Now that the antichrist has subdued all enemies from without, he will turn his eyes upon the enemies from within; the political enemies, those that worship the one true God. If we follow the movements of antichrist thus far the opening of this seal follows the next logical step. Having cemented his power in the world by defeating all foreign enemies he is now ready to weed out the enemies domestic. Those who declare the truth of God will be dangerous to those who declare that they ought to be served and worshipped themselves. But, what we have here is not necessarily a description of those martyred by the antichrist. We do have the promise here and the expectation that martyrdom was about to begin in the reign of antichrist. In fact it will be the final martyrdom or the expectation thereof that spurs the coming wrath of the sixth seal and all that proceeds. For a fuller description of the brethren that are to be martyred we will have to wait till later chapters. What we have here is a change of our view. The first four seals were earthly in their content. They described the unfolding of antichrist on this earth, his revealing and his terror. The last three seals reveal heavenly things. The fifth seal describes the prayer of the martyrs that spurs a response from God. The sixth seal describes the shaking of the heavens in response to that prayer. The seventh seal describes the silence in heaven in expectation of the full wrath of God pouring out on this world. We may remember the division of the seals by the numbers: Four is the number of this earth and represents events that occur on the earth, three (the last three) is the number of God (i.e. the trinity) and represents the events of heaven proceeding from God. This mixture of earthly and heavenly events are the seven seals; seven being the number of perfection and completion. These seven events, which are described as seven seals, represent the prelude to judgment; the opening of the book of God secret counsels. With that context let us consider this fifth seal.
First, we see the place of the martyrs. “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” Who are these martyrs? We have already in our study of this book ruled out any post-millennial or a-millennial interpretation of these events. This does not describe things that happened in the ancient Roman Empire and they are not metaphors of things that are constantly occurring. In the pre-millennial template we may say that the martyrs represent one of the following: those martyred for God from the beginning of this world till this point in history (the opening of the fifth seal), those martyred from the resurrection of Christ till the rapture of the saints (assuming that the saints have at this point been raptured), or these are those saints that were slain during the wrath of the antichrist described in the first four seals. All of these have their own sets of arguments and none of them can be conclusive. There does not appear to me any significant reason to limit these martyrs to any specific dispensation of time. The one sticking point is the description these martyrs as “souls”. It is thought that since they are described as souls that the resurrection has not yet occurred. Those in the past who held a preterit view used this passage to defend the doctrine that the soul is immediately with God after death even though the body was yet in the grave, which is sound doctrine (see II Cor. 5). The term souls in this sense seems to lean toward one of two ideas; either these are those martyred after the rapture during the first four seals or the rapture has not yet occurred. Seeing that in the fourth chapter the twenty four elders seem to answer to the description of glorified saints we may lean toward the former idea. But, do we look at the term soul in the sense of a disembodied spirit. Man is defined as a living soul, which is the essence of his being (Gen. 2:7). If the text is not specific as to the term soul or specifically mention that it is departing the body in death or absent from the body it may not be necessary to see the term soul as anything less than a reference to the whole man (for instance: Ex. 30:15, Lev. 4:2, Deut. 30:2, among many). If there is no specific mention of a distinction then we do not necessarily need to assume that there is one. In actuality it is a description of what the martyr was willing to offer up unto God as opposed to what they could have gained clinging to this life: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:35, 36)? The place for these martyrs tells us of such a sacrifice. They were under the altar. Darby stated that “Their being under the altar means simply that they had offered their bodies, as sacrifices for the truth, to God.” In the book of Leviticus for instance it says this: “and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation (Lev. 1:5). Their lives were poured out before the altar as sacrifices well pleasing unto God. There is an altar in heaven for the tabernacle on earth is after its pattern. Jamieson stated this: “The altar in heaven, antitypical to the altar of sacrifice, is Christ crucified. As it is the altar that sanctifies the gift, so it is Christ alone who makes our obedience, and even our sacrifice of life for the truth, acceptable to God.” They lived and died for the glory of God and of their Savior Jesus Christ. They were both living and dying sacrifices. Paul said at the end of his life when he was facing martyrdom this: “I am now ready to be offered… (I Tim. 4:6). That is the spirit of the martyr. The description of those that were poured out below the altar is simply this: they are those that were slain. I do not know how to limit this number to any dispensation. The number seems to be universal in its scope. It seems to take in every martyr in history. Jesus spoke about the martyrs of His time and summed them up like this: “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” (Matt. 23:35). I fancy that the first martyr Abel will be among those there. I even fancy that the greatest offering he offered was not the Lamb that pictured His salvation through a substitute but his life which he gave because of that belief. I fancy that maybe that is what the writer of Hebrews meant when he said, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4). There in that number will stand Christians fed to the lions in Rome, burned at the stake in Inquisitions, and executed at the end of a barrel in modern communist nations. There will stand those who gave their bodies to be burned, torn, and mutilated because they saw greater riches in Christ than the entire world. Maybe before it is all done someone sitting here tonight will be among this group. They stand together in company is a unified sacrifice poured out for the glory of God.
