It has been said that God is slow, but never late. God’s slowness to fulfill his promise of a just world order redounds to the benefit of us sinners, who are given ample time to repent of the error of our ways. But God’s patience is not limitless. As C.S. Lewis somewhere puts it, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.” When God determines that more time will not result in another change of heart, then he will usher in his righteous kingdom—not a day late, but at just the right time.
Revelation 6.12–17 describes the onset of God’s judgment of the world in terms of natural disasters so great that the cosmos itself is shaken and destroyed: “I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”
John intends his description of these great natural disasters to shake our faith in the things we take for granted: a solid earth, a shining sun, a luminous moon, the stars fixed in heaven, and mountains that do not move. The great decision all of us must make in life is whether our hearts are fundamentally oriented toward earth or heaven, toward ourselves or toward God. The seeming permanence of the earth lulls us into thinking that it and our worldly affairs are what matters most. God’s judgment shatters this illusion.
No wonder, then, that precisely those most invested in the old world order are terrified by its passing. “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” Having lived off the benefits of the earth for so long, with nary a thought of God, heaven, or eternity, they vainly seek earth’s protection from God: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” How very different is this response from the promise John gives those who put God first: “They will see his face” (22.4)! Divine judgment means fearing the face of God; salvation means seeing it and loving it.
Does the language of wrath in verses 16–17 make you uncomfortable? I freely admit that I am more comfortable with the abstract nouns “justice” or “righteousness” than with the psychologically provocative “wrath,” even though all three describe the same facet of God’s personality. But John intends to be provocative. He wants to make us uncomfortable. For only if we envision the harrowing effect of God’s judgment can we rightly understand the graciousness of God’s love for us. In the end, there are only two options for us: judgment or salvation, hiding from or seeing God’s face, bad news or good news.
Submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality all require patience: Patience with a corrupt government to reform, with the violent to act peaceably, with the poor to move from dependency to productivity, and with the sick to heal. The last two items are borne with comparative ease. The first two items? Not so much.
It is fascinating to me that after describing the devastation wrought on earth by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8), John turns again to a scene in the throne room of heaven (6:9-11). There, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are martyrs, in other words. (That this altar is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one may be ascertained by comparing 6.9 with 8.3, 5.)
What fascinates me is not the heavenly scene, but the cry of the martyrs: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Until I read Revelation 6.9–11, I had always thought that those whose souls had entered heaven existed in a state of uninterrupted bliss. This is not the picture John presents. Rather, those souls cry out to God for justice in no uncertain terms. Indeed, the absolute certainty of their cries is unnerving. “Avenge our blood” is not a request uttered in polite company, after all. (Perhaps we would think otherwise if we had been martyred.) Whatever the particular terms used, we understand the martyrs’ request. Is it too much to ask God that right be done on earth?
What I have written above about submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality may have struck you as, well, a bit unjust. Why should we submit to corrupt politicians? Why should we strive to make peace when our enemies are making war? Because, quite frankly, God commands us to. And because we recognize that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, when God offers grace to sinners like you, me, and our enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise,” Peter writes, “as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).
That reason is why, I think, the martyrs were “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” The white robe is a symbol of sins forgiven, of being justified by Christ before God. Just as they had been made right through God’s patience with them, so now the martyrs are asked to exercise patience toward others, even if that patience results in the martyrdom of other believers. Until Christ returns, God asks us to be witnesses through our words and with our lives.
Justice and patience. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew both in equal measure, rightly said that while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. So, as we wait for God to do the right thing at the last, let us do what God is doing now, and patiently extend to sinners his gracious love.
There are many believers enduring tribulation all around the world right now. Enduring tribulation raises the question, how shall we then live?
The answer to this question depends on “then.” It depends, in other words, on the environment we are called by God to inhabit. As we read Revelation 6.1–8, it becomes clear that God calls some of us to live in an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, famine, pestilence, and death—or at least to be prepared to do so.
