The  Bowls of God’s Wrath – Revelation 16:1-12

In Revelation 16:1 John hears a loud voice coming from the temple commanding the angels to our out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. In rapid succession the angels pour out God’s wrath on the kingdom of the beast. The sixth bowl allows the nations to gather at Armageddon and the seventh bowl announces, “it is done!”

Revelation 16 Bowls of God's Wrath

What is a “bowl of wrath? The word is phiale (φιάλη) and refers to a variety of containers including funeral urns, shallow cups used for drinking or pouring libations, or smaller containers for perfumes and ointments (BrillDAG). The KJV translated the word as “vial”; Middle English spelled the word phial, following the Greek closely. This translation is not wrong, but it is outdated. In modern English the “vial” word refers to something like a test-tube; this Greek word refers to a flat bowl or cup used in a religious ceremony.

David Aune cites Varro De lingua Latina 5.122, “it is this kind of cup that the magistrate uses in sacrificing to the gods, when he gives wine to the god” (2:879). Josephus says there were “two vials full of frankincense” in the Tabernacle (Ant. 3.143). In Testament of Solomon 16:7 the word is used as part of an exorcism ritual, “I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it).”

These bowls are “poured out” (ἐκχέω), a word associated with spilling blood in battle, although it is used for the blood of Jesus in the New Testament. Since the bowls come from the sanctuary the background is likely pouring out a libation on an altar. For example, in Sirach 50:15, the high priest Simon “he held out his hand for the cup  and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all” (NRSV).

In LXX Jeremiah 7:20 and Lamentations 2:4, 4:11 God will pour out his wrath on Jerusalem, in 10:25, 14:16 his wrath is poured out on the nations.

The bowls were first introduced in 15:7, the seven angels come from the sanctuary with golden bowls of the wrath of God.” These are the final judgments specifically target the kingdom of the beast and his followers. Like the seals and trumpets earlier in Revelation, as each angel pours a small shallow bowl, a plague occurs on earth.

The First Bowl: A Painful Sore (16:2). This judgment falls only those who have the mark of the beast and worship his image (Rev 13:4; 13:14-16). The ugly and painful sores are similar to the Egyptian plague in Exodus 9:9-11. These are more than just blemishes, the noun ἕλκος refers to ulcers or abscesses that need to be cut out or amputated (BrillDAG). The word is modified by two words both meaning something like bad or evil. Translations try to capture this in various ways, the ESV has “harmful and painful”; the NIV has “ugly, festering sores”; the NRSV has “a foul and painful sore”; BDAG suggests “a foul and vile sore.”

The Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood (16:3). Similar to the second trumpet or the plague on the Nile (Exodus 7:20-21; Ps 78:44; 105:29), this judgment destroys all of the life in the sea, turning it to “blood as a corpse.” When Judas Maccabees captures Caspin, the slaughter is so great that “the adjoining lake, a quarter of a mile wide, appeared to be running over with blood” (NRSV).

The Third Bowl: Rivers to Blood (16:4-7). Similar to the first plague on Egypt (Exod 7:14-19) and the third trumpet, the third bowl destroys fresh water. In the fourth Sibylline Oracle freshwater turning to blood is included as a sign of war, “the great Euphrates is flooded with blood” (4.61).

After the water is destroyed, the “angel in charge of the waters” praises God for his just judgements. Is there an angel “in charge of waters?” In 1 Enoch 61:10 the writer lists a series of angles, including “the other forces on earth (and) over the water.” On the other hand, the angel may be the one who poured out the third bowl.

The reason given for turning all the waters into blood is the government of the beast has been spilling the blood of the people of God. It is a just judgment that those who have spilled blood will now be given blood to drink.

Sib. Or. 3.311–313 you will be filled with blood, as you yourself formerly poured out the blood of good men and righteous men, whose blood even now cries out to high heaven.

The Fourth Bowl: The Sun Scorches (16:8-9). Unlike the previous bowls, this angel pours out his bowl on the sun. The fourth bowl is the reverse of the fourth trumpet and the ninth plague (Exod 10:21-23), but instead of reducing the power of the sun, the power of the sun is increased, causing the people of the earth to be scorched with an intense heat. The verb (καυματίζω) is usually used for plants scorched by a hot sun (Matt 13:6). Rather than repent, the curse God (βλασφημέω) and refuse to give him glory.

The Fifth Bowl: Darkness on the Beast (16:10-11). While the fourth bowl increase the heat, the sixth plunges the throne of the beast into total darkness. Darkness is a common theme in Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic literature.

Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

Sib. Or. 5.346–350 The imperishable flames of the sun itself will no longer be, nor will the shining light of the moon be anymore in the last time, when God assumes command. Everything will be blackened, there will be darkness throughout the earth, and blind men, evil wild beasts, and woe.

