O God Who Avenges, Shine Forth!

A couple of weeks ago, on the “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of Scripture” Facebook page, I posted the following quotation from John Goldingay’s book, Do We Need the New Testament?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself:

In Revelation 6 John sees the martyrs under the altar in heaven (there is an altar in heaven because heaven is the heavenly temple, and a temple has an altar). They are praying in the way people do in the Psalms, crying out and asking how long it is going to be before the Lord judges and takes revenge for their blood from the people on earth. It might seem that the appropriate Christian response to their prayer would be to tell them that because they live after Christ, they ought not to be praying in that way; if it was a way of praying that was tolerable before Christ, it is hardly one that is acceptable any longer. Instead, the Lord gives each of them a white robe and does not rebuke them except by telling them to wait a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters has been killed as they have been. “Their petitions for justice and vindication against their oppressors are the postmortem equivalent of the widow’s pleas for justice in Luke 18:3, so it is not surprising to read God’s similar response.” Events later in Revelation constitute the fulfillment of that promise, within the vision. When we were young, we may have been told that God answers prayer by saying yes, no or wait. On this occasion, we might have thought God would answer “no,” but actually God gives the other two answers, “Yes, but wait.” Apparently it is still okay to pray for one’s attackers to be punished (and thus to depend on God to be the one who does something about their attacks)

I have said something very similar to this for a number of years, noting that when the martyrs pray for vengeance for their shed blood, exactly what does not happen is that Gabriel comes over to them and says, “Shhhhhh, don’t let the one on the throne hear you say that. We don’t pray those kinds of prayers up here!” Rather, they are only told to wait till the full number of the martyrs is completed. Then their prayers will be answered.

Ted Grimsrud wrote a rebuttal article to this quote from Goldingay, and posted the link to it on the “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of Scripture” Facebook page. The article, “God and Punitive Judgment in Revelation,” is on his website. So now, this is my rebuttal article to Grimsrud’s rebuttal. There are a number of points to be made.

(1) Grimsrud rightly argues that Rev 6:9-11 needs to be interpreted in the light of the book of Revelation as a whole. But then I believe he makes a significant hermeneutical mistake when he says:

With a particular passage such as this, we should give the big picture much more weight than zeroing in on particular words or short phrases (I am impressed as I read various long commentaries on Revelation [e.g. by David Aune, Grant Osborne, and Stephen Smalley, three I am working through right now] with how much the writers focus on individual words and how little on the book as a whole—the opposite of my approach [an exception is the fine long commentary by Craig Koester in the Anchor Bible series]).

Unfortunately this is both an obfuscation as well as being significantly misrepresentative of at least two of these commentaries.

David Aune, in his commentary on Revelation, does indeed seriously deal with “particular words” and “short phrases.” But Aune is also constantly calling attention to how these words, and phrases, and verses, are to be understood within the context of Revelation, the Johannine literature, the New Testament, the entire Canon of Scripture, as well as the extrabiblical writings and apocalyptic literature of the time; and his examination in amazingly thorough. So, I do not understand Grimsrud’s complaint.

I have not read Grant Osborne’s commentary on Revelation. However, Osborne is justly famous for his book on hermeneutics, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. One of the spirals which Osborne discusses is that the whole needs to be read in the light of the parts, and the parts need to be read in the light of the whole. Furthermore, this is a constant, never-ending process. We read the parts, and from the parts we get a sense of the whole, which may in turn cause us to re-read the parts, which may in turn cause us to come to a better understanding of the whole, which perhaps leads us to reinterpret the parts … you get the picture. So, it is hard for me to believe that Osborne wrote a commentary where he supposedly focused on “individual words” and “little on the book as a whole.”

More importantly, however, Grimsrud’s statement that, “we should give the big picture much more weight than zeroing in on particular words or short phrases,” is simply false. Rather, interpretation is a constant spiral. The parts and the whole should be accorded equal weight as we constantly adjust our interpretation in the reciprocal movement between the parts and the whole. But what Grimsrud does here, in my opinion, is let his ideological overlay on the book of Revelation speak so loudly that he is not able to enter into this spiral. He is not properly listening to the parts, no matter how loudly they speak. This supposition that he has figured out the whole and does not therefore need to give equal weight to the parts actually ends up skewing his entire article. Additionally, I fear that Grimsrud’s criticisms of Aune and Osborne is more a reflection of the fact that they simply do not share his particular construal of the whole.

(2) In what follows, Grimsrud gives a fairly good representation of what the book of Revelation is about. In several paragraphs in which he describes the book in general terms, I find little to disagree with generally. However, I do have three significant “quibbles.”

First, I believe the phrase, “revelation of Jesus Christ,” should be interpreted as a subjective genitive, i.e., “revelation from Jesus Christ.” The content of this revelation is “what must soon take place.” Nevertheless, the book certainly does reveal the person of Jesus to us as well.

