11. Preparing Grape Music
Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.
There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.”
So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
Have you ever heard an orchestra warming up? The strings squawk with a stretch, the brass section clears its throat with croak, the percussion thunders without unity. A young child hearing all this for the first time might wonder, “Has everyone come to hear this noise?” But a period of warming up—of preparing instruments and preparing the audience—the orchestra begins to play.
This might be something like what’s happening in Revelation 14; the music to remake the universe is being readied. The Song of the Universe is about to sing.
We’re also approaching the end of our small cartoon in the middle of Revelation. Back in chapter 12, John had paused his story—like a filmmaker using a flashback—in order to reflect on the central revelation of Revelation.
That central revelation is that the self-giving, radically-forgiving, enemy-embracing, suffering Love who sits at the heart of the universe will save the world. John saw this Love as a Lamb (Rev 5) before finally seeing his saving purposes “unsealed” (Rev 6-7) and being invited to “eat the scroll” to proclaim them to his churches (Rev 10).
Proclaiming God’s purposes came in the form of a parable about two witnesses (Rev 11). It was a story about the church itself embodying Love to the point of death (11v3-12). And this loving witness does what nothing else can. No act of judgment, no show of force, no plagues of Egypt, can accomplish what love to the point of death does. The witness of the church sees a sprawling symbolic number of people turning from darkness and worshipping God (11v13).
When the church follows the life of the Lamb wherever he goes—always in love, even into death—the world is changed. Lives are saved.
Cue the animation sequence (Rev 12-14). Ever since this eye-opening “revelation,” John has drawn us into a strange, dream-like cartoon to explore it from different angles. He told us about the baby (12v5) whose very arrival defeated all the forces of evil (12v7-8). He introduced us to great symbolic “signs”: the people of God as a dazzling Woman, a terrible Dragon, and its two monsters of idolatrous government and local culture that wage war against them (13v7). The forces of evil from sky and sea and earth1 all conspire against (and succeed in conquering!) the Lamb lovers. It’s a strange few chapters in an already strange book.
But now we’re plunging back into the John’s primary story at breakneck speed, zipping back up to our balcony seating as the climactic crescendo approaches. But somehow all these animated characters are coming with us. The cartoon is spilling off the screen running amok, the beasts bursting forth Jumanji-style.
Revelation 14 also navigates us back to the prime balcony seating we were granted in heaven (4v1 onward). John’s cartoon had escorted us into lower levels of the cosmos to explore a desert wilderness (12v6,14) and a seashore (13v1) and the earth itself (13v11). But now we’re suddenly swept back skyward with John as the heavens prepare to unroll the secret symphony of salvation.
There are three key moments as we rise back to heaven. We ascend with John to the top of Mount Zion (v1). Then our feet drift away from terra firma and we’re midair with some angels (14v6). Finally we’re on a white cloud (v14) with a view of the temple2 in heaven (v17). That’s the sweeping camera shot. That’s the journey we make as the orchestra warms up.
Let’s pause and listen at all three of these moments to see if we can anticipate something of the coming music.
First, we follow John in being swept upward, and find ourselves on a mountain (v1). Mount Zion—the literal mountain on which stood Jerusalem and her Temple. Instead of that holiest of sites, however, we now find the Lamb and his followers standing as that junction-point between heaven and earth.
John understands his eyes before he understands his ears. He can’t make sense of what he’s hearing. It simply sounds like a loud noise (v2)—like roaring waterfall or a crackling thunderstorm. But suddenly he recognizes a chorus rather than chaos behind his initial confusion:
“Now that I’m listening, it actually sounds like the string section—like harpists playing their harps (v2).”
That’s the string section warming up.
John once again spies the great, uncountable army—the highly symbolic 144,000—that we first met in chapter 7. That, by the way, is what the language about these men “not defiling themselves” and being “virgins” is all about (v4). That’s the way the Old Testament talks about a devout, ritually pure military force.3
Now this elite squadron stands victorious on a mountaintop. Even though the Enemy wages war against them (12v17), they are victorious. They win despite the Beasts killing and conquering them (13v7).
And they’re singing.
Singing a mysterious, secret song. A song no one can learn expect those who have been redeemed (v3).
There is darkness in the world. Plenty of monsters and chaos and suffering and evil. Not only in the world back then or near the end of history, but in our world—in our lives—right now. But there’s also something deeper. Something more real than the darkness. There’s a song behind all the noise. And it’s possible to learn the song.
Learning the song of salvation is not as quick or simple as praying a prayer, checking off a list, or just believing “the right things about the right things.” It would God’s Spirit teaches us his song over time, gradually, as a habit of our lives. As we trust again and again that the Lamb has already claimed us. As we rest in the reality that we have already been “purchased” for God (v4).
The music of salvation—that is, ultimate meaning, purpose, beauty, truth, and peace—gets formed within us as we follow the Lamb wherever he goes (v4). Further up… into love. Further in… to painful self-giving. Further up, further in, through death into victory.
We keep ascending—higher than even this mountain!—and that brings us to the second moment, when John is swept into sky to see angels flying in midair (v6). Three of them. Maybe they’re woodwinds. Clarinets and oboes and bassoons. Their sound is beautiful and haunting.
Beautiful. They proclaim eternal gospel, eternal good news, to those who live on the earth (14v6). Verse 7: “Fear God!—discover the beginning of wisdom!—and give him glory4!”
Haunting. They sound caution. Make sure you heed this good news. Remember that those who patiently remain faithful to Jesus (v12) will rest from their labor, rest from suffering, rest from fear. They will “rest from pain and rest from wrong.”5 For their deeds “will follow them” (v13). The song of Life will have been woven so deeply into them that even in death, they will be blessed. They’re going to find rest.
That’s not saying that these people did the right things to somehow get God on their side.6 No, God is already, always on our side. That’s the good news—the eternal gospel—that we’re always invited to believe. That we too have been “purchased” for God. And as we begin to believe this good news, the Spirit begins to slowly, mysteriously bring more and more of our lives into alignment with his true Life.7 And that (of course) eventually includes our outer lives.
Good deeds don’t save anyone. They are, however, a clue that the Spirit is saving us—saturating us with his music. That God has begun forming us into the kind of people who will actually enjoy his presence.
Because not everyone can.
Some experience a torturous existence
even in the presence of Love himself (v10).
That’s the haunting sound of the woodwinds—the terrifying dissonant chords from these angels. There will be “no rest” (v11) for those whose hearts chase after a different lover than the Lamb… a woman named Lady Babylon.
This is the first we’re hearing of “Babylon the Great” who appears as a twisted reflection of the dazzling Woman we met in the desert. Her full fifteen minutes of fame come in a few chapters,8 but the prepping orchestra gives us a preview of her story.
We learn that Babylon is some kind of adulterous woman with a drinking problem (v8). Oh, and a city too. Hence the name. A woman, a city, a people—all rolled up in one.9 She mirrors the opposite values of God’s people. In this Whore-City we find total rejection of the purposes of God; life in absolute opposition to God.
And this “Woman” is not sheltered or protected or rescued. This Woman, this kind of life, is “fallen” (v8). She’s coming to an end.
Like other ancient cities of Old Testament, this Babylon will be destroyed by fire and sulfur (v10-11).10 That’s the way “no rest” is described. The ancient prophetic images of burning sulfur and endless smoke symbolize the seriousness of a life hardened forever against the love of God.11
The language is graphic and terrifying. And it should be. This is what human existence becomes when we reject God’s purposes. Should we align ourselves against the Good, the Beautiful, and the True revealed in Jesus, our hearts gravitate to the Hateful, the Ugly, and the False. We embrace what cannot last. We love what cannot give life. We cling to what will destroy us. Life in opposition to God is a tortured existence. An existence of self-chosen, self-centered, self-inflicted torment.12
It would seem that if we want to forever drink the “maddening wine” (v8) of life in opposition to Love, we may get what we want (v10).