Consider three facts: First, conquest, war, scarcity, and the like describe the actual conditions of many Christians around the world at the present time. Surely, they are justified in reading Revelation in such a way that helps them live godly lives in their environment. Second, many futurists teach that some Christians will endure the great tribulation, namely, those who convert after the rapture. Third, other futurists and all preterists, idealists, and historicists teach that Christians will go through the great tribulation. All Christians should take Jesus at His word that His coming will be like a thief in the night, that it will be so sudden some will be taken and others left. Our best response is to live in such a way as to be watch and be ready at any moment. We all should live knowing that Christ’s return is imminent. Additionally, while waiting for that return, Christians must learn how to live in a time of conquest, war, scarcity, and the like.
Now I know that the mention of these evils—which John portrays as four horsemen—is not the kind of thing that will brighten your day. It is not supposed to. John reports his vision of the four horsemen in order to stiffen our spines, not bring a smile to our faces. His is a realistic counsel: Whatever good we might expect in the future, we must prepare for the worst in the present.
How? By cultivating the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality, among others. The rider on the white horse, we are told, “came out conquering and to conquer.” His sole purpose was domination. We might meet this rider with resistance, but Scripture tacks the opposite way. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught us, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). Christians can be good citizens even when their state is corrupt.
The rider on the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and war ensued. In such an environment, the Christian who makes peace is blessed (Matt. 5.9). Peace, in the Bible, is never merely the absence of conflict. It is also always the presence of the harmony that results from justice. To make peace, then, we must act justly at all times.
The rider on the black horse brings economic scarcity and inflated prices. In the great tribulation, a day’s ration of wheat costs a day’s wage. One can hardly get ahead with prices so high. While the natural tendency under such circumstances is to hoard and save, the truly Christian response is to share. In the early days of the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources so that none would be left behind economically (Acts 2.44–45, 4.32–37).
Death, which rides a pale horse, is followed by Hades and brings famine, pestilence, and cruelty in its train. Confronted by the horrors of disease, we often retreat into safe enclaves, excluding from our midst those who might be infected. The proper Christian response is hospitality, the welcoming of strangers into our midst. Such is a distinguishing mark of the disciple (Matt. 25.31–46).
In an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, and death, Christians are called to exhibit the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality. That, then, is how we should live.
In Revelation 6.1–8.5, John turns our attention from heaven to earth, from the Lamb to the seven seals that he alone is worthy to open. The turn is abrupt and unpleasant, for the earthly scene John portrays is the polar opposite of the heavenly scene he has just revealed. Instead of the unending worship of heaven, we see unceasing warfare on earth, as successively greater disasters—manmade, natural, and divine—befall the planet upon the opening of each seal. This is “the great tribulation” (7.14; cf. 2.22, Matt. 24.21) whose intensity forces the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17).
Obviously, we would like to know when this great tribulation takes place.
Many American Protestants believe that it lies in the future, just after Jesus Christ secretly returns to earth to rapture believers to heaven. Those left behind endure the depredations of the Antichrist and False Prophet for seven years. During that period, many convert, including Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. At the end of the seven years, Christ publicly returns, subdues the devil, and inaugurates a one-thousand-year reign of peace. This is the end-times scenario popularized by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series, Left Behind.
It is not the only scenario, however. As we survey church history, in fact, we find four basic schools of interpretation of the meaning of the seven seals.
The first is the preterist school of interpretation. For preterists, according to Steve Gregg, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the judgment of God upon Jerusalem (A.D. 66–70); 144,000 Judean Christians escape to Pella [in modern-day Jordan].”[i] Thus, in the preterist interpretation, the events of Revelation 6.1–8.5 are basically past.
The second school of interpretation is the futurist one. Obviously, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and others like them are students of this school. It should be noted, however, that not all futurists subscribe to the rapture of the church. A basic issue that divides futurists is whether Christians who converted prior to the great tribulation will be spared its violence entirely (by means of the rapture) or given sufficient strength to endure it utterly (through the sealing of the Holy Spirit).
