The Little Book - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
8 And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.
9 And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
10 And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.
11 And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
After all that was said in connection with the previous passage, this portion ought not to be difficult to understand in its purpose and significance. You will remember that in this entire chapter we have an interlude, a portion which has no immediate connection with the seven trumpets, but which has been thrown in for a certain definite purpose. The first part of this chapter answered many of the questions which might arise in the hearts of the people of God in the midst of the judgments and tribulations which have already been revealed in the first part of the book and which are still to be shown when the seventh angel shall blow his trumpet. In that passage we are assured that Christ holds the reins, and that although many tribulations may come upon the people of God, He shall nevertheless come, and come quickly, and establish His everlasting kingdom forever. And therefore that first part of the chapter was full of comfort for God's people.
One part of that portion connects itself immediately with the passage which we are now called to discuss. I refer, of course, to the little book which is in the hand of the angel who stands upon the earth and the sea. That little book we have as yet not discussed. All that we have said about it is the unique occurrence of the voice of the seven thunders, which told us that in that form John might not receive the revelation of the mystery of the kingdom of God. But our present passage informs us in what form he may receive it, and how he must be a prophet in the midst of the world of the things which are still to be revealed. If the first part of the chapter was for the comfort of the people of God and fixed their eyes upon the mighty King of kings, this part is for their instruction and warns them beforehand what they must do with the revelation of the future which John receives. For in the hand of the angel there is a little book. That little book must not merely be read and copied by the true prophet, but it must be eaten. And only after it has thus been appropriated do we read that John is prepared to be a prophet and to prophesy again to many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
The Meaning Of The Little Book
Again I must call your attention to the fact which I have mentioned more than once, namely, that the Book of Revelation itself determines rather plainly whether anything is to be understood in the symbolical or in the literal sense of the word. Disregard of this truth has led many interpreters of the book into paths of error. And therefore we must maintain it and point to it whenever we have the opportunity. We cannot draw one line and say that all that is revealed in the book must be taken in the symbolical sense: for then we become guilty of allegorizing and spiritualizing in the wrong sense of the word. Nor can we say that all that is revealed in this book must be taken in the literal sense: for then we arrive at absurdities and impossibilities. But we must let the book itself decide whether anything is meant symbolically or literally. That is also the case with our present passage. It is more than evident that this entire scene is not meant in the literal sense of the word. Then, if that were the case, we would have to assume that there was actually a book in the hand of the angel, printed in heaven, and that John actually, not in the vision, approached the angel, took that little book out of his hand, and swallowed it. Of course, that is both an impossibility and an absurdity. An impossibility it is, for John could not swallow a book. And if it is maintained that this is a miraculous swallowing of the book and that with God all things are possible, we add that it is also an absurdity. For books are not to be swallowed, but to be read. And one does not derive any benefit from swallowing a book, but from appropriating its contents by reading it. Hence, it needs no special indication to make us draw the conclusion immediately that here we have symbolism, not reality, and that John swallows the book in the vision, not apart from the vision. And the question before us is: what is the meaning of this symbolic scene?
To determine this we must, first of all, answer the question: what is the meaning of the little book itself? What is this little book in the hand of the angel, which is swallowed by John?
And then we wish to say at the outset that we do not agree with those interpreters who maintain that this book is the same as the one mentioned in Chapter 5, verse 1, namely, the book with its seven seals. In support of this contention we mention, in the first place, that this is a little book; the book with its seven seals was simply a book. In the second place, we must remember that the book with its seven seals was closed and sealed; this book, as it is expressly mentioned, was open. In the third place, as we have stated, that book was not merely a copy of the decree of God with a view to the bringing of the kingdom; but it was the symbol of the decree itself. When that book is opened, and seal after seal is loosed, the decree of God is realized. It cannot be maintained that that book is given to John in order that he should swallow it. And, finally, the book of the seven seals is the property and can be the possession only of the Lamb that was slain. As we noticed in that connection, there was not one who was worthy to open the book and to receive it out of the hand of Him Who sitteth upon the throne. Only the Lamb could take it and break the seals. Hence, it is simply out of the question that this could be the same book. For here it is offered to John, and he thoroughly appropriates the same.
