The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11)

Previously: Authority was given to them (Rev. 6:7-8)

The scripture

Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).

When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the scene changes dramatically from earth to heaven. The thundering hoof beats of the four horsemen have been heard on earth as their riders conquer, wage war, bring famine and pestilence, and kill. But now we are taken to heaven, where martyred souls at rest cry out to God for vengeance. They are given white robes and told to rest a while longer. The killing on earth is not over yet; the martyrs are told to rest until the number of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who are going to be killed just as they have been, is completed.

Why the shift to a heavenly scene? Who are these martyrs? And why does God permit the wicked to slaughter even more righteous people before He finally does something about it? How do John’s first-century readers understand this passage? And what does it mean to us today?

The fifth seal

As the Lamb opens the fifth seal, giving way to another portion of the message in the scroll, John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar. But the booming voices of the four living creatures do not attend this vision. Rather, John hears the cries of the deceased saints, petitioning the Lord for vengeance. W.A. Criswell points out that the fifth seal is different from the rest of the seven in that we do not see the action itself, but the result of action: “Heretofore and hereafter, as a seal is broken or a trumpet is blown or a vial is poured out, across the state of human history we shall see the judgment develop … But not here…. John sees under the altar the souls of those who have already been slain. Back of those souls that are slain, we must imagine, though it is undepicted and undescribed, the blood and fury and fire of awful persecution, the blood bath in which they lost their lives” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 102).

The translation of the Hebrew and Greek words for “altar” means “a place of sacrifice,” or in the verb form “to sacrifice.” But it’s important to note that there are two altars in the temple:

  1. The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), also called the bronze altar (Ex. 39:39) and “the Lord’s table” (Mal. 1:7). As described in Ex. 27:1-8, it is a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It is made of wood, overlaid with plates of brass and ornamented with “horns” (Exc. 29:12; Lev. 4:18). This is where animal sacrifices are made, with their blood poured out underneath.
  2. The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), also called the golden altar (Ex. 39:38; Num. 4:11). It stands in the holy place near the curtain that leads into the Holy of Holies. On this altar sweet spices are burned with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. The high priest offers incense on this altar to begin the morning and evening services. The burning of the incense is a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4).

In this passage in Revelation, it appears that John sees the altar of sacrifice. We are told in Hebrews that the earthly tabernacle and all its trappings are patterned after the one in heaven. Therefore, just as the blood of animal sacrifices on earth pools beneath the altar, the souls of the saints gather in heaven at the foot of the One who was sacrificed for them. “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:7.

It is clear that this is a heavenly altar, for the “souls of those slaughtered” are gathered there. The soul – essentially the unseen real person consisting of mind, emotion and will – separates from the body at death. The apostle Paul writes confidently that for believers to be “out of the body” (in death) is to “home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). These are real people with real identities and real consciousness. Unlike believers prior to Christ’s crucifixion, whose souls went to a state of rest at Abraham’s side in Sheol, these saints are in the presence of the Lord, meaning that John has a true New Testament vision since the Lamb’s blood already has been shed for them. Some commentators believe that Old Testament saints did not ascend to heaven after death because their sins were only atoned for, or temporarily covered, by the blood of sacrificial animals. But after Jesus died on the cross, fulfilling the sacrificial system and removing believers’ sins once and for all, their souls could pass into His presence in heaven.

But why are these martyrs under the altar? Why not beside it or above it? Perhaps because the Bible depicts faithful Christian service in sacrificial terms. In Rom. 12:1, for example, Paul writes, “I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” In 2 Tim. 4:6, as Paul faces the looming reality of his martyrdom, he says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close.” Christians who suffer persecution mirror the sacrificial life of Christ, who notes their service and rewards it. Some interpreters believe there is a special reward in heaven, the “crown of life,” for those who are martyred (Rev. 2:10). The souls of the martyrs are under the altar because they became martyrs when their blood was spilled for the cause of Christ.

“As the blood of sacrificial victims slain on the altar was poured at the bottom of the altar, so the souls of those sacrificed for Christ’s testimony are symbolically represented as under the altar, in heaven; for the life or animal soul is in the blood, and blood is often represented as crying for vengeance (Ge 4:10)” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 6:9).

Next: The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)

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