The marriage feast and the banquet of God

Revelation 19. The Bride of Christ prepares for her marriage. The enemies of God are struck down by his sword, their flesh providing a banquet for vultures. Jerusalem is delivered.


After this I heard what seemed like the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Alleluyah! The salvation and glory and power of our God! For his judgments are true and just; for he has avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.” A second time they cried, “Alleluyah! And the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
And the twenty-four elders and the four animals fell down and worshipped God who is seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Alleluyah!” And from the throne came a voice, saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, and you who fear him, small and great.”

The great multitude is not identified, but the language parallels that of the ‘great multitude’ who emerge from the great tribulation in 7:9f, having heard and accepted the gospel. ‘Corrupt’ is the verb phtherein, meaning ‘corrupt morally’. It has a less comprehensive sense than diaphtherein in 11:18. The reason for the judgement on Babylon is twofold: she corrupted the earth and its inhabitants through her sexual promiscuity, and she brought about the deaths of God’s apostles and prophets. The smoke of her destruction goes up like that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:28), examples of irreversible destruction (‘eternal fire’, Jude 7).

This is the third time that God’s judgements have been declared just and true (15:3, 16:7), and the declaration has to be made, because we do not naturally assent to the destruction or see that it is just. It troubled Abraham. “Will you sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:22ff) God said he would not destroy the city even if there were only ten in it, and went out of his way to rescue Abraham’s nephew and his family before the fire came down. Although it is difficult to rejoice beforehand, we shall be glad after it has happened.

‘Alleluyah’ occurs nowhere else in the NT. It is straight Hebrew, and as such evokes the psalms’ exhortations for all to praise Yah (the shortened form of Yahweh) – all Israel, all the nations, all creation. The psalms climax with the cry. The rejoicing is a response to the call in 18:20 and a reprise of the song at 15:3f, rounding off the revelation of the seven last plagues. Those who fear him among the small and great should also rejoice. As at 11:18 and 14:7, fear of God is commended, and in praising him there is nothing to fear.

And I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the sound of many waters, and like mighty thunder, saying, “Alleluyah! For the Lord our God the Almighty has reigned. Let us rejoice, and exult, and give him glory, because the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready.” It was granted her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and pure, for the linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
And he says to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb.” He says to me, “These are the true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, and he says to me, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

Again, the great multitude is not identified, but their sound is overwhelming. ‘Many waters’ suggests a great host taken from the nations (17:15), to which the angels add their thunderous clamour. ‘Has reigned’ means ‘has become king’. As stated before (11:17), the reign begins from the sounding of the seventh trumpet, and it is the Lord God the Almighty who reigns (1:8). The emphatic combination of ‘rejoice’ and ‘exult’ is common in the Old Testament (e.g. Ps 68:3, Song 1:4, Isa 61:10).

‘Wife’ is gune, literally ‘woman’ (Rev 2:20, 12:1, 17:3). Preceded by a possessive, it means ‘wife’, as does the Hebrew word (e.g. Gen 2:23f); ‘bride’ would be numphe. She is dressed in the same apparel as the angels who bear the bowls of wrath (15:6). The linen represents the ‘fruit of righteousness’ that faith in God produces (Heb 12:11) rather than something imputed unilaterally (Rom 4:3, I Cor 1:30); she puts the linen on herself (cf. Isa 52:1, 61:10), the fruit of having ‘put on the new man created after the likeness of God (Eph 4:24). ‘Acts’ is implicit rather than explicit in the plural word dikaiωmata, the plural converting the abstract idea into something concrete. In 15:4 the word refers to the righteous acts that God himself has done. This is the extent to which the woman is exalted!

The pure white linen is her wedding garment. She wears the apparel of the saints because she is the saints, the bride foreseen by John the Baptist (John 3:29). She will be married to the Lamb: the metaphor behind the parable about the ten maidens, and the parable about the wedding feast which a king held for his son (Matt 22:2-14). Many were invited to the feast, but the first invitations were declined.
Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and the fatlings have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, abused them and killed them. Hearing this, the king became angry and sent his army. He destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he says to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to where the highways lead into the city and invite to the wedding as many as you find.’ And the servants went out into the highways and gathered everyone they found, both wicked and good.

