One of the visions
Now I’m wondering if the martyrs said this for their own sake, or for the sake of John and all who would read his words. It seems to me that the souls of the martyrs, once safely in Heaven, would have no desire for blood-vengeance. After all, the proto-martyr St Stephen, even while on earth and not yet confirmed in heavenly glory, asked God to forgive those who were stoning him to death—in imitation of Christ, who forgave his crucifiers. So I would think that the martyrs in Heaven also would pray for the forgiveness and conversion of their executioners. But their words were meant to be an encouragement for the beleaguered and suffering witnesses of Christ who, as the psalmist often did, feel compelled to ask the big question: “O Lord, how long…?” His response is that they are to be patient, for the full number of those destined for martyrdom is not yet complete, that is, the plan of God for the consummation of all things is still in process.
Personally, I’m not interested in vengeance, but I confess that I ask the question for other reasons. Sovereign Lord, how long will evildoers prosper, how long will they oppress the poor, how long will violence and hatred destroy families and nations, how long will accidents and illnesses separate loved ones, how long will the demons deceive and seduce the unsuspecting masses, how long must we carry about the burdens of our own and others’ weaknesses and defects, how long must we continue in failure, sorrow, pain, and discouragement, how long must every little thing go wrong until life seems like and unending stream of wearying trials and frustrations, how long until we can finally be gathered unto You in everlasting peace?
As I said, the psalmist has often asked the question, and here is one of the answers he came up with: “Why are you cast down, my soul, and why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise Him still, my Savior and my God” (Ps 42). The response given to the souls of the martyrs and to the psalmist is basically the same: Be patient, there is reason for hope. The Lord is still Lord and all things are in his hands; his plan is not yet fulfilled, but it will be. He is still your Savior and your God.
That doesn’t precisely answer the question, “how long?”, but the Lord has a habit of answering questions in his terms and not ours. Perhaps in a sense the answer lies with us, and not only in God’s inscrutable will. Perhaps it is not so much we who are waiting for Him as it is He who is waiting for us: waiting for us to give up our sins and selfish concerns, waiting for us to offer our lives completely to him as sacrifices for the fulfillment of his plans, waiting for us to have sufficient trust and love so as to be “windows” in the world for the communication of his grace, waiting for us to stop asking so many questions so we can put all our energies into faith and good works and unwavering witness to Jesus! We have our unique and indispensable contributions to make, but we tend either to want to stand on the sidelines and watch, or we are simply too preoccupied with ourselves to bother about the salvation of others or about God’s great designs for the world.
So the Sovereign Lord asks us: “How long…?”