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.
Which do you choose?