Revelation 19. The Bride prepares for her marriage. The Bridegroom prepares by slaughtering his enemies with his sword, their flesh a banquet for vultures. Jerusalem is delivered.
The throng or crowd (ochlos) is not identified, and John only hears them, but their words evoke the great throng that were emerging from the great tribulation. The salvation that they ascribed to God and the Lamb is now manifest in the smoke of Babylon’s burning. The reason for the judgement is twofold: the great city corrupted the earth’s inhabitants through her promiscuity, and she brought about the deaths of God’s apostles and prophets. The verb phtherω, corrupt, has a less comprehensive sense than diaphtherω (11:18). ‘From [or by, ek] her hand’ appears to govern ‘blood’ rather than ‘avenge’, with ‘shed’ or ‘dripping’ omitted (cf. 15:2). The smoke from her ruination goes up like that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:28), examples of ‘eternal fire’, irreversible destruction (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 perceive that it is just. It troubled Abraham, who only a few years earlier had rescued the citizens of Sodom from their enemies. “Will you sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that 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 righteous in it, and went out of his way to rescue Abraham’s nephew and his family before the fire came down.
‘Alleluyah’ occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is straight Hebrew, and as such echoes the psalms’ exhortations for all to praise Yah (the older name of Yahweh) – all Israel, all the nations, even all creation. The psalms climax with the cry. But the circumstances are different. The rejoicing is a response to the previous exhortation that all the inhabitants of heaven should rejoice (18:20), and rounds off the revelation of the seven last plagues that began with the similar song at 15:3f. As before, fear of God is commended (Ps 115:11-13). Those who praise him, however, do not fear.
The throng is the numberless multitude at 7:9 plus the 144,000 whose sound was compared to the sound of many waters and loud thunder at 14:2: all the saved, the bride herself. As at 11:17, ‘has reigned’ means ‘has become king’, beginning from the last trumpet. ‘Rejoice’ is frequently combined with ‘exult/be glad’ (e.g. Ps 68:3, Isa 61:10, Matt 5:12).
‘Wife’ is gune, woman. In conjunction with a possessive, it means ‘wife’, just as aner, man, with the possessive means ‘husband’. ‘Bride’ would be numphe. Hebrew thinks in the same way: wife and husband each belong to the other. So the bride belongs to the Lamb and the Lamb to the bride. Fine linen (one word in Greek) is especially the dress of kings, high priests and angels. On her it represents righteous acts, the ‘fruit of righteousness’ that faith produces (Heb 12:11) rather than imputed righteousness (I Cor 1:30). Though it is granted to her, she puts on the linen herself (cf. Isa 61:10), proof that she has ‘put on the new man [anthrωpos] created after the likeness of God’ (Eph 4:24). In 15:4 “righteous acts” refers to what God himself has done: this is the extent to which the woman is exalted! By contrast, the fine linen of Babylon the Great (18:16) betokens a spurious morality.
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. In the end – at the point when ‘everything is ready’ – few even among the Gentiles accept. Most consider the affairs of their daily lives more important and make their excuses (Luke 14:18-20). Some persecute, even kill, the king’s messengers. In his wrath, God destroys their city by fire. Instead – and this is after the city is burned – the poor, crippled, blind and lame come into the kingdom, those whom the gospel of grace did not reach and who had nothing in this life. ‘The hope of the poor will not perish forever’ (Ps 9:18, 113:7f, Isa 29:19). ‘The hungry he filled with good things, the rich he sent away empty.’
There were several stages to a Jewish marriage in ancient times. A man who wished to marry went to the woman’s father, agreed agreed a 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 gave his bride gifts. From that point they were betrothed and legally married and any dissolution of the relationship required a divorce (Matt 1:19). The groom then 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 happened at night, so that both she and her bridesmaid friends needed to have lamps trimmed and filled with oil. On the man’s return with his bride, the couple consummated the marriage, celebrated for seven days and concluded with a feast.
It is indeed a great mystery. God created Adam on the third day, before vegetation (Gen 2:5) and before the animals. On the same day he planted a garden – a paradeisos – and after putting the man there, he caused to spring up every tree that was 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 sixth day God brought to him every bird and animal of the field so that he could name them and thereby confirm his dominion over them. Feeling incomplete, Adam saw that none was a suitable counterpart. So God put him to sleep. Out of his side he fashioned woman, and brought her to him. Adam was the first human son of God. His awaking prefigured Christ’s resurrection from the tomb in the garden, and the creation of Eve the birth of the Church. The wound in Christ’s side was like the cut that God made in Adam’s side. We eat his flesh and drink his blood as a sign that we are part of him. In due time the Father will present the woman, pure and spotless, to his son, who loved her as his own flesh – for so she was – and the two will become one.
Kings in the Ancient Near East planted gardens next to their palaces in imitation of the tree garden planted in Eden. In Persia the enclosure was called a pairi-daeza. The biblical texts mention several, including the garden enjoyed by the king of Judah (II Ki 21:18, 25:4). Reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh, on the Tigris, depict waterways running through the orchard, and inscriptions have him boasting of animals collected from across the empire and kept in his grounds. With conscious reference to the primeval tradition of all mankind, the enclosure symbolised Eden in the midst of uncultured wilderness; the king was the man entrusted by God to look after the garden (Widengren 1951), 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 and musicians played on their harps and tambourines. On one relief the decapitated head of the king of Elam hangs from a tree. Attendants offer loaves of bread.
