Though both at the end of chapter sixteen and chapter eighteen, John writes of the completion of the destruction of Babylon, the story is not over, not even the destructive elements. However, it is crucial for the storyline that Babylon not longer exists as a lure to turn people from God. John turns toward another celebration scene at the beginning of chapter nineteen. Here, though there is a sense of something new—unlike earlier worship visions, this one is not so much celebrating the Lamb’s victory amidst the plagues. Now a crucial corner has been turned, Babylon is no more, and the New Jerusalem is much closer.
The final “battle” is just ahead, followed by the final judgment of humanity and the Dragon meeting his end. In all of this, John’s readers are challenged to remember the Lamb’s way as the way of God—and the path to victory for the entire world. The outcome is the healing and genuine justice of the New Jerusalem.
The worship scene picks up on several images from earlier in the book. The “great multitude” points most directly back to chapter seven, though it also evokes the worship scenes from chapters five, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen. In chapter seven, in the midst of the seal series of plagues, John sees “a great multitude” beyond counting, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” praising God and the Lamb to whom “salvation belongs” (7:9-10). Both “great multitudes” are dressed in white robes (7:9, 14; 19:8).
As with the earlier visions, here we have massive praise, “salvation and glory and power to our God” (19:1). The new dimension is that now we are told that God has “judged the great Harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication.” God has brought justice due to the Harlot shedding “the blood of God’s servants” (19:2). As we know, and will be confirmed again in the second half of chapter nineteen, God’s method of gaining justice in relation to Babylon through persevering love even in the face of violent bloodletting by the structures of domination. And this justice will result in the destruction of the powers of evil and the healing of the kings of the earth and the nations.
So, the praise here is not the praise of those gloating over the punishment of their human enemies. It is the praise of those who welcome God’s healing work that affects all of creation, even their human enemies. It is praise for how God ends the reign of the violence and centralized power that characterizes the Roman Empire and all other empires before and since. The destruction of Babylon is not the destruction of human beings but the destructions of systems and ideologies of oppression and exploitation. No more will human cities be dominated by militarism and an economics of accumulation and social stratification.
Though the worship begins with praise for God’s justice manifested in the downfall of Babylon, the focus is much more positive. It is as if the taking away of the influence of “the great city” with its “fornications” makes clear just how positive God’s agenda is—God seeks healing for the “great multitude” along with the rest of creation.
The “salvation” that is celebrated here has most of all to do, in the context of the rest of the book, with the Lamb “conquering” the Powers of evil and providing liberation for the inhabitants of the earth who choose to become followers of the Lamb and join the countless multitude. There is no hint here, or elsewhere in Revelation, of “salvation” as just for individuals or as focused on individual believers “going to heaven” and escaping historical existence. No is there any sense that salvation requires some kind of payment to God that satisfies God’s holiness or honor. Salvation is for the multitude, living (as we will see) on a healed and transformed earth, in history. Salvation is gained for those who follow the Lamb “wherever he goes,” i.e., on the paths of faithful witness and the willingness to persevere in the ways of healing love even in the face of the Powers shedding their “blood.”
Salvation, to put it in the words of this chapter—echoing earlier portrayals—has to do with the multitude (the people of God) being made into a “bride” and being considered worthy to “be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” This “fine linen is the just deeds of the saints” (19:8). The way people live is the determinant of their suitability to be part of this celebration. The idea, though, is not calling for the proverbial “works righteousness” where people prove their worthiness by earning a skeptical God’s favor by their rigorous purity or accumulation of “good deeds.” Rather, in the context of the book (and the rest of the Bible, actually), the “just deeds” follow from the embrace of God’s healing mercy and shape a merciful way of life that simply by its nature as live lived in wholeness results in “just deeds.”
The next scene returns us to the drama that has characterized most of the book since the beginning of chapter six and the breaking of the seals on the scroll the Lamb took from the one on the throne in chapter five. The breaking of those seals unloosed the first plague series and portrayed the stresses and traumas of humanity’s historical existence. There is a method in this madness in Revelation, though, as the plague series and the scenes of judgment are leading to the final vision of wholeness for all creation in the New Jerusalem.
Back in chapter four, immediately following the messages “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4; 2:1–3:22), John looked and saw that “in heaven a door stood open” (4:1). Now, in the middle of chapter nineteen, John again sees “heaven opened” (19:11). This shared image gives us a hint that what follows here in chapter nineteen with have affinity with what John saw the previous time heaven was “opened.”
Chapter four and five tell of an extended worship service whose center point is when the slain Lamb “who stands” is able to take the scroll of the one on the throne, indicating his worthiness to be worshiped by all of creation. This turns out to be the key vision of the entire book as it portrays the core dynamic of God’s “conquering” in Revelation and how the Dragon and his minions are to be successfully resisted. The Lamb’s persevering love, even to the death, provides the means for the victory that determines the outcome of the human project.
Here in chapter nineteen we have what at first glance seems to be something very different—the “war” promised at the end of chapter sixteen is about to happen. And the key actor is a great warrior on a white horse who rides forth into battle ready to conquer the forces arrayed against him with the sword.
However, when we read the description of the vision carefully, with the book’s core vision from chapter five in mind (a vision whose message has been reinforced throughout the book), we will actually see that John sees here when heaven is opened is actually quite closely linked with what he saw earlier when heaven was opened the first time.
