Babylon is doomed
Song of the virgins1 Then I saw the Lamb. He was standing on the Jerusalem ridge with the 144,000. These are the ones who wore on their foreheads his name and his Father’s name. 2 Then I heard a loud noise from heaven. It sounded like a thundering flash flood, or like a lot of harpists playing at the same time. 3 But it was a huge choir of the 144,000. They had a new song, and they were singing it in a big way right there in front of God’s throne, the four living beings, and the 24 leaders. The only ones who could learn the song were the 144,000. They were rescued from locations all over the world. 4 These are the people who didn’t dirty up their lives by messing around with the wrong women. They kept themselves pure as virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he leads. These people are the first fruit collected from the harvest—just a sampling of the spiritual fruit harvested for God and the Lamb. 5 There’s not a liar among them. They deserve to be here.
Three angels, three shocking messages6 I saw another angel. He flew right over my head. He carried with him good news about something that would last forever. It’s a message for people everywhere, no matter what country or community they live in or what language they speak. 7 The angel spoke loudly, “Give God the respect he deserves. He made heaven. He made earth. He made the sea. He made the freshwater springs. Worship him for that, because it’s time for him to judge the world. 8 A second angel came and said, “Babylon has fallen. She forced countries all over the world to drink her wine—to live by her immoral rules. She’s toast.” 9 A third angel spoke loudly, “I’ve got bad news for anyone who worships the beast or his statue or who gets the beast’s mark on a forehead or a hand. 10 That person is going to drink God’s wine. The vintage is Wrath, and it’s coming full strength. It’s going to burn. The person who drinks it will suffer flaming sulfur. And it’s going to happen in front of all God’s devoted angels and the Lamb. 11 Smoke from this fire will always be there. So will the pain. People won’t get any relief if they worshiped the beast and his statue or if they got the mark of the beast’s name written on themselves.”
Takeaway12 The takeaway for God’s devoted people is to keep the faith. Endure. They already trust Jesus. They should hold onto that. 13 I heard a voice in heaven saying, “Get this in writing: From now on, people who die devoted to the Lord are the fortunate ones, the blessed.” The Spirit added, “Absolutely! They can relax. All the hard work and the good they did in life follows them.”
Harvesting humans14 I looked up and, oh my! Sitting there on a white cloud was someone who looked like a man, a Son of Humans. He wore a gold wreath as crown on his head. And he held a sharp harvesting sickle. 15 Suddenly an angel came out of the temple in heaven. In a loud voice, the angel called over to the one sitting on the cloud, “Swing your sickle. It’s time to cut the crop and bring it in. Earth is ripe, and ready to harvest.” 16 The one who sat on the cloud raised his sickle and started swinging it across the earth. He cut the crop and harvested the world. 17 Another angel came out of heaven’s temple. He carried a sharp sickle, too. 18 Yet another angel—the one in charge of maintaining the altar fire at the temple—called over to the angel with the sickle. He said in a loud voice, “Swing your sickle. Cut the grape clusters from earth’s vine. The grapes are ripe.” 19 So the angel started swinging his sickle across the earth, cutting down the grapes. He threw the grapes into the winepress of God’s wrath. 20 The grapes were crushed in the winepress outside the city walls. Blood gushed out of the winepress. The blood rose as high as a horse's bridle and flooded the ground for about 180 miles (290 km).
Literally, “Mount Zion,” another name for Jerusalem. Scholars debate whether this scene takes place on earth or in the New Jerusalem of heaven, described in Revelation 21. Bible verses can support either view, it seems. On earth: Psalm 2:6. In heaven: Hebrews 12:22. John’s reference in 14:2 to hearing a voice from heaven, however, seems to suggest the voice comes from a different place. That would put the 144,000—whoever they are—on planet Earth, though some popular theories about their identity suggest they had been martyred. See note for Revelation 7:4 about who the 144,000 may have been.
