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Gordon Fee: While the preceding four seals have both similar structure and similar content, this seal and the next have only a roughly similar structure. Together they depict the two key groups of those who live on earth at the time of John’s writing: the followers of the Lamb, who have been slain by “those who dwell on the earth” (vv. 9–11); and those who dwell on the earth themselves (vv. 12–14). The absolutely crucial matter for the rest of the present narrative, not to mention for the book as a whole, are the questions raised by the two groups. The martyrs ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord, . . . until you avenge our blood?” (v. 10). The rest, on their day of judgment, cry out, “The day of their [God and the Lamb’s] wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (v. 12). These two seals, therefore, complement each other while at the same time they prepare one for much that follows.

Sola Scriptura: The fifth seal initiates a second series of seals that are unlike the first four.  Gone are the horses and riders who initiate events.  The fact that death reigned over “a fourth of the earth” in the fourth seal makes the fifth seal a probably result.  The relationship between seals five, six and seven is the wrath of God:

  • seal 5 asks for it;
  • seal 6 announces it;
  • and seal 7 depicts it.

Marvin Rosenthal: Their martyrdom occurred with the opening of the fifth seal, at the beginning of the Great Tribulation.   These martyrs are to be resurrected and given bodies on the first day of the Millennium (Rev. 20:4).  The great multitude in chapter 7 is clearly a different group from those described in chapter 6.  The contrasting and additional truth is significant. . .

This great multitude, innumerable, universal, and suddenly appearing in heaven with white robes (purified) and palm branches (triumphant), is the raptured church.  This event occurs immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal and the outpouring of the Day of the Lord wrath (Rev. 8:1).

James Hamilton: Faithfulness to the word of God and the gospel must be more important to us than pleasure, more important to us than leisure, and more important than life itself. We must value faithfulness to God and his word more than we value the ability to go on living our peaceful, happy lives. That is what it means to be “faithful unto death.” Knowing that others who have been faithful unto death before us are now in the presence of God can liberate us from any fear we may have about what comes after death. Death is not the end. This life is not the ultimate reason for your existence. You exist for the glory of God. Live in a way that testifies to that reality. Die in a way that testifies to that reality. . .

Read the Bible like you might be martyred for it. Pray like you would if you knew they were going to kill you for it one day soon. Preach the gospel like you might be martyred for it.


(:9a)  Breaking of the Fifth Seal

And when He broke the fifth seal,

A.  (:9b) Faithfulness of the Martyrs Now Elevated to Heaven

  1. Location of the Martyrs

I saw underneath the altar the souls

Sola Scriptura: the altar is likely the altar of incense which may suggest why the souls “cry out with a loud voice.”

Why would these faithful souls be kept underneath this particular altar?  No explicit reason is given.  However, inasmuch as these individuals paid the ultimate sacrifice for God (physical death), they are symbolically kept at the place nearest to God, the very place from which God receives fragrant aromas, the altar of incense.  We should discern that God finds great pleasure in these souls.

Robert Thomas: The problems with identifying this as the altar of burnt offering are clearcut, however. If this were the altar of burnt offering, the souls of the martyrs would more likely be “on” rather than “under” the altar (Johnson). In the OT, it was the blood that was beneath the altar of burnt offering, but here it is the souls. The parallelism does not fit. Another weakness of the view is that it undercuts the uniqueness of the Lamb’s sacrificial death (cf. 5:9). Since the once-for-all death of Christ, no more sacrifices are needed for redemption. Only the altar of incense is needed in heaven (Ladd; Morris). In the alleged parallels cited in Paul’s writings (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6), no shedding of blood is involved because Paul uses σπ νδω (spendō, “I pour out”), which refers to the drink offering (cf. Gen. 35:14; Num. 15:5-7) rather than the burnt offering. This carries no connotation of sacrificial death. Furthermore, it is not completely accurate to speak of the altar of burnt offering as the preeminent altar. The noun θυσιαστή ιoν (thysiastērion, “altar”) is used without qualification to refer to the golden altar of incense several times in this book (cf. 8:3, 5; 14:17-18).

Buist Fanning: To locate the souls of these martyrs “under the altar” in heaven is a bold association with important implications. At the least it symbolizes their nearness to God after death: they are brought into the very presence of God (cf. 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23), there to await the resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:20–23; Phil 3:20–21; Rev 20:4).  It is likely also that it connects their “slaughter” (v. 9) and shedding of blood (v. 10) in loyalty to God to the faithful sacrifice that Jesus Christ, the Lamb, exemplified (cf. 5:6, 9). The Old Testament incense altar was not the scene of actual sacrifices, but blood from those sacrifices was applied to its “horns” as part of the ritual (e.g., Lev 4:6–7, 16–18).  The location of their souls “under the altar” represents their martyrdom as an act of worship, a costly offering of themselves to God who is worthy of all devotion.

