This is the third of the three visions of chapter 19. It follows upon the vision of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth as a conquering warrior (vv. 11-16), an Anointed (Messianic) ruler leading the heavenly army into battle. Here the end-time Judgment is cast in terms of the defeat of the nations, with the destruction of their kings and armies. It picks up on the unresolved sixth bowl-vision (16:12-16), where the kings of the earth gather for battle on the plain of “Megiddo” (the Har-Megiddo[n], Grk (Armagedw/n, cf. Zech 12:11). This is the ancient “Day of YHWH” motif from Old Testament Prophetic tradition, as best epitomized by the Judgment-scene in Joel 3. In the sixth bowl-vision, the defeat of the nations is implied but never realized; this occurs here in verses 17-21, an echo of the earlier grape-harvest vision of 14:17-20.
“And I saw one Messenger having stood in the sun, and he cried out [in] a great voice, saying to all (the) birds taking wing [i.e. flying] in the middle of (the) heaven(s): ‘Come here! you must be brought together unto the great dinner of God, so that you might eat (the) flesh of kings and (the) flesh of chiefs of a thousand, and (the) flesh of strong (one)s and (the) flesh of horses and the (one)s sitting upon them, and (the) flesh of all free (person)s and also slaves, and of little (one)s and great (one)s (alike)!'”
According to the ancient religious worldview, divine beings were closely associated with the natural phenomena of the universe, and so it is with the heavenly Messengers (Angels) in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Throughout the book of Revelation, Angels are depicted as controlling the forces of nature, including the elements (fire and water, etc) as well as the specific parts of the cosmos (seas and rivers, the dry land, the sun, etc). At various points, these Messengers are seen standing in connection or contact with the natural features or cosmic regions (7:1; 10:5); here, one particular Messenger is standing “in/on the sun” (e)n tw=| h(li/w|). This makes for a most dramatic and brilliant appearance, as is fitting for such a climactic moment, similar to the Messenger who announces the fall of the Great City in 18:1-2.
The heavenly Messengers are often seen standing or flying in the heavens, giving them much in common with the birds of the sky; indeed, the two ‘heavenly’ motifs were joined together previously in 8:13 (cp. 14:6). Now the Messenger speaks directly to all the birds flying in the heavens, inviting them to come to feast on the flesh of the great multitudes who will be slain in battle. This image echoes 18:2, where it is announced that the Great City (“Babylon”) will become the haunting place for scavenging birds and wild animals—the implication being, in part, that they will be able to feed off of the dead bodies in the desolate and destroyed City. The actual language here in vv. 17-18 alludes to Ezekiel 39:17-18, part of what is surely the most elaborate “Day of YHWH” oracle in the Old Testament Prophets, depicting the Judgment against the Nations (and their defeat in battle) on the grandest scale. This is the so-called “Gog and Magog” prophecy in Ezek 38-39, and reflects an extensive development of the Judgment scene in Joel 3, where a vast confederation of nations comes together for battle against God and His People. Imagery and symbolism from this same oracle will continue into the visions of chapter 20.
Here, a multitude even more vast is indicated—the nation’s armies being made up from every part of society: free and slave, small and great, alike. Thus, the scene truly represents God’s Judgment against the nations as a whole, not just their leaders.
“And I saw the wild animal, and the kings of the earth and their (group)s (of) armed soldiers, having been brought together to make war with the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse and with his (own group of) armed soldiers.”
This “wild animal” (qh/rion) is the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, whose presence has remained all through the visions of chap. 14, the bowl-visions of chaps. 15-16, and on into the climactic visions of chaps. 19-20. In the sixth-bowl vision (16:12-16), the Sea-creature (along with his evil ally, the Earth-creature or ‘False Prophet’) drew all the kings of the earth to this location, in order to do battle. What was implied there is now made explicit: their purpose is to make war with God’s Anointed (Jesus) and the People of God (Believers). This was already stated clearly enough in the visions of chapters 12 and 13 (see esp. 13:7), but now it is expressed in terms of the Last Judgment itself, through the image of a great battle.
