Continuing on from chapter 15, where we saw seven angels given seven vials full of plagues of God’s wrath, in this chapter God commands the seven angels to go and pour out their vials of His wrath on the earth (v.1). These vials, a final group of seven, result in a series of judgments upon the anti-Christ powers, the dragon, the beast, the image of the beast, the false prophet, and Babylon. These were seen to symbolise the world-power which found its embodiment in Rome, and then in its papal form. These suffer under the judgments of God.
Under the seven seals, old pagan Rome was judged and brought to an end. Under the seven trumpets, the Roman Empire in its new form was judged and its destruction symbolized. Hence, under the seven vials, we see symbolized a series of judgments, which weaken and destroy papal Rome; and, with the seventh vial, Babylon, the Great City, symbolising the Apostate Church, falls.
First Vial (v.2) – Poured out on the earth. Grievous sores (ulcers) afflict those who follow and worship the Papacy and have ‘the mark of the beast’.
The term ‘earth’ here as before symbolises people, and in particular the Roman world. The expression “the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshiped his image” refers to the supporters of the worldly power and spiritual claims of Rome. See v.13:14-18. Those who suffer are those who listen to the lamb-like dragon (v.13:11), the AntiChrist, the false spiritual power (v.13:14,15). An ulcer is not only a painful and dangerous sore, but is often malignant and foul with corruption. The term is often used to describe moral corruption, and the ulcers described may be moral or spiritual.
One commentary (Bible Study Tools Commentary) puts the events of the first vial starting in 1793 with the French Revolution and destruction of the power of the Papacy. Was there any event in history that coincided with the end of the 1260 years (42 months, v.13:5) of Papal dominion that corresponds with the symbolism here? In his commentary: (below, blue text indented)
…the breaking forth of grievous, painful, malignant ulcers, most fitly represents the breaking out of the French Revolution, its awful excesses, and irreparable injury done to the great spiritual despotism by the events of which it was the beginning and the cause.
For many centuries France was the stoutest and staunchest of the supporters of the Romish Church. It was Charlemagne, the emperor of France, who bestowed the temporal power upon the Popes. It was to Avignon in France that, at one time, the Papacy was transferred for seventy years. The ruler of France was long styled “the eldest son of the Church.” It was France that had perpetrated the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the dragonnades of the Cevennes [the king’s dragoons were sent throughout France in order to get protestant heretics to convert to the Catholic faith or die], and the banishment of the Huguenots. The French nation had the mark of the beast to at least as great an extent as any other nation. In 1793, exactly at the close of the period of 1260 years, there breaks out in France a fearful moral ulcer that had long been festering. The French Revolution, the uprising of enslaved masses who were maddened into fury, sent Catholic king, royal families, nobles, and priests to the guillotine by tens of thousands, impelled the nation in its madness to publicly declare itself atheistic, leavened it with skepticism, and broke the hold of Rome to such a degree that she can never more control France. The ulcer was awfully corrupt and deadly. At one time 200,000 citizens of all conditions and both sexes were in prison, and often in Paris alone, fourscore were sent to the scaffold in a day. As the result of breaking forth of this ulcer, the mightiest Catholic nation was convulsed with civil war, every Catholic country in Europe was deluged in blood, and the Papal power received a shock from which it can never recover.
Isaac Newton believed that the Mark is the Roman Catholic sign of the cross. This is the idolatrous crossing of themselves, a common practice among Roman Catholics.
The Mark could also be where someone is literally marked by the priest in the Roman Catholic Church. US Vice President Joe Biden (2015) proudly showing the Mark on his forehead, which he got from a priest of Rome! It’s certainly a mark and it came from the beast! Could not this also be a possible interpretation of the Mark of the beast? It shows obedience and subservience to the papacy.
All loyal Roman Catholics get a mark of ashes on their forehead once a year. A priest puts it on them on the first day of Lent. That practice is derived from paganism, 40 days of weeping for Tammuz, as are most Roman Catholic doctrines. See article on Ash Wednesday.
