The harvest of the Earth

Revelation 14. A vision of the 144,000 in heaven, then three messages, then the harvest of the righteous and the winepress of God’s wrath.

Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of loud thunder. The sound I heard was like the sound of lyre-players playing on their lyres. And they sing a new song before the throne and before the four animals and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been purchased from the earth. They are the ones who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. They are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from mankind as first-fruits for God and for the Lamb, and in their mouth no falsehood was found, for they are blameless.

Mount Zion, mentioned in Revelation only here, is the main mountain of Jerusalem, on the other side of the valley west of the Temple Mount. Concerning a future day of wrath God says, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6). Here it stands for the New Jerusalem, the dwelling-place of God (Heb 12:22). Martyred because of their prophetic testimony, the 144,000 are now, temporarily, with their king in heaven. They are a new presence before the throne. Instead of a protective seal on their foreheads they have the name of God and of his son written there, the reward for having conquered (3:12). Like the twenty-four elders, and like the others who will have conquered (15:2), they are given lyres – the instrument of David – so that they praise with their hands as well as their voices. With joy they sing a song known only to them, just as anyone who conquers is promised a name known only to that person (2:17), except that it is the same song for all. The many others purchased for God (5:9, 7:9) will learn the song when they have been raised, but the 144,000 are the first.

Israel was commanded to observe three festivals through the year: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (including Passover), the Feast of First-fruits, and the Feast of Ingathering, when the main harvest was gathered (Ex 23:14-17). All had spiritual counterparts in the New Testament era. On the day after the first weekly sabbath following Passover, the priest waved the sheaf of the first-fruits before Yahweh and offered a young sheep or goat without blemish, just like the paschal lamb. In AD 30 that sabbath coincided with the day of Jesus’ resurrection, for he was the sheaf of the first-fruits (I Cor 15:20). On the fiftieth day, seven weeks after the waving of the sheaf, Israel celebrated – or should have celebrated – the week-long Feast of First-Fruits, giving thanks for the first harvest. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection was when the Holy Spirit came in power and reaped its first harvest (Acts 2:41), especially with respect of the Jew (Jas 1:18). Finally, on the first day of the seventh month trumpets were blown, on the tenth day they observed the Day of Atonement, and on the fifteenth day they celebrated the main ingathering, when they took branches of palms and other trees and made booths (sukkot) from them, such as farmers made during harvest so that they could remain in the field. The week-long festival was therefore also called the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:34). The New Testament significance of that festival remains to be fulfilled.

Like the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Booths was intended to have enduring historical significance for the people of Israel, reminding them of the period immediately after the Exodus when, as punishment for unbelief, they were forced to live in booths and wander in the wilderness (Lev 23:43). The first generation never entered the Promised Land. Indeed, Israel never celebrated the Feast of Booths until after the Babylonian Exile (Neh 8:17). But the Feast was also to have a future significance, for one day they will find themselves in the wilderness again, living in tents as refugees. Surely that is why Peter, not knowing what he was saying, offered to make tents for Moses and Elijah when they appeared with Jesus at his transfiguration. As indicated in chapter 11, these two witnesses must first tell the Jews about their Messiah and the Jews repent of having rejected their Messiah before God will give them the land.

The Day of Atonement prefigured Israel’s restoration, for it was on that day in the calendar that Moses received the second set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, after the people had made for themselves a golden calf, worshipped and sacrificed to it, and in fury Moses smashed the first tablets. The golden calf was prophetic of Israel’s apostasy in the days of Jeroboam, when the northern tribes seceded from Judah and Jeroboam set up two golden calves for them to worship at Dan and at Bethel in place of Yahweh in Jerusalem (I Ki 12:25ff). They broke the covenant that God had made with them at Mount Sinai. Eventually he removed Israel out of his sight (II Ki 17:7-23). The second set of tablets prefigured the re-acceptance of Israel under a new covenant (Jer 31:31-37). So on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), having purified himself, the high priest took two goats. The one goat he sacrificed as an atonement for the sins of the people, sprinkling its blood over the mercy seat inside the veil and on the altar outside the veil; it signified the unilateral atonement made by their Messiah, the Passover lamb (or kid, Ex 12:5). On the head of the other goat he laid the sins of Israel and sent it into the wilderness, signifying the time that Israel would spend in exile because of their rejection of their Messiah (Matt 27:24f, Acts 18:6). Thereafter, God would pour on the Jews a spirit of grace and pleas of mercy, as in their mind’s eye they looked on him whom they had pierced. He would open ‘a fountain for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness’ (Zech 12:10-13:6, Rev 1:7).

So far as Gentile believers are concerned, distinct from the Jews, the first-fruits are the 144,000, and the main harvest is the resurrection of those who have died in Christ since his first coming, not least the multitude gathered during the great tribulation (7:9). (The reading of aparchen, ‘first-fruits’, instead of ap’ arches, ‘from the beginning’, in II Thes 2:13 is not well supported.) When the kingdom of God comes, the nations that have survived the wrath of God will be required to follow the Law just as Israel will, and as part of that to keep the Feast of Booths (Zech 14:16-19), for then they will be in the same interim position as Israel was after the Exodus and after Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70: they will have received the Law (Isa 2:3) but they will not yet have entered his promised rest (Heb 3:7-4:10). They will enter his rest, if at all, only at the general resurrection.

And I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those seated on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and language and people, saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.”
The gospel is eternal because it was in view even before the foundation of the world (13:8), and although revealed at the end of the ages it has effect back to the beginning (Gen 3:15, 4:4, Luke 11:30, Acts 17:30, Rom 2:16, 3:25, I Pet 3:19). The apostate Church says that we should not fear God. Scripture says that we should (Ps 89:7, Prov 1:7, 19:23, II Cor 5:11, 7:1, I Pet 2:17), for he is holy and righteous, and the judge of our souls. He is the Creator (Ps 33:8f):
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it was;
he commanded, and it stood.

Why would one be afraid of him if everything came into existence by itself? So the proper response coming into his presence is to fear him, as the disciples did when he spoke to the sea (Mark 4:39); it is to glorify him by the amendment of our lives, and worship him. Indeed, what the angel proclaims is itself the gospel in summary. The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgement (John 16:11). Whoever is convicted and believes in the Son is not condemned, but saved.

But how can people understand that God has a Son, unless they first recognise that there is a God? And how can they recognise that God exists unless they see him in the things that he has made? Speaking about the gospel, Paul says (Rom 1:18-21),
In it… is revealed the wrath of God from heaven against all impiety and unrighteousness of men who possess the truth in unrighteousness – because what can be known about God is manifest, for God has made it manifest to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divinity – can be perceived by understanding what has been made, leaving them without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but became futile in their thinking.
The gospel begins with the assertion that men know the truth that God created the world but deny it. The truth is obvious, and has been so ever since the Creation (for the world was peopled from the beginning, as Jesus also affirmed). It only ceases to be obvious when one wilfully excludes him from reality. Unrighteous- ness, intellectual darkness, and the wrath of God then follow.
Therefore God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonouring their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and venerated and served what was created more than him who created it … For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and burned with lust for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.

We have seen it in our time. The ‘theory of evolution’ is a pseudo-religion that keeps the uninitiated in a state of subservience. Tolerating no opposition, its priests say, “Believe us, we have discovered that the truth is different.” Contrary to one of the most basic laws of physics, the second law of thermodynamics, molecules are claimed to have a natural tendency to self-assemble into forms ever more complex. Contrary to the fossil record, which shows plant and animal phyla appearing suddenly – animals, not until five-sixths through the record – all organisms are represented as genealogically linked. Contrary to our experience of ourselves and how we relate to others, we are told there is no such thing as a soul: our ideas, atheistic as well as religious, are the products of atoms that know nothing about truth; our sense of free will is a self-affirming illusion. So the western Church, not wishing to seem futile in its thinking, has gone along with the denial of the witness of God in creation and the witness of his own Word to creation, and has ingested a heresy of the first order, a corruption of the gospel itself. It cannot believe that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man might be in conflict. It is ashamed of his words. The corruption of society necessarily follows. Those who believe that Nature brought itself into being worship Nature, not God, a sex-goddess that hates all restraint.

‘Heaven’ can refer to one of three places: the firmament containing the solar system (Gen 1:8, the second heaven), the sky or ‘face’ (Gen 1:20) of the firmament where birds fly (Rev 8:13, the first heaven), or the ‘heaven of heavens’ (I Ki 8:27, Ps 148:4) beyond the solar system (Gen 1:1, the third heaven mentioned in II Cor 12:2). Obviously, since God is not a physical being, nor is his dwelling-place, and this has to be borne in mind when understanding the term. ‘Earth’ denotes the land, distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). Springs or fountains are singled out because in the first world there was no rain; moisture oozing up through springs from the great deep watered the earth and supplied the water for lakes and rivers (Gen 2:6, 7:11, Prov 8:24).

