In dark times we are right to ask God when he will intervene and bring forth justice:
We have all asked the question “How long?” Kids impatiently ask on a journey, “How long before we get there?” We ask how long before the package we ordered arrives in the post. Or we sit in a doctor’s waiting room asking how long before we finally get to go in.
Here I want to look at this question in a spiritual context. Specifically, I want to examine how the Bible runs with the phrase. It is found 54 times in the ESV. Quite often it is about God or Jesus frustratingly asking how long humans will continue doing certain things, as in Exodus 16:28: “And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?”
Or as in 1 Samuel 16:1: “The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel?” Or as in Luke 9:41: “Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here’.”
But often the phrase is used by God’s people as they ask God how long things will go on for, especially in difficult and dark times. The psalmist certainly runs with this question quite a lot, especially in the lament psalms. For the psalmist – often David – it is more about seeking the justice of God and his vindication than it is about mere impatience or establishing a timeline.
Here are some examples of this:
Psalm 6:3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?
Psalm 13:1-2 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Psalm 35:17 How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions!
Psalm 79:5 How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?
Psalm 80:4 O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
Psalm 89:46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Psalm 90:13 Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!
Psalm 94:3 How long will the wicked, O LORD, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
Psalm 119:84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?
Of course others also ask similar questions, such as:
Isaiah 6:11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
Jeremiah 47:6 Ah, sword of the Lord! How long till you are quiet? Put yourself into your scabbard; rest and be still!
Habakkuk 1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Zechariah 1:12 Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’
Revelation 6:10 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?”
Let me return to the psalms. As mentioned, the lament psalms or complaint psalms are concerned that God would act against various enemies and bring about justice. The ‘How long?’ question is coupled with other related questions, such as ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ and ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’
One psalm is worth focusing on here in more detail: Psalm 74. This lament psalm also asks God why the wicked are getting away with murder, are mocking God’s name, and are destroying God’s people. The verses especially worth examining are 9-11:
We are given no signs from God;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
Again we have the complainant seeking justice and vindication, and again the question is asked as to how long before all this will occur. As in most of these sorts of psalms, earlier despair eventually gives way to hope and faith as the psalmist focuses on God and his past victories and his future promises.
But in the middle of calamities and the like, the questions keep coming. As Michael Wilcock says, commenting on vv. 10-11:
The double question which seemed to be exercising the psalmist in verse 1 (‘Why is it? And is it for ever?’) is explicit in these two verses. Sometimes even the staunchest believer finds that the two really mystifying things about the way God works are his reasons and his timetable. Our psalmist will find in due course that the ‘how long’ has a limit, and the ‘why’ an answer. In the meantime he does not hesitate to express his mystification to God. Nor is there any hesitation in verse 11b about telling God what to do!
Yes, the psalmist is not afraid to be honest, to ask hard questions, to voice his concerns, and to even demand action. The modern-day equivalent of that last verse would be, ‘God please, take your hands out of your pockets and act!’ And many commentators note that this is a reference to the exodus event where God stretched out his right hand and acted mightily on Israel’s behalf (Exodus 15:12).
And timing is crucial. I have often mentioned how those living under godless communism in the Soviet Union had to wait a full 72 years before the wall finally came down. Entire generations were born, lived and died during that period. It would have seemed to many Russians that their prayers for deliverance would never be answered.
But we have a similar time frame here, with 70 years of the Babylonian captivity. These grieving Israelites also were wondering if their pleas for release and vindication would be answered. And more recently of course we had a dozen years in which so many lived under Nazi rule.
I at least need to keep in mind these examples from history when I complain about the lockdown measures here in Victoria: the strictest and longest of anywhere in the world. If I get impatient and wonder how long all this will go on for, I know many others are feeling the same way and asking the same questions.
We all want justice and we all want it now. It WILL come in God’s good timing. But while we struggle with so much evil and injustice, it can seem interminable. But nothing in this world will last forever, and no amount of wickedness and tyranny will go on for all that long.
Of course the full and final answer to all these questions about when justice and righteousness will prevail comes in the form of Christ and his comings. He made salvation and deliverance possible with his First Coming, and final retribution and justice will arrive with his Second Coming.
When Christ returns then all these pleas will be completely answered. And as the days grow darker, prayers that he will come quickly are certainly not amiss. I certainly have been praying this almost daily of late. See here for more on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/05/22/come-quickly-lord-jesus/
In sum, there is a place for Christians to ask God how long it will be before evil comes to an end and injustice is properly dealt with. There is also a place to pray that God will be vindicated and will triumph over our (his) enemies. That too I have written about at various times, eg: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/08/04/yes-seek-justice-and-vindication/
The main things to bear in mind are these: God is fully aware of what is going on; he is in control; he is working out his purposes; and his timing is always just right. Yes it seems like trials and tribulations will never end when we are in the midst of them, but they do end, and they will end.
So hang in there saints. And take comfort from the prayers offered in the lament psalms. We are not out of line in praying such prayers just as they did – especially in today’s troubling times.