There’s no widespread agreement about who the 144,000 represent. Some educated guesses: Jews devoted to God, Christian martyrs who held onto their faith through the Great Tribulation (an anticipated time of intense persecution), Jewish Christians, Christians whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, non-Jewish Christians because most of the Jewish people rejected Christianity. The number may not be literal, but a symbol of “complete,” as in God saving all the people who hold onto their faith. Twelve is a number, like seven, that represented completeness. Square it, 12 times 12, to get 144—that becomes an even more powerful symbol of completeness. Multiply that by 1,000, which is another number that symbolizes completeness, and we get 144,000, which is quite enough completeness to get the point across. That said, some take the number literally. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that 144,000 Christians will help Jesus rule in heaven. That might seem like a lot, but the United States federal government employs about two million fulltime workers to help lead and maintain the nation.
Some scholars say John is describing separate sounds. Perhaps a thundering following by the harp-like choir of 144,000. Others say it’s one overpowering crush of volume and harmony. You had to be there.
Some say this is the “new song” in Revelation 5:9-10. Others say, “new” means new. This is a different new song, possibly one John couldn’t understand since he didn’t write down the lyrics.
Some scholars identify the four beings as cherubim who the prophet Ezekiel said carried God’s throne out of the Jerusalem Temple before the city fell to Babylonian invaders in 586 BC (Ezekiel 10:18-20). They had four faces, with eyes looking in all four directions. Some say the idea of creatures like this positioned near a throne sounds like the winged lions and sphinxes of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. The images in John’s vision may have made more sense to him because he was familiar with these earlier and similar images.
The 24 leaders (literally “elders”) weren’t necessarily older adults, but people who held positions of authority in ancient Israel. Scholars can only guess who these people were. Among the many guesses: (1) Representatives of Israel and the Church, with 12 from the dozen tribes of Israel and 12 of Jesus’ disciples. (2) Leaders of the 24 divisions of Israel’s musicians (1 Chronicles 25). (3) Christian martyrs. (4) Jewish leaders from Old Testament times.
Literally, “redeemed from the earth.” The vague phrase could also refer to “earth” as the sinful world that had resisted God.
Literally, “These are the ones who didn’t defile themselves with women; they are virgins.” This could sound like John is saying the 144,000 are all men (sorry ladies) who never got married, or who never had sex with a woman, or who got married but never committed adultery. Those are among the educated guesses of scholars. Other scholars suggest John was talking about spiritual adultery through worshiping idols, or worshiping the Roman emperor, or perhaps getting caught up in heretical worship practices involving Jezebel (2:20) and pagan practices involving the Mother of all Prostitutes: Babylon, meaning Rome (17:3-9). Old Testament writers often described idolatry as adultery (Jeremiah 13:27). The entire book of Hosea feeds off that theme.
By “first fruit,” John may have meant that the 144,000 souls are just a sampling of the harvest to come through the hard days of the end times. Other possibilities. (1) They are the first wave of Christians; those folks were Jews. (2) They represent the best of humanity, since the first fruits that Jews brought to the Temple priests were the best of their first harvest (Exodus 23:19).
Literally, “They’re blameless.” The Greek word describes an animal free of defects and fit to serve as a sacrificial animal, which is a gift to God. Jews were to offer only the best animals in sacrifice, ones they considered worthy as an offering to Almighty God.
“Babylon” became a code name for Rome after Rome leveled Jerusalem in AD 70. The Babylonian Empire had done the same thing in 586 BC.
The phrase “the wrath of the LORD” (Ezekiel 7:19 New American Standard Bible) shows up a lot in the Old Testament prophets, when they warned people to stop their incessant sinning.
Literally “son of man.” This is a title Jesus used a lot to describe himself. In the Jewish Bible the phrase contains hints of divinity in some passages and humanity in others—perhaps a perfect phrase for describing someone Christians would say was fully God and fully human. Hint of the divine: the prophet Daniel “saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13 New Living Translation). Hint of the human: God often described Ezekiel as a mere mortal by using the phrase “son of man” (Ezekiel 2:1 New Living Translation).
A sickle is a farming blade that’s curved and was used to hand-cut wheat, barley, and other crops.
