The harvest of the Earth

Revelation 14. A vision of the 144,000 now resurrected and in heaven, three messages from heaven, the resurrection 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, was the site of Jerusalem’s Temple, distinct from the hill immediately to the west which now bears the name. Concerning a future day of wrath God says, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6). Here it signifies the place of God’s throne in heaven, in new Jerusalem, before he reigns on earth (Heb 12:22). Martyred because of their prophetic testimony, the 144,000 are now, temporarily, there in heaven with him. The comparison with ‘many waters’ and loud thunder suggests that they come from the nations (Isa 17:12), not therefore the twelve tribes in a literal sense. They are a new presence before the throne. No longer needing the protection of God’s seal, they bear on their foreheads his name and his son’s new name, reward for having conquered (3:12) and confirmation that they are members of the city that comes down to unite the heavenly and the earthly. Like the twenty-four elders, and like the others who will have conquered (15:2), they are given a lyre – the instrument of David – so that they praise with hands as well as voices. With joy they sing a song known only to them, just as anyone who conquers is promised a name known only to him (2:17). The many others purchased for God will learn the song when they have been raised, but the 144,000 are the first.

The Gezer calendar of agricultural seasons, c 900 BCIsrael was commanded to observe three festivals through the year: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First-fruits, and the Feast of Ingathering, when the main harvest was gathered (Ex 23:14-17). when the harvest had been completed (Ex 23:14-17). All the festivals were to be held in one place, in Jerusalem, and all would have spiritual counterparts in the New Testament era. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began with the Passover when Israel was to kill and eat a young sheep or goat without blemish (Ex 12:5, Mark 14:12, 15:42). On this and the next seven days, they were to eat unleavened bread in remembrance that God had redeemed them from slavery and made them his own, while bringing judgement on the Egyptians. The lamb was not a sin offering as such, but a whole-body substitution, the only animal sacrifice that every Israelite had to make. The household internalised it by eating it. With the exception of the peace offering, other sacrifices were either burned to ash on the altar or, in part, consumed by the priests.

On the first day of the week following Passover, the priest waved before Yahweh the sheaf of the first-fruits and offered another animal just like the paschal lamb. In AD 30 that day coincided with the day Christ rose from the tomb, for he was the sheaf of the first-fruits (I Cor 15:20). Seven weeks after the waving of the sheaf, on the fiftieth day, Israel celebrated the week-long Feast of First-Fruits, giving thanks for the harvest. Fifty days after Christ’s resurrection the Holy Spirit came in power and reaped its first spiritual harvest (Acts 2:41), for Israel was the first-fruits of the nations (Jas 1:18, cf. Jer 2:3). Finally, on the first day of the seventh month trumpets were blown, on the tenth they made atonement, and on the fifteenth they celebrated – or should have celebrated – the end of the harvest. Having gathered from the threshing floor and the winepress (Deut 16:13), they were to take branches of palms and other trees and make booths (sukkot) from them. The week-long festival was therefore also called the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:34) or Tents (Gk: skenωn). During the harvest itself farmers made such shelters so that they could remain in the field.

Like the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Booths was intended to have enduring historical significance for the descendants of Israel, reminding them of the period after the Exodus when they were forced to live in booths and wander in the wilderness (Lev 23:43). The first generation never entered the promised land. In fact, Israel forgot about the feast and after the forty years in the wilderness did not celebrate it again until after the Exile (Neh 8:17). For an embarrassingly long period they also forgot about ‘the book of the law of Yahweh by Moses’ (II Chr 34:14f), namely Deuteronomy, setting out the covenant as it was renewed when the second generation entered the land (Deuteronomy literally means ‘second law’). They discovered the book in the course of repairing the Temple, which itself had been neglected. But the Feast of Booths was also to have significance for the future (still today), when they would find themselves again in the wilderness, living in tents as refugees. That is why Peter, not knowing what he was saying, offered to make tents for Moses and Elijah at Jesus’s transfiguration. The two wilderness prophets were to instruct the Jews about their Messiah before God would give them back 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. Discovering that the people had made a golden calf to worship while he was absent on the mountain, Moses had angrily smashed the first tablets. The golden calf was prophetic, for five centuries later Jeroboam persuaded the northern tribes to secede from Judah’s Davidic kingdom, and he consolidated his kingship by setting up two golden calves at Dan and Bethel in place of Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem (I Ki 12:25ff). (The sanctuary platform at Dan can still be seen.) In this manner Israel broke the covenant made with them at Mount Sinai and repeated within the promised land on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, and eventually God removed them out of his sight (II Ki 17:7-23). Moses’ wrath prefigured God’s wrath. The second set of tablets prefigured the re-acceptance of Israel under a new covenant, when God would write the law on their hearts (Jer 31:31-37).

