By CSBV research associate Trevor Laurence
For many around the world, the experience of the last several weeks and months has been profoundly destabilizing. It is as if the very earth rocks and reels, quaking beneath our feet, refusing to allow us to gain any sense of balance or equilibrium.
While disease has swept the globe, so too has evidence of racial injustice, systemic oppression, the state’s unequally distributed penchant for violence. A white knee presses down upon a black neck in a horrific, racialized parody of salvation (cf. Gen 3:15), a too-literal enactment of David’s psalmic suffering:
Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many attack me proudly. (Ps 56:1–2)
Painfully similar stories emerge, and ears open to the trauma about which generations of voices have testified. For some, a comfortable vision of the world dies in the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, while for others, the reality they have intimately known is laid bare for all whose eyes will see. Protest erupts, brutality ensues, violence multiplies, fires blaze, division grows, political turmoil spreads, nations shake, and all the world is different, unsteady. We feel, in the words of Ps 75:3, that “the earth totters, and all its inhabitants.” And for many, the instability around us mirrors the instability within us as anger at what has been revealed meets sorrow for the ways things are mixes with desire for renewal and confusion over where to go from here.
Just as it did for Christians in the painful, perplexing, infuriating, unstable world of the first century, the Book of Revelation speaks to us, offering a vision of the cosmos and history and God that is capable of grounding God’s people amid the rises and falls of kingdoms, the recognition and experience of injustice, the hungry longing for restoration. John’s Apocalypse gives an above-the-firmament perspective of God’s sovereignty over, faithfulness through, and judgment within history that both gives us eyes to perceive the world anew and charts a path for faithful action in the face of violence and injustice.
That path begins with prayer.
Revelation does not fixate on the prayers of God’s people, and their significance in the progression of the book, consequently, is quite easy to overlook. The prayers of the saints are mentioned at only three points in the entire Apocalypse, but they are nevertheless presented as pivotally important to the outworking of God’s purposes and the inbreaking of God’s just judgments in history. The connections between the church’s prayers and everything that ensues indicate that such prayer occupies “a key place in the coming of God’s kingdom in the world.”1
The prayers of God’s people are introduced in Rev 5:8, where in the throne room of heaven the twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb, “each holding a harp, and golden bowls [φιάλας χρυσᾶς] full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” In the tabernacle and temple, incense was offered morning and evening to the Lord, and the incense presented to God in his heavenly temple is the prayers of his people. This identification of prayer as incense draws upon the imagery of Ps 141:2
O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! (Psalm 141:1–2)
David’s incense prayer that follows is a petition for God’s justice, divine judgment upon his wicked oppressors—a prayer that “is continually against their evil deeds” (v. 5). David asks that God would preserve him in righteousness and grant him deliverance as he envisions the thwarting of evildoers (v. 6) and pleads for the ensnaring of the wicked (v. 10).
And divine justice is what the saints petition for when the content of their prayers is revealed in Rev 6:9–10.3 When the fifth seal is opened, John 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 cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” The souls of the martyrs plead for God to avenge their slaughter, to bring justice on the earth, to vindicate them and himself by judging those who have spilled innocent blood, defiled God’s people, corrupted God’s world.
The martyrs’ prayer incorporates the prayers of the Old Testament. The question “How long?” is posed to God throughout the psalter, a plea for God to intervene in the psalmists’ sufferings to stop the enemy’s reviling (74:10) and pour out his anger on oppressive nations (79:5–6) and end the exulting of the wicked (94:3)—to do something, anything, to interrupt injustice and alleviate his people’s pain. Deuteronomy 32:43 promises that God “avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people’s land,” and this promise is the basis of the petition of Ps 79:10 in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the defiling of the temple: “Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes!” The saints in heaven pray after the model of this imprecatory psalm, appealing in psalmic grammar to God’s promise to avenge his children’s blood, to defend his temple people, to cleanse the land of the world from the unholiness and injustice of the wicked.
