An Interlude: The Song of the 144,000

This chapter ‘gives us the true perspective in our world of buffeting hostilities. For what we see around us, our present disturbed scene, are not the pulsating vibrations of a kingdom in ascendency. They are the thrashing death-throes of a kingdom in desperation!’ (Bewes)

14:1 Then I looked, and here was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him were one hundred and forty-four thousand, who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 14:2 I also heard a sound coming out of heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. Now the sound I heard was like that made by harpists playing their harps, 14:3 and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one was able to learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
14:4 These are the ones who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These were redeemed from humanity as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb, 14:5 and no lie was found on their lips; they are blameless.

In the end, there are only two groups of people. There are those who follow the Lamb, and there are those who follow the beast.

‘You can take any group of people and – invisibly – there will be a line drawn down the middle. Some are going to go God’s way. Others will go their own way, and in so doing will identify themselves with the opposition; in short, with the beast.

The contrast is strong. On the one side of the divine we survey the followers of the Lamb, the 144,000 (v1). On the other side are the worshippers of the beast. Between these two groups is the voice of the eternal gospel, vv6f. And at the end of the road is “the harvest of the earth”, vv14-20, the judgement.

Meditate on the contrast. The Lamb’s followers have a new song to sing; the beast’s have no rest. The Lamb’s followers are sealed with God’s name on their foreheads, safe for eternity; the beast’s are branded with his mark. The Lamb’s followers are safe, “purchased from among men”, v4; the beast’s are vulnerable and headnig for the fall associated with Babylon, v8. The Lamb’s followers are, through the Gospel, visualised as pure, vv4f; the beast’s are tainted with Babylon’s adulteries, v8. The Lamb’s followers follow him into happiness, vv4,13; the beast’s are heading towards the judgement, vv10,11,14-20.’ (Bewes)

Which way are we going? Which group do we belong to? Of course, we say we want to go the way of peace and truth and love. ‘But the choice doesn’t usually present itself like this! The issue normally faces us in a multiplicity of tiny and perfectly natural decisions: How shall I spend the Easter week-end…Which group shall I identify with at my new college?…Shall I compromise with this shady business deal just this once?’ (Bewes) And, of course, there is still time to change.

They have not defiled themselves with women – ‘They are said to be “virgins” (parthenoi) because they have not “defiled themselves with women.” (This cannot refer to sex relations within the marriage bond, for this would be no defilement at all but rather an honorable act, according to Heb 13:4.  Therefore it must refer to fornication and adultery, such as will run rampant in the corrupt society of the last days.) But the term parthenos here undoubtedly extends beyond sexual chastity to an attitude of complete faithfulness and chaste devotion toward the heavenly Bridegroom, whose imminent return they await, for the glad occasion of the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).’ (Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties).  This interpretation, reasonable as it seems, does not take account of the next phrase – ‘for they are virgins’; which would suggest that the author is referring, throughout the description, to their spiritual qualities.

Three Angels and Three Messages

14:6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, and he had an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 14:7 He declared in a loud voice: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has arrived, and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water!”

An eternal gospel

Wright insists that we understand this ‘gospel’ in terms of the OT background.  Of particular significance is Isaiah 52:

For many today, the Christian ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ is a message about them: God loves them, God forgives them, God promises them a blissful place in ‘heaven’. But, without diminishing the personal meaning, most of the summaries of the ‘good news’ in the Bible are much larger in scope. Paul summarizes the ‘good news’ in terms of the saving events of Jesus’ scripture-fulfilling death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), or of Jesus’ Davidic descent, his public recognition as ‘son of God’ through the resurrection, and his universal lordship (Romans 1:3–5). For Isaiah, there are three elements immediately mentioned, with a further immediate consequence. John seems to be aware of all of this.

First, ‘Your God reigns!’ This message, announced to the exiles in Babylon, can mean only one thing: your God, YHWH, has won the victory over Babylon, and you are now free to go home. Jerusalem will be rebuilt (52:7, 9).

Second, ‘Your God is coming back!’ God had, it seemed, abandoned the Temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonians closed in to attack. But now he would return, publicly and visibly (52:8; 40:5).

Third, ‘God is doing a powerful and public work of rescue!’ (52:10). All the nations would see that Israel’s God had saved his people from their plight.

So Babylon fell, the exiles went back home … but nobody ever said that YHWH had finally come back. But the early Christians believed, and they believed that Jesus believed, that YHWH had come back, in and as Jesus himself. They believed that his glory was fully and finally revealed when Jesus died on the cross as the innocent lamb (Isaiah 53:7). All this is vital as the complex scriptural background to Revelation 14.

Rev 14:6-13 in Seventh-Day Adventist Teaching
Called by the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) the “three angels’ messages,” this passage forms the core of the SDA belief system. According to a convoluted and erroneous SDA interpretation, the following points are true. (1) “The hour of His judgment has come” (v. 7) refers to the “investigative judgment” of 1844. (2) “Worship the Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 7) is a call to observe Saturday as the Sabbath. (3) “Babylon the Great has fallen” (v. 8) identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the notorious prostitute who seduces the nations. (4) “If anyone worships the beast … and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand” (v. 9) is a warning against following the Antichrist and worshiping on Sunday. Those refusing to heed the warning will be “tormented with fire and sulfur” (vv. 9–10). According to this understanding, only people embracing the SDA message will be saved.

(Apologetics Study Bible)

14:8 A second angel followed the first, declaring: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great city! She made all the nations drink of the wine of her immoral passion.”
14:9 A third angel followed the first two, declaring in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and takes the mark on his forehead or his hand, 14:10 that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. 14:11 And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 14:12 This requires the steadfast endurance of the saints—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to their faith in Jesus.

No rest day or night – 

Eternal conscious torment, or annihilation?

Rev 14:9 “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and takes the mark on his forehead or his hand, 14:10 that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. 14:11 And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

This passage, along with Rev 20:10, is often cited in the debate between those who hold to a doctrine of conscious eternal punishment, and annihilationists.

Traditionalist interpretation

Beale offers two reasons why he thinks that the present passage evokes everlasting punishment:-

‘First, the parallel of Rev 20:10 refers to the devil, the beast, and the false prophet undergoing the judgment in “the lake of fire and brimstone” where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” This does not say that their existence will be abolished forever but that they will suffer torment forever. The ungodly suffer the same fate as their three satanic leaders, who represent them.’
‘Second, the word “torment” (basanismos) in Rev 14:10-11 is used nowhere in Revelation or biblical literature in the sense of annihilation of one’s existence (against Fudge, who defines it as “lifeless desolation”). Without exception, in Revelation it refers to conscious suffering on the part of people (Rev 9:5; 11:10; 12:2; 18:7, 10, 15; 20:10)….The various forms of the word “torment” (the basanismos word group) elsewhere in the New Testament and LXX, when applied to people, also refer to conscious suffering, not annihilation (see Matt. 4:24; 8:6, 29; 18:34; Mark 5:7; 6:48; Luke 8:28; 16:23, 28; 2 Peter 2:8).’
In Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment.

According to Yarbrough:-

‘Scripture implies that the smoke from the judgment of God’s enemies will not mar heavenly praise but if anything enhance it (Rev. 14:11; 19:3). Furthermore, in heaven “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). So hell’s woes will ultimately be transcended by those blessed in the heavenly presence. This may appear callous at first glance, but it is what Scripture says.’
In Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment.

Annihilationalist interpretation

Conditionalist writers have taken this comment (no rest, day or night) to refer to the uninterrupted suffering of the followers of the beast while it continues, without implying that it will continue forever.’ (Bowles)

Bowles finds in vv9-11 an inverted parallelism:-

13. (A) If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, (9)

14. (B) he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, (10a)

15. (C) he shall be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. (10b)

16. (Ci) And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, (11a)

17. (Bi) and they have no rest, day or night, (11b)

18. (Ai) these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. (11c).

Bowles thinks that each of the elements of the text admit to a conditionalist interpretation:-

The judgment of God by fire and sulfur is “a cipher for total destruction at Sodom and Gomorrah and thereafter (Gen 19: 23, 28; Deut 29: 23; Job 18: 15– 17; Isa 30: 27– 33; 34: 9– 11; Ezek 38: 22ff.).” The biblical image of judgment by fire and sulfur is a picture of decisive destruction and obliteration— not a picture of enduring torment. (Quoting Fudge)

‘The smoke of their torment rising for ever and ever’ alludes to the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:28) and that of Edom (Isa 34:10ff).  Fudge again: “Isaiah says ‘its smoke will rise forever,’ telling us that Edom’s destruction is not only certain (not quenched) and complete (smoke rising) but also irreversible. The desolation will be unending.”  What it does not tell us is that the suffering is everlasting.

‘“No rest day or night” is another way of saying that God’s wrath is poured out in full strength when the judgment is operating; it is quenchless, unremitting and overwhelming. In modern warfare terms, it is the equivalent of intense, day and night, bombing; there is no break until it obliterates the enemy. The meaning of Rev 14: 11 is in harmony with the passage in Isaiah 34 that lies behind it.’  In other words, says Boyles, the suffering is uninterrupted, while it continues.  And uninterrupted torment is not necessarily everlasting torment.

A conditionalist reading of this text, according to Broyles, is consistent with the immediate context, where Rev 14:14-20 depict the final judgement of the wicked as a scene of utter destruction, not of endless distress.  It is also consistent with the wider context of Revelation, where the parallel descriptions of God’s judgement on the unrighteous describe utter destruction and not endless torment (Rev 6: 12– 17; 11: 15– 18; 14: 6– 20; 16: 17– 21; 17: 1– 19: 5; 19: 6— 20: 21).  (in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (p. 145ff).)

