"Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. I wanna see my Savior's face cause heaven is a wonderful place. I wanna go there!" Those are the lyrics to a song about I heaven I learned as a child. And these words are a great synopsis of what we are taught about heaven growing up: It's wonderful! Jesus lives there! And we want to go there because of the eternal bliss and joy we will experience.
Indeed, heaven is a wonderful place. And that's part of the reason why our reading for today from Revelation 6 seems so odd. As the chapter commences, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is opening seals on a scroll, symbolizing the march of history toward its impending conclusion while its closing days are marked by sin-wreaked trouble. But there seems to be trouble not only on earth, but in heaven as well:
When the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (verses 9-11)
Instead of shouting for joy at the eternal glories of heaven, these souls are lamenting: "How long?" they cry. This is the same cry of despair uttered by the Psalmist when he writes, "My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long" (Psalm 6:3)? Similarly, the prophet Habakkuk complains, "How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save" (Habakkuk 1:2)? Lamenting? Complaining? Anguish in heaven? That hardly sounds right! After all, "heaven is a wonderful place!"
Yes, heaven is a wonderful place. That's not the issue with the lament of these heavenly martyrs. The issue with these heavenly martyrs is that although heaven is a wonderful place, it's not the final place. That place comes in Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:1-4)
The conclusive place of history is not just a new heaven, but a new heaven and a new earth. It is the place where Satan is finally and fully conquered (cf. Revelation 20:10) and where sin, suffering, sorrow, and tears are no more (cf. Revelation 21:4). Thus, although heaven is a wonderful place, the martyrs in heaven, like us, are anxiously anticipating God's final place which will arrive on the Last Day: His new heaven and earth. In the mean time, God tells these martyrs, "Wait a little longer" (verse 11).
Perhaps your life is racked and riddled by some tragedy, hardship, or terror. And perhaps you, like these heavenly martyrs, are crying out to God, "How long, O Lord? Why must I suffer such anguish?" If this is you, know this: God will rescue you, deliver you, and save you... even if you have to wait a little longer. And if you do have to wait a little longer, remember, the martyrs of heaven are waiting with you. And it seems to me, they're pretty good company.