Idealism, or spiritualism, is a third school of interpretation. Whereas preterists interpret the seals as describing past events and futurists as events yet to come, idealists interpret them in terms of the ongoing present. “The scroll and its unsealing represent God’s dealings with mankind, seen in cycles of war, martyrdom, and judgment recurring repeatedly throughout history.”[ii]
Historicism is the fourth school of interpretation. Although not common today, it is “the historic Protestant interpretation” of Revelation and sees the book as “a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of the apostle to the end of the world.”[iii] For historicists, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the beginning of the fall of the Roman empire.”[iv] The seven trumpets (8.6–11.19) and seven bowls (15.1–16.21) unfold the remaining events of end-times history.
We return to our initial question: When will the great tribulation take place? Church history provides at least four answers: it is past, future, present, and unfolding. But which should we believe? I am not sure we must come to a definitive conclusion one way or another. Rather, it seems to me that John reveals these events to inspire the appropriate response in us. “How shall we then live?”—rather than “When will this take place?”—is the most important question for us to ask.
[i] Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 83.
John wept because no one was able “to open the scroll and break its seals.” Then one of heaven’s twenty-four elders comforted him with the arrival of God’s Lion-Lamb, who approached the throne and took the seven-sealed scroll. With that action, worship once again breaks loose in heaven.
Look, for a moment, at what takes place (Rev. 5:7-10): “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” I have sometimes heard an alcoholic referred to as a “stumble-down drunk.” It seems to me, based on how often the denizens of heaven fall on their knees in adoration, that we might accurately describe them as “stumble-down worshipers,” although they are of course filled with the Holy Spirit, not with wine (Eph. 5.18).
Somehow, in spite of their prone position, they manage to sing and pray. And what a song it is!
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth.
Not only does this song express the elders’ and angels’ adoration, it also manages to instruct us in the saving work of Christ.
We are informed, first of all, that Jesus Christ is worthy to reveal God’s plan for the ages because of his death on the cross. We have already pointed out the connection between cross and crown, but it is worth reiterating: The regal lion is worthy to open the scroll precisely because he is also the sacrificial Lamb of God.
Second, we are told that Jesus Christ ransomed people by his blood. This introduces a new element. The idea of a ransom is the price given to a kidnapper to free a hostage. Spiritually speaking, we have been kidnapped by the devil, but so greatly does God love us that he willingly pays a hefty ransom in the death of his own Beloved Son that we might forever be with him.
Third, we are told that God’s love for people is universal in scope. God’s mercy is not limited to his chosen people Israel, nor to those who have grown up in a Christian church. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Do we really need a children’s song to remind us of such a simple truth? No, we need the song of Israel’s patriarchs, the church’s apostles, and the seraphim of the throne room. The universal scope of God’s love is a message too important to be left to little children.
And finally, we are told that there is a purpose in our salvation that extends beyond putting away sin. God created us to be kings and priests, to reign on earth and to enter God’s presence in heaven. It is never enough for us to escape the devil’s clutches. We must be prepared to be enfolded in God’s embrace and to do his work.
So far, what John has seen and heard has prepared him to expect great things. He has seen the throne room of God. He has heard that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5) He therefore expects to see the procession of a king, filled with pomp and circumstance.
What he sees instead is a sheep with its throat cut.
In his own words: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6).
We fail to understand both John and the entire New Testament if we fail to understand the interplay between John’s images. John does not say that he saw a sacrificial lamb instead of a regal lion. Instead, both animals represent one person, Jesus, who died for us and therefore reigns over us. Christ wears the crown because he bore the cross, not in spite of it.
This is a revolutionary understanding of kingship. Usually, given the calculus of power that prevails among those who rule, the king sends his enemies to their crosses. Christ is the one and only king who went to the cross for his enemies.
No doubt Christ’s revolutionary kingship accounts for both his popularity and his abandonment by the masses. His proclamation of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the performance of miracles, marked him out as great man, perhaps the Messiah. So the crowds flocked to him.
But he resisted their demands for a typical kingship. At one point in his ministry, the crowd rushed forward to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6.15), but he eluded them. Instead, he called them to follow his example: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 8.34). Why was this so hard? Because the cross was deeply shameful; “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3.13, citing Deut. 21.23). The crowds did not like Jesus’ command. They wanted a regal lion only, not a sacrificial lamb; they could not find a place for crucifixion in their religion.