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest, having first made an offering for himself, took two goats as a sin offering for the people (Lev 16). The one he sacrificed, sprinkling its blood on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies inside the veil and on the altar outside the veil. This day was the only day in the year when the high priest was allowed to enter the sanctuary. The people were to humble themselves, because the blood was an atonement for their souls (Lev 17:11), signifying the atonement of the Messiah on the day when he would enter the tabernacle ‘not of this creation’ (Heb 9:11) to mediate a new covenant. The other goat was not killed. Instead, the high priest confessed the people’s sins and all their transgressions and laid them on the goat’s head; then he sent it into the wilderness to signify how God would drive Israel into exile on account of rejecting their Messiah (Matt 27:24f, Acts 18:6). God was to harden their minds. Only when the full complement of Gentiles had come in would God pour on the Jews a spirit of grace and supplication, enabling them to recognise the one whom they had pierced. He himself would lead them into the promised land and bring them into the bond of the covenant, one by one (Ezek 20:37).

So far as Gentile believers are concerned, 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). (In II Thes 2:13 the correct reading is ap’ arches, ‘from the beginning’, not aparchen, ‘first-fruits.’) When the kingdom of God comes, the nations that have survived the wrath of God will be required to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19), for then they will be in the same interim position as Israel was after the Exodus: they will have received and begun to practise 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 overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim upon those seated on the earth and upon 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 inasmuch as 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, Acts 17:30, I Pet 3:19). Since the gospel announces the kingdom of God, it expires once the kingdom arrives. 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). All humanity should obey the gospel and worship him, 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 inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it was;
he commanded, and it stood.

Why be afraid of him if everything came into existence by itself? The proper response on entering 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. In summary, what the angel proclaims is itself the gospel. 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 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 – are 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, even though they deny it. The truth is obvious, and has been ever since the Creation (for the world was peopled from the beginning). It only ceases to be obvious when one wilfully shuts him out. Unrighteousness, 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 beside 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.

With its dogma of the ‘theory of evolution’, scientific atheism has led our own society down the same path. Tolerating no opposition, its priests tell the peoples of the earth, “We have examined the evidence and discovered that the appearance of design is only appearance; believe our testimony, not what you see. Do not worship an illusion.” They contradict the second of the two most fundamental laws of physics in order to claim that molecules have a natural tendency to self-assemble into forms ever more complex. They ignore the fossil record, which shows plant and animal phyla appearing suddenly – animals not until five-sixths through the record – in order to portray all organisms as genealogically linked. Contrary to our experience of ourselves and how we relate to others, they tell us that 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 spirit, of the witness of God in creation, and of his own Word, and ingested a heresy of the first order, a corruption of the gospel itself. She cannot believe that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man might be in conflict. She is ashamed of his words. Unresisted by the one group of people who were supposed to present a God-given understanding of reality and morality, the corruption of society inevitably follows. Those who believe that Nature brought itself into being end up worshipping Nature, an Asherah-like sex-goddess.

‘Heaven’ can refer to one of three places: the firmament containing the solar system (Gen 1:8), the ‘face’ (Gen 1:20) of the firmament where birds fly, or the ‘heaven of heavens’ (Gen 1:1, I Ki 8:27, Ps 148:4) beyond the solar system (the third heaven mentioned in II Cor 12:2). Obviously, since God is not a physical being, nor is his dwelling-place. ‘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; water oozing up through springs from the great deep kept the earth moist 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, NIV) 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’ (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 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, the worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

In the end we either worship God or we worship his adversary. The fire, smoke and sulphur refer back to the demonic locusts and horsemen of the fifth and sixth trumpets and forward to the ‘lake of fire and sulphur’ (19:20) into which all workers of evil are pitched, not only those in the last generation. Medieval notions notwithstanding, this is not a description of everlasting torment.

