The harvest of the Earth

Revelation 14. A vision of the 144,000 now resurrected and in heaven, three messages from heaven, the harvest of the righteous and the wicked, 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. And 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, distinct from the distinct from the western hill which is so named in present Jerusalem, was the site of the Temple. It is mentioned only here in Revelation, and signifies the place of God’s throne in heaven, in new Jerusalem, before he reigns on earth (Heb 12:22). “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6). Martyred because of their testimony, the 144,000 are now temporarily in heaven with him. The comparison with ‘many waters’ and loud thunder suggests that they come from the nations (Isa 17:12), not therefore from the twelve tribes of ethnically defined Israel. They are a new presence before the throne. No longer needing the protection of God’s seal on their foreheads, they bear his name, and the new name of his son, a sign that they are owned by God and therefore safe, 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 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 those who conquer are promised a name known only to them (2:17). The many others purchased by and 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). The Feast of Unleavened Bread began with the Passover, when Israel was to kill and eat a male one-year-old sheep or goat without blemish (Ex 12:5, Mark 14:12, 15:42). On this and the next seven days, their bread was to be unleavened, in remembrance that when God rescued them from slavery they left in haste. The lamb was not a sin offering as such but a whole-body substitution. Israel belonged to God because he had redeemed them, and the price paid was the blood of the animal killed in their place (Ex 12:13).

The Passover was the only animal sacrifice that every Israelite household had to make. They internalised it by eating it, and eating it all. Apart from the peace offering, other sacrifices were either burned to ash or, in part, consumed by the priests. Grain and other animal offerings were made on the day following Passover, including a sheep or goat of the same description as the Passover offering. This animal was an atonement (Num 28:17-23). Sin needed to be atoned for, notwithstanding the Passover (Heb 10:1-18).

On the day after the first sabbath following Passover, the priest waved the sheaf of the first-fruits before Yahweh and repeated the offerings. 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). With him rose the saints whom he brought up from Hades, the assembly of the firstborn in heaven (Matt 27:52f, Eph 4:8, Heb 12:23). These were the first-fruits of the spiritual harvest, anticipated by the week-long Feast of First-Fruits that was held seven weeks after the waving of the sheaf (Jas 1:18, I Pet 3:19, cf. Jer 2:3). Finally, on the first day of the seventh month, trumpets were blown, on the tenth they again made atonement, and on the fifteenth they 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, make booths (sukkot) from them and rejoice. The week-long festival was therefore also called the Feast of Booths or Tents (Lev 23:34).

The Day of Atonement was the one day in the year when the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, he alone. After expiating his own guilt with blood of a bull, the priest took two goats. The one goat he slaughtered, sprinkling its blood both on the mercy seat inside the curtain and on the incense altar outside the curtain. It prefigured, unknown to them, the day when the Messiah would shed his own blood and enter the tabernacle ‘not of this creation’ to mediate a new covenant for Israel (Heb 9:11ff). The people were to humble themselves, because the blood was an atonement for their souls (Lev 16:29, 17:11).The other goat he did not kill. Instead, he confessed the people’s sins and all their transgressions and laid them on the goat’s head, then sent it into the wilderness. Again unknown to them, the goat enacted how God would drive Israel out of the land, for rejecting their Messiah.

Moses was alone when he received the Law at the top of Mount Sinai. After writing it down, he read the Law to the people, who remained below. In a ritual solemnised by blood they bound themselves to it. Then he went up again to receive the stone tablets on which God had inscribed the ten commandments of the Law. He remained there for more than five weeks. So the people became impatient and made a golden calf, sacrificed to it and worshipped it as their deliverer. When Moses saw them dancing before the calf, he became furious and smashed the tablets. The idol was prophetic, for five centuries later Jeroboam persuaded the northern tribes to split from the house of David, and in place of the temple in Jerusalem he set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel (I Ki 12:25ff). The sanctuary platform at Dan can still be seen. Moses’ wrath prefigured God’s wrath. But Moses also said, “Perhaps I can atone for their sin.” So God made a second set of tablets, prefiguring the re-acceptance of Israel under a new covenant, when he would write the law on their hearts (Deut 10:1-16, 30:6, Jer 31:31-37). In token of that new beginning, they entered the land by crossing a river – a river of life, not a sea of death. They were baptised into Joshua, not Moses (I Cor 10:2), in the same river as the disciples of Jesus would be baptised in. Indeed, the disciples were baptised at the same location where Joshua led the nation across, at present-day Al Maghtas, opposite Jericho. ‘Jesus’ and ‘Joshua’ are the same word in Greek.

The nation was to observe the rites at one central place (Deut 12:1-27). In David’s reign, the Tabernacle was brought to Jerusalem and that city became the place of worship. However, when the northern tribes seceded from Judah, just decades after the Temple was built, they abandoned the Law. So did the southern tribes. Just like the Canaanites, they built altars and pillars of Baal on every high hill and wooden Asherahs under every green tree, and sacrificed to them (I Ki 14:22-24). The Temple itself was closed for a time. Only after a long period of abeyance did Hezekiah (727-c.686 BC) restore centralised worship. Meanwhile the book of Deuteronomy, which set out the renewed covenant, was completely forgotten, and only resurfaced when another king ordered the Temple to be repaired, decades before the Exile (II Chr 34:14f). The one festival that probably was kept throughout, albeit without the sacrifices (Num 29:12-39), was the Feast of Ingathering. Even then, its deeper significance, reminding the Israelites that they were made to live in the wilderness before they came into their inheritance, did not register until their return from exile (Neh 8:17). The requirement to read out the Law every sabbath year during the Feast was also not observed: it languished in the book that had gone missing (Deut 31:10-13).