But although this is true, it must also be maintained that this little book stands closely related to that book of the seven seals. In the first place, this might be surmised because also this book is found in the hand of the mighty angel, Who, as we have explained, is no one else than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Lamb that was slain. And, in the second place, we notice that when John eats this little book, the effect of it is that he must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings. That other book decided the fate of the peoples and nations and tongues and kings. It was the decree itself regarding them, and that with a view to the bringing of the kingdom of God. This little book makes John a prophet with regard to many peoples and nations and tongues and kings. The conclusion is that this little book reveals to John something from the book with its seven seals. It is a copy, a partial copy, of that book, - a copy in human form, so that John and the church can understand it. It is a partial copy, in the first place, because the full decree of God is infinite and cannot be completely revealed. Many things that are in the book of the seven seals naturally must remain a mystery to us. But partial it is also, in the second place, because much that is contained in the book of the seven seals has already been revealed to John at this stage.
We would say, therefore, that this little book, open in the hand of the angel, is the symbol of all that John still has to prophesy. He did prophesy already in the preceding portion. All that he has prophesied thus far has been revealed and has already been discussed by us. But according to verse 11, he must prophesy again. Still more is to be revealed to John and to the church. Of still more John is to be witness in the midst of the world. And this entire book is the symbol of all that John still must witness in regard to the future of the kingdom of God. And the scene that is pictured to us in the words of our passage shows how John must become prepared to be a prophet to the utmost: a prophet who not merely reveals things, who not merely informs the church and the world of some things with regard to the future, but who himself can be a living witness in the midst of a wicked world.
The Contents Of The Little Book
That this special preparation on the part of John was necessary at this stage will become evident if we consider briefly what this book contains. What is its message? What are the tidings it brings to the church and concerning the world?
As we shall understand, this little book contains the message of the seventh trumpet. Six seals have already been opened, and six trumpets have already been blown before it is deemed necessary that John receives this special preparation. All these six seals and six trumpets revealed the process of history with a view to the completion of the kingdom of God. They revealed that the kingdom would come and be completely realized, on the one hand, by the preaching of the gospel to all nations, but on the other hand, also by means of the judgments of war and famine and pestilence and various visitations upon the world and upon the physical universe. One more trumpet is to be blown. And then, as the mighty angel has sworn, the mystery of God shall have been fulfilled.
What is to be revealed to John in the future, therefore, is the process of things with a view to their consummation. How shall the kingdom come, and what will be the course of history that will destroy the power and the kingdom of darkness and establish the glorious kingdom of God and His Christ? Shall it be a gradual victory of the power of the gospel? Shall the influence of the gospel gradually spread, so that at the end, at the time of the close of history, all nations shall have embraced the Christ at His coming? How shall these things be? It is to those questions that, in the succeeding chapters, John receives the answer. It is of these truths that he must prophesy also in the future in the midst of the world. And it is for the prophesying of these things that a special preparation is required and symbolically pictured in the words of our passage.
If we glance over the rest of the book and notice what things John must still prophesy concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings, we soon surmise why indeed he was in need of this special preparation. For it is not a pleasing message, it is not a message of peace and gradual development which he brings. But it is a message of judgment and battle and destruction and vengeance. He speaks of the fate of the holy city and of the temple and of the two witnesses who are killed in the city and taken to heaven on account of the testimony which they give. He speaks of an awful conflict between the woman who brings forth the manchild and the dragon who attempts to destroy the child but fails. He speaks of the beast which comes out of the sea and the beast out of the earth, and of the terrible things that they do in the earth. He speaks of the development and power of Antichrist and his war upon the people of God, of tribulation and oppression for the sake of the cause of Christ and His kingdom. He makes mention of Babylon, the great harlot, describes her greatness among the nations of the world, but also pictures her final destruction. He pictures the effect of the outpouring of the seven vials of wrath and of the complete drying up of the great river, so that the nations rise for war against Zion. He speaks of the binding, but also of the loosing, of the devil and of all that follows. And only after all this has happened, and all these terrible things have been predicted, he pictures the heavenly Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, and the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness shall dwell.