Second, no, the reference to the “blood” of Jesus, is not a “a metaphor throughout Revelation for his persevering love that shaped a life of resistance to the ways of Rome [that is, the ways of the Dragon and Beast]), resistance even to the point of death that is vindicated when God raised the executed Jesus from the dead.” Rather, the “blood” of Jesus is just that, the shed blood by which he redeemed his people. There are places in the book where “blood” could be interpreted metaphorically, but I see no reason to give a metaphorical interpretation to the blood of Jesus.

Third, while I certainly agree that in the background is the idea of non-violent resistance (and I am, in fact, a pacifist), it is too much to say that this is “the” message of the book. For example, this theme does not show up at all in the letters to the seven churches in chs. 2-3. The letters deal with heresy, purity, persecution, idolatry, and love for God. There is no call in the letters for the believers to be non-violent. In fact, there is no call in the entire book of Revelation for the believers to be non-violent. That understanding is more implicit than explicit. Rather, the believers are called upon to be vigilant in presenting their testimony, and in their willingness to be martyred for that testimony. There is actually no explicit call in the book for believers to be non-violent. We can still take that, however, as basically understood to be in the background.

(3) The point I just made applies especially to Grimsrud’s contention that chs. 2-3 relate to persecution from the “Empire.” Actually, the empire does not show up at all in these chapters. The enemies in chs. 2-3 are heretics, and whoever it is that constitutes the “synagogue of Satan.” There is no concern with regard to resistance against Rome. The persecutors of the Christians are heretics and, most likely, Jews, or Judaizing Christians, rather than Rome. If Rome shows up at all in these chapters, the message conveyed there is exactly the opposite of what Grimsrud says it is. Rome is one of the nations over which the one who conquers will “rule them with an iron scepter, and will dash them to piece like pottery” (Rev 2:27). The heretics and Jewish opponents of Christians are portrayed as violent in these chapters. But so are Jesus and his followers (Rev 2:15-16, 22-24, 26-27).

(4) Grimsrud’s suggestions as to what we learn from the heavenly throne room scene in chs. 4-5 are correct to a point, but inadequate for understanding the total message of the scene.

First, almost everything in this scene is about judgment. There is lightning, rumbling, loud peals of thunder. There is a rainbow that encircles the throne, but this is not a “care bear” rainbow, but in light of Ezekiel 1, from which much of the imagery in this scene is taken, is best understood to refer to the battle bow. It is from this throne room that war will be waged against the earth, even as the scene in Ezekiel 1 describes God’s war chariot, which he will ride, and from which he will oversee the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the armies of Babylon.

Then in, ch. 5, the seven-sealed scroll is introduced, with writing on both sides. Immediately, a double-sided scroll should evoke two scenes from the Old Testament. First, there is the scene from Ezekiel 2-3, in which the prophet is called on to eat and digest a scroll with writing on both sides. From the surrounding context of the passage in Ezekiel, we find that this scroll, which is initially sweet, because it is the word of God, actually causes great bitterness. The scroll contains the judgments which are to be poured out on God’s people. The second scene is Zechariah 5, in which the prophet sees a scroll with writing on both sides, containing curses of punishment and destruction to be executed against evildoers. Almost certainly, John knows what this means, and that he is why he weeps in Rev 5:4, because no one has been found worthy to unroll the scroll and pour out judgment on the enemies of God. But the Lion of Judah is found, the Lion who is the Lamb, and he is the one who will unroll the scroll.

It is especially important to understand what the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders say in response to this vision:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 5:9)

It is precisely because he is the Lamb who was slain and who has shed his blood, that he is qualified to open the seals of the scroll, unroll it, and pour out judgment on the earth. Jesus is qualified to conquer by pouring out judgment on the earth because he has already conquered by his death. Jesus’s sacrificial death does not eliminate the idea of punitive judgment; rather it qualifies him to execute it.

So Grimsrud is correct in what he affirms and but incorrect in what he denies when he says, “The framework for interpreting Revelation 6 is healing love, not punitive judgment.” Rather both are present in the book of Revelation and they are both present in abundance. When Jesus open the seals and unrolls the scroll in Revelation 6-8 it is an act of love and also an act of punitive judgment on all the unrepentant enemies of God. To understand otherwise is simply to let one’s skewed understanding of the whole to drown out the actual details of the text. The opening of the seals and the unrolling of the scroll is, indeed, the execution of the “wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 6:16).

(5) Grimsrud finally narrows in on Rev 6:9-11 and says,

In light of what we learn later in Revelation, I believe we best interpret these verses as a call for those “souls” patiently to let their conquering work (see 12:11—the “work” of the “comrades” to conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”) have its effect. Ultimately, this “blood” is what takes down Babylon and helps lead to the coming down of New Jerusalem.