Assumption of Moses 10.5 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces.

In response to this unnatural darkness, people will gnaw their tongues in anguish and continue to curse God. Although it is not exactly the same language, in Matthew 22:13 the man who is expelled from the wedding banquet goes into the “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as are the foolish, unprepared women who are left in the darkness outside the wedding banquet. In the parable of the net, the bad fish are thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt 8:11-12).

The Sixth Bowl: Euphrates Dries Up (16:12). Similar to the sixth trumpet, the river Euphrates is dried up when the sixth bowl is turned. This “prepares the way for kings from the east,” presumably to gather at Armageddon. The Romans were deeply concerned about the Parthians on their eastern border and the Euphrates formed a natural defense (Aune calls an “irrational Roman fear of the Parthians,” 2:891-93). There are several references in the Old Testament to God drying rivers, see Isaiah 50:2 for example. But this drying of the river Euphrates may allude to the Exodus, the Red Sea dried up and allowed Israel to escape Egypt. In any case, it is unimaginable the Euphrates would dry up.

God’s Wrath is Completed – Revelation 15:1-8

In Revelation 15:1 John sees another great and marvelous sign, seven angels with the seven last plagues. They are the last plagues because God’s wrath has been completed. Revelation 15-16 alludes to the book of Exodus to describe God’s final wrath on the kingdom of the beast.

Seven Bowls of God's Wrath

Although God’s wrath is often associated with Israel’s rebellion, the prophets associate God’s wrath to eschatological events. For example, in Zephaniah 1:15 the final judgment will be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, and ruin. On that day the Lord will sweep everything away like chaff (2:2) and make a sudden end to all who live on the earth (1:18).

The wrath of God has been completed or accomplished (aorist passive of τελέω). The wrath of God is mentioned in several key passages in the book.  In Revelation 6:16-17 the great day of the wrath of the Lamb “has come” and in 11:18 God’s wrath came, judged the dead and rewarded God’s servants. Those who have worshiped the beast will drink the wine of God’s wrath (14:10) and the harvest of the earth was described as grapes in the “winepress of God’s fury” (14:19). The seven bowls introduced in 15:17 and describe in chapter 16 are called “bowls full of the wrath of God” and Babylon the Great will drink the wine of God’s wrath (16:19; 19:15).

After seeing the great and wondrous sign, John sees those who have been victorious over the beast worshiping the Lamb (Rev 15:2-4). This worship scene has elements from Revelation 4-5, now familiar scenes of heavenly worship.  John sees worshipers with harps beside a sea of glass mingled with fire.

The worshipers are the ones who are conquered the beast, its image and the number of his name. Although the text does not say they have been killed, that they are worshiping in a heavenly seem implies they have refused to worship the image of the beast or take his number.  Like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11 and the 144,000 in 14:1-5, they have been killed by the beast and are now worshiping the Lamb.

The song they are singing is identified as the “Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.” The Song of Moses is found in Exodus 15:1-18, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:43 and Psalm 90. The problem is the Song of Moses in Revelation 15 has no literary relationship between the song of Moses in the Old Testament.  Perhaps what follows is only the Song of the Lamb and the reader is assumed to know what the song of Moses is.

The context of the original song is important: God rescued his people out of Egypt, he overcame the Egyptians and their gods. There are obvious connections between the following judgments and plagues in Exodus. God is working again to preserve his people by sending plagues on their enemies.

The seven angels are given “bowls filled with the wrath of God” (Rev 15:5-8). The angels come out of the open “the sanctuary of the tent.” This is another allusion to Exodus. The tent of meeting was the place where Moses spoke face to face with the Lord. Temples with open doors were considered a “bad sign” in the ancient world.  David Aune lists several sources indicating a temple door opening by itself was a sign of God’s wrath (2:878). Like angels in Daniel, these angels are dressed in white with a gold sash.

When the four living creatures given these angels the bowls of God’s wrath, the whole sanctuary is filled with the smoke of the glory of God (15:8). This is another allusion to Exodus: when the ark was installed in the Tabernacle the tent was filled with a cloud, representing the glory of God (Exodus 40:34-35).

What is the Winepress of God’s Wrath? Revelation 14:17-20

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?

Blood flowing from the great winepress of God's wrath, no.55 from 'The Apocalypse of Angers', 1373-87 (tapestry)

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 for God. But the metaphor of Israel as a grape vine 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 the 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 the valley of Megiddo drains into the Jordan 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, [407] 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 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 at 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.

What is the Harvest of the Earth in Revelation 14:15?

Revelation 14 concludes with a son of man reaping a harvest from the earth. But there is a second angel who reaps a harvest of grapes and treads the grapes in the “great winepress of God’s wrath.” Is this a single judgment, or are there two harvests in view? Is this “harvest of the earth” in Revelation 14 for salvation or judgment?

