1 And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, 3 he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, 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 Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and 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: “There will be no more delay, 7 but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled, 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 it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” 10 So 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 Then they said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”
Revelation does not press on inexorably towards judgment, instead it holds back since judgment by itself doesn’t seem to bring about repentance. We are continually reminded amid the chaos that is unleashed upon the earth that the forces that are at work for destruction are not comparable to the forces that God commands. Even as the first two woes have been unleashed the textual progression of Revelation takes a long pause to take our vision away from the death and destruction to prepare John, and by extension the churches that John is writing to, for their critical mission of witness. Here the mighty angel and the little scroll prepare the prophet and those who hear for the immediacy of their mission for there is no longer any time to delay.
Revelation operates in a world of paradoxes: on the one hand God is the primary actor who can unleash or restrain the forces of death and destruction but, on the other hand God chooses to work through individuals who may seem powerless compared to the mighty and powerful of the earth. God seems to choose the lowly to bring down the mighty from their thrones, the foolish to teach the wise and the exiled prophet speaks his words of prophecy to the peoples and nations and languages and kings. The churches of Asia may be a tiny minority amid the Roman empire and yet they serve a God whose power makes the might of Rome or any empire seem inconsequential.
The initial image of the angel standing astride the sea and land reflects God’s claim as the true Lord of all the creation but as we will see later in Revelation God’s dominion will be contested. Rome will be represented in Revelation 13 as a beast from the sea and a beast from the earth speaking against the dominion of God. The visual imagery discovered in the excavation of the imperial temple at Aphrodisias is strikingly similar to the description of the angel in this chapter. As the Aphrodisias excavation project describes the image:
The emperor strides across the panel in vigorous motion, framed behind by a billow of drapery, which in ancient iconography indicated floating, flying, and as here, divine epiphany. He receives in his right hand a cornucopia with the fruits of the earth from a small figure emerging from the ground. On the right he receives a steering oar from a sea figure or marine tritoness. She has fish legs and a fish-scale skirt. The cornucopia and the steering oar symbolize the prosperity of land and sea under the emperor’s rule. The composition is an arresting visualization of the Roman emperor as an all powerful hellenistic-style divinity as seen from the eastern provinces. The awkward, rather gauche handling of the proportions of the emperor’s body indicates that the composition was designed locally. There were no public monuments in Rome that portrayed such an elevated, panegyrical conception of the emperor’s role. (http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html, accessed July 3, 2018)
In contrast to the claims made about Caesar in images like this and in the imperial cult it is now an emissary from God who places one foot on the land and one on the sea, who is wrapped in a rainbow and who demonstrates the power of God. The angel carries a little scroll which is probably a copy of the scroll that was unsealed earlier in Revelation. The angel is powerful, and his shout is like a lion’s roar and the thunders speak in response. The thunders, which could be the seven angels around the throne or could be God’s voice. In this case since it is seven thunders it probably refers to the angels around the throne answering the angel on the sea and land. Yet, the words are not to be written down and what was said was not for ears beyond John’s It is sealed up and unlike in Daniel the words are not sealed up to an appointed time, here they are not to be shared.
With the angel’s announcement we hear the conflicting time schedule of Revelation. On the one hand we are in a pause so that John and the church can witness, the seventh trumpet has not sounded and there will be a period of forty-two months where the witnesses will testify, on the other hand there is no more time (or as the NRSV translates this passage there will be no more delay). God’s mystery is about to be revealed, God’s kingdom is coming, and God’s dominion will spread over the land and sea, to peoples, nations, languages and kings.
John in the role of a prophet is having the mystery of God revealed to him to share with others. The language echoes Amos 3:7:
Surely the LORD God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.
John now also receives an additional commissioning in the pattern of Ezekiel. He is commanded, like the prophet Ezekiel to eat an offered scroll (Ezekiel 3:3) and while it is sweet to the taste, like in Ezekiel, it is bitter in the stomach. A prophet is called to bear unpleasant truths to those who they are sent to and the prophet’s words are often unheard or ignored. The experience of the prophet is often one of disappointment and rejection. They are called to go out to the world and call for repentance. Yet, they are often broken hearted as their words go unheeded and as the consequences of people’s actions bear their unfortunate fruit. Yet, God’s love for the world and the people of it seems to require God to send God’s very best to witness, be rejected and suffer so that some might repent. Perhaps the bitterness of the scroll is the price that the prophet bears for entering the space between God and the world.