The final reference to the prayers of God’s people in the Apocalypse occurs in Rev 8:3–4:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Note the movement of this passage: an angel stands at the altar—the altar under which the souls of the martyrs cry out for judgment—and is given incense to offer “with the prayers of all the saints” on the golden altar of incense (cf. Exod 30:1–3) before God’s throne.4 The incense prayers introduced in Rev 5:8 and recounted in Rev 6:9–10 are presented in Rev 8:3 and rise before God. Significantly, the prayers that rise in Rev 8 are specified as the prayers of all the saints, not merely those of the martyrs, including the church on earth as petitioners in the judgment prayers of the church in heaven.5 Revelation 6:9–10 records the prayers of heaven as a model for the prayers of earth, and Rev 8:3–4 narrates the rising of these prayers as the pleas of the church militant with the church triumphant. Bauckham is quite right: “Revelation does not command or encourage the saints to pray for judgment. It simply takes it for granted that they pray such prayers—that is, that all the saints who long for God’s righteousness pray for his judgment on evil and injustice.”6
In the flow of the Book of Revelation, these incense prayers do not fall on deaf ears. They are not merely cathartic or therapeutic. They are not a simple case of saints venting ugly emotions or getting impermissible feelings off the chest in prayer. They are rather a catalyst for God’s justice-effecting judgment in the world.
Immediately following the rising of the saints’ incense prayers to God in Rev 8, John tells us, “Then the angel took the censer [which had carried the prayers] and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (v. 5). In response to his people’s petitions for judgment, God’s angelic intermediary throws fire upon the earth, unleashing thunder and lightning and quaking reminiscent of God’s theophanic presence at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:16–19). God, to put it plainly, “shows up” to judge the earth and answer the cries of his children.
At Sinai, “the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exod 19:19), and in John’s vision, the seven trumpet judgments directly follow God’s theophanic advent in justice. God’s partial judgments in the midst of history and his eschatological vengeance at history’s culmination are framed as his active reply to the prayers of his people.7 Throughout the psalms, the covenant community begs for God’s theophanic appearing in storm (Ps 144:5–7) and flame (Ps 83:14) and quake (Ps 104:31–35) to drive away the violent enemy with his holiness. Revelation declares that in the shaking of kings and kingdoms, the tottering of world systems, the darkness of idolatry, the demonic torment worse than death, and the eschatological consummation of justice, such prayers find their answer.
Elsewhere, John’s vision confirms the connection between the church’s prayers and the manifestation of God’s just judgments in the world. Just before the seven bowl judgments are poured out on the earth, Rev 15:7 narrates that “one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls [φιάλας χρυσᾶς] full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.” The golden bowls which held the incense prayers of the saints in Rev 5:8 are now filled with God’s wrath, for God’s wrath is his righteous response to his people’s pleas for vindication and vengeance.8
Following the third bowl, an angel rejoices:
“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,
for you brought these judgments.
For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
And I heard the altar saying,
“Yes, Lord God the Almighty,
true and just are your judgments!” (Rev 16:5–7)
The angel’s rejoicing recalls the petition of Rev 6:10, celebrating God’s unimpeachably just requiting of the shedders of saints’ blood. Indeed, a voice from the altar, under which the martyrs cried, affirms the truth and justice of God’s works.
Finally, after the fall of Bablyon, a great multitude praises God because he finally “has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Rev 19:2), exercising the justice requested by the slain in Rev 6:10. In a definitive assessment of the judged city of man—characterized by idolatry and the self-sufficiency, indulgence, and violence that idolatry invariably begets—an angel declares that “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev 18:24). While the prayers of the saints in John’s vision focus particularly on the vengeance due the world for the slaughter of God’s people, which makes perfect sense in light of the original audience, the hoped-for judgment that repays the wicked according to their deeds, clears the land of every unholiness, and establishes the temple-kingdom of God’s presence on earth includes recognition of and retribution for the violence committed against every image bearer, not just Christians. God’s impartial justice is not reserved for his people only. The judge of all the earth will call to account every sin against every precious creature, and his judgment against the kingdoms of the world which is for “the blood of the prophets and saints” will also avenge “all who have been slain on the earth.”
Praying for Justice
The Book of Revelation was written to comfort and encourage and embolden and strengthen God’s people through the ages, empowering them for faithful witness as citizens of God’s here-and-coming kingdom as they await the glory of Christ’s return, and the progress of prayer in its pages ought to shape the church’s prayers—what she prays and how she prays—in her time of tribulation and patient endurance (Rev 1:9).
“And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God” (Rev 8:4). It is worth pausing to reflect on the magnitude of these words. In the liturgy of heaven, the cries of earth join the chorus of the cries of heaven, and “the prayers of all the saints” (Rev 8:3) rise before God. The voices of those whose testimony of unjust oppression and pleas for redress are so often dismissed by the world and the church alike are granted a privileged place in the liturgy of the heavenly temple. Though the experience of praying for justice in the face of a daily deluge of new images of violence at home and abroad frequently feels like screaming into the void, the God who keeps count of our tossings and collects the tears of trampled saints in his bottle (Ps 56:8) has commissioned his heavenly ministers to gather our prayers in golden bowls and offer them to the one who ever hears and sees and knows the afflictions of his people (Exod 2:24–25).
Trauma researchers have observed that the first stage of recovery from trauma, when one’s world has been shattered and one’s embodied conception of reality is charged through with a sense of danger, is the reestablishment of safety in relationship—a safety within which survivors can learn afresh that security is possible in their bodies and in the world.9 Bessel van der Kolk notes, “The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”10
Revelation tells those wounded by violence and those who stand with them that they are truly heard and seen, that they are held in the unfathomable depths of the mind and heart of God, that they are welcome and beloved in the presence of Another, that their prayers rise before a God who reciprocates and responds to their cries. Revelation tells us that, in a world gone wrong, prayer is a bodily and affective practice which affords a place of perceptible safety coram Deo, and the community of a listening God must become a community that, like their God, listens to those who yearn for justice and offers a haven of safety for the scarred.
“Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth” (Rev 8:5). Many Christians are plagued by concern over whether justice prayers belong in communion with God. The Christian imagination has largely been shaped such that it cannot conceive that petitions for God’s righteous judgments on the ravaging wicked could properly be called Christian. Consequently, the painful burden of experiencing or witnessing unjust violence is compounded by guilt over the desire to see such violence brought to an end.
Revelation shows that the saints’ prayers for justice are not simply heard. They are accepted. They are not merely understandable or tolerable. They are right. John narrates the cries of the dead so that the living may follow suit. Their petitions for judgment feature in the liturgy of heaven. And when the prayers of all the saints rise before God, the holy and righteous Lord receives, affirms, and acts in accordance with his people’s petitions for him to mete out justice and “let the evil of the wicked come to an end” (Ps 7:9). There is a moral claim in John’s apocalyptic vision: from the perspective of heaven, prayers for judgment on the lips of the saints are a fitting fruit of faith amid the horrors of a sinful, violent world.
John’s presentation of the fittingness of Christian justice prayer is not unique. The Lord Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh, God among us—tells a parable of a widow’s persistent requests for justice against her adversary and exalts her as a model of the kind of faith the Son of Man desires to find when he comes again (Luke 18:1–8). Jesus’ parabolic exhortation “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (v. 1) is an exhortation to pray unwaveringly, full-throatedly, and without equivocation for that justice from God which will cease the predation of the wicked and relieve the sufferings of the innocent. The same Christ who commands his disciples to love their enemies (Luke 6:27–28) commends prayers for justice, and unless Jesus is ethically confused or self-contradicting, this suggests that he does not see the two—as many modern Christians instinctively do—as in conflict with one another. In fact, his teaching provokes us to inquire how prayers for justice may be an exercise of enemy love, a pursuit of the good for those who will evil for others and themselves.11
“And there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev 8:5). The Book of Revelation intentionally depicts God’s theophanic arrival to exercise partial judgments in history and full judgment at the eschaton as his affirmative response to the prayers of his people. In John’s vision, the saints are mediators of the judgment of God, participants in the inbreaking of God’s justice upon the wicked, and prayer is a means by which they actively take part in God’s progressive judgment upon idolatrous kings, empires, systems, the powers that animate them, and the people who do their bidding. Prayer does something. Prayer is a way the saints participate in the cleansing of the world to be God’s holy temple and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.12
In this, the church embraces through prayer the royal and priestly vocation of God’s people through the ages. Adam is a priest-king charged with serving and guarding the garden of God’s holy presence (Gen 2:15)—his temple-kingdom—and he should have fulfilled his commission by driving out the unholy serpent who introduced corruption to God’s dwelling and God’s people.13 Israel is a royal-priestly nation—a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6)—who must drive out the serpentine nations from Canaan so that God may establish his dwelling there and who must ever be purging sin from her midst so that she may abide in holiness with God. David is a priestly kind of king (cf. 2 Sam 6–10), and he guards God’s temple-kingdom from unholy threats inside and out and clears away God’s enemies, subduing the land, so that God’s holy house may be built and his people may have rest (1 Chron 22:18–19). God’s royal-priestly people mediate his judgment for the creation and protection of holy space for God’s royal dwelling.
Indeed, in the imprecatory psalms, David and the Israelite community alike enact their royal-priestly vocation by petitioning for God’s justice. King and kingdom participate in God’s judgment by guarding the temple-kingdom, driving out the serpentine enemy in prayer, cleansing by petition the land of God’s holy presence so that God and his people may dwell together in peace, worship, and joy.14 When Jesus arrives in the Gospels clearing God’s house, driving the kingdom of darkness out of the land, making a holy place for God’s holy presence among a holy people, he is the Second Adam answering the call of the failed first, faithfully exercising the royal-priestly vocation of Israel and David before him.
And this is the calling of the church united to Christ—to mediate God’s judgment in the world as a royal priesthood in the pattern of her king, guarding the holiness of Christ’s temple community and driving out all unholiness from the earth that God has claimed as his cosmic temple-kingdom. Pleas for justice are a conquest of prayer, a petitionary participation in the divine judgment that is working its way toward the consummation of a world where God reigns and resides with his people, a temple-city in which there is “no cry of distress in our streets” (Ps 144:14).
When God’s royal-priestly people cry, their prayers rise before his throne, and God arises in judgment. Though God’s suffering people may at times seem to have no control over their fate, though violence and oppression may strip all sense of agency from a community that finds suspicion and aggression at every turn, John’s vision declares that wounded saints possess an unassailable agency in the economy of God. Their prayers take part in the unfolding of God’s purposes in history. With the desperate cries that scream weakness to the powers that be, they step into their strength and help bring about the initial rumblings of God’s justice which will grow up into the renewal of the world.
Prayer is, of course, not the only way the church participates in judgment to make hospitable and holy space for God’s residence. The Christian must cleanse in repentance every defilement from the individual body that is God’s temple (2 Cor 7:1), and the church must purge the unrepentant from the communal temple in the loving exercise of discipline (1 Cor 5). By her very existence as a holy and faithful people, the church judges the world by bearing witness to the delight of a different way, living as an alternative community that does not submit to the world’s loves and logic, walking as light and exposing the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph 5:7–14), embodying courageous hope as a sign of the certain judgment to come (Phil 1:28). The church marches into the world with the weapons of word and sacrament, announcing God’s verdict upon sin in the cross, destroying strongholds and defeating God’s enemies by the Spirit-empowered ministry of reconciliation that makes enemies children of God, citizens of his kingdom, living stones in his temple.15 The church refuses to cede any ground to the devil and in every sphere wages war against his kingdom, embracing and exhibiting the character of Christ’s kingdom as a community of truth who calls injustice and wickedness by its name, as a community of justice who seeks to give what is rightfully due every image bearer as an exercise of neighbor-love, as a community of patient endurance who ultimately conquers by remaining steadfast in faith and faithfulness even when such world-defying witness means walking the path of death after Jesus (Rev 12:11). And one day, God will crush Satan under Christians’ feet (Rom 16:20), and they will join Jesus the royal priest as an army of priest-kings (Rev 19:14) when he clears God’s world of unholiness and makes the cosmos the temple of the living God. “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?”16
Though the church participates in God’s judgment in a variety of ways in this age and the age to come, prayer is properly that first action of a people called by God, and prayer is the preparatory condition of every other action by which the church witnesses to God’s judgment, embodies the way of the kingdom, battles against the dragon, and pursues justice in love as heaven’s pilgrim-ambassadors. Prayer for justice is the church’s first and fitting answer to God’s promises in the midst of a broken, dysfunctional, oft-horror-laden world—the lifting of her eyes to heaven in dependence upon the God from whom her help comes. And such prayer, by which she participates in the unfolding judgments of God, readies her to be an agent of justice in all of life. Before the church may fruitfully take on the work of justice, she must weep for justice in communion with God.
Prayer for the manifestation of God’s judgment against everything antithetical to his kingdom rightly recognizes God’s lordship, humbles us under the gaze of the judge who sees our hearts, confronts us afresh with our own need of grace, generates newfound solidarity with the wicked with whom we may bear an unwelcome resemblance, sparks personal repentance, acquaints us with the pain of the wounded, cultivates mercy and compassion for all, directs us to the character of God’s kingdom, and gives up ultimate responsibility for rendering perfect justice to the king in whose hands it always and ever belongs—a relinquishment without which the church will never be able to persevere and even perish in the long and often disappointing labor of faithfulness. In judgment prayer, the church acquires the postures necessary to bless the world as witnesses of God and agents of justice, and that very prayer is her most powerful participation in God’s inbreaking judgment upon false and violent kingdoms, despite all appearances to the contrary. Conversely, the one who is not content to begin with the unimpressive task of asking God to do justice in prayer will be ill-prepared to live as a vessel of God’s justice in other—more visible—ways.
As the Book of Revelation helps us to reconceptualize the role of Christian prayer in the outworking of God’s judgment in history, it simultaneously supplies a lens for reimagining the political instability, economic unrest, and social turmoil that irrupt over and over again throughout the church’s time and, indeed, in our time. Revelation does not invite the pop-prognostications, calculations of dates, and headline apocalypticism that siphon away so much Christian attention and money. But it does present a vision of history that can anchor the church through the comings and goings of worldly regimes and the marginalization which is the lot of so many suffering saints.
With its above-the-firmament perspective, Revelation shows us that God is on his throne, possessed of all authority, his sovereignty inviolable, his being eternal, his will the cause of everything that exists (Rev 4). This God—the God to whom Jesus has reconciled his multinational kingdom of priests (Rev 5:9–10)—is the governor of history, the king before whose throne the raging sea of evil lies as still as glass,17 and there is nothing in the Book of Revelation or, consequently, in all the vicissitudes of history that lies outside of his control.
In God’s cosmos, when the nations shake, it is his doing. He brings fire upon the earth and makes the ground to tremble. He casts down kings, lays low kingdoms, throws economic systems into disarray, disrupts with darkness, permits demonic forces to wreak havoc on those who give themselves to idols. Before the end, God pours out partial judgments on a world that rejects him and his ways, and in so doing, he exposes the weakness of human attempts at autonomy, he makes “the nations know they are but men” (Ps 9:20), he grants a taste of life outside of his presence, he turns wickedness back upon its own head, he gives time for repentance (Rev 9:20–21),18 he humbles the proud, challenges the pretensions of empires, and manifests a small glimpse of the just judgment that is coming when he will repay the city of man and its sycophants according to their works.