Harvest of the Earth

The combination of the image of a harvest and a sickle seems to indicate this is a harvest to judgment and the extreme gore of verses 19-20 describe an epic final judgment of all the earth. However, some commentators think there are two harvests in 14:14-20. The first (verses 14-15) is a wheat harvest and includes all people, while the second is a grape harvest (verse 16-20) only falls on the unrighteous. The first harvest is for the elect and the second for the non-elect to damnation.

In the Gospels, since the crowds following him as a plentiful harvest, Jesus tells his disciples to “pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers” (Matt 9:37/Luke 10:2). In the next paragraph Jesus selects the twelve disciples, gives them authority to heal and cast out demons, and then sends them out to announce the Kingdom of God to the Jewish people in Galilee. The disciples are the workers in the harvest. But there is an eschatological edge to some of Jesus’s harvest sayings. The arable of the Wheat and Weeds, for example, looks forward to the separation of the wheat and the weeds at the harvest time (Matt 13:24-30). In Mark 4:29 he says “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Grain harvests can be used to describe either a gathering to salvation or a gathering to judgment. Isaiah 27:12-13 the Lord will “thresh out the grain” and Israel will be gleaned so that they can return to Jerusalem and worship God. But in Isaiah 17:4 it is Jacob that is judged at the harvest of olives. In Jeremiah 51:33 Babylon on the threshing floor and the “the time of her harvest will come.” Joel 3:13 is likely the text John alludes to in Revelation 14 since it combines a grain and grape harvest: “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.”

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word “scroll” (מְגִלָּה) as “sickle” (δρέπανον), the same word used here in Revelation 14. Zechariah sees “a flying sickle, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide” (LES2). This death sickle will go out over the face of the land to punish every thief and everyone who swears falsely. Both 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra describe an eschatological harvest as a judgment on the wicked:

2 Baruch 70.2 Behold, the days are coming and it will happen when the time of the world has ripened and the harvest of the seed of the evil ones and the good ones has come that the Mighty One will cause to come over the earth and its inhabitants and its rulers confusion of the spirit and amazement of the heart.

4 Ezra 4.30–32 For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now, and will produce until the time of threshing comes! 31 Consider now for yourself how much fruit of ungodliness a grain of evil seed has produced. 32 When heads of grain without number are sown, how great a threshing floor they will fill!”

4 Ezra uses the image of a harvest for vindication of the righteous as well, in 4:35 the righteous as “when will come the harvest of our reward?”

It is possible to approach the two judgments as similar following same pattern: Another angel comes out from the temple or altar in heaven; a command by a heavenly voice (God’s voice) to proceed with the harvest. In each there is a sharp sickle; in each the harvest is ripe. There are two difference in the ripeness, the grain has dried up (aorist passive from ξηραίνω) but the grapes are at their peak (ἀκμάζω, “the best time of life,” BDAG).

If the passage is patterned on Joel 3:13, then only one judgment is in mind, although it is possible John expanded Joel’s single judgment into two. This may be an example of repetition to emphasize the severity of the judgment.

Who is the Son of Man in Revelation 14:14?

This final section of Revelation 14 draws on several Old Testament themes to describe what appears to be the great final judgment. John sees someone “like a son of man” sitting on a cloud with a sickle in his hand. Who is this person who was “like a son of man?” Revelation 14 has a series of angels and “another angel” comes out of the temple in 14:15. Is this “son of man” another angel, or does Revelation 14:14 refer to the Messiah?

Revelation 14:14-16 draws on Daniel 7, but there are some differences. In Daniel 7:13, the son of man is sitting on the cloud, although Aune speculates John could be influenced by Psalm 110:1 as well (Aune, 2:840). In the Gospels, Jesus frequently refers to himself as the Son of Man and alludes to Daniel 7:13 in his eschatological discourse (Matt 24:30) and during his trial (Matt 26:64). In either case, the cloud refers to God’s glory rather than a form of transportation. This “son of man” appears with the authority of God himself, whether he is the messiah or an angel.

In favor of this being the messiah: The fact this “son of man” is sitting on a cloud implies John has Jesus is in mind. In Revelation 1:7 the author says Jesus is coming back in the clouds. There is a difference, however. In Revelation 1:7 clouds are plural, here in Revelation 14:14 it is a singular cloud. Daniel 7:13 is clearly messianic. If Revelation 14 is alluding to Daniel, then John intends the reader to pick up on the rest of Daniel 7. In both cases the “son of man” is sitting in judgment over Israel’s enemies.

