1 Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.
6 Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth — to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
8 Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”
9 Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.
13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
14 Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! 15 Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” 16 So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
17 Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. 20 And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.
The triumphant tone of this chapter can be both jubilant and unsettling. For those who have undergone suffering and who are awaiting God’s decisive action they perhaps hear the distant refrain of the new song of the 144,000 proclaiming the victory of the lamb and an end to their tribulations. Yet, the image of a bloody harvest and the trampling of the great wine press of the wrath of God highlights the destructive power of God. The chapter has a militant tone which echoes in the lyrics of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the faithful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on
There are a number of contrasts between this vision and the vision that immediately precedes it in Revelation 13: while the dragon may stand upon the seashore the lamb stands upon the high ground of Mount Zion; while those who worshipped the beast were marked with its number the followers of the lamb bear the name of God upon their foreheads; the previous chapter showed the social cost of not conforming to the demands of the beast (or the empire) while here conformity’s cost is revealed as drinking the undiluted wine of God’s wrath. The chapter also looks forward to remaining chapters of Revelation and tells through one set of images the judgment of Babylon (Rome) what will be developed in two additional sets of images in chapters 15-16 and chapters 17-18 respectively. Much like the dragon’s defeat in heaven foreshadows the final defeat in Revelation 20, here Rome’s derivative rule will be announced here but told through the story of the harlot and the beast in Revelation 17-18. For those who have waited for God’s action the time of their waiting has ended and the time open to the possibility of repentance is quickly closing as well.
The one hundred and forty-four thousand, introduced in chapter seven, are reintroduced here. The number is a number of completeness, twelve times twelve thousand, where every tribe of Israel is sealed. They are purchased or redeemed out of humanity as a first fruit of the larger harvest that is expected and which will happen metaphorically below. As chapter seven remined us they will eventually be a part of the multitude beyond counting of every language, tribe, nation and people. These one hundred forty-four thousand are described as male virgins who have no family commitments and are free to follow the lamb wherever he goes. The old nursery song is now reversed where instead of Mary having a little lamb who follows wherever she goes the Lamb of God has these men who follow it regardless of where it goes. The virginity of these first fruits of humankind may be literal representing people unencumbered by familial ties but it also may be metaphorical referring to those who have not compromised their relationship with God or indulged in practices which Revelation views as immoral. There is a parallel with how Jeremiah uses bridal imagery for Israel in Jeremiah 2: 2-3
Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, “Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruit of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them.
The figures of the one hundred forty-four thousand as chaste males also contrasts them strongly with not only those who have compromised in their faith but also sets them diametrically against the way Revelation views Rome (Babylon). Now in a striking use of language reminiscent of Jeremiah 2, the one hundred forty-four thousand represent an Israel that has remained faithful and now instead of Israel ‘playing the whore’ it is Rome (Babylon) who has made the nations drink the ‘wine of her fornication.’ This also contrasts with the public image that post-Augustan Rome tried to craft for itself being a nation of piety and law. Revelation continues to unmask the true character of Rome from the perspective of the early followers of Christ.
Three angels come announcing an eternal gospel. While many people are used to the word gospel being used to describe books out of the bible or its typical English translation of ‘good news’ the Greek word euangellion which we translate as gospel typically in Roman culture a ‘gospel’ is a proclamation on behalf of the emperor. There were gospels proclaiming the celebration of a victory (proclaiming to a people conquered their liberation by the forces of Imperial Rome) or to celebrate a birth or birthday or assumption of power related to the emperor. The language of the early Christians is full of political implications but they are people whose allegiance is to Christ, which means Messiah or King, and not to Caesar. The gospel proclaimed here is truly good news for those whose allegiance has been to Christ and who have resisted accommodating to the ways of the empire, but for those whose allegiance rests with the beasts, wittingly or unwittingly, it is the announcement of judgment. The purpose of Revelation is to encourage those who are among the faithful to continue in their perseverance even in the midst of persecution and to trust that the time of God’s action is approaching. Here the faithful have their reward and rest announced while those who have allowed the beast to have their allegiance and worship must drink the cup that has been prepared for them.