Ian Paul agrees:

Though the phrase smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever (AT) has been interpreted as indicating a continual experience of torment (which raises some particular theological problems), this is difficult to sustain in the light of the parallel at 19:3, where in an identical phrase the ‘smoke from [the city Babylon] rises for ever and ever’ (AT). It is impossible to imagine the city being perpetually destroyed; the image must signify the eternal effect of its destruction, rather than an eternal process of destruction (cf. the destruction of Edom in Isa. 34:10).

Peterson quotes Stott:

The fire itself is termed “eternal” and “unquenchable,” but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which “rises for ever and ever.”

Peterson responds:

On the contrary, our expectation would be that the smoke would die out once the fire had finished its work. . . . The rest of the verse confirms our interpretation: “There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image.”

Elsewhere, Stott writes:

I do not myself think that the anxious question whether the nature of hell is an eternal conscious torment or an ultimate eternal annihilation can be settled by a simple appeal to these sentences. For one thing, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the content of Revelation is symbolic vision not literal reality. Further, the essence of hell is separation from God, whereas these sentences speak of torment ‘in the presence of the … Lamb’. What is clear is that hell is an eternal destruction, whatever the precise nature of this destruction may be, and that there will be no respite from it.
(The Incomparable Christ, p205f)

According to Boyd and Eddy,

These passages are not as problematic for the annihilationist view as they might initially seem. The phrase “forever and ever” can be translated “for ages upon ages,” which implies an indefinite but not necessarily unending period of time. Even more fundamentally, it is important to keep in mind that Revelation is a highly symbolic book. Its apocalyptic images should not be interpreted literally. This is particularly true of the phrase “forever and ever,” since phrases similar to this are used elsewhere in Scripture in contexts in which they clearly cannot literally mean unending (e.g., Gen. 49:26; Exod. 40:15; Num. 25:13; Ps. 24:7).
(Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology)

In front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb – ‘The torment of the people who followed the beast does not bring satisfaction or some sort of demented delight to the angels and the Lamb. Rather, the phrase seems to insist on the certainty of God’s punishment of evil because of the satisfactory completion of the Lamb’s ministry and because of the ongoing presence of the holy angels who enforce God’s judgments.’ (Beasley-Murray)

Perhaps the point of this vivid imagery is not so much that the angels and the Lamb watch the torment, but rather that the tormented now realise from what (and from whom) they have distanced themselves.  Fee puts it like this: ‘As part of the human race, John was giving expression in the only kind of language available to him (and us) the horror of eternal separation from the God in whose image all have been created, and through Christ and the Spirit are being re-created. Such “eternal separation” lies beyond all attempts to imagine, whether it be John’s Revelation or Dante’s Inferno. One must simply hear this for the horror it represents: to be aware of the reality of “the holy angels and the Lamb,” but miss out on being there.’

Stott argues that ‘the “torment” of Rev 14:10, because it will be experienced “in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb,” seems to refer to the moment of judgment, not to the eternal state. It is not the torment itself but its “smoke” (symbol of the completed burning) which will be “forever and ever.”’  (In Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.)

‘The torment experienced in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb refers to the moment of judgment, not to the eternal state.’  The ‘rising smoke’ is a sign of extinction, as in Gen 19 and Isa 34.

14:13 Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this:
‘Blessed are the dead,
those who die in the Lord from this moment on!’ ”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “so they can rest from their hard work, because their deeds will follow them.”

So here is the practical application of this teaching.

“From now on” – that is, from the time of Christ’s redemption.

“They can rest from their hard work, because their deeds will follow them” – ‘The word labour (kopos) means ‘labour to the point of weariness’ and sometimes merely pain. It is in this latter sense that we should understand it here. Heaven is not so much a place where no work is done as one where pain has ceased. Believers rest from their labour, but their deeds (erga) go into the life beyond the grave. This gives dignity to all the work in which Christians engage. They are occupied in no insignificant task.’ (Morris)

Walls interprets ‘their deeds’ as their martydom.  Mounce agrees that ‘their supreme labor is faithfulness unto death.’

‘These deeds follow them in the sense that there can be no separation between what a person is and what that person does.’ (Mounce)

Fee that the verb translated ‘follow’ ‘almost certainly’ means ‘accompany’, rather that ‘follow along behind’.

14:14 Then I looked, and a white cloud appeared, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man! He had a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 14:15 Then another angel came out of the temple, shouting in a loud voice to the one seated on the cloud, “Use your sickle and start to reap, because the time to reap has come, since the earth’s harvest is ripe!” 14:16 So the one seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
14:17 Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 14:18 Another angel, who was in charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to the angel who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes off the vine of the earth, because its grapes are now ripe.” 14:19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the grapes from the vineyard of the earth and tossed them into the great winepress of the wrath of God. 14:20 Then the winepress was stomped outside the city, and blood poured out of the winepress up to the height of horses’ bridles for a distance of almost two hundred miles.