There may be a structural hint that highlights this “son of man” as different from the other angles in Revelation 14. There are seven persons in Revelation 14: three angels, the “son of man,” and then three more angels. If this observation is valid, then the section is centered around the appearance of the “son of man” on a cloud to render justice.

In favor of this being an angel: In Revelation 14: 17 another angel appears, implying the “son of man” another angel in the fourth of seven in Revelation 14. John usually refers to the messiah as the Lamb in Revelation. The verse also says this is “something like a son of man,” a way of saying “human like.” Since Revelation 14:17-20 seems to allude to the gory battle found in Ezekiel 38-39, perhaps John is influenced by Ezekiel’s “son of man,” which means “human.” Beale suggests this angel represents God, since he is coming from the temple in heaven, therefore the command comes from God rather than the angel (Revelation, 771).

The rest of the description of this “son of man” does not help determine whether John intends the reader to understand this as the messiah or an angel since the images might be applied equally to Jesus or to an important angel.

The “son of man” wears a “crown of gold” on his head. This a victor’s crown (στέφανος, stephanos) as opposed to the royal crown (διάδημα, diadima) which rider on the white horse wears in Revelation 19:12. That the crown is gold The image is intended to express authority, Aune 2:842, he translates this as a “wreath of gold” rather than a crown. A diadem is “the sign of royalty among the Persians, a blue band trimmed with white, on the tiara, hence a symbol of royalty.” (BDAG) There are only three occurrences in Revelation, once referring to Christ, the other two referring to Satan! (Rev 12:3; 13:1-2; 19:12).

He holds a “sharp sickle in his hand.” A sickle is a “a large, curved knife employed in cutting ripe grain” (LN 6.5) The word is only found in this chapter and once in Mark 4:29, a parable of referring to eschatological judgment as a harvest. The word appears in the Septuagint for a literal farm too, but in Joel 3:13 a harvest refers to eschatological judgment. Like Revelation 14, Joel 3:13 refers to a harvest of wheat (a sickle) and grapes (“the winepress is full”).  Joel 3:14-16 has a number of apocalyptic images and refers to the “valley of decision.”  The image of death carrying a sickle is common in western art, but is also found in apocalyptic literature:

Testament of Abraham [rec A] 8:9-10 Do you not know that all those who (spring) from Adam and Eve die? And not one of the prophets escaped death, and not one of those who reign has been immortal. Not one of the forefathers has escaped the mystery of death. All have died, all have departed into Hades, all have been gathered by the sickle of Death.

This “son of man” therefore is poised to begin the final judgment. The harvest is ripe, and the sickle is ready. Although it is possible this could refer to some angel of death, one function of the messiah is to render judgment. In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist says the one who is coming in similar terms: his “winnowing fork is in his hand” and he will sort out the wheat from the chaff. The wheat will go into the barn, the chaff will be burned “with unquenchable fire.” There are several harvest parables in the gospels in which Jesus places himself as a farmer who will sort out the wheat from the weeds or the sheep from the goats.

It is therefore likely John intends the reader to hear the echoes of Daniel 7:13 and Joel 3:13-14 in his description of a son of man sitting on the cloud, prepared to begin the final harvest of the earth.

The Message of the Third Angel – Revelation 14:9-13

The message of the third angel is a further expansion of the condemnation of Babylon. Rather than drinking the maddening wine of Babylon, those that have accepted the mark will drink the wine of God’s fury. The wine of God’s fury is “unmixed” (ἄκρατος) or “full strength” in most modern translations.  In the ancient world, wine was normally diluted with water. If it was not mixed with wine, then the drinker would get the full strength of the wine.

Torments in hell

Making someone drink a cup of strong wine is a common metaphor God’s wrath in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 75:8 (LXX 74:9), “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (cf. Isa 51:17-22; Jer 25:15-17, Hab 2:16; Pss 11:6; 73:10). Describing God’s fury towards Jerusalem leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, the writer of the Psalms of Solomon said:

Ps Sol 8:13–17 (LES2) They trampled the altar of the Lord from every uncleanness, and they stained the sacrifices with ⌊menstrual blood⌋ like profane meat. 14 They left no sin undone that they did not do worse than the nations. 15 Therefore God mixed them a spirit of error.  He gave them a drinking cup of unmixed wine to drink, for drunkenness. 16 He led the one from the end of the earth, the one who strikes strongly. 17 He decided on war against Jerusalem and her land.

John further describes God’s untempered wrath on those who worship the beast. The one who has taken the mark of the beast will be “tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” This disturbing image of judicial torture is shocking to most modern readers, but the original readers would have understood torture as part of the Roman judicial system. The verb translated torture (βασανίζω) refers to being put to the test in order to determine a person’s legal status. For example, the phrase βεβασανισμένος εἰς δικαιοσύνην appears in Plato’s Republic (361c), “having been tested/tortured for the purpose of justice.” The related noun βασανισμός refers to pain inflicted by torture (BDAG). In the fifth trumpet, the demonic locust tormented people for five months (Rev 9:5). The noun also appears in 4 Maccabees 9:6 for the “coercive tortures” inflicted on pious Eleazar.

Beale softens this by taking the torment as “primarily spiritual and psychological suffering” (760), although he does think Revelation describes “a real, ongoing, eternal, conscious torment” (763). The verb and noun have the sense of physical punishment which often resulted in death (4 Maccabees especially).

Those who have taken the mark of the beast will be tortured with fire and sulfur.  Sulfur (θεῖον) had a number of uses in the ancient world and was sometimes used as a medicine. Older translations have brimstone, a common word used for what we call sulfur, “brunston.” People are tormented by fire and sulfur (14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8) and the final judgment on the wicked is to be cast into “the lake of fire and sulfur” (19:20; 20:10; 21:8).

The prototypical image of God’s wrath is Genesis 19:24, God rained fire and sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham looked across the valley, he saw the smoke going up like “the smoke of a furnace” (Gen 19:28). Isaiah 30:33 describes God’s wrath on the king of the Assyrians as a long-prepared burning place kindled by “the breath of the LORD, like a stream of sulfur.” The psalmist calls on God to rain fire and sulfur on the wicked (Ps 11:6).

Surprisingly, this torment takes place in front of the Lamb and the holy angels. Although there is no other reference the punishment of the wicked in presence of a messianic figure or the angles, there are a number of examples of the he wicked being tormented before the righteous (1 Enoch 27:2-3, 90:26-27; 48:9; 4 Ezra 7:36 [possibly a Christian interpolation]) The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the rich man appears to be able to see Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

1 Enoch 27:1-3 At that moment, I said, “For what purpose does this blessed land, entirely filled with trees, (have) in its midst this accursed valley?” 2 Then, Uriel, one of the holy angels, who was with me, answered me and said to me, “This accursed valley is for those accursed forever; here will gather together all (those) accursed ones, those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord and utter hard words concerning his glory. Here shall they be gathered together, and here shall be their judgment, in the last days. 3 There will be upon them the spectacle of the righteous judgment, in the presence of the righteous forever. The merciful will bless the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, all the day.

1 Enoch 90:26–27 In the meantime I saw how another abyss like it, full of fire, was opened wide in the middle of the ground; and they brought those blinded sheep, all of which were judged, found guilty, and cast into this fiery abyss, and they were burned—the abyss is to the right of that house; 27 thus I saw those sheep while they were burning—their bones also were burning.

If this scene evokes Roman practice, then torture in front of a conquering king makes sense. The king is seated on his throne with his military on display around him while the enemy is tortured publicly. In Revelation 14, the Lamb is the conquering king and judge who will oversee the judgment of the worshipers of the beast.

Revelation 14 concludes by returning to the followers of the Lamb. They will be blessed when they endure torment and die on “in the Lord” (14:13). John intentionally contrasts the worshipers of the beast and the worshipers of the Lamb (Rev 4:8-10). The words in 4:8c are identical to 14:11: the worship of the lamb never stops, just as the torture never stops never stops.

The Message of the Second Angel – Revelation 14:8

For the first time in Revelation, the kingdom of the beast is identified as “Babylon the Great.”  As with the message of the first angel, this second angel announces Babylon has (already) fallen although the judgment on Babylon is not narrated until Revelation18:1-19:10. What does John mean by “Babylon the Great”?

Great Whore rides the beast

There are some commentators who take John’s reference to Babylon literally. Robert Thomas, for example, thinks “Babylon the Great” alludes to Daniel 4:30 and considers this verse to prophesy a central role for the city of Babylon in world affairs (Revelation 8-22, 207). Ironically, such overly literal interpretations of Revelation 14:8 must take predictions that Babylon will fall and never be rebuilt as non-literal (Isa13:19-22; Jer 50:39-40).

Since Babylon was not the capitol of a major empire at the end of the first century and the region was not particularly important for world affairs until recently, older interpreters usually found an allusion to the Roman Catholic church here, but this reflects an older, historicist view of Revelation and is (mostly) abandoned today.

Others consider Babylon as a reference to Jerusalem. In Four Views on Revelation, Ken Gentry argued Babylon is an allusion to Jerusalem as part of his thesis Revelation was written prior to A.D. 70 as a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. Bruce Chilton thinks the whore of Babylon represents “Apostate Jerusalem is the Harlot-city” and the fall of Jerusalem is “Israel’s final excommunication” (Days of Vengeance, 443). In his recent ITC commentary on Revelation, Peter J. Leithart states “Jerusalem is the only first-century city that fits the description of a πόρνη, a harlot city given to πορνεία. A harlot is a city that has turned from Yahweh” (172).

