By the end of Revelation 5, the Lamb has been revealed to take the scroll from the hand of God and open it. As the scroll unfolds, so does God’s will for human history, toward the inevitable end of the new heavens and the new earth (chapter 21). So as Revelation 6 begins and the first four seals are peeled back, we are introduced to characters we’ve at least heard of in passing: the four horsemen. We’re not meant to understand these four horsemen as literal people or future figures of the end times. They’re actually a lot more familiar to us than that. Apocalypse (the Greek word for revelation), as a genre of storytelling, tells its story with colorful and bizarre pictures. And the four horsemen don’t bring the end times. They bring war, murder, poverty and death. We’re familiar with these things, aren’t we?
Why are war, poverty and death included in the scroll of God’s will? Is this what God wants to happen? Well, John tells us that the horsemen are “permitted” to cause war and poverty. As the scroll of human history unfolds towards God’s will and God’s ends, he will allow the human race to experience the consequences of its own rottenness. But that’s why the Lamb keeps unfolding the scroll.
With the fifth seal, John sees the great host of martyrs whose lives have been lost because the four horsemen have been permitted to wreak havoc. They cry out, “How long, O Lord!?” But they are given comfort, belonging, and reassurance that everything is moving in the direction of God’s will, even if there is great hurt along the way. With the sixth seal, the cosmos itself experiences turmoil and collapse. The consequences of human brokenness don’t stop with human life, but ripple throughout all of creation. But before the seventh seal is opened, God’s people will be marked, marked as recipients of promise instead of wrath. And in response, they sing, they praise, they worship.
In a story so saturated with violence and oppression, the God who steps in to restore wholeness does not show up with a fleet of tanks behind him. Instead, this God appears with open arms to embrace the ones who have experienced the most violence and poverty. He wraps his arms around them and tells them they are not without a shepherd. And he places his hand on their faces and wipes away every last tear. This is the God of Revelation, the God whose presence is most powerfully known in the dark moments when we do the most crying.
Don’t get me wrong – judgment is coming and evil will be defeated. This is a wrathful God, but his wrath is for the four horsemen, not for you. As Revelation will go on to say, his wrath “destroys the destroyers of the world.” Wrath looks quite different when it comes from a Lamb. Wrath comes only after tears have been wiped away.
And so we do what Revelation does – we praise. We allow love and worship to spill out of us with no intention to bottle it up. Revelation is pointing us to our ultimate human vocation, the beginning and end of everything we do – love and adoration spilling out of us toward God. And this is praise that doesn’t wait for victory. Praise and worship don’t wait until everything is okay and comfortable. Praise and worship are perfect partners for words like, “how long, O Lord?” Praise and worship emerge from tears, not just after tears. Whatever god it may be that can only be praised after poverty and war and heartbreak are already over, it’s not the God of Revelation. Let this be what it means for us to be church, and what it means for us to be human. Let not an ounce of love remain un-spilled.