Noted biblical writers on dispensational lines - mostly of the persuasion known to the world as "Plymouth Brethren"


The Fifth Seal

Revelation 6:9-11

"And when he opened the fifth seal I saw beneath the altar the souls of those that had been slain on account of the word of God, and on account of the testimony which they held fast: and they cried with a great voice, saying: `Until when, thou Master, the holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood from them that dwell on the earth?’ And there was given to each of them a white robe, and it was said to them that they should rest yet a little time, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, shall have been completed, who are about to be slain as also they themselves [had been]." (Revelation 6:9-11, Revised Text)

It is hardly worth while to occupy attention with the diverse and contradictory interpretations that have been given of this seal. Though all are more or less intermingled with some truth, the principles upon which the Apocalypse is to be construed, and which have been followed in this exposition, lead us with directness and certainty to conclusions which brush away, as only so much rubbish, most of what has been written on the subject.

According to an older commentator, "the scope of this seal is not prophetically to point out new events, and to relate to a particular time." But this is exactly the opposite of the truth. If the text means anything, "new events" are just what it is intended prophetically to point out, and "a particular time" is precisely that to which it does relate. As certainly as the Apocalypse is the book of the consummation of God’s providence with this present world, and as certainly as the action under these seven seals is the action of judgment upon faithless Christians, usurpers, and rebels, just so certainly does this fifth seal refer to a particular stage and phase in these judicial transactions, and to a class of events which only then come to their full development.

As the throne is a judgment throne, and the whole administration proceeding from it is an administration of judgment, every seal that is broken must lay open a phase of judgment, in one direction or another. All the seals, thus far, have been judgment seals; and the two that follow are judgment seals, capable of being identified, as such, from the nature of the events attending them. The symmetry of the whole would therefore be interrupted, and an unaccountable break made in the distinctly connected series, if this fifth in the list were to be taken in any other acceptation.

The four horsemen are judgment powers. The earthquake and the terrific commotions in earth and sky, under the sixth seal, are directly linked with the presence of judgment. The seventh seal, with its seven trumpets and seven last plagues, is nothing but judgment from beginning to end. Whatever peculiarities may attend the breaking of the particular seal now before us, it can be nothing other than judgment also.

The manifestations under the breaking of this seal differ, in some respects, from the four preceding. There is here no expression from the Living Ones. There are no horsemen or horses. The burden of the description is exhibited in the results rather than in the processes. Still, everything turns out as belonging to the same general category of trial and suffering.

Under the first seal we have the picture of moral conquest, by means of the arrow of truth, sped by the power of sorrowful judgment. Under the second, we have war, disorder, strife, and bloodshed. Under the third, we have famine and distressing scarcity. Under the fourth, we have the combined fruit of all these – pestilence, death-plague, and the living world largely overrun with the regions of the dead.

Under this fifth seal, we have added bloody persecution of those who hold and testify to the truth. The entire population of the earth, at that period, being alike rejected from the company of those accounted worthy to escape these evil times, is alike made to feel the stripes of judgment. The good as well as the bad suffer the hour of trial. Though there shall be multitudes then brought to the knowledge of the truth, they will all be such as had failed to improve their more favourable opportunities in the preceding days of Divine long-suffering and forbearance. By way of judgment for their previous folly, their piety at this late hour becomes a thing of sore cost. Having been unbelieving, worldly-minded, and hypocritical, when they might have walked with God without serious risk, they now find the way of salvation judicially become a way of torture and of death.

Evil and depravity will hold the sovereignty and power in this world unto the last. And it would be strange if the bad passions, which then are to reach their most aggravated intensity, should not also develop particular violence in the direction from which the Church, in every age, has suffered more or less.

Hence, this fifth seal is the picture of Persecution and Martyrdom. As soon as it was opened, John saw souls of people "slain on account of the word of God, and on account of the testimony that they held fast." It sets before us the solemn fact that people who will not give their hearts to God now, when once these judgment times set in, if they ever get to heaven at all, will be compelled to go there through fire and blood.