The majority of scholars consider Babylon the Great as an allusion to Rome. This is clear in 1 Peter 5:13, where Peter, living in Rome, greets his readers but says that he is in Babylon. Peter may be drawing a parallel between his “exile in Rome” and the Babylonian exile.

After the first century, the identification of Rome and Babylon was common in Jewish apocalyptic literature as well as Christian writings. In the fifth Sibylline Oracle, Nero’s flight from Rome is a flight from Babylon (this is probably an allusion to the return of Nero myth): “He will flee from Babylon, a terrible and shameless prince whom all mortals and noble men despise” (5.143) and in 5.434 the oracle declares “Woe to you, Babylon, of golden throne and golden sandal.” A few lines later it predicts the Parthians will terrify the “impious race of Babylonians” (5.440). These are all clear allusions to Rome. David Aune draws a parallel to the Dead Sea Scrolls which refer to Rome as the Kittim.

The parallels between Babylon and Rome are obvious. A Jewish writer would see both world empires arrogant and opposed to God; both empires destroyed Jerusalem (in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70). Dating Revelation to the end of the first century, both empires demanded worship as a sign of loyalty (cf. Daniel 3, 6 and the Imperial Cult). John calls the enemy Babylon several more times in Revelation (16:19, 17:5-6; 18:2, 10, 21). By Revelation 19:10 is seems clear he has Rome in mind.

The prediction that Rome had (already) fallen would have been laughable in the first century. Rome had endured for centuries by the time John wrote Revelation and would last for several hundred more, even if its glory was in decline. However, there were predictions of the fall of Rome in the first century, such as the Oracles of Hystaspes which predicted Rome would fall to powers from the east, but 6,000 years in the future (Aune 2:831). This work is only known through the third century A.D. writer Lactantius (Div. Inst. 7.15.11) so it is not particularly relevant for the end of the first century.

Revelation 14:8 describes Babylon the Great made the nations drink “the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” John just hints at what the maddening wine is here, he will expand in this in Revelation 17.

The Message of the First Angel – Revelation 14:6-7

Revelation 14:6-13 three angels who appear in mid-heaven to announce the judgment on the kingdom of the beast is near.

angels of death Durer

Each of the three angels in this section are called “another angel,” despite there being no first angel in the series.  In 14:8 the next angel is called the second; in 14:9 the angel is the third. In Revelation 8:3 there was an eagle who announced the beginning of three woes. Similar to this angle, that eagle was flying in the mid- heaven, but it was not clear in that context the eagle was an angel. Although there is no text variant, some scholars suggest “another angel” (ἄλλον ἄγγελον) ought to read “another eagle” (ἄλλον ἀετόν).  Both the eagle (8:3) and the angel (14:6) proclaim their message to the inhabitants of the earth. But the eagle announces three woes, this angel is announcing “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον).

Despite the angel is in the air, there is no implication the angel as wings. The verb (πέτομαι) is associated with the flight of birds and insects in classical Greek, but also with running or moving quickly (BrillDAG). The angel is located in the midpoint of the sky, “midair” (NIV; μεσουράνημα), hence the ESV translation “directly overhead.”

The angel has an “eternal gospel to preach” to everyone on earth. Other than Romans 1:1, this is the only place in the New Testament where the word Gospel does not appear with the article, suggesting this is not the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Aune 2:825). This announcement of good news may allude to Isaiah 40:9-10 and/or 52:7-9. In both cases someone is on a mountain top and announcing good news and in both cases the good news is the salvation of Jerusalem and Zion. In the context of Isaiah 40-55, the good news of Zion’s salvation is the defeat of Babylon and the destruction of her gods (Isa 46). The next angel in Revelation 14:8 announces the fall of Babylon the great.

The angel proclaims good news to all the people of the earth and the message is simple: the day of God’s judgment has come, therefore they ought to “fear God and give him glory.” Most commentators see an allusion to Deuteronomy 10:12-15 or other similar passages. God requires all people to fear him and walk in all his ways (cf. Prov 8:13).

This announcement implies the day of judgment has already come. If this is so, is it too late to glorify God? The aorist verb “has come” may be a proleptic aorist, or an aorist of assurance (Aune, Revelation, 2:828). John often expresses the nearness of God’s judgment by declaring the time “has come.” A similar statement is made in Revelation 6:17 and 11:8 and will appear again in 18:10.

Another option the command to fear God and give him glory does not mean the ones do so are will be saved from the coming judgment. If they have taken the mark of the beast, then they are under God’s judgment. Even those under the judgment must acknowledge that God is worthy of glory. This is similar to Philippians 2:10-11, every knee will bow and acknowledge that Jesus the Messiah is Lord.

