Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 13 - The Fifth Seal (6:9-11)

In the Fifth Seal John saw “souls under the altar.” It is the altar of burnt offering in the heavenly sanctuary (ch. 4, 5). Revelation 8:3 has a reference both to it and to the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place. This figure of souls under the altar is easy of interpretation. In the Tabernacle and Temple service the blood of the burnt-offering was poured out at the base of the brazen altar (Leviticus 1:5). And “the life (or soul) of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11); hence the Fifth Seal represents the lives of martyrs given as a testimony to their faith. There can be little doubt that Paul used the same figure concerning himself: “I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6; Philippians 2:1 7).


But what martyrs are referred to? Several lines of evidence point to the conclusion that these are the saints who died for their faith, or in their faith, under the Old Covenant (cp. Genesis 4:10):

The normal Apocalyptic phrase: “the testimony of Jesus” (ch. 1:9 and 12:17 and 19:10) is modified here to “the testimony which they held.” These men died with faith set on the coming of their Messiah, but not knowing him as Jesus.

“How long, O Despot!” This title for God or Jesus is highly appropriate in the mouths of faithful witnesses of Old Testament times cp. the aged Simeon, the last of them (Luke 2:29), who used the same mode of address.

“White robes were given unto them.” These white robes undoubtedly represent the provided righteousness of Christ. Here, then, are saints who receive that garment of righteousness after the end of their testifying! This would indeed be a mystery (in the modern sense of the term) were it not for such verses as these: “And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15). “If Christ be not raised ... ye (and all others who died with faith in him, e.g. Abraham) are yet in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17); “and to declare his righteousness because of the passing over of sins done aforetime (under the Old Covenant) in the forbearance of God” (Romans 3 :25).

The parallel with the prophecy of Jesus is hardly to be missed: “Wherefore, behold, I scud unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify: and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:34, 35).[23] The Zacharias referred to here is doubtless the prophet whose violent death is described in 2 Chronicles 24:20, 21. Jesus cited him along with Abel because 2 Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible and thus Abel and Zacharias would be a convenient way of referring to all the martyrs under the Old Covenant.

1 Thessalonians 2:15, 16 reads very similarly, but this is to be expected because Paul was writing with Matthew 23 in mind.

v. 11: “To them it was said that they should rest yet for a little season ... “ In particular, this finds a parallel in the case of Daniel, one of the Old Testament saints: “Thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days” (Daniel 12:13).

In view of the copious allusions to Revelation already traced in the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is permissible to see in these words of v. 11 the origin of another idea in that Epistle: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39, 40). The correspondence here is remarkable. The Old Testament saints who died in faith answer to the “souls under the altar.” Those to be made perfect correspond with “their fellow-servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were”. Both passages emphasize that the two classes are to be glorified together, as in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 also.

v. 10: “O despot, holy and true.” Somewhat unexpectedly, the word “true” here is not the word which stands in contrast to “false” but that which is set over against “type” or “shadow” (compare John 15:1: “I am the True Vine”). The appropriateness of this to an Old Testament context is immediately obvious. The “despot”-ism of Christ is typified in the Old Testament in many places and often in the experience of these very “souls” who so cried out. David is an outstanding example, and one of his psalms (89:33-52) reads like a commentary, written in advance, on this Fifth Seal. The passage should be studied in detail.

The blood of the martyrs cries for vengeance on “them that dwell on the earth.” Evidence has already been furnished (ch. 11) for reading this: “Them that dwell in the Land,” i.e. the Jews. In any case, “them that dwell on the earth” is an insipid redundancy. Would anyone call for vengeance on “them that dwell in heaven”7 Where else could their adversaries be except on the earth? And if a symbolic meaning be sought, “heaven” would be more appropriate than “earth.” Once again the relevance of Matthew 23:35, 36 is emphasized. On the other hand, if these “slaughtered saints” under the altar were Gentile Christians of the early centuries there would be little point in this allusion to Jews in Palestine.


The phrase “their fellow-servants and their brethren,” now seen to apply to the New Testament martyrs, calls for careful examination. Is this a twofold reference to the same class, i.e. their fellow-servants who are also their brethren? Or are two distinct classes among the New Testament saints indicated? In this latter case it would be necessary to interpret them as Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians respectively. The repetition of the possessive pronoun favours this second view.

On this interpretation one would be led to look for a persecution of both Gentile and Jewish Christians in the First Century “a little season” (v. 11) before divine vengeance fell on the nation, which had dealt so ruthlessly with God’s martyrs of earlier generations.


This is precisely what the New Testament and also First Century historians say: “But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings for my name’s sake. And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinfolks and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:12, 16, 17). The Book of Acts indicates a Jewish origin for almost all the Gentile persecutions, which overtook Paul, and there are a number of New Testament indications that most of the slanders, which brought so much trouble on the Christians in other parts of the empire, were similarly Jewish-inspired.

In his “Antiquities of the Jews” (20:9:1) Josephus tells of the unlawful condemnation of James the brother of Jesus: “So he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” Also in his “Wars of the Jews,” in the middle of a detailed narrative of all that befell Jerusalem in A.D, 70: “These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was brother of him that is called Christ, whom the Jews had slain notwithstanding his pre-eminent justice.” And Hegesippus, the later Christian historian, similarly: “So admirable a man was James, that even the wisest part of the Jews were of opinion that this was the cause of the immediate siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them for no other reason than the crime against him’’ (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 2.23).


But there was Gentile persecution too. John himself was in Patmos in the reign of Nero for that very reason. In Rome Paul and Luke had probably just died for their faith. Peter was to go the same way very soon afterwards. The Christians in Rome were called upon to face all kinds of bestialities. “The Christians to the lions” (I Peter 5:8) was one of the more enviable fates meted out to them.

The persecution was taken up in various parts of the empire. Peter’s 1st Epistle is full of allusions (1:6, 7 and 2:19 and 3:14-17 and 4:12-19) to similar trials besetting the Christians in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (I Peter 1:1).

As the prophecy of the Fifth Seal indicates, it was “a little season” after these storms broke over the hapless heads of the Christians, that, in A.D. 67, the Jewish War boiled up and after an uneasy lull culminated in the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem. Israel had filled up the cup of its iniquity.


The significance of this Seal is not yet exhausted. Good reason was found for seeking an application of the first four Seals to the Last Days also. It would be strange if this were not also true of the Fifth Seal, as it certainly is of the Sixth.

That there will be a repentance of Israel (in part) in the Last Days is clearly testified by many prophets. The exposition of Revelation 11 will demonstrate that that remnant of Jewish believers will also have to face grievous persecution. But so also, quite possibly, will the faithful remnant among the Gentiles. It has already been suggested (ch. 10) that the entire Olivet Prophecy will have a further fulfilment in the time of the end, and without question the early portion of that prophecy has much to say about persecution (Matthew 24:9-12).

Thus the Fifth Seal also fits into the pattern, already suggested, of a Twentieth Century recapitulation of this Seal prophecy which had its primary fulfilment almost immediately after it was written in the First Century. And in this case the “little season” of the prophecy is the short period (of 31 years?) that will elapse before these final troubles give place to the reign of Christ in person.

[23] Doesn't the word "fulfilled" in Revelation 6:11 imply an earlier prophecy on this theme?
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