But God finds a place for the Crucified One in his throne room. Notice how John lays out the floor plan of heaven. In the center is the throne. Around the throne are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4.4, 6). Between God’s throne and the elders’ thrones is where the Lamb stands (5.6), as if to mediate the grace of the former to the needs of the latter, which he in fact does: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2.5, 6).
Christ’s death is thus central to God’s plan. It should be to our lives as well. Jesus Christ is Lion and Lamb, victor and sacrifice. So, if we want his crown, we must bear his cross.
In Greek, the word for gospel is euangelion, meaning good news. It is an announcement of victory in battle. Although the word “gospel” itself is absent from Revelation 5:5, the idea is present throughout: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Finally, someone has been found who is worthy and able to open the scroll and break its seals!
So, the elder commands John, “Weep no more!” As I wrote earlier, only those who have understood John’s sorrow can understand the comfort the gospel provides. But we need to understand what such comfort entails. Imagine you are soldier in an army and seem to be losing the fight. Suddenly, a messenger arrives on the battlefield and announces that your general has broken through the enemy line and is sending them into headlong retreat. All you need to do is hold out a while longer. This message of imminent victory renews your flagging fighting spirit. It comforts you, in the Latin sense of that term: confortare, “to strengthen completely.”
John weeps because his sorrow is great. He is suffering. His churches are suffering. The enemy seems to be winning. Just as bad, he stands in the throne room of heaven and sees tremendous power but has no idea how God will deploy it. The battle plan is secret, sealed, and no one has the authority to break it.
Except for one.
John first refers to Jesus in chapters 4–5 using the overtly political terminology of Israel’s monarchy. He describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David.” Both are kingly terms. Judah is the tribe that produced Israel’s first dynastic monarchy. David is the first king chronologically within that dynasty. He is also the prototypical king—the one all successive kings strive to emulate.
Jesus is more than just the latest dynastic successor, however; he is the last and the greatest of the Davidic kings. He is the Root of David whom the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isa. 11.1, 10). He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, who will rescue God’s people from evil and restore justice to all creation.
No wonder, then, that when Jesus arrived in Galilee preaching the imminent inauguration of the kingdom of God, people flocked to him (Mark 1.14–15, 28). He was the general whose advent strengthened all flagging soldiers. He comforted his people.
We sometimes forget the “political” side of the gospel, that is, its overtly Messianic themes. We forget how important Jesus’ Davidic genealogy was to the first generation of believers (e.g., Rom. 1.3). We forget that Jesus is not a peripatetic philosopher or a democratically elected politician or even a king. He is the King. And that is good news. But Christ is King in an unexpected way.
At this point, though, John only reports what he hears: royal titles. He still he does not see Jesus. And when he does, it revolutionizes his understanding of God’s kingdom. It will do the same for us.
John’s response to the double-sided, seven-sealed scroll is curious. We might have expected him to dance with joy at the fact that God has an exhaustive plan for the ages, that the events of history and our lives find a place and meaning within that plan. But he does not. He weeps instead. Why? Read his answer for yourself (Rev. 5:2-4):
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
An unrevealed and therefore unknown plan is a cause for mourning. As Solomon put it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29.18, KJV). We die for lack of meaning, for the inability to see the purpose of our suffering.
Some time ago, I taught a Bible study on Hebrews 2.5–18, which addresses the paradox of Christ’s Lordship. Verses 8–9 are key: “Now in putting everything in subjection to Jesus, God left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Christ’s lordship is paradoxical because it is actual (“God left nothing outside Jesus’ control”) but not apparent (“we do not yet see everything in subjection to him”).
After the Bible study, I had the opportunity to speak with a spiritual seeker. We talked about how the Hebrews’ passage helps Christians face the problem of evil with a realistic optimism. (The problem of evil is the difficulty of understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God allows his creatures to suffer.) Christians are realistic because we frankly acknowledge that evil happens, just as it happened to Christ. But we are fundamentally optimistic because we know that resurrection, the end-times’ righting of wrongs, and eternal life also happen—just as they happened to Christ.
In his vision of the heavenly throne room, John sees the power of God. And he sees the reality of evil. (After all, he is looking through heaven’s door from exile on Patmos.) What he does not see is Jesus. So he weeps.
