The pouring of libations is an ancient, complex, and varied ceremonial act. Usually, it took the form of pouring a measure of wine (or olive oil, honey or some other liquid) in commemoration or remembrance of something or as an offering to a deity. Particular vessels were often set aside for ceremonial use in distinction from common vessels. And while some rites required the celebrant to pour the liquid on the ground (usually commemorating the dead), others required pouring the liquid on an altar (usually as an offering to a god). Customs around the pouring of libations are remarkably similar across cultures and time.

In the Old Testament, libations are often referred to as drink offerings. We see them referenced in places like Leviticus 23, where the priest makes a sacrifice of a lamb, a grain offering, and pours out a fourth of a hin of wine as thanks for the harvest in the tabernacle.[1] In 2 Kings 16, the King pours a libation. But, perhaps the most relevant Old Testament reference comes in Jeremiah 52 at the moment of the Babylonian Exile. Nebuchadnezzar has entered the city of Jerusalem to lay waste to it. The Babylonians entered the House of the Lord, the Temple, and they stole many things, including the bowls sitting next to the lampstands—bowls that verse 19 describes as those used for pouring libations.

This concept of pouring libations has a counterpart in Greco-Roman culture. In a temple, there would sit large handle-less bowls—each called a patera (in Latin) or a φιάλη (the same Greek word used in Revelation 16). In one form of the libation, wine was poured from a jug into the bowl, and then the ritual was completed by pouring the wine out from the bowl. It was one of the most basic and yet central acts that defined religious piety. The ritual might be performed daily in the home, particularly at the beginning of a meal. It would also be performed at the beginning of a special occasion. And in the cult religions of Greece, it would be performed in temples as one of the introductory rites to animal sacrifice.[2] Similarly in Rome.[3]

Bowls and Libations

What does any of this have to do with Revelation 16? Oftentimes, commentaries limit libation references to a comparison of the bowls being used. But indeed, the analogy seems much more extensive. Like both the Hebrew and Greco-Roman examples—the two cultures that are most influential in apocalyptic literature—the physical location of the pouring in Revelation 16 is the house of religious ceremony and worship.[4] The book of Revelation takes us on a tour of the Temple: from lampstands to trumpets to now bowls. We have now reached an important place and activity: God pouring out seven bowls in a libation-like series of events.

But, to what end?

These libations bring about God’s wrath.

This imagery of wrath starts in chapter 14, with angels emerging from the temple begin to reap the harvest of the earth in 14:18-19: “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.

These angels reap a harvest of grapes and make a wine from them, a wine that is made in the winepress of God’s wrath, a notion that is confirmed in 16:19: “…and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.”

These angels go and empty the bowls of the wine of God’s wrath. And it is worth noting three features of the wrath depicted here:

1. Total Wrath

First, God’s wrath in these seven bowls is total in its breadth. There is the possibly important numerological significance of seven—the number of completion. But note also the extent of the wrath in its physicality. It is against the bodies of the people. It is against the sea and all the creatures that live in it. And against the rivers and springs. It is against the sun and against the light. But primarily, it is against people, through storms, through disasters, through destruction. God’s wrath touches every aspect of creation in judgment against his enemies. God’s wrath is total in its breadth and its scope.[5] It extends the judgments articulated in the blasts of the seven trumpets in Revelation 8, 9, and 11, and bringing to completion his victory over the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and the army of darkness.[6]

2. Just Wrath

This total wrath is on the basis of God’s righteous judgment. That is, the wrath is deserved. Note how the people who face God’s wrath are described in the emptying of the first bowl.

 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.[7]

It is poetic justice. There are people on the earth who, for the sake of their own material gain (back in 13:16-17), take on themselves the mark of the beast. These people committed an incredibly offensive act of idolatry, worshipping the image of this beast in taking on his mark. And so, God marked them again. He marked their bodies with painful sores. Just like with the Egyptians, the denial of God as God and the elevation of something else to God deserves his wrath.[8] Subsequent bowls of judgment likewise respond directly to the sin against God. Those who spilled the blood of the saints are forced to drink blood.[9] Those who rebel against God will be slaughtered in a military offensive.[10] The punishment is set for the crime.

The angels do not complain about their need to exact these punishments, even over aspects of creation. Rather, they proclaim at that moment that God is just for pouring out these bowls of wrath. Click To TweetAlso note that this is the conclusion drawn by the angels as they execute the judgments. In verse 5, the angel says: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments.” And again, in verse 7: “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” God’s wrath is not only complete in its execution, but it is also completely deserved by those who receive it. It is on the basis of God’s righteousness. The angels do not complain about their need to exact these punishments, even over aspects of creation. Rather, they proclaim at that moment that God is just for pouring out these bowls of wrath. The angels do not complain about their need to exact these punishments, even over aspects of creation. Rather, they proclaim at that moment that God is just for pouring out these bowls of wrath.

3. Provocative Wrath

This is not merely a description of God’s total and righteous wrath without response. It is provocative wrath, aiming for and eliciting responses. In the text itself, the response depicted is cursing God. Verse 9: “And they cursed the name of God.” Verses 10 and 11: “People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores.” Verse 21: “And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail because the plague was so severe.” Yet, another possible response is found here by implication. Verses 9 and 11 also both note that the people did not repent or turn away from their evil acts of false worship, suggesting that repentance was a real possibility. That’s it. There are two responses. They may continue cursing God and facing his total wrath, or they may repent.

