They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Revelation 7:16-17
Life is hard. For some, hunger and thirst, the grinding daily experience of poverty and want, from birth to death. For some, lifelong physical pain, or terrible terminal illness. And for those whose physical needs are easily and consistently met, other things: the loss of love, the crippling inability to give oneself completely and its corresponding loneliness, the paralyzing presence of chronic anger. War, and the fear of war. Disappointment. Betrayal.
For everyone, something.
An existence in which you have none of those things -- they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more. The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. All the things that hurt you will be no more. The scars of those things, which you still bear, will be only scars. They will no longer be open wounds. You will not experience the pain of them.
The Book of Revelation is a strange one -- everyone knows that. Generations of the literal-minded have pored over its bizarre pages, trying to figure out whether the current Prime Minister might possibly be the Beast, whether the current war might be Armageddon -- it usually is, it seems. "It's all happening," they will tell you earnestly if they can corner you, "Just like it says in Revelation. It's all happening now."
Later, in seminary, you learn that this book, with its strange animals, its hosts of saints, its angels, its golden bowls, its puzzling seals and its carefully enumerated multitudes, its hymnic conversations -- is a most political one, that much of it is about first-century church politics and first-century secular politics, that many of its cryptic passages are about very local controversies, arguments belonging to a particular time and place. You learn more about it, and you relax a little: it's not a book of fortunes to be told. It doesn't prophesy the future. Okay. It's still a weird book. Not one to which you are apt to turn much for comfort.
Except for this beautiful passage.
We read it at funerals: given a choice, it is almost always among the readings the family selects. Tucked in among the multitudes and the many-eyed beasts, a brief pair of verses that knows everything there is to know about human sorrow and the hope of redemption. You know those things that break your heart? Those things that make you weep, or that have gone on for so long that they long ago drained you of all your tears? You know that longing for comfort that has never been satisfied, that mourning so total you can barely lift your eyes from the ground in front of you? The Lamb and the Shepherd are the same. The one that was slain is the one who will save. His sorrow was like yours, and his saving will be yours, too. He will lead you to the water. And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
Sorrow and pain are over for the dead. We may keep their final hours in our memory for a long time and weep over the memory, as if they were frozen in that moment for all time, but they do not: it is over. They have the comfort they longed for, whether or not they ever knew of their own longing, whether or not they ever put it into word or even thought.