Revelation 16 warns us about seven terrible plagues that will fall upon the human race someday, including ugly and painful sores, a universal drought, scorching heat, a devastating earthquake, and a horrific storm that will scourge the planet with hundred-pound hailstones. It also indicates that these “plagues” will occur after the door of salvation has closed—when people who have refused to turn to God will no longer have the opportunity to do so.
The question is, what purpose do these plagues serve? Why does God allow them to afflict the earth and its people?
To understand the answer to this question, we must view Revelation 16 in the context of both the preceding several chapters and those that follow. I’ll begin with the preceding chapters.
two choices, two marks
Revelation 12 traces the history of the Christian church from the birth of Christ to the end of the Christian era. Verse 17 describes the very end of history: “The dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (NKJV*). This verse holds a crucial place in the drama that John unfolds in Revelation for two reasons. First, it sets the stage for the remainder of the book, and second, it especially supplies the subject matter for chapters 13 and 14. Revelation 13 expounds upon “the dragon,” which is the satanic power that Revelation 12:17 warns about, and Revelation 14 deals with “the woman,” which is God’s end-time church.
Another key point to note is that shortly before the second coming of Christ, all of humanity will be divided into two groups. Some will reject God’s principles and receive the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:16), while those who follow Jesus will receive the seal, or mark, of God (Revelation 7:1–4). The latter will “follow the Lamb [Jesus] wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). Whether people receive the mark of the beast or the seal of God will depend on whether they have chosen to follow the dragon or the Lamb.
Revelation 14:6–11 depicts three angels flying in midair with messages for the human race. Of course, we needn’t expect to see literal angels flying in the skies. These angels symbolize the message that God’s people must proclaim to the world at the very end of time.
The third angel in verses 9–12 contrasts anyone who “worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand” with those who “keep his [God’s] commands and remain faithful to Jesus.” At the end of time, there will be no other options. Those living at that time will follow either the principles of God or those of Satan.
This concept of two choices prepares us to understand chapters 15 and 16. In Revelation 15:2, we again meet those “who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name.” Then, in Revelation 16:2, we renew our acquaintance with those “who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.” Those in the first group receive the heavenly reward, while those in the second group experience the fearful final judgments of God. Revelation 15 and 16 not only reintroduce us to the followers of Christ and Satan but also go on to expose their attitudes through what we might call the medium of two “songs.”
The first song is that of Moses and the Lamb (Revelation 15:3), which only the 144,000 can sing (Revelation 14:1–3). God used Moses to deliver His people Israel from their Egyptian bondage, and the grateful people sang a song of praise to God—the song of Moses (Exodus 15). Like the Israelites, those who have gained victory over the beast and his image also sing a song of deliverance. God and the Lamb have delivered them from their oppressors, and this song of praise bursts from the depth of their hearts: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
The second song is not nearly so positive. In fact, some may not even think of it as a song at all, even though in the structure of Revelation, it stands parallel to the song of those who have been delivered from the beast and its image.
This second song is voiced by those who have rejected God and His principles and have opted instead for the principles of the dragon, who is Satan (Revelation 12:9). It is this group that receives the judgments of God delivered in seven last plagues. However, before we look at this song, we need to understand the purpose of God’s judgments.
the seven last plagues
Throughout history, God has used trials to awaken men and women to the gravity of their sins and lead them to repentance. For example, in Joel 2:12, 13, God invites those who have experienced judgmental disaster to return to Him. People didn’t always repent in the face of God’s judgments, but down through history, the opportunity has always been there.
It seems clear from Revelation 15 and 16 that at the end of history, every person will have made his or her irreversible decision for or against Christ. For example, Revelation 22:11 says, “Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
So of what value are the judgments expressed in the seven last plagues? What purpose do they serve? After all, at the time they fall, repentance is a thing of the past.
This question brings us back to the second “song.” Revelation 16:9 is the first mention of the song of those who have opted for the principles of Satan’s kingdom. Their proclamation in the face of God’s judgments is anything but repentance. On the contrary, they “cursed the name of God . . . [and] refused to repent and glorify him.” We find the same “song” in verses 11 and 21 at the conclusions of the fifth and seventh plagues. So the unrepentant, wicked people of the earth will curse God right up to Christ’s second coming. These curses are their “song”!
And note this: the songs of both those who follow the Lamb and those who follow the dragon express the sentiments of their hearts.
In the obstinately unrepentant attitude of those who curse God, we find an important function of the seven last plagues. These plagues reveal the spirit of rebellion that controls the minds and hearts of those who have chosen to live according to the dragon’s principles. God has tried to wake them up, but rather than repenting, they’ve dug in their heels and hardened their hearts—all the while spewing out bitterness toward God.
Their bitterness in the face of both their refusal to accept the sacrifice of the Lamb and their refusal to repent in spite of God’s “wake-up call judgments” provides ample evidence to the universe that their decisions have, indeed, moved them beyond hope of recovery. God has done all He can for them, but they have responded with hatred and mockery. The entire universe can see that to remain just, God must wipe out sin and create a new heaven and earth. He has no other option. Therefore, the whole heavenly host will finally be able to declare that “salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Revelation 19:1, 2).
the last two plagues
The sixth plague is about the preparation for the battle of Armageddon, and the seventh plague is about the destruction of the world that will occur at Christ’s second coming. These two plagues set the stage for the rest of Revelation. Chapters 17 and 18 describe the destruction of the dragon power and all of its confederates, and Revelation 19:11–21 depicts Christ returning as a conquering King. Revelation 20:4 is about the entrance of Christ’s followers into the kingdom of glory, where they will be given authority to judge the wicked world they have finally left behind. Verses 7–15 describe the destruction of the unrepentant wicked, who are consumed at the end of time. Following this, in chapters 21 and 22, God will re-create the world as the eternal home of the redeemed.
Thus, Revelation 12 to 22 teaches us that God’s judgments are not accidental or capricious. On the contrary, the ever-increasing hardness of heart of those who reject His grace makes those judgments necessary.
God destroys no one willfully. He would have everyone repent and choose His ways and principles. And He makes no split-second decisions. His judgments are based on our choices as we go through life.
Today, you and I are each making choices that will determine which song we will sing in the face of eternity. Each day of our lives holds eternal possibilities.
Which choices will you make?
* Bible verses marked NKJV are from the New King James Version®.
George Knight is a Seventh-day Adventist historian, educator, and author. He has written more than 47 published books.