In a word, the message which John the prophet must still bring is a tremendous, a terrible message. It is not a message which concerns but part of the world and of creation, but which is as wide in its significance as creation itself and which involves many peoples and nations and tongues, which involves with special mention kings, the great and powerful of the earth. It is, moreover, a message which is awful in its significance for all who do not really belong to the people of the kingdom, a message which does not speak of peace, but very definitely conveys the truth, "There is no peace for the wicked, saith my God." No peace till the end of the world, no peace as long as Satan and his kingdom of darkness still exist and wage war against the kingdom of the Lord may be expected. It is a message of judgment and affliction and tribulation and vengeance, a message of persecution and sacrifice even for the people of God, a message which will separate the spirits definitely. And only through all these things, awful and dark for the world, it finally appears as a message of joy for all who love the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And of that universal, tremendous, awful, but also joyous message John must be witness, a living witness, together with all the ministers, and, finally, together with all the church of God. And therefore he must be prepared; and not only he, but the ministers and the church of God must be prepared. And the way of sound and thorough preparation is indicated in the rest of the text.
The Eating Of The Little Book
What must John do with the book?
He tells us that he heard the same voice from heaven which he heard before. It is the voice which had spoken to him when he heard the voice of the seven thunders and when he was about to write down what they spoke. It is therefore a voice which directs him in this entire scene of preparation. First it warns him not to write down what the seven thunders spoke. These seven thunders, as I surmise, spoke very plainly. But John cannot become prepared truly by simply writing down what they said. He must not merely be informed as to the truth of the future, but something else must take place. And therefore this directing voice he now hears again. And it instructs him to approach the angel who stands upon the sea and upon the earth and who holds the little book in his left hand and to ask for the book. And as John does so, and asks the angel to give him the book, the latter instructs him further as to what he must do with it. The book is open, and therefore it can simply be read. But he must not read the book, but must do something else with it. The book is open, and it contains the revelation of the future, no doubt. And therefore John might simply copy it and inform the church of its contents. But he must not copy it. No, he must do nothing less than take the book and eat it, swallow it, and thus make it part of himself.
Once more, in order to understand this scene and its significance we must bear in mind that here we have the symbolical signification of the preparation of John and every true witness of Christ in the world as a prophet. John must be a prophet. He must be a living witness of the truth of God. He must bear the truth of God into the world and speak of tremendous things in which the church and the whole world, in which nations and kings, are involved. And the message he must bring is not one that will be sweet to the taste of the world, but one of woe and judgment. Hence, the message which he must deliver will meet with hatred and opposition in the world. And, of course, the same will be true of the prophet who bears this testimony. The bearer of this woeful message must not expect that all will accept the message unconditionally or stand for its contents. On the contrary, it will be contradicted and opposed. It will be opposed by the wicked world and the power of the Antichrist, that persecutes the church and that hates the truth and will speak of "Peace, peace," when there is no peace. It will be opposed, however, also by the church as it exists in the present dispensation. For many there are in that church who do not truly belong to Christ and His kingdom and who will hate and deny and oppose the message of tribulation and judgment. Also they will shout, "Peace, peace," though there is no peace, and though there cannot possibly be peace. Nay, still stronger: it will sometimes be opposed by the true people of God, who do not always see and understand that in this world the church militant must expect tribulation and judgment in order that the kingdom may come.
It requires spiritual courage, the courage of faith, therefore, to be a prophet of this message. For in spite of all the opposition, the prophet, the bearer of this truth, must insist: "Not a message of peace can I bring, but a message of war and trouble, unto the end of the world." And in order that in spite of this opposition the prophet of this message may stand firm, he receives the command to take and eat the book of this prophecy.