And that brings us to the third moment—the third section of the orchestra. On a white cloud, high in the sky, we find angels preparing for harvest (v14-20). They’re perhaps almost like the percussion, excitedly banging the drums that “the time” is almost here. The great holiday of harvest time is about to arrive!
We don’t live in an agrarian society. Some of us who cultivate small gardens for fresh vegetables, but almost none of us grow all of our own food. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine the excitement that harvest time has brought people throughout human history. Harvest is when all all the work finally pays off. Harvest is when there’s nothing left to do but enjoy. Harvest is when we feast and drink and celebrate.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are our closest knock-offs at the end of the year, but almost none of us worry that these celebrations might not arrive. That a swarm of locusts might destroy all our turkey and dressing, or that our Christmas tree will wither away from a lack of rain.
Our holidays come like clockwork free from any threat.
Harvest, on the other hand, was never something you take for granted. It’s not a sure thing. It’s something you long for, something you hope to see. And when it arrives, you celebrate in a big big way.
These angels are banging the drum that the uncertain experience of God’s people will soon be over—the holiday of the harvest is about to arrive. And because of the Church—those Two Witnesses, that dazzling Woman, the 144,000—the “harvest” is going to be huge. Because God’s people follow the Lamb in loving to the point of death and have been offered as a sacrifice of firstfruits (v4), the earth is ripe (v15) and full of people who revere God and love the Lamb:
“BOOM. Bring in the harvest!
BOOM. It’s time to feast!
BOOM. It’s time to celebrate!”
Chapter 14 is an orchestra warming up and saying:
“It’s all going somewhere. Heaven is about to play the symphony of salvation—the secret song of those victorious martyrs on Mount Zion, the eternal good news of rest for those who follow the Lamb, the hymn of the harvest and a feast that never ends.13 Can we PLEASE move this along and get started? Let’s unleash this symphony!”
And they will. An orchestra only warms up so long. The final movement of the symphony begins in Revelation 15 to usher us into the end of the book, the end of the age of evil, and the crisp beginning of eternal dawn.
None of this is mere flowery language or rhetorical flourish. One day history as we know it will disappear beneath the incoming tide of God’s great day of love. Death will be swallowed up in victory. Suffering and sickness by life eternal. This calls for “patient endurance” (v12) by all who cling to Jesus when evil seems to be triumphing. An orchestra only warms up so long… but it feels like forever sometimes.
“Sometimes”? Who am I kidding? Let’s get honest: It feels a day never coming… a symphony never starting.
Perhaps the last image of Revelation 14 speaks to this.
Before the dawn of the world remade by love, we all experience something different. A painful darkness. A world of weeds. So before the holiday of the harvest can arrive, we need the world purged of the Enemy’s weeds—wickedness, evil, hatred, and death.
That de-weeding is part of the symphony too.
It comes next chapter in the form of seven bowls of wine—the wine of God’s fury (v10). The “wrath of God.” That is, God’s love fermented and distilled into such a blistering vintage that it burns away all that is not love. More on this next chapter. For now, we catch a glimpse of that beautiful wine being made.
After the image of a wheat harvest comes a different kind of harvest—the harvest of grapes and the making of wine. The common, everyday process of gathering grapes (v18) and crushing them in a winepress (v19) comes as another image of God’s plan.
And this image of grapes and wine is shocking. But not for the reasons we might initially think.
Because—best I can understand this difficult, ambiguous image—it doesn’t seem like it’s the blood of the enemies of God that runs for 1600 stadia (v20). Which is what we think a lot times. That’s our instinct.14 God is going to crush his enemies. (Conveniently, they’re also usually our enemies.) God is going to make their blood flow.15
But if we read carefully, no where are we told that the grapes are the enemies of God. We fill that part in. But as we keep reading we discover that the enemies of God are those who drink the wine from the winepress. The end of Revelation 14 with its river of blood from God’s winepress (v19) flows naturally into Revelation 15 & 16, where we finally see seven great bowls of wine (= wrath16) being poured out. That’s the mysterious way God judges evil—he pours it more and more of its own brew (14v8).