The message here fits with the general picture in Revelation that the only way that God works in the world to win victory is through the persevering love of the Lamb and his followers. That love is how the Powers of evil are defeated. So the point is that the transformative patience that God calls for will let God’s judgment and vengeance determine the process and will remember that God’s promised outcome is healing, even for the inhabitants of the earth.

It is hard to overstate how skewed I believe this understanding is. The martyrs cry out to God to avenge their blood; they do not ask God to let their blood do its work. And there is nothing in the book of Revelation that suggests that the “only way” God works in the world is by non-violent resistance. No, God works in many ways in the world, and the book of Revelation reveals those many ways in which God works. And by incorporating so much of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah in this book, we have every reason to expect that God will act in Revelation as he has in the past. He will demonstrate his love for his people by rescuing them from their enemies and by pouring punitive judgment on those enemies.

Grimsrud tries to support his understanding of this passage by reinterpreting the word “avenge” in Rev 6:10. He says that the “literal meaning of ‘avenge’ here is ‘do justice.’” But, no, the literal meaning of “avenge” here is “avenge.” In almost every single instance of the occurrence of this word, in either in its verb (ekdikeo) or noun (ekdikesis) form, it means “avenge” or “vengeance.” It is indeed, “punitive judgment.” This is overwhelmingly the case. Indeed, this is one of the places where the responsible interpreter will allow the “parts” to interpret the “whole,” rather than letting one’s ideological overlay play an overly determinative role in lexicology.

Grimsrud, then goes on to state,

The idea, then, that 6:9-11 teaches an affirmation of punitive judgment versus God’s human enemies is a misreading. These three verses actually teach a repudiation of human justice (insofar as human justice means punitive judgment and violent revenge). They call instead for followers of Jesus to affirm and practice divine justice that seeks to heal and not to punish—and that accepts that healing our broken world (i.e., “conquering”) requires vulnerable, patient, compassionate faithfulness. That is, according to these verses read in the context of the rest of Revelation, it is anthropomorphizing of divine justice to imagine it as punitive and retributive rather than restorative.

The problem, however, is that these verses do nothing of the kind. The interpretation carries no exegetical justification whatsoever. This interpretation is not in accord with the rest of Revelation, or with the rest of the Johannine writings, or the rest of the New Testament, or with the entire canon of Scripture. The martyrs specifically call out for God to engage in punitive justice for their blood. Both Old and New Testaments affirm that the execution of punishment against evildoers is not an anthropomorphizing of God. Rather, in Revelation, we can actually understand it is a theomorphizing of the followers of the Lamb (more on this point later).

(6) Grimsrud then deals with Rev 8:3-5:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

Certainly, this passage is related to the one in Rev 6:9-11, as Grimsrud acknowledges. The scene occurs at the altar, the very place where the martyrs in Rev 6:9-11 prayed their prayers for vengeance. Their prayers, mingled with incense, comes up before God. The angel then pours the mixture out on the earth. There are loud peals of thunder, rumbling, lightning, and an earthquake. And, then, what follows in the rest of ch. 8 and ch. 9 is the result of this scene—again, horrible visitations of punitive judgment.

When Grimsrud interprets this account as nothing more than “persevering love” and “not violence and punitive judgment,” it only reinforces the understanding that an ideological commitment is preventing the very act of listening to the text. At this point one has to ask: If God really did want to impart the understanding that he will execute punitive judgment against the wicked, what language could he possibly have used beyond that which he has already used? How could God have possibly made this point any clearer?!

(7) There is another passage which Grimsrud does not mention, but it seems to me to be especially relevant to the understanding the prayer of the martyrs.

After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:

Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants. (Rev 19:1-2)

What is important to note here is that this is also an answer to the martyrs’ prayer. God has executed just and true judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute. He has avenged the martyrs’ blood. And here is what especially important to point out. It is not the blood of the martyrs that accomplished this. It isn’t their testimony. And it isn’t even their prayers. Rather, God is the one who does it. He executes punitive judgment against the great prostitute, and in these actions, he avenges the blood of the martyrs.

This leads me then to one final point.

(8) It is important not to confuse the conquering that takes places in the book of Revelation by one’s testimony and by one’s blood with the ultimate conquest that occurs in the book. In other words, there is a two-stage conquest in the book.

