Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.XV.
(1) And I saw another sign in (the) heaven.—The sign is, as we noticed before (Revelation 12:1), a token, not a mere empty wonder. This sign is called “great and marvellous;” it introduces a new set of scenes; the same characters will reappear, but we must start with fresh attention.
The seer sees seven angels (not “the seven angels;” it is perfectly needless to ask what angels, or to try and identify them with the trumpet angels) having seven plagues, the last, because in them is completed the wrath of God. The statement that these are the last plagues seems to show that the set of visions now commencing carry us down to the end of the age; there are no other plagues after these: they are the last plagues; the vials, like the seals and the trumpets, run up to the final consummation. They are plagues; the word carries us back to Egypt: on Egypt fell the ten plagues which showed forth God’s righteous power, and exposed the hollow pretensions of the magicians and their gods; the wild beast-power and the false prophet-power of that day was crippled and exposed. In like manner upon the wild beast-power of later ages the plagues of God fall. They are plagues, because they are sent forth, not like the trumpets to warn men to repent, but upon those who have obstinately refused to return; they are not goads to the wavering, but they are strokes upon the wilful and hardened; they are directed against those who are deliberately hostile.
And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.(2) And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire.—The wild beast rose out of the sea (Revelation 13:1); the evil-hearted woman sits upon many waters (Revelation 17:1); they draw strength from the wild, and ungoverned, and short-sighted impulses of human passion; in opposition to this near the throne of God is the calm and translucent sea of God’s counsels of righteousness and love, now clear as crystal, now ruddy with the fire of righteous indignation, the expression of His eternal will against sin. Such is the appearance of this glass-like sea now that the angels of the plagues are going forth.
But the seer saw more than this fire-flushed sea. He saw also those that are victorious over the wild beast. These he describes (such is the literal translation) as those who conquer out of the wild beast, &c.; they come off conquerors out of the struggle, and they escape from the temptation to worship his image and wear the badge of his service: they “escape victorious from” his image and from his mark. When he sees these, they are standing upon (i.e., on the shore of) the sea of glass, holding harps of God. We have had the harps mentioned previously (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 14:2); it is appropriate. The life which has been a discord to the world rises into true music before God; those who will make their life a melody must take it first as a conflict. The harps they hold are called harps of God, not merely because they are dedicated to Him. but because they are truly God’s. All the most glorious and noble things in nature were named God’s: the lofty trees were “trees of God “; the high-piled mountains were “mountains of God “; so also the harps which strike forth the richest music are “harps of God.” Nor is this a mere phrase to be considered as equivalent to very great or very glorious; great and glorious the trees, hills, and harps are, but only a prosaic or a profane mind can be satisfied with such a naked equivalent. The godly saw the hand of God in these things; and St. John knows that the noblest melody in the ears of God is the noble life of faith, suffering, and love. The power of such a life is in God, not in itself (John 15:5; Galatians 2:20), and the music of such a life is music which God makes (2Corinthians 4:7-10), drawing the sweetest tones from the strings which are smitten with pain and sorrow; and as its life’s music is God-taught, so does its song of triumph sound from a harp not its own, but God’s. If our power to sing in trial here a song worthy of God is only found in God, so will the songs of heaven be sweet only in Him, for those who dwell there shall be all taught of Him.
And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.(3) And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.—They join their voices to the music of their harps. The song of Moses was a pæan of victory over Pharaoh and his hosts (Exodus 14:26-31; Exodus 15:1-21). Israel stood on the margin of the Red Sea and saw the tokens of the overthrow of the great world-power of that day; so these saints stand by the border of the fire-blent sea of glass, and sing the song of triumph over the doom of the great world-powers of every age. The cases are parallel, the songs are alike; and it would not be out of place were the words of that other song of Moses, the man of God, to be heard from those who are made glad according to the days of their affliction, and who are clothed with the beauty of the Lord their God (Psalm 90:1; Psalm 90:15; Psalm 90:17). They also sing the song of the Lamb. The Apocalypse is full of Christ; the Lamb is the axis on which the world of its scenery moves; He is the key of earth’s history; the victory of the saints is in Him (Revelation 12:11); their song of triumph is of Him who put a new song in their mouth and in whom all things are reconciled (Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:10-11).
(3, 4) Great and marvellous are thy works. . . .—The song is better thus translated:—
“Great and marvellous are Thy works,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are Thy ways,
Thou King of the nations.
Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?
Because Thou only art holy:
Because all the nations shall come and worship
in Thy presence:
Because Thy judgments were manifested.”
The works are called “great;” the “ways” are called just and true. It is not mere marvel which calls forth the song of praise, but righteousness, truth, and holiness. The Almighty is the righteous ruler. The English version has “King of saints;” the reading should be “King of the nations” or else, perhaps, “King of the ages” The latter reading harmonises well with the immediate context and with the other passages, which link the thought of “the ages” with the “righteous dealings” of God. “Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth” (Psalm 119:142; comp. also Psalm 119:144, Psa_119:151-152, Psa_119:160). But the former is to be preferred; it is appropriate in a song which celebrates a victory over those who vaunted themselves as the princes of this world, and which proclaims the submission of the nations to God; and it seems to have been transplanted here from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 10:7): “Who would not fear thee, thou King of the nations?” The song celebrates the noble acts of the Lord; it declares them to be great; but it is not their greatness, it is their righteousness and faithfulness which calls forth the grateful praise. The long days of oppression, and the seeming silence of the Almighty, when the prayer and cry “How long?” has risen from perplexed and suffering saints, have brought the temptation of the psalmist: “I have cleansed my heart in vain” (Psalm 73:3-13). But now the righteous acts of the Lord are manifested; now it is acknowledged that “verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily He is a God that judgeth in the earth” (Psalm 58:11). Though clouds and darkness have sometimes been round about Him, it is now beyond doubt that “righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne” (Psalm 97:2).
Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.(4) Who shall not fear . . .—Rather, Who will not fear, &c. (the word “Thee” should be omitted, because Thou art holy. The word rendered “holy” is not that which is usually employed when the holiness of God is spoken of; it is a word which, when applied to men, denotes one who reverences the sacred obligations of natural and moral order, apart from the thought of mere law or custom. The word is applied here, and in Revelation 16:5, to God, and denotes the recognition of those sacred obligations which the character of God, if I may say so with reverence, imposes upon Himself. It is the remembrance that God will, as Judge of all the earth, do right, and will vindicate the expectations of those who stay themselves upon His character, which generates a holy fear of Him.
All nations shall come and worship . . .—Translate, All the nations worship, because Thy judgments (or, righteous acts) are manifested. The song is one in anticipation. The angels of judgment are going forth; the righteous dealings of God will be seen; but these things are spoken of as though accomplished: their completion is a divine certainty.
And after that I looked, and, behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened:(5) And after that . . .—Better, And after these things I saw, and there was opened the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony (or, witness) in the heaven. This temple is called the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony; the expression sounds cumbrous, but it is nevertheless suitable. St. Stephen spoke of “the tabernacle of witness” in the wilderness, which was made after the pattern showed in the mount (Acts 7:44). The tabernacle was well called the tabernacle of witness, for it contained the ark of the testimony with the Law of God, and was a perpetual witness of God’s presence among His people. The temple of the tabernacle then is the shrine, or inner sanctuary, of the heavenly true tabernacle, after the pattern of which the tabernacle of Moses was fashioned, which is now opened.
And the seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven plagues, clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles.(6) And the seven angels . . .—Better, And there came out the seven angels who had the seven plagues from the temple, clothed in linen, pure, glistening, and girt about their breasts with golden girdles. The temple is the inner shrine, or sanctuary; it was this which was measured (Revelation 11:1); it was out of this that the angel with the sharp sickle came for the vintage of the earth (Revelation 14:7); out of this now came the seven angels with the seven plagues. It is well to remember this, for these plagues are not, like the judgments of the trumpet, calls to repentance; they are plagues on those who have refused to return, who have rejected the sanctuary, the tabernacle of witness, which the Lord pitched among men, and who have refused, like obstinate builders, the stone which has become the head of the corner. Out of the rejected temple the angels of wrath come; it is ever true that out of rejected mercies the heaviest of plagues are forged. The angels are clad in a garb resembling that of Christ (Revelation 1:13); they are come forth to do His bidding; they are clothed in raiment which indicates their righteous errand. (Comp. Revelation 19:8; Acts 1:10; Acts 10:30.) Instead of linen, some MSS. have “a stone:” the angels, according to this, were “clad in a stone, pure, brilliant.” There is a parallel thought in Ezekiel, who describes the splendour of the King of Tyre: “Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond,” &c. (Ezekiel 28:13).
And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.(7) And one of the four . . .—Better, And one from among the four living beings gave to the seven angels seven golden vials (or, bowls) full, &c. The vials are the shallow bowls which were used for incense. They are filled with the wrath of God, and that wrath is now to be poured out “upon the kingdoms that have not called upon God’s name” (Psalm 79:6). These vials are given by one of the living creatures who represent creation; it is thus through creation that the wrath of God can visit the rebellious; that wrath of God is simply the operation of God’s righteous law against sin. His statutes are eternally righteous. He has given to all things a law which cannot be broken; that law is adverse to evil, and will in the end root it out, for it does the bidding of God, who lives unto the ages of the ages.
And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled.(8) And the temple . . .—Translate, And the temple (the same word—naos—is used as in Revelation 11:1) was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his might; and no one was able to enter into the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels should be finished. As in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-35), and as at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1Kings 8:10-11), the tokens of God’s presence filled the temple, so it is now, but with a difference: it is smoke, not cloud, which is the symbol of God’s presence. But the vision which perhaps, under all circumstances, most nearly corresponds with the present is that of Isaiah (Isaiah 6); there the prophet beheld the vision of God. His train filled the temple, and the house was filled with smoke, and a message of judgment was given to the prophet; that message declared that the sin of the people had reached a climax: they had trifled with convictions, and henceforward the words of God’s servants would harden rather than awaken them. “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes,” &c. (Isaiah 6:9-10), till the desolating judgments had fallen. The general drift of the present vision is similar; the days of warning are over: the plagues which now fall will fall on those who have trifled with convictions: the sanctuary which was opened as a refuge is now closed: none can enter till the plagues have descended. The time has come when the judgments of God fail to stir the conscience which has been deadened by sin; the day when the gracious influences towards repentance was felt has passed. The word that has been spoken is about to descend in judgment (John 7:48). “Who shall not pray, with an agony of earnestness, From hardness of heart and contempt of Thy word and commandment, good Lord, deliver us?” (Dr. Vaughan).