There are no voices of command from heaven under this seal and no messengers despatched from the throne. The reason is that bloody persecutions of God’s servants come from beneath, not from above. It is the devil who is the murderer from the beginning, and by him and his seed has all martyr-blood been made to flow that ever has flowed or ever will. It is the Dragon that makes war with the saints. Celestial powers are concerned in it no further than to permit the malignant butchery. It is not flashed forth from the sky, like the calamities with which the wicked and rebellious are overwhelmed, but it is left to develop itself from Satan’s reign and domination in the hearts of his children, unmoved by any direct agency from heaven.

The Living ones do not say, Go!, for they are neither directly nor indirectly concerned in bringing suffering upon God’s servants for their fidelity to the truth. No horses dash out upon the scene, because no Divine powers are employed in martyring the saints. The entire earthly part of the proceeding enacts itself by the powers already in sway among depraved mortals, and John beholds only the results. The seal opens, and the invisible world has a vast accession of souls of martyrs, slain on account of the word of God, and on account of the testimony which they held fast.

They are not the martyrs of the past ages, for those by this time already have their crowns and are seated on their heavenly thrones, and are with Christ in glorified form, as can be seen in chapters 4 and 5. These are, therefore, martyrs of this particular period – martyrs who suffer the great tribulation which all preceding saints and martyrs escape – martyrs of the judgment times who lose their lives for their faithful testimony during the sharp and troublesome era in which God’s judgments are in the earth.

The Cause Of Their Martyrdom
It is an old maxim: "It is not death, but the cause in which death is incurred, which constitutes a martyr." Millions upon millions perish under the preceding seals, but they are not therefore martyrs. The cause for which the persons mentioned here were slain constitutes them true martyrs. They "had been slain on account of the word of God, and on account of the testimony which they held fast."

However sceptical, rationalistic, or unbelieving they may have been previous to the setting in of the judgment, the occurrences under the first four seals had quite cured them of their erroneous thinking and indifference. What they once held only in the coldness of mere speculative faith, or received only with much subtle refining and rasping down to a materialistic philosophy, or disbelieved altogether, they had now learned, to their sorrow, to have been the literal and infallible word of God. The Bible they now read with new eyes, and received and obeyed with a new heart. Its literal teachings they now were brought to understand, appreciate, live, and proclaim as the unmistakable Revelation of the Lord God Almighty.

There will still be plenty of unbelief, scepticism, and utter rejection of the Scriptures, and the dominant spirit of the times will be the spirit of rebellion against the Lord and of contempt for His word. But that spirit will now have been quite cast out of the persons brought to view in this vision. Having learned to deny themselves, to crucify their self-seeking, to cease from their confidence in their own fancies, and to accept, live, and testify to the true will and word of God, they will have come to be genuine servants of the Most High. And this is one of the procuring causes of the world’s hatred of them and wish to have them put out of the way.

But there is something more special entering into the cause of their martyrdom. In addition to their close adherence to the Divine word, and as one of the most marked fruits of it, there was a particular "testimony which they held fast." On account of this, the world could not abide them. Many have regarded their whole testimony as nothing different from the common testimony of good and faithful men in every age.

John says that he "was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ," and the testimony of these martyrs is considered to be the same for which John was banished. But the phraseology is not the same and seems to indicate something personal to these martyrs themselves. It was not the testimony of Jesus in general, but "tain marturian – THAT testimony, which they held fast" – some particular testimony specially in question in their times, and specially obnoxious to the then reigning spirit.

When we consider the character of the period in which they were called to testify, what it was that had operated to bring them into this attitude of zeal for the Divine word, what would naturally be uppermost in a mind enlightened as to the times on which they had fallen, and what would be most offensive to an unbeliever in those times, we can be at no loss to have suggested to us what the particular character of that testimony was.

