The fifth seal - There is no animal nor any other being to introduce this seal, nor does there appear to be any new event predicted; but the whole is intended to comfort the followers of God under their persecutions, and to encourage them to bear up under their distresses.
I saw under the altar - A symbolical vision was exhibited, in which he saw an altar; and under it the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God - martyred for their attachment to Christianity, are represented as being newly slain as victims to idolatry and superstition. The altar is upon earth, not in heaven.
I saw under the altar - The four living creatures are no longer heard as in the opening of the first four seals. No reason is given for the change in the manner of the representation; and none can be assigned, unless it be, that having represented each one of the four living creatures in their turn as calling attention to the remarkable events about to occur, there seemed to be no necessity or propriety in introducing them again. In itself considered, it cannot be supposed that they would be any less interested in the events about to be disclosed than they were in those which preceded. This seal pertains to martyrs - at the former successively did to a time of prosperity and triumph; to discord and bloodshed; to oppressive taxation; to war, famine, and pestilence. In the series of woes, it was natural and proper that there should be a vision of martyrs, if it was intended that the successive seals should refer to coming and important periods of the world; and accordingly we have here a striking representation of the martyrs crying to God to interpose in their behalf and to avenge their blood. The points which require elucidation are:
(a)their position - under the altar;
(b)their invocation - or their prayer that they might be avenged;
(c)the clothing of them with robes; and,
(d)the command to wait patiently a little time.
(1) the position of the martyrs - “under the altar.” There were in the temple at Jerusalem two altars - the altar of burnt sacrifices, and the altar of incense. The altar here referred to was probably the former. This stood in front of the temple, and it was on this that the daily sacrifice was made. Compare the notes on Matthew 5:23-24. We are to remember, however, that the temple and the altar were both destroyed before the time when this book was written, and this should, therefore, be regarded merely as a vision. John saw these souls as if they were collected under the altar - the place where the sacrifice for sin was made - offering their supplications. Why they are represented as being there is not so apparent; but probably two suggestions will explain this:
(a)The altar was the place where sin was expiated, and it was natural to represent these redeemed martyrs as seeking refuge there; and
(b)it was usual to offer prayers and supplications at the altar, in connection with the sacrifice made for sin, and on the ground of that sacrifice.
The idea is, that they who were suffering persecution would naturally seek a refuge in the place where expiation was made for sin, and where prayer was appropriately offered. The language here is such as a Hebrew would naturally use; the idea is appropriate to anyone who believes in the atonement, and who supposes that that is the appropriate refuge for those who are in trouble. But while the language here is such as a Hebrew would use, and while the reference in the language is to the altar of Burnt sacrifice, the scene should be regarded as undoubtedly laid in heaven - the temple where God resides. The whole representation is that of fleeing to the atonement, and pleading with God in connection with the sacrifice for sin.
The souls of them that were slain - That had been put to death by persecution. This is one of the incidental proofs in the Bible that the soul does not cease to exist at death, and also that it does not cease to be conscious, or does not sleep until the resurrection. These souls of the martyrs are represented as still in existence; as remembering what had occurred on the earth; as interested in what was now taking place; as engaged in prayer; and as manifesting earnest desires for the divine interposition to avenge the wrongs which they had suffered.
For the word of God - On account of the word or truth of God. See the notes on Revelation 1:9.
And for the testimony which they held - On account of their testimony to the truth, or being faithful witnesses of the truth of Jesus Christ. See the notes on Revelation 1:9.
(2) the invocation of the martyrs, Revelation 6:10; And they cried with a loud voice. That is, they pleaded that their blood might be avenged.
Saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true - They did not doubt that God would avenge them, but they inquired how long the vengeance would be delayed. It seemed to them that God was slow to interpose, and to check the persecuting power. They appeal therefore to him as a God of holiness and truth; that is, as one who could not look with approval on sin, and in whose sight the wrongs inflicted by the persecuting power must be infinitely offensive; as one who was true to his promises, and faithful to his people. On the ground of his own hatred of wrong, and of his plighted faithfulness to his church, they pleaded that he would interpose.
