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Revelation 16: Death and judgment upon the waters

Unsplash/Raimond Klavins
Unsplash/Raimond Klavins

Sarah was a hardworking college student who received an email from her professor informing her that her final project was due on Friday. The message read, “Be sure to bring you’re A-game; failure is not an option!” However, Sarah took the professor’s statement figuratively. She assumed the professor was emphasizing the importance of doing well on the project. Rather than interpreting it literally as a warning about the consequences of failure.

Confident in her abilities, Sarah decided to focus on other assignments and leisure activities throughout the week, assuming her work would be adequate to avoid failure. She spent much time during the week catching up with friends, binging on her favorite TV shows, and neglecting the entire project.

As Friday approached, Sarah started to realize she may have misunderstood her professor’s intention. Panicked, she hurriedly tried to work on the project at the last minute, but it was too late. With limited time and a lack of preparation, Sarah’s work fell short of expectations. She ended up submitting a subpar project, and not meeting the required standards.

Sarah keenly felt the consequences of her misinterpretation as her professor returned her assignment with a failing grade, seriously impacting her overall performance in the course.

In hindsight, Sarah realized her egregious mistake. If she had only taken the professor’s statement literally, understanding that failure was not an option, she would have undoubtedly approached the project with more seriousness and dedication.

Sarah’s experience could serve as a parable for making the error of interpreting some parts of Revelation figuratively when they should be taken literally. To fail to judge them literally can result in failing to take some of the prophetic events described with necessary seriousness and dedication. For some, it could even mean being insufficiently prepared for Christ’s return.

In his commentary on the book of Revelation, the late Dr. M.R. DeHann wrote:

“Observe the rule of literal interpretation. The greatest curse of the Christian Church is the evil of spiritualizing the Bible. Although there are many symbols and signs in the book, as in every other book and our daily conversation, the context indicates whether a passage is to be interpreted literally or symbolically. Interpret literally, except where the context or grammatical structure clearly indicates that the reference is a symbol or a sign.”

One strong argument for interpreting the seven plagues of Revelation chapter 16 as literal is that the biblical text itself describes them in vivid, concrete terms. The book of Revelation, which often is filled with symbolic language presents these plagues as specific events with clear cause-and-effect relationships. Each of the seven plagues is described in some detail, such as “malignant sores’ (v. 2), “the sea … became like the blood of a corpse” (v.3), and “the fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, causing it to scorch everyone with its fire” (v.8). These unambiguous prophetic descriptions indicate each of them should be taken plainly.

Moreover, the plagues in Revelation 16 align with similar plagues that are described in the Old Testament, particularly the plagues of Egypt mentioned in Exodus. These plagues are depicted as tangible, real, historical events that affected the physical world and had significant consequences for those involved. Therefore, it is only logical to interpret the plagues in this chapter of Revelation as literal occurrences of things to come.

Here is what the Bible says about a second and third plague among seven that God has ordered for an unbelieving world in its final days. These plagues have to do with the sea and the freshwater supply.

“Then the second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse. And everything in the sea died. Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs, and they became blood. And I heard the angel who had authority over all water saying, ‘You are just, O Holy One, who is and who always was because you have sent these judgments. Since they shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is their just reward.’ And I heard a voice from the altar, saying, ‘Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just’” (Revelation 16:3-7).

This is a horrific scene almost beyond imagination. It’s hard to conceive of life without the glory and beauty of the sea.

Herman Broch said, “Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.” Certainly, someone who would have agreed, Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Nevertheless, according to Revelation, the majestic expanse of the ocean, once so vibrant and teeming with life, will in the end stagnate as an unnerving tableau of desolation, mirroring the pallid hue and stillness that permeates the blood of a lifeless being.

In his book, Revelation, the late Dr. Charles Ryrie wrote about this text:

“The illustration vividly depicts a dying person wallowing in his own blood. Under the second trumpet, one-third of the sea creatures died (8:9); now the destruction is complete. The stench and the disease this will bring, especially along the shores of the seas of the earth are unimaginable.”

One of the worst marine disasters in recent history took place in April of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operated by BP, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident resulted in the largest marine oil spill to date, releasing millions of barrels of oil into the ocean over an extended period.

The disaster had devastating consequences for marine ecosystems in the region, leading to extensive damage and the loss of countless marine organisms. The spill contaminated the surface and deep underwater, killing a wide range of marine species, from small zooplankton to large fish, marine mammals, and even birds.

Following the oil spill, the water’s appearance was profoundly affected by the accumulation of dead organisms, other marine life, and oil residue. This, in turn, led to changes in the ocean’s color that resulted in a reddish hue.

Red Tide is a natural phenomenon caused by blooms of microscopic algae in the ocean, particularly a type called dinoflagellates. These algae produce quite rapidly and generate a reddish discoloration in the water, hence the name “red tide.” The blooms release toxins that are very harmful to marine life, including fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. These toxins have negative effects on the central nervous system of animals, leading to illnesses and death. Red tides also deplete oxygen in the water, which causes what are called “dead zones” of countless marine life.

North Carolina, my home state, has had its challenges from red tides before. It can occur in both saltwater and freshwater environments. The regions most known for red tide, however, include the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of California, the Caribbean Sea, and certain parts of Asia, Europe, and South America.

