In The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins vents:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
It seems odd that Dawkins, who has made a career out of pillorying a God he says does not exist, charges this fictional character with a plethora of crimes, including ethnic cleansing.
But the question itself is a valid one. When God instructs the Israelites to annihilate seven nations inhabiting the Promised Land to make room for His chosen people, He uses unambiguous terms.
In passages like Deut. 7:1-2 and 20:16-17, God tells the Israelites: “you must completely destroy them … you must not let any living thing survive.”
And the biblical narrative suggests the commands are taken quite literally: “They [the Israelites] completely destroyed everything in the city [Jericho] with the sword — every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep and donkey” (Josh. 6:21).
Does Dawkins have a point?
Rev. 15:1 – Then I saw another great and awe-inspiring sign in heaven: seven angels with the seven last plagues, for with them, God’s wrath will be completed. (HCSB)
This chapter describes the preparation in heaven for the final set of judgments. Seven angels emerge from the “tabernacle of testimony.” They are dressed in clean, bright linen with gold sashes around their chests. One of the four living creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl “filled with the wrath of God.” John informs us that with these final judgments “God’s wrath will be completed.”
John also views something like a sea of glass mixed with fire. Standing on the sea are those who have won victory over the beast. They have harps and sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. The sanctuary is filled with smoke from God’s glory, and no one may enter until the last seven judgments are complete.
Why are these judgments depicted as bowls filled with God’s wrath? Why does one of the four living creatures give the bowls to the angels? What is the sea of glass mixed with fire? Why are the people standing on the sea and holding harps? What are the songs of Moses and the Lamb? Why is there a sanctuary in heaven, and why is it filled with smoke?
Let’s search for answers.
Rev. 14:19 – So the angel swung his sickle toward earth and gathered the grapes from earth’s vineyard, and he threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. (HCSB)
The great winepress of God’s wrath
Verse 19 reads, “So the angel swung his sickle toward earth and gathered the grapes from earth’s vineyard, and he threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.” A winepress, also known as a wine vat, is a rectangular cavity carved out of rock or built artificially. Ripe grapes are placed in the winepress and trampled underfoot, with the juice flowing down into a lower receptacle. Usually, a full winepress signifies prosperity, while an empty winepress signifies famine. In this metaphorical reference, however, the fullness of the winepress suggests rampant evil that is now being judged.
The word “winepress” appears 20 times in 20 verses in scripture (HCSB). When it is used metaphorically, it depicts either Israel or God’s judgment:
- Isa. 5:2 (Israel) – “He broke up the soil, cleared it of stones, and planted it with the finest vines. He built a tower in the middle of it and even dug out a winepress there. He expected it to yield good grapes, but it yielded worthless grapes.”
- Isa. 63:2-3 (judgment) – The Lord is asked, “Why are your clothes red, and your garments like the one who tread a winepress?” The Lord replies, “I trample the winepress alone, and no one from the nations was with Me. I trampled them in my anger and ground them underfoot in My fury; their blood spattered my garments, and all my clothes were stained.” This passage describes God as a warrior going to battle to defeat the forces of evil.
- Lam. 1:15 (judgment) – “The Lord has rejected all the mighty men within me. He has summoned an army against me to crush my young warriors. The Lord has trampled Virgin Daughter Judah [like grapes] in a winepress.”
- Joel 3:13 (judgment) – “Swing the sickle because the harvest is ripe. Come and trample the grapes because the winepress is full; the wine vats overflow because the wickedness of the nations is great.” This verse describes the Day of the Lord, in which Yahweh will utterly defeat His enemies.
- Matt. 21:33 / Mark 12:1 (Israel) – Jesus says, “Listen to another parable: There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. He leased it to tenant farmers and went away.”
- Rev. 14:19 (judgment) – “So the angel swung his sickle toward earth and gathered the grapes from earth’s vineyard, and he threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.”
- Rev. 19:15 (judgment) – “A sharp sword came from His mouth, so that He might strike the nations with it. He will shepherd them with an iron scepter. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty.”
