Rev 14:14-20; Psalm 1; Joel 3:11-16, 18; Isaiah 63:1-6
I begin with apologies to those of you who have been looking for this podcast or blog since the middle of March. I had a book manuscript to complete, with a deadline of just after Pascha, and concentrated upon only that during the past month—it is called Mediation and the Immediate God, and will be available sometime in October! Discussing the book of Revelation with you all has been helpful in preparing for this book, since the Apocalypse is studded with images of prayer, supplication, and the mediation of Christ, His angels, and His Church, for the salvation of the world. We have seen, in our reading of the book so far, that it is concerned not only to warn of cataclysmic events, but to confirm the faithful as they trust in the Lord of love and truth, and as they find their place in the Church which follows the Lamb wherever He goes—in humble willingness to die, if need be! This week, though, we encounter a passage that corresponds to what many people envisage when they think of the book of Revelation—images of judgment, an event of “biblical proportions, … real wrath of God stuff,” such as that evoked humorously by the Ghostbusters. Despite their familiarity in our culture, though, the details of this passage bear careful consideration, for they are not well understood.
Here is the passage from Rev. 14:14-20.
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped.
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
The dominant pictures are that of the Son of Man, sitting in judgement, the gathering of the “harvest of the earth” by that Son of Man, the harvesting of the grapes by His angelic servant, and the treading of those grapes in the winepress, outside of the city. The Son of Man we have already considered in some detail, but there is even more to see concerning Him in this vignette; the imagery of a harvest (presumably wheat), and of the winepress, finds its context in the prophetic books of the Old Testament.
We begin with the judging Son of Man and the sickle. Here the book of Revelation continues the association of the Son of Man with judgment found throughout all four gospels. John’s gospel makes this link explicit, when Jesus declares:
“As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:26-29).
It is not only in the Christian tradition that Jesus is afforded the role of judge in the last days —this is envisaged also in the Quraan and some Muslim traditions, where “Isa” is seen to judge the Christians who have, according to Islam, become idolaters by cleaving to the doctrine of the Trinity. However, even Christianity envisages human judges, such as the twelve apostles, or even the human community itself, who will share in this aspect of the rule of God (Matt 19:28; 1 Cor 6:3). As for the role of Jesus as Judge, Revelation and the gospels insist upon His utter uniqueness, as is made clear by the language of John 5. Only the Son, acting with the Father, has the authority to execute judgment, calling those who are asleep into life or to the dreaded “resurrection of judgment.” John’s gospel amplifies words of Jesus scattered throughout the synoptics, including those found in Matt 16:27 and Matt 25:31: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done; “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”
The reference to “clouds” and “glory” recalls also the words of the angels in Acts 1:11 to the apostles who beheld Jesus’ ascension, as well as the initial warning of the book of Revelation itself: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (1:7). In this later picture of Revelation 14, the LORD sits on a white cloud and wears a crown –twin symbols of His radiance. In the first place, He appears with the same shining cloud seen in the Old Testament, which led the Hebrews through the wilderness and settled in both the tabernacle and the temple; in the second symbol of the crown, we see Him now adorned with what was hidden in His first appearance, though He even then was the majestic King of kings. Various ancient commentators (Oecumenius, Andrew of Caesarea) remind us that the chariot, or moveable throne of God, is traditionally seen as a kind of angel (cf. Ps 17:11 LXX) and even as holy Mary herself, who “has become the throne of the cherubim.” At any rate, these details transport us back to Daniel’s vision of “one like a Son of Man,” who came to the Ancient of Days on a cloud, and received eternal honor and majesty and rule, on behalf of God’s people (Dan 7:13-14, 27). The same One who displayed this authority on the Ascension to His followers will return in similar glory, seen by the whole world.