Second Vial (v.3) – Poured out on the sea, which is turned to blood and all sea creatures die.
The commentator (above) argues that this also symbolises battles fought on the seas with many ships lost and men dying.
With 1793 begins another contest for the mastery of the seas. It continues after Napoleon sits on the imperial throne, and did not end for twenty years. France, again a Catholic power by Napoleon’s concordant with the Pope, rallies under the imperial flag with herself, Catholic Spain, Portugal and Italy, in the struggle. Protestant England and Catholic Europe strive together upon the ocean. The old Catholic powers, those which in the past have been the vile instruments of Papal wrong, the nations whose kings have committed fornication with the great spiritual harlot, suffer the loss in this long and deadly struggle of six hundred ships of the Line, the largest war vessels that then went to sea, besides the thousands of ships of war of smaller size. At the close of the contest, the naval power of Catholic Europe had been swept from the ocean. Once the Pope had claimed the dominion of the seas, and had given away newly discovered islands and continents, but now that proud claim has gone forever.
Third Vial (v.4) – Poured out on the rivers, which are turned to blood
This vial symbolizes another event calamitous to Rome. The seat of the disasters is described as the rivers, and we may expect some historical events, connected in some way with rivers, which result in injury to the Papacy.
The river region of [northern] Italy has always been a battle ground where the fate of Italy has been decided. Here Attila the Hun, the “blazing Star,” the wormwood of the rivers, laid Rome prostrate at his feet. See Revelation 8:10,11. This vial seems to point to the same locality by the use of the same language. But the locality marked must have been the scene of persecutions (v.6); none more terrible, more bloody or more continued, have been known in the dark history of Rome. This very region was the home of the Albigenses. Against them the Papacy had hurled its fanatical legions from generation to generation. The blood of the Protestants of the Alps had for centuries dyed the rocks and streams with crimson. In the year 1796, a general, aged 27, led a French army across the Alps. On the river system of Italy, on the Rhone, the Po and its tributaries, he battled with the Austrians and their allies. It is remarkable that every one of his great conflicts were fought upon the rivers. The battle of Lodi was fought on the Adda, Arcola on the Adige, Marengo on the Bromida. I will briefly give the results of the struggle. In 1796 Bonaparte entered Italy. The next year his armies took the city of Rome and proclaimed an Italian Republic. Previously an armistice had been granted, for which the Pope paid 21,000,000 francs and gave up a hundred masterpieces of art to be carried to Paris. In 1798 Pope Pius VI. was carried as a prisoner into France to die. His successor was not elected in Rome, which was still in the hands of the spoiler, but in Venice. Other results that follow from this invasion will be given under the fourth vial. Ah! how triumphantly the long persecuted Waldenses, as they saw the Pope carried a prisoner into exile, must have joined in the voice from behind the altar: “Yes, O Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments!“
Verses 5-7 show God is justified in His judgments on the wicked. They have killed God’s people (v.6) and so deserve judgment.
Fourth Vial (v.8) – Poured out on the sun, which scorches men, but they don’t repent. Instead they blaspheme God even more (v.9).
Since these vials of the wrath of God are “poured upon the earth” the imagery of being poured “upon the sun” must also be symbolism. I would seem to be a symbol of a supreme ruler. To “scorch men with fire” means to inflict great suffering upon men. Therefore that supreme ruler, symbolized by the sun, is the means of inflicting great suffering upon men. But these are the followers of the Papacy who suffer the calamities, because they are those who received the mark of the beast. And in the like manner that Egypt suffered under the plagues prior to the Exodus, Rome still persists in her wicked deeds, and still refuses to liberate the people from her spiritual slavery.