With its expansive vision of God’s involvement in the tottering of the nations, Revelation presents in apocalyptic terms what the psalmist expresses in poetry:
“At the set time that I appoint
I will judge with equity.
When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants,
it is I who keep steady its pillars.
I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast,’
and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn;
do not lift up your horn on high,
or speak with haughty neck.’”
For not from the east or from the west
and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
putting down one and lifting up another.
For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Ps 75:2–8)
Even when political theorists and international analysts can identify the causes of nations’ risings and fallings, pointing to catalysts in the east or the west or the wilderness, the psalmist and the Revelator assure us that in and through and under and above every proximate cause of the rumblings the earth, “it is God who executes judgment.”
From one angle, the whole story of history that Revelation tells is a story of judgment, of a world in violent rebellion upon which God is patiently, progressively, and sovereignly revealing his wrath—even as he preserves and empowers his people for enduring faithfulness—until the day he exercises perfect justice and restores the entire creation. Psalm 7:11 declares, “God is a righteous judge…who expresses his wrath every day,”19 and Paul announces that this divine wrath is revealed in time and space against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). John’s vision in Revelation underscores this dimension of God’s acts in history and offers a detailed lens for discerning the variety of ways that God’s ever-present judgment upon the world works out in political, societal, economic, spiritual, and existential upheaval and disintegration.
Revelation’s mode of imagining the world grants God’s people an intense security in the midst of a profoundly unstable world order, a security that is not contingent upon the alleged imperviousness of any earthly kingdom. Though the shaking of nations is disruptive and disorienting to all, Christians included, the church can interpret the tottering of kingdoms from the perspective of heaven, can see it for what it really is. When mountains fall into the sea and previously invulnerable systems begin to crumble and have their impotence laid bare, God’s people are not left alone, abandoned to be victims of whatever political winds may blow. No, in the turmoils that expose nations’ utter lack of control over their fate and in kings’ gasping and grasping to hold the sand of power in their fingers, God’s people discern the hand of God—the God who judges iniquity in the earth, who reveals the inadequacy and injustice of idols, who demonstrates the superiority of his kingdom over every unstable regime, who answers the cries of the saints and rattles the nations.
The church knows that the quakings of the old creation are but the birth pangs of the new. Like birth pangs, they serve as evidence that the end is not yet here, but like birth pangs, they signal that the hoped-for goal of creation’s groanings is irrepressibly coming. Revelation promises us that God will answer the pleas of his people in full, bring perfect justice in his world, wipe away every tear, and see to it that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). The tremblings of the earth beneath our feet—discerned through the God-given lens of the word—are for the church unexpected beacons of hope that remind us that the God whose throne will not be shaken ever reigns and that the kingdom whose foundations are secure is relentlessly on its way.
Of course, the instabilities of worldly systems are not cause for unmitigated celebration. The totterings of societies, economies, and empires bring with them lamentable suffering, and it is almost always the vulnerable who are disproportionately affected as the powerful take refuge in their resources to mitigate the blow. But Christians have always been called to be a people capable of embodying two postures at once, and those who die and yet live, who possess nothing and everything, who are sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor 6:9–10) must learn how to take heart in the judgments of God even as they grieve the crumbling systems that leave humans languishing and use all the resources at their disposal to alleviate the sufferings of their neighbors.20
The Book of Revelation invites us to adopt its presentation of the world, to embrace this apocalyptic imagination and the peculiar way of being that it makes possible. When we do, we will see every time and our time as a time when God’s judgment is being proleptically revealed in response to his praying saints in the tribulations that plague the kingdoms of the world. This is not, to be sure, an invitation for facile one-to-one correlations that attribute particular tragedies to the particular sins of particular persons—the inner workings of history are too complex and the ways of God too high to justify such an unfortunately common practice. But if the rebellious world that is sustained by God’s grace is, as Revelation suggests, ever under his judgment, we will not neglect the message—or the hope—latent in the shaking of the nations. And in those cases where the violence of longstanding systems snaps back and descends on their own heads, when the pit that regimes have dug for others ends up swallowing them whole (cf. Ps 7:15–16)—as when centuries of racial violence and oppression reach a boiling point and the protests of tired masses name the injustice, call for change, and send tremors through a society—those acquainted with the Bible’s portraits of judgment will have little trouble discerning a familiar pattern in the reaping of the whirlwind.