Dost thou not judge and avenge our blood - That is, dost thou forbear to judge and avenge us; or dost thou delay to punish those who have persecuted and slain us. They do not speak as if they had any doubt that it would be done, nor as if they were actuated by a spirit of revenge; but as if it would be proper that there should be an expression of the divine sense of the wrongs that had been done them. It is not right to desire vengeance or revenge; it is to desire that justice should be done, and that the government of God should be vindicated. The word “judge” here may either mean “judge us,” in the sense of “vindicate us,” or it may refer to their persecutors, meaning “judge them.” The more probable sense is the latter: “How long dost thou forbear to execute judgment on our account on those that dwell on the earth?” The word “avenge” - ἐκδικεω ekdikeō- means to do justice; to execute punishment.
On them that dwell on the earth - Those who are still on the earth. This shows that the scene here is laid in heaven, and that the souls of the martyrs are represented as there. We are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altars - for the whole representation is symbolical; nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on the earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured, and the oppressed, as if such prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance. The wrongs done to the children of God; to the orphan, the widow, the down-trodden; to the slave and the outcast, will be as certainly remembered in heaven as if they who are wronged should plead for vengeance there, for every act of injustice and oppression goes to heaven and pleads for vengeance. Every persecutor should dread the death of the persecuted as if he went to heaven to plead against him; every cruel master should dread the death of his slave that is crushed by wrongs; every seducer should dread the death and the cries of his victim; every one who does wrong in any way should remember that the sufferings of the injured cry to heaven with a martyr‘s pleadings, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?”
(3) the robes that were given to the martyrs: And white robes were given unto every one of them. Emblems of purity or innocence. See the notes on Revelation 3:5. Here the robes would be an emblem of their innocence as martyrs; of the divine approval of their testimony and lives, and a pledge of their future blessedness.
(4) the command to wait: And it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season. That is, that they must wait for a little season before they could be avenged as they desired, Revelation 6:10. They had pleaded that their cause might be at once vindicated, and had asked how long it would be before it should be done. The reply is, that the desired vindication would not at once occur, but that they must wait until other events were accomplished. Nothing definite is determined by the phrase “a little season,” or a short time. It is simply an intimation that this would not immediately occur, or was not soon to take place. Whether it refers to an existing persecution, and to the fact that they were to wait for the divine interposition until that was over, and those who were then suffering persecution should be put to death and join them; or whether to a series of persecutions stretching along in the history of the world, in such a sense that the promised vengeance would take place only when all those persecutions were passed, and the number of the martyrs completed, cannot be determined from the meaning of their words. Either of these suppositions would accord well with what the language naturally expresses.
Until their fellow-servants also - Those who were then suffering persecution, or those who should afterward suffer persecution, grouping all together.
And their brethren - Their brethren as Christians, and their brethren in trial: those then living, or those who would live afterward and pass through similar scenes.
Should be fulfilled - That is, until these persecutions were passed through, and the number of the martyrs was complete. The state of things represented here would seem to be, that there was then a persecution raging on the earth. Many had been put to death, and their souls had fled to heaven, where they pleaded that their cause might be vindicated, and that their oppressors and persecutors might be punished. To this the answer was, that they were now safe and happy - that God approved their course, and that in token of his approbation they should be clothed in white raiment; but that the invoked vindication could not at once occur. There were others who would yet be called to suffer as they had done, and they must wait until all that number was completed. Then, it is implied, God would interpose, and vindicate his name. The scene, therefore, is laid in a time of persecution, when many had already died, and when there were many more that were exposed to death; and a sufficient fulfillment of the passage, so far as the words are concerned, would be found in any persecution, where many might be represented as having already gone to heaven, and where there was a certainty that many more would follow.
We naturally, however, look for the fulfillment of it in some period succeeding those designated by the preceding symbols. There would be no difficulty, in the early history of the church, in finding events that would correspond with all that is represented by the symbol; but it is natural to look for it in a period succeeding that represented, under the fourth seal, by Death on the pale horse. If the previous seals have been correctly interpreted we shall not be much in danger of erring in supposing that this refers to the persecution under Diocletian; and perhaps we may find in one who never intended to write a word that could be construed as furnishing a proof of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the New Testament, what should be regarded as a complete verification of all that is represented here. The following particulars may justify this application:
(a) The place of that persecution in history, or the time when it occurred. As already remarked, if the previous seals have been rightly explained, and the fourth seal denotes the wars, the famine, and the pestilence, under the invasion of the Goths, and in the time of Valerian and Gallienus, then the last great persecution of the church under Diocletian would well accord with the period in history referred to. Valerian died in 260 a.d., being flayed alive by Sapor, king of Persia; Gallienus died in 268 a.d., being killed at Milan. Diocletian ascended the throne 284 a.d., and resigned the purple 304 a.d. It was during this period, and chiefly at the instigation of Galerius, that the tenth persecution of the Christians occurred - the last under the Roman power; for in 306 a.d. Constantine ascended the throne, and ultimately be, came the protector of the church.