In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte became the ruler of France, and soon became the virtual ruler of all Papal Europe. Spain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Austria were at his feet and either ruler by his [governors] or at his dictation. No such scorching sun had arisen in the political horizon for more than a thousand years, and I do not know that the world has ever seen so great a scourge of man. From 1796 to 1815 he was engaged in war without a moment’s cessation. He converted Europe into a great camp and every nation was blackened and torn with wars. In his wars it is estimated that 2,000,000 men perished by the sword, and none can tell of the want and misery and despair that brooded over the bleeding and desolated lands that were tracked by his armies. This scorching sun, which parched, burnt and blackened the earth, exerted a most baleful influence on the power of the Papacy. In 1796 Bonaparte entered Italy; in 1797 his armies entered the Papal dominions, and a peace was made by which the Pope was not only shorn of half his provinces, but was compelled to buy off the invader by the payment of large sums of money. The next year the French armies entered Rome, tore the Pope from the Vatican, sent him a prisoner to France to die, and robbed Rome of its hoarded wealth. The imprisoned Pope died in captivity. The next Pope was elected in 1799, not in Rome, which was held by French soldiers, but in Venice. In 1800 he was permitted to return to his desolated capital as the dependent of France. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte determined to have placed upon his head the old imperial crown as emperor of the Romans, and the Pope was compelled to journey by land to Paris in order to gratify his master by serving in the ceremonial. Four years later Pius VII. was dragged from his palace, as his predecessor had been, and sent a prisoner into France. His states of the Church were confiscated. The grant made by Charlemagne nearly 1200 years before was resumed, and, until the fall of Napoleon, the Pope was without temporal possessions.
From 800, Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor — the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne already ruled his kingdom without the help of the pope, but recognition from the pope gave him divine legitimacy in the eyes of his contemporaries. He is turn protected the Papacy and protected the lands given it.
The Pope, from that time, ceased to be a powerful factor in the control of nations. But, notwithstanding these scourgings, the Papacy has not abated its exorbitant and blasphemous pretensions. “They repented not to give God glory.“
Fifth Vial (v.10) – Poured out on the ‘seat’ or the throne of the beast. That means this vial is poured out on the Vatican itself, which is the seat of the beast’s power. The beast’s kingdom is darkened. Those in the Papacy do not repent, but blaspheme God even more (v.11).
Italy and Rome are the throne of the great world power of which the seven-headed beast is the symbol, and it upon these that the calamities of the fifth vial fall. The text says that the seat of the beast receive a significant blow and his kingdom was darkened. The followers of the Papacy shall suffer great anguish and pain.
In the year 1848 the people of Rome arose in rebellion to the Papal authority and drove Pius IX. into exile. A few months later he was restored by a French army. Nor did he dare remain when restored, save under the protection of French bayonets. With a French garrison he continued to rule his circumscribed territory until 1870. In that year France was compelled to withdraw her soldiers to defend her soil from German invasion. That was the opportunity of Italy. The Papal army was scattered by the soldiers of Victor Emmanuel; the Pope shut himself in the Vatican, and Rome became the capital of new Italy. The temporal power of the Pope is gone forever. The Italian government has seized upon the overgrown possessions of the church. The lands it claimed have been confiscated, monasteries and convents have been closed, and universal religious toleration declared. Protestant churches and schools are founded in Rome itself, and statues have been erected under the shadow of the Vatican to martyrs whom the Papacy had slain. It is said they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not. What better illustration of this than that the Pope has been declared infallible!
That the reader may see that there is beyond doubt something in the symbolism which points to such a fulfillment as has been suggested above I will quote an old work cited by Albert Barnes, written by Robert Fleming and published in 1701, nearly two hundred years ago. It is called the Apocalyptic Key, and contains the following on the fifth vial: “The fifth vial which is to be poured out on the seat of the beast, or the dominions which belong more immediately to, and depend upon, the Roman See; that I say this judgment will begin about A. D. 1794, and expire about A. D. 1848.” As a matter of fact Bonaparte invaded Italy in 1796, and in 1848 the Pope was driven from Rome. Since that date, though returned and protected by the French until 1870, his temporal power has been at an end.
Sixth Vial (v.12) – Poured out on the great river Euphrates, which then is dried up to make a way for the armies of the kings of the East.
