Revelation 14:14-20, continued
In the previous note, we examined the scene of the grain harvest (vv. 14-16), in which the “Son of Man” (the exalted Jesus) performs the act of harvesting, at God’s command (by way of a Messenger). This is a depiction (for the first time in the visions of the book) of the end-time return of Jesus to earth. His coming (parousia) ushers in the great Judgment, and the scene in vv. 14-16 certainly indicates the moment of the Judgment and its beginning. However, the grain harvest itself primarily signifies the gathering of believers at the time of Jesus’ return, and is thus a positive image of salvation. It is with the grape harvest, in vv. 17-20, that we have a depiction of the other side of the Judgment—the punishment of the wicked.
Verses 17-20: The Grape Harvest
“And another Messenger came out of the shrine th(at is) in heaven, and he (also) holding a sharp plucking-tool [i.e. sickle].” (v. 17)
The initial description of this scene closely matches that in vv. 14-16, with a Messenger acting in place of the “Son of Man”. Like the Messenger who gave the command in that scene, the one who conducts the harvest here comes from “out of the shrine [nao/$]”, that is, the sanctuary of the heavenly ‘Temple’ where God dwells. Here the location in heaven is specified. That a Messenger acts (instead of Jesus himself) perhaps reflects the traditional Angelic association with the Judgment upon the earth. The idea that natural forces and powers were controlled by heavenly/divine beings is a fundamental part of ancient religious thought. Throughout the book of Revelation, heavenly Messengers (a&ggeloi) deliver the Judgment (in its earthly aspect), both in terms of natural disaster/upheaval and pain/suffering for humankind. This will be depicted vividly in the Bowl-visions of chapters 15-16 (to be discussed).
“And another Messenger [came] out of the place of (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] holding e)cousi/a upon the fire, and he gave voice [i.e. shouted] with a great voice to the (one) holding the sharp plucking-tool, declaring: ‘You must send (out) your sharp plucking-tool and take while ripe the bunches of the vine of the earth, (in) that [i.e. because] her grapes are at the point (of ripeness)!'” (v. 18)
As in the grain harvest scene, another Messenger comes out of the sanctuary with a command (from God the Father) for the harvester to act. This time, the Messenger comes specifically from out of the altar in the sanctuary. I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, however it can refer to an altar even when no animal sacrifice is involved. Indeed, the altar in the visions of Revelation is the altar for burning incense (in the sanctuary) rather than that for animal sacrifices (in the Temple courtyard)—cf. 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1, but note the possible allusion to sacrifice in 6:9. This Messenger is said to have e)cousi/a over (i.e. authority, the ability to act, etc) “the fire”, i.e. the fire of the altar. This corresponds to the scene in 8:3-5, where an Angel takes fire from the altar and hurls it down to earth; this marks the onset of the great Judgment (portrayed in the Trumpet-vision cycle of chaps. 8-9). Here, the fire has a similar meaning, as a foreshadowing of the Judgment, which likewise will be portrayed in the Bowl-vision cycle (chaps. 15-16).
As with the grain harvest, the grape harvest occurs in the heat of summer at the moment when the grapes are ripe. They must be harvested quickly, as soon as the clusters (bo/trua$) are ripe, otherwise the fruit may be ruined or lost. This is indicated by the language used (vbs truga/w and a)kma/zw), and gives to the Judgment-scene a dramatic sense of suddenness and urgency, as befits the eschatological idiom.
“And the Messenger cast his plucking-tool into the earth and took (fruit) while ripe (from) the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great trough of the (angry) impulse of God. And the trough was tread down outside of the city, and blood came out of the trough (flowing) until (it reached up) to the horses’ bridles, from a thousand and six-hundred stadia (all around).” (vv. 19-20)
The harvest imagery, as a symbol of the end-time Judgment, while traditional, alludes here specifically to Joel 3:13ff; indeed, the command in verse 15 echoes that in Joel 3:13, as does the trough for pressing the wine in vv. 19-20. This pressing, performed by trampling the harvested grapes, was a suitable motif for Divine Judgment in the nation-oracles of Prophets, whereby judgment would come in the form of a people being “trampled” by an enemy (Lam 1:15; Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5, etc). The specific oracle in Joel 3 involves a time of judgment (the “day of YHWH”) for the nations surrounding Israel, viewed collectively. They will be gathered in the “valley of YHWH’s judging [Y§hôš¹¸¹‰, i.e. where YHWH judges]” (verse 1), understood to be a location near Jerusalem, variously identified with the Hinnom, Kidron, or “King’s” valley. In particular, the Hinnom valley, once associated with the vilest of pagan sacrifices (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Jer 32:35), and called the “valley of slaughter” (Jer 7:31-32; 19:5-6), is probably the location in view. Its subsequent use as a place for burning garbage, caused it to be utilized also as a symbol of the fire of judgment that will consume the wicked. Hebrew <N)h!-ayG@ (gê°-Hinnœm), transliterated in Greek as Ge/enna (English Gehenna), served as a technical term for the punishing fire (Mark 9:43ff; Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; Luke 12:5, etc).
The juice from the pressed-grapes in the trough (lhno/$) functions as a two-fold image. First is the ordinary process of producing wine. The wine-cup was a symbol for the wickedness of the great city (“Babylon”), as also of the divine Judgment that comes in response to it (vv. 8, 10, cf. the prior note). In both instances the noun qumo/$ was used, a word I render as “impulse”, that is, the impulse to passionate wickedness or to righteous anger, as the case may be. It is used again here in the latter sense, for the anger (o)rgh/) of God and His desire to punish evil.
The wine-trough is located “outside of the city”. This should be understood, figuratively, in relation to the “great city”, whether identified by the name “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Sodom”, etc. The immediate reference is to Jerusalem, in light of the prophecy in Joel 3. However, it should not be read as a concrete geographic location any more than the “wine-trough” should be understood as a simple physical object. It is part of a set of symbols meant to depict the great Judgment upon the earth. The same is true of the second aspect of the grape-juice—as an image of blood. Playing upon military imagery, we have the idea of people being ‘trampled’ and slaughtered in battle. It is depicted in extreme, exaggerated terms—as a vast river or lake of blood filling up the valley (on this imagery, cf. Isa 34:3; Ezek 32:5-6; 2 Macc 12:16; 1 Enoch 100:1-3; 2/4 Esdras 15:35-36; Sibylline Oracles 5:372; Koester, p. 625). The significance of the specific number of 1,600 stadia (= about 200 miles) is unclear, beyond as a general way to indicate the vast scope of the carnage. Some manuscripts instead read 1,200 stadia, which is more obviously a symbolic number. Here 1,600 may be meant to indicate a complete coverage of the earth, i.e. its four corners, etc—4 x 4 x 100.
References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).