The marriage feast and the banquet of God

Revelation 19. The Bride of Christ prepares for her marriage. The Bridegroom slays his enemies with his sword, their flesh 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! 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 went forth a voice, saying, “Praise our God, all his servants and all who fear him, the small and the great.”

The multitude is not identified, but their cry is an elaboration of the cry of the ‘great multitude’ who emerge from the great tribulation. ‘Corrupt’ is the verb phtherein, having 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 from her ruination goes up like that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:28), examples of ‘eternal fire’ (Jude 7), irreversible destruction.

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, 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 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 New Testament. It is straight Hebrew, and as such evokes 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 exhortation in 18:20, and as a reprise of the song at 15:3f it rounds off the revelation of the seven last plagues. The cry is directed to those safe in heaven. As at 11:18 and 14:7, fear of God is commended (Ps 115:11-13), and of course those who praise him do not 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 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.

The great multitude is the 144,000 whose sound was compared with that of many waters and loud thunder at 14:2, the numberless multitude at 7:9 and the multitude harvested at the seventh trumpet; everyone. As at 11:17, ‘has reigned’ means ‘has become king’, beginning from the last trumpet. The emphatic combination of ‘rejoice’ and ‘exult’ is common in the Bible (e.g. Ps 68:3, Isa 61:10, Matt 5:12).

‘Wife’ is gune, literally ‘woman’. In conjunction with a possessive, it means ‘wife’, just as aner, ‘man’, can also mean ‘husband’; ‘bride’ would be numphe. Hebrew thinks in the same way: in marriage each party belongs to the other. So the bride belongs to the Lamb, and the Lamb to the bride. She is dressed in the same apparel as the angels bearing the bowls of wrath. The linen represents the ‘fruit of righteousness’ that faith produces (Heb 12:11), not righteousness that is unilaterally imputed (Rom 4:3, I Cor 1:30). Though it is granted to her, she puts the linen on herself (cf. Isa 52:1, 61:10), the fruit of having ‘put on the new man [anthropos, meaning human being] created after the likeness of God’ (Eph 4:24). ‘Acts’ is implicit rather than explicit in the word dikaiωmata, the plural (a Hebraism, e.g. Ezek 33:13) converting the abstract idea of righteousness into specific instances of it. 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, the saints, one body, will be married to the Lamb, whom John the Baptist announced to the world as the bridegroom, he being the bridegroom’s friend (John 3:29). The metaphor is enlarged on in the parable about the ten maidens, and in another about the wedding 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 took no notice 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 led 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 evil 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. 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 note this is after the city is burned – the poor, crippled, blind and lame inherit 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). ‘The hungry he has filled with good things, but the rich he has sent away empty.’ ‘The poor among mankind shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.’

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 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 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.

So Christ has taken his betrothed and in heaven the marriage is celebrated, at the feast he looked forward to when he said to his disciples, “I will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until that 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 by the bathing of water, verbally, so that he might present her to himself glorious, without stain or wrinkle or anything such, but that she might be holy and blameless. Thus should husbands 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, from his flesh and from his bones. “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 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 were suitable to be 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 prefigured Christ’s resurrection from the tomb in the garden, and the creation of Eve prefigured the birth of the Church. 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 blood 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 the two will become 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 the king brought her into his chambers, her heart was 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 figure is like a palm tree
and your breasts 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. He is still in his own garden. She waits for him with longing.

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 a pairi-daeza, a walled enclosure. The biblical texts mention several, including the garden enjoyed by 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 waterways running through the orchards reminiscent of the river in Eden, and inscriptions have him boasting of animals collected from across the empire, many of which were placed in the gardens. The enclosure Ashurbanipal in his royal garden (British Museum)symbolised Eden 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, musicians playing on their harps and tambourines, the decapitated head of the enemy king of Elam hanging from the trees. A similar scene is shown on an ivory from Megiddo dating to the reign of Solomon.

Thus 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 – are a foretaste of that banquet, an outcome of 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.’

