Chapter 14 of Revelation opens as a counter point to the worship of the beast described in Chapter 13. As we have already noted the beast is the Roman emperor who demands worship of himself as a god. Many merchants and well-to-do citizens of the Roman province of Asia were grateful for the peace and prosperity which Rome had given to the region. Previously there had been numerous local wars and piracy at sea, now with the imposition of the Pax Romana, this resource rich province was able to experience new levels of prosperity. Out of gratitude, a cult to Roma and Augustus was established at Pergamum and then later in Smyrna. Pergamum even created a choral association which existed to sing hymns to Augustus as a god within his temple. It is very possible that the sound of harps and the singing of a new hymn before the throne in Chapter 14 stands in direct contrast to the worship of the emperor. The early Christians are called to live their lives purely for the Lamb and not to compromise.
Christians who rejected the worship of the emperor as a god, would be engaging in both a political and a religious act. The Lamb’s 144,000 previously mentioned in Chapter 7, now reappear and they have the Father’s name written on their foreheads as a counter point to the mark of the beast in Chapter 13. This number is symbolic representing the whole people of God, perhaps meaning the twelve tribes of Israel times the twelve apostles times 1000. The 144,000 are described as virgins who have been ransomed as the first-fruits of the human race (14:4). The word translated virgins is masculine and refers to male virgins. This usage is rare in Greek. This could refer to those who are living the evangelical counsels of perfection in a celibate life following Jesus’ example.
Three angels appear who make a universal proclamation of the good news. This is done as a final warning before the judgment. The emperor’s city Babylon had made the nations drink her licentious passion (14:8). The judgment on Rome is described as “the wine of God’s fury, poured full strength into the cup of his wrath” (14:10). Those who compromise with the emperor will suffer torment with burning sulfur (14:10) Drinking God’s wrath is a common Old Testament image of judgment (Psalm 60:3; 75:8; Isaiah 51:17, 21–23; 63:6; Jeremiah 25:15–18).
Jesus appears now with a golden crown as the final judge. The description of judge as “one like a son of man sitting on the cloud,” is a clear allusion to Dan. 7:13 (cf. Matt. 24:30). The tradition of the coming of the Son of Man is connected with both redemption and judgment. The Son of Man has a sickle for harvest and he is joined by angels from the Temple and altar in heaven to harvest the earth like grapes to be thrown into the great wine press of God’s fury.
The scene shifts in Chapter 15 to another sign in heaven which will involve seven angels with the seven last plagues. Before this begins there is another interlude where before “a sea of glass mingled with fire” John sees “those who had won the victory” (15:2). The fire is likely a symbol of God’s wrath. These saints were holding God’s harps and they sang the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (15:3). It is difficult to know if the reference to the song of Moses is an echo of Deuteronomy 32 or Exodus 15. Ultimately the witness of these conquerors is not intended to be vindictive, but to present a final call to salvation.
Directly paralleling the opening of the Temple in Revelation 11:19a, John says, “The temple that is the heavenly tent of testimony opened” (15:5). This parallelism makes it clear that the series of seven bowls which will begin in chapter 16, are a continuation of the narrative which began earlier in chapter 12. The seven bowls of God’s fury are a fuller version of the seventh trumpet (11:15).
The noted scripture scholar G.K. Beale notes,
Both trumpets and bowls present the plagues in the same order: plagues striking (1) the earth, (2) the sea, (3) rivers, (4) the sun, (5) the realm of the wicked with darkness, (6) the Euphrates (together with influencing the wicked by demons), and (7) the world with the final judgment (with the same imagery of “lightning, sounds, thunders, and earthquake” and “great hail”).
Although there is not an exact one-to-one correspondence between the seven trumpets and the seven bowls, they both follow a similar pattern based on the Exodus plagues (Exodus 7-9). Seven angels execute the seven plagues in each series. In both series, each woe with the exception of the sixth trumpet, alludes to an Exodus plague. Keeping in mind the contemporary historical perspective, the first six trumpets and the first five bowls cover the time between Christ’s resurrection and the second coming, while the last trumpet and the last two bowls narrate the events leading to the last or final judgment.
Seven angels pour out judgment. The first brings festering and ugly sores upon the earth (16:2). The second angel turns the sea “to blood like that from a corpse” killing everything in the sea (16:3). The third angel turns the rivers and springs of water to blood (16:4). The fourth angel causes the sun to burn people with fire (16:8). The fifth angel attacks the throne of the beast (16:10). The sixth angel causes demonic frog spirits to come from the mouth of the dragon and the false prophet. These spirits cause the kings to assemble at Armageddon (16:16) to make war against the Lamb. The seventh angel pours out his bowl into the air and “a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, ‘It is done.’” (16:17). The expression “It is done” is a single word in Greek. We are reminded that this is not a conflict among equals. God ends this conflict with a single word.
The narrative concludes with a cataclysmic final judgment upon the earth and the destruction of the great Babylon. Sadly there are still some who remain unrepentant, and who blaspheme God (16:21).
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.