11 September 2014Revelation 14:13 – 15:4
“‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God.” (vv. 18-19)
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
his truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! ..."
These lines from the American Battle Hymn of the Republic were first sung in the 1860s by Unionist soldiers who saw God's hand in their fight against their southern Confederate (and Christian) foes. This image of a bloody grape harvest as a metaphor for God's violent judgement of his enemies is found first in the Old Testament (eg Isaiah 63:3) and comes again here in today's passage. It is the second of two harvest images, the first being the rather more benign image of the ripe grain being gathered in (a common theme in Gospel parables), the fruit of the faithful who have sprung up from the seed of the gospel and the witness of the martyrs.
This passage continues the 'message' of Revelation: that the faithful who persevere in the face of persecution will be blessed, while those who fall away and "worship the beast and its image" (ie the Roman emperor) "will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (Revelation 14:9, 10). And just to make sure that there is no doubt in the minds of the readers, there are seven final plagues to come - "the bowls of God's wrath" (Revelation 16:1). Meanwhile, the faithful martyrs who, like Moses in the Exodus, have come through the sea and already reached the other side, 'sing the song of Moses and the Lamb' (verse 3. based on Exodus 15) celebrating God's imminent triumph. "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus." (Revelation 14:12).
- While we may understand that the morale of violently persecuted 1st-century Christians (and those 19th-century Unionist soldiers) was stiffened by the thought that God would soon wreak bloody vengeance on their enemies, what do we do with Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44)?
- This kind of violent imagery has always had a powerful hold on Christian imagination, and still shapes the beliefs of many. Would we be better off without the book of Revelation, as was seriously debated in the early centuries of the Church? Why?
- Crushing-to-death was practised by ancient Rome (sometimes using elephants), and was later used by the Church as an appropriate way to extract confessions from heretics, even in England in the late 1500s. How can we read Revelation responsibly, without turning the "Lamb of God" into a monster?