Revelation 19 Celebration and Conflict

Henry John Stock, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1910)

Revelation 19: 1-10 Heavenly Jubilation

1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2 for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

3 Once more they said,

“Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”

4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,

“Amen. Hallelujah!”

5 And from the throne came a voice saying,

“Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.”

 6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;
8 to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

In the previous chapter we had three groups of mourners: the kings of the earth who made alliances with the great city, the merchants who brought the fine things of the nations to the great city, and the seafarers, sailors, shipmasters and those who trade upon the sea. This group of three mourners for the desolation of Babylon (Rome) and now matched by three groups who are lifting up praise and admiration for the Lord’s action against the city and for the saints of God: the great multitude in heaven, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures and finally all of God’s servants. These passages of worship, praise and joy are often overlooked and overshadowed in Revelation by the focus many people place upon the dynamic images and the devastating pictures of judgment and yet they are central to the message of the book. For the initial hearers of Revelation, the central reminder was that God was in control and they are invited to hear the distant song of the multitude celebrating the coming triumph of God. Those who have trusted in the powers and promises of the empire will soon weep because its power will fail. Its prosperity has been built on the exploitation of the nations, its peace has been built upon violence, and it has the blood of the saints upon its hands; with all these things God’s action cannot be long in coming from Revelation’s perspective.

The first word uttered by the great multitude gives us a key to hear this section: Hallelujah. Hallelujah is a transliterated Hebrew word meaning ‘praise God’ but it is also used prominently throughout the Psalms, both at the beginning and end. The Psalms are powerful because they, like much great music, are willing to deal with the spectrum of emotions. They give incredible freedom of expression to emotions of joy and anger, anguish and triumph, they allow a space for desires of revenge to be spoken and reconciliation to be hoped for. The bible frequently allows very human desires to be voiced before God and the trust is that God will hear these desires and act upon them in God’s own way.

The multitude in heaven begins the praise in a triumphal refrain of victory. Praise is due to God who has acted justly, who has avenged the suffering of God’s people upon the great whore (metaphorically referring to the great city-Babylon/Rome for more on this metaphor see Revelation 17). After the suffering they endured there is a desire for vengeance, and yet the refrain and the second answer about smoke going up forever are fairly short. The transition moves quickly from focusing upon God’s vengeance to focusing on God’s power and the upcoming marriage celebration which metaphorically points to the final two chapters of Revelation and the hope they bring.

Marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of God’s people with God is used in several places throughout scripture. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea could use the image of God as husband to Israel as a way of highlighting the depth of their unfaithfulness (see for example Jeremiah 2 and 3, Jeremiah 31: 32, Ezekiel 16) but also an image of hope for the future (Isaiah 54 and Isaiah 62). The parables of Jesus portray him as the bridegroom (Mark 2: 19-20 and parallels) and Paul could metaphorically talk about his ministry in Corinth as preparing them to be presented as a bride to Christ (2 Corinthians 11: 2). Finally, a wedding feast could be used to talk about as a time for salvation and the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 22: 1-14 and its parallel in Luke 14: 15-24). The angel’s exclamation that, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” in addition to the use of the language of the metaphor of the ‘marriage of the Lamb’ picks up these threads and now points the hearer to the image of coming closeness of God to God’s people.

Yet, the wedding feast will be delayed in the narrative since there are still forces arrayed in opposition to God’s kingdom. The remainder of chapter nineteen and twenty will form an interlude between the invitation to the wedding and the actual celebration of being invited into the home of God. The Lamb and the followers of the Lamb are called away to a final conflict with the gathered forces of the beast and its allies. The story that began in Revelation twelve when the dragon and his angels were cast out of heaven will end in this and the following chapter with the beast and its prophet and ultimately the dragon itself dealt with.

The final thing to highlight in this section is the mistake of John in worshiping a fellow servant of God and the correction he receives. John is caught up in things that are at the edge of his ability to grasp and the revealed power of even the angels of God has been incredible. John mistakes the messenger for the one the message refers to, he is overwhelmed and he, like those who will become ensnared by the power of the beast or the harlot, places his worship in the wrong place. Yet, the angel knows its place and is willing to correct John in a way that is both direct and gentle. The angel, unlike the beast, acknowledges that it is only a servant and that its role, like John’s, is to direct worship to God.