It was necessarily a testimony touching the judgment already begun, a testimony which interpreted all the plagues, disorders, and horrors around them. It was the veritable infliction of the Almighty, now risen up to pay off all the long-accumulating arrears of His wrath upon transgressors. This was a testimony declaring that the true elect had already been received up into glory and that, in a few short years more, the whole mystery of God should be finished, and all His enemies cast down to irretrievable perdition.

The message of this testimony was that swift and utter destruction now impended over all the governments, fabrics, powers, and hopes of this world. It said that the fires were then already burning which should never more be extinguished or repressed till everything of this world, and all its devotees, should be consumed from root to leaf. They testified that Christ, the angry Judge, was then present in the clouds, ready to be revealed in all the terrors of His consuming power.

The day of grace was in its last darkening twilight of departure, after which nothing should remain but everlasting discomfiture and death. This was a testimony that the world was then already trembling in the agonies of its dissolution, and that the last hope of salvation was flickering in its socket, ready to expire.

In a modified degree, this is ever the testimony of the true people and ministers of God. However, at such a time, and in such surroundings as these martyrs testified, there would needs be an intensity, a certainty, and a pressing urgency in their convictions and utterances, such as had never before appeared. People who had been cool, complacent, and philosophic in their religion before will then have been awakened to a state of warmth, and earnestness, and excitement, and zeal, a thousand-fold more irrepressible and energetic than what they had previously regarded as sheer fanaticism and piety run mad. Oh, there will be fervour then, and outspoken testifying for God then, and warnings with tears and entreaties then, and striking expositions of the prophecies then, and appeals and outpourings from the men of God more thrilling than the cries of Jonah in the streets of Nineveh!
It will be more than the hardened hearts of scorning unbelievers can bear. And because of being besieged and pressed by the irresistible arguments and fervency which then shall be brought to bear upon them, they will seize the witnesses of the truth and punish them. They will resort to all sorts of murderous violence to silence them and put them out of the world.

Thus, because their days of indifference toward the Divine predictions have passed away, and because they now are faithful in standing to the truth as to what God has said and as to what times they have fallen upon, and because they will no more keep silence touching the awful perdition about to break forth upon the guilty world, they are massacred and slain.

Their Estate As John Beholds Them
They are "souls" – disembodied souls – souls in that state which ensues as the result of corporeal death.

Their slaying, then, is not the end of them. It is not the total interruption of their being in all respects. It makes them invisible to men in the flesh, in the natural state, but it does not hinder their living on as souls, or their being visible to heavenly eyes or to the eyes of John in his supernatural and prophetic exaltation. The holy Apocalyptist tells us that he "saw" them, although they "had been slain." He also heard them speaking with loud voices, though their material tongues had been burnt to ashes, and their corporeal organs of speech had been stiffened in death.

It is altogether a wrong interpretation of the Scriptures which represents the dead in a state of non-existence, unconsciousness, or oblivion. I am not among those who think that "they which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished," either forever, or for a limited time. There is such a thing as an intermediate state between death and the resurrection, but it is not a state of utter dilapidation and cessation of being. It is an abnormal and unsatisfactory state, far below what is to be gained by the resurrection; but it is not a state of vacancy and nothingness.

However strongly the ruinous character and evil of death may be stated in some Old Testament passages, there are others in the Scriptures which, by all just and fair exegesis, prove and demonstrate that mental and psychical life continues under it, and continues in wakeful consciousness. If any one has doubts upon this point, let him candidly consult and determine the positive meaning of the following texts:

Matthew 10:28: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." The argument from this text is plain, unanswerable, and conclusive. If the soul dies or goes into oblivion when the body dies, then he that kills the body would, with the same stroke, kill the soul too. But our Saviour tells us that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul. There is, then, a life which the death of the body cannot touch.

Luke 20:38: "He [the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live unto Him." So far as the righteous are concerned, we are here assured that, although they "sleep in Jesus," as regards the body, and are "absent from the body," as regards the soul, they still "ALL LIVE UNTO GOD." Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead, and had been dead for centuries; and yet He proclaims himself "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." The conclusion is thus deduced by the Saviour, that though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead, as to their bodies, they were still, in some sense, living unto God.