(b) The magnitude of this persecution under Diocletian is as consonant to the representation here as its place in history. So important was it, that, in a general chapter on the persecutions of the Christians, Mr. Gibbon has seen fit, in his remarks on the nature, causes, extent, and character of the persecutions, to give a prominence to this which he has not assigned to any others, and to attach an importance to it which he has not to any other. See vol. i. pp. 317-322. The design of this persecution, as Mr. Gibbon expresses it (i. 318), was “to set bounds to the progress of Christianity”; or, as he elsewhere expresses it (on the same page), “the destruction of Christianity.” Diocletian, himself naturally averse from persecution, was excited to this by Galerius, who urged upon the emperor every argument by which he could persuade him to engage in it. Mr. Gibbon says in regard to this, “Galerius at length extorted from him (Diocletian) the permission of summoning a council, composed of a few persons, the most distinguished in the civil and military departments of the state. It may be presumed that they insisted on every topic which might interest the pride, the piety, the fears of their sovereign in the destruction of Christianity,” 1:318.
The purpose evidently in the persecution, was, to make a last and desperate effort, through the whole Roman empire, for the destruction of the Christian religion; for Mr. Gibbon (i. 320) says that “the edict against the Christians was designed for a general law of the whole empire.” Other efforts had failed. The religion still spread, notwithstanding the rage and fury of nine previous persecutions. It was resolved to make one more effort. This was designed by the persecutors to be the last, in the hope that then the Christian name would cease to be: in the providence of God it was the last - for then even these opposing powers became convinced that the religion could not be destroyed in this manner - and as this persecution was to establish this fact, it was an event of sufficient magnitude to be symbolized by the opening of one of the seals.
(c) The severity of this persecution accorded with the description here, and was such as to deserve a place in the series of important events which were to occur in the world. We have seen above, from the statement of Mr. Gibbon, that it was designed for the “whole empire,” and it in fact raged with fury throughout the empire. After detailing some of the events of local persecutions under Diocletian, Mr. Gibbon says, “The resentment or the fears of Diocletian at length transported him beyond the bounds of moderation, which he had hitherto preserved, and he declared, in a series of edicts, his intention of abolishing the Christian name. By the first of these edicts the governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons destined for the vilest criminals were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and exorcists. By a second edict the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of the gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution.
Instead of those salutary restraints which had required the direct and solemn testimony of an accuser, it became the duty as well as the interest of the imperial officers to discover, to pursue, and to torment the most obnoxious among the faithful. Heavy penalties were denounced against all who should presume to save a proscribed sectary from the just indignation of the gods, and of the emperors,” i. 322. The first decree against the Christians, at the instigation of Galerius, will show the general nature of this fiery trial of the church. That decree was to the following effect: “All assembling of the Christians for the purposes of religious worship was forbidden; the Christian churches were to be demolished to their foundations; all manuscripts of the Bible should be burned; those who held places of honor or rank must either renounce their faith or be degraded; in judicial proceedings the torture might be used against all Christians, of whatever rank; those belonging to the lower walks of private life were to be divested of their rights as citizens and as freemen; Christian slaves were to be incapable of receiving their freedom, so long as they remained Christians” (Neander, Hist. of the Church, Torrey‘s Trans. i. 148).
This persecution was the last against the Christians by the Roman emperors; the last that was waged by that mighty pagan power. Diocletian soon resigned the purple, and after the persecution had continued to rage, with more or less severity, under his successors, for ten years, the peace of the church was established. “Diocletian,” says Mr. Gibbon (i. 322), “had no sooner published his edicts against the Christians, than, as if he had been committing to other hands his work of persecution, he divested himself of the imperial purple. The character and situation of his colleagues and successors sometimes urged them to enforce, and sometimes to suspend, the execution of these rigorous laws; nor can we acquire a just and distinct idea of this important period of ecclesiastical history, unless we separately consider the state of Christianity in the different parts of the empire, during the space of ten years which elapsed between the first edicts of Diocletian and the final peace of the church.”