Invitations go out first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. To receive one is a privilege, for they come from the king, the occasion is one of joy, and admission is free. Only a few accept (22:14). Most consider the affairs of their daily lives more important and make their excuses (Luke 14:18-20). In his wrath, God destroys Babylon the Great by fire. Instead the poor, crippled, blind and lame inherit the kingdom, those whom the gospel of grace did not reach, who had nothing in this life. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent away empty.’ Those who accept the invitation are of course the bride herself.

There were several stages to a Jewish marriage in ancient times. A man who wished to marry went to the woman’s father, agreed with him the price, and paid it (Gen 34:12). Then the couple entered into a binding covenant with each other, similar to the medieval practice of ‘handfasting’. A cup of wine was shared to seal the vows, and the man would give gifts to his bride. From that point they were betrothed and legally married, any dissolution of the relationship requiring a divorce (Matt 1:19). Then the groom returned to his father’s house where he lived and prepared a place for her. When all was ready, he went with his friends to his wife’s house at a time unknown to the bride and either he or a friend acting as forerunner gave a shout to announce his arrival. Usually this was at night, so both she and her bridesmaid friends needed to have lamps ready. On their return, the couple consummated the marriage, celebrated for seven days, and concluded their celebration with a feast.

So Christ has taken his betrothed, and in heaven the marriage is celebrated, at the feast to which he looked forward when he said to his disciples, “I will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Paul saw the significance:
Husbands, love your wives, as the Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her verbally by the bathing of water, so that he might present her to himself glorious, without spot or wrinkle or anything such, but that she might be holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am saying it refers to Christ and to the church. (Eph 5:25-32)

It is indeed a great mystery. Adam was created on the third day, before vegetation (Gen 2:5) and before the animals (Gen 2:19). On the same day God planted a garden – in Greek, paradeisos – and after putting the man there, he caused to spring up every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for food, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the man was alone. On the fifth day God brought to him every bird and animal of the field. Adam saw that none of these could be called his counterpart, so on the sixth day God put him to sleep. Out of his side he fashioned woman, and brought her to him. Adam’s awaking was a prefigurement of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb in the garden, and the creation of Eve a prefigurement of the birth of the Church following his death and resurrection. The wound in Christ’s side was like the cut that God made in the side of the first human son of God, for it is by water and the blood from his wound that his bride is regenerated. We eat his flesh and drink his blood as a sign that we are part of him. On the eighth day the Father will present the woman, pure and spotless, to his son, who loved her even as his own flesh – for so she was – and then the two will be one.

The Song of Solomon is a poem about the love of a betrothed woman for her future husband, and about his love for her. The metaphors evoke a garden of fruit trees.
As an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the house of wine …
She herself is a walled garden:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a spring locked, a fountain sealed.
She longs for him, she is sick with love. He came to her garden while she was dreaming:
My beloved put his hand to the latch,
and my heart yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
on the handles of the bolt.
I opened to my beloved
but my beloved had turned and gone.
In the dream the watchmen of the city beat her and took away her veil. Although he brought her into his chambers, her heart is elsewhere. Solomon is not her beloved. While he wishes to add this comely woman to the queens and concubines he already has, her shepherd lover knows that her heart is pledged to him, and in his eyes she is perfect. He is ready to take her:
How beautiful and pleasing you are,
my love, with all your delights!
Your stature is like a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree,
I will lay hold of its fruit …
And she is ready to give her love. But still he has not presented himself.
Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
on the mountains of spices.

Kings in the Ancient Near East planted gardens next to their palaces in imitation of the tree garden planted in Eden. In Persia the royal garden was called a pairi-daeza, a place enclosed by a wall. The biblical texts mention several, including the garden kept for the king of Judah (II Ki 21:18, 25:4, Neh 3:15, Est 1:5, Ecc 2:5). Reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh depict Ashurbanipal in his royal garden (British Museum)waterways running through the orchards reminiscent of the river flowing through Eden, and inscriptions have him boasting of animals collected from across the empire, many of which were placed in the gardens. The garden symbolised the empire in the midst of uncultured wilderness, the king was the man entrusted by God to look after the garden, and the animals corresponded to those brought to the man to see what he would name them. Ritual lion hunts represented the king exercising his dominion over creation. On the occasion of his defeating his enemies, he would hold a banquet in the garden, sit on his throne and drink the fruit of the vines growing in the garden there, while his wife celebrated opposite him, musicians playing on their harps and tambourines, and the decapitated head of the enemy king hung from the trees. A similar scene is shown on an ivory from Megiddo, dating to the reign of Solomon.

