1 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3 and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4 And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5 And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6 and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7 but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. 8 Then 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.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to 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 sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is a truly odd and wonderful piece of fiction. There is a scene in it in which aliens called the Tralfamadorians struggle to understand what time is for human beings. In describing this scene, Vonnegut crafts a truly memorable picture of our human limitations in perceiving reality. Here, the aliens are observing the human, Billy Pilgrim, who is being held in an alien zoo and observed by an alien crowd of onlookers.
There was a lot that Billy said that was gibberish to the Tralfamadorians, too. They couldn’t imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that. The guide outside had to explain as best he could.
The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”
What a fascinating picture! We perceive reality, Vonnegut says, not by seeing the big picture but by being like a man on a train whose head is in a sphere and who can only look out through one little hole in the sphere down six feet of pipe which is itself bolted to the bed of the train car. So what we see is just the tiniest most miniscule perception of reality as it comes shooting past us on the train of life.
What an image! The Apostle Paul said something similar, though far less dramatic, when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13.
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Notice that Paul agrees with Vonnegut on the limitations of human knowledge. We see “in a mirror dimly” and we “know in part.”
But Paul adds something. Paul says that, because of Christ, we will be able to see more and more until we can see with perfect clarity when he comes.
In Revelation 10 we find a fascinating scene, another interlude in the action (this time between trumpets 6 and 7) which says something about time, about reality, and about our perception of it. In chapter 10, some things are hidden, some things are clear, but the picture begins to emerge more and more.
Christ is coming in God’s perfect timing.
Revelation 10 begins with a strange and wonderful depiction of an angel and a little scroll. It promises us, at first, greater knowledge, but then it withholds certain details. However, it does make a very clear promise. Watch:
1 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land,
The identity of this “mighty angel” has, like almost everything else in Revelation, been debated. Many say that this is Jesus. Others argue that it cannot be because Jesus does not appear to be referred to as an “angel” elsewhere in Revelation. So this might just be a mighty angel. If so, it should be recognized that it is a very special angel indeed! In favor of the argument that this angel is Jesus, on the other hand, many arguments have been advanced. G.K. Beale, for instance, argues that this “mighty angel” is Christ for the following reasons:
- “This angel is not an ordinary angel, but is given divine attributes applicable in Revelation only to God or to Christ.”
- “He is clothed with a cloud. In the OT, it is God alone who is said to come in the clouds, except in Dan. 7:13, where the subject is the Son of man…Another reference to clouds in Revelation occurs in 14:14, where John sees ‘a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a Son of man’…”
- “The angel has a rainbow…upon his head, as did the appearance of God in Ezek. 1:26-28…Note also that the rainbow is around God’s throne in Rev. 4:3.”
- “The angel’s face was like the sun, just like that of Christ in Rev. 1:16, and this is an exact reproduction of the phrase describing Christ’s transfigured appearance in Matt. 17:2.”
- “His feet are like pillars of fire, similar to the description of Christ’s feet as ‘burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace’ (Rev. 1:15).”
- “The fact that the feet of the angelic figure are called pillars of fire evokes the presence of Yahweh with Israel in the wilderness, where He appeared as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire to protect and guide the Israelites (Exod. 13:20-22; 14:24; Num. 14:14; Neh. 9:12, 19).”
- “In Exod. 19:9-19, God’s descent on Sinai ‘in a thick cloud’ and ‘in fire’ is announced by ‘thunder’ and ‘the sound of a trumpet,’ which reflects the pattern of Revelation 10, where God’s presence by His angel in vv. 1-3 is followed by thunder and the imminent trumpet sound in vv. 3-4, 7…”
- “Enhancing this identification is the observation that Christ is compared to a lion in 5:5, and so is the angel in 10:3.”
Notice too the thunders that sound when this “mighty angel speaks.”
3 and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded.
This sounds a lot like Psalm 29 and its description of the voice of God.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness. 3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. 4 The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. 8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. 11 May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
So this angel speaks. And, when he speaks, John prepares to record what he hears. But then something unexpected happens.