We’re told Lady Babylon was drunk on the blood of God’s people (17v6). And later John looks back on the bowls of “wrath” and recognizes that God poured Babylon a double of her very own drink (18v6).
The deeds of the righteous follow them (v13),
and the drinks of the wicked follow them.
So if these grapes aren’t the enemies of God… then who are they?
The number 1,600 looks suspiciously symbolic (if you couldn’t tell). And it just so happens that it’s an approximate length of “the promised land” of Palestine.17 It’s the symbolic living space of the people of God.18 It seems that just as the people of God are the wheat, the people of God are also grapes.19
The percussion section surprises us. It’s a unusual rhythm they set for the song. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is always the rhythm of God’s salvation—the rhythm of the cross. The Lamb saves the world through love to the point of death, and his lovers follow him wherever he goes (v4). The people of God—victorious, harvested, safe at rest—arrive there crushed.20
Following the Lamb wherever he goes, does not mean that we somehow avoid suffering. In reality, it’s basically the opposite. It’s like John reminds us again—in yet another picture—that our safety comes through sacrifice. Through trusting the Lamb’s sacrifice and following him wherever he goes.
The church is at the heart of how Jesus saves. Jesus does not spare us from suffering, but he does transform our suffering. Jesus transforms our blood to be like his: poured out to heal the world of evil.
For those of us bleeding as we await the cosmic concert of the ages, perhaps the grapes whisper comfort. When life is impossibly hard—in seasons when the darkness is crushing—may know that God doesn’t waste a drop of our suffering. It is a great mystery: God saves the world by pouring out his own blood and by pouring out those who follow him.
The only saving thing Jesus can give us is his very own life. And Jesus’ life was crushed for the life of the world. His blood poured out—flowing like a river—so that love can transform the world. That’s all we’re ever given… God gives us himself. That’s what we’re invited into… into the life of the Lamb. And then even our suffering, struggle, and defeat—even our being crushed—somehow God takes all of it and transforms it into wine.
Our lives often sound like a disjointed, confusing racket. And we suffer, and watch each other suffer, as we await the symphony’s song. Perhaps alongside our prayers to be spared from suffering (“deliver us from evil”), we should practice the prayer of grapes. Perhaps we should invite God to transform our suffering into wine that heals the world.
That is how God saves the world. It’s an inside job. God is making wine out of our suffering—white-hot, healing love that vanquishes evil and heals the world. Jesus shares his life with us. This is our hope, and it calls for patient endurance.
Father, until your great and glorious day of striking up the band for the symphony of love to make all things new, may you open us to learning your secret song today. May we follow the Lamb wherever he goes. May our deeds follow us as you form your life within us. May we trust that even our deep struggles—even our deep sufferings—can and will usher in your new world of love.
- Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 32.
- Like all of the language in Revelation, the language of “the temple in heaven” seems to be symbolic of realities too mysterious and too real for us to understand. In chapter 21, we’re told that God’s new reality has “no temple” (v22) because of God’s immediate, accessible presence with his people.
- Compare Dest 23.9-10, 1 Sam 21.5, 2 Sam 11.8-11.
- That’s exactly what happens in Revelation 11.13 because of the witness of the Church (or the 144,000, the Woman, the Two Witnesses, pick your image).
- Lyrics from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Miserables.
- The heart of the gospel is always always always that God always and already loves his enemies to the point of death (Romans 5.8, cf. Matt 5.43-48).
- This is part of why Revelation makes a big deal about “lies” (Rev 14.5) and “liars” (20.8). This seems to be talking less about a pattern of telling white lies (as dangerous as that pattern may be to one’s character) and more about a pattern of living in a way completely counter to what is ontologically True (capital T)—namely the self-giving, sacrificial love of the Lamb.
