A Study of Revelation 14-15, Part III
This is the final installment of our study of Revelation 14-15.
These verses provide a motivation to believers to persevere, whether by pointing to the reality of judgment (v. 12) or to the promise of reward of eternal rest (v. 13).
As for the meaning of v. 12, Keener says that “either they should be encouraged because this judgment is their vindication . . ., or they should be exhorted to fill their role as martry-witnesses so that more people may be spared from the agonies of eternal torment for worshipping the beast” (375). Others argue that vv. 6-11 and the description of hell are intended to motivate believers to persevere. In other words, one of the ways believers are stirred to persevere is by contemplating the eternal destiny of those who choose instead to worship the beast.
How are the words “from now on” in v. 13 to be interpreted? (1) Do they mean that from the time of the vision’s fulfillment onward the dead will be blessed in a more complete manner, or in a way they were not blessed before the vision was fulfilled? (2) Or do they refer to the time of John’s writing onward? Probably the latter. If John expects the persecution by the beast to spread and intensify very soon he may be saying that those who persevere when this begins to occur will be uniquely blessed.
Whereas some have argued that the “one like a son of man” here is simply another angel, the likelihood is that this is an allusion is to Dan. 7:13 and that the exalted Christ is in view.
The reasons for believing this being might be an angel include: (1) close association with the word “another angel” in vv. 15 and 17; (2) both the figure in v. 14 and the angel in v. 17 have a sickle; (3) the angel in v. 15 issues a command or order to the being in v. 14 (which strikes some as odd, if the latter being is Jesus). Be it noted, however, that if the “command” is one that the angel received from the Father in heaven (note reference to his coming from the “temple”; this is typical of angelic responsibility), the idea of his then passing this on to Jesus is not objectionable. Also, the reference to the angels in vv. 15 and 17 as “another” may simply mean another of the same kind of angel mentioned numerous times in earlier portions of John’s visions.
There is no debate about the meaning of vv. 17-20. Everyone agrees that those verses describe the final judgment of unbelievers only. But what about vv. 15-16?
Those who argue that vv. 15-16 refer to judgment only appeal to the following points: (1) Both vv. 15-16 and vv. 17-20 are a clear allusion to Joel 3:13, a passage that deals only with divine judgment. (2) The “sickle” is more normally viewed as a negative instrument of judgment, designed to inflict harm, not to provide help. (3) The phrase “the hour to reap has come” in v. 15 sounds similar to “the hour of His judgment has come” in v. 7, the latter clearly referring to the eschatological judgment. (4) The image of a “harvest” is common in the Bible for divine judgment (see Isa. 17:5; 18:4-5; 24:13; Jer. 51:33; Hosea 6:11; Joel 3:13; Mt. 13:24-30,36-43; Mark 4:29).
Those who argue that vv. 15-16 refer primarily to a redemptive ingathering of souls from among the nations at the end of history appeal to these points: (1) The 144,000 are described as “firstfruits”, in the sense that they are an initial redemptive ingathering that anticipates or serves as a pledge of a final redemptive harvest. Vv. 15-16 describe the latter. (2) It is no less the case that the image of a harvest (especially “reaping”) can be used in a positive sense as a metaphor of the gathering of God’s elect (see Luke 10:2; Mt. 13:30,43; John 4:35-38. (3) There is no reference in vv. 15-16 to the metaphors of threshing and winnowing (common images of judgment).
The image of treading a wine press is without exception a metaphor of divine judgment in the Bible. See esp. Rev. 19:15, the only other use of the image in the book, where it also refers to judgment. Needless to say, these verses also echo what we’ve seen in Rev. 14:9-10 where being compelled to drink wine is a metaphor of divine punishment. The OT background is probably Isa. 63:1-6.
Three things are to be noted in v. 20.
First, the wine press was trodden “outside the city” (20a), most likely a reference to the holy city, i.e., the new Jerusalem (15x in Revelation). In Rev. 20:8-9 we read of unbelieving enemies of the saints being judged outside the “beloved city”. See also 21:8 in conjunction with 21:27 and 22:15. It may be that this judgment of unbelievers constitutes what might be regarded as “poetic justice,” given the fact that Jesus was himself executed “outside of Jerusalem” (Mt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; cf. Heb. 13:12-13).