Luke 16:19-31: The case of the rich man and Lazarus. In this startling parable, if such an unveiling of the invisible world may be called a parable, we have not only principles on which to argue the non-oblivion of the dead, but literal instances and illustrations of the continued life and consciousness of departed souls of both classes – good and bad. The whole scene necessarily fixes itself to the period immediately succeeding the death of the body. All the terms and relations of the narrative require this location of it. The received belief of the orthodox Jews was such that they could not otherwise understand it. And there is no show of right to accept the picture in any other relation.

Taking it, then, as we are in reason bound to take it, we have it settled, by Christ himself, that wicked souls have a life and consciousness which death does not interrupt, and that there is still a form of being for both good and bad between death and the resurrection.

Luke 23:43: "Verily I say unto you, Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Language more clear and precise, as to the life and conscious happiness of a saved soul immediately after death, cannot be framed. As both died that day, so they both went that day, and before the resurrection of either, into Paradise. Be that Paradise what it may, Christ and the thief were not yet in it while they lived on their crosses, and yet were in it before the day ended, and while their bodies yet hung upon those stakes. It was not a state of non-existence or oblivion, for it was the subject of consoling hope and promise, and the declaration embraced the idea of conscious presence and fellowship with each other, on reaching the blessed place.

In our original text, John saw the souls of these martyrs "beneath the altar." Many regard this as "simply symbolical," but I am not clear that it is to be taken as such. No earthly altar is meant, for none existed at the time of the vision or shall exist at the time of its fulfilment – at any rate, none acknowledged of God. It is something heavenly, partaking of the same heavenly and spiritual nature of the scene out of which all these proceedings issue and from which they are contemplated.

There is a heavenly Temple, and everything that related to the earthly one was patterned after the celestial one. There is a "true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man," of which that which Moses built was the material picture and copy (Hebrews 8:1-5; 9:21-24). And this altar pertains to that heavenly sanctuary whence the "pattern" of the earthly was taken.

It was at the altar of burnt-offerings that all bloody sacrifices were made. Under it there was a deep excavation in the solid rock, into which the blood of the slain victims was poured. The law commanded the officiating priest to "pour all the blood of the bullock at the bottom of the altar of the burnt-offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation" (Leviticus 4:7). As the deep cavern under the earthly altar was the appointed receptacle of the lives of the animal sacrifices, so the souls of God’s witnesses who fall in His service are received into a corresponding receptacle beneath the heavenly altar.

Some describe that altar as Christ under whose protection and shade the souls of the martyrs are preserved, free from all perils and evils till their recall in renewed bodies by the resurrection. It denotes a near and holy relation to God, a place of sacred rest under the protection of Christ and His sacrifice, and a state of blessedness, to which, however, higher stages are to come.

The idea of sacrifice also pervades the language of Scripture in general, respecting eminent devotion in the Divine service, especially when life is jeopardised or lost in consequence of it. Hence our bodies are to be offered a willing sacrifice unto the Lord. Paul spoke of his sufferings for Christ, and of his approaching martyrdom, as an offering in the sacrificial sense. All martyrs are contemplated as sacrifices to God. As sacrifices to the heavenly altar, their souls pass into the sacred receptacle beneath that altar. It is precisely the place where we would most naturally expect them to be and where they are most sacredly kept, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body.

("The souls of Martyrs repose in peace under the Altar and cherish a spirit of patience until others are admitted to fill up their company of glory." – Tertullian)

The Cry They Utter
It is not a mere metaphorical cry, like that of the blood of Abel from the ground, but a literal cry of visible and conscious existences – an articulate cry, the voice of which is heard, and the utterances of which are in literal words. "Until when, Master, the holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood from them that dwell on the earth?" It appears from this that their murderers are then still living. Consequently these crying ones are a specific class of martyrs who had then very recently been slain. It is another item to fix the vision to this particular time.

