Fifth Seal - Martyrs

The fifth seal opening reveals the souls of martyrs kept underneath the altar as they plead with God for vindication and justice – Revelation 6:9-11

Stone Column - Photo by Madhu Madhavan on Unsplash
The opening of the fifth seal reveals the souls of men slain for their testimony “
underneath” the altar, where they plead with God for vindication for what they have endured at the hands of their enemies. But they must wait for justice until the complete number of their “fellow servants” who are to be slain - “just as they” - are gathered to join them - [Photo by Madhu Madhavan on Unsplash].

The Temple imagery is continued from the vision of the “throne” when the “altar” first appeared in the book. 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 is the result of the first four seal openings. The victims of the forces unleashed 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 is armed with a Roman sword with which he caused men to “slay” one another.

SLAYING OF THE MARTYRS

Slay” translates the Greek verb sphazô, a term used 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” who 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 yet to run its full course.

The fact that the martyrs now plead for “vengeance” against the “inhabitants of the earth” demonstrates 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).

COMING WRATH

And the fifth seal prepares the reader for the arrival of the “wrath of the Lamb” in the next seal opening, and for the sealing of the “servants of God” and the vision of the “innumerable multitude” that will “stand” before the “Lamb” - (Revelation 6:9-11).

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 of the latter 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 the latter 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, and this is dictated by when the “Lamb” opens each seal.

The “altar” corresponds to the altar of burnt offerings 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, the martyrs are “slain” - (Exodus 30:1-10Leviticus 4:7Hebrews 9:4).

The inhabitants of the earth.” Throughout the book, this term refers to human society in opposition to the “Lamb.” It does not refer to geographic location, but 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).

WHITE ROBES

Each martyr is given a white “robe” or stolé, the Greek term from the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible 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 28:429:21Ezekiel 44:19).

The “white robe” is also linked 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 occurs later when the “Dragon” becomes enraged, knowing that he has only “a short season” in which to destroy the covenant community.

Likewise, at the end of the “thousand years,” Satan is loosed for “a short time.” The verbal links locate the period during which the full complement of witnesses will be assembled – The war by Satan against the saints - (Revelation 11:712:12-1713:7, 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?”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 reveals the fate of the first martyrs for the “Lamb,” but also informs the reader that more martyrs must be gathered before the “day of the Lord,” the hour of final judgment when all the righteous together will “stand” before the “Lamb.” In the interim, the “martyrs” are granted “rest” while the onslaught against the churches continues until the appointed hour.



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