9 And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered on account of the Word of God and on account of the witness which they had. 10 And they cried out with a loud voice saying, “How long, O holy and true Master, will you not judge and avenge our blood from those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And to each of them was given a white robe and it was told to them that they should rest yet a short time, until [their number] was completed, even their fellow servants and their brothers, those about to be killed as also them.
The Lamb opens the fifth seal, and John sees the martyred–those who had been slain because of the Word and their witness. They cry out for the Lord to judge and avenge them. In response, they are each given a white robe and told to rest a while longer because their number is not yet complete. There are more who have yet to join them. A couple of initial striking points:
- The Lord doesn’t give the martyrs an answer with a timeline. He doesn’t tell them how long until he vindicates His name and their blood.
- The Lord doesn’t answer their prayer by smiting the church’s enemies–at least not immediately. His initial response is to give them white robes and tell them to rest longer, and wait.
I think this shows us that the Lord’s plan is more important than any desire for justice or revenge, and His timetable matters more than ours. In this passage, God asserts His authority and His sovereignty, not by acquiescing to the cries of the martyrs, as painful as this would be for Him to hear, but by doing what He knows to be best.
John says the martyred saints are “under the altar.” This is the first mention of an altar, even after the description of the heavenly throne room in chapters 4 and 5. But that should be of no concern since this is a vision. Either the altar was there all along, but John didn’t mention it until now because it wasn’t relevant before, or it suddenly came into view. Whether or not the altar was there all along is not important; what matters to us is what that altar symbolizes.
When we think of altars, we think of places of sacrifice and offering. This particular altar is mentioned again in 8:3-4 where it is described as a “golden altar.” This is significant because it seems to be a parallel to the golden altar in Exodus 30:1-10. The golden altar was specially constructed for the burning of fragrant incense, and there was to be no unauthorized incense, or burnt, grain, or drink offerings on that altar. It was this altar that Aaron would use once a year for the sin offering, pouring the sacrificial blood on the horns of the altar to make atonement for the people. As we have seen, Jesus is the slaughtered Lamb whose blood was shed for his people. Also, we have seen the use of incense in the throne room representing the prayers of the saints. If we put all this together, we see that the golden altar in Revelation 6 symbolizes the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the prayers of his people. When we understand this, it makes perfect sense why John sees the martyred saints under the throne: they are protected, covered by the blood of the Lamb. They are eternally secure not because of their own works or worthiness, but because of the sacrifice of the only one who is worthy. These saints have been slain, or slaughtered–the same Greek verb is used as when John speaks of the Lamb “that was slain/slaughtered.” This might be deliberate, affirming that these souls have partaken in Christ’s sacrifice; they are truly his, not so much because they have died, but because they were willing to be identified with him. That they were martyred “on account of the Word of God and on account of the witness which they hold” only underscores this fact. They held fast to Scripture, what God has revealed in His Word, and to the testimony of Christ (compare this with the reason John gives for his exile in 1:10).
The martyrs cry out to the Lord “How long…?” (literally, “Until when…?”). They address the Lord as despotês, “master,” a term used of one in authority by those under him. The word is used of Jesus only two other times in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:1 and Jude 4), but a little more frequently of God in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament). They also refer to the Lord as “holy and true,” which, given the similarity with the description of Christ in 3:14 (“the faithful and true witness”), points to Jesus as the object of their cries.
In Zechariah 1:11, when the four chariots go out to patrol the earth and report back, their message is “all is at rest.” At that point, the angel asks how long will the Lord have no mercy on Jerusalem and Judah, since the nations are at ease. The Lord responds saying He won’t hold back His anger much longer. The martyred saints seem to be echoing the angel’s question, anticipating the vindication of God’s people and the judgment of those who dwell on the earth (i.e., unbelievers–see 3:10 for a similar use of the phrase). These martyred saints are not crying out for their own benefit. They’re dead already and in the presence of the Lord. The concern at the forefront of their minds is for the church on earth, God’s justice, and the honor of God in avenging His people.
The Lord’s response to the saints is, perhaps, surprising. He tells them to continue in their rest and wait. There’s no date given, simply a reason: the number of the martyred saints is not yet complete. There are more to be martyred, and the Lord will not call time on the earth until all His people have been gathered in. Some think this is a reference to all the saints, not just those that have died for their faith, and that’s possible. What we should note is that there is a specific number of saints that needs to be gathered, and the Lord knows that number. The elect of God are not a numberless crowd; He knows their number ahead of time, because He chooses who will His elect. And the Lord will delay the end of all things until all the saints have been accounted for (compare with 2 Peter 3:8-9).
Each of the martyred saints receives a white robe from the Lord. This symbolizes purity and righteousness, and it is given to them, it’s not of their own making. This is assurance from Christ that they are his, covered by his blood, and clothed in his righteousness. The rest they have is a rest that is in him (Matthew 11:28), and they are to continue in that rest until their brethren have joined them.
Is this scene depicting some kind of purgatory? No. Scripture does not support the idea of purgatory, and besides, according to Roman Catholic theology, purgatory is a place of purging, not a place of rest. You are not in the presence of the Lord in purgatory. How do we understand this passage in terms of the afterlife, or the End Times? First, remember this is a vision, so it may or may not conform to a literal reality. It does communicate important spiritual and theological truth, however. As Paul tells us, when we die as believers, we are absent from the body and in the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). So these martyred saints could be from any point in history, since Christians have been martyred since the church began, and continue to be martyred to this day–and there’s no indication this state of affairs will change between now and the Day of the Lord. As I read the first five seals, I see them as happening simultaneously. The horsemen ride out bringing death and destruction to the world, and persecution to the church. The martyred saints in heaven see all that’s happening, and cry out for the Lord to hasten the day when all will be made right, His people vindicated, the wicked punished, and His glory and honor established on earth. This has been the cry of the saints since the resurrection, and it will continue to be the cry of the saints until the End Times.
We’ll look at the sixth seal next time!