Secondly, we see the reason for their martyrdom. These are those that were slain “for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” The counted their life dear because they believed God had spoken and they with their words and with their very lives bore witness or gave testimony to that. They held that testimony and would not let it go even in the face of death. They were slain simply because they held it despite the threatening of the Godless world. These are the true heroes of history.
Thirdly, we see the prayer of the martyrs. “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” This prayer seems solely to be the grand event which the opening of this seal caused. The prayer of the saints is of more power than all the shades of antichrist. It was of more force to the events of history than the bow, the balances, or the swords which we have already seen carried. It is very odd indeed to the unbeliever that after the great drama before and after this seal that God would make so much of the event of prayer. To the believer it makes perfect sense. Prayer changes things. Here those who have poured their lives out to God are given a voice. They plead with God to make known to them the time of His coming. They pleaded with the Sovereign based on His holiness and His truth. They never sought vengeance for themselves but meekly followed the example of their Lord Jesus Christ and gave their back to the smitters and their lives to the ambers. Here they lay their vengeance at the feet of the Lord in their prayer. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” They believed it and thus they prayed. It is not in line with the holiness of the Lord to leave the injustices of martyrdom unpunished; and thus they now pray. The insinuation in the prayer is that all that are on the earth at this time (at least for the most part) are of the ilk of those that murdered the saints. The point of this seal is that the earth was now ripe for judgment and thus this event of prayer now has importance.
We go on to notice the reward of the martyrs. “And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season….” Paul in the verse we sited earlier said that he was ready to be offered and went on to say that “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness….” The point is that though the martyrs are so vilified by this wicked world they are vindicated by God. White robes were given them to show their righteousness. Darby said this: “The white robes are the witness of their righteousness – God’s declared approval of them….” And rest was given to them. They were persecuted, chased, and killed. Here they have rest for a season. There remains a rest for the people of God. We note that these things were not limited to a certain segment but were given to every one of them. All that will give their lives for the sake of Christ will find their reward. The world was not worthy of them but heaven is. Henry stated that, “God has provided a good place in the better world for those who are faithful to death and are not allowed a place any longer on earth…. It is not their own death, but the sacrifice of Christ, that gives them a reception into heaven and a reward there; they do not wash their robes in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb.”
Lastly, we see the prophecy of martyrdom. “… It was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.” The prophecy here is that from this point there will be others that will suffer still. The war which the antichrist has declared on the people of God is going to be declared now. We will speak of this future persecution in later chapters. The prayer of the saints is a catalyst for the opening of the sixth seal; so the prayer was heard and was effective and thus it was highlighted as a moment in future history. But, the message was somewhat unexpected. How long? We are almost there but we are not there yet. There is yet some more birth pangs before the birth. There is yet a greater rest for the one granted was only for a season. Something great still awaits and there is reason to believe that the opening of this seal begins that persecution. Christ described such a time of persecution in the beginning of sorrows: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:9-13). We will see the particulars of this persecution later in our study. Henry summed this up well and we thus end with his statement. “Observe, [1.] There is a number of Christians, known to God, who are appointed as sheep for the slaughter, set apart to be God’s witnesses. [2.] As the measure of the sin of persecutors is filling up, so is the number of the persecuted martyred servants of Christ. [3.] When this number is fulfilled, God will take a just and glorious revenge upon their cruel persecutors; he will recompense tribulation to those who trouble them, and to those that are troubled full and uninterrupted rest.”