The cry is addressed to the throne. It is not a vindictive cry, although it looks to the avenging of their blood. If the whole scene did not relate to the judgment period, it would be difficult to avoid attaching the idea of intense vindictiveness to this utterance. Such a cry would be out of season except in this place. But it is the time of judgment. The judgment throne is set. The judgment proceedings have commenced. The years have come in which God had long ago promised that the principles of His righteous government should be enforced, to the recompense of His people, the vindication of their wrongs, and the overthrow of evil.

They had every assurance that such was the Divine intention and that this was the period for its fulfilment. They could not, therefore, understand why there should be delay. The thing had begun. Why was it not at once carried to its consummation? They had sacrificed their lives to this particular testimony, and everything had appeared to them in the very article of the long-predicted fulfilment. How was it, then, that it now tarried?

Even the titles by which they address the Lord show that this was the feeling and spirit of their inquiry. It was not so much impatience that their blood was not avenged as their perplexity about the hesitation that seemed to retard the ongoing of what they knew had commenced. They do not address Christ as the Saviour but as Despotes – the centre of irresistible power already in force – the holy and true DESPOT now on His judicial throne.

Their hearts are set, as they were in life, on the glorious consummation begun before they were slain. They had died for their testimony that the time for that consummation had come. As it still delayed and could only be realised in the visitation of vengeance upon the wicked hosts who had murdered them, they cry to the great and holy Avenger, to know why it tarried and how long the suspense was to last. It was an utterance from the world of disembodied saints, somewhat akin in feeling and meaning to that which John the Baptist sent from his prison to the Saviour (Matthew 11:2-10).

It shows us that the intermediate state is still an imperfect state and that the proper hope of saints is connected with the resurrection of the body. Bede has remarked upon this passage that "those souls which offered themselves a living sacrifice to God, pray eternally for His coming to judgment. This is not from any vindictive feeling against their enemies, but in a spirit of zeal and love for God’s glory and justice, and for the coming of that day, when sin, which is rebellion against Him, will be destroyed and their own bodies raised."

The Answer They Receive
Jehovah does not disdain to lend an ear to the cry of His faithful servants. He is concerned for their rest, comfort, and right information, even while they lie disembodied beneath His altar. The prayers of His people are always precious before Him, and their peace He will ever consult. He heard the appeal of His slain ones and came to minister to their souls the requisite comfort. Living or dead, if we are faithful to God and His word, we shall not want for any merciful grace and help appropriate to us. The Lord remembers us in our sufferings and trials on earth, and He will not fail to come to us under the altar, to comfort and establish us concerning His purposes and ways.

"There was given to each of them a white robe." Can lifeless shades and non-existences receive white robes? Can spilled blood, dead and absorbed in the earth, wear the livery of heaven? Yet these souls of slain ones received each the celestial gown, even while their resurrection delayed. That gown was the symbol of their justification – the Divine assurance of the truth and acceptability of their testimony. It was the cheering token from the throne that they were approved, and precious, and near to their Lord, and blessed with His favour, notwithstanding that what they hoped and testified was still deferred.

White robes, in such connections, are always the emblems of Divine approval and blessed relationship with God. And the giving of them to these zealous and anxious souls under the altar was the cheering proof of their preciousness in the Master’s sight.

"And it was said to them..." How could dead ashes hear and understand? Where was the use and meaning of speaking promises to unconscious dust that knows not anything? Where is the sense or intelligibility of such a converse if no living and wakeful beings are concerned? God does not speak His comforts and promises to nothings. Yet it was said to these souls of martyrs, in advance of their resurrection, "that they should rest yet a little time."

This implies that they had been resting and that their state was one of blessed repose and quiet, though imperfect. The dead in the Lord are not wandering, melancholy ghosts. They are experiencing the meaning of that sweetest word of our language – rest.

But after this rest comes a brighter day and a sublimer station. "Yet a little time," these slain ones are told, and then that day will come. The reason for the delay is also explained to them. Their number is not yet full, and the world is not yet quite ripe for its doom. Hence it was said to them, that they should rest yet a little time until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, shall have been completed, who are about to be slain, as also they themselves [had been].

