongs entirely to the remote future. True, in principle we find the four vials upon earth all through this dispensation. They are also in the trumpets, and even in the seals. But in their universal character they have not yet been realized. They belong to the future. And therefore we shall do well not to go beyond the text in this respect. We must not go into detail and try to explain exactly how God shall work in those days, through what agencies He shall bring about the changes in nature, exactly what is meant by the sore on the men who worshipped the beast, by the blood into which the sea and the rivers are turned. All these questions we would not be able to answer with any reasonable amount of certainty. But what we must do is obtain the general idea of each vial, ascertain its effect upon man and upon the kingdom of Antichrist which still exists in those days. And then we shall be satisfied that the Lord has also here given us a clear revelation of the future.

The first vial is poured out upon the earth. If we may at all compare the trumpets with the vials, as must be inferred from their resemblance, we find that by the earth is meant the dry land in distinction from the sea and the rivers, and that too, the dry land and all that it contains. The earth brings forth the substance with which man must prolong his life. On its crops he depends for health and strength, yea, for very life itself. And so we found in connection with the first trumpet that it destroyed the crops, the trees, and the grass for one-third. The earth, therefore, must be taken in the sense of its being the habitation of men, upon which man is dependent for very life. From the earth he derives his food and substance. From that earth he obtains his gold and silver. From the earth he derives his fuel wherewith to protect himself against the cold of winter. In a word, from that earth he derives all the necessities, as well as the luxuries, of life. It is from this same point of view that we must consider the earth here. And then the effect of the first vial is such that man does not die, but that he is stricken with disease. The earth upon which man depends for life and health is affected so that terrible and universal disease breaks out. The text speaks of sores, which may indeed be taken in the literal sense of the word, but which I would rather take as indicating disease in general. A universal disease breaks out. Everybody is suffering from it because the earth is, as it were, poisoned with the wrath of God. The crops do grow indeed, but they are filled with God's wrath. They supply no health and strength, but poison men, so that sores break out on their bodies and so that they are stricken universally with all kinds of disease. Medical science stands aghast and dumbfounded. For even the drugs and medicines which might otherwise be employed must be obtained from the same earth; and therefore they offer no alleviation from suffering. Universal sickness prevails. No more one-third, but all men are stricken. It has become a world of universal misery.

The second vial affects the sea. Also here there is correspondence between the vials and the trumpets. The second trumpet turned one-third part of the sea into blood, destroyed one-third part of the living creatures and one-third part of the ships. But now the whole sea is turned into a pool of rottenness. Also here we do not have to ask how and through what agencies the Lord will bring this about. This is of little importance. The main fact is clear: the sea is turned into a rotten pool, into blood as of a dead man. This means, in the first place, that the sea as a source of other necessities for man has become worthless. For every living thing in the sea is now dead. Man, who cannot find on the earth what he needs, may turn to the sea to feed himself with the creatures that are in it. But this is now cut off. The earth being poisonous, the sea offers nothing to relieve the suffering. In the second place, we may depend on it that this rotten pool of ocean and sea makes life unbearable and spreads the disease and pestilences still more rapidly. And, in the third place, the sea is no more a means of communication between nation and nation. Commerce is now at a stand-still. All the beautiful castles of the sea which man has built and with which he travels around the earth are now lying still in their harbors, or they perish in the rotten sea. The sea, that mighty treasure to man, has lost its value. It no more offers him any aid or comfort.

Still more, the waters and the rivers are also affected. If man in his distress only might turn to these waters for help and feed on its living creatures, drink from its fountains, he might perhaps find some relief. But this is not the case. Also these are influenced and filled with the wrath of God. Again, exactly in what way we do not know. This is certain, however, that they afford man no pleasant and refreshing drink any more. Most likely all this will come upon the earth gradually, rather than suddenly, although it will be but a short time before the end. All the comforts and necessities of life are taken away from man. For certain it is that he does not immediately die. But all spheres of nature are affected. By the third vial the rivers and fountains of waters are turned into blood as the sea and the ocean. And they add to the universal suffering of man.