- In Revelation 17
- The people of God also appear as a city (11.2) and a woman (12.1).
- The archetype of a city destroyed by fire is, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). The prophets frequently evoke this image when denouncing the practices of the culture around them.
- Particularly relevant is Isaiah 34.9-10 talking about the literal, historical fall of the nation of Edom. The language there is demonstrably symbolic. (The land is obviously not still literally burning nor smoke forever rising.) The grave and dire seriousness, however, of willfully, continuously living counter to God’s nature and purposes can only be hinted at—even with the powerful symbols of fire, sulfur, and smoke.
- Whatever else we might say about Rev 14.10-11, the poetic, artistic metaphors employed are a serious warning about “torment” not “torture.” Jesus does not torture people; Jesus endures torture for people. And Jesus is what God is always like. The character of God is at stake. The gospel is at stake. (Matthew 18.34 is a judgment parable that actually DOES use the word “torture” but its point seems akin to Rom 1.18,24,26,28 where God hands us over to what we’ve chosen even if they—not God, not “the king”—torture us.)
- The image of feasting returns positively in 19.9 and ominously in 19.21. The poetic prophecies of Isaiah 25.6-8 and Ezekiel 39.17-20 seem to stand behind these respective images.
- Contrast this instinct with Jesus’ description of the Father in Matthew 5.43-48.
- John seems to be drawing on a long tradition of harvest as God’s eschatological setting-right-the-world, and both Joel 3.23f and Isa 63.1-6 (cf. Rev 19.13-16) seem to be a primary source for his imagery. John, however, seems to have reworked Joel’s dual images of “harvesting” the wicked into dual images of “harvesting” the righteous—that is of safety (wheat; cf Matt 3.12, Lk 3.17, etc) and of sacrifice (grapes; cf. Matt 26.27-28, Phil 2.17, 2Tim 4.6). This combination of victorious safety and sacrificial witness is, of course, a common motif throughout Revelation (the Lamb = 5.6; “the witnesses” = 11.7 + 11.11-12; in song = 12.11; victorious over beasts = 13.7 + 15.2)
- Wrath comes in the form of wine (see 14.10, 16.19).
- Robert Mounce, NICNT, 281 and Beale, NIGTC, 782.
- And, of course, is also a number made by combining squares of the symbolic numbers of 4 and 10 which could symbolize universality and completeness of judgment. It’s the fittingness of the church in “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14.4) that pushes us to understand this number as “where disciples dwell.”
- “Although among the powers of this world, Babylon is the greater shedder of blood, this image fuses in John’s mind with the blood of the slaughtered Lamb and of his followers. Christ’s death thus becomes the definitive Christian interpretation of the words [of Isaiah 63.3]… Christ, then is both the harvester and the harvested, he who treads the vintage and he who is trodden upon by the powers of this world. He is ‘the trampled grape, the wine poured out, the dead for all the dead, the condemned for all the condemned’ (Ellul 1977: 179). The blood of Christ is a sign not of death but of life.” (Mangina, Revelation, 179). Indeed, the world-changing nature of Christ’s suffering now gets embodied through his people. This passages seems to flesh out with startling prophetic imagery (Isa 63.3) the challenge of following Jesus in costly discipleship laid out in Heb 13.12-13: “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood [so] let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” See also Caird, Revelation, 192-194; Sweet, Revelation, 232; Feuillet in his article “La moisson et la vending de l’Apocalypse” (1972).
- John seems to stand in a tradition that recognizes that God’s people can sometimes be crushed in the winepress (Lam 1.15) and borrowing Zechariah’s image of God “mak[ing] Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding nations reeling” (Zech 12.2. cf. also Jer 51.7 where Babylon becomes a “cup” of judgment). And he frames all of this in the dual harvest language of Joel 3.13.