John is made to hear these words, because they are a prophecy for the Church on earth as well as an explanation to the souls waiting in heaven. They tell of continued persecution and bloody sufferings for God’s witnesses among men.

Many good people are wont to think the days for killing men on account of their religious principles have long since passed, never to return. They flatter themselves that the world has become too enlightened, too humane, too civilised, too much pervaded with a reasonable and forbearing spirit, ever to repeat such scenes as were enacted by Pagan rule or in the dark ages of Christendom. But they are entirely mistaken.

We may think the world has changed, but it still has that ancient murderer for its god and prince, and its malignity towards the Lord’s people, especially when they come to be sifted out from their present adulterous intimacy with the world, will again head up into an intensity to which there has been no parallel in the past. This fifth seal is a revelation of nothing but slaughter for the saints, as regards this world and the times to which it relates. It shows us slaughtered saints in heaven and tells of the slaughter of many more. Elsewhere, in this book, we are advised of coming times when an idol shall be the object of the world’s adoration, and as many as will not worship it shall be killed (13:15).

This might seem to be but poor consolation to these resting souls; yet a real consolation it was. It assured them that they were not alone in the sufferings they had experienced. Theirs was but the common lot of all faithful ones in those trying times. Though they were dead, the cause in which they died still had representatives who would stand to it unto death, as they had done. It stated that, though the consummation was delayed yet for a little while, their sufferings were over, and there was a flood of sorrow still to deluge the earth from which they now were free.

Above all was the assurance, pervading and implied in each particular, that what they had hoped and testified was presently to be accomplished. Those white robes were the earnest of a more sublime life. Their martyrdom for their steadfast maintenance of the truth was duly remembered and, in a little while, should be fully requited to them and to the godless hosts who had inflicted it. Their blood was not long to remain unavenged from them that dwell on the earth.

The years of waiting and of suffering were now on the margin of their close. Yet a little time and the consummation should be complete. Yet a little while and the wicked should not be. The thrones were already set; the work was really in progress. The time of the end had truly come. After a short space more, they would be able to say, "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay-tree; yet he passed away, and he was not. I sought him, but he could not be found" (Psalm 37:35-36).

Striking and impressive is the fact here brought to view, that that which the saints of all ages have been "looking for," and which has been their "blessed hope" in every time of earthly trial and adversity – "the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13-14) – is also the chief comfort and stay of the pious dead in their heavenly rest. They rest, but their desire for the end still rises, and glows, and pleads. And the chief element of the consolation that they receive is that that consummation comes.

If the holy martyrs, in their white robes under the heavenly altar, make so much of it and find their chief comfort in the contemplation of its nearness, how unreasonable and unjust that we should be accounted enthusiasts and fanatics for pointing to it as our hope and joy amid these earthly tribulations? Why should it be branded as lunacy when we wish and pray, with departed saints, that sin’s long war against the majesty of heaven were over – that the rending strife of spiritual evil, which has so long torn God’s world, should come to an end – that the vast train of wrongs, with which Satan has been oppressing Heaven’s sons and beautiful creations, should be done away?

Would it really be for the peace, and piety, and consolation of the Church that all such interest should cease and that all such testimony should be silenced? Would it really be God’s kingdom come, and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven if all prayer and prophecy of coming and nearing judgment were to be hushed from such a world as ours?

Or should we not rather be grateful that there are on earth and will be, even in its darkest times, some to echo the spirit which thrills in the hearts of departed souls, testifying to an evil and adulterous generation, of a coming vengeance in order to a completed redemption? Let men scowl and mutter their ill-timed reproaches, if they will. Let them persecute, even unto death, those who hold it fast. There is in this theme what constitutes the true hope of the saints, whether suffering in the flesh or resting in heaven, and on account of which we may well ever "Thank God, there’s still a vanguard fighting for the right!"

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