We have a scene similar to this recorded in the Book of Ezekiel, where the preparation of that prophet for his message is told us. In Ezekiel 2:8 to 3:3 we read: "But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee; Be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house: open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee. And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe. Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat the roll. And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness." From this passage it is plain:
1) That it speaks of Ezekiel's preparation as a prophet. He must first eat the roll and fill his bowels with it; then he must go and speak to the house of Israel.
2) That he also must not bring a pleasant message, but a message of woe and mourning and lamentation, and therefore of judgment upon the house of Israel.
3) That the house of Israel is a rebellious and stiffnecked people, so that he must expect opposition and persecution when he comes with the message of woe over them. And naturally, this is a reason that the prophet may become discouraged and afraid.
4) That for that very reason he must eat the book and fill his bowels with it, so that the message may become part of his very system.
If in the light of this Old Testament passage we turn once more to the text we are discussing, all will be plain. The revelation of the future, the message which John must bring, may not remain outside of him, so that he indeed is acquainted with its contents but for the rest is not influenced by it. That would have been the case had he merely quoted what the seven thunders spoke. He would have understood what the future would be, but it would not have controlled him. That would also have been the case had he merely read the little book or copied it. Its contents would still have remained outside of him and would not have influenced his heart and mind and entire life; but he would not have been a true prophet, a living witness, who would stand for the truth in the midst of the world and who would uphold its testimony in spite of opposition and suffering and tribulation. And then he would easily have been silenced by the world of sin and by the hatred against the truth. And therefore the truth must be thoroughly appropriated by the prophet. John must eat the book. He must digest it. He must fill his bowels with it. He must take it into his very system. It must become part of his flesh and blood, of his soul and spirit. It must transform him, change him, make a different man of him, and so strengthen him to bear the testimony which he must give in the midst of the world.
Or, to speak in terms of reality, John must assimilate the contents of this prophecy unto himself. He must understand it, labor with it, believe it, be convinced of its truth and also of the supreme significance of that truth. He must love it and embrace it. Nay, still stronger: the truth of this prophecy must take hold of him. He must first take it to himself and eat it, appropriate it by faith. And after he has thus assimilated the contents of the book, he must come under its power and influence, so that the truth of this prophecy so impresses and dominates him that he can never believe anything else, that he can never say anything else, that he must speak about it, and that he can never be silenced, but boldly testify of all that it reveals in opposition to the world of wickedness and in spire of all that world might do to silence the testimony of the prophet. This is the meaning of the entire passage.
This is the meaning of the passage for John himself.
However, this was not merely revealed for John, so that the passage would have no significance for us at the present time. On the contrary, in the broader sense of the word the church of Christ is the prophet, the living witness of the name of Christ and of His truth in the midst of the world. And in that broader sense, the passage undoubtedly contains a lesson for us all. It teaches us what we must do with the testimony of the Word of God in general, but especially with the testimony of the Book of Revelation. We can study the book and listen to its interpretation from more than one point of view and also from more than one motive. Perhaps we find some intellectual enjoyment in its interpretation. Perhaps we find our curiosity somewhat satisfied. Perhaps, however, we do not appropriate it at all. But all this is not sufficient, and that for the simple reason that the message of the book also demands a positive stand. This is always the case with the testimony of the Word of God. But it is such especially with respect to the book we are now discussing. The question is whether you believe all these things.
When that book speaks of the development of the world of sin and iniquity, how it will fight to the last against Christ and His kingdom, the question is: do you actually take these things to be the truth? When the book speaks of the apostate church and pictures that it will ultimately have an alliance with Antichrist, the question is: do you believe that it will be thus? When the book speaks of wars and judgments and tribulations, will you accept that through them all Christ brings His kingdom and that His kingdom will not and cannot come in any other way? If so, the book of this prophecy will determine your stand over against the world. You cannot understand and believe and love the truth of this book and at the same time cry along with the false philosophy of the world. And if the world continues to deny the truth and to trample under foot the blood of Christ and in spite of it maintains that the glorious kingdom of blessing and righteousness will come and dawn upon the world by gradual development, then you will oppose that world, condemn it uncompromisingly, because that blessed kingdom stands against the Christless philosophy of the world and testifies of woe and mourning and lamentation.
