Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE INTERPOSED VISIONS. THE WITNESS AGAINST EVIL (Revelation 10:1 to Revelation 11:14.)—As between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals there was interposed a two-fold vision — the sealing of the hundred and forty-four thousand and the glimpse of the great multitude (Revelation 7)—so is a twofold vision interposed here between the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets. The similarity of situation of these interposed visions (episodes, as they have not very accurately been called) suggests that there must be some corresponding value in their interpretation. This appears to be found in the answer to the question which rises spontaneously as the visions of the seals and of the trumpets draw to a close. We see the scenes which the seals disclose, and we learn how war, pestilence, death, persecution, revolution, are to continue, and we ask, What becomes of the Church, the bride of Christ? Where are the true servants of God during these trials? We are answered by the interposed visions of the seventh chapter that they are sealed, and they will be safe. Similarly, the scenes disclosed by the trumpets are spread before us, and we see the features which mark the advance of Christianity in the world; we see the pain, the confusion, the devastations and slaughters, the bringing to light of hidden evils, which are the necessary accompaniments of this prolonged war; we see, as it were, amid smoke and flame and sword, the advancing and receding line of battle, and we learn that the powers of evil are subtle and self- multiplying, and, like the dragon in the den of error, leap into new and multiform life, though smitten by the sword of the Red Cross Knight. And amid these confusions of war we almost lose sight of the Church, or gain only a few hints which show that she is not unharmed in the conflict; and again the question is forced from us, What becomes of the Church, the bride of Christ? Where is her work and the tokens of her advance? To this the interposed visions of the present section are designed to give an answer; and that answer is again a reminder to us that the work of God in the world is not work on the surface of history merely: the waves catch the eye, and men measure progress by the force of these, but the ebb of the tide is unseen. So also is there a work of God which is more potent than the conspicuous work on which men love to look. The work of the Church is not to be measured by results now. It does achieve results, but her best work is the work of which she knows not now but will know afterwards; and there is a Church within the Church which is carrying on this work. There are witnesses of God against the beast-power and the world-power, who, though persecuted, are faithful—though dying, live— though chastened, are not killed; who, through evil report and good report, triumph over faithlessness and fear.
The interposed vision is two-fold. In the first part, contained in Revelation 10, another mighty angel descends with a little book open in his hand. This book the sacred seer, as the type of all those who will witness truly for God in the world, is commanded to eat; from sweetness it turns to bitterness, in token that the very fidelity and love he had to God would be the occasion of sorrow, for he would have to be the witness of unpalatable truths to the potentates of the earth; but he has heard celestial thunders, and he knows that the end and victory are near. Such is the preparation of him who will be a true witness for Christ when many false witnesses and false Christs are abroad. The second part expands the same thought under different imagery. There is a holy of holies in the Church, where the true witnesses are lightened with celestial fire for their work of noble peril.
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:FIRST SCENE OF THE INTERPOSED VISION.
(1, 2) And I saw . . .—Translate, And I saw another mighty angel descending out of the heaven, clothed with a cloud, and the (not “a”) rainbow upon his head, and his face as the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire, and having in his hand a little book (or, roll) open. Many have thought that this angel can be none other than Christ Himself. It must be acknowledged that the description is such that we might well hesitate to apply it to any but our Lord; but, nevertheless, the words, “another mighty angel,” afford serious difficulty. Our Lord might indeed appear as an angel, but it is scarcely conceivable that He would be called “another mighty angel:” an expression which seems to associate this angel with those others who have taken part in these visions. Remembering this, we must separate from our thoughts the idea of personal angelic beings. Such are employed by God, but in the mechanism of these visions the angels are not necessarily such, any more than the stars are literal stars: they are typical, representative angels, as we speak of the Angel of Peace, the Angel of War; so we have the Angels of Time, of Death, of Life, as in the Apocalypse. The angel here, even if he does not represent Christ Himself, descends with the evidences of Christ’s power. He comes to remind the secret ones of God that Christ is with them always, and that He will not hide His commandments from those who are living as strangers and pilgrims upon earth (Psalm 119:19; 1Peter 2:11); for he bears a little book open in his hand. The value of this vision is best seen by calling to mind the vision of the Fifth Trumpet. There, for the first time, the plagues