Robert Mounce: The idea of heaven as the temple of God is common in Jewish thought. “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2:20; cf. Ps 18:6; T. Levi 18:6). It is probably unnecessary to conjecture whether the altar is the altar of burnt offering or the altar of incense. The theme of sacrifice would suggest the former, but the prayers that rise (v. 10) seem to indicate the latter. There is no reason why in John’s vision the two should not blend together as one. . .

Note that John knows nothing of a “rapture” of the church by which Christians are spared the tribulation that normally accompanies a godly life (cf. 2 Tim 3:12). They “ascend to heaven through suffering and death, as Jesus did: they are not taken to heaven to escape the sufferings of earth.”

  1. Legacy of Faithfulness

a.  Faithful to the Word of God

of those who had been slain

because of the word of God,

b.  Faithful to the Testimony

and because of the testimony which they had maintained;

J. Hampton Keathley, III: “Testimony” is the Greek word marturiafrom marturewwhich means “to bear witness, be a witness, give testimony.” Marturew comes from martus meaning “a witness.” But martus is also translated “martyr” because it is used of those who have witnessed for Christ by their death. These believers will witness for Christ by their life as they hold fast to the Word of God in the midst of a degenerate world, but they will also witness for Christ by their death. Matthew 24:14 refers in part to their labors in addition to the labors of the 144,000 of chapter 7.

John MacArthur: John gives two reasons why the martyrs will be slain: because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained. They will correctly interpret what they see going on around them in the world in the light of Scripture. They will proclaim from the Bible God’s judgment and call on people to repent and believe the gospel. Antichrist and his followers, however, will not tolerate their bold preaching and will persecute and kill them. Because of the testimony which they had maintained refers to their loyalty to Jesus Christ (cf. 1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4), which was demonstrated by their proclamation of the Word of God in the face of life-threatening hatred and hostility. In a world bereft of the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, merciless men will murder those who faithfully and courageously proclaim the message of judgment and salvation.

B.  (:10) Cry for Divine Avenging Wrath

  1. Loud Cry

and they cried out with a loud voice, saying,

  1. Lobbying Cry

a.  Appeal to Speed Up the Process

How long,”

Marvin Rosenthal: When the fifth seal is opened, it depicts the martyrdom of a believing remnant who have not bowed to the Antichrist. . .  If the seals are God’s wrath [during the Day of the Lord], then He is responsible for the martyrdom of His own faithful children, those who refuse to give their allegiance to the Antichrist and thereby forfeit their lives.  Impossible, you say.  That is correct.  The very testimony of the martyrs settles the matter.  They pleaded for divine retribution against their persecutors.  That is another reason why the seals cannot be God’s wrath, and the Day of the Lord cannot begin at the beginning of the Tribulation period [i.e. the 70th week of Daniel].

Sola Scriptura: The martyrs cry out for vengeance.  Their question echoes the sentiment that too much time has passed between the deed and punishment.  This is very similar to many Psalms which demand of God that He punish evil doers (Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 139).  King David prayed such a prayer (2 Sam 3:28-29).  Nehemiah prayed a similar prayer (Neh 4:4-5). . .  No clue has yet surfaced to indicate that the wrath of God has begun through Revelation 6:10.

b.  Appeal to the Lord’s Character

O Lord, holy and true,

Robert Mounce: Totally separate from all evil, he will vindicate with integrity those who have given their lives for the cause of righteousness.

John MacArthur: The martyrs base their appeal for vengeance on two of God’s attributes. Because God is holy, He must judge sin (cf. Ps. 5:4–5; Hab. 1:13; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 2:16; 3:6; 2 Tim. 4:1); because He is true, He must be faithful to His word and keep His promises (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Luke 21:33). Revelation 3:7 applies this phrase holy and true to Jesus Christ, thus affirming His deity and full equality with His Father.

Warren Wiersbe: The saints in heaven know that God will eventually judge sin and establish righteousness in the earth, but they do not know God’s exact schedule. It is not personal revenge that they seek, but vindication of God’s holiness and the establishment of God’s justice. Every believer today who sincerely prays, “Thy kingdom come!” is echoing their petition.

c.  Appeal to the Lord’s Justice

wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood

Sola Scriptura: It is important to remember concerning the martyrs of Revelation 6:9 that all believers of all the ages are not represented by this reference.  Only those recently killed are in focus.  This point is defended by the martyrs’ own statement that God is to avenge their blood “on those who dwell on the earth.”  Those living on the earth at this time are the only ones responsible for the death of the martyrs since they are the only ones who will receive God’s judgment.

John MacArthur: God’s vengeance is not to be equated with petty human vindictiveness and bitter desire for revenge. God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice demand that He take vengeance on unrepentant sinners. Vengeance belongs to God alone because all sin is ultimately against Him and an offense to Him (cf. Ps. 51:4).

d.  Appeal to the Punishment of the Wicked

on those who dwell on the earth?”

Van Parunak: “on them that dwell on the earth?” — The expression appears eight times in the Revelation (Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:2, 8), always describing those who are in opposition to God.  “Dwell” κατοικέω G2730 means to settle down and reside, and contrasts with παροικέω G3939 and its cognates παροικία G3940 “pilgrimage” and πάροικος G3941 “stranger, pilgrim,” which refer to transients.


A.  Response by Symbolic Act = Giving of White Robe

And there was given to each of them a white robe;

G.K. Beale: The metaphor of white robes connotes the idea of a purity which has resulted from persevering faith tested by the refining fire of tribulation. Robes are given not only as a reward for purity of faith but as a heavenly declaration of the saints’ purity or righteousness and an annulling of the guilty verdict rendered on them by the world. In this picture is an assurance to the saints still on earth that their vindication before God without doubt awaits them. But for the “earth-dwellers” (literally “those who dwell on the earth”) of v. 10 (the standard expression in Revelation for unbelievers: 8:13; 11:10; 13:12, 14; 17:2), there remains the terrifying prospect of judgment.

B.  Response by Spoken Word = Wait Patiently for Divine Purposes to be Fulfilled

  1. Patience in Waiting

and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,

Sola Scriptura: Louw-Nida indicates about the verb to rest that “the focus of meaning seems to be upon the restorative character of rest rather than mere cessation of activity” (Louw-Nida; 23.80).  This indicates that the souls were in a state that allows for refreshment from the labors of this life.

Grant Osborne: The martyrs are then called to have the same patience that characterized their life of perseverance on earth (1:9; 2:2–3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12). God tells them ἵνα ἀναπαύσονται ἔτι χρόνον μικρόν (hina anapausontai eti chronon mikron, that they should wait for a short time yet).

Buist Fanning: The full answer to their cry for God’s justice will come after only “a little while longer” (ἔτι χρόνον μικρόν).  This time indication is filled in further, however, by a temporal clause (introduced by “until,” ἕως) that explains, in part, the events in God’s plan that must occur before his full answer will be seen (v. 11c). The temporal clause specifies two groups of people (not denoting the same individuals) that have not yet reached their “full number.”  The two groups are shown by a “both . . . and” (καί . . . καί) parallelism joining two noun phrases that are subjects of “be completed” (v. 11c).

  • The first is “their fellow servants,” a reference to others who, in the purpose of God, will come to faith in Christ and serve him faithfully as these martyrs have done. This reflects a common eschatological theme that God’s delay in bringing his judgment is due in part to his mercy in allowing more time for the gospel to be proclaimed across the world (cf. Matt 24:14) and for more individuals to “come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
  • The second group is “their brothers and sisters,” but this group is specified further: those who will “be killed” for their faith, just as the heavenly martyrs were. This sad indication, that even heaven acknowledges martyrdoms yet to come, is a reminder of the heartbreaking reality of the events associated with these seal openings: these are the messianic woes, the time of intense suffering that the world and its people—even God’s people—must endure before the full blessedness of his redemption will be experienced. But God’s full justice will come soon, as the next seal opening shows.
  1. Purpose in Waiting

until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also.

J. Hampton Keathley, III: “Completed” is the verb plerowwhich means “to fill, or fulfill, or complete, bring to fruition.” This stresses the divine providence and purpose of God in the deaths of the martyrs. They are not without God’s knowledge or without God’s control or concern. The exact numbers are known to God and allowed by Him according to His own eternal purpose. For “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Psalm 116:15).

Robert Thomas: The word to the souls under the altar gives them reassurance that God will eventually avenge their blood, but the time for the culmination of that vengeance has not yet arrived. One feature that must yet transpire beforehand is the increase of their number through additional martyrdoms. The earth dwellers under the dawning leadership of the beast from the sea will take an even greater toll of human lives before Christ finally intervenes through His personal arrival back on earth. Until then, the already martyred are told to rest and enjoy their state of blessedness already attained.

Daniel Akin: Pastor Adrian Rogers used to say, “God is never early and He is never late. He is always right on time.” We know this is true. However, there are times when we struggle to believe it. This is especially the case when injustice and suffering are involved. When those occasions arise, and they will, what should we do?

Gordon Fee: Thus even though John’s ultimate concern in this book is to reassure his readers of their final destiny, despite present and anticipated increased suffering, he neither downplays nor enhances the latter reality. They are, after all, followers of the Crucified One, whose own death was at the hands of the Empire, even though it had been instigated by the fear and hatred of the very people he came to deliver.