The feast that the Lamb lays on for his bride is not only a marriage feast, but a celebration of victory over his enemies. The bread and wine of the eucharist – originally a full meal – give a foretaste of that banquet (Luke 22:16-18), following the wheat harvest on the one hand and the grape harvest on the other. After Abraham’s defeat of the kings of the East, Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the Most High, brought out to him bread and wine, blessed him, and blessed God. ‘You have laid before me a table in the sight of my enemies,’ said David. ‘My cup overflows.’
The ‘he’ in ‘he says to me’ – deliberately unspecified – is the angel who has been John’s guide from the beginning, up to now neither seen nor heard. Seeing him at last, John prostrates himself, but the angel objects, for he serves alongside God’s human servants. Only one angel has ever been worthy of worship, namely the angel whom Joshua saw. Like “the faith of Jesus” (14:12), “the testimony of Jesus” refers to both our testimony about him and that which he himself bore about the kingdom and the Father (John 5:31–37). Either way, to bear that testimony is to be a prophet, for the gospel is a prophetic message.
Unlike the man on a white horse in chapter 6, the rider is a named individual. But the picture is similarly militaristic, and contrasts with the same rider’s entry into Jerusalem two thousand years ago. He is the commander of the army of Yahweh (Matt 25:31), going forth to rescue as in the day when Israel was pursued by the chariots of Egypt (Ex 15:1-18). He is called the Word of God, faithful and true, because it was he who inspired Scripture, who spoke through the prophets, and appeared as the Word visions (e.g. Gen 15:1, I Sam 3:21). The Lion of Judah has been roused (Isa 31:4).
The words from Psalm 2 have been quoted twice before (2:27, 12:5). The kings of the earth take their positions against the Lord God and his anointed, but he looks down and laughs. The time of salvation for the nations has passed, and his name is no longer Yeshua (‘salvation’, or ‘Yah saves’); he cannot now be personally known and his name called upon, though his own will know it (3:12). The weapon in his mouth is the power to strike and kill (Num 22:31, Isa 27:1, 30:27, Rev 2:23). “I kill and I make alive, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39). His garment is dipped in blood from treading the winepress already described, and about to be described again.
In reverse order, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ reiterates the Lamb’s title at 17:14. It is written on the part of the body where the sword was strapped (Ps 45:3). The first man known to have called himself King of kings was Tikulti-Ninurta I, who reigned over Mesopotamia in the late 2nd millennium BC. The statement was factual enough, 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), 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 this designation of Tiglath-pileser I, king of Assyria at the beginning of the 1st millennium: ‘Tiglath-pileser, strong king, unrivalled king of the universe, king of the four quarters [of the earth], king of all princes, lord of lords, chief herdsman [or shepherd], king of kings.’ The titles could be applied to gods as well as kings, because gods ruled as kings. In I Timothy the double title is applied to God, ‘whom no man has seen or can see.’
The people who settled Mesopotamia in prehistoric times found a lush, well-watered land that seemed like the Eden of their traditions. They named its major rivers after the original Tigris and Euphrates, and the upper part of Mesopotamia after the original Assyria (Gen 2:14). Kingship, they said, had come down to them from heaven, enabling God to rule by proxy. Over time the number of cities grew, each of which had its own god, and each god was assigned a distinctive function in the cosmos and a place in the growing genealogy of gods; but the king of Babylon’s ultimate destiny, as a kind of second Adam, was to subdue and unite the whole earth. Passing orally from one generation to the next, the tradition about the first world underpinned the new ideology. But it was distorted. In truth, Mesopotamia was not the promised land. Babylon with its artificial mountain was not the city of God. The legitimate King of kings was yet to come.
An angel stands in front of the sun so that the sky is dark (as at 16:10, the same point in time). Like ‘all the nations of the earth’ in Zechariah 12, everyone ‘small and great’ refers to everyone in the nations surrounding Israel. They have laid waste to Israel’s cities and exiled their inhabitants; they have captured the city of the Great King and sent half its inhabitants into exile, enslaved them, killed them. The Devil has assured them of his power by signs and wonders. They are therefore confident that they can defeat the King when he comes.
The sacrifice an act of ritual annihilation (Isa 34:2), as of people pronounced to be anathema (Deut 7:2). It will take place on the mountains of Israel (Ezek 39:17).
Their head is the beast, the offspring of Satan. The offspring of the woman will smash their forces like a potter’s vessel.
God will strike Jerusalem’s assailants with a plague, so that their flesh rots and they panic and fight each other (Zech 14:12f, Hag 2:22). Then all the nations will see his glory (Ps 97:6).
The Euphrates will dry up when the sixth bowl of God’s wrath is poured on the river; the Nile likewise (Isa 19:5-7, Zech 10:10f). His liberated people will cross its parched bed in the same manner as their forbears crossed the Red Sea when a strong wind cleared a path for them.
With these words the book of Isaiah ends.