4 And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.”
Ah! How frustrating this is for us! We so want to know what was said! Instead, John is told not to write down what was said. What “the seven thunders said” was to be “sealed up.”
Here we fear that we are Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-five, destined to see only the tiniest speck of truth as it shoots past the small opening of sight that has been granted us. But no. While the exact contents of what was said is not divulged, we are told something very important.
5 And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6 and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7 but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.
Three things are revealed after the sealing of what the thunders said. First, it is revealed here that we are entering at this point into what is called the Great Tribulation. Notice how Revelation 10:5-6 sounds very much like Daniel 12
7 And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished.
This “time, times, and half a time” announced by the figure in Daniel 12 is likely a reference to the final years of the tribulation, a period of intense suffering when the Antichrist comes and seeks to war against the church of the living God and deceive the nations. These events will commence with the seventh trumpet.
Secondly, we are told “that there would be no more delay.” Some of your translations may put that differently, but be very careful here. J. Ramsey Michaels writes:
The angel’s announcement, there will be no more delay [v.6], was translated in the KJV “that there should be time no longer,” influencing the words of the well-known gospel song: “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more.” But this is a mistranslation. There is no “timeless eternity” in the book of Revelation. When the seventh trumpet sounds, and “our Lord and his Christ…reign for ever and ever” (11:15). John anticipates not the end of time, but an expanse of time that has no end.
So the sounding of the seventh trumpet would remove any further delay. Robert Mounce writes, “From this point forward God will not intervene to give the human race further opportunity to repent. Restraint is to be removed, and the Antichrist is to be revealed.”
And thirdly we are told what that delay is: “in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”
The mystery of God will be fulfilled! That mystery that was “announced to his servants the prophets” will finally come to be. And what is the “mystery of God” that is to be fulfilled? Colossians 2 is helpful here:
2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ
Christ is the revealed mystery of God. Therefore, we are told that the second half of the tribulation will be intensely difficult, even for the church, that events will race toward their conclusion, and that the conclusion will be the coming of Christ in glory and power!
There is sweetness and bitterness in the journey toward ultimate deliverance.
What this means is that what is about to happen has a note of sweetness in it and a note of bitterness in it. This helps us understand what happens next in Revelation 10.
8 Then 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.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to 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 sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”
This is strange sounding to us. John is instructed to eat the scroll. He is told that it will taste sweet but will make his stomach bitter. Immediately we are in the end of Ezekiel 2 and beginning of Ezekiel 3. Listen to what happened to Ezekiel the prophet:
9 And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.
1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.
Eating the scroll means that the man of God—Ezekiel or John or whomever—accepts the word and message of God with complete faith and trust. He receives it and it is sweet. It is sweet for the truth of God is sweet to the soul of His people.
But, for John, there is a bitter aftertaste. Why? Because while the message is one of ultimate deliverance, there is pain to go through to get there. Yes, Jesus is coming. That is sweet. But judgment is coming. That is sad and heartbreaking news. And, for the people of God, who have been protected from the wrath of God by His sealing, hard days are coming too when the forces of evil turn their eyes toward the people of God. They will ultimately be delivered, yes, but some may have to lay down their lives.
Sweet and bitter.
Salvation and judgment.
Deliverance and persecution.
Sweet and bitter.
So much of life is lived out between these two realities.
Sin is bitter. The way of Jesus is sweet.
The way of Jesus is sweet, even when painful, even when it demands our very lives. Yes the way of Jesus is sweet. So we say with full knowledge and hope these words from 1882, written by Louisa M. R. Stead:
Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word;
Just to rest upon his promise;
Just to know, thus saith the Lord.
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him!
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust him more.
O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
Just in simple faith to plunge me
‘Neath the healing, cleansing flood!
Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.
I’m so glad I learned to trust thee,
Precious Jesus, Saviour, Friend;
And I know that thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.
 Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (pp. 146-147). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
 Beale, G. K.,Campbell, David. Revelation (pp. 229-230). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
 J. Ramsey Michaels. Revelation. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol.20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.134.
 Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p.206.