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 living beings 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 only here in Revelation, was the main mountain within the walls of Jerusalem, on the other side of the valley west of the Temple Mount. It was where David built his palace, and where, it was prophesied, the ‘Son of David’ would also reign. “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” God says of him concerning a future day of wrath (Ps 2:6). Here it stands for the heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling-place of God (Heb 12:22). Martyred because of their prophetic testimony, the 144,000 are now, temporarily, with the King in heaven. Instead of a protective seal on their foreheads they have the name of God written there. 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. The many others who have been purchased for God (5:9) will also learn the song, but not until they have been raised. 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 (Lev 23). All had spiritual counterparts in the New Testament era. On the day after the first weekly sabbath following Passover, the priest was to wave the sheaf of the first-fruits before Yahweh and offer a year-old male lamb without blemish, 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 the week-long Feast of First-Fruits, giving thanks for the first harvest. Finally, on the first day of the seventh month trumpets were blown, on the tenth day of the month 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 out of them. The week-long festival was also called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. It was to remind them of the period between the Exodus and the entry into the promised land when, because of unbelief, they were forced to wander in the wilderness.

In relation to Israel, believers in the Messiah are a kind of first-fruits (Jas 1:18), while the main harvest takes place when Israel’s dead are raised and brought back into the land. The Day of Atonement prefigured the nation’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 Israel had made for themselves a golden calf, worshipped and sacrificed to it, and thereby broken their covenant with God. The golden calf was prophetic of Israel’s apostasy in the days of Jeroboam, some time after 930 BC, when he too made golden calves for the nation to worship (I Ki 12:25ff). Moses had smashed the first tablets, just as God was to abrogate his covenant with Israel because of their continual apostasy (II Ki 17:7-23). The second set of tablets that God made prefigured his eventual re-acceptance of Israel under a new covenant (Jer 31:31-37). So on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), having purified himself by sacrifice, 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, which they were to reject when they offered their own lambs (or goats). 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).

In relation to Gentile believers, the first-fruits are the 144,000, for they are killed and raised to life before the main harvest. The main harvest consists of the many who have died in Christ since his first coming, not least the multitude gathered during the great tribulation (7:9). When the kingdom of God comes, the nations that have survived the wrath of God will themselves follow the Law and 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. But 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. The proper response to the good news is to fear him, to glorify him by the amendment of our lives, and to worship him, our Creator and Saviour. Indeed, what the angel says with a loud voice – what he 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 (the world was peopled from the beginning). It only ceases to be obvious when one wilfully excludes him from reality. Unrighteousness, intellectual darkness, and the wrath of God then follow.
Therefore God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity, their bodies in themselves being dishonoured, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and venerated and served the thing 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 likewise the men 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 an amoral pseudo-religion that keeps the uninitiated in a state of subservience to authority. Contrary to the most basic law of physics, 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, wishing not to seem futile in its thinking, has gone along with the denial of the witness of God in creation and the witness of the Word to creation, preferring to believe the wisdom of man. It is a heresy of the first order, a corruption of the gospel itself. 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’ here denotes the firmament containing the solar system (Gen 1:8) and ‘earth’ the land, distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). In contrast to 8:10, 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). There is an implicit recognition that the world has changed over time: it was not created to be unchanging and eternal.

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, denoting strong emotion, usually anger. ‘Fornication’ translates porneia; ‘sexual immorality’ (ESV) is somewhat evasive, because it prompts the question, what is sexual immorality. 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), not just ‘adultery’ (NIV, cf. Heb 13:4). 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 further tormented in the days ahead (16:2-11). Medieval notions notwithstanding, this is not a description of everlasting torment in ‘hell’. While the earth may now be engulfed in fire and smoke, 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, which lies 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.

In summary, the first angel calls the whole world to repentance; the second pronounces judgement on modern civilisation; the third pronounces judgement on the Arabs who seek Israel’s destruction.

Herein 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; 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 saying, “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 works follow them.”

The command specifically 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 the importance of service. 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 (or speak well of God), 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 is 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 seated on the cloud, with 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.

The furnace is the earth from which the saints have been removed (16:8). But though survivors may be ‘rarer than the gold of Ophir’, not everyone will perish during the days of wrath. Hence the furnace is also a chasm of fire and Contour map of ancient Jerusalem; Mount Moriah is the site of the Temple smoke outside Jerusalem called Gehenna, or Vale of Hinnom, misleadingly translated ‘hell’ in the gospels. 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 of 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 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) and the armies of the rulers of the earth, mounted on horses, are slaughtered (19:15-18). If the location ‘outside the city’ (cf. Heb 13:13f) suggests a location not far from Jerusalem, and not simply the ‘wilderness of the nations’, it is the fate of the enemies of God in and around the land of Israel that is particularly in mind. The fire is not here metaphorical. It is the instrument of wrath, the same celestial fire as was cast to the earth during the time of the trumpets (8:5).

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’; it probably refers to the Valley of Jezreel, where the tell of Megiddo (Armageddon) is located.
Let the nations stir themselves up
and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the surrounding nations.
Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
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 comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations
and furious 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;
the mountains will dissolve with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall 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 stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption had come.

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.