seemed to gather supernatural power: the key of the abyss was given to the star that fell, and the locust host were led by the angel of the abyss. As an answer to this comes this angel, bearing the witnesses of Christ’s power. When the troubles come that darken and confuse, the messenger from heaven will come to give light, teaching, and strength to the faithful—so does this angel first give assurance of the power of Christ. He comes clothed with a cloud, the token always of the Divine Presence (Exodus 13:21; Ezekiel 1:4; Matthew 17:5; Acts 1:9). The, not “a” rainbow, but the rainbow (i.e., the rainbow of Revelation 4:3), the token of covenant and of love, glowed round his head; his face, like Moses’, had caught the unutterable light, the sun-like light of Christ’s presence (Revelation 1:16); and his feet were like pillars of fire to tread the earth, strong in the power of purification and judgment. Some call this the Angel of Time, because of his utterance in Revelation 10:6; but is it not rather the typical representative of the Angel of the New Testament, coming with the tokens of covenant truth, and power and love? He had in his hand a little book open. Our memories are carried back to the other book, or roll, displayed in Revelation 5:1-5, and two contrasts strike us: that roll, or book, was sealed, and none were found worthy to open it; this book is open—that book was larger; this one being described as a small book. Do these contrasts help us to the meaning? One thing they seem to tell us: the book contains none of those secret things which were the contents of the former book. The closed, sealed book pointed to the hidden springs of future history; this points to what is open to all. That book was comparatively large, and tilled with writing, as the visions of oncoming history were great; this book is small, and contains what all may master. These considerations forbid the idea that the book is a repetition in brief of what was in the sealed book, “or that it was the revelation of some remaining prophecies,” or of some “portion or section of prophecy.” The vision is a representation that he who comes armed with the witnesses of Christ’s presence comes also with that ever open proclamation of God’s love and righteousness. The little open book is that gospel which is the sword of the Spirit, the weapon of the Church, that Word of God open to all, hidden only from those whom the god of this world hath blinded. The fallen powers may bear the key and let loose darkening clouds of confused thought and unworthy teaching; the outer courts of the Church may be overcast: but unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness, and God’s Word has risen with new light and power upon the bewilderments and glooms of the age. “Three books are associated in the Apocalypse. The first is the book of the course of this world (Revelation 5:1); . . . the last is the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15; Revelation 21:27): between these two comes” another book, which is the link between the other two, the ever open book of God’s promises and the witness of God’s righteousness and power. Elliott regarded this little roll as the Bible opened anew to mankind at the period of the Reformation. The period affords many magnificent illustrations of the vision, but it does not exhaust its truth, since in every age the reverent study of the Word of God has given freshness and strength to forgotten truths, and has saved men from the bondage of traditional notions. From among such students have arisen God’s witnesses.
And he set . . .—The attitude of the angel, with one fiery foot planted on the sea and the other on the land, is that of a conqueror taking possession of the whole world. There is a power, then, by which the Church and children of God may possess the earth. It is not the power of pride or worldliness. The true weapons are not carnal: the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, and the meek-spirited (meek to be taught and meek in life) shall possess the earth.
And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.(3) And cried with a loud voice . . .—Better, and he cried with a loud voice, even as a lion roareth. Another token of the presence of Christ with the Church. The voice is the voice of a courage and strength derived from Him who is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.”
And when he had cried . . .—Translate, and when he cried, the seven thunders (notice, not seven thunders,” but “the seven thunders”) spake their own voices. The thunders are called the seven thunders to bring them before us as another order of sevens, and into harmony with the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven vials. Thus we have four sets of sevens. It was not a seven-fold peal of thunder, but seven thunders, which spake forth distinctly their own voices. This marked language brings the seven thunders, though their utterances are never revealed, into prominence as a portion of the Apocalyptic system. But what were these thunders? Were they more terrible judgments still? and did the sealing of them signify the shortening of the days of judgment, as Christ had said (Matthew 24:22)? It may be so. One thing seems certain—the guesses which have been hazarded (such as that they are identical with the trumpets; that they are the seven crusades) can hardly be admitted. Whatever they were, they were perfectly intelligible to the Evangelist. He was on the point of writing down their utterances. Will this fact help us to understand the general object of their introduction here?