John is moved to worship his interlocutor because he speaks the words of God. The angel remonstrates – he is not the angel of the Lord (Jos 5:14). He is a mere servant, like the human beings who testify about Jesus; angels have more power, but they have the same status. ‘The testimony of Jesus’, like ‘the faith of Jesus’ (14:12), is purposely ambivalent, for it also refers to the testimony he himself bore, about the kingdom, about himself and about the Father (John 3:11, 5:31-36, 8:14-18). Either way, the testimony is the same. To bear that testimony is to be a prophet, for the gospel is a prophetic message. That message is, in part, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him only shall you serve” (Matt 4:11, Rev 14:7). To serve God, even as Jesus served, is normal, and there is no greater honour. Would that all of the Lord’s people were his prophets!

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and the rider on it is 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 in chapter 6, the rider here is an individual. However, the picture is similarly militaristic and contrasts with the same rider’s entry into Jerusalem two thousand years ago on a donkey. He is ‘faithful and true’ (Rev 3:14), and he is called the Word of God because it is he who inspired Scripture, spoke through the prophets and appeared as the Word of Yahweh in visions (e.g. Gen 15:1, I Sam 3:21). Because the time of salvation has passed his name is no longer ‘Yeshua’ (Yah saves); he cannot now be personally known and his name called upon. He commands the armies of angels (Jos 5:14, Dan 10:13, Matt 25:31) that involve themselves in human struggle behind the scenes (II Ki 6:17, Rev 12:7). The weapon in his mouth is the power to strike and kill (Num 22:31, Isa 27:1, 30:27, 34:5f, Rev 2:23). “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 emphasises that the only-begotten son of God will one day rule the nations in person, with a firm hand. His garment is dipped in blood because of the treading of the winepress, already described and about to be described again (v. 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 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, 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 this 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 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’ (6:16). Moses calls him God of gods and Lord of lords (Deut 10:17) because he created heaven and earth.

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 they named after the original Assyria. Kingship, they said, had come down to earth from heaven, enabling God to rule by proxy. The king was his human son and image – a kind of second Adam. Over time the number of cities grew, each with their own god, who was assigned his or her own function in the cosmos and a place in the growing genealogy of gods; but the king of Babylon’s ultimate destiny 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.

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 everyone, 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 had performed in its presence 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 his son’s marriage. In the prophecy to which this vision alludes Ezekiel alludes 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. Much as in the Ashurbanipal relief, ‘Every stroke of the appointed staff that Yahweh lays on them will be to harps and tambourines’ (Isa 30:32).
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. (Isa 34:6f)

The staff is Christ himself (Ps 110:2), and the sacrifice is an act of ritual annihilation (Isa 34:2), as of a person pronounced to be anathema (Deut 7:2). It takes place on the mountains of Israel (Ezek 39:17).

This is the final day of vengeance (Isa 34:8, 61:2, 63:4) which Moses foretold 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 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 crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgement among the nations,
he will fill [their territory] with corpses,
he will crush their head on the great earth. (Ps 110:5f)

Their head is the beast, the offspring of Satan; this is when the offspring of the woman brings the hostility to an end. He will smash their forces like a potter’s vessel.

‘Everyone small and great’, like ‘all the nations of the earth’ in Zechariah 12, is the nations that surround Israel, rather than the ‘whole world’ in the strictest sense. They have allied themselves with the Devil; 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 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 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).

He will lead the Jews exiled in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere back to the land of their inheritance (Isa 11:11, 27:13). They will 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):
And they will swoop on the shoulder of the Philistines in the west. Together they will plunder the sons of the east, Edom and Moab. They will stretch out their hand, and the sons of Ammon will obey them. And Yahweh will annihilate the tongue of the Sea of Egypt, and wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind and strike it into seven channels, and lead 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. (Isa 11:14-16)

The Euphrates will dry up when the sixth bowl of God’s wrath is poured on the river, ‘at the blast of the breath of his nostrils’ (Ps 18:15). His people will cross its parched bed in the same way as their forbears crossed the Red Sea, when a strong wind made a way for them.

The contrast between the marriage feast of the Lamb and the banquet of God is similar to that in the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus personifies those who are left on the margins, who must wait for comfort. He finds himself next to Abraham in the abode of the blessed, not because he heard the gospel but because he had nothing in this life. The anonymous man who feasted every day ends 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. There, 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 corpses 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.