Without Jesus, John is trying to tell us, the problem of evil is unsolvable. Christ is the interpretive key to that mystery. He is the one worthy to “open the scroll and break its seals,” so that we can read the place of our pain in God’s plan for the ages. Specifically, it is on Christ’s cross that heaven and earth intersect, that the vertex of God power plunges through the horizon of human sorrow, acknowledging its reality but overcoming it with resurrection.
But John sees none of this, at least not yet. Until we understand his sorrow, we cannot understand the comfort the gospel provides.
As in the previous chapter of Revelation, so here, the setting is the throne room of heaven. But whereas that chapter focused on the “one seated on the throne,” this one focuses on “the Lamb who was slain” (that is, Jesus Christ). In it, the Lamb takes a scroll from God’s right hand because he is “worthy to open the scroll and break its seals.” What is the scroll? Why must its seals be broken? Why is the Lamb worthy to break them? We must answer these questions if we are to hear and heed God’s Word to us through Revelation 5.
Like all prophets, John is a man of sight and sound. He reports his vision of God and declares whatever word of the Lord he has heard. Having seen heaven’s throne room with an awestruck gaze, now he narrows his line of sight and focuses on God’s right hand. It is open, and a scroll lies in it (Rev. 5:1).
In the ancient world, before the use of books became widespread, important documents were inscribed on scrolls made of reedy papyrus or leathery parchment. Those scrolls were often quite long, upwards of 30 feet. Only rarely was a scroll inscribed on both sides, and even then, the writing on the outer side was a simple précis of the scroll’s contents and took up little space.
John’s scroll, on the other hand was covered with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. The prophet Ezekiel saw a similar scroll in one of his visions, covered on both sides with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek. 2.9, 10). Later in Revelation, John is given “a little scroll” to eat and commissioned to “again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10.1–11). When the Lamb breaks the seals of John’s scroll, great and terrible events of salvation and judgment occur (6.1–8.5). Taking all this evidence together, it seems that the scroll is a “heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan and the future history of God’s creation,” as Grant Osborne puts it.[i] For some, its contents are words of weal, for others, of woe.
On occasion, we wonder if God in heaven knows what he is doing. Does he have a plan? If so, can we know it? The double-sided, seven-sealed scroll asks both questions.
Does God have a plan? Yes, he does. It is set and comprehensive, exhaustive in its detail, and it is written on the scroll lying in God’s open hand. Scripture is quite clear that God governs the course of history. Psalm 139.16 tells us as much when it says, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” In Ephesians 1.10, Paul writes of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”
God’s plan encompasses not only the happy ending but also the grievous suffering of all who believe in him. According to Peter, Jesus’ gruesome crucifixion “by the hands of lawless men” took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23). We can take comfort from such knowledge, for our seemingly meaningless suffering finds meaning in God’s plan. “You have kept count of my tossings,” the Psalmist writes, and “put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56.8).
So, God has a plan. But can we know it? Before John shows us that we can, he shows us the great sorrow if we cannot. To that sorrow we now turn.
[i] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 249.
Last June, the Pew Research Center released a report entitled, Political Polarization in the American Public. Its opening sentence was alarming: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” Obviously, people will have principled differences about big ideas and public policies, but those principled differences seem to be negatively affecting personal relationships. “Not only do many of these polarized partisans gravitate toward like-minded people,” the report went on to note, “but a significant share express a fairly strong aversion to people who disagree with them.”
Today is the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. That speech addressed ideological division and personal antipathy so severe that they had resulted in a civil war. Might Lincoln’s words from 150 years ago still speak to us today?
The Progress of Our Arms
“The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends,” Lincoln began, “is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” Lincoln’s high hope would be realized in little over a month, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant on April 9 at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia. At the time of the inaugural, victory was just around the corner, but not yet in sight. Neither, of course, was Lincoln’s assassination, which took place on April 14.
The Role of Slavery
Lincoln continued his address with a reminder of the cause of the war. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.” Lincoln was not saying, it should be noted, that the Civil War began as a fight to abolish slavery. As Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” The abolition of slavery became an explicit war aim on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But at the outset of the war, preserving the Union, not freeing the slaves, was Lincoln’s stated goal.