It was a basic principle of Apocalyptic tradition that the nations, in their wickedness, were influenced and guided, in a very real sense, by the forces of evil. In many Jewish writings of the time, these evil forces were personified in the figure of Belial—a figure largely synonymous (but not necessarily identical) with the Satan/Devil. The demonic powers, led by Belial, join with the wicked human forces of the nations, much as the holy Angels join together with the People of God (the righteous/Elect). This is perhaps best expressed in the famous Qumran War Scroll (1QM, and related texts), anticipating a great end-time war between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness” (cf. 1QM 1:1-7; 11:6-7; 13:10; 15:2; 17:6-7, etc). The idea of an end-time attack by the nations and their armies, with their subsequent defeat by the Messiah, was a staple of Jewish eschatology (e.g. 2 Baruch 70:2-10; 72:1-6; 2/4 Esdras 13:5-11; Sibylline Oracles 3:657-68; for an earlier manifestation, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17-18). It was, of course preceded by Ezekiel 38-39 and other nation-oracle passages in the Prophets. For these and other references, cf. Koester, p. 760.
“And the wild animal was seized, and with him the ‘False Foreteller’, the (one) (hav)ing done the signs in his sight, (and) in which he led astray the (one)s (hav)ing received the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] his image—the(se) two were thrown, (still) living, into the lake of fire, the (place of) burning in sulphur.”
While all of the human beings are slain (v. 21), the two figures representing or embodying the forces of evil—the Sea-creature and Earth-creature (called False Prophet)—are captured alive. Since these two are symbolic of evil demonic powers, their fate belongs to the Judgment in its heavenly, not earthly, aspect. The heavenly aspect of the Judgment was alluded to, though only briefly, in 14:9-11; it will come into focus only in the visions of chapter 20. There, too, mention was made specifically of the heavenly punishment that awaits those who worshiped the Sea-creature and received its engraved mark (xa/ragma), indicating that such persons belong to the creature. The motif of the “lake of fire” as a punishment will be discussed in the upcoming notes on 20:7-14. There I will also summarize again the symbolism of the Sea-creature within the overall context of the book of Revelation.
“And the (one)s remaining were killed off in [i.e. by] the sword of the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse, the (sword hav)ing come out of his mouth, and the birds fed (as they would on green grass) out of their flesh.”
In verses 20-21, the figure of the conquering warrior (Jesus) is referenced simply as “the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse”, the emphasis thus being on the victorious power he possesses (the white horse signifying victory). It is by the sword (r(omfai/a) coming out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth that the people are slain. As discussed in the previous note, this “sword” is best understood as the Word of God, which is also to be identified with the Spirit of God (cf. the LXX of Isa 11:4). The exalted Jesus, as God’s representative (Anointed One and Son of God), himself possesses this Word, so that he even may be called “the Word of God” (v. 13).
As in the oracle of Ezek 38-39, the result of the great battle is a scene of total destruction and carnage. Ordinarily birds would come down onto the green grass to feed; now, these scavenging birds of prey come down onto the battlefield to feed on the flesh of the dead bodies. The verb xorta/zw alludes, literally, to animals grazing on lush green grass (xo/rto$); this came to be a common idiom for eating (or enjoying oneself) so as to be fully satisfied. Here the idiom (taken rather more literally), creates a grimly ironic scene—birds flocking to enjoy themselves on the flesh of slain human beings. There is irony in another sense as well: in verse 17, the Messenger called the birds to gather to a great dinner (dei=pnon) of God. This same word was used earlier in verse 9 for the dinner celebrating the marriage of believers (the bride) with the Lamb (the groom, Jesus). There, heavenly beings (human and angelic) were invited to a great feast signifying salvation; here, the birds are invited to a similar feast signifying judgment.