John is moved to worship the angel because he speaks the very words of God. In correcting him, the angel points out that he speaks as one who testifies about Jesus, just as Jesus testified about the kingdom. The gospel is a prophetic message, and part of that message is, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him only shall you serve” (Matt 4:11, Rev 14:7).

Angels, being sons of God, look like human beings, and human beings like angels. We are made in the image of the man of dust, who was made in the image of God, his first son Jesus Christ. For a little while, Christ himself was made lower than the angels, but now he is crowned with honour and glory. He will bring many sons to glory and not be ashamed to call them brothers. So, after his resurrection, he referred to his disciples as brothers (John 20:17). We shall be like him in his glory (II Thes 2:14).

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse and the rider on it, called Faithful and True. In righteousness he judges and wars. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, with a name written which no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a garment dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, dressed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth goes forth a sharp dagger with which to strike the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron. He treads the winepress of the rage of the wrath of God the Almighty. And on his garment and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Unlike the man who appeared on a white horse at the opening of the first seal, the man here is an individual, but the picture is similarly militaristic. It contrasts with his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey two thousand years ago. He is ‘faithful and true’ (Rev 3:14), and called the Word of God because it is he who inspires the Scriptures and makes the will of God known. In the context of God’s wrath his name is no longer ‘Yeshua’ (Yah saves); he cannot now be personally known and his name called upon. He rides on a white horse as commander of heaven’s armies (Jos 5:14, Rev 10:13), angels that involve themselves in human struggle behind the scenes (II Ki 6:17, Rev 12:7). The sword of the rider is the power to strike and kill (Num 22:31, Isa 27:1, 34:5f, Rev 2:23) in judgement. “I kill and I make alive, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39).

The words from Psalm 2 have been quoted twice before (Rev 2:27, 12:5). The repetition serves to emphasise that the only-begotten son of God will one day rule the nations in person, and with a firm hand. His garment is dipped in blood because of the treading of the winepress, already described (14:20) and about to be described again (19:17ff).

In reverse order, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ repeats the Lamb’s title at 17:14. The first to call himself ‘King of kings’ was Tikulti-Ninurta I, who reigned over Mesopotamia in the late 2nd millennium BC. The statement was largely factual, for the kings were chiefly rulers of cities, over which the supreme king ruled as emperor. Later examples include Nebuchadrezzar, head of the Babylonian empire (Ezek 26:7, Dan 2:37), and Artaxerxes, head of the Persian empire (Ezra 7:12). ‘Lord of lords’ was also a common title and sometimes combined with ‘King of kings’, as in the designation of Tiglath-pileser I of Assyria (beginning of the 1st millennium BC): ‘Tiglath-pileser, strong king, unrivalled king of the universe, king of the four quarters [of the new ‘Eden’], king of all princes, lord of lords, chief herdsman [or shepherd], king of kings.’ Both the titles could be applied to gods as well as kings. In Egypt their earliest occurrence goes back to the New Kingdom (late 2nd millennium), with reference to the god Osiris. Moses referred to Yahweh as ‘God of gods, lord of lords’ before any of these kings (Deut 10:17).

The people who settled Mesopotamia after the Flood-Cataclysm found there a lush, well-watered land that seemed like a new Eden. They named its major rivers after the Tigris and the Euphrates in Eden, and the upper part of Mesopotamia they named Assyria, the land west of the Tigris in the new world as well as the old. Kingship, they said, had come down to earth from heaven, so that God (Enlil) would rule the land in the person of a king, his human son and image – a kind of second Adam. Ultimately the destiny of the king of Babylon was to defeat the enemy of mankind and subdue the whole earth. Thus, as it passed orally from one generation to the next, the Genesis tradition underpinned the new ideology. But it was deliberately distorted. In reality – and this is the essence of the gospel – there is only one Saviour of mankind and legitimate King of kings, born of the woman in heaven. To him will be the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:10).