Besides the cloud and the crown, there is also a sickle, which He wields for reaping It is possible that this first instance of reaping is meant to be positive, rather than a warning. We may recall Jesus’ parable of the maturation of the crops as a sign of the rule to come: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29). We are not told at the end of the reaping what happens to the harvest, and so at the very least, it can be understood as a general action, rather than one of condemnation in particular. St. Andrew of Caesarea suggests that the encouragement of the angel, calling to the Son of Man to complete the harvest, is a sign of holy approval of God’s plan for the consummation of all things:
The cry of the angel symbolically represents the supplications of all the heavenly powers who desire to see both the honoring of the saints and the separation of the transgression of the sinners. At that time, that which is changeable and transient will cease to exist and that which is immovable and enduring will be manifested. That the harvest is ripe indicates that the time of the consummation has come when the seed of piety, having matured as ripe wheat, will be regarded as ready for the heavenly granaries and will yield for the husbandman thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. Commentary on the Apocalypse14.15–16 (MTS 1 Sup 1:155–56).
A further passage in the prophet Joel may lead us to see this first harvesting as interconnected with the second, when the grapes are gathered, and trod. There the emphasis is upon bringing about the apt ending for evil actions of the godless nations, but the prophet also speaks of “decisions” (implying that some will live while others will be condemned). The blessed outcome of the entire process is seen in the ending assurance that God will be a refuge and a stronghold, supplying refreshment to His people:
Hasten and come,
all you surrounding nations,
and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O LORD.
Let the nations stir themselves up
and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the surrounding nations.
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.
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The LORD roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the LORD is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the people of Israel…
And in that day… a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD.
(Joel 3:11-16, 18)
In speaking of judgment, then, this vision from Revelation retains the dualism of Psalm 1, the picture of the righteous alongside the wicked:
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
We would, of course, prefer not to think about the “wicked.” But John’s vision will not allow us to ignore what makes us uncomfortable. Whereas frequently the treading of the winepress is a joyous occasion for ancient peoples, this is rather the winepress of the “wrath of God,” and recalls the dramatic passage from Isaiah:
Who is this who comes from Edom,
in crimsoned garments from lBozrah,
he who is splendid in his apparel,
marching in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, speaking in righteousness,
mighty to save.”
Why is your apparel red,
and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?
“I have trodden the winepress alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifebloodspattered on my garments,
and stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption had come.
looked, but there was no one to help;
I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold;
so my own arm brought me salvation,
and my wrath upheld me.
I trampled down the peoples in my anger;
I made them drunk in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
Again, it is God alone who accomplishes the righteous judgment, a necessary complement of the “year of redemption.” This passage, of course, is understood by Christians as pointing forward to the separating work of the God-Man, when he comes again and brings salvation—a redemption that implies also the end to evil. He “speaks in righteousness” and is “mighty to save.” He treads the winepress alone, unaccompanied by anyone, just as Jesus bore His own cross, and alone suffered for His people, abandoned even by his closest friends. The picture of the stained clothing in Isaiah is startling, as is the Revelation’s vision of wine, or blood, “as high as a horse’s bridle” for 1600 stadia. The ancient reader, however, would have picked up references to both Hadrian’s violence against the Jews, and some visions of eschatological warfare that will continue “till the streams flow with their blood… and the horse shall walk up to the breast in the blood of sinners, and the chariot shall be submerged to its height” (1 Enoch 100).
For contemporary sensibilities, such images are not only extravagant, but gory; yet they serve in the vision to demonstrate the extensive nature of sin, and the thorough work of redemption and judgment both accomplished, and to be fulfilled, in Christ’s second coming. The sixth century commentator Primasius speaks of this vision not so much as a direct punishment of those who are “outside the city” (that is, not under the rule of Christ), but as the result which will overtake those responsible for the death of Christ and His martyrs: “When the devil, together with his accomplices, begin to pay the penalties for the persecutions that they initiated, it is aptly said that the blood of the saints, which was once spilled, reaches as far as him and his princes” (Comm Ap 14.14, CCL 92:218). At any rate, it is important to keep this vision in balance with those other things that we have seen and heard regarding the Lamb— His willing self-sacrifice, His concern for His people, and His call to all who will hear to repent, and accept life. If there is a winepress outside the city for those who remain the enemies of God, there is also a Savior who went “outside the camp” (Heb 13:11-13) in order to reclaim those who are wayward. We flash forward to our next scene, and still hope, despite the warning here, that “all nations will come and worship [Him], for [His] righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 15:4).