The harvest of the Earth

Revelation 14:6-20. Three messages, then the harvest of the righteous and the winepress of God’s wrath.

And I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth, 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 heaven and 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). We do well to fear God (II Cor 5:11, 7:1, I Pet 2:17), for he is holy and righteous, and he is 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, Creator and Saviour. Indeed, what the angel says with a loud voice – 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 entertain the idea 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 through observing 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, do not give him glory as Creator. The truth is obvious, and it has been so ever since the Creation (for the world was peopled from the beginning, not at the end of a long process of evolution). Denial that God exists itself leads to unrighteousness, intellectual darkness and the wrath of God.
Therefore God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and venerated and served the created thing more than him who created it … For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable affections. Their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature, 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 deception, making out that because plants and animals have become more diverse in form over time (and even this is not wholly true), we can infer they all had a natural origin. Contrary to the most basic law of physics, molecules have a natural tendency to self-assemble into forms ever more complex. Contrary to our experience of ourselves and how we relate to others, there is no such thing as a soul, only matter. 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, preferring to believe the wisdom of man rather than God. It is a heresy of the first order, a corruption of the gospel itself, and the corruption of Church and society necessarily follows. The man who believes that Nature brought itself into being worships Nature, not God.

In contrast to 8:10, springs or fountains are singled out because in the first world there was no rain; rather, 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 another angel followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, who made all the nations drink from the wine of the passion of her fornication.”

‘Fornication’ translates porneia; ‘sexual immorality’ is somewhat evasive, because it prompts the question, what is sexual immorality. The root word is porne, a female prostitute; pornos (I Cor 5:9, 6:9) is a male prostitute. Again, the western Church has almost given up on insisting that we must be sexually pure. The identity and fall of ‘Babylon the Great’ are dealt with in chapters 17-18. The mention here functions like the writing that appeared on the wall of the palace where Belshazzar, king of Babylon, drank wine with his lords, wives and concubines, praising the city’s gods. The angel declares that its days are numbered and about to end.

And another angel, a third, followed them, 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 passion 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 ever, 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 eternal torment in ‘hell’. While the earth may now be engulfed in fire and smoke, we are not to imagine that it remains 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, again from Isaiah 34:
For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
And [Edom’s] wadis will be turned into pitch,
and her dust into sulphur,
and her 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. The emphasis is on the irreversibility of the destruction, the focus being on the worshippers of the beast in and around Edom, who have invaded Israel.

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 [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; 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 and true 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.”

Many in the last three and a half years will be killed because of their faith. But they should hold onto the promise that they will enter the Lord’s sabbath rest (Heb 4 provides a commentary). ‘The fire will test what sort of work each person has done’ (I Cor 3:13). Their work in the service of God 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 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 (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 with 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, who were killed because of their testimony but were raised to life. 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).
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). Thus the wicked who survive the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth will also be judged.

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 with a loud voice to the one who had 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 wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
Here is another metaphor: instead of weeds burned in the fire, grapes thrown into a press and crushed. 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, …
God addresses the whole earth but, as before, he seems to have particularly in mind the nations that gather near Jerusalem (‘outside the city’, cf. Heb 13:13f) in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2, 14) or Kidron, a continuation of the Valley of Hinnom.
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.

As in Isaiah (63:1-4), 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 has come 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 and drunk it’ (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, all of it”. 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 modern equivalent, Basira, may yet prove a significant location. (Petra is a different place.) If the measurement is hyperbolic (cf. Rev 21:16), the meaning remains that the land will drink its fill of blood (Isa 34:7). The link with Isaiah 63 is made explicit later in the book (19:11-15).