Conclusion: A Worthy Sacrifice

It is tempting to think that in a passage like Revelation 16, where the entire text is consumed with illustrating the wrath of God, that there is no hope. God’s wrath is complete, just, and provocative. And these libations are not only the end of the ceremony, but they are also the end of optimism for much of humankind.

But, interestingly, in every Old Testament reference noted earlier, a libation is tied to animal sacrifice. In Greek and Roman animal sacrifices, pouring libations typically accompanies the slaughtering of the animal.[11] And here in Revelation, the pouring of the bowls of God’s wrath is preceded by such a death—such a sacrifice.[12] “Worthy is that Lamb that was slaughtered…”[13] Not only does this lamb join God in his wrath, but he spares God’s people this wrath, having borne it himself.[14] From the beginning of creation to the end of God’s judgment, the Lamb stands at the center. And his sacrifice—his blood—is what marks those who are saved and sealed by God.[15]

Thanks be to God.

Endnotes

[1] Another drink offering is described later in the chapter as part of the Feast of Weeks. And again, as part of the Feast of Booths. Even more descriptive is Numbers 28-29, where drink offerings are commanded for a variety of sacrifices, with the quantity of wine being poured out specified to the particular animal being sacrificed. Drink offerings are made for the daily offerings, for the Sabbath offering, for the monthly offerings, for the annual remembrance of the Passover, for the Feast of Trumpets, and even the Day of Atonement.

[2] For basic background, see A. Karanika-Dimarogona, “Sacrifice,” The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, (ed., N. Wilson; New York: Routledge, 2006), 635. The coupling of animal sacrifices and libations is quite old in Greek literature, though often outside of temples and specifically religious spaces. See Homer, Iliad, 1.462, and 11.775. See also Homer, Odyssey, 3. 334, 3.340, and 3.459.

[3] Nicole Belayche, “Religious Actors in Daily Life: Practices and Related Beliefs,” in A Companion to Roman Religion (ed. J. Rüpke; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 280.

[4] See Rev 16:1 where the voice comes from the temple.

[5] It is probably no accident that some of these expressions of God’s wrath mirror the plagues in Egypt. Sores. Water into blood (twice). Darkness. And, perhaps, the first readers of this book would be comforted by this reference—the memory of a time when God protected his own people from his wrath (ultimately through an animal sacrifice). It is also striking how closely these judgments correspond to the account of creation in Genesis 1. It is as Revelation is now bookending where the story began.

[6] The refrain in the blasts of the trumpets is “a third.” The judgment in Revelation 8-11 is carried out against only one-third of the recipients in each case. There is no such reference here in Revelation 16, leaving one with the impression that God’s wrath is being unleashed against all of creation.

[7] Rev 16:2.

[8] See Rom 1:18-23.

[9] See Rev 16:4-6 and the third bowl. Note how those who are forced to drink blood as fresh water sources are turned into blood in verse 4 are described in verse 6: “For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink.”These people have shed the blood of the saints and prophets. They have committed gruesome, bloody, violent, murder. And for this, they are deprived of water but given blood to drink. And notice the conclusion: “It is what they deserve!”

[10] Yet likewise again, the sixth bowl: It’s not obvious. The iteration of God’s wrath there in Rev 16:12 is the drying up of the Euphrates. Remember that a common image from Scripture is the drying up of a body of water so that an army might cross (e.g., Exodus 14). Remember also from chapter 9 and the blast of the sixth trumpet that the angelic host of God is bound at the river Euphrates (9:13-15). These angels are being released to wage war on rebellious mankind and to kill a third of all humanity. This is the picture here. Gathering at the River Euphrates and about to be slaughtered by the angels of God is an army of mankind. And what was their sin? Why do they deserve it? Because they chose to follow a perversion of the Trinity, an unholy Trinity: the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. They were tempted and gave in and in following these unclean spirits, marching like an army to their destruction.

[11] There are daily libation rituals in Greek religion that did not require animal sacrifice, of course. But animal sacrifices typically did require a libation ritual. And in fact, the blood in the sacrifice itself might have been considered part of a rite of purification. In this sense, the slaughtering of the Lamb in Revelation could be very much portrayed as a set of Greek rituals. See Stella Georgoudi, “Reflections on Sacrifice and Purification in the Greek World,” in Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World (ed., S. Hitch and I. Rutherford; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 121-122.

[12] Rev 5:6 and 5:12-13; cf., Rev 7:14 and 12:11.

[13] This lamb is mentioned 29 times in the book, most recently in chapters 14 and 15. Interestingly, and perhaps with some irony, Isaiah uses a libation metaphor to describe not the wrath of God, but the suffering of the servant: “…he poured out himself to death.” See Isa 53:12.

[14] Rev 6:16 notes the “wrath of the Lamb.” The notion that the Lamb, Jesus Christ, bore God’s wrath is slightly less explicit in the New Testament. It can be established, of course, through a theology of atonement and propitiation drawing together an Old Testament understanding of God’s wrath, the function of the sacrifices, and the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus as a propitiation (see Rom 3:25 and especially Hebrews 9). To complicate matters further, Jesus himself talks about ‘drinking from a cup’ in Mark 10:38-39, which seems to imply suffering death as a ransom for many (cf., Mark 10:45). Perhaps the use of wine imagery is not incidental.

[15] Rev 7:1-17.