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The statement that "the earth was harvested" has a ring of finality to it, but the harvest is not over. Two more angels appear, the first out of the temple in heaven (v. 17), like the angel who issued the command to harvest the earth, and the second from the altar (v. 18). As before, the first angel is carrying a sharp sickle, and the second gives the order to use it.
The harvest that now ensues is far more graphic and terrible than the earth harvest so briefly described in verses 15-16. It is a destructive harvest carried out in fire and blood. The angel commanding it is the angel who had charge of the fire (v. 18)—perhaps the same angel who earlier "took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth" (8:5). Here as in the earlier vision, destructive judgment comes, ironically, from the altar in heaven, the place of mercy and the focus of Christian worship. If the first stage of the harvest was a generic "harvest of the earth," presumably of wheat or some other grain, this is to be a grape harvest—the "vintage of the earth" (v. 19 NRSV; literally "the vine of the earth"). The dark red juice of grapes suggests the image of blood and violent death. The grape clusters are cut off with the sickle and thrown into the great winepress of God's wrath and trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses' bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia (vv. 19-20).
What scene anywhere in the book of Revelation is as gruesome as this one? Moreover, why does the harvest take place in two such contrasting stages? One possibility is that the "harvest of the earth" corresponds to the first four trumpets (8:6-13), which affected only the natural creation, while the "vintage of the earth," or grape harvest, matches the last three trumpets (9:1—11:19), which brought injury and death to humans as well. A more likely interpretation is that this harvest, like the one John the Baptist predicted in Matthew and Luke, involves both salvation and destruction, but with emphasis on the latter. The Baptizer spoke of "one more powerful than I," who would "clear his threshing floor" and "gather the wheat into his barn, but . . . burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Lk 3:17). Instead of wheat and chaff, the vision in Revelation contrasts the bloodless harvest of grain with the bloody winepress of God's wrath (v. 19).
Because he has displayed so clearly the victory of the redeemed in 14:1-5 (and will do so again in 15:2-4), the accent of John's vision of harvest is on the destruction of the wicked, not the salvation of the righteous. Writing against the background of America's own Civil War bloodbath, Julia Ward Howe captured something of the spirit of this graphic vision in her famous lines,
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 has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
If the trampling of the vintage is the work of angels in this vision, it is unmistakably Christ's own work in a later passage, where the one who treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty is immediately identified as king of kings and lord of lords (19:15-16). Once more the four angels of the harvest are functionally equivalent to Jesus, the Son of Man and the Judge. Their bloody work of retribution is his as well. Not everyone agrees. Caird, for example (1966:191-94), understands the bloodbath not as God's punishment of the wicked but as the deaths of Christian martyrs at the hands of their oppressors. John's purpose, he says, is "to make a profound disclosure about the great martyrdom, to show that the bloodbath of persecution, which might appear to be the total defeat of the church, was to the eyes of faith the ingathering of the elect and the means whereby the Son of Man would turn the slaughter of his saints into the downfall of his enemies" (1966:243).
The difficulty with this view is that the number of the martyrs is already complete (14:1-5). The grape harvest is more easily understood as God's wrath against those responsible for their deaths. In John's view, martyrdom is not its own reward. The martyrs are victorious only because their deaths are followed by actual resurrection and actual judgment against their enemies. Caird's interpretation seems motivated more by a desire to downplay the wrath and vengeance of God than by the actual language of the text. Christian piety has followed a sounder instinct in pointing out an ironic parallel between Christ (through his angels) treading the bloody winepress of God's wrath here, and Christ enduring God's wrath against sin on the cross by shedding his own blood. The further irony that both this judgment and the judgment of sin at Jesus' crucifixion took place outside the city (see Heb 13:12 and perhaps Mt 21:39) may well be intentional.