Yesterday morning, as I was getting ready for work, I received a request from a friend of mine to write about the following passage found in Revelation 10:8-11: “Then the voice which I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the earth.” So I went to the angel and said to him, “Give me the little book.” And he said to me, “Take and eat it; and it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.” Then I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter. And he said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”” At its first glance, this is a strange passage and does not appear to make sense. Why does John eat a book? Why is it sweet in his mouth but bitter in his stomach? What connection does this have to anything else?
As it happens, this event is not without a connection in scripture. When we look at Ezekiel 3:1-11, we see a parallel passage that explains what it is that John was getting at in Revelation 10: “Moreover He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll. And He said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly, and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you.” So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness. Then He said to me: “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. For you are not sent to a people of unfamiliar speech and of hard language, but to the house of Israel, not to many people of unfamiliar speech and of hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, had I sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, because they will not listen to Me; for all the house of Israel are impudent and hard-hearted. Behold, I have made your face strong against their faces, and your forehead strong against their foreheads. Like adamant stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not be afraid of them, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house.” Moreover He said to me: “Son of man, receive into your heart all My words that I speak to you, and hear with your ears. And go, get to the captives, to the children of your people, and speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ whether they hear, or whether they refuse.””
It is telling that just as this passage in Ezekiel immediately precedes a discussion on the responsibilities of the watchman, so also the passage about John eating the book immediately precedes a discussion of the two witnesses. This connection is not accidental. Before one can preach the word to others, one must ingest it. We cannot give to others what we do not possess ourselves. Before we can speak the word to others, whether they be people in our congregations, those in our societies who are rebellious and stiff-necked against God’s ways, or the entire world as a whole, we must have internalized what God has said. And truly those words are as sweet as honey. Even to those who have no particular commitment to following the Bible and what it says, the words of the Bible are sweet. Whether we catch the biblical allusions in the writings of Shakespeare or many others, writers have always found the rich and descriptive language of the Bible to be sweet in their own mouths and on the tips of their pens, in referencing the grapes of God’s wrath or the Song of Solomon or the apple of someone’s eye or so on and so forth. Yet, as both Revelation and Ezekiel demonstrate, the devouring of the word of God is often bitter in the stomach.
While we might think of this bitterness as a bad thing, but it need not be so. A great deal of medicine feels bitter in our stomach but is necessary to do its work. The medicine quinine, for example, long used against malaria, can tear through one’s gut if one does not take it with enough food, as I found out much to my chagrin in Ghana. The medicine of the Word of God is indeed strong medicine that convicts us of our sin and rebellion in our deepest and innermost parts. But yet if we are to preach effectively to others, this medicine must have its effect. In the case of Ezekiel, it was seven days after receiving this vision of eating the scroll before he was able to speak aloud to his hard-hearted and rebellious fellow exiles about what he had been commanded to witness to them. And John too found the little book he had been commanded to eat bitter in his stomach, and yet both of them ate as was commanded them. And both of them spoke and wrote too, serving as prophetic watchmen for a rebellious generation.
Do we wish to imitate them? A great many people like the prestige that they feel comes to those who speak on behalf of God. Yet all too often these people speak smooth words that the people want to hear. At other times people wish to pronounce doom and gloom upon obvious and flagrant and unrepentant sinners, but often do so without a feeling of love or compassion for those they condemn. Neither of these ways will work. When we eat the sweet words of God, we recognize their beauty and worth. When we feel the bitterness of them within ourselves, we recognize that God’s word convicts us as much as it will convict those who hear us speak those words. And first feeling the bitterness within ourselves before others do gives us a sense of compassion and allows us to relate with the difficulties our audience may have in hearing and applying those words. For the process will be the same for our hearers–there will be sweetness in what they hear, but bitterness within as they too ingest God’s words and let it take effect in their own lives and serve as strong medicine for their wayward and rebellious ways. For we are all stubborn and stiff-necked in some manner and about some things, and all of us will find aspects of God’s ways to be painful and unpleasant. If we have not yet, we simply have not discovered enough of those ways to apply to ourselves. And if we have felt the bitterness of God’s words being ingested, we will certainly be compassionate on others then they feel the same medicine that we have taken ourselves, for we have the same nature as those we wish to reach with our message.