Here’s the way The Tampa Bay Times described a red tide that plagued the Gulf from the border of Alabama to the Florida Keys in 2005:

“The impact on sea life was so catastrophic that it created a dead zone — an area of the gulf devoid of oxygen and sea life … The algal bloom thoroughly decimated everything on site that year. It killed everything from bait fish and crabs to rays and dolphins.  The final death toll included thousands of fish and birds that fed on infected animals.

“Red Tide was the leading cause of death of the endangered manatee that year, killing 93. It also slew more than a hundred sea turtles.

“Tarpon Springs sponger Jeff Love, the owner of Rock Island Sponge Co., told the then – St. Petersburg Times … that the Red Tide snuffed out everything it touched.

“‘Every plant life, every vertebrate, everything on the bottom is dead,’ he said. ‘It’s bare rock — and it was the lushest area we had.’

“From June to September … Pinellas County [Florida] alone picked up 732 tons of dead sea animals from its coastline. That’s nearly 1.5 million pounds of rotting marine flesh. Local governments had to pay overtime and hire more workers to remove the reeking carcasses.

“The water smelled like rotten eggs.”

It seems unlikely any single oil spill or red tide event could destroy the entire ocean. The Earth’s seas are vast bodies of water covering more than 70% of the planet’s surface, and these bodies of water are remarkably resilient. Natural processes such as evaporation, precipitation, and movement of ocean currents help maintain the balance and health of the seas.

Nevertheless, one must remember this bowl poured out by an angel on the sea is because of God’s wrath, and anything is possible with God. In his wrath, more specifically, in this certain event, which is more than catastrophic but apocalyptic, God shows not the slightest scintilla of mercy, for those days are over.

But then, the Bible says a third angel pours his bowl on the fresh waters (the rivers and the springs) and they become like blood, too.

Someone once said, “Amid troubles upon troubles, life feels like a dark tunnel, with no sign of light at the end.” Indeed, and here again, God sends more trouble and those who have despised him are catapulted through a tunnel of darkness where there is no light at the end — only the outer darkness of Hell.

The world is firmly in the talons of Hell on Earth at this point.

This is hypothetical but it seems reasonable to think the situation might go something like this:

Still mourning the death of the sea, the news of the worldwide freshwater contamination will start to spread almost immediately afterwards. Panic, no doubt, will set in. People will likely rush to the grocery stores, hoping to stockpile as much bottled water as possible, but the shelves will empty quickly. Desperation will fill the air, and chaos ensue.

Scenes by the rivers and springs, once filled with families having picnics, and people swimming, will be abandoned and appear eerie. The flowing streams will have turned into stagnant pools of murky red, emitting the foulest of odors. Wildlife and aquatic creatures will struggle to survive, their habitats devastated.

The lack of uncontaminated water resources will place immense strain on healthcare systems, sanitation facilities, and agricultural practices, escalating at almost lightning speed public health crises and food shortages.

There is a strong possibility long lines will form in major cities outside makeshift water distribution centers. People clutching to empty containers, hoping to receive even the most limited quantities of uncontaminated water. Water becomes a precious commodity, coveted by everyone, rich and poor. Wasting water will become unthinkable; bathing will hardly be possible anymore, and clean laundry a rare luxury. Industries reliant on water, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production, will face severe disruption or have to shut down. The economy, forgive the pun, will go in the tank, and job losses will be on a massive scale.

Some hoping to reach deep underground reservoirs will dig provisional wells, while others set up rudimentary filtration systems with the objective of purifying the putrefied waters. Still, others will have adapted systems to catch rainwater or harvest clouds.

Some of these efforts may be somewhat successful, but ultimately, they will fail. The fate of this unbelieving world is to be like that of the rich man in Hell, whom Jesus said, in his torment, asked for just one drop of water to be given him in his agony, but there was none (Luke 16:19-31).

Perhaps many will read of this forthcoming judgment and declare it overly stringent, excessively severe. But lest anyone lay that accusation against God, the angel with authority over the waters says this judgment is unprejudiced and fair. God is holy and everything He does is ethical and reasonable, says the angel.

The angel adds that those who embraced a self-centered life, ignored God’s sovereignty and grace, engaged in immorality, lived without integrity, characteristically ignored God’s law, despising those who lived opposite to the way they lived and murdered them, making their blood flow as deep and as wide as the sea, the rivers and the streams, should have to drink blood. They thirsted for the blood of God’s people and they should have it to drink.

Then a voice comes from the altar, declaring a sort of celestial, “Amen,” saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just” (Revelation 16:7).

The late R.C. Sproul, the incomparable American theologian, pastor, author, and educator said:

“The Bible is meant to be taken literally because it is the ultimate authority from which we derive our understanding of God’s will and path to salvation.”

Are you on the straight and narrow highway? Perhaps you might pray a prayer like this one:

“Lord Jesus Christ, remember me. Open my heart and my mind to you. Save me now, in this day of opportunity, worth more than all the gold and precious possessions in the world. Be merciful to me now, forgive me, and cleanse me from my sins. May I be numbered among those who enter into your kingdom? Give me the gift of eternal life. Spare me of your wrath, which is to come. Amen.”

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

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