A Weeping Prophet (Revelation 5:2-4)

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.


Using the Time God Has Given (Ecclesiastes 3:16–22)

If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then why is the world wracked by so much evil? Surely God knows what is going on down here. Certainly he has the power to change it. And we can be absolutely certain that he desires to do so. That being the case, why do we experience so much suffering and pain? Ecclesiastes 3.16–22 asks and answers this question, but its conclusions are surprising.[1]

The Preacher opens with a simple observation: “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (3:16). There is no substantial difference between justice and righteousness in this verse. By making the same statement twice, the Preacher is simply emphasizing that things are not the way they are supposed to be on planet Earth. Where goodness should be, we see badness instead.

Surprisingly, the Preacher does not speculate on the cause of the world’s moral pollution. Elsewhere, the Bible plainly states that the parlous state of the world is the result of human actions: “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12). But here in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is more interested in how we live a sinful world than in how the world came to be sinful in the first place.

First, he teaches us to live in light of the coming judgment. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter for every work” (3:17). The end-times judgment of us and our deeds is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. Summarizing the biblical evidence, the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ will return from heaven “to judge the living and the dead” (Matthew 25:31–46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12, Revelation 20:11–15).

Although we experience evil at the present time, we know that evil will not hold sway forever. In between that time and now, we must be patient. God has appointed a time to judge the world, but it is not now. Instead, in the present, he invites us to repent of our own wickedness and turn to him for forgiveness. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [to return and judge the world]…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Second, the Preacher reminds us of our humble place in the cosmos: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Do you remember how the Serpent tempted Adam and Eve to sin? He said, “God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The first and perpetual human sin is idolatry, trying to replace the Creator with a creature. From idolatry flow all the injustice, wickedness, and death we see around us. So, for our benefit, the Preacher reminds us that we are just creatures—beasts. Like them, we die. Like them, we do not know what the future holds. By reminding us of our similarity to animals, the Preacher humbles us. Therein lies our salvation: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).

How do we live humbly and mindfully of the coming judgment? The Preacher tells us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (3:22). In one of my favorite classics, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, thinking about the evil that has descended upon his little Shire and the attendant responsibilities thrust into his hands, says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which the wise old Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Today, how do you decide to use the time God has given you?


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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