Second, blood rising “up to the horses’ bridles” is stock, figurative language in prophetic and apocalyptic literature designed to emphasize wartime slaughter of exceptional proportions and the unqualified nature of the judgment in view. It is most often used of the last battle in history in which sinners will destroy each other on an unprecedented scale. Thus it should not be taken in some physically literal way, as if one could actually quantify the amount of blood that will be spilt! Keener (p. 378, notes 39-41), Aune (2:848), and especially Bauckham (Climax of Prophecy, 40-48) provide extensive listing of ancient sources that document this unique linguistic form.
Third, the distance of “200 miles” or “1,600 stadia” probably bears some symbolic importance. Says Keener: “As 1000 is ten cubed, as 144,000 is twelve squared times ten cubed (a cube being the shape of the new Jerusalem – 21:16), and as 666 is a double triangular number as well as the triangle of a square number, 1,600 is the square of the familiar biblical number forty” (378), the latter being the number of judgment in the OT.
Whereas it may initially seem strange that John introduces the seven bowl judgments in 15:1, only then to change subjects in 15:2-4, returning again to the bowls in 15:5-8, we have seen it before. This stylistic device, known as interlocking, serves both to conclude the preceding section and to introduce the subsequent one, with the intervening paragraph serving as a parenthetical transition. In 8:1-2 the seven trumpets are introduced only to be followed by the parenthetical transition in 8:3-5, after which the trumpets are then described in detail (8:6ff.).
This “sign” John now sees in heaven is the third such portent, the first two being that of the pregnant woman in 12:1ff. and the great red dragon in 12:3ff
These seven “plagues” or bowl judgments are said to be “the last” (eschatos; from which we derive our word “eschatology”, the study of “last things”). Futurist interpreters of Revelation, who see the trumpets as chronologically subsequent to the seals and the bowls as chronologically subsequent to the trumpets, take this to mean that the bowl judgments are the concluding events in history, clustered, as it were, just prior to the second coming of Jesus. My understanding of the relationship among these judgments will come in a subsequent lesson.
More likely is the suggestion that the bowls are “the last” in a formal series of visions. In other words, the vision of the bowl judgments occurred “last” in the order of visions presented to John. Thus John is saying, in effect, “the vision I had of the seven bowls is the last such vision in a series that began with the seals.” As Keener puts it, “’last’ implies that these bowls begin John’s final sequence of judgments. They are the last in terms of John’s narrative – based on the sequence of his visions rather than on the sequence of history” (384). Others suggest that the bowl judgments are “last” in that whereas the trumpets primarily warned unbelievers of impending wrath, still holding forth the possibility of repentance, the bowls mark the end of any opportunity to be saved.
Note also that in the bowls, says John, “the wrath of God is finished” (v. 1a). Beale explains it this way:
“The bowls complement and round out the portrayal of divine wrath in the seals and trumpets. It is in this fuller presentation of punishment in the bowls that it can be said that God’s wrath has been ‘completely expressed’ or ‘has reached its completion’ . . . . The full portrait of God’s wrath will be finished when all the bowl visions have been painted on the heavenly canvas” (788).
Or it could be that we should translate it this way: “in them [i.e., the seven bowls] was filled up the wrath of God.” If so, it would be similar to the statement in 15:7 where we read of “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God” and again in 21:9, “seven bowls full of the seven last plagues.” In these latter two texts the imagery is of bowls being filled, metaphorically speaking, with the “liquid” of divine judgment. Thus the meaning of the metaphor in 15:1 would be “that the seven bowls are ‘last’ in that they portray the full-orbed wrath of God in a more intense manner than any of the previous woe visions” (Beale, 788).
This intervening paragraph beginning with v. 2 looks back to the theme of final judgment in 14:14-20 and portrays the consummated defeat of the beast which the victorious and vindicated saints now celebrate in song. The latter are described as holding harps and standing on “a sea of glass mixed with fire” (v. 2a).
Given the “new exodus” motif in this chapter, this “sea” probably alludes to the Red Sea through which the Israelites were delivered. Others have seen it as identical with the “sea of glass like crystal” (4:6) which stands before the throne in heaven. Beale suggests that the “sea” here connotes cosmic evil and the chaotic powers of the dragon resident within it, over which the saints have now emerged victorious.
The victorious saints now sing in praise of God for defeating the beast on their behalf. They sing “the song of Moses . . . and the song of the Lamb.” Are these two different songs, or one and the same (if the latter, the conjunction translated ‘and’ [kai] would be appositional; i.e., “the song of Moses, that is (or, even), the song of the Lamb”).
