Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 15 2020 - Revelation 6:1-17 – How long, Sovereign Lord?

In our reading this morning, the first six of the seven seals are opened. With the opening of the first four seals we have the appearance of ‘the four horses of the apocalypse’ (reflecting something of the imagery of Zechariah 1:8-17; 6:1-8). Here, the horses are pictures of war and conflict which ravage the earth and which anticipate the judgment of God. The white horse with its mounted archer would remind John’s readers of the fearsome Parthian archers, who in AD 62 (as well as in 53 and 35 BC) came riding from the east and won victories against the Romans. They were famed and dreaded cavalrymen and skilled mounted archers whose armies included sacred white horses.

The second red horse pictures the slaughter of war. The third black horse pictures the consequence of war with food shortages meaning that most can scarcely buy enough food to survive. Yet at the same time, luxury goods such as oil and wine are unaffected. There are those who profit from war; they live well and in luxury while the many starve. The last pale horse is death, with Hades following close behind.

This is the world in which John’s readers were living, a violent, unjust and uncertain world in which the Pax Romanum (the peace which Roman rule claimed to provide), was beginning to break down. At the same time, Christians, as so often in times of conflict, faced the threat of persecution. And it’s in this context that we read of the opening of the fifth seal, at which John sees those who have been killed for the sake of the gospel gathered by an altar – the reminder of the Lamb who had given his life for his people. They are crying out "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Revelation 6:10). Their cry echoes similar cries in the Psalms, and in Zechariah 1:12 where we hear God's people crying out, "How long...?"

We live in a world where many sad things happen and where many evil things happen. It’s a world marked by conflict, injustice and the lust for power. It’s a world in which God’s people are often persecuted and crushed. If God is really in control, if Jesus really is Lord, why does he allow such things to go on? Why does he not step in to put a stop to them? Why does he not come to put the world to rights? The Book of Revelation tells us that God will come to put the world to rights; a day will come when "There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (21:4). The opening of the sixth seal foreshadows the coming day of judgment.

But why not now? Our cry “How long?” is a plea not merely for Christians to be saved from persecution; it’s a cry for an end to a world of injustice, pain and death. The unfastening of the seals reminds us that God is in control of history and that he is working out his purposes as year succeeds to year – even if that is not always apparent to us. The day will come when injustice shall be no more. In the midst of our cries and tears, we can trust him.

Lord God, many things I hear in the news make me cry out, “Sovereign Lord, how long?” I am deeply disturbed by the pain and injustice of this world and long for you to come and put it all to rights. But then, I recognise that there is much also that is wrong with me. Make me, I pray, more the person you would have me be that I might be a living witness to the transformation that shall make all things new at your coming.

Peter Misselbrook