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?” 11So, 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)
Until their fellow slaves were killed
The martyrs are told to rest “until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed” (v. 12). It appears that many more will experience martyrdom before the return of Christ. While we may wonder why God doesn’t put a stop to the killing – some brashly question whether He is able to do so – we may be confident that He is sovereign over human history, causing or allowing all things for reasons we may not fully understand. God has determined that a number of saints will give their lives because of His word and the testimony they have. Only God know when this number – like the measure of sins being filled up by the wicked – will reach capacity.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the total number of Christian martyrs in the 20th century alone reached 45 million. How many millions of others have given their lives from the time of Stephen, the first martyr, until now is impossible to know with certainty. But no doubt there is ample room beneath the altar in heaven for those who have identified with the slaughter of the Lamb.
R.J.D. Utley writes, “One of the major truths of this book is that God is in control of all things, even the death of Christian martyrs! All of history is in His hand. God is not surprised by any events, actions or outcomes. Yet there is still pain, suffering and unfairness in this fallen world. This concept of a completed number of martyrs (cf. I Enoch 47:4) is a symbolic way of referring to God’s knowledge and plan for mankind. This is similar to Paul’s concept of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ (cf. Rom. 11:12, 25) which refers to God’s knowledge of all the Gentiles who would be saved” (Utley, Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Vol. 12, Study Guide Commentary Series, 63).
Briefly, here is a summary of the four major views of these verses:
- Most historicists see the fifth seal fulfilled during the rule of Diocletian, who persecuted the church in the last days of his rule from 284 – 304 A.D.
- Preterists argue that the souls under the altar are those of first-century Christians slain at the hands of the Jewish persecutors.
- Futurists contend that these saints are killed during the yet-future Tribulation.
- And spiritualists say this passage reveals the present state of those who already have died for their faith.
In any case, interpreters agree that Jesus comforts His martyrs, grants them rest and assures them that His judgment, whenever it falls, will be swift and sure.
Next: The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17)