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. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10 They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11 So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).
The souls of those slaughtered
John describes the martyrs as having been “slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had” (v. 9). We are told that John has been exiled to Patmos for similar reasons – “because of God’s word and the testimony about Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). But these saints receive a harsher sentence; they are slaughtered. The Greek word used here is sphazo, which describes the slaying, or cutting, of a sacrifice. They are identified with the Lamb in their death since He, too, is “slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6, 9, 12). The Greek word martus, from which we get the English word martyr, means “a witness” (see Rev. 2:13; 17:6). These saints are slaughtered because of their witness to the truth of God and the message of Jesus Christ.
This is not intended to minimize John’s suffering. According to the testimony of Tertullian, John is thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in Rome without suffering injury. Perhaps in exasperation – we cannot be sure – the Emperor Domitian banishes him to Patmos.
Matthew Henry makes the following observations about these martyred saints: “Hence note, [1.] Persecutors can only kill the body, and after that there is no more that they can do; their souls live. [2.] God has provided a good place in the better world for those who are faithful to death and are not allowed a place any longer on earth. [3.] Holy martyrs are very near to Christ in heaven, they have the highest place there. [4.] It is not their own death, but the sacrifice of Christ, that gives them a reception into heaven and a reward there; they do not wash their robes in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 6:9–17).
But what “testimony” has enraged the powers that be so they will slaughter the saints? Likely it is a testimony of judgment. Whether one takes a preterist view and places the Book of Revelation in the first century A.D., or a futurist view and projects these mass killings into the future Tribulation, it is the message of man’s sin and God’s judgment that differentiates the true prophet and rankles the wicked.
It has always been this way. Noah’s 120-year message of judgment goes unheaded and no doubt greatly ridiculed. Samuel’s first message from God is one of judgment on the house of Eli because he did not rebuke his sons for their wickedness. Isaiah is sent to Judah to preach a message of pending national humiliation for its sins – a message opposed and unbelieved. Jeremiah predicts the destruction of the armies of Israel and the obliteration of the temple, and for this truth he is placed in chains and finally cast into a pit. Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that He, the Son of Man, is coming one day in power and great glory, and the high priest tears his robes, accuses Jesus of blasphemy and cries for His execution. We should not be surprised that the true prophet of God preaches judgment and is hated for his honest words.
Next: O Lord … how long? (Rev. 6:9-11)