Revelation 10:1-11: We would expect the seventh angel to blow the seventh trumpet and thereby bring on the third woe, but just as the sequence of the seals was broken, so here we have another angel appear with another scroll. John had been reporting from heaven, but here he is back on Patmos and an angel comes down from heaven with a small, open scroll in his hand. The qualities of this angelic figure are often associated with God – in Revelation God, Christ, and the messengers of God bear a striking resemblance. That a rainbow shines around this figure is an indication that even though the visions John shares are often dark, they are always meant to be heard with hope.
The angels voice shouts out loudly, and brings out the sound of seven thunders. John is going to write down the voice of the thunder, but he is told to seal it up. This may be an image meant to communicate that not all the mysteries of God are revealed by any one “prophet,” even one as powerful as John. Sometimes even prophets are to keep silent, to seal up the voices of thunder.
While John remains silent about the voices of thunder, he does report what he hears from this angel – that God’s purposes will move forward. There will be no more delay. Images from Daniel 12 reverberate in this section.
The chapter ends with a beautiful image of the prophetic vocation – eating the scroll of God. We are reminded of material from Ezekial 2 and 3 here. “The prophetic mission of internalizing and announcing the word of God is a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).
To share God’s love in an often hostile and unloving world is frequently bittersweet. As Christians we have words of love to share, acts of compassion and justice to engage in, but we often see just how far the world is from God’s dream for it. We are painfully aware of how often our own lives fall short. Such a view can create sadness and bitterness. Yet our job is to continue to proclaim God’s love in words and deeds that heal and free, to let sadness become tenderness.
Revelation 11:1-14: This section is dense with allusions from the Old Testament and earlier apocalyptic traditions. It is not to be “decoded,” but does imaginatively place the experience of the church of John’s day in the context of extravagant biblical imagery. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
John has eaten the scroll and now will speak about nations and languages and kings, I hear and echo in the words about nations and languages to the image in chapter 7 of the multitude of those worshipping God. Here the multitude will be going in a different direction. In a time when the churches to which John is writing feel their distinct minority status, he uses minority images to write about faithfulness.
Nations will have a time of triumph over the church. They will thwart God’s justice and peace and redemption, but only for a time. Two images speak of the limits of the powers that work against God’s purposes – the image of a part of the Temple that stands strong (an ironic image given that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE), and the image of forty-two months or 1,260 days.
Even in an evil time, there will be witnesses to God’s purposes – here portrayed as two persons dressed in sackcloth or two olive trees or two lampstands. Such fluidity in imagery makes it difficult to argue for the kind of interpretation of Revelation that is often popular – every image has a very specific future reference point. Revelation is simply not that kind of book. The witnesses are powerful, powerful in the words they speak, but even these powerful witnesses will seemingly be defeated, at least for a time. A beast who comes from the bottomless pit will arise and defeat the witnesses, much to the approval of a world gone badly wrong. But God’s purposes will not be defeated, and God breathes the breath of life back into the two witnesses. The promise here is that not even death will ultimately defeat the purposes of God. For some of the people to whom John writes, the choice might have come to faithfulness or death. John’s writing here is both a statement of personal hope and cosmic hope – God’s love will triumph. God’s love will be vindicated.
Revelation 11:15-19: The seventh trumpet sounds, and it is supposed to bring with it the third woe, but it does so only indirectly. The image here is once again of worship, and it is worship as a celebration of the final triumph of God’s dream for the world, the final triumph of truth, beauty, goodness, justice, reconciliation and love. It is not that the world gone wrong has disappeared, it has been transformed into the reign of God. Those forces in the world which contribute to the earth’s destruction (an interesting turn of phrase in our ecologically-minded time), which lead nations astray (depending on the power of violence and injustice to maintain peace and sovereignty), are judged to be wholly inadequate to life. The word of woe here is that lives will be judged and you are asked to give an account. Did you remain faithful to the Jesus way in spite of difficulties encountered or did you give in to another way, perhaps the imperial way? To live other than the Jesus way is to waste a life. To live the Jesus way is to contribute to God’s dream for the world, a dream that won’t be defeated.
The ark of the covenant was a powerful Old Testament image for the presence of God. The weather at the end of the chapter is also symbolic of the presence of God.
While John writes in extravagant poetic language, he is a realistic observer of human life in the world. He sees evil and sees the depths of evil. The world is not as it should be. Every hungry child cries out for bread and for God’s dream for the world. Every injustice is a reminder that the world is still the world and often thwarts God’s dream for the world. When there is hatred instead of love, God’s dream is set aside. When there is retribution instead of reconciliation or forgiveness, God’s dream for the world is crucified. That’s the world we live in. But the world we live in is also a world into which the life breath of God is breathed anew time and time again. Sometimes it seems as if all we are left with is two strong witnesses, but more often we get a glimpse of that wonderfully inclusive party and parade imagined in chapter 7. John’s writing poses these questions again and again – Which side are you on? Will you hold fast to the faith, even when the forces of evil, injustice and oppression seem so strong? The questions are alive for us today.