The angel and the little book

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, and the rainbow on his head, and his face like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire, and holding in his hand a little scroll, open. And he set his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and cried with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. And as he cried, the seven thunders gave utterance. And at the sound of the seven thunders, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the land and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that no more time would pass, but that in the days of the trumpet to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.

John’s book is a revelation of Jesus Christ because he appears so different from the person John knew before or even after the resurrection. Although he wrote that ‘we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us’, on seeing him he falls at his feet, as though dead. Here the son of God seems even more distant, and it is left for us to recognise who he is: not by his human-like appearance, but by the clothing of cloud (1:7) and rainbow (the rainbow of 4:3), the sun-like radiance of his face (1:16), his radiant feet (1:15), his voice like a roaring lion’s (5:5), the reference to his right hand (1:16). His stance and his oath recall the angel at the end of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan 12:7). Even if one prefers not to identify the mighty angel as the Son of God, it must be acknowledged that he appears very like him. Similar uncertainty arises in relation to the angel at 14:14 (and indeed 19:9f).

The seven thunders have a message, but we are not told what it is. An obvious one is surely that the world should tremble, for the sounding of the last trumpet is imminent. Standing on the sea and land and looking towards heaven, the angel swears by him who created land and sea and who has total control over them. The world’s wise men will continue to assure us that there is no such God. They will continue to maintain that the universe with its two trillion galaxies all arose from a singularity the size of a pea, that life is just a complex organisation of matter, and that its wonders are all natural wonders. But God is God, and his purpose will be fulfilled. The mystery revealed to the prophets is his kingdom on earth, which all history has been moving towards.

The seventh trumpet is not blown until 11:15. The announcement that time has run out indicates that the three and a half years encompassed by the following section, 10:8-11.14, do not follow chronologically from 9:21. The two witnesses of that section prophesy over the same period as the horrors heralded by the trumpets. Accordingly, while the second ‘woe’ is clearly that of the sixth trumpet, the woe is not said to have passed until the end of their prophesying (11:14).

And the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and said, “Give me the little scroll.” And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. And he says to me, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

The edible scroll recalls the ministry of Ezekiel, which began with a vision of God similar to that at the beginning of John’s prophecy. After the vision Ezekiel was given a scroll with words of lamentation and woe on both sides. Having eaten it, he had to prophesy to the house of Israel concerning their immediate future. John must prophesy about Gentile peoples and kings, concerning a time much later in history. He does so in 11:1-13, beginning with these words: