Tagged: vengeance

I heard an eagle — Revelation 8:12-13

Previously: The fourth trumpet – Revelation 8:12-13

The scripture

Rev. 8:12 – The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day was without light, and the night as well. 13I looked, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid-heaven, saying in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth, because of the remaining trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to sound!” (HCSB)

I heard an eagle

Now John writes, “I looked, and I heard an eagle …” Some manuscripts read “angel” instead of “eagle,” which could make more sense because angels play such prominent speaking roles in Revelation. However, most translations render the word “eagle.” Young’s Literal Translation renders it “messenger.” The eagle is a symbol of the Romans and is found on their ensigns. For some, that supports a first-century fulfillment of Revelation as the Romans swoop down upon Jerusalem like an eagle on its prey and bring the nation to ruin in 70 A.D.

The eagle in scripture is a symbol of vengeance. In Deut. 28:49, as Moses recites the curses that will befall Israel if the people break their covenant with God, he says, “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle.” In Hosea 8:1, the Israelites are told, “[P]ut the horn to your mouth! One like an eagle comes against the house of the Lord, because they transgress My covenant and rebel against My law.” And in Hab. 1:8, the Lord tells His people He is raising up the Chaldeans as an instrument of His wrath: “They fly like an eagle, swooping to devour.”

Eagles are mentioned many times in scripture, usually in symbolic terms. They convey the idea of gathering God’s people to Himself (Ex. 19:4); of swiftness (2 Sam. 1:23; Job 9:25-26; Jer. 4:13; Lam. 4:19; and others); of prophetic significance (Dan. 7:4); of a parable (Eze. 17:1-4); of youth and the young (Ps. 103:5; Deut. 32:11); of flying toward heaven and nesting in the heights (Job 39:27; Prov. 23:5; Jer. 49:16; Obad. 1:4); of feasting on carcasses (Job 39:28-30; Prov. 30:17; Matt. 24:28); of the Lord bringing destruction (Jer. 48:40-42; 49:22-26; Hosea 8:1); of the Lord renewing strength (Isa. 40:31); of God’s people being delivered from Satan (Rev. 12:14); of creatures with four faces (Eze. 1:10; 10:14); and of beasts in heaven around the throne (Rev. 4:7).

If the creature in Rev. 8:13 is in fact an eagle, he fulfills his Old Testament role as a harbinger of judgment, for he pronounces three woes – which are the three final trumpet judgments – upon the earth’s inhabitants. If this creature is an angel, he speaks in a manner consistent with other angels in Revelation who herald, or deliver, God’s wrath.

The eagle is said to be flying in “mid-heaven,” which also may be translated “very high.” Some versions render it “midair,” “air,” “directly overhead,” “mid-heaven,” “midst of heaven,” or “sky.” So it appears he is soaring in our atmosphere, hovering perhaps, circling intently as one that eyes his prey. But the eagle does not attack. He is not the instrument of judgment, but its herald, warning those on the earth that there is still time to repent, but not much time.

W.A. Criswell puts the three woes in perspective: “Incomprehensible to us is the reluctance with which the Lord God Almighty gives up His people … Why does not God damn the demons out of His sight? Why does not God destroy them? Why does not God burn them with fire? Why does God let a tyrant live? Why does God let sinful people continue in their terribleness? Why does He do it? Because of the longsuffering of the Almighty. Maybe, maybe they will turn. Maybe they will hear. Maybe they will listen. Maybe they will repent. Maybe they will be saved…. There is always an appeal from God, a warning from the Lord, lest we fall into perdition and into damnation and into death. That is why this warning is given here before the sounding of the last three trumpets, beyond which it is forever and forever too late” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, pp. 178-179).

The eagle cries in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth.” There are two words in the Greek language to describe dwellers on the earth. One is paroikeo, which means to  dwell as a sojourner. The other is katoikeo, and it means to settle down. The latter word is used here, illustrating that those upon whom judgment is about to fall are firmly attached to their world and prefer it to the throne of God. They will be damned, not because a place in heaven is unavailable, but because they won’t have it. Their home is the sinful and fallen earth. Their treasures are here. Their hopes and dreams are here. Their desires are here. So the eagle tells them three times, “Woe!” They will get exactly what they want – a stake in the world that is passing away.

The word “woe” is telling. It is used more than 110 times in scripture and often is used as an expression of grief or a lament of deplorable conditions. When Jesus says in Matt. 24:19, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days,” He is expressing concern for the vulnerable when “the abomination that causes desolation” occurs. Yet there are times that a harsher meaning must be taken. Jesus’ woes upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 are pointed condemnations, especially since he repeatedly calls them “hypocrites,” “snakes,” and a “brood of vipers” and tells them plainly, “How can you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33).

But what is the meaning of “woe” in Rev. 8:13? The eagle does not speak directly to the earth’s inhabitants, although no doubt they can hear him. Rather, he warns that even more deadly judgments are about to fall upon those who cling to the domain of Satan. Perhaps this is a warning, uttered with a shade of God’s mercy. The axe has not fallen yet; there is still time. But if those who hear the warning fail to heed it, the eagle’s words will echo in their empty hearts for eons to come.

As the apostle Paul wrote in an appeal to the Corinthians, “Don’t receive God’s grace in vain…. Look, now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1-2).

Four major views of the fourth trumpet

How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the fourth trumpet?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – assign the events of the fourth trumpet to the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. The darkened celestial bodies symbolize Roman and Jewish leaders. Austin Farrar writes that “ruler after ruler, chieftain after chieftain of the Roman Empire and the Jewish nation was assassinated and ruined. Gaius, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, all died by murder or suicide; Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa, and most of the Herodian Princes, together with not a few of the leading High Priests of Jerusalem, perished in disgrace, or in exile, or by violent hands. All these were quenched suns and darkened stars” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, pp. 166, 168).
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – view the sun, moon and stars as “the political firmament of Rome,” and many argue that the events described in the fourth trumpet judgment are fulfilled in the fall of the Roman Empire in or around 467 A.D. The fact that some Roman influence continues after this time illustrates that the empire’s lights are not completely extinguished. Some historicists, however, remain open to the idea that these celestial bodies symbolize leaders in the church.
  • Futurists – who say the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided along literal vs. symbolic lines. Some argue that these fading celestial lights represent a reduction in spiritual light during the tribulation, citing 2 Thess. 2:11-12: “For this reason God sends them a strong delusion so that they will believe what is false, so that all will be condemned – those who did not believe the truth but enjoyed unrighteousness.” Others hold out for a more literal application. Some believe we are reading a description of an eclipse; others, of a day-night cycle shortened to 16 hours; still others, of the lingering effects of the first three trumpet judgments that leave “scientists and politicians trying desperately to find naturalistic explanations for their causes” (Henry Morris, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 169).
  • Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – say John is describing the decline of the Roman Empire, while others say it’s best to apply this more broadly to the fall of the ungodly. Geoffrey B. Wilson writes that “it should be obvious that John is painting a picture and not writing a treatise on astronomy! The darkness prefigures the doom of the ungodly (Isa. 13:10), and is also the prelude to the new exodus of God’s people from under the hands of their oppressors … In an age which looks to the stars for guidance, this verse reminds us that God exercises complete control over the solar system” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 169).

Next: The fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1-12)

The seventh seal: Revelation 8:1-6

Previously: One of the elders asked me (Rev. 7:9-17)

The scripture

Rev. 8:1 – When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2Then I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God; seven trumpets were given to them. 3Another angel, with a gold incense burner, came and stood at the altar. He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up in the presence of God from the angel’s hand. 5The angel took the incense burner, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it to the earth; there were thunders, rumblings, lightnings, and an earthquake. 6And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them (HCSB).

Between the sixth and seventh seals we see a pause as 144,000 are sealed on earth and a vast number in heaven – from every nation, tribe, people and language – stand before the throne. Finally, as Christ opens the seventh seal, we learn there is silence for half an hour, followed by seven angels receiving trumpets that will herald judgments upon the wicked. Another angel approaches the altar, fills an incense burner with fire and hurls it to the earth, resulting in thunders, rumblings lightnings, and an earthquake.