This feast too had prophetic significance, for a time would come when the Jews would again find themselves 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 witnesses were to instruct the Jews about their Messiah before his arrival, and after the Gentiles had been gathered in (Rom 11:25). He himself would then lead them into the land and bring them into the bond of the covenant (Ezek 20:37). He would thresh and glean them one by one (Isa 27:12).

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, including the many who lose their lives 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 his wrath 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.

 Feast Israel Gentiles
 First-fruits Christ and his train 144,000
 Main harvest (1st resurrection) Those who respond to the gospel Those who respond to the gospel
 End of harvest (2nd resurrection) The rest of Israel Nations in the millennium

And I saw another angel flying overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those seated on the earth and on 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.”
‘Another’ suggests that the eagle of 8:13 was in fact an angel; conversely, ‘flying’ here suggests an eagle (nowhere else in the Bible are angels portrayed with wings). Both images are non-literal. ‘Seated … on every nation …’ refers to the inhabitants of Babylon the Great, as in verse 8 and 17:15. The gospel proclaimed to them is eternal inasmuch as it was in view even before the foundation of the world, and although revealed at the end of the ages it had effect back to the beginning (Gen 3:15, 4:4, Acts 17:30, I Pet 3:19). Since the gospel announces the coming of the king, it expires once the kingdom arrives. Whatever the apostate Church may say, 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 the judge of our souls, and the Creator (Ps 33:8f):
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all inhabitants of the world be 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. What the angel proclaims is itself, in summary, 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 will not be 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, so as to leave 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 alongside 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, terrestrial plants still later – 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 and of the witness of God in creation, 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 champion a God-given understanding of reality, 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, neither 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; instead, 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. Pornos is the corresponding male (I Cor 5:9, 6:9). 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. 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 prophetic finger that interrupted Belshazzar’s feast as he drank with his lords, wives and concubines and praised Babylon’s gods. Its days are numbered and about to end. That is now part of the gospel’s message.

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 himself will drink from the wine of the fury 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 for ever and ever. 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 demons 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.

The phrase ‘the smoke of their torment goes up for ever’ 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 for ever.

The phrase is repeated in 19:3, where the smoke is that of ruined, tormented Babylon the Great (18:10). But here the focus is 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, not humility. Then he will be ashamed of whoever is ashamed of him and his words (Luke 9:26). We are approaching that same crucial moment. ‘Have no rest, day or night’ ironically echoes the phrase 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 may 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. Here the saints are defined as those who hold and live up to the faith of Jesus. John reminds Christians that they too must be steadfast, for life will be hard. Jesus does not nullify God’s commandments (Matt 5:19f, Rev 12:17), but gives us desire and power to obey them. He has exemplified the faith to which he calls us (Heb 12:2f, Rev 2:13).

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 means to pronounce God’s favour on a person, the opposite of curse or blaspheme, and to ‘be blessed’ means to enjoy his 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 (eulogia in 5:12, 5:13 and 7:12).

The 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, “Send forth your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is dried up.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
The description ‘like a son of man’ identifies the reaper as Christ (1:13). 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 harvests, in which one angel bearing the authority of God instructs another, also suggests he is an angel. In total the chapter mentions seven angels.

The first-fruits – the 144,000 who prophesied about the wrath and the kingdom – are already in. Now comes the main harvest. In the parable about the wheat and the darnel, the good seed is the sons of the kingdom and the darnel the sons of the evil one. They are harvested together at the conclusion of the age (Matt 13:36-43, Luke 3:17). However, the sons of the kingdom are also already in, having been harvested at the seventh trumpet, and wheat is not specifically mentioned, so, despite the presumption that a reaper would go out to harvest something valuable, the crop must be the unrepentant. Accordingly, the hour to reap is the ‘hour of judgement’ (v. 7). ‘Dried up’ (describing the Euphrates in Rev 16:12) is the same word as in the preceding parable, which relates how some seed was scorched and ‘withered’; it means ready for burning, not ‘ripe’. ‘Earth’ contrasts with those who sojourn in heaven.

And another angel came out from the temple in heaven, he too holding a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, having authority over the fire, and he called in a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Send forth your sharp sickle and harvest the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and harvested the vine 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’ that culminates the period of wrath (6:17, 16:14). The metaphor is of a single vine, as in ‘the vine of Sodom’ (Deut 32:32). The tree bears bad fruit, in contrast to those who abide in the true vine, Jesus Christ. Again, ‘earth’ here means the earthly as opposed to the heavenly. The angel with authority over the fire is the one who cast fire on the planet at the beginning of the trumpet series (8:5). However, the slaughter is not global but concentrated ‘outside the city’.
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’ and must refer to a valley close to Jerusalem.
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.
Send forth 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 it brings forth,
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 differs from that of the old. God comes to to redeem Israel, 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 Jezreel valley. It is vengeance against all the nations that rejoiced at Israel’s ruination and hoped to possess the land for themselves (Ezek 36:5). Bozrah was the ancient capital of Edom, its location still evident from the name of the village next to its ruins, Basira in southern Jordan (not to be confused with Bosra in southern Syria). It lay on the Kings’ Highway 40 miles north of Mount Seir. As the crow flies, 1600 stadia is the distance from Mount Seir to Megiddo (Rev 16:16). It is possible to imagine armies stationed at intervals between these points. If the measurement is hyperbolic, the meaning remains that the land will be drenched in blood (Isa 34:7).