And I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds flying overhead, “Come, gather for the banquet of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, small and great.” And 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. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence performed the signs by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and who worshipped its image. The two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. And the rest were killed by the dagger that went forth from the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds filled themselves with their flesh.
The banquet (deipnon to mega, literally ‘the great dinner’) of God contrasts with the feast (deipnon) that celebrates the marriage of the Lamb. In the prophecy to which this vision alludes Ezekiel describes the meal as a sacrifice, as if the horses, charioteers, mighty men and warriors were sacrificial rams, lambs, goats and bulls. “You shall be filled at my table,” God tells the scavengers (Ezek 39:20). If this is not bad enough, the oxen and fatlings in the parable about the wedding of the king’s son suggest the same metaphor: the slaughter of these armies is part of the celebration. Likewise Isaiah says (34:6f),
The sword of Yahweh is sated with blood;
it is gorged with fat,
with the blood of lambs and goats,
with the fat of rams’ kidneys.
For Yahweh has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Wild oxen shall fall with them
and steers with the mighty bulls.

The sacrifice is by way of cherem (vv. 2, 5), whereby God pronounces on whatever or whoever is an abomination to him a curse of utter destruction (Deut 7:2).

The banquet takes place on the mountains of Israel (Ezek 39:17). It is the final battle: the day of vengeance (Isa 34:8, 61:2, 63:4) foretold by Moses at the outset (Deut 32:41f):
“I will take vengeance on my adversaries
and repay those who hate me.
I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
and my sword will devour flesh.”
Psalm 110, referred to more frequently than any other psalm in the New Testament, begins with God saying to his son, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” It ends by declaring that the son
… will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgement among the nations,
he will fill [their territory] with corpses,
he will shatter the chiefs of the great earth. (Ps 110:5f)

‘All the nations of the earth’ in Zechariah 12 and ‘all men’ in v. 18 above are all the nations that surround Israel, rather than the ‘whole world’ in the strictest sense (Rev 16:14). They have allied themselves with Satan; they have besieged, captured and plundered the city of the great king, sent half of its inhabitants into exile, enslaved them, raped them, killed them (Zech 14). It is through these atrocities that they war against the Lamb, and it is at this point that he will go out and fight against them.

He will stand on the Mount of Olives and a great chasm will split the hill from east to west (Zech 14:4), presumably in the same earthquake that brings down Babylon the Great, so that it too throngs with carrion birds (Rev 18:2). He will come
with thunder and earthquake and great noise,
with whirlwind and tempest and a flame of devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
all that fight against her and her stronghold and oppress her,
will be like a dream, a vision of the night. (Isa 29:6f)

God will strike Jerusalem’s assailants with a plague, so that their flesh rots while they are standing, and they panic and fight each other (Zech 14:12f, Hag 2:22). Then all the nations will see his glory (Ps 97:6, Isa 40:5, Ezek 39:21, Rev 18:1).

Having destroyed those who sought to destroy them, he will lead the Jews back from their exile in Egypt and beyond the Euphrates to the land of their inheritance (Isa 11:14ff, 27:13):
But they will swoop down on the shoulder of the Philistines in the west,
and together they will plunder the people of the east.
They will put out their hand against Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will obey them.
And the Lord will utterly destroy the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead them across in sandals.
And there will be a highway for the remnant of his people
that remains in Assyria,
as there was for Israel
in the day that he came up from the land of Egypt.

The remnant of Israel take part in the day of vengeance (also Isa 41:15, Obad 18, Mic 5:8, Zeph 2:9, Zech 12:6, Mal 4:3).

The contrast between the marriage feast of the Lamb and the banquet of God is similar to that presented in the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. He personifies the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:16-24). He found himself next to Abraham in the abode of the blessed, not because he had heard the gospel but because he had nothing in this life. The man who dressed himself in fine clothes and feasted every day ended up in a place of torment. On another occasion Jesus contrasted the destiny of those who believed in him and those who did not (Matt 8:11-12):
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
That place is the lake of fire. Magma will fill the Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem, and into it will be thrown the beast and the false prophet, there to be tormented for as long as Earth remains (Rev 20:10). Although the valley is not densely wooded, the trees in it add fuel to the fire (Isa 30:33). When the battle is over, people
“will go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who rebelled against me. For their worm will not die, their fire will not be quenched, and they will be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

With these words the book of Isaiah ends.