“Take and eat”

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William Blake, “Angel of the Revelation” (ca. 1803-5)

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 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. (Ezekiel 3:1-3)

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. . . . 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.” (Revelation 10:1-2, 8-11)

In his contribution to the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina offers these sparkling insights on the tenth chapter of Revelation:

While the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll with seven seals, containing God’s plan for human history, it is only this “little scroll” that constitutes “the Lamb’s book” in the proper sense. Unlike the seven-sealed scroll, this book book is the positive expression of God’s will for his creatures, having the Lamb’s victory as its actual content. The evangelical character of this portion of Revelation is widely recognized by commentators. Thus the notes in the Geneva Bible identify this scroll as “the Gospel of Christ, which the Antichrist cannot hide, seeing Christ bringeth it open in his hand.” Jacques Ellul concurs: “The little open scroll is very clearly this Gospel . . .. Now the great design of God is fulfilled: the Incarnation, which is this fulfillment, is realized. 

In obedience to the command of the voice, John steps forward to receive the book from the hand of the angel standing on sea and land. The angel says, “Take and eat it.” In the parallel passage in Ezekiel, the angel simply says, “Son of man, . . . eat this scroll” (Ezek. 3:1). The double command take and eat is clearly a Christian formula, influenced by the traditions concerning the Last Supper in which Jesus tells his disciples to “take, eat; [for] this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). The “taking” is not irrelevant to the eating. God commands that we “take” by our own action what he desires to give, a free human response to his free gift of grace. It was with deep insight that Thomas Cramner included the words “take, eat” at the administration of the Communion in his service for Holy Eucharist, to the end that the worshiper might “feed on him [Christ] in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”

John’s taking of the little scroll is “eucharistic,” not in the direct sense that the scene depicts the celebration of the sacrament, but in the sense that he is being commanded to ingest the word of God, to let it enter him so as to become part of his own being. We are what we eat: being nourished by the word of God or by Torah is a frequent theme in scripture (Ps. 19:10; 34:8; 119:103; Jer. 15:16). Like physical food, the food that is the word is not necessary only for sustaining life but delightful, as Ezekiel discovers when he eats the scroll and finds that it is “sweet as honey” (Ezek. 3:3).

Yet the intrinsic delight of the word does not make its course in the world any less conflicted. The scroll given to Ezekiel may be sweet, yet it is also covered with words of “lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek. 2:10). To be a prophet is to encounter resistance. In the Apocalypse, this dual aspect of the prophet’s vocation finds expression in the dual character of the scroll, which while sweet to the taste makes John’s stomach bitter. The gospel, although it embodies God’s “yes” to humanity, is also the occasion of offense. It is vulnerable to rejection, and this rejection will be aimed not just at the message but at the messenger. The prophet’s existence has the same shape as that of the church itself; both are inevitably cruciform.

Nevertheless, the accent in the present scene falls not on John’s bitter stomach, but on the fact of his mission to the world: “And I was told, ‘You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” Prophesy as such is not new to John. He is known to the churches of Asia precisely in his identity as a Christian prophet. What is new, it seems, is the eschatological urgency of the situation. “There will be no more time,” says the angel. Yet far from causing the church to hunker down into a a sectarian enclave waiting for the end, the gift of the gospel sends the church outward into the world of peoples, nations, languages, and kings. The mighty angel crying with a loud voice is a type of Christ’s prophetic office, and John’s eating of the scroll is a sign of the church’s mission of bearing witness to the gospel, both in its life and its speech. And as the angel stands astride land and sea, so the gospel is truly a message without borders.  

Note on Blake’s illustration: A diminutive Saint John, pen in hand, on the island of Patmos, gazes at a “mighty angel . . . clothed with a cloud . . . a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.” The artist based the angel’s water-spanning stance on prints of the ancient Colossus of Rhodes and envisioned the seven thunders described in the text as horsemen riding through clouds.

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