Gerhard Fugel, Bilder zur Apokalypse

Revelation 19: 11-21 The Defeat of the Beast

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders — flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

Until this point there has been a level of divine restraint that left space for repentance but now the time for testimony is over, those who remain with the beast and its allies have aligned themselves against God and the end is swift. The description of the rider on the white horse has some parallels to the rider in the first seal as I discuss in Revelation 6, but it is the differences that highlight that this rider is another image for Christ. The lion of Judah in Revelation 5 was reveled to be the Lamb of God, who had been sacrificed, but here the Lamb is revealed to be the final conqueror who will shepherd (the word behind rule) the nations with an iron rod and has a sharp sword which comes from his mouth. The judgment is quick, almost anticlimactic, showing the vast difference in power between the beast and its allies and the rider called Faithful and True.

The description of the white horse and the rider is the place where John spends a lot of time and the details communicate many overlapping messages. In warfare it is unwise for leaders to draw attention to themselves in a way that makes them easily distinguishable upon the battlefield and a white horse would do that, even though the armies of heaven are all riding white horses. A white horse was typically used in processions or other events where the person riding it is safe and does not need to worry about being targeted. None of the riders of heaven are wearing armor or noted as carrying any weapons, instead they are wearing white linen (which is suited for worship or a wedding feast but not the muddy and bloody work of war). Christ is wearing a robe dipped in blood, presumably his own blood since it is not the blood of those he is riding towards. He is pictured wearing many small crowns which indicates his rule over the nations. The image of the rider on the white horse is blended with the image of the shepherd king and the vintner treading the wine press from Revelation 14. Names also figure prominently in the description, some which are descriptors (like Faithful and True), some which are titles (like Word of God, King of kings and Lord of lords) and one which is unknown. Names are important in ancient literature and there is a reason for the commandment not to use the Lord’s name in vain. Many ancient people believed that knowing the true name of a person or a deity gave a person some power over that individual. There is an unknown name of God or unknown name for Jesus that is only seen but not spoken here and no one has power over him.

Many Christians struggle with the militaristic images here and the death that is a part of this scene. Additionally, many may struggle with the broader image of God as a warrior. I’ve wrestled with this several places and there are limits to this and every metaphor, however for the early Christians and their Jewish ancestors the image of a God who would fight on their behalf was an image of great hope. Ultimately there will be forces that refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and one of the powerful pieces of the image that Revelation presents to us is that the armies of heaven are not the ones who will fight alongside Christ. Ultimately vengeance belongs to God and only God can put an end to the resistance of the forces that ally themselves with the beast. There are people from the powerless to the mighty who have chosen to gather with the beast to oppose God’s oncoming reign and to make war against the rider. The beast and the false prophet (Rome and the Emperor cult) are quickly captured and taken alive into the lake of fire in this description. The closest precedent to this is the story of Korah and his followers who rebel against Moses and are swallowed by the earth in Numbers 16. The lake of fire will ultimately become the final place of judgment for devil as well in the next chapter.

The images in Revelation 19: 17-21 are difficult. The invitation for the birds to come and feed upon the fallen opponents of the rider on the white horse reflects the reality of a conflict where many lives are lost, and the bodies are left upon the field. It would be an image familiar to those who had seen the devastation of warfare in any time. Revelations images are meant to shock us and to cause us to choose a side. From the perspective of Revelation to choose to ally oneself with the forces of Rome is to ally oneself with the beast (and by extension the devil). Even some among John’s initial readers would have struggled with this portrayal. Here I find Christopher Rowland’s words helpful:

But it (Revelation) is a vision, not a prescription. It is more a warning of what to avoid than a manual of what to do. It shocks and disconcerts us so that we might begin to assess reality afresh. (NIB XII, 701)

John, the author of Revelation, does not dwell on this judgment in great detail. More attention is paid to describing the rider of the white horse than the aftermath of devastation. More time is spent in worship than in warfare. Instead John, in writing, falls in line with the correction he receives from the angel. He is told not to focus on the destructive power that the angel wields but instead to worship God. I am reminded of the ending of Psalm 46 where the Psalmist writes:

Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
(Psalm 46: 8-10)

For the Psalmist and for John they believed that God is their refuge and their strength, that God would help them in their trouble. God’s power was not safe and those who opposed God would ultimately be overthrown. For their hearers they wanted them to learn to trust in God’s power and strength and to know that the forces arrayed against God’s kingdom will not endure.

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