The fifth seal revealed the souls of martyrs kept underneath the altar where they pleaded with God for vindication and justice – Revelation 6:9-11.
The opening of the fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs “underneath” the altar. There, they plead with God for vindication for what they have endured at the hands of their enemies. But they are told to wait for justice 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 vision of the “throne” where the “altar” first appeared. Here, the martyrs are given priestly robes for the sacrifice they have made, their lives poured out at the base of the altar.
The incomplete number of martyrs under the altar is the result of the first four seal openings. The victims of the forces released by the four “riders” are saints who suffer for their “testimony.” This is especially clear from the second seal opening, the “rider on a fiery red horse” who was armed with a Roman sword with which he caused men to “slay” one another. “Slay” translates the Greek verb sphazô, a term used commonly for the “slaying” of sacrificial animals, and the same verb applied now to the “slain” martyrs under the altar, and previously to the “slain Lamb” that received the “sealed scroll” from the “throne” (sphazô – Strong’s – #G4969).
This also explains the limitation placed on the four “riders” to kill only a “fourth of the earth.” And so, we now see the incomplete “number” of the martyrs “underneath the altar.” The point is not mathematical precision, but the verbal and conceptual links. The tribulation of the churches began with the release of the four “riders,” but it has not yet run its full course.
The fact that the martyrs now plead for “vengeance” against their persecutors, the “inhabitants of the earth,” demonstrates further that the forces unleashed by the first four seal openings did not target the enemies of the church; their punishment will come later, and in response to the pleas of the martyrs. For example, the “plagues” of the “seven trumpets” are unleashed later in response to the “prayers of all the saints” offered as incense on the “golden altar before the throne” – (Revelation 8:1-6).
And the fifth seal prepares the reader for the arrival of the “wrath of the Lamb” in the sixth seal, and for the sealing of the “servants of God” and vision of the “innumerable multitude” that will “stand” 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 testimony which they held. And they cried out with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Sovereign, Holy and True, do you not vindicate and avenge our blood from the inhabitants of the earth? And there was given to each one a white robe, and they were bidden to 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.”
In the first four seal openings, John “heard” commands from the “four living creatures.” With the fifth and sixth seals, the stress falls on 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 include verbal links to the vision of the “innumerable multitude,” and both pose questions that are answered in that vision:
- “How long?”
- “Who is able to stand?” – (Revelation 7:9-17).
Thus, the fifth and sixth seals form a pair. Their order is literary, not chronological; it is dictated by when the “Lamb” opened each seal.
The “altar” corresponds to the altar of burnt offering in the court of the ancient Tabernacle. Blood from sacrificial victims was poured out at its base, just as the “souls” of the martyrs are now found “underneath the altar.” This demonstrates that they died as sacrificial victims. Just as the “Lamb” was “slain,” so, likewise, the martyrs were “slain” – (Exodus 30:1-10, Leviticus 4:7, Hebrews 9:4).
“The inhabitants of the earth.” Throughout the book, this term refers to human society set in opposition to the “Lamb.” It does not refer to geographic location, but instead, to the life orientation of the group – (Revelation 8:13, 11:10, 13:8, 13:12-14, 17:2-8).
John uses the term “soul” in the holistic sense typical of the Old Testament to signify the entire person (“the soul of the flesh is in the blood”). For example, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul unto death” – (Leviticus 17:11, Isaiah 53:12).
Each martyr was given a white “robe” or stolé, the Greek term from the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible used for the vestments worn by priests. Thus, the “white robes” point to the priestly function of the martyrs, but unlike the Levitical priests, they poured out their own lives at the base of the altar, not the blood of animals – (Exodus 28:4, 29:21, Ezekiel 44:19).
The “white robe” is also a verbal link to the later vision of the “innumerable multitude.” In it, the victorious saints were “standing before the Lamb” arrayed in “white robes” (stolé leuke). Through their perseverance, they had “washed their robes (stolé) and made them white (leuke) in the blood of the Lamb” – (Revelation 7:9-14).
Until the full number of fellow witnesses is assembled, they must “rest yet a short time.” The same phrase occurred later when the “Dragon” was enraged, knowing that he had only “a short season” in which to destroy the covenant community. Likewise, at the end of the “thousand years,” Satan was loosed for “a short time.” The verbal links locate the period during which the full complement of witnesses was assembled – The war by Satan against the saints – (Revelation 11:7, 12:12-17, 13:7, 17:10, 20:7-9).
The plea of the martyrs echoes the final vision from Daniel. The prophet was informed that “your people will be delivered, everyone found written in the book,” then a voice asked, “how long will it be to 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.”
The martyrs are to “rest” until all the “witnesses” are added to their company. All must be assembled before the final judgment can occur when the full company of saints will “stand” before the “Lamb and throne.”
Thus, the fifth seal opening reveals the fate of the first martyrs for the “Lamb,” but also informs the reader that more martyrs must be gathered before “day of the Lord,” the hour of final judgment when all together will “stand” before the “Lamb” and before the “throne.” In the interim, the “martyrs” are granted “rest” while the onslaught against the churches continues until the appointed hour.
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