And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.(4) And when the seven . . .—Translate, And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write: and I heard a voice out of the heaven, saying, Seal up the things which the. seven thunders spoke, and write them not. He could have written down their utterances. It was no mere thunder-like sound he heard: the thunders spoke; and he would have continued his writing as he had been commanded (Revelation 1:11) had not the voice out of heaven forbidden him. The utterances, then, are for those who hear them; they are not to be made generally known. Is it not the solemn, sacred, divine voice not to be known by all, but by those who have ears to hear when “the God of glory thundereth?” “Lo ! He doth send forth His voice, yea, and that a mighty voice” (Psalm 68:33). Mankind may hear the thunder; only those whose ears God has opened can hear the utterances and the inspiriting messages which they bring. So was it once in our Lord’s life. The people said it thundered; some thought an angel spake; but there were articulate words which He who came to do God’s will, in whose heart was God’s law, heard, and to Him that thunderlike voice promised to “glorify His name” (John 12:28-29). Similarly here, the Evangelist (who is in this but a type of the true witnesses for God), who is to prophecy before peoples and kings (Revelation 10:11), hears words spoken by the divine voice which make him strong for his mission. It is so evermore. Dull ears there are who hear thunder, but never God’s voice; dim eyes there are which see no trace of the divine craftsman in all nature, though
“Earth’s crammed with God,
And every common bush aglow with Him.”
The thunders are not to be written down; they are for those who have ears to hear.
And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,(5-7) And the angel . . .—Translate, And the angel whom I saw standing upon the sea and upon the earth lifted his right hand to the heaven, and sware in (or, by) Him who liveth unto the ages of the ages, who created the heaven, and the things in it, and the earth, and the things in it, and the sea, and the things in it, that time (i.e., delay, or postponement) should no longer be: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, whenever he is about to sound (his trumpet) was finished the mystery of God, as he evangelised his servants the prophets. There is a change of tense which sounds strange: he says, then (not “will be,” but) was finished. In thought he hurries on to the end, and sees the close no longer in the dim future, but as, with the eye of God, an accomplished fact. The certainty is guaranteed with an oath. The gesture of the uplifted hand to give emphasis to the oath is of ancient date. Thus Abraham expressed his resolution to take none of the spoils of the conquered kings: “I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord . . . that I will not take from a thread to a shoelatchet” (Genesis 14:22; comp. Exodus 6:8, margin). So, too, does the man clothed in linen (Daniel 12:6-9, a passage which, in much, is the foundation of the one before us) lift up both hands and sware that there shall be a fixed period for the accomplishment of the scattering of the power of the holy people. The oath in the passage under consideration is to the effect (not that time should cease and eternity begin, but) that there shall be no longer any delay. The suffering saints had cried, “How long?” (Revelation 6:9-11), and they had been bidden to wait a little time. Now the close of all such waiting time is announced: when the seventh trumpet shall have blown the mystery of God will be finished. “‘ The mystery of God’ does not mean something which cannot be understood or explained. It is never applied to such matters, for example, as the origin of evil, or the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity. It does mean a secret; but then a secret may be told, and when told is no mystery. The mystery, or secret, of God means, therefore, the whole of His plan and of His counsel concerning this earth in its present state of discipline and of imperfection; all that God means to do upon it and towards it, even till that which we read of as the time of the end (Daniel 12:4-9), the close of this last dispensation, and the introduction of that new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (Dr. Vaughan). No wonder, as he announced this fast approaching close of the ages of suffering and trial, he should add, “According as He (not “declared”—an utterly inadequate word—but) evangelised—i.e., according to the glad tidings which He had ever proclaimed to and by His servants the prophets.” A somewhat remarkable parallelism between this passage and 1Corinthians 15:51-52, has been pointed out. In both passages there is reference to the mystery, the glad tidings, and the last (the seventh trumpet is also the last) trumpet. This harmony of reference—taken in connection with St. Paul’s statement, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”—is full of interest, if it were for nothing more than to notice the union of thought between the two Apostles; but it may also throw light upon the teaching respecting the first resurrection (Revelation 20:5-6; but see Note there).
