SYNOPSIS: The fifth seal reveals the souls of martyrs underneath an altar where they cry out to God for vindication – Revelation 6:9-11.
The fifth seal opening reveals the souls of martyrs kept safe “underneath” an altar from where they plead with God for justice for what they have endured at the hands of a hostile world. The slain saints are told they must wait until the complete number of their “fellow servants” who are to be slain, “just as they,” are gathered to join them.
The Temple imagery is continued from the earlier scene set before the Throne. The altar is set before the throne from which the Lamb now reigns over the Cosmos, not in the Temple building at Jerusalem. The martyrs are given priestly robes for the ultimate sacrifice they have made – Their lives poured out at the base of the altar.
The fifth seal prepares the reader for the sixth seal opening, which releases the “wrath of the Lamb” against which no one is able to “stand,” and for the sealing of the “servants of God” and the innumerable multitude that John will see “standing” before the Lamb and the Throne.
(Revelation 6:9-11) – “And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw beneath the altar the souls of them who had been slain because of the word of God and because of the witness which they held. And they cried out with a loud voice, saying—How long, O Sovereign, the Holy and True, dost thou not vindicate and avenge our blood from them that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to them, each one, a white robe, and it was bidden them, that they should rest yet a little while—until the number should be made full of their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, who were about to be slain as even they” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The fifth and sixth seals share several characteristics. In the first four seals, John “heard” commands from the “living creatures.” With the fifth and sixth seals, the stress changes to what he “sees.” Both seal openings begin with identical language (“And I saw when he opened the fifth seal…”; “And I saw when he opened the sixth seal…”). Both, also, include verbal links to the innumerable multitude and pose questions that are answered in that vision: “How long,” and, “Who is able to stand?” (Revelation 7:9-17).
The order of the fifth and sixth seals is literary, not chronological. Their sequence is dictated by when the Lamb opened each seal.
The fifth seal borrows language and imagery from the books of Zechariah and Daniel. In Zechariah, a messenger cried out, “O Yahweh of hosts! How long wilt thou not have compassion upon Jerusalem and the cities of Judah,—against which thou hast had indignation these seventy years? And Yahweh answered the messenger who was speaking with me, in words that were pleasant,—words that were consoling…when I was displeased (for) a little, then they helped forward the calamity, Wherefore, Thus, saith Yahweh, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassions, My house shall be built therein, declareth Yahweh of hosts” (Zechariah 1:12-16).
Likewise, in the conclusion to the visions of Daniel, the prophet was told that a time would come when “thy people shall be delivered, everyone found written in the hook. And many of the sleepers in the dusty ground shall awake,—these [shall be] to age-abiding life, but those to reproach and age-abiding abhorrence…How long shall be the end of the wonders?… For a set time and times and a half, and, when the dispersion of a part of the holy people is brought to an end, then shall come to an end all these things” (Daniel 12:1-7).
As the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John sees “under the altar the souls of them who had been slain on account of the word of God and on account of their testimony.” The “altar” corresponds to the altar of burnt offering that was in the court of the Tabernacle. Blood from sacrificial victims was poured out at the base of this altar (Exodus 30:1-10, Leviticus 4:7, Hebrews 9:4).
The image of the dead souls “underneath the altar” conforms to the image from the old sacrificial system. Placing the martyrs under the altar identifies their sacrificial deaths with that of the Lamb. Just he was “slain,” so, also, the souls under the altar have been sacrificed, that is, “slain” (sphazô – Strong’s – #G4969). This is the same verb used previously for the second rider released by the second seal opening.
The rider on a “fiery-red” horse caused “men to slay one another.” The verbal links are deliberate – The saints “slain” when the second seal was opened are kept safe “underneath the altar.” In the present vision, the only previous mention of men “slain” or sphazô was in the second seal opening, from the larger context, the only possible explanation for the presence of “slain” martyrs “underneath the altar” at this point. Otherwise, any proposed explanation of their source is only speculative.
The execution of a saint has already occurred in the city of Pergamos, and the churches of Asia are expecting more tribulation and martyrdom:
(Revelation 2:12-13) – “Thou art holding fast my name, and didst not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed near you where Satan dwelleth.”
