“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is the real key of this chapter and, really, one of the main themes of the entire record. There appear to be two goals of the various acts of cataclysmic judgments described in Revelation. One goal is the punishment of sin. God has been patient long enough and now it is time for judgment. It is time to let people see and experience the full weight of their sin. Just like with the nation of Israel in the days leading up to and during the conquest of Jerusalem and the exile, the time for the whole world has come up and sin is finally being judged on a large scale.
The more significant purpose, however–also like in the final days of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament–is repentance. God wants people to repent of their sins and turn to Him so they can live in Him. He doesn’t want for anyone to perish, the apostle Peter said in 2 Peter 3, and He waits as long as He can before bringing down the hammer to allow for that to happen.
And, lest you blanche at this idea in light of the severity of the judgment being unleashed on the world, keep a couple of things in mind. God is allowing His own people to experience much of these judgments along with the unrighteous. When He sends a massive earthquake to shake the world to its foundations, His people are dying too. If repentance were not at least part of the purpose, that wouldn’t be the case as it would violate the justice of God. If He was just punishing, He could be a lot more specific in the scope of the chaos.
The other thing to keep in mind here is this: He’s tried softer approaches to wooing the unrepentant to change their hearts and minds for the rest of human history. He is the parent who has asked, begged, and pleaded for far longer than an outside observer thinks is reasonable and is now advancing to much more aggressive attempts at coercing the desired behavior in His kids.
We were working with our boys to make some diet changes the other day. They were told they needed to try their vegetables without complaint. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a fight, but there would be consequences. The first night’s consequences were deemed by one to be sufficiently small that he shrugged his shoulders and didn’t eat. The next night they were more severe. We assured him that we were starting gently and that things would gradually get uncomfortable enough that his moral calculus would begin pushing him back in the other direction. At this point in history, humanity has shrugged its shoulders long enough. God is invoking the nuclear option.
But–and this is both the catch and the indictment of John’s vision–if they aren’t willing to repent now in the face of this level of chaos (for is it not the case that many people turn to God in the wake of a massive natural disaster?), and if they were not willing to repent during any of the days leading up to it, then they aren’t going to repent ever. Even given all the time of eternity they aren’t going to repent. Indeed, part of the point of Revelation is to demonstrate that when God finally hands out final judgments and separates for all eternity the sheep from the goats, He is righteous and just in doing so.
The real question for us, then, is this: Are we willing to repent, or are we among the crowd that will refuse to the end of time and into eternity? God is patiently waiting, but that patience will not last forever. Eventually, the time will come when all decisions are made absolutely final. The time for action is now. As we can see in Revelation itself, the end has been delayed once in the seals to allow for repentance, it is delayed again in the trumpets with the same object in mind. But eventually, God pours out the bowls of His wrath and the game is over. Don’t wait for the end. Put yourself in the hands of the just and righteous king now while the time is nigh.