The visions from the first four seals (cf. the previous note)—the horses and their riders—deal with the theme of warfare among the peoples on earth, along with the suffering and death that results from it. The fourth rider was actually identified as “Death”, bringing people down to the grave (the “unseen realm” [a%|dh$] of the dead). Death from the sword (i.e. war) was widened to include death from hunger, disease, and attacks by wild animals (verse 8). Now in the vision from the fifth seal, the death-motif is extended to include believers in Christ who are put to death for their faith.
“And when he opened up the fifth seal, I saw down below the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] the souls having been [i.e. that had been] slaughtered through [i.e. because of] the account of God and the witness which they held.” (v. 9)
Here the slaughter from the nations at war is replaced by the slaughter of believers in Christ—specifically, those put to death as a result of proclaiming the Gospel (“the account/word [lo/go$] of God”), and acting as witnesses of Christ. This represents one of the earliest instances of the word martu/$ (“witness”, here the related noun marturi/a) in the technical Christian sense of one who is put to death for his/her faith in Jesus (the word[s] being transliterated in English as “martyr”, “martyrdom”, etc). It is described in terms of ritual slaughter—i.e., a sacrificial offering, just as Jesus’ own death was understood as a sacrifice (Passover, sin/guilt offering, or the sacrifice establishing the [new] Covenant). The altar-image seems to draw upon aspects of both altars in the Tabernacle/Temple design—(a) the altar of burnt offering in the sanctuary courtyard, and (b) the altar of incense in the shrine. The allusions for these two aspects are:
- The position of the souls down at the bottom of the altar (v. 9)—In the ancient sacrificial ritual, blood from the slaughtered animal was poured/thrown down at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7, etc). The souls of the believers put to death are closely connected to this image of blood—since blood was typically understood as representing the life-essence of the person (much like the soul). Moreover “blood” can be synonymous with “death”, regardless of the extent to which a person’s death involved actual bloodshed; violent and/or wicked action leading to death of the innocent could be described simply as “bloodshed”.
- The cry (i.e. prayer) of these souls (v. 10)—The connection between prayer and incense was traditional, and was established earlier here in 5:8.
The position of the souls (“down below the altar”) may also express the idea of taking refuge (with God) in the holy place. A temple sanctuary often served as a place of refuge or asylum—near the altar, in particular (1 Kings 1:50). For a similar image of souls (of the righteous) waiting in the heavenly sanctuary, cf. 2 Baruch 30:1-2; 2/4 Esdras 4:35; 7:32 (Koester, p. 399).
The cry of “how long…?” (Grk e%w$ po/te, “until when…?”) in verse 10 reflects passages in the Old Testament such as the Psalmist’s lament in Ps 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5ff (cf. also Zech 1:12, etc). It expresses two underlying thoughts: (1) the idea that justice has been denied or was not established during one’s life on earth, and (2) a desire to experience God’s deliverance in time of trouble. Here the emphasis is decidedly eschatological—i.e., waiting for justice to be done (by God) at the end-time Judgment:
“And they cried (out) with a loud voice, saying: ‘Until when, O master, the (One) holy and true, do you not judge and work out justice (for) our blood out of [i.e. from] the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth?'” (v. 10)
The verb e)kdike/w is sometimes translated “avenge”, but it is better here to maintain its fundamental meaning “work out justice” (i.e. on behalf of someone). Justice was not “worked out” for these believers during their time on earth, when they were put to death unjustly; it waits to be established at the end-time Judgment. A basic premise of justice in such instances (murder, bloodshed, etc) is a requital for the death (“blood”) of the innocent. This idea is most ancient, expressed famously in Gen 9:5-6, but was given a new formulation by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 23:29-35 / Lk 11:47-51)—the blood of the prophets put to death (by Israel) serves as a pattern for the execution of Jesus and his followers (cf. Matt 5:12; 11:12-14 par; Mark 9:12-13 par), and will bring judgment upon the people and the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:36-39; Lk 13:33-35).
This introduces another interesting parallel between Revelation 6 and the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In both passages, a period of war among the nations/peoples (Rev 6:1-8; Mk 13:7-8 par) is followed by a reference to the persecution (and death) of believers (Rev 6:9ff; Mk 13:9-13 par). Also in both instances, the reference ends with a call for patient endurance (Rev 6:11; Mk 13:13 par). Here in verse 11, it is a response to the heartfelt cry of believers, longing to see justice done by God:
“And white dress was given to each of them, and it was uttered to them that they will rest up (for) a little time yet, until their (fellow) slaves with (them) and their brothers should also be fulfilled—the (one)s about to be killed off, even as they (were).”
On the significance of white garments, cf. the notes on 3:4-5, 18; 4:4, and further in 7:13-14. It is declared that justice will not be done—that is, the end-time Judgment will not come—until a “little time” (xro/no$ mikro/$) has passed. Based on 11:2-3; 12:6ff; 13:5, it is possible that this is equivalent to the (symbolic) period of 3½ years. In any case, based on the imminent eschatology clearly expressed in the book up to this point (cf. 1:1, 3, 8, 19; 2:16; 3:3, 10-11, 20), this declaration indicates that the end-time Judgment will take place very soon (though not immediately). This is confirmed by the announcement that the other believers, who will join them as martyrs for Christ, are “about [me/llonte$] to be killed”. This time, however short, or whatever the precise length, will be fulfilled when these other believers are put to death, completing their life-mission. On similar (and roughly contemporary) language, see, e.g., 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Baruch 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 2:41; 4:35-37 (Koester, p. 400).
Clearly, the book of Revelation expresses the idea that the persecution (and execution) of believers is about to intensify and increase. While individual instances are mentioned, or alluded to, elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no real indication in the first century A.D. of widespread persecution. The opposition and attacks of early believers by Jews was most intense in the earliest years, but it was still experienced by Christians in Asia Minor toward the end of the century (as attested in 2:9-10 and 3:9). In terms of action against believers by Roman imperial authorities, this appears to have been sporadic and relatively infrequent. There were, of course, the famous (though very brief) state-sponsored executions under Nero’s reign (c. 64), which almost certainly influenced the imagery in the book of Revelation. However, the extent of persecution in the reign of Domitian (81-96), the period often thought to provide the setting of the book, does not appear to have been nearly so widespread as was often thought. Indeed, the evidence from the letters to the churches here in chaps. 2-3, suggests that executions were relatively infrequent in Asia Minor at the time of writing; imprisonment during interrogation would have been much more common. In the subsequent centuries (mid-2nd through the early 4th) there would be more intense periods of state-sponsored persecution, conducted on a wider scale.