Here, in Rev. 14:19, in the trampling of the winepress “lies the true climax of the image of the wine harvest: the liquid that flows from the (red) grapes symbolizes the blood of the enemies whom God has destroyed in his anger” (Roloff, p. 178).
Warren Wiersbe shares the following insight: “Scripture portrays three different ‘vines.’ Israel was God’s vine, planted in the land to bear fruit for God’s glory; but the nation failed God and had to be cut down (Ps. 80:8–16; Isa. 5:1–7; see also Matt. 21:33–46). Today, Christ is the Vine and believers are branches in Him (John 15). But the world system is also a vine, ‘the vine of the earth’ in contrast to Christ, the heavenly Vine; and it is ripening for judgment. The wicked system – Babylon – that intoxicates people and controls them, will one day be cut down and destroyed in ‘the winepress of the wrath of God’ (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 14:6).
Next: Blood flowed … for about 180 miles – Revelation 14:20
Rev. 14:17 – Then another angel who also had a sharp sickle came out of the sanctuary in heaven. 18 Yet another angel, who had authority over fire, came from the altar, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from earth’s vineyard, because its grapes have ripened.” (HCSB)
Another angel had a sharp sickle
Next, we encounter the fourth angel of Revelation 14. Like the One seated on the cloud, he also wields a sharp sickle and comes out of the sanctuary in heaven. A fifth angel follows him, and this one is said to have “authority over fire.” He calls in a loud voice to the fourth angel, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from earth’s vineyard, because its grapes have ripened” (v. 18).
This passage echoes Joel 3:9-13 in which grape harvesting and wine pressing are used as metaphors for judgment, and Isa. 63:1-6 in which God treads the grapes in His fury, pressing out the lifeblood of people. The same metaphor is found in Jer. 25:15, 28-31. Judgment also is symbolized by the harvest in Jer. 51:33 and Hosea 6:11. Moreover, it is the Messiah who treads the winepress in Rev. 19:15.
Why are we told about the angel that has “authority over fire?” Perhaps this is connected to the fifth seal in Rev. 6:9-11. Here, martyrs “under the altar” cry out to God for vengeance. Later, in the seventh seal, an angel with a gold incense burner stands at the altar. He is given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. The angel takes the incense burner, fills it with fire from the altar, and hurls it to the earth, which results in rumblings of thunder, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. This also helps prepare the seven angels to usher in the next series of judgments.
Rev. 14:15 – Another angel came out of the sanctuary, crying out in a loud voice to the One who was seated on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the time to reap has come, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So the One seated on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. (HCSB)
The earth was harvested
John picks up the narrative in verses 15-16: “Another angel came out of the sanctuary, crying out in a loud voice to the One who was seated on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the time to reap has come, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ So the One seated on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.”
The harvest in these verses, though not stated explicitly, refers to wheat or barley. The word for ripe (Gr.: xeraino) describes dried heads of grain and is different than the word used of ripened grapes in verse 18.
The phrase “another angel” does not imply that the “One like the Son of Man” is an angel. John simply is continuing his observation from the point of the three angels in verses 6-13. This angel comes out of the sanctuary and heads straight for the One holding the sickle. He bears a message from God the Father, who is seated on His throne in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Rev. 6:9; 8:3; 11:19). The message is simple: The time to reap has come; the earth is ripe for harvest. The One seated on the cloud asks no questions, nor does He hesitate. He swings His sickle over the earth, and it is harvested.
No doubt this is a harvest of people on the earth. But who are they? Commentators differ in their understanding of this passage. Some believe this is the harvest of the just, coming before the harvest of the unbelievers (vv. 17-20); it is distinct just as the wheat harvest is distinct from the harvest of grapes. Others, however, argue that scripture normally speaks only of unbelievers being cut down. Therefore, both the One like the Son of Man and the angel with the sickle are engaged in destroying the wicked; one harvest, two perspectives.