The phrase ‘the smoke of their torment goes up forever’ is an allusion to 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, tormented Babylon the Great (18:10). The point is that the destruction is final, the focus being on the worshippers of the beast who have invaded Israel. Angels are mentioned many times in the New Testament but described as holy in only one other place, where Jesus warns that he will come with the holy angels in glory, and then he will be ashamed of whoever is ashamed of him and of his words (Luke 9:26). It is the same moment. ‘Have no rest, day or night’ ironically echoes the words used to describe the cherubs’ worship of God (4:8), with the twist that the worshippers of the beast will find no spiritual rest.

The first angel urges the world to worship God and accept his mercy, because, as the second warns, judgement of the world’s civilisation is imminent, and as the third warns, individuals who worship his enemy should expect no mercy. To fall into the hands of the living God is a fearful thing.

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. John reminds Christians that they too must be steadfast, for life will be hard. The saints are those who live up to the faith which their Saviour exemplified (Heb 12:2f, Rev 2:13). The gospel does not nullify God’s commandments (Matt 5:19f, Rev 12:17); rather, he gives us desire and power to obey them. He writes the law in our hearts.

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

To ‘bless’ in English can mean to pronounce God’s favour on a person, the opposite of curse or blaspheme, or it can refer to the enjoyment of God’s favour. In Greek the two senses are distinct: eulogetos (verbally blessed) and makarios (enjoying God’s favour). The word here is makarios, as elsewhere in Revelation (but cf. eulogia in 5:12, 5:13 and 7:12).

The express command to “write down” the blessing adds emphasis to the assurance. Many in the last three and a half years will be killed because of their faith, but they must hold onto the promise that their diligence will be recognised, and their works rewarded. There will be a final day of rest.

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 – the 144,000 who prophesied about the kingdom and the coming wrath – are already in. Now, with the last trumpet, comes the main harvest. In the parable about the wheat and the darnel, the field is the world and the good seed the sons of the kingdom. They are harvested at the conclusion of the age, in the ‘first resurrection’ (Rev 20:5, Luke 14:14). The righteous do not each ‘go to heaven’ individually, at the end of their lives. The description ‘like a son of man’ (cf. Dan 7:13) identifies the reaper as Christ, the one who also sows the seed (Matt 13:37). He wears a victor’s crown, and the cloud suggests that he is the same figure as the angel at 10:1. The parallelism of the two harvest visions, in which one angel bearing the authority of God instructs another, also suggests that the figure seated on the cloud is an angel.
And another angel came out from the temple in heaven, he too 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 of 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 fury of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress up to the horses’ bridles, for 1,600 stadia.

This is the ‘Day of the Lord’ at the end of the period of wrath (6:17, 16:14), when Babylon the Great is destroyed. The juxtaposition with the grain harvest suggests judgement of the whole ‘earth’ rather than the whole ‘land’ (ge can mean either). The metaphor is of a single vine, and denotes the inhabitants of the earth – the ‘vine of Sodom’ (Deut 32:32) – as opposed to those who are of the true vine, Jesus Christ. The winepress is a place ‘outside the city’, i.e. not far from Jerusalem, where the slaughter is concentrated. The mention of the angel with authority over the fire implies that celestial fire – already cast on the earth during the time of the trumpets (8:5) – is again involved non-metaphorically.

According to Joel (3:2, 3:14), the nations that enslave Israel will gather in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. The name is unknown, but ‘Jehoshaphat’ means ‘the Lord has judged’, probably referring 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 thrown out
and a stench will rise from their corpses,
and the mountains will dissolve with their blood.
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 stained garments from Bozrah,
glorious 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 defiled all my attire.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption had come.

This is the ‘banquet of God’ described in Revelation 19. There the language is equally gruesome, upsetting any notion that the deity of the new covenant is different from that of the old. God comes to redeem his people, because ‘they have scattered them among the nations and divided up my land; they have cast lots for my people, and traded a boy for a prostitute and sold a girl for wine’. He tramples the surrounding nations because they have trampled Jerusalem. The extent of the bloodshed recalls the carnage at the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, when the Romans ‘went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:5).

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 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, still less with Petra). If the measurement is hyperbolic, 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 thrown on it.