Before the secrets of the Scroll of the Lamb can be revealed, first it must be unsealed. One by one the lamb breaks the seals – and John sees wars, and rumors of wars. And famine and death. It’s enough to make you weep and ask “how long, how long?”
1 I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds[a] of wheat for a day’s wages,[b] and six pounds[c] of barley for a day’s wages,[d] and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
I don’t know if this century and the last are indeed the “last days.” I do know that Revelation 6 describes the last 100 years, and that the century's real Fab Four aren't named John, Paul, George and Ringo, they are Conquest, War, Famine and Death.
At two minutes after midnight this morning, I heard “Auld Lang Syne” played at a Barre home fellowship by a woman who is 103 years old. Not until this woman was two years old did anyone drop a bomb from an airplane during wartime. Between WWI and Vietnam, 11 million tons of bombs were dropped – by the U.S. and our allies alone. Bombs are the 20th century equivalent of arrows fired from horseback - projecting deadly force from a distance from a fast, elusive platform. We humans – we’re good at conquering. At making war. At building kingdoms. The “Christian kingdoms” of Europe, most of whose royal families were inter-related, went to war in 1914 for four years when the kingly lust for conquering (white horse) and for settling old scores with the sword (red horse) took peace from the earth. 35 million soldiers and civilians died. Then everyone supposedly beat their swords into plowshares, but in 1939, the kingdoms – the aggressors by now having dropped any Christian pretensions - did it all over again. This time it took six years and even more people (50 million) died.
And those are just the Century of Man’s two “biggest” wars. According to scholar and diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage" totaled 167 – 175 million people. (Interesting counterpoint: three years after WWII ended, the State of Israel was formed with scarcely a shot fired by the Zionists.)
The Institute of Development Studies estimates that during the 20th century, 70 million people died of famine (black horse). (Interesting counterpoint: the number one New Year’s Resolution in America is to lose weight.)
Add up the butcher bill of death and the grave (pale horse) and you get 240 million from war and famine in the 20th century alone. I do not know exactly where I am going with this but that something inside me cries with the martyrs under the altar, where the blood of the sacrifices was collected:
“How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true?! How long!?”
Only twice in my life have I known awful, unrelenting torturous pain. One was as a result of handcuffs, the other from a burst gallbladder. In both cases my thoughts ping-ponged back and forth: “how long will this last…..I can’t take it. How long will this last?....I can’t take it.” And I know that these pains are NOTHING compared to the chorus of agony produced by famine and conquest and war. With the dimmest of sympathetic understands I ask on behalf of the godly who suffer even today in Africa, China, in oppressive Islamic countries, and in U.S. prisons and in homes down the street “ruled” by conquest, sword and famine – “how long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true?!”
“Wait a little longer” until the number of martyrs is complete. When “wait” is replaced by “now”, the stars will fall like ripe figs shaken loose by a gale, the sky will be rolled back as a scroll, for the Great Day of Wrath against all conquest, war and famine will, at last, have come.
And in the meantime, Lord? How shall we then live? We sang in church this morning the words from Lamentations 3: “Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord…..thy mercies are new every morning.” Lamentations is not a happy book. The awfulness of conquest, war and famine are on full display. And yet….
“Wait a little longer,” He says.
And may I who have never suffered more than handcuffs always say, “Yes, Lord – for great is thy faithfulness.”