And a second angel followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, who made all the nations drink from the wine of her raging fornication.”

‘Raging’ renders adjectivally the noun thumos, which denotes strong emotion, usually anger. ‘Fornication’ translates porneia; ‘sexual immorality’ (ESV) is somewhat evasive, because it does not say what sexual immorality is. The root word porne means a female prostitute, that being the only social category for an unmarried woman who regularly lay with a man; unmarried women were assumed to be virgins. Pornos (I Cor 5:9, 6:9) is the corresponding male. Porneia refers to all copulation outside marriage (John 8:41, I Cor 5:1, 7:2), not just ‘adultery’ (NIV, cf. Heb 13:4) and sodomy (Jude 7). Again, the western Church has almost given up on insisting that the sexually impure will not inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor 6:9). The identity and fall of ‘Babylon the Great’ are dealt with in chapters 17-18. Mention of the city’s fall here functions like the writing that appeared on the wall of the palace where Belshazzar drank wine with his lords, wives and concubines, praising Babylon’s gods. Its days are numbered and about to end. When the 144,000 proclaim the gospel, that will be part of their message.

And another angel, a third, followed, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink from the wine of the rage of God, served unmixed in the cup of his wrath. And he will be tormented with fire and sulphur before the holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and forever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
We are not our own source of life. Either we worship God or we worship his adversary. The nature of the torment has already been indicated. It is administered by the demons released with the fifth and sixth trumpets, and if the beast’s worshippers do not perish then, they will be tormented further in the days ahead (16:2-11). Medieval notions notwithstanding, this is not a description of everlasting torment in ‘hell’. The earth is engulfed in fire and smoke, but it does not remain eternally in a state of conflagration. The change of tense signals that the phrase ‘the smoke of their torment goes up forever’ is a quotation, from Isaiah 34:
For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
And its [Edom’s] wadis will be turned into pitch,
and its dust into sulphur,
and its land become burning pitch.
Night and day it will not be quenched;
its smoke will go up forever.

The phrase is repeated in 19:3, where the smoke is that of ruined Babylon the Great, lying in torment (18:10). The point is that the destruction is final, the focus being on the worshippers of the beast in and around Edom, who have invaded Israel. The warning is also part of the gospel as finally presented. Angels are mentioned many times in the New Testament but described as holy in only one other place, when Jesus warns that whoever is ashamed of him and his words, of him will he be ashamed when he comes in glory with his angels (Luke 9:26). It is the same moment. ‘Have no rest, day or night’ recalls the cherubs’ unceasing declaration that God is holy (4:8).

Thus the first angel calls the whole world to repentance; the second angel pronounces judgement on its civilisation; the third angel pronounces judgement on those who desire and seek the destruction of Israel.

Herein is the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

The comparable phrase in 13:10 refers to the Jewish saints. Now Johns reminds Christians that they too must be steadfast, for he who endures to the end will be saved. The gospel does not nullify the commandments (Matt 5:19-20); rather, the Holy Spirit give us power and will to obey them. We look to Jesus, the faithful witness, the author and finisher of our faith.

And I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours. Their deeds follow them.”

The express command to “write down” the blessing is by way of emphasis (also 19:9, 21:5). Many in the last three and a half years will be killed because of their faith, but they must hold onto the promise that they will enter the Lord’s sabbath rest. As in the message to the churches, the Spirit confirms that their work in the Lord will not have been in vain.

To ‘bless’ in English can mean to pronounce God’s favour on a person, the opposite of curse, or it can mean for God to favour a person directly. In Greek the words translated ‘blessed’ are distinct: eulogetos (blessed, or worthy of blessing) and makarios (blessed, with the consequence or promise of joy). The word here is makarios, as elsewhere in Revelation (cf. eulogia in 5:12, 5:13 and 7:12).

And I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling in a loud voice to the one seated on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
The first-fruits of the harvest are already in, namely, the 144,000 who prophesied about the kingdom and the coming wrath. Now, with the last trumpet, comes the main ingathering. Together with the gathering of the first-fruits, this is the ‘first resurrection’ (Rev 20:5, Luke 14:14). The one ‘like a son of man’ (Dan 7:13), wearing a victor’s crown, is Christ.
The harvest is the completion of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned up with fire, so it will be at the completion of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all who live lawlessly, and throw them into the furnace of the fire. There, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matt 13:39-43)
Or as the hymn puts it,
For we know that thou wilt come,
and wilt take thy people home;
from thy field wilt purge away
all that doth offend that day;
and thine angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast,
but the fruitful ears to store
in thy garner evermore.