It sounds like a fulfillment of Joel 3:14: “Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe.” (New Living Translation). Some scholars say they see in this a metaphor of judgment and punishment through destruction and death, as though the world is experiencing its last gasp before dying.
It sounds like another reference to Joel 3:14: “Tread the grapes, for the winepress is full. The storage vats are overflowing with the wickedness of these people.” (New Living Translation).
Some say they see this as a reference to the thousands of Jews that Roman invaders crucified outside Jerusalem’s city walls when they besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.
Could be about 4.5 feet (1.5 meters).
Literally 1,600 stadia. Each stadion was about 600 feet (185 meters). So, the measurement was about 180 miles or 290 kilometers. That’s roughly the distance of the most livable stretch of ground in what is now Israel and Palestinian Territories, from Mount Hermon in the north to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. Some students of the Bible say they see in these high numbers an exaggerated, symbolic way of describing Rome’s invasion of the Jewish homeland, culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. An eyewitness historian, Josephus, put the Jewish body count at 1.1 million. Others say it points to an end-time battle in the Jewish homeland.
John again writes about the mysterious 144,000 people. Take a second look at the question we raised about that in Revelation 7. See if you think Revelation 14:1-5 offers new clues about who they might be. Here’s the question from Revelation 7.
The big question in Revelation 7 is this: “Who are the 144,000 John vaguely describes as people ‘from all 12 tribes of Israel’ (7:4)?” What complicates the mystery is that for many early Christians, the definition of ‘Israel’ had changed. It didn’t mean Jews only. It meant everyone devoted to God, whether they’re Jewish or not.
Just for fun, let’s say 14:1-5 is just a metaphor. Everything is symbolic. There are no 144,000 people. They don’t have anything written on their foreheads. Paul Simon doesn’t write a new version of Loves Me Like a Rock for the heavenly choir. If these verses are a metaphor, what are they metaphoring? (I know, I made up the word “metaphoring.”)
We can only guess what the “new song” (14:3) was that the choir of 144,000 sang. And we can only guess why they alone were able to learn the song. So, we should probably guess. What’s your guess?
John says the 144,000 “didn’t dirty up their lives by messing around with the wrong women. They kept themselves pure as virgins” (14:4). It’s hard to know how to respond to that. As the one writing these discussion questions with the leader’s guide, I’m inclined to say if I had been John, I would either have said it another way or explained what I meant by that. John did neither. Why this reference to sexuality in a setting like this, singing a new song in front of God himself?
This is the first time the word “Babylon” shows up in Revelation. “A second angel came and said, ‘Babylon has fallen. She forced countries all over the world to drink her wine—to live by her immoral rules. She’s toast’” (14:8). Taken literally, this was no newsflash. The Babylonian Empire headquartered in what is now Iraq fell about 600 years earlier, when Persians from what is now Iran invaded. Many scholars say John used “Babylon” as a symbol for Rome, though some say it stands for Jerusalem. Does it sound to you like John is talking about the Roman Empire here? Or is he talking about something else? You can guess. The scholars do.
Okay, this is a tough question. Sinners are going to burn forever? Really? Is God that vindictive? John says anyone who worshiped the beast or got the mark of the beast is going to experience God’s wrath: “flaming sulfur… Smoke from this fire will always be there. So will the pain. People won’t get any relief if they worshiped the beast” (14:10-11). How does what John say here track with what Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Colossae:
“This was God’s peace plan.
He would reconcile with everyone in heaven and on earth.
He would do it through the blood of Christ on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Take a look at 14:14-20, the section about harvesting humans and crushing people like grapes in a winepress. What difference do you think it would make if we took this passage literally or if we took it as symbolic from start to finish?
LIFE APPLICATION. We often think of praising God for salvation, for sending his Son to save us. But an angel flying above John reminds us we have more to thank God for: “Give God the respect he deserves. He made heaven. He made earth. He made the sea. He made the freshwater springs. Worship him for that” (14:7). What can we add to that list of reasons to worship God?