The Bitter Sweetness of the Word of God (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 10)

Revelation 10:1-3, 8-11

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. 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, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring…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.” 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.” 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. And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.67-70)

The tenth chapter and most of the eleventh chapter have to do with the period between the sixth and seventh trumpets. In the earlier vision of the opening of the sealed book in Heaven there was an interlude between the sixth seal and seventh seal, in which St. John was given a vision of the host of the redeemed who had been sealed by the angels of God.DIGITAL CAMERA Now we have the interlude between the sixth and the seventh trumpets. In the first interlude the emphasis was laid upon the believers in the Word of God; now it is on the Word itself and the preaching of it….

The mighty angel who holds the Word of God in his hand is clothed with a cloud and is only partially visible. There is a mystery here which we cannot penetrate – we see through a glass darkly…The important fact, however, is that the feet of the angel are as pillars of fire, and one is planted upon the sea and the other upon the earth. We are reminded of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that accompanied the people of God through the waste howling wilderness betokening that God was ever present in His Word. Through His holy Word God’s presence is both astride the sea, the restless unseen depth of the human heart out of which come all the fightings and fears and tumults of men, and astride the earth, the visible plane of history and the theatre of all world-events. The Word of God towers over land and sea, and dominates the ages…

Now the vision takes a surprising turn. For the first time John the Apostle takes part in it himself. he is bidden approach the angel and take the book of the Word of God out of his hand and eat it. But he is warned that though it will be sweet to eat, it will be very bitter afterwards. John ate the book and in that sweetness and bitterness was told that he must prophesy again before many peoples, nations, and tongues…The Word of God is indeed sweet to the believer, but when it is digested and must be preached, it is bitter both for the believer and for the world. Whenever the Word of God is preached faithfully from the little open Book, there is both sweetness and bitterness, comfort and sorrow, peace and disturbance, new life and death…

Recall how Jeremiah encountered such bitterness and misunderstanding that he cursed the day he was born and curse the fact that he was a prophet. The more he proclaimed the Word of God the harder he made it for himself, while division and dissension and disturbance increased among his people, until poor Jeremiah was heartily weary of it all. And yet the Word of God was a fire in his bones and he could not forbear. He had to preach. He had to prophesy. He had to obey the fiery impulse of God’s Word in his heart…How frequently a preacher today is tempted to hold back the Word of God because of the trouble it may cause. He is a peace-loving creature. And how many a Christian is tempted not to bear witness to the truth of God in the world for he, too, is a peace-loving creature. And yet we cannot contain this Word – it must come out. It is God’s fire, and the more we try to contain it the greater its explosive force. It is impossible for a man who really knows the Word of God to seclude it. It is impossible for a person who has really eaten the book in the hand of the angel to have sweetness and comfort only without facing the consequences of bearing witness.

Surely there is a question here we must ask of ourselves. If there is no wormwood, are we really in touch with the Word of God? If our message is not disturbing and even sometimes tormenting, may we not wonder whether we have ever really eaten God’s holy Word?