In Rev 16:20 we read that at the outpouring of the seventh bowl (Rev 16:17) “every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.” This is in the context of the judgment of Jerusalem, under the imagery of Babylon (Rev 16:19). But what does it mean?
The dispensationalist interpretation here is rather extreme: “These words speak of literal topographical changes, not figuratively of political turmoil” (R. L. Thomas Revelation 2:277), so that the “complete abolition of all mountains will come at the seventh bowl judgment (cf. Rev. 16:20). At that point, no mountains will be found” (Thomas 1:455; cp 2:275; emph. mine). John Walvoord (Revelation 241) agrees: this causes “great changes in the topography of the entire world” involving “the entire earth radically changing its appearance.” In such a scenario the earth would suddenly have the perfectly spherical, cueball-like topography of Europa, the icy Galilean moon of Jupiter.
In this book which is “sent and signified” (esēmanen, 1:1) and contains bizarre creatures (9:7-10; 13:1), it surely is more reasonable to understand this as “apocalyptic metaphor” which is “designed to produce an impression of the awful force and fierceness of the judgment” (Terry 425). In that the priestly angels (15:6) pour the libation judgments on “the Land” (16:1, 2; cf. 16:12, 16), the removal of mountains speaks of the overthrow, abandonment or surrender of all of Israel’s cities, small and large, near and far (J.W. 3:7:1 §134; 4:9:9 §545–55).
Book of Revelation Made Easy (by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.)
Helpful introduction to Revelation presenting keys for interpreting.
Also provides studies of basic issues in Revelation’s story-line.
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This mountain-removing imagery may speak of the removal of forbidding mountainous obstructions that initially hinder the Roman legions. The removing of the mountains could portray the work of the Roman army’s engineers, for as the first professional standing army “the fighting units were accompanied by a corps of engineers that could hew down forests and flatten hills in the twinkling of an eye” (Hadas-Lebel, Josephus 95). J. J. Price (Jerusalem Under Siege, 123) explains that “the Romans’ siege technology was awesome: the massive ram, iron-plated towers, skilled excavations, grapplers for tearing apart walls, cranes for lifting solciers onto city walls, and varied species of catapults which hurled large stones and quick-fired arrows.”
Josephus (J.W. 3:7:3 §141–42) informs us that Vespasian “sent both foot-men and horsemen to level the road, which was mountainous and rocky, not without difficulty to be traveled over by footmen, but absolutely impracticable for horsemen. Now these workmen accomplished what they were about in four days’ time, and opened a broad way for the army.” He also builds banks against Jotapata’s walls (J.W. 3:7:8 §162; 3:7:33 §316).
Later Titus’ engineers do the same when he “gave orders for the whole army to level the distance, as far as the wall of the city. So they threw down all the hedges and walls which the inhabitants had made about their gardens and groves of trees, and cut down all the fruit trees that lay between them and the wall of the city, and filled up all the hollow places and the chasms, and demolished the rocky precipices with iron instruments; and thereby made all the place level from Scopus to Herod’s monuments” (J.W. 5:3:2 §106–08). This reminds us of Jesus’s warning to mountainous, well-walled Jerusalem that days were coming when her enemies “will level you to the ground” and “will not leave in you one stone upon another” (Lk 19:43).
Though Revelation is a symbolic book, its symbols often portray historical events (not always spiritual or heavenly events). This is one of those areas where we suspect a remarkable historical backdrop from the Jewish War.