When Jesus sheds his blood, dies, and rises from the dead, he has conquered, he has triumphed (Rev 5:5). However, it is important to note that this is not the end of the Lamb’s conquest. He goes on to win the final conquest, not by shedding his blood again, but by the war he makes against the wicked, by his punitive judgments, and by his destruction of the enemies of God. It is simply incorrect to say that victory in Revelation is one that is only achieved by the blood of the Lamb. Rather, it is more accurate to say, in the logic of the book of Revelation, and the scene we looked at in Revelation 5, that Jesus conquered by his shed blood, his death, and resurrection, and it is this conquering that qualifies and validates him as the one who is able to go on to conquer his enemies then in power and great glory. What Jesus did in the days of his “weakness” is not the rubric that determines what the conquest will look like in the days of his “power.” It is because he is the Lamb that was slain that he is validated as the one who is worthy to open the seals, unroll the scroll, and pour out punitive wrath and judgments on the inhabitants of the earth. And he wins the final battle, not by shedding his blood again, but in acts of overwhelming power.

At least in a measure, this is also true of Christ’s followers, and this comes out in at least four passages in the book of Revelation.

The first passage is one we briefly looked at in Rev 2:26-27:

To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father.

Important to note here, especially in relation to the way the verb nikao (“conquer”) is used in Revelation, is that this perhaps should be translated as, “To the one who conquers …” What we see here again, as we saw with Jesus, is that this is a two-stage conquest. First, the believer conquers by the word of their testimony and very possibly by their shed blood and martyrdom. This is similar to what we read in Rev 12:11:

They triumphed (nikao)over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.

However, interestingly, even in this passage, the conquering of the saints is not seen as the ultimate conquering:

Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.

The saints have conquered by their testimony and by their blood, but the ultimate conquest is yet to come.

Going back, then, to Revelation 2, the one who has conquered by the word of their testimony will be rewarded by being granted the right to rule over the nations with an iron scepter and to dash them to pieces like pottery. In other words, because they have conquered by their testimony and by their blood, they are then granted the right to participate in the final conquest, one that will not be accomplished like the first conquest. Jesus emphasizes that this two-stage process will be just like his own two-stage process: “just as I have received authority from my Father.” This, as I hinted at earlier, is a theomorphizing of the saints, indeed, a Christomorphizing.

The second passage comes in Revelation 19. It is by no means certain, but it is entirely plausible that the “armies of heaven” in v. 14 include the saints, particularly the martyred saints, who have been pictured as dwelling under the altar in heaven. It is unclear exactly what the armies of heaven do in this passage as they accompany the Lamb who makes war against his enemies. But I have to admit that I do not believe that the logic of the passage is that they were there only to be observers. I think it is entirely possible that, even as the prayers of the martyrs are answered in Rev 19:2, so the reward promised the saints in Rev 2:26-27 is finally given to them in Rev 19:11-21. They join the Lamb in ruling and reigning over their enemies. Indeed, enhancing that possibility is the line in Rev 19:15, which makes reference to Ps 2:9, that Jesus “will rule them with an iron scepter,” the exact promise Jesus made to the saints in Rev 2:26-27. It is entirely possible to see this moment in Revelation 19 to be the fulfillment of the earlier promise made in Revelation 2.

The third passage is Rev 18:4-7a:

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
“‘Come out of her, my people,’
so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
pay her back double for what she has done.
Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
as the glory and luxury she gave herself.

A voice from heaven tells the people of God to leave Babylon to avoid the plagues that God is going to send on the city. But then, interestingly, this voice then addresses these same people, calling on them to join in on the dealing out of the judgment:

Give back to her as she has given;
pay her back double for what she has done.
Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.

The verbs here are all plural imperative verbs. The people of God are the ones who are being addressed. Certainly, there is some rhetorical language being used in this passage. Nevertheless, it does not take away from the fact that the saints are being called on to join God in his actions.

Finally, a fourth passage, unlike the other three, actually narrates punitive judgments carried out by the saints. I don’t know for sure who the two witnesses in Revelation 11 are, but the language is interesting. They are in fact witnesses, they give “testimony” to Christ. Fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. They strike the earth with plagues. On account of the word of their testimony, they are slain, they shed their blood, they are martyrs. But they conquer, they rise again from the dead, and this resurrection strikes terror into the heart of those who saw them. They are taken up into heaven, and when they are, there is an earthquake, destruction in the city, and the death of several thousand people. What is most interesting in this passage is that these two witnesses are in fact witnesses—they give testimony, they are martyred, and yet their ministry during the time of their testimony is one in which they killed their enemies, breathed fire on them, and struck the earth with plagues as often as they wished. To be sure, this is imagery, and imagery has to be interpreted. However, if the main message that God wanted to communicate in the book of Revelation is that of nonviolent resistance, then it is hard to know exactly how this chapter contributes to that message.

So, I will draw this overly long post to a close. I simply come to the conclusion that Goldingay, along with a host of other commentators on Rev 6:9-11, are right in their understanding of this passage. So, I have no problem with the prayer of the martyrs in Revelation 6, and I have no problem affirming the words of the psalmist in Psalm 94:

Yahweh is a God who avenges.
O God who avenges, shine forth!

Jerry Shepherd
August 1, 2018