When the last two angels appear in Revelation 14, they begin a final judgment on the earth. Is this the battle of Armageddon, the final judgment before God establishes his kingdom?
Although there are a number of ways to understand the structure of Revelation, this is the final scene in a cycle of visions (Revelation 12-14). This conclusion foreshadows the final battle in in the book. In Revelation 16:16, all the nations of the world will gather at har-meggido, the mountain of Megiddo, or Armageddon. There are also similarities to the gore in the final battle described in 19:17-21.
The image of the great winepress of the wrath of God is drawn from Isaiah 63:1-6. In this disturbing passage, the Lord is clothed in a white robe stained with the blood of his enemies. When asked why his robes are stained, the Lord responds, “I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments and stained all my apparel.” In 63:6 the Lord says, “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
This is a disturbing, violent image of God. But the metaphor of Israel as a grapevine is common in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, Israel is a vineyard planted and cultivated by the Lord, but it only yielded wild grapes; so the Lord destroys it (anticipating the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the exile). In Joel 1:7 the Lord lays to waste his vine; in Lamentations 1:15 the virgin daughter of Judah is “trodden as in a winepress.”
There are a number of passages in the Old Testament describing God as a divine warrior, sometimes riding the storm and clouds like a chariot. For example, Psalm 18:7-15 describe the earth reeling at the appearance of the Lord riding on a cherub with the wings of the wind. In Psalm 104:1-4 God “makes the clouds his chariot” and he “rides on the wings of the wind.” Tremper Longman suggests Revelation uses this divine warrior motif to describe the Lamb’s eschatological victory. This is not surprising, Longman says, because “the Divine Warrior is the one to whom the apocalyptists looked forward with hope that he would intervene in history to judge their enemies, save them and establish himself as king” (300).
The winepress is “outside the city.” What city is this, Babylon or Jerusalem? For some interpreters, this must be Jerusalem since Revelation is about the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. But “outside the city” is simply where a vineyard and winepress would be located. Some commentators suggest an allusion to Jesus’s crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem.
The angel harvests the grapes and gathers them into the winepress of God’s wrath where they are trampled. The blood flowed “as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia,” or about 184 miles, the distance from Dan to Beersheba (a common measure of the promised land in the Old Testament). Is this chest-deep blood intended to be a literal river or gore, or is this hyperbole?
Most commentaries consider this as hyperbole. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Revelation, NCC, 230) pointed out the number is a square of 40, which he states is the “number of judgment” (citing Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, although there are other examples of forty which are not related to judgment). Similarly, Robert Mounce sees this as a square of four (hinting at the four corners of the earth), and is therefore a symbol of the whole world (Mounce, Revelation, 283).
There are a few who see this as a literal river of blood. Robert Thomas points out that the valley of Megiddo drains into the Jordan River system, so a massive slaughter there would result in a river of blood (Thomas, Revelation, 2:224). Fanning states this should not be taken in any way as a literal five- or six-feet-deep river of blood, but rather “the cataclysmic defeat and destruction of all enemies arrayed against [Christ] in that day will unimaginably vast” (Fanning, 400).
The image of hyperbolic amounts of blood and gore is not uncommon in apocalyptic literature. For example, in the third Sibylline Oracle, “the plain will sweep to the sea with the blood of perishing men” (3.453-454). “Rocks will flow with blood and every torrent will fill the plain” (3.684-685) and “all the impious will bathe in blood. The earth itself will also drink of the blood of the dying; wild beasts will be sated with flesh” (3.695-697). Similar to the Great Supper of God in Revelation 19:17-18, the fifth Sibylline Oracle says “Wild beasts will devour the table from all dwellings. Even birds will devour all mortals. The bloody ocean will be filled with flesh and blood of the senseless, from evil war” (5.470-473). Other examples of exaggerated gore in an apocalyptic context:
1 Enoch 100.3–4 The horse shall walk through the blood of sinners up to his chest; and the chariot shall sink down up to its top. 4 In those days, the angels shall descend into the secret places. They shall gather together into one place all those who gave aid to sin.
Sibylline Oracle 3.319-323 Woe to you, land of Gog and Magog, situated in the midst of Ethiopian rivers. How great an effusion of blood you will receive and you will be called a habitation of judgment among men and your dewy earth will drink black blood.
Even Josephus exaggerated the blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem when Rome captured in the city in A.D. 70:
Josephus, Jewish War 6.406–407 Yet, while they pitied those who had thus perished, they had no similar feelings for the living, but, running everyone through who fell in their way,  they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, insomuch that many of the fires were extinguished by the gory stream. (LCL)
Although this section of 4 Ezra (sometimes called 6 Ezra) may be influenced by Christian writings, a similar image of horses wading through blood is used:
4 Ezra 15.35–37 They shall clash against one another and shall pour out a heavy tempest on the earth, and their own tempest; and there shall be blood from the sword as high as a horse’s belly 36 and a man’s thigh and a camel’s hock. 37 And there shall be fear and great trembling on the earth; those who see that wrath shall be horror-stricken, and they shall be seized with trembling (NRSV).
The image of treading a winepress lends to the description of rivers of blood, since the crushing of extremely ripe grapes may very well look like a river of dark blood. The picture is not so much of blood flowing than the quantity and quality of the enemies of God that are under his judgment at the return of the Messiah. The enemies of God are described as very ripe grapes, and there are so many of them that by treading them the land is filled with their juice.
Standing in the background of the gore-tradition is Ezekiel 39:17-21. The passage describes the invasion of Israel by Gog and Magog and the account of the bloody gore is similar to this passage and Revelation 19:17-18. John also alludes to Ezekiel in Revelation 20:8, another epic final battle.
Bibliography: Tremper Longman III, “The Divine Warrior: The New Testament Use of an Old Testament Motif” WTJ 44 (1982): 290-307.