And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.(8-9) And the voice . . .—Translate, And the voice which I heard out of the heaven (I heard it) again talking with me (it is not the angel that speaks, but the voice which had bidden him seal up the thunders is heard again speaking), and saying, Go, take the roll (or, the little roll; there is a difference in the MSS.) which is opened in the hand of the angel who stands upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went away to the angel, telling him to give me the little book. And he saith to me, Take and eat it up; and it shall make bitter thy belly, but in thy mouth it shall be sweet as honey. The image of eating the roll is derived from the Old Testament. We meet with it in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:1-3) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:16). The passage in Ezekiel is probably the basis of the present passage, and the chapter in which it occurs gives us the meaning of the symbol: the eating of the roll, or the words of the roll, is the complete mastering of the contents of the book—the digesting, as we say, its meaning, till the principles and truths are thoroughly familiar and loved. “All my words” (so runs the explanatory verse, Ezekiel 3:10) “that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart and hear with thine ears.” It is similar to the Psalmist’s practice: “Thy words have I hid within my heart;” he made himself so familiar with them that they were no longer a code of laws, but a constant instinct, a second nature to him. Thus preeminently should he be familiar with his Master’s words and heart, saturated with his Master’s principles, who is to be a witness and a prophet for his Lord. “He who would carry God’s words to another must first be impressed and penetrated with them himself. He must not only hear, read, mark, and learn, but also (according to the Scriptural figure) inwardly digest them.”
And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.(10) And I took . . .—The Evangelist takes the roll, as he was bidden, out of the angel’s hand, eats it up, and finds it, as he was told, “in his mouth as honey, sweet.” In this his experience resembles that of Ezekiel, who found the roll in his mouth as honey for sweetness (Ezekiel 3:3). So the Psalmist could rejoice in God’s words and God’s law as sweet, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb (Psalm 119:103; Psalm 19:10). He who is ready to endure bitterness in his fidelity to God must not only be interpenetrated by divine teaching; he must have also realised its sweetness, or else, however pleasant his words may sound, they will lack the sweetness which is as needful to the words of the teacher as to the songs of the poet. But the after effect of the sweet-tasting roll is bitterness. Ezekiel makes no mention of this bitterness; yet we know how much his fidelity to the words he loved so well must have cost him when he was bidden to arm himself with a flinty determination (Ezekiel 3:9-14; Ezekiel 2:6-7), and the patient courage of one whose lot was among thorns and briars and scorpions. It must always be so. The love of Christ may constrain men, but the very ardour of their affections must bring them through tribulation, and may make them as outcasts, defamed, persecuted, slain. The flaming zeal to emancipate mankind from thraldoms, follies, and ruinous sins may stir the soul with a holy joy; but there come moments when men are almost tempted to turn back, and to think that they have undertaken a hopeless task, when they find how slow is their progress, and what new and unexpected difficulties arise. Such was the bitterness which Moses felt: “Why is it that Thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast Thou delivered thy people at all.” The most enthusiastic souls who love their fellow-men, and who feel how sweet and high is their calling, perhaps feel most of this bitterness. Their very love makes all failure very bitter to bear; yet is it through this martyrdom of failure that the noblest victories are won.
And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.(11) And he . . .—Better, And they (not “he,” as in the English version, but they say: an equivalent for “It was said,”) say to me, Thou must again prophesy concerning (or, with regard to) peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings many. He is told that the bitterness will arise in connection with his prophecies with regard to peoples and kings. This carries us on to the vision in the next chapter, where the two witnesses stand so solitary, and prophesy so mightily, yet so vainly, among men. He will have to tell the story of churches and peoples, priests and princes, unmindful of their high calling and their allegiance to their true king, and of their hatred of God’s mightiest and purest witnesses. The end, indeed, will come. The Church will be victorious. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of Christ: but it will be through persecutions, apostasies, judgments. This is the sad vision he must describe. The interposed visions will answer the question, “What has the Church been doing?” but it will show how she has done that work, distressed by heresies, crippled by worldliness, trodden down by enemies, and, worse than enemies, foes veiled as friends. But this very vision will lead to the unfolding of the more truly spiritual aspects of the Church’s work, and of that conflict in which she contends with the multiform spirit and power of evil. Thus will he prophesy of peoples and kings many.