Contour map of ancient JerusalemIn the parable, salvation and judgement, like the two types of harvest in Revelation, are opposite aspects of the same event. The furnace is a chasm of fire and smoke outside Jerusalem called Gehenna, or Vale of Hinnom, referred to by name only in the gospels and often misleadingly translated or interpreted as ‘hell’ (a Germanic word). Although survivors may be ‘rarer than the gold of Ophir’, not everyone will perish during the days of wrath. When the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, the nations will be made to assemble before him, and he will separate them into two groups (Matt 25:31-46). Some, though they have not heard of him, he will invite into his kingdom; others he will cast into Gehenna, now a lake of lava (Rev 19:20). The wicked who survive the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth will be eternally judged then; those who perished will be judged in the resurrection at the end of the thousand years.

And another angel came out from the temple in heaven, also holding a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, with authority over the fire, and he called in a loud voice to the one with the sharp sickle, “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 anger of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress as far as the bits of the horses, for 1,600 stadia.

Here is another metaphor: instead of weeds burned in the fire, grapes are thrown into a press and crushed. It refers to the ‘Day of the Lord’ at the end of the period of wrath (6:17, 16:14), when Babylon the Great is suddenly destroyed (16:19). The juxtaposition with the grain harvest suggests judgement over the whole ‘earth’ rather than the whole ‘land’ (ge can mean either), and the mention of the angel with authority over the fire suggests that celestial fire – the same as was cast to the earth during the time of the trumpets (8:5) – is also involved non-metaphorically. On the other hand, the slaughter seems to be concentrated particularly ‘outside the city’ (cf. Heb 13:13f), which suggests a location not far from Jerusalem.

The nations that enslaved Israel will gather in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2, 14). The name is unknown, but ‘Jehoshaphat’ means ‘the Lord has judged’; probably it refers to the Valley of Jezreel, where the tell of Megiddo (Armageddon) is located.
Let the nations be roused and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit in judgement against all the surrounding nations.
Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Come, descend,
for the winepress is full.
Isaiah 34 confirms the magnitude of the bloodbath:
Draw near, you nations, to hear,
and give heed, you peoples!
Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
the world, and all that that it produces.
For the Lord’s wrath is against all the nations
and his fury against all their armies.
He has devoted them to destruction;
he has given them over to slaughter.
Their slain will be cast out
and a stench will rise from their corpses,
and the mountains will dissolve with their blood.
All the host of heaven will rot away, …
There is further slaughter to the south-east, when the land of Edom (the descendants of Esau, Gen 25:30) becomes burning pitch (Isa 34:5-9, 63:1-4):
Who is this who comes from Edom,
in crimsoned garments from Bozrah,
he who is splendid in his apparel,
bearing down in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, speaking in righteousness,
mighty to save.”
Why is your apparel red,
and your garments like his who treads in the wine-vat?
“I have trodden the winepress alone,
and from the people no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their juice spattered my garments
and I have stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption had come.

This is the ‘banquet of God’, further described in chapter 19. The language is gruesome, and challenges notions that the deity of the New Testament is different from the deity of the Old. One last time, God comes to redeem his people, ‘because they have scattered them among the nations and divided up my land and cast lots for my people and traded a boy for a prostitute and sold a girl for wine to drink’ (Joel 3:2f). 1600 stadia is about 184 miles: if we take the number at face value, the carnage cannot be confined to the valley. Through Ezekiel (35:15) God says, “As you rejoiced over the inheritance of the house of Israel, because it was desolate, so I will deal with you: you shall be desolate, Mount Seir, and all Edom”. As the crow flies, 1600 stadia is the distance from Mount Seir, in the south of Jordan, to Megiddo (Rev 16:16). It is possible to imagine a series of armies stationed at intervals between these points. Bozrah, on the Kings’ Highway 40 miles north of Mount Seir, was the ancient capital of Edom, its location still evident from the name of the village next to its ruins, Basira (not to be confused with Bosra in southern Syria, and still less with Petra). If the measurement is hyperbolic (cf. Rev 21:16), the meaning remains that the land will be drenched in blood (Isa 34:7). Alternatively, it could be a quantification of the blood spilled over all the earth as a consequence of the fire.