Talking about the judgment of God or the wrath of God has become unpopular in many churches and yet it is an essential, if uncomfortable, thing for Christians and the church to wrestle with unless we also want to, often unwittingly and unthinkingly, proclaim a God who either is unable to help people in the midst of their struggles or who always stands on the side of the oppressor. Christianity and Judaism before it has always believed that God takes sides, that God acts, and that God expects certain things from those who become covenant partners with God. For me one of the passages that reoriented how I think about Revelation comes from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace
Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so, violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)
The harvest image that concludes this chapter and foreshadows the narrative of the coming chapters. The first harvest can be read as either a positive or negative image. On the positive side the harvest of wheat, barley and other grains, which were typically harvested by the sickle, indicate the end of the growing season and the gathering of the long-awaited harvest into the barns. There is no indication of the sifting of the wheat away from the tares, only the ingathering of the grain. However, the two harvests can be read together as a common bloody harvest. The images do pair the Son of Man image from Daniel 7:13 with the language of the harvest of grain and the winepress in Joel 3: 13:
Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full.
The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.
Yet, I do read the first harvest as a positive image. The first reaping brings together the harvest from across the earth. The second reaping comes from the temple, which in the next chapters will be a place where judgment will come from. Although grapes are not typically harvested with a sickle, Revelation continues the metaphor to describe the harvest of the vintage of the earth. The image ends with the winepress of the wrath of God and blood flowing for two hundred miles to the depth of a horse’s bridle. On first reading it is easy to think of the God who treads this winepress as a blood thirsty God and more like the beasts than the Lamb, and while those who have undergone oppression may want to see the blood of those who shed their blood I don’t believe that vengeance is the primary function of this image, instead it is unveiling the way things are. The image of God treading the winepress echoes the beginning of Isaiah 63: 1-6
“Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
Who is this so splendidly robed marching in his great might?”
“It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.:
“Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”
“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in anger and trampled them in wrath; their juice spattered on my garments,and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.
I looked and there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;
so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me.
I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth
As violent as this passage is, I always imagine tears in the eyes of the personified figure of the LORD treading the wine press alone, abandoned by the world. Anger and grief are frequently close cousins and the prophets often portray an image of a grieving and wounded God seeing the state of the world or the people of God and desiring a solution. I also think it is important to pay attention to the construction of the metaphor. Ultimately, I believe this passage, like several other places in Revelation are not about prophesying some horrific scene of judgement but rather about revealing the reality of the bloodshed already present in the world. God does not transform the juice of the grapes into something it was not but rather in the press shows what the harvest of the world is in contrast to the harvest of Christ that has been brought into the barns. As Craig Koester can insightfully state:
This scene, as in 19: 11-21, envisions an end to the injustice that has plagued the world (cf. sec. 39 COMMENT). The river of blood, which flows as high as horse’s bridle, show the magnitude of the violence that has been done on earth (14:20). It reveals why divine justice cannot be delayed indefinitely. As Christ tramples the grapes, the amount of blood that is squeezed out shows how full of brutality the world has become. From this perspective the question is not, “Why is God’s judgment so severe?” Rather, if one sees the earth as a vineyard already filled with blood, the question is like that of the martyrs: “Why has God not judged the wicked sooner?” (6:10) (Koester, 2014, pp. 630-631)
God may have desired a different harvest from the vineyard than the bloody one which was reaped, God may have desired not to tread the winepress alone and yet, the bloodshed of the earth was present even when it was not unveiled. The cry of the martyrs, “How long, O Lord” has remained unanswered until this point in Revelation. From this chapter onward the answer of the Lord is, “I will wait no longer, the time of harvest has come.” And the eyes of those watching will see the glory and the terror of the coming of the Lord, for the glory of God reveals and confronts the terror of the way things are on the earth and will soon put an end to those who have used their power to oppress and destroy the earth.