Why is there half an hour of silence in heaven? What’s the significance of incense with regard to the prayers of the saints? Who are the seven angels who stand in the presence of God? How would John’s first-century readers understand all of this? And what are we to make of it today? Let’s look more closely at these six verses.

Silence in heaven

When Jesus opens the seventh seal, there is silence in heaven for “about half an hour” (v. 1). We have just heard the vast multitude, standing before the throne, shout praises to the Father and the Lamb (Rev. 7:10). And we’ve listened to the angels worship God with their uplifted voices as they fall on their faces before Him. When the Lamb opens the first seal, a thundering voice says, “Come.” When He opens the second, third and fourth seals, we hear the same voice. When Jesus opens the fifth seal, John hears the cry of the martyrs from under the altar. When He opens the sixth seal, there is a violent earthquake and tumultuous events in the heavens and on earth. Then, in Chapter 7, there is a high-decibel break in the action between the sixth and seventh seals as an angel cries in a loud voice to his fellow angels not to harm the earth until the 144,000 are sealed, and as angels around the throne worship God. But now, with the opening of the seventh seal, there is a deafening silence. Why? “Silence is appropriate in anticipation of the Lord’s coming judgment (Zeph. 1:7-10; Zech. 2:13)” (The ESV Study Bible, Rev. 8:1).

We should not assume that a delay means God is any less serious about vindicating His holiness. In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow to illustrate the importance of ceaseless prayer. “Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay [to help] them? I tell you that He will swiftly grant them justice” (Luke 18:7-8a). And in 2 Peter 3:4-13, we are told that God’s timing is not ours: “[W]ith the Lord one day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years like one day. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Lord’s judgment never falls before He has extended ample grace and mercy, which people may mistake as indecision or apathy on God’s part.

But why silence for half an hour? W.A. Criswell explains, “It is, first, the silence of awe and of intense expectancy. This is the last drama of the ultimate mystery of Almighty God… It is [secondly] a silence of ominous foreboding. Even the Lord God Almighty pauses before the onward rush of this great, final judicial administration…. Is that a brief while? No, indeed. It is seemingly interminable, unbearable…. The silence, the stillness in heaven is a pause one could never forget. Remember that time is altogether circumstantial and relative” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, pp. 161-62).

Matthew Henry argues that the prolonged silence may be seen from two perspectives: first, the perspective of peace, since there are no longer any cries being lifted up from the saints to God; and second, the perspective of expectation as the redeemed join the heavenly creatures in watching open-mouthed at what the Lord is about to do. Perhaps it is as Zechariah wrote, “Let all people be silent before the Lord, for He is coming from His holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13).

We can’t say with certainty whether the silence lasts 30 minutes, or simply a notable period of time. Heaven is a noisy place filled with songs, praise, and adoration – all joyfully rehearsed by human and angelic creatures in the presence of God. Silence of even a few minutes would seem deafening by comparison. No doubt the saints, angels, elders and heavenly creatures are holding their collective breaths as the Creator is about to bring human history to a close.

Seven angels are given trumpets

During this silence, seven angels are given trumpets. John tells us these are “the seven angels who stand in the presence of God” (v. 2). But who are these angels? We see four angels standing at the four corners of the earth in Rev. 7:1. And there are “seven angels” – presumably not the seven angels – with the last plagues in Rev. 15:1, but there is no specific mention elsewhere in Revelation of “the seven angels.” Some commentators say these are “the seven spirits before His throne” whom we encounter in Rev. 1:4, but a number of translations render it “the seven-fold Spirit,” or Holy Spirit, in the book’s opening vision.

These angels are distinguished from the multitude of other angelic creatures around the throne in that they “stand in the presence of God.” In scripture, the angel Gabriel identifies himself as one “who stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). And in the apocryphal Tobit 12:15 we read, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.” Perhaps there are others, unnamed in scripture, who serve in similar capacities. But it does not appear this is the seven-fold Holy Spirit, who is never depicted as blowing a trumpet. In any case, these seven angels take their trumpets in turn and prepare to blow them — a loud and clear warning of impending judgment.

Just as seals prevent written messages from being revealed until the proper authority breaks them and thus unravels the scroll, trumpets play unique roles as well. John is a Jew and is well versed in the place of trumpets in Israel’s national life. According to Numbers 10, trumpets have three important uses. They call people together (Num. 10:1–8), announce war (Num. 10:9), and herald special times (Num. 10:10). “The trumpet sounded at Mount Sinai when the Law was given (Ex. 19:16–19), and trumpets were blown when the king was anointed and enthroned (1 Kings 1:34, 39). Of course, everyone familiar with the Old Testament would remember the trumpets at the conquest of Jericho (Josh. 6:13–16)… Sounding seven trumpets certainly would announce a declaration of war, as well as the fact that God’s anointed King was enthroned in glory and about  to judge His enemies (Ps. 2:1–5). As trumpets declared defeat to Jericho, they will ultimately bring defeat to Babylon” (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 8:1).

The fact that these are angels’ trumpets distinguishes them from the trumpet of God (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16), which proclaims the resurrection of believers, and from other New Testament trumpets (Heb. 12:19; Rev. 1:10, 4:1). The angels’ trumpets, sounded in turn, announce the Lord’s judgment upon the wicked of the earth.

At the golden altar

But before the seven angels sound the trumpets, a special angel performs a significant act at the golden altar in heaven. In the tabernacle and temple, the golden altar stands in front of the veil and is used to burn incense, a picture of prayer ascending to God (see Ps. 141:2). This is the work Zacharias is performing in the temple when the angel informs him that he and Elizabeth will have a son (Luke 1:5ff). The “prayers of the saints” (v. 4) are not the petitions of some special believers who have achieved superior status. All Christians are saints (2 Cor. 1:1; 9:1, 12; 13:13) and the Holy Spirit ensures their prayers ascend to their heavenly Father (Rom. 8:26). What’s more, scripture nowhere teaches that we are to direct our prayers to saints in heaven. Our prayers are to be directed to the Father through the Son with the aid of the Holy Spirit. It is possible that these are the prayers of the saints both in heaven (Rev. 6:9-11) and on earth for God to vindicate His holiness. These so-called “imprecatory prayers” are seen in the Psalms (see Pss. 7; 26; 35; 52; 55; and 58) and it appears God is about to answer them.

There is nothing wrong with prayers for vengeance, as long as we are beseeching God for His vengeance, not ours, and for His holiness to be vindicated, not our self-righteousness. There may be a fine line between imprecatory prayers and spiteful ones, but there is line in any case and we should not seek to cross it.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest takes coals from the golden altar and, with the blood of sacrifices, enters the Holy of Holies to offer a sacrifice first for himself and then for the people. But in Revelation 8, the angel takes coals from the golden altar and hurls them to the earth. While the smoke of the incense ascends to God with the prayers of the saints, the burning coals flung to earth represent God’s answer to these prayers. The calm before the storm is ending.

“The purpose of prayer, it has often been said, is not to get man’s will done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth – even if that will involves judgment. True prayer is serious business, so we had better not move the altar too far from the throne!” (Wiersbe, Rev. 8:1).

Four major views of the seventh seal

How do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the seventh seal?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say this judgment is directed at apostate Israel, which is the “earth” or “land” in verse 5. In Old Testament times, when God’s people are commanded to destroy an apostate city, Moses orders them to burn all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord (Deut. 13:16; Judges 20:40). The priest takes coals from God’s altar and uses it to kindle the fire, thus putting the city “under the ban” so that nothing survives. Now, in Revelation 8, the angel takes coals from the heavenly altar and hurls it to the earth, placing apostate Israel and its capital city of Jerusalem under the ban.
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the angel who offers the incense as Christ, acting in His priestly role in the heavenly sanctuary. The saints are those slain by Rome during the era of the martyrs. Their prayers have ascended before God and are about to be answered by His vengeance against the Roman Empire.
  • Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say the prayers are those of “all the saints” (v. 3), or at least the saints of the tribulation who are living on the earth and crying out to God for vengeance. Some futurists see the incense-offering angel as Jesus, our High Priest, while others see no reason to equate this angel with deity. The fact that fire is cast to the earth from the same censer as was used in offering up the saints’ prayers implies that the judgments are in response to those prayers.
  • Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see the seven trumpet judgments running concurrently with the seven seal judgments, not chronologically after them. The calamities described here are typical judgments that recur throughout the church age and should not be regarded as symbolizing particular events. Some argue that the incense represents the intercession of Christ for His church, being mingled with the prayers of the saints.

Next: The first trumpet (Revelation 8:7)

Until their fellow slaves were killed (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: A white robe was given (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed. (HCSB)

Until their fellow slaves were killed

The martyrs are told to rest “until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed” (v. 12). It appears that many more will experience martyrdom before the return of Christ. While we may wonder why God doesn’t put a stop to the killing – some brashly question whether He is able to do so – we may be confident that He is sovereign over human history, causing or allowing all things for reasons we may not fully understand. God has determined that a number of saints will give their lives because of His word and the testimony they have. Only God know when this number – like the measure of sins being filled up by the wicked – will reach capacity.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the total number of Christian martyrs in the 20th century alone reached 45 million. How many millions of others have given their lives from the time of Stephen, the first martyr, until now is impossible to know with certainty. But no doubt there is ample room beneath the altar in heaven for those who have identified with the slaughter of the Lamb.

R.J.D. Utley writes, “One of the major truths of this book is that God is in control of all things, even the death of Christian martyrs! All of history is in His hand. God is not surprised by any events, actions or outcomes. Yet there is still pain, suffering and unfairness in this fallen world. This concept of a completed number of martyrs (cf. I Enoch 47:4) is a symbolic way of referring to God’s knowledge and plan for mankind. This is similar to Paul’s concept of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ (cf. Rom. 11:12, 25) which refers to God’s knowledge of all the Gentiles who would be saved” (Utley, Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Vol. 12, Study Guide Commentary Series, 63).

Four views

Briefly, here is a summary of the four major views of these verses:

  • Most historicists see the fifth seal fulfilled during the rule of Diocletian, who persecuted the church in the last days of his rule from 284 – 304 A.D.
  • Preterists argue that the souls under the altar are those of first-century Christians slain at the hands of the Jewish persecutors.
  • Futurists contend that these saints are killed during the yet-future Tribulation.
  • And spiritualists say this passage reveals the present state of those who already have died for their faith.

In any case, interpreters agree that Jesus comforts His martyrs, grants them rest and assures them that His judgment, whenever it falls, will be swift and sure.

Next: The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17)

A white robe was given (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: O Lord … how long? (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed. (HCSB)

In response to the martyrs’ question about God’s plans for His day of vengeance, the Lord provides each of them with a white robe, and they are told simply to “rest a little while longer” (v. 11). We see white clothing in other places in Revelation:

  • In Christ’s letter to the church at Sardis, He tells them, “but you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy. In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes” (Rev. 3:4-5a, emphasis added).
  • In Rev. 3:18, Jesus urges the Laodiceans to “buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, and white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed …” (emphasis added).
  • And in Rev. 4:4, we see that the 24 elders are dressed in white clothes. Surely these white clothes represent the righteousness of Christ.

In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), the one thrown into outer darkness is not dressed in appropriate attire. It’s not that he is too poor, or ill-advised; rather, he refuses to wear one of the white robes the host provides freely to all guests. The white robes given to the martyrs in Revelation 6 no doubt symbolize that they were made white by the blood of the Lamb, and that those clothed in Christ’s righteousness may wait in confident expectation that He will avenge their untimely deaths.

Maimonides, one of the great Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, says the Jews used to array priests, when approved of, in white robes; “thus the sense is, they are admitted among the blessed ones, who, as spotless priests, minister unto God and the Lamb” (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Rev. 6:11).