The angel concludes by declaring God is the creator. Similar to Paul’s preaching in Acts 14:15-16 and 17:24, the announcement to all peoples of the earth to fear God is based on his status as the creator of everything (cf., Romans 1:18-23).

The Firstfruits of the Lamb – Revelation 14:4-5

In Revelation 14:1-5, the 144,000 witnesses are marked with the name of the Lamb and his father. This stands in contrast to those marked with the name of the beast at the end of chapter 13. What can we know about these 144,000 witnesses?

The Lamb's Supper

First, they have not defiled themselves with women and are virgins (ESV). Normally the Greek word for virgin (παρθένος) is used for a young woman, not a young man (BDAG, a female of marriageable age). Joseph and Asenath 8:1 refers to Joseph as a virgin using this word. First, it is possible this use of virgin implies they men were unmarried at the time they were killed for their faith (although that they are killed is not clear at this point in Revelation). Second, the term is applied to men because they abstain from immorality, whether married or not. Aune dismisses this as “unconvincing.” Third, it is possible to take “virgin” literally as a reference to men who have chosen to remain celibate because of their service to God. Priests and soldiers were exclusively male in the Old Testament. Priests avoided sexual activity during their time of service to avoid ritual uncleanliness (Lev 15:16-18).

It is possible this virginity as a refers to soldiers engaged in holy war. Caird thought the background for this verse was the requirement of Israelite soldiers to be ceremonially pure for battle (Revelation, 179). Richard Bauckham thought the 144,000 were engaging in “an ironic holy war” (Climax of Prophecy, 229-32).

There are several places in the Old Testament were men abstain from sexual activity while engaged in a Holy War. In Deuteronomy 23:9-10 men who are encamped against an enemy should keep themselves from “any evil thing,” with the implication of sexual activity. The reason given is the Lord himself walks in the camp, therefore the camp must be holy, free from any indecency that might turn away the Lord (24:14).

It is tempting to draw a parallel with The War Scroll. The men preparing for the eschatological battle are to be in a state of ritual cleanliness and the army will have “no lame, blind, paralysed person nor any man who has an indelible blemish on his flesh, nor any man suffering from uncleanness” (1Q33 Col. Vii.4). These are all categories of people excluded from temple worship. The main problem with the 144,000 as soldiers in a holy war is that they are not called solders in Revelation nor are they engaged in warfare.

Since these men are described in verse 5 as a sacrifice, the “firstfruits to God,” then “defilement with women” may stand in contrast with those who have followed the beast. In Revelation 17 John will describe worship of the beast as adultery with the great whore of Babylon. In Revelation 2:20 the church at Thyatira tolerated the teaching of a false prophet styled as Jezebel. The association of Jezebel and sexual immorality in that context may refer to worship in the imperial cult (although sexual immorality in the context of a banquet is a possibility). In either case, idolatry is often described as spiritual immorality (Hosea 1-3, for example).

The 144,000 follow the Lamb wherever he goes. The language of “following” Christ is almost completely limited to the Gospels. Following in the Gospels does not mean “accepting the teachings of” the one you follow. For example, “Pastor Smith followed N. T. Wright in his teaching on sanctification.” The “following” is completely intellectual.

In Revelation, following Christ is to become his disciple on a more intimate level. It implies the commitment to continue following Christ even to death. There are many passages that talk about the disciple’s willingness to give up earthly pleasure and security in order to follow Christ on the deepest level possible. The point of the “take up your cross and follow me” saying is that the disciple must be ready to forsake all earthly relationships and be willing to be executed for his faith. This is perhaps the only hint that the 144,000 are martyred, that they continually followed Christ to the point that they gave their lives resisting the beast.

The other unusual thing about this description is that the Lamb is portrayed as a shepherd (as in 7:17). This is to be expected since the Messiah’s leadership is described as a “shepherd” in Is 40:11 and Ezekiel 34:23 and became a part of the Jewish idea of the Messiah (Aune 2:812 for rabbinic apocryphal writings).

The 144,000 were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. The martyrdom motif continues in the next description. “Offered as a firstfruit” is a clear reference to sacrifice. Firstfruit refers to the practice of offering the first portion of a crop to the Lord, or the best of one’s flock to the Lord. The Old Testament is very clear that the only acceptable sacrifice is the best sacrifice, therefore the flawless firstborn male lamb is the most pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. This anticipates Revelation 14:14-20 the harvest of the earth.

No lie was found in their mouths; They are blameless. This description concerns moral purity and continues the theme of describing the 144,000 as spotless sacrifices. The phrase is used in Zephaniah 3:13 to describe the remnant of Israel in the last days.

