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THE OLD NEGRO SPIRITUAL SETS before us the chorus of the ages: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” Implicit in that often-universal sentiment is the corresponding question: “How long, O Lord?” While this appeal for God’s wrath can be selfish and sinful, it has been on the lips of many a saint, even symbolically on the lips of martyred saints in heaven, whom John saw in his vision (Rev. 6:9–10).
To address the issue of why God withholds His wrath against the wicked, we must assume at least two fundamental points. First, there is such a thing as divine wrath that is justly due and sovereignly applied to all sin against the holy God. Second, every child of Adam justly deserves such wrath for eternity.
Let us consider two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first is in the book of the prophet Habakkuk. In modern psychobabble, we might say that Habakkuk had a theological “hang-up,” which he stated immediately. “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, “Violence!” and You will not save” (Hab. 1:2). Habakkuk was disturbed by the intense wickedness of Judah. Destruction, violence, and disregard for God’s law flourished unchecked. To Habakkuk, it seemed the people of Judah and Jerusalem had passed the point of no return. Repentance and revival were impossible; God’s drastic judgment was the only alternative. But Habakkuk directed his indictment not against the people but against God, pleading passionately with the Judge of all the earth, firmly convinced that this delay in judgment was a blot on His righteousness. Agonized by God’s apparent tolerance of evil, Habakkuk prayed, “How long?”
God’s answer was quick. The ruthless Chaldeans were God’s chastening rod to scourge Judah before Habakkuk’s eyes. This judgment took place in 597 b.c. But this only intensified the prophet’s hang-up. In Habakkuk 1:12–17, he took issue with God for using a wicked instrument (the Babylonians) to punish the more righteous people of Judah (Hab. 1:13)!
Habakkuk at least had the piety and grace to find a quiet place and await God’s answer (Hab. 2:1). And His answer was not long in coming—in the form of one of the grandest declarations in all of Scripture: “The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4; cf. Rom. 1:17). It was not about whether Judah was “more righteous” than the evil Babylonians (Chaldeans). God does not grade on a curve; all are under His curse. Only perfect righteousness will stay God’s wrath. “The just shall live by his faith,” because only by faith is one united to Christ, whose perfect righteousness is imputed or reckoned to the sinner. “The Lord [is] our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).
The rest of Habakkuk 2 tells that the Chaldeans’ doom was assured and that a righteous remnant would be preserved. The righteous could not help but triumph, and the wicked were doomed to failure. The sovereign Lord was in control. “The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Hab. 2:20). His questions answered, Habakkuk waited quietly for the day of trouble, knowing that day would also mean the vindication of God’s righteousness. But only the person who through faith was righteous would live.
The other passage comes from a sometimes-difficult book, Revelation, a vision given to John to encourage the church facing the great tribulation “which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1). In Revelation 6, we witness the opening of the seven seals. Christ, the worthy Lamb, exercises His dominion by unsealing the scroll and executing its hidden decrees. Jesus Christ uses all the forces of creation, including even the evil schemes of sinful men, to carry out His purposes of judgment, deliverance, and victory.
Jesus gave warning but also encouragement with respect to the judgment that was to come upon the generation then living (Matt. 23:34–36; 24:34; Rev. 1:1). To the first-century reader of the Revelation, these warnings were becoming all too real. Tribulation was no theoretical matter discussed by theologians. Across the Roman Empire, Christians were beginning to see the onset of months and even years of distress, during which their faith would be tested severely. The righteous were being martyred in great numbers. Many would read Revelation as these events were taking place.
The “fifth seal” speaks precisely to this issue. “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev. 6:9). Why were they killed? They “had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” They were believers, and as true believers they spoke uncompromisingly of Christ the King. Conflict for Christians has always been inevitable in this life, because the “world” hates God and His Christ. Many have died and will die—from Abel, the prophets, and John the Baptist to the apostles and those who were killed under the Roman emperors, on through history to the forerunners of the Reformation and the martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In Revelation 6:10 we hear the martyrs’ prayer. “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ ” It is the age-old story: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” A mother cradles her dead child, another victim of a terrorist bomb. Christians in the Sudan are murdered, families are separated, and children starve. A ghetto mother, who really does care, tries against all odds to keep her young sons from the gangs where death and drugs are commonplace. It is still the same question: “How long, O Lord?” We still feel the pain and echo the cry, “How long?”
But the Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps. He knows the need. The Revelation of Jesus Christ given to John was God’s response. The answer to the martyrs’ prayer comes in Revelation 6:11. “Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”
They were given white robes of holiness and justification, of purity and victory. They were blessed forevermore. But God also said the judgment must wait a little while longer. The cup was almost full (Matt. 23:32ff). It was to be within “this generation” and would take place “shortly.” God commanded them to “rest a little while longer.” Patience, yes, but there was certainty that the promised great tribulation on covenant-breaking Israel was close at hand. The Lord was reigning even then; His kingdom was growing and advancing daily, and God did avenge His enemies. This occurred in that generation, according to promise, and is described in the sixth seal (Rev. 6:12–17).
But what about our generation? What about right now? Why isn’t God dealing with the injustices all around us? Again, let us go to the Biblical pointers. Habakkuk cried out, “How long?” and God answered him. The saints under the altar also cried out, and God covered them with white robes and said “they should rest a little while longer.” Jesus made it clear in Matthew 23 that the patience of God was coming to an end, and judgment came in that generation.
Years ago I knew a young lady who was very active in the pro-life movement. She was a willing, hard-working activist. I’ve known few who felt more personally the horror of this culture of death. But for her, it wasn’t enough to work for life; she could not deal with the fact that God did not intervene in some way. “How long?” was surely her cry. But it was an unbalanced response. She would not see God’s fuller answer. And her noble concern became an unhealthy obsession, resulting in a breakdown needing significant mental health care.
Faced with similar concerns, others respond by murmuring against God and doubting His Word. Still others try to take matters into their own hands, thus becoming part of the problem.
Two things must be clear: God’s wrath will be justly administered, and His wrath will be against us unless we are in Christ. God told Habakkuk that everyone would get what he deserves, but because everybody deserves God’s wrath, He also proclaimed that “the just shall live by his faith.” If Habakkuk began by challenging God, he ended by worshiping Him (Hab. 3, especially vv. 17–19). The Lord is our righteousness, and such righteousness we have only by faith.
Do you sometimes want to cry out, “How long, O Lord?”? Do you at times feel like singing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus”? The point is that Jesus does know! In fact, He knows by experience. No one ever suffered more unjustly than Jesus. But it is the revelation of Jesus in the last book of the Bible that says saints will be blessed and their blood avenged. Are you a saint? The righteous live by faith; they get what Christ deserves. All others God will judge; they get what they deserve. How long? Well, if the Lord reigns, it doesn’t really matter how long. And Christ tells His own, “rest a little while longer.”