(Revelation 2:10) – “Do not fear the things which thou art about to suffer. Lo! the adversary is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life.”
“The inhabitants of the earth.” Throughout the book of Revelation, this term refers to a human society set in opposition to God and the Lamb. The reference is not to geographic location but, rather, to the life orientation of the group, whether its members belong to the Lamb or the Dragon (e.g., Revelation 8:13, 11:10, 13:8, 13:12-14, 17:2-8).
Each martyr is given a white “robe” or stolé, a Greek term used in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament for the vestments worn by priests. The “white robes” point to the priestly function of the martyrs but, unlike Levitical priests, they have poured out their own lives at the base of the altar, not the lives of sacrificial animals. Their deaths were not to atone for sin but, instead, to bear witness for the Lamb (Exodus 28:4, 29:21, Ezekiel 44:19).
John uses “soul” for human life in the holistic sense typical of the Old Testament – It signifies the entire person (“the soul of the flesh is in the blood”). Likewise, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul unto death” (Leviticus 17:11, Isaiah 53:12).
The “white robe” is a link to the “innumerable multitude” described in Chapter 7, the victorious saints that exited the “great tribulation” to “stand before the Lamb,” and who were arrayed in “white robes” (stolé leuke). Through their perseverance, they “washed their robes (stolé) and made them white (leuke) in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-14).
This is not a picture of the righteous dead after they received their just rewards “in heaven.” The “slain” souls are “underneath the altar.” From there, they cry out for God to vindicate their testimony. However, they must wait for a “short time, until the number of their fellow-servants and their brethren should be fulfilled.”
Until the full number of fellow witnesses is assembled, they must “rest yet a short time.” The same phrase occurs later when the Dragon is enraged, knowing that he has only “a short season” in which to destroy the covenant community. Likewise, in Revelation 20:3, Satan is loosed “a short time.” The terminology coordinates the period during which the full complement of witnesses is assembled with the time of Satan’s war against the saints (Revelation 11:7, 12:12-17, 13:7, 20:7-9).
Similarly, Babylon is seen later riding the “beast with seven heads and ten horns.” The heads represent seven kingdoms, five of which had already fallen, one was present and another was yet to come. When it does arrive, “it must continue a short while” (Revelation 17:10).
The plea of the martyrs echoes the final vision from the book of Daniel: “How long will it be to the end of these wonders?” Daniel was informed that in a future season – “Your people will be delivered, everyone found written in the book.” A voice declared:
“How long will it be until the end of these wonders?”
“For a set time, times and part of a time, when the dispersion of a part of the holy people is fulfilled, then will come to an end all these things…Many will purify and make themselves white, and be refined…blessed is he that waits…But go your way until the end; for you will rest yet [anapauou eti] and stand in your portion at the end of the days.”
Note, carefully, the verbal parallels in the fifth seal, verbal links based on the Septuagint version:
(Revelation 6:10-11) – “How long, O Sovereign, Holy and True, do you not vindicate and avenge our blood from them that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to each one a white robe, and it was bidden them, that they should rest yet [anapauou eti] a little while until should be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brethren who are going to be killed, even as they.”
The martyrs underneath the altar must “rest” and wait until the last group of witnesses is added to their company, the full complement the “priests” redeemed from all nations by the Lamb. All must be assembled before the final judgment can occur – The final tally of the witnesses of Jesus must be assembled so all “stand” together before the Lamb and throne. This background helps to explain a passage found in Chapter 14:
(Revelation 14:13) – “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from now on; Yea, says the Spirit, that they may rest [anapauou eti] from their labors.”
Likewise, after the ascent of the “Son” to the Throne, the “woman clothed with the sun” is removed to “a place prepared of God that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. She is out of the Dragon’s reach. He is cast to the earth and, consequently, has great wrath, “Because he knows that he has but a short time” Unable to persecute the woman, he “went off to make war with the rest of her seed, they who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:1-17).
The fifth seal opening reveals the fate of the first martyrs for the Lamb, but, also, informs the reader that more martyrs are yet to be gathered before the opening of the sixth seal, the Day of the Lord.