For this detail consult Gibbon, i. 322-329, and the authorities there referred to; and Neander, History of the Church, i. 147-156. Respecting the details of the persecution, Mr. Gibbon remarks (i. 326), “It would have been an easy task, from the history of Eusebius, from the declamations of Lactantius, and from the most ancient acts, to collect a long series of horrid and disgustful pictures, and to fill many pages with racks and scourges, with iron-hooks, and red-hot beds, and with the variety of tortures which fire and steel, savage beasts, and more savage executioners, could inflict on the human body.” It is true that Mr. Gibbon professes to doubt the truth of these records, and attempts to show that the account of the number of the martyrs has been greatly exaggerated; yet no one, in reading his own account of this persecution, can doubt that it was the result of a determined effort to blot out the Christian religion, and that the whole of the imperial power was exerted to accomplish this end.
At length the last of the imperial persecutions ceased, and the great truth was demonstrated that Christianity could not be extinguished by power, and that “the gates of hell could not prevail against it.” “In the year 311,” says Neander (i. 156), “the remarkable edict appeared which put an end to the last sanguinary conflict of the Christian church and the Roman empire.” This decree was issued by the author and instigator of the persecution, Galerius, who, “softened by a severe and painful disease, the consequence of his excesses, had been led to think that the God of the Christians might, after all, be a powerful being, whose anger punished him, and whose favor he must endeavor to conciliate.” This man suspended the persecution, and gave the Christians permission “once more to hold their assemblies, provided they did nothing contrary to the good order of the Roman state.” “Ita ut ne quid contra disciplinam agant” (Neander, ibid.).
The events set forth as transpiring under the fifth seal are the crying of the martyrs for vengeance, and the giving to them of white robes. The questions that at once suggest themselves for solution are, Does this seal cover a period of time? and if so, what period? Where is the altar under which these souls were seen? What are these souls, and what is their condition? What is meant by their cry for vengeance? What is meant by white robes being given to them? When do they rest for a little season? and what is signified by their brethren being killed as they were? To all these questions we believe a satisfactory answer can be returned.DAR 409.2
1. The Fifth Seal Covers a Period of Time. â It seems consistent that this seal, like all the others, should cover a period of time; and the date of its application cannot be mistaken, if the preceding seals have been rightly located. Following the period of the papal persecution, the time covered by this seal would commence when the Reformation began to undermine the antichristian papal fabric, and restrain the persecuting power of the Romish Church.DAR 409.3
2. The Altar. â This cannot denote any altar in heaven, as it is evidently the place where these victims had been slain, â the altar of sacrifice. On this point, Dr. A. Clarke says: âA symbolical vision was exhibited, in which he saw an altar. And under it the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God â martyred for their attachment to Christianity â are represented as being newly slain as victims to idolatry and superstition. The altar is upon earth, not in heaven.â A confirmation of this view is found in the fact that John is beholding scenes upon the earth. The souls are represented under the altar, just as victims slain upon it would pour out their blood beneath it, and fall by its side.DAR 409.4
3. The Souls under the Altar. â This representation is popularly regarded as a strong proof of the doctrine of the disembodied and conscious state of the dead. Here, it is claimed, are souls seen by John in a disembodied state; and they were conscious, and had knowledge of passing events; for they cried for vengeance on their persecutors. This view of the passage is inadmissible, for several reasons: (1) The popular view places these souls in heaven; but the altar of sacrifice on which they were slain, and beneath which they were seen, cannot be there. The only altar we read of in heaven is the altar of incense; but it would not be correct to represent victims just slain as under the altar of incense, as that altar was never devoted to such a use. (2) It would be repugnant to all our ideas of the heavenly state, to represent souls in heaven shut up under an altar. (3) Can we suppose that the idea of vengeance would reign so supreme in the minds of souls in heaven as to render them, despite the joy and glory of that ineffable state, dissatisfied and uneasy till vengeance was inflicted upon their enemies? Would they not rather rejoice that persecution raised its hand against them, and thus hastened them into the presence of their Redeemer, at whose right hand there is fulness of joy, and pleasures forevermore? But, further, the popular view which puts these souls in heaven, puts the wicked at the same time in the lake of fire, writhing in unutterable torment, and in full view of the heavenly host. This, it is claimed, is proved by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, as recorded in Luke 16. Now the souls brought to view under the fifth seal were those who had been slain under the preceding seal, scores of years, and most of them centuries, before. Beyond any question, their persecutors had all passed off the stage of action, and, according to the view under consideration, were suffering all the torments of hell right before their eyes. Yet, as if not satisfied with this, they cry to God as though he were delaying vengeance on their murderers. What greater vengeance could they want? Or, if their persecutors were still on the earth, they must know that they would, in a few years at most, join the vast multitude daily pouring through the gate of death into the world of woe. Their amiability is put in no better light even by this supposition. One thing, at least, is evident: The popular theory concerning the condition of the dead, righteous and wicked, cannot be correct, or the interpretation usually given to this passage is not correct; for they devour each other.DAR 410.1
