This little chapter is deceptively complex in relation to the rest of the book. There are threads and links with other chapters that we must account for.
First, notice the way chapters 15 through 19 are linked. The 7 angels with 7 bowls occupy chapters 15 and 16; one of them introduces the vision of the woman in chapter 17; she has Babylon on her forehead, and Babylon falls in chpter 18; this leads to rejoicing in chapter 19. The language and overall sense is that of final judgement – the end.
We mustn’t miss the big textual clue from John in 15:1, where he speaks of “another great and marvellous sign in the heavens”. It begs the question as to what was/were the other(s)? It was back in chapter 12, so that chapters 12 to 14 can be regarded as a structural unit. Looking back across them together, it could be a description of the experience of the church from Jesus’ time until the end, with the gospel mission coming under sustained opposition calling for perseverance to the end. That looks like a very helpful message for the original readers (and us).
We concluded earlier that the 7 seals and 7 trumpets seemed to be different perspectives on the same time period, namely these latter days between Jesus’ first and second comings. We left open the question as to whether the 7 bowls were to be included likewise. And now we have a problem:
1. The bowls certainly seem more closely linked with the end than with the overall latter days (now).
2. There are clear, deliberate links between some of the 7 bowls and the corresponding trumpets, albeit with greater intensity.
Notice, too, that the contents of the bowls link more closely to the plagues in Egypt in Exodus than even the trumpets did. And then there’s the song of Moses and the Lamb. Moses sang in Exodus after passing through the Red Sea (judgement on Egypt complete) and again in Deuteronomy just before the nation entered the promised land. The trumpets are a call to repentance on mankind; the bowls speak of judgement. Likewise, Pharaoh’s heart hardened as he ignored opportunity to repent as the plagues piled on.
Are we to expect, then, that mankind will progress like Pharaoh? Should we expect intensifying judgements leading, ultimately, to gospel-hardened hearts? Is this what is meant by Daniel 12:7, “When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed”?