The ride on the white horse is described in the same way as the Jesus of Revelation one through three; clearly this is a picture of the Jesus the book “reveals” in action. The rider is called “faithful and true” (see 3:14), with eyes “like a flame of fire” (see 2:18), and with “a sharp sword coming” out of his mouth (see 2:12). We must keep in mind how else Jesus is symbolized in the story between chapter three and chapter nineteen—as a Lamb who “conquers” with persevering love and whose most notable act was resisting the Powers to the point of shedding his blood. The “blood” of the Lamb is linked in the rest of the book with the faithful deeds of those who follow his way.
So, when we read that the rider “in justice judges and makes war” (19:11), we need to remember the method of “war” that we have seen alluded to earlier in Revelation—especially in chapters seven and fourteen, where military image is used in relation to the Lamb and his multitude of followers who, in the words of chapter twelve, have “conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11).
So when we read that this rider is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood,” we realize that this “war” is something very different than the myth of redemptive violence what have us expect. This “war” is about Jesus’s self-giving love to the point of shedding his blood in faithful witness against the ways of Empire. And he has already done this shedding prior to engaging the great forces of the Dragon at “Aramageddon.” That is, Jesus has already conquered before this alleged “battle.”
The rider is joined by “the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, [who] were following him on white horses” (19:13). These “armies,” presumably the “great multitude” of earlier in this chapter (19:6) and hence of chapter seven, also from every indication, ride into this “battle” already having conquered. They were given the white robes because of their faithful witness (7:14; 12:10-11; 15:2; 19:7-8)—again, prior to this impending “battle.” Plus, they carry no weapons of war. Like the Rider, they proceed on “white horses” (19:14), the sign of victory.
The only weapon present is the sword the Rider carries. We must notice what kind of sword this is. It comes out of the mouth of the Rider, alluding back to the descriptions of Jesus in 1:16 and 2:12. This “sword” is not a literal weapon that soldiers use in military combat, as if Jesus now has become the most violent warrior of all time. Rather, the “sword”—since it comes from how mouth and is not held in his hand, signifies the word of God that Jesus witnesses to. The sword is closely connected with the “name” of the Rider: “The Word of God” (19:13).
Thinking back to Revelation five, we may recognize that the faithful witness of the Rider is nothing other than the Lamb’s nonviolent resistance to the Powers that led to his execution by the Empire—and was vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead. The Word that the Lamb proclaims, understood as his entire life of spoken and embodied witness, is precisely the means by which God will “strike down the nations” and “rule them.” The allusion to the “rod of iron” is not implying that Jesus would replace the coercive Roman Empire with a coercive centralized state of his own. Rather, it is simply echoing the Old Testament’s most famous messianic reference, Psalm 2:9. The point is that the Lamb that was slain is indeed the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:4) precisely in his nonviolent resistance that was his form of witness to the death.
This Rider “will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15), is a direct allusion to the grape harvest of 14:17-20 and the picture of the fall of Babylon in chapters seventeen and eighteen due to the Great Harlot drinking the cup with the wine of the blood of the saints and prophets that turns out to be an expression of God’s wrath that uses the cause and effect dynamics of Babylon’s violence to bring Babylon down (17:6; 18:6). The actual dynamic of “judgment” here is the faithful witness of the Rider and the “armies of heaven” that lead to their suffering but actually even more undermine the authority of Babylon and lead to its demise.
The Rider is identified further in 19:16—“King of kings and Lord of lords.” This title alludes back to the beginning of the book. This is a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), who through his “faithful witness” (or, faithful martyrdom) is affirmed as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).
Confirming the imagery that portrays the Rider as already victorious and the “armies of heaven” not as actual fighters but as the already victorious multitude, when we get to what we would expect to be a battle scene with the gathered forces of the Dragon, there is no battle. Indeed, “the Beast and the kings of the earth with their armies [are] gathered to make war against the Rider on the horse and against his army” (19:19). However, what happens, shockingly, is that the Beast and the False Prophet, powerful as they had seemed back in chapter thirteen, are simply captured without putting up a fight. And they are thrown “into the lake of fire.”
We are not told why the Beast and False Prophet were so easily taken down. From the thrust of the book of Revelation as a whole, it makes sense to recognize that the power of these figures was mostly a façade, based on their ability to deceive (as noted here, 19:20). What that deception unmasked, there is no power to resist. How is the deception unmasked? The faithful witness of the Lamb and his multitude of followers. The very experience of seeming defeat at the hands of the powers-that-be proves to reveal the true character of those powers and undermine their ability to deceive.
The fate of the human actors in this vision is a bit unclear. On the one hand, they are not thrown into the lake of fire with the Beast and Dragon. There is a separation between the spiritual forces of evil and the humans who were deceived by them into opposing God. This would seem to allow for the possibility of a different kind of fate for the “kings of the earth” (19:19). On the other hand, we are told they were “killed” and “the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21). Clearly, there is some kind of punitive judgment involved here.
Finally, though, we should note that they were “killed” by “the sword that came from [the Rider’s] mouth” (19:21). Since we know this sword is not literally a killing weapon but instead is the word of God, perhaps there is a hint here that the “killing” is more metaphorical for a purifying process than referring to some kind of eternal punishment or separation from God.
The ultimate outcome, we will discover when we read of the New Jerusalem, is that “the kings of the earth” actually find their way into God’s paradise. They do not get thrown into the lake of fire. Perhaps the “killing” by the sword and the “devouring” by the birds actually turn out to be elements of the transformation of the kings of the earth from those who trusted in the Dragon to those who could be at home in a city where nothing unclear was to be found (21:27).