If the rattlings of the nations are the revealing judgments of God, and if God’s judgment is his response to the incense prayers of the saints, we might also begin to perceive in the social and political unrest of recent days a small but significant answer to the pleas of God’s people. Through social media and public demonstration, an insidious form of injustice has been exposed for the world to see, destabilizing a system that for too long has been permitted to persist unreformed, cultivating an appetite for the value of black and brown persons to be celebrated, honored, protected. How many generations of saints through the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and the present day have cried out to God, “How long?” How many prayers for justice have risen to God from Christians in heaven and on earth who have watched family and friends receive abuse with impunity or themselves been scarred or slaughtered without recourse? Might the shaking of the nations in our time be the rumbling of a merciful and just answer to those countless prayers? John’s vision, at very least, warrants soberly and humbly posing the question.
But of this we can be sure: every prayer for God’s inbreaking justice rises like incense before his throne; every prayer is a royal-priestly participation in the judgment of the wicked; and every prayer will find its ultimate answer when everything hidden is made plain and God cleanses the world to be his resurrected temple where he dwells in holiness among his people.
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.21
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Image: The Seven Trumpets and the Angel with a Censer, Bamberger Apokalypse
- Richard Bauckham, “Prayer in the Book of Revelation,” in Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. Richard M. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 252.
- So NA27. Commentators frequently observe this allusion: e.g., Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in vol. 12 of NIB (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 630; Alan Johnson, “Revelation,” in vol. 12 of EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 489.
- Cf. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 357.
- See Peter J. Leithart, Revelation 1–11, ITC (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), 350).
- Cf. J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 118; Gerhard A. Krodel, Revelation, ACNT (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 194–5; Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed., NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 175.
- Bauckham, “Prayer in the Book of Revelation,” 263.
- Cf. Beale, Revelation, 470.
- Cf. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 570; Bauckham, “Prayer in the Book of Revelation,” 259.
- See esp. Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 155–74.
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 81.
- This is, of course, a much larger discussion, and I will offer further reflections in this month’s Cateclesia newsletter. I treat the relationship between judgment prayer and enemy love in detail in my “Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer” (PhD diss., University of Exeter, 2020).
- Dorothy Jane Weaver, “Luke 18:1–8,” Int 56, no. 3 (July 2002): 319 comments on the parable of the persistent widow: “As Luke sees it, justice is the name for God’s action in the world to make right what is wrong. And prayer is the name for the collaboration of humans in that act of God.” Emphasis original.
- Genesis 2:15 describes Adam’s task with עבד and שׁמר, which are frequently paired in the Old Testament to describe the duties of Israel’s priests. See esp. G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 69.
- I more fully develop this biblical theological reading of the imprecatory psalms in “Serpent Seed and Son of God: The Enemy and the Imprecator in the Psalms of Vengeance,” CTR (forthcoming).
- Cf. Matt 28:18–20; 2 Cor 10:3–6. See also my Gospel Conquest.
- 1 Cor 6:2.
- See Beale, Revelation, 327–8.
- Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 40.
- Thus, an apocalyptic awareness does not delegitimize the work of constructive political theology or the pursuit of the common good. Rather, it chastens and, in a certain sense, relativizes such work so that it may conducted fruitfully and without aspirations of ultimacy.
- S. J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation.”