And, finally, the sun is affected. The fourth vial is turned empty upon the sun. It is not darkened. That will be still later. But now it is increased in heat to such an extent that it scorches men by its heat. Naturally, it does not. only affect men, but also the crops and the cattle of the meadows and the beasts of the field. In short, it has become a terrible world to live in. The earth poisoned and bringing disease! The sea and the waters rot and afford no help! The sun scorches with its terrible heat! Nowhere in all creation is there help or comfort. The whole world is now filled with the wrath of God!

The Combined Effect Of The First Four Vials

In order to understand the combined effect of these seven vials we must first of all recall the actual condition of affairs at this time. Antichrist has established his universal kingdom, a kingdom uniting all nations and having sway over all things in the world. As we have said before, that kingdom shall from a worldly point of view be a glorious kingdom. There shall be great development of human power and talents. There shall be peace and plenty in every way. There shall be joy and luxury. All the world shall be in subjection unto that kingdom of Antichrist. And they shall know how to use all things in creation. It shall be chiefly because of the blessings of that kingdom that it shall be able to establish and maintain itself. It is because of the outward prosperity and because of the wonderful things the beast performs that the whole world wonders after him. But it is a kingdom under Satan and against God and His Christ. God's children, who refuse to worship the beast, may not participate in the blessings of that marvellous kingdom. God is not acknowledged. The beast is supreme. The people of God may not buy or sell.

Now if we view the first four vials in this light, it is very plain what is their significance.

In the first place, through them God makes plain that He after all is the One Who sells things in the world. Antichrist acted as if he were supreme. But after all, he was dependent upon God Almighty. Antichrist acted as if he could sovereignly determine who were to buy and sell and enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of earth and sea and river and sun. But now God comes to show that He is sovereign. And He determines that none who worship the beast shall be able to buy or sell, to enjoy the blessings in His creation. He takes everything away from them. He takes the earth away from them, the crops and the rain, the food and the clothing. Just as Antichrist in his godlessness had done to God's people, so God now does to Antichrist. And all of a sudden all things become manifestly a curse. And therefore, in the first place, there is just revenge in these four vials. We find an indication of this in the voice of the angel who pours out the third vial. He says: "Righteous art thou, who art, and who wast, thou Holy One, because thou didst thus judge: For they poured out the blood of the saints and prophets, and blood thou hast given them to drink; for they are worthy." The implication is, of course, that in this third plague God metes out unto Antichrist as he has meted unto His people. And that is not only true of the third plague, but of all of them. A short while ago the people of God were outcasts, so that they could neither buy nor sell. Now God shows that He is powerful and supreme, and that the people of Antichrist cannot procure in all creation wherewith to feed and clothe themselves. It is an act of just revenge.

It is for the same reason that the souls beneath the altar also are satisfied. For the voice comes from the altar, saying, "Yea, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments." Once more, therefore, the first four vials constitute a just revenge upon the subjects of the beast, who worship his image.

But there is more. The combined effect of these plagues is also that it causes the kingdom of Antichrist to be disintegrated and that it prepares for the great battle which is still to be fought, the battle of Armageddon. You understand that the factor which combined the kingdom was its outward prosperity and its outward peace. Men wondered after the beast because they were blessed under his reign with earthly things. But now the power and the glory of the beast are of a sudden gone; and the time is at hand that Gog and Magog shall break loose and prepare for battle against the center of the antichristian kingdom, to break it to pieces. Finally, we should not forget that these plagues harden the heart of the individual subjects of the kingdom. We would perhaps imagine that such severe judgments as these would soften the hearts and would cause them to give glory to God and repent in dust and ashes. But just the reverse is the case. Man blasphemes God Who has power over these plagues. The implication seems to be that they realize that the God of creation sends them these plagues. Yet they do not repent. On the contrary, they blaspheme and rise still more in rebellion in the midst of all their suffering. A terrible and solemn lesson this is. It teaches us clearly that absolutely nothing but the grace of God will break the sinner. If the grace of God does not enter our hearts and the Word of His gospel does not call us to His covenant, judgments will only have the effect that men harden their hearts.

What a glorious comfort in these four vials! Here is the patience of the saints. As certain as Christ is King, just as certain it is that these judgments shall come. And therefore the saints can afford to be patient. Vengeance belongeth unto the Lord. And He shall surely come to justify Himself and all His people and to prepare the earth for His glorious kingdom.


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