Studies in Revelation—Lesson 25
By Reta Halteman Finger
Revelation 14:6-20 closes one of the sections of this apocalypse—the section that lies between the series of seven trumpets (8:6–11:19) and the seven bowls of plagues (chs. 15-16). It has not moved the story forward in time, but instead recapitulates similar themes of salvation and judgment. The infant messiah, born of the astral woman in chapter 12, now stands on Mount Zion as the eternal slaughtered Lamb with his loyal followers (14:1-5). In verses 6-20, the end of human history is announced by seven angels, with the final judgment portrayed as a harvest of grain and grapes. Though still in the future, past tense is used throughout because “past tense emphasizes the certainty of a future action” (Resseguie, p. 198).
Good news and bad news
The first angel flies in midheaven, a parallel to the eagle of 8:13. But instead of crying “Woe, woe, woe,” this angel announces the gospel—good news to “every tribe and nation and language and people” on earth! (14:6). It is a call to fear and glorify the one God who made heaven and earth, as well as reminding current readers of their obligation to reach the whole world with the gospel (Matt. 28:19).
The second angel announces the fall of “Babylon the great” (verse 8). First mentioned here, Babylon symbolizes for readers not only Rome, but every imperial empire that has oppressed people throughout history. It is a “spiritual force that tempts all nations” when they put themselves first by promoting civil religion and persecuting God’s people (Grimsrud, p. 106). The imagery is vivid: all nations “drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (verse 8). The seminal fluid of Babylon’s adultery will ultimately bring bitter judgment upon all such nations. Babylon is the satanic parody of the New Jerusalem.
The message of the third angel is more elaborate, although we must reject literal interpretations of fire and sulfur. These dire warnings are not given for believers to gloat over the suffering of beast worshipers, but are a “call for the endurance of the saints” (verse 12). John writes for those in his churches who are tempted or intoxicated by Babylon’s allure. Loyalty to the Lamb is everything.
Break for a blessing
As we have seen earlier, sometimes a break occurs in a series of seven, where the number three stands for the spiritual order and the number four for the created order. The second of seven beatitudes (proclamations of blessedness) in the book of Revelation occurs here (verse 13) and divides the angelic announcements. (The first of Revelation’s seven beatitudes is Rev 1:3.) Those who “die in the Lord…rest from their labors” contrasts with “no rest day or night for those who worship the beast” (verse 11). The Spirit speaks only here and in Revelation 22:17.
Sickles for grain and grape harvests
The last four angels in Revelation 14:14-20 are in charge of the harvest at the end of the age—both grain (vv.14-16) and grape (vv. 17-20). Both grain and grapes are cut by sickles, mentioned seven times in this passage; in three places it is a “sharp sickle.” Although the harvest theme is not hard to grasp, two issues complicate it.
Complicating issue number 1: Identifying the figure “on the cloud”
First, who is the “one like the Son of Man with a golden crown on his head” and seated on a white cloud in verse 14? (Note: the title “Son of Man” is a Hebraic expression for a human being.) Because of Mark 13:26, where Jesus is the Human One coming with clouds (drawn from Daniel 7:13), opinions differ as to whether this is an angel or Jesus himself.
Although James Resseguie sees this figure as Jesus, John Miller, along with Charles Talbert and several others, has convinced me that he must be one of the seven angels. First, the Messiah is always presented “in the midst of the throne” or on Mount Zion, not on a cloud hovering over the earth. Second, he is only like a son of man, not an actual human. Third, there are otherwise only six angels. This is unlikely, given John’s recurring use of the number seven (Miller, pp. 124-25). Pablo Richard’s Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary also notes that Jesus never appears wearing a golden crown or carrying a sharp sickle (verse 14). “It is also striking,” he says, “that the son of man is given an order by an angel” (Rev. 14:15; Richard, p. 125).
Complicating issue number 2: Two separate harvests—or one two-part harvest?
A difference of opinion also concerns the two harvests of grain and grapes. Most commentators assume that the grain harvest (14:15-16) refers to those loyal to the Lamb, whereas the grape harvest (17-20) dooms the followers of the beast. Since the 144,000 are the “first-fruits” (14:4), a term given to the grain offering in Leviticus 2:14, the grain harvest must refer to them. On the other hand, the grape harvest is described as “the great winepress of the wrath of God,” and the massive amount of blood spilt (Rev. 14:20) evokes visions of violent judgment.
But other Bible scholars are not so sure. They see the two harvests as parallel, each providing particular aspects of the final judgment. Perhaps the double harvest theme intends to include both the faithful as well as the lukewarm (e.g., Rev. 3:15, 16). In Matthew 13:24-30, both wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest. And various prophets and poets in the Old Testament refer to Israel as a vine bearing both good and wild grapes (see Hosea 10:1; Isaiah 5:1-7; Ezekiel 17:1-10; Psalm 80:8-13).
Further, John Miller points to the phrase “outside the city” as significant. The city is the fallen Babylon, so safety lies only “outside the city” (Rev. 18:4; cf. 12:6). “The crucifixion,” he says, “took place outside the city and would be the proper place for the martyrdom of those who held to the testimony of Jesus” (p. 127; see also Hebrews 13:12-13). In that case, is the blood flowing from the winepress the blood of the martyrs? The NRSV blunts the power of this image by changing the measurement to 200 miles from 1600 stadia in the Greek text. This breaks down into 4×4 x 10×10, where four is the number of the earth and ten represents totality. The martyrs’ blood covers the whole earth! A hyperbole, certainly, but it points to the seriousness of the political struggle between followers of the beast or the Lamb.
Questions for discussion or reflection
1. How would you interpret the harvest image in Revelation 14:14-20, and why do you favor or find more meaning in one interpretation over the other?
2. Do imperial “Babylons” exist in our world today? Can you name any?
3. What might it mean to worship the beast (14:9-11) today? What issues come to mind in the present-day struggle between God and Satan for people’s loyalty? Is your church a help or hindrance?
4. Do you believe suffering and martyrdom can be used by God to destroy evil?
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald, 1987. Pp. 106.
Miller, John M. Revelation: Making Sense of Its Message in the 21st Century. Leola Publisher, 2009. Pp. 123-128.
Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 198, 200.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995. P. 124-125.
Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John. Westminster John Knox, 1994.