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).
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.