The angel of the sixth trumpet is connected with the river Euphrates (v.9:14). There a movement is symbolized which ends in the overthrow of the Eastern Roman Empire, the old Roman world power. Here a movement is probably signified which will work to the same end in the case of the Roman dominion revived in the Papal world power. The river Euphrates was the seat of the great city which once oppressed Israel and carried God’s people into captivity. It was taken by Cyrus, God’s chosen agent, and the means employed was the drying up of the Euphrates. Cyrus turned the river, which ran through the city, unto new channels, dried up the old bed, then marched in this bed under the walls where they crossed the river on arches, and took the city. In some way the drying up of the Euphrates shall overthrow, or tend to overthrow, spiritual Babylon. Possibly this may be accomplished by the exhaustion of the resources of that power. The nations which once supplied them have been falling away. That the way might be made ready for the kings that come from the sunrising. In the infancy of the Christ, the wise men of the East, also called kings in the Psalms, came to offer homage to the kingly child. The prophecy implies that when this obstacle is removed, the way of the inhabitants shall be opened. The drying up of the Euphrates will, in some manner, open the way for those that are signified to come to Christ, as those of the old did to the manger.
As a result the 18th and 19th centuries we saw a proliferation of protestant missionary activity spreading the gospel throughout the world. This included the translation of the Bible into hundreds of languages and its free distribution in many cases. That is not something the Church of Rome permitted let alone encouraged. For a millennium it was illegal to possess a Bible let alone read one, if you were not part of the Church of Rome or sanctioned by it. Hence the Romish Church persecuted/murdered en masse true Christians like the Huguenots, Albigenses, Waldenses, Lollards and many other groups.
Three unclean spirits are demons who literally possess the agents Satan uses on Earth, the dragon (the Papacy), the beast (the Roman Church) and the false prophet, those who direct the others in the Christian church back to Rome (v.13).
We have met these three powers before, and know that these are really one, animated by one spirit, but appearing in different forms. The dragon, Satan (chapter 12), wars against the woman, in the form of old Pagan Rome; he then (chapter 13) transfers this warfare to the seven-headed beast, the political world power shown both in the form of Imperial and Papal Rome; this power was supported, reanimated when about to perish, by the lamb-like dragon who is the false prophet (v.13:11).
The false prophet directs the fools to the Papacy as if he can save them, but if fact their alliances only lead them to the battle of Armageddon. Verse 14 describes these ‘spirits of devils’ but the Greek word used there means “demons”. They are demonic influences that show forth false miracles by which to deceive men.
God warns His Church through all ages to be vigilant and prepare for that day, when Christ returns (v.15) and the heathen be gathered together in the valley of Megiddo (v.16). It is really a plain in Israel of enormous extent, where one might imagine armies might gather.
Armageddon means simply the hill Megiddo. Upon the Hill Megiddo was fought the battle in which King Josiah was slain. It was in the midst of the battle-ground of Israel. The plain of Esdraelon, the depression between Judea and Galilee, was tracked with armies. If Ezekiel 37:8-17 is understood literally, it signifies that Palestine will be the theatre of this struggle, but of all these passages I am inclined to believe that they have a spiritual signification. The Israel of Ezekiel represents the church, the true Israel. Armageddon, the battle-ground of Israel, is used metaphorically to describe the great conflict of the Israel of God.
It seems to me that Armageddon is symbolic for the great conflict that the true Church of God endures against the pagan hordes around them and the persecution she receives up the moment Christ comes again “as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
Seventh Vial (v.17) – Poured out into the air. God says “It is done” and as a result that great city, Babylon, falls. The end of God’s wrath on the wicked is complete. But do they repent?
There were then great earthquakes, lightning and thunder (v.18) which is symbolism meaning the judgments of God on the wicked. This time sees the full fury of God’s wrath on the unbelievers. Thunder may symbolise God decrees against the wicked.
We read of the final judgment of God on the heathen (v.19-21). The great spiritual Babylon, the woman who sits on the beast (v.17:5,6) is finally and ultimately judged. Those in the institution of the Church of Rome are judged before God and are subject to the wrath of God.