But it is urged that these souls must be conscious; for they cry to God. This argument would be of weight, were there no such figure of speech as personification. But while there is, it will be proper, on certain conditions, to attribute life, action, and intelligence to inanimate objects. Thus the blood of Abel is said to have cried to God from the ground. Genesis 4:9, 10. The stone cried out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber answered it. Habakkuk 2:11. The hire of the laborers kept back by fraud cried, and the cry entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. James 5:4. So the souls mentioned in our text could cry, and not thereby be proved to be conscious.DAR 411.1
The incongruity of the popular view on this verse is so apparent that Albert Barnes makes the following concession: âWe are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar, for the whole representation is symbolical; nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured, and the oppressed, as if such a prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance.â â Notes on Revelation 6.DAR 411.2
On such passages as this, the reader is misled by the popular definition of the word soul. From that definition, he is led to suppose that this text speaks of an immaterial, invisible, immortal essence in man, which soars into its coveted freedom on the death of its hindrance and clog, the mortal body. No instance of the occurrence of the word in the original Hebrew or Greek will sustain such a definition. It oftenest means life, and is not unfrequently rendered person. It applies to the dead as well as to the living, as may be seen by reference to Genesis 2:7, where the word living need not have been expressed were life an inseparable attribute of the soul; and to Numbers 19:13, where the Hebrew Concordance reads, âdead soul.â Moreover, these souls pray that their blood may be avenged, â an article which the immaterial soul, as popularly understood, is not supposed to possess. The word souls may be regarded as here meaning simply the martyrs, those who had been slain, the words, souls of them, being a periphrasis for the whole person. They were represented to John as having been slain upon the altar of papal sacrifice, on this earth, and lying dead beneath it. They certainly were not alive when John saw them under the fifth seal; for he again brings to view the same company, in almost the same language, and assures us that the first time they live after their martyrdom, is at the resurrection of the just. Revelation 20:4-6. Lying there, victims of papal bloodthirstiness and oppression, they cried to God for vengeance, in the same manner that Abel's blood cried to him from the ground. Genesis 4:10.DAR 412.1
4. The White Robes. â These were given as a partial answer to their cry, âHow long, O Lord, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?â How was it? â They had gone down to the grave in the most ignominious manner. Their lives had been misrepresented, their reputations tarnished, their names defamed, their motives maligned, and their graves covered with shame and reproach, as containing the dishonored dust of the most vile and despicable of characters. Thus the Church of Rome, which then molded the sentiment of the principal nations of the earth, spared no pains to make her victims an abhorring unto all flesh.DAR 412.2
But the Reformation began its work. It began to be seen that the church was the corrupt and disreputable party, and those against whom it vented its rage were the good, the pure, and the true. The work went on among the most enlightened nations, the reputation of the church going down, and that of the martyrs coming up, until the corruptions of the papal abominations were fully exposed, and that huge system of iniquity stood forth before the world in all its naked deformity, while the martyrs were vindicated from all the aspersions under which that anti-Christian church had sought to bury them. Then it was seen that they had suffered, not for being vile and criminal, but âfor the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.â Then their praises were sung, their virtues admired, their fortitude applauded, their names honored, and their memories cherished. White robes were thus given unto every one of them.DAR 413.1
5. The Little Season. â The cruel work of Romanism did not altogether cease, even after the work of the Reformation had become wide-spread and well established. Not a few terrible outbursts of Romish hate and persecution were yet to be felt by the church. Multitudes more were to be punished as heretics, and to join the great army of martyrs. The full vindication of their cause was to be delayed a little season. And during this time, Rome added hundreds of thousands to the vast throng of whose blood she had already become guilty. (See Buck's Theological Dictionary, art. Persecution.) But the spirit of persecution was finally restrained; the cause of the martyrs was vindicated; and the âlittle seasonâ of the fifth seal came to a close.DAR 413.2