In Revelation 16:1 John hears a loud voice coming from the temple commanding the angels to our out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. In rapid succession the angels pour out God’s wrath on the kingdom of the beast. The sixth bowl allows the nations to gather at Armageddon and the seventh bowl announces, “it is done!”
What is a “bowl of wrath? The word is phiale (φιάλη) and refers to a variety of containers including funeral urns, shallow cups used for drinking or pouring libations, or smaller containers for perfumes and ointments (BrillDAG). The KJV translated the word as “vial”; Middle English spelled the word phial, following the Greek closely. This translation is not wrong, but it is outdated. In modern English the “vial” word refers to something like a test-tube; this Greek word refers to a flat bowl or cup used in a religious ceremony.
David Aune cites Varro De lingua Latina 5.122, “it is this kind of cup that the magistrate uses in sacrificing to the gods, when he gives wine to the god” (2:879). Josephus says there were “two vials full of frankincense” in the Tabernacle (Ant. 3.143). In Testament of Solomon 16:7 the word is used as part of an exorcism ritual, “I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it).”
These bowls are “poured out” (ἐκχέω), a word associated with spilling blood in battle, although it is used for the blood of Jesus in the New Testament. Since the bowls come from the sanctuary the background is likely pouring out a libation on an altar. For example, in Sirach 50:15, the high priest Simon “he held out his hand for the cup and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all” (NRSV).
In LXX Jeremiah 7:20 and Lamentations 2:4, 4:11 God will pour out his wrath on Jerusalem, in 10:25, 14:16 his wrath is poured out on the nations.
The bowls were first introduced in 15:7, the seven angels come from the sanctuary with golden bowls of the wrath of God.” These are the final judgments specifically target the kingdom of the beast and his followers. Like the seals and trumpets earlier in Revelation, as each angel pours a small shallow bowl, a plague occurs on earth.
The First Bowl: A Painful Sore (16:2). This judgment falls only those who have the mark of the beast and worship his image (Rev 13:4; 13:14-16). The ugly and painful sores are similar to the Egyptian plague in Exodus 9:9-11. These are more than just blemishes, the noun ἕλκος refers to ulcers or abscesses that need to be cut out or amputated (BrillDAG). The word is modified by two words both meaning something like bad or evil. Translations try to capture this in various ways, the ESV has “harmful and painful”; the NIV has “ugly, festering sores”; the NRSV has “a foul and painful sore”; BDAG suggests “a foul and vile sore.”
The Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood (16:3). Similar to the second trumpet or the plague on the Nile (Exodus 7:20-21; Ps 78:44; 105:29), this judgment destroys all of the life in the sea, turning it to “blood as a corpse.” When Judas Maccabees captures Caspin, the slaughter is so great that “the adjoining lake, a quarter of a mile wide, appeared to be running over with blood” (NRSV).
The Third Bowl: Rivers to Blood (16:4-7). Similar to the first plague on Egypt (Exod 7:14-19) and the third trumpet, the third bowl destroys fresh water. In the fourth Sibylline Oracle freshwater turning to blood is included as a sign of war, “the great Euphrates is flooded with blood” (4.61).
After the water is destroyed, the “angel in charge of the waters” praises God for his just judgements. Is there an angel “in charge of waters?” In 1 Enoch 61:10 the writer lists a series of angles, including “the other forces on earth (and) over the water.” On the other hand, the angel may be the one who poured out the third bowl.
The reason given for turning all the waters into blood is the government of the beast has been spilling the blood of the people of God. It is a just judgment that those who have spilled blood will now be given blood to drink.
Sib. Or. 3.311–313 you will be filled with blood, as you yourself formerly poured out the blood of good men and righteous men, whose blood even now cries out to high heaven.
The Fourth Bowl: The Sun Scorches (16:8-9). Unlike the previous bowls, this angel pours out his bowl on the sun. The fourth bowl is the reverse of the fourth trumpet and the ninth plague (Exod 10:21-23), but instead of reducing the power of the sun, the power of the sun is increased, causing the people of the earth to be scorched with an intense heat. The verb (καυματίζω) is usually used for plants scorched by a hot sun (Matt 13:6). Rather than repent, the curse God (βλασφημέω) and refuse to give him glory.
The Fifth Bowl: Darkness on the Beast (16:10-11). While the fourth bowl increase the heat, the sixth plunges the throne of the beast into total darkness. Darkness is a common theme in Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic literature.
Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
Sib. Or. 5.346–350 The imperishable flames of the sun itself will no longer be, nor will the shining light of the moon be anymore in the last time, when God assumes command. Everything will be blackened, there will be darkness throughout the earth, and blind men, evil wild beasts, and woe.
Assumption of Moses 10.5 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces.
In response to this unnatural darkness, people will gnaw their tongues in anguish and continue to curse God. Although it is not exactly the same language, in Matthew 22:13 the man who is expelled from the wedding banquet goes into the “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as are the foolish, unprepared women who are left in the darkness outside the wedding banquet. In the parable of the net, the bad fish are thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt 8:11-12).
The Sixth Bowl: Euphrates Dries Up (16:12). Similar to the sixth trumpet, the river Euphrates is dried up when the sixth bowl is turned. This “prepares the way for kings from the east,” presumably to gather at Armageddon. The Romans were deeply concerned about the Parthians on their eastern border and the Euphrates formed a natural defense (Aune calls an “irrational Roman fear of the Parthians,” 2:891-93). There are several references in the Old Testament to God drying rivers, see Isaiah 50:2 for example. But this drying of the river Euphrates may allude to the Exodus, the Red Sea dried up and allowed Israel to escape Egypt. In any case, it is unimaginable the Euphrates would dry up.