But then, you understand, it is not sufficient merely to listen to the sound of this book. Then you must eat it, appropriate it. It must become part of your entire system and control your life, so that you know of only one life, the life of the kingdom of God.
The Effect Of The Little Book
At first sight we would probably think that it was strange that this little book had such an effect upon John. The angel that gives him the book warns him that it will be sweet in his mouth, but bitter in his belly. And thus John actually experiences the effect of his eating of the book.
This phenomenon is generally explained by the different parts of the contents of the book. True, thus interpreters have it, the little book speaks of woe and mourning and lamentation, of bitter things. But it also speaks of joy and peace and everlasting life, of the new heavens and the new earth, of the heavenly Jerusalem that cometh down to stay forever. In a word, the contents of the book are. bitter, but also sweet. Thus John experiences it. The book tastes sweet to his mouth, as sweet as honey. But afterwards he realizes the bitter element; it is bitter in his belly.
Yet this interpretation does not satisfy, for various reasons. If that was the truth, then John naturally would taste both the bitter and the sweet from the beginning. If the contents of the book are the cause of it all, then there is no reason to believe that he would taste only the sweet in his mouth and only the bitter in his belly; but then he would notice both elements from the very start. And if it is argued that it is very well possible that one follows the other, I should think that the bitter element would naturally come first. For not the heavenly Jerusalem and the kingdom of peace are first in the experience of the Christian, but the tribulations and judgments are first while the heavenly Jerusalem follows them.
It seems to us, therefore, that a different explanation must be preferred. Now it is an obvious fact that the Word of God is more than once presented in Scripture as being sweet to the mouth of the believers. The psalmist sings of this in Psalm 119:103, when he says: "How sweet are thy words unto my taste; yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth." And again, in Psalm 19:10 the ordinances of Jehovah are spoken of as "sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb." So also in this case John received the revelation of the Word of God. And to the mouth of the believer the Word of God is sweet, never to the unbeliever. To him that Word is nauseating from the beginning. His taste is corrupt. The Word does not even appeal to him, and therefore he does not even swallow the book, but spews it out. But in the case of the believer it is quite different. He has been changed by the grace of God. He has received a new taste, the taste of faith. And to that taste of faith the Word of God appeals, always appeals, so that he takes it and eats it whenever that Word is given him. But does this mean that this same Word has no bitter after-effects when it reaches the spiritual digestive organs? By no means; the process of assimilation and digestion is often a painful one, not because that Word is deceiving and different from what it is promised to be, but because the power of sin is still in our hearts and minds. Now the Word has a battle against the influence of the flesh and the lusts thereof. And this battle of the Word, however sweet it was when taken and swallowed by faith, is a painful one. It causes bitterness and struggle till the medicine of the Word of God has done its work and transformed us.
This is especially the case with the word of this prophecy, of the prophecy as we have it in the Book of Revelation. Surely, the book speaks of redemption and of salvation, of heavenly glory and a new creation, of highest joy and eternal life. But the book speaks of this only after it has pictured the battle of faithful witnessing, of self-denial and suffering. It holds before our eyes the glory of the future, but only at the end of a dark and terrible road to travel. It is the road of battle for the kingdom of God. It is the road of persecution and mockery on the part of the world. It is the road alongside of which you may read the notice, "He that shall save his life shall lose it, but he that shall lose his life for my sake shall save it." And that is hard. That is not according to the flesh. That causes inward pain and battle. And thence is the bitterness of the book when it begins to work its work of transformation.
May that also be the result on our part. May the study of this little book in the future have this effect, that it is indeed sweet to our taste because it is the Word of God, sweeter than honey to the taste of faith, so that we do not rebel but swallow it, eat it, and hide it in our inmost heart. But may it also have this result, that when it begins its work of transformation, the truth of the book may at first seem painful as it mortifies the old man, and more and more leave nothing but one desire, that the kingdom of God may come. That should be the effect of our assimilating this little book of prophecy.