The martyrs also are told to rest “a little while longer.” None of them presses the issue by asking, “How long is that?” It seems enough to have God’s assurance that He will be true to His word. The timing of the Lord’s plans for the ages is known only to Him and remains a mystery and at times a matter of considerable debate for us. One reason the Book of Revelation is so difficult to interpret is because of the timing of its content. Have most of these prophecies been fulfilled, as preterists argue? Are they fulfilled at various stages in human history, as historicists contend? Are they yet future, as futurists believe? Are they to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally, as spiritualists argue? Or is there perhaps some element of truth in all of these interpretations, as eclectics say? One thing we all can agree on is that God, who is “holy and true” (v. 10), will fulfill His promises. That truth alone enables the saints to rest.

Nowhere in this passage do the saints seek to take vengeance into their own hands. They know what the Lord has said: “Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay … As surely as I live forever, when I sharpen My flashing sword, and My hand takes hold of judgment, I will take vengeance on My adversaries and repay those who hate Me” (Deut. 32:35, 40b-41).

It is interesting to note that when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares that “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled” (see Luke 4:16-21), He stops quoting the prophet in mid-sentence. He has declared that his earthly ministry involves preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captives, recovering sight for the blind, setting free the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. But then, abruptly, He stops. If He were to go on, the next line reads, “and the day of our God’s vengeance” (Isa. 61:2). Clearly, Jesus reserves that day of vengeance for a future time more closely associated with His second coming. When we finally get to Rev. 19:2 we see that “He has avenged the blood of His servants …”

The length of the martyrs’ rest is implied but not implicit. It is “a little while,” eti chronon nikron, yet a little time, just a little while. God’s timing is not ours. Peter writes, “Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: with the Lord one day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). His delay is an opportunity for repentance (2 Peter 3:9). And judgment most certainly will come, followed by new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13).

Next: Until their fellow slaves were killed (Rev. 6:9-11)

O Lord … how long? (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).

O Lord … how long?

John hears the martyrs in heaven cry out, “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” (v. 10). A more literal translation asks, “Until when will You exact vengeance for our blood?” Warren Wiersbe raises an interesting question about the verse in his commentary: “But is it ‘Christian’ for these martyred saints to pray for vengeance on their murderers? After all, both Jesus and Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who killed them.”

Wiersbe then offers this insight: “I have no doubt that, when they were slain on earth, these martyrs also prayed for their slayers; and this is the right thing to do (Matt. 5:10–12, 43–48). The great question, however, was not whether their enemies would be judged, but when. ‘How long, O Lord?’ has been the cry of God’s suffering people throughout the ages (see Pss. 74:9–10; 79:5; 94:3–4; also Hab. 1:2). The saints in heaven know that God will eventually judge sin and establish righteousness in the earth, but they do not know God’s exact schedule. It is not personal revenge that they seek, but vindication of God’s holiness and the establishment of God’s justice. Every believer today who sincerely prays, ‘Thy kingdom come!’ is echoing their petition” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 6:9).

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit there are times we seek God’s justice for our own gratification and not for His glory. We tend to want justice for our enemies and mercy for ourselves. It is the old nature emerging in our words and deeds – and even in the words and deeds of those who walk most closely with the Lord. When a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, for example, James and John are quick to ask, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus quickly rebukes His followers for their fleshly desires in the following verse.

Of course, there is a day coming when the Lord will vanquish His adversaries. Paul writes in 2 Thess. 2:8b, “The Lord Jesus will destroy (“consume” KJV) him [the lawless one] with the breath of His mouth and will bring him to nothing with the brightness of His coming.” And the writer of Hebrews warns that there is a penalty for willful sin, “a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:28).

The martyrs in Revelation 6 are not questioning God’s righteousness; they call Him “holy and true.” Nor are they challenging His patience, for they know He does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). It appears they are simply asking God to reveal His timetable – a request He declines, but not without providing the saints with comfort and assurance.

Next: A white robe was given (Rev. 6:9-11)