I see no reason to conclude, contra Beale, that the “song(s)” sung here in chp. 15 is/are identical to the “new song” of 5:9-10 or the “new song” of 14:3. The content of the former song is given and is clearly different from that here in chp. 15. The song in 14:3 is unique in that no one can learn it but the 144,000. There seems to be a hidden, secretive nature to it. Yet, here in 15:3-4 the content of the song is openly declared
Question: Is this a song sung “by” or “from” Moses, or one sung about him? Likewise, is the song of the Lamb sung “by” Jesus or by us “about” Jesus? Grammatically, either option in each case is possible. Given the background for this in Exodus, perhaps we are to understand Moses as the source or author of a song he and the Israelites sang about God, in praise for deliverance at the Red Sea. But the song of the Lamb is one that has the Lamb/Jesus for its focus or content; hence, a song sung about Him (understandably so, for “the new exodus is a victory they have won by the blood of the new passover Lamb [cf. 7:14; 12:11]” Bauckham, 297).
The lyrics that follow in vv. 3-4 do not appear to be drawn from the song of Moses in Exodus 15, but rather come from a variety of OT texts. Bauckham, on the other hand, argues that the themes in 15:3-4 most assuredly do derive from the song in Exodus 15 (see his discussion, 297-307). As for the lyrics here in vv. 3-4
“Great and marvelous are Thy works” comes from Ps. 111:2-4 (and Dt. 28:59-60 LXX).
“O Lord God, the Almighty” is found repeatedly in the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
“Righteous and true are Thy ways” echoes Dt. 32:4. It would seem that this phrase parallels the first, “showing that God’s sovereign acts are not demonstrations of raw power but moral expressions of his just character” (Beale, 795).
Compare these with 16:7 and 19:2 and it becomes clear that what John is declaring to be great, marvelous, righteous, and true are God’s judgments against the unbelieving world. In particular, the saints are singing about the punishment of God’s (and their) enemies, not only in terms of the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments which they endure but also the everlasting torment inflicted upon them as described in 14:9-20.
“Thou King of the nations” alludes to Jer. 10:7.
“Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?” This, too, echoes Jer. 10:7.
If the answer to this question is, “No one,” i.e., everyone will fear and glorify God’s name, does this imply universalism? No. See Phil. 2:8-11.
“For Thou alone art holy; for all the nations will come and worship before Thee, for Thy righteous acts have been revealed,” all comes from Ps. 86:8-10 and Ps.98:2.
Again, those among the nations who do not respond voluntarily in saving faith will be divinely and justly compelled to acknowledge this truth. Bauckham takes a more positive approach, seeing in this text (v. 4) a reference to the conversion of the nations as they behold the vindication of God’s people and the righteousness of God’s ways.
We should probably read this as, “the temple which is the tabernacle . . .” The “testimony” here is a reference both to the 10 commandments which Moses placed in the ark of the tabernacle (Exod. 16:34; 25:21; 31:18; 32:15) and the “testimony of Jesus” (12:17) who is the fulfillment of the OT law.
The OT background to the concept of “seven plagues” is probably Lev. 26 where four times it is said that God will judge Israel “seven times” if she is unfaithful (vv. 18,21,24,28). Here, too, in Revelation we have four sets of seven judgments (seals, trumpets, thunders, bowls).
The verbal similarity between “the seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God” here in 15:7 and the “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” in 5:8, together with 8:3-5, suggests that the saints’ prayers for vindication in 6:9-11 are now being fully answered.
Smoke in the temple is a familiar biblical theme (see Exod. 40:34-35; 2 Chron. 5:13; Isa. 6:1; cf. 1 Kings 8:10-11). Here it is a tangible token or sign of God’s glory and power as revealed in the activity of judgment. But why does John tell us that no one can enter the heavenly temple until the bowl judgments are completed? Perhaps God is temporarily unapproachable because “his presence has become a presence of wrath and judgment” (Aune, 2:882). Others suggest that it is too late for any angelic mediator to present prayers of intercession for God to have mercy on the world. However, such prayers in Revelation are more likely those of the martyrs asking for vindication and retribution on their enemies (see 6:9-11). It may simply be that, as in Exod. 19:9-16 at Sinai, such a powerful manifestation of divine glory and strength is more than either humanity or the angelic community can bear.