In the first 8 verses of this chapter John saw four seals broken and four horses ride forth upon the earth. They led the people of the earth into great distress some in conquest, others in strife, disease and trouble. Billions of souls died and went into the abode of the dead1. The four horsemen did their deeds, and departed from view. Three more seals remain the fifth one being next.
Seal #5: Incense of Martyrs
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. (Revelation 6:9–ESV)
When Jesus opened seals 1-4 one after another of the four living creatures around God’s throne summoned John to look at what was revealed on the scroll. Look back at this 9th verse. Do you see a similar thing here? So you can see that this time there was no escort. It may be that John has simply learned how God expects him to behave and is doing so.
Others have suggested that the events of the first four seals were more earth oriented and less supernatural. If the four living creatures where the means whereby God’s will was carried out upon the earth then their task was done. The fifth seal did not represent a scene on earth, but a scene in heaven. After they were martyred their bodies would have been buried under the earth, but Hades was not their place. They were under an altar. Rather than being part of the scene of earth they were now part of the scene of heaven.
Some commentaries seemed to suggest the altar was the altar of the burnt offering. Others gave the more fitting association of the altar of incense. To understand this think back to the desert days of Israel with its Tabernacle. There were two altars: one for the burnt offering where sacrifices for sin were given and the other for the incense. Coals from the altar of the burnt offerings were used in the altar of incense in the morning and the evening. The other thing to recall here is that the altar of incense was inside the Holy Place, the outer, less sacred room in the Tabernacle. The altar for burnt offerings was outside the Tabernacle. In heaven a burnt offering of atonement was no longer needed. Sin would not be in God’s presence in the first place.
Incense, however, was a different thing entirely. Remember that this is something which would be used to make an aroma filling the air. Think also to Revelation 5:8 where the elders had bowls of incense. What did the incense represent? Prayers of the saints which would have been their praises, their requests, their offerings. The greatest sacrifice or offering one can give is the sacrifice of life itself. Martyrs have given their all on the grandest scale and as such they are under the throne of incense in the heavenly place.
When the 5th seal was broken John saw the altar of incense and a group of people who had been dead, but had clearly not remained that way. They had been vocal in their faith ruffling others to the point they were killed for it. Just as the Lamb of God who was opening these seals had been slain here also are the living martyrs.
Martyrs are with the Lord
Jesus told the thief on the cross of life after death saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That thief was with Jesus after the cross took them both. Look again at verse 9. These souls are not dead.
Note the offense the world took at these men: bearing witness to God himself. By bearing witness for the honor of the one true God they ran afoul of those who held different, deceived and more wicked allegiances. Blessed are they who are persecuted for my name sake, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Martyrs are certainly persecuted. The Lord never forgets to bless those whom the world had penalized for their rightfully placed faith.
They are in the presence of the Lord Jesus and near the throne of God the Father. Hebrews 11:38 tells us that the world was not worthy to keep the martyrs. Wicked men dispatched them spilling their blood upon the earth and sending them straight into the presence of God.
Martyrs: not just symbols
John didn’t see these people moved into the presence of God. John saw where they already were. By John’s day many had already faced the trial and triumph of martyrdom. In verse 11 of this chapter we see that others were to join this group. Our era is not without its martyrs. ISIS is an Islamic phenomenon whose followers execute Christians2.
I wanted to include pictures of the Christian prisoners on their death march down the beach. I did find that picture, but the one I found first was of the executioners straddling the face down Christians. Too real, unpleasant, discomfiting were those pictures. I did not want them and so on the first day I was composing this I kept at Google until I found the walking condemned and put that on the page.
Sometime later my thoughts drifted to the straddling executioners, “Gruesome, yes, but real.” Revelation 6 was tied to that image and a connection clicked into place: Revelation 6 speaks of real events! While the terms and technique of Revelation are less than concrete the events spoken of absolutely concrete. The martyred souls under the altar are not merely pictures or symbols from which to draw meaning, but reality. The photo of men from our era facing their execution weaved this into understanding. The blood that soiled that beach sealed these souls into the martyred band of Revelation 6.
It is clear that many have joined these ranks since the days of John. So, both past, present and future can be understood to be encompassed by this vision
Do martyrs remember?
10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:10-11–ESV)
The martyrs did not hold their peace silently waiting beneath the altar. They remembered acutely the jeers, chains, flogging, imprisonment, poverty, and their executions. These things done were not against them alone, but also against God. The martyrs earnestly desired for the scales to be balanced. From scripture we see that souls neither sleep nor forget.
Injustice is not swept away by death. Death is not the end for the executioner or the martyred. Justice will be meted out. God will do it balancing the scales.
Other things are not swept away by death. Incomplete understanding also remains. Why do I say that? Look at what the martyrs were doing. They were asking God a question. God knows fully, but man, even after they have died, are not granted omniscience. Another thing that people have is the ear of God, and that is not lost after death. They can ask God questions and they do. God does not ignore their question nor does he give too many specifics. They were given white robes of honor, but they were also told that others had yet to join them.
Patience is not swept away by death. Even in the afterlife people must be patient. Virtues remain just that: virtuous. Life was about, is about, learning the ways of God, the ways and styles of heaven. We must not carry this beyond what we can, for this is not a passage about the way of all eternity. The number of the martyrs is clearly not yet filled so we who are alive and those who have already died are both awaiting God’s conclusion of things. The manner of patience on the new earth, our final abode, is not given here.
God is still sovereign. His intentions will be our experiences. No man, dead or alive can exercise a right over God. The world would not come to an end before that was accomplished.
See how prayers can often precede the ends God has in mind? Even those souls who have died for God’s honor are told to wait. God is administrating the world and no man, dead or alive, can exercise a right over him.
Summary points from the fifth seal:
- You will remember your life after you die.
- Injustice is not swept away by death
- Virtues are not swept away by death: patience is still needed
- Prayers often precede the ends God has in mind.
- No man, dead or alive, exercises a right over God
Seal #6: Acts of God
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17–ESV)
Our insurance companies often exempt their coverage for what they term acts of God. Seal 6 represents acts of God on a worldwide scale. Being in the nuclear age it is not difficult to consider thermonuclear war as the means for the blackened sun, loss of the view of the sky and the moon’s red color. What verses 12-14 really represent, though, is not clear from this passage. It likely is an admixture of symbol and John’s interpretation of things he did not understand.
People prefer to be cavemen than God-men
The how is less important than the who and the what. The people of the world had a clear viewpoint on these disasters. They did not call it global warming. The governments of the world did not see it as an alien invasion. They reference God himself: him who is on the throne, and Jesus Christ: the Lamb. The Lamb is meting out wrath upon the earth, and it is so stiff that all men, everywhere, head for the hills. All people of all ranks are reduced to cavemen.
There is no repentance nor submission. “Who can stand?” is the question they ask. They want to stand up against God and have their world back, but history was beyond that now. They cannot stand, but rather than repent they take their guilty selves and hide in the mountains.
Who do they call out to? The earless mountains and rocks. People have cried out to inanimate things for all time and at the end it will be no different.
Show us a miracle so we can believe was how the Pharisees cajoled Jesus. Here the people of the earth are in the seeing moment, but seeing is not believing. Seeing results in fleeing.
Seek the Lord while he may be found. When God shows up in his mighty power you will not repent, but run and try to hide.