This whole scene is designed to give comfort to the reader; those that have been set aside to the Lord in the tribulation are being brought through and will stand with the Lamb in Zion and will apparently rule with him in the Kingdom. After the description of the protection of the 144,000, John describes three angelic messengers that continue the theme of comfort and hope.

The Lamb and the 144,000 – Revelation 14:1-5

Just as Revelation 13 ended with the beast writing his name on the forehead of his followers, Revelation 14:1-5 describes God writing his name and the name of the Lamb on the heads of the 144,000 witnesses introduced in Revelation 7. John intentionally contrasts those who have the mark of the beast with the 144,000 witnesses. As Gordon Fee observes, “this passage has had as rocky a history of interpretation as any other in the book, and maybe more than most” (Revelation, 189).

lamb of god at dormition abbey jerusalem

John sees the Lamb and the 144,000 witnesses on Mount Zion. Is this scene in heaven where the Lamb is seated on the throne with God, or is this on earth in literal Jerusalem? Zion is a Hebrew word which means “citadel”, and probably first referred to the fortress of David in Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:6-10).  The name became associated with the temple mount after Solomon’s reign, Psalm 2:6, 46:4, 78:68-69. In the Psalms, Zion could refer just to the temple mount or to all Jerusalem, and eventually Zion was idealized (Psalm 125) and became an image for heaven (Heb 12:22). Since this is the only place in Revelation where Mount Zion is mentioned, it is difficult to be sure what John has in mind.

Robert Mounce, for example, argued John refers to a heavenly Zion, citing Hebrews 12:22 and Galatians 4:26, the “Jerusalem above.” Like Revelation 4-5, the “entire scene is one of praise before the throne of heaven” (Revelation, 267). It is possible this passage indicates the 144,000 have already been put to death and are in heaven at the throne of God.

On the other hand, George Ladd argues this gathering is on the earth; the 144,000 are those who have been preserved through the great tribulation and are in the messianic kingdom when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to earth (Revelation, 188-90). Dispensationalist John Walvoord took the reference to Zion as looking forward to Christ’s reign from Jerusalem in the Millennium (Revelation, 214-15). Buist Fanning refers to this paragraph as a “preview of judgment and victory for the Lamb” and argues it “anticipates the scene, soon to be presented in full (19:11-20:6), when Christ will return to earth…to conquer the beast and his armies and establish his rule from earthly Zion” (Fanning, Revelation, 388).

There are several references to an eschatological pilgrimage in the Old Testament. Isaiah 4:5 and Joel 3:5 describe the nations streaming to Zion, In Isaiah 24:23 the Lord almighty will reign from Zion and “in Jerusalem there will be deliverance (cf. Isa 31:4; Micah 4:7; Joel 2:32).

Other Second Temple period apocalypses developed a similar idea of eschatological victory over God’s enemies on Mount Zion:

Jubilees 1.28 And the LORD will appear in the sight of all. And everyone will know that I am the God of Israel and the father of all the children of Jacob and king upon Mount Zion forever and ever. And Zion and Jerusalem will be holy.”

2 Baruch 40:1 The last ruler who is left alive at that time will be bound, whereas the entire host will be destroyed. And they will carry him on Mount Zion, and my Anointed One will convict him of all his wicked deeds and will assemble and set before him all the works of his hosts.

4 Ezra 13:35–39 But he will stand on the top of Mount Zion. 36 And Zion will come and be made manifest to all people, prepared and built, as you saw the mountain carved out without hands. 37 And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness (this was symbolized by the storm), 38 and will reproach them to their face with their evil thoughts and with the torments with which they are to be tortured (which were symbolized by the flames); and he will destroy them without effort by the law (which was symbolized by the fire). 39 And as for your seeing him gather to himself another multitude that was peaceable. This song is unusual in that it is the only song mentioned in Revelation that is not quoted (in full or in part.)  Aune 2:808 says that this indicates that wither John cannot understand the song, or that he is not a part of the 144,000 who are singing the song and therefore does not know the song.

Two additional features of this scene are unusual. First, the “harpers are harping their harps” (KJV, the NIV avoids the redundancy by translating “playing their harps”). This is a rare case were popular images of heaven have some support in Scripture, but there is nothing here to imply everyone who goes to heaven plays a harp!

Second, the Lamb is standing. In Revelation 5 the Lamb was seated on the throne. It is likely this an allusion Psalm 2:6. There the Lord says, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  George Caird thinks much of Revelation is an exposition of Psalm 2 as Christian Scripture (Revelation, 178). In Acts 7:56 Stephen sees the heavens open and “the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” That the Son of Man is standing is usually taken as a sign of impending judgment.

I think this scene on Mount Zion needs to be read along with the actions of the second beast in Revelation 13. Even though there is another “and then I looked” signaling another unit, John’s intent is to contrast the followers of the beast and the followers of the Lamb.