Nonetheless, the reason the Union was threatened was because of differences over slavery. As Lincoln noted: “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”
Because these clashing interests could not be resolved peacefully, “the war came.” Both sides expected “an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding” than the long slog of violence that actually ensued. In a nation of 32 million, 625,000 soldiers died—nearly two percent of the entire population! To put these military casualties in perspective, consider this: Civil War military casualties account for nearly half of all U.S. military casualties from the Revolutionary War to the present day.
The Role of Providence
Given Lincoln’s commitment to Union and emancipation, and given the war’s slaughter, his listeners undoubtedly expected Lincoln to issue a rousing denunciation of the Confederacy. But that’s not what they got. Instead, what they heard may be the most profound theological meditation on the Civil War ever given:
Lincoln began by noting the religious kinship of the North and South: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” At a recent visit to a Civil War battlefield, I purchased replicas of prayer books printed for use by Union and Confederate soldiers. With minor exceptions, the prayer books are identical. The hymn selections—indeed, the very numbering of the hymns!—shows that opposing soldiers sang from the same hymnal.
Speaking as a Union partisan, Lincoln pointed out the oddity of this religious kinship: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” but paraphrasing Jesus, he counseled listeners, “let us judge not that we be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Obviously, he pointed out, contradictory prayers cancel each other out. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”
But then, rather than saying that the prayers of the Union had been answered in the main because God was on their side, Lincoln said this: “The Almighty has His own purposes. Once again, quoting Jesus, he continued, “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7). And this led to an indictment of both North and South for their participation in the offense of slavery:
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? [Emphasis added.]
The answer, of course, is no. The war came by the providence of God. Lincoln continued
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” [Psalm 19:9].
Americans have become accustomed to presidents invoking God’s blessing on our nation, its interests, and even its wars. Lincoln was the rare politician who invoked God’s judgment against the very country he led.
A Just and Lasting Peace
I can’t help but wonder whether Lincoln’s hearers were offended by his even-handed criticism of both the North’s and the South’s roles in the offense of slavery, not to mention his invocation of divine judgment against them both as an explanation for the war.
But if they were offended, they must have been astonished by his concluding words:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Without giving an inch on “the right”—that is, on the North’s efforts both to preserve the Union and free the slaves—Lincoln called a nation still at war to replace “malice” toward its enemies with “charity.” He called on it to move from killing, and fighting, and war to healing, and caring, and peace.
Lincoln and Christians Today
It is Lincoln’s transcendence of the passions of his day that is so relevant to all Americans today. Somehow, he found a way to affirm the ideology of Union and emancipation without practicing personal antipathy to its Southern critics. He sought “the right” without becoming self-righteous in the process. Precisely because he could see Northern complicity in Southern slavery, he warned against judgmentalism and encouraged “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
His words have a special relevance for Christian partisans because today—as in his own day—faith (or the lack of it) is a driver of ideological division. American Christians should seek to implement “the right” in public policy, “as God gives [them] to see the right.” We should be critical in our analysis of the “particular and peculiar interest[s]” that misshape our republic, even as we are cognizant of the interests that misshape us too. And we should be wary—as Lincoln was, and so many theologians in his day were not—of so easily invoking God’s blessing on our side. (On the North’s and South’s equally fervent but mutually contradictory Christian partisanship, see The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll.) With Lincoln, American Christians need to remember, “The Almighty has His own purposes”; “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” They apply equally to us as they do to others.
Finally, with Lincoln, American Christians need to remember that in all our controversies—some of which cannot be avoided, the goal of our actions is “a just, and a lasting peace”: the all-encompassing wellbeing which God created us to experience with one another, and through Christ, with Him. True peace requires that justice—“the right”—prevail. But it also requires that peaceableness—“malice toward none,” “charity for all”—be our stance toward others, even in the midst of our conflicts with them.
Firmness in the right. Malice toward none. Charity for all. These are principles all Americans—especially American Christians—would do well to remember as they seek to influence the public square.