Anticipation and Crescendo of the Seals (Part I) – Revelation 6:9-11

by Roger McCay
23 January 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 6:9-11
Link to Audio Version

It had been a particularly difficult time for our unit, in Iraq, with numerous engagements and casualties. As the battalion chaplain, having much on my mind, I was walking down a hall in the battalion headquarters going about my business, when one of the officers (a brother in Christ) passed me coming the other way. He looked me in the eye, his face and posture weary, and said, “Come Lord Jesus, come.” Returning his look, I replied, “Amen, brother.” And we both meant it with all our heart. I imagine he, like me, pondered and hoped and repeated, as a prayer, “Come Lord Jesus, come,” as we both continued on our way.

This cry, from Rev. 22:20, has been on the hearts and lips of Christians in turmoil and tribulation throughout the history of the church. We utter the plea hoping for relief from the struggle, the pain. We utter the plea hoping for justice to come down, for wrongs to be righted, evil to be judged. We utter the plea because we want to see his face. And we know at his coming, in his presence, all things will be made right.

Yet we wait. And we wonder, “How long?” in our world of trouble. How long until he comes? And perhaps, as time goes on, as it has for close upon two millennia, and the relief of his coming delays, the question for some, maybe you (although you may be unwilling to even admit it to yourself) becomes more of a “Will he come?”

John’s Apocalypse remains an encouragement and a comfort when our hearts and minds wonder such things. Our hope is bolstered, knowing that Jesus fulfilled his promise and prophecies, like those in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:1-35) … he fulfilled his Word to come in judgment upon his (and thus his people’s) enemies, in the destruction of Jerusalem, in AD 70. His historical first coming in judgment and vindication acts as a signpost and evidence of the truth of his prophesied coming in the future (also given at Olivet, Matt. 24:36ff.), a coming which, no matter how long we wait, remains imminent.

In Rev. 6, with the breaking of the first six of seven seals on the scroll (which, as we’ve seen, is a document consisting of the divorce decree and judgment against the Lord’s unfaithful wife of the Old Covenant) … with each crack of each seal we find necessary preparatory events (what Jesus called “the beginning of birth pangs,” in Matt. 24:8). With each crack of each seal, the pangs of birth take place, leading up to the reading of the scroll and the carrying out of the judgments contained within.

As we studied last week, when each of the first four seals were broken, a horseman of the Lamb was called: “Conquest,” symbolizing Vespasian with his son Titus and the armies of Rome deployed by Nero to Israel in order to conquer the Jews, in AD 67. “War,” symbolizing the revolt of the Jews and the civil-war in Palestine, which began in AD 66 and to which Vespasian’s deployment was a response. Further, “War,” may also have included the empire-wide unrest of the Roman civil war that would break out with the events leading up to and after Nero’s suicide, in AD 68 (which, ultimately, drew Vespasian from Palestine, in AD 69, to secure his crown as emperor, leaving Titus to command the conquering armies in the destruction of Jerusalem). In such a way, Jesus’ Olivet prophecies of “wars and rumors of wars,” in Matt. 24:6-7, would find fulfillment, which includes the last two horsemen of Famine and Death, who were called with the breaking of the third and fourth seal, symbolizing the horrors to come upon the Jewish nation as it was torn apart by the wars, reminiscent of Ezek. 14:21.

With the first four seals broken, we now come to our passage today, where the fifth seal is snapped and the martyred saints cry out for the Lord’s holy and just vengeance in anticipation. As we considered last week, the phenomena of the seven seals are multilayered and progressive, yet they do not necessarily represent a strict chronological happening of things (i.e. first this will occur, then this, and so forth). There is an overlapping at times. And there are micro and macro realities—in dimension, time, and space. This becomes evident here in the fifth seal and its phenomena, as it represents a heavenly reality of the martyrs’ cries with roots going back through earth’s history to long before the time of John’s vision, and the actions which would, from his perspective, take place in the near future (Rev. 1:1, 3). So, let us examine the phenomena revealed with the breaking of the fifth seal and how it applies to the church and us today.

Take a look again, with me, at Rev. 6:9.

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.

John speaks, here, of seeing “the souls” of the martyrs under “the altar.” This is the first reference to the altar in heaven, in the book of Revelation. But it is nothing new for us, as it is mentioned in Isa. 6:6-7, being the altar from which the Seraphim took the coal to purify Isaiah’s lips. It is also part of the template, the heavenly pattern, after which the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) was built (e.g. Ex. 25:9; Heb. 8:5).[1] We’ll also come across the altar before the throne of God five more times, as we continue through The Apocalypse.[2]

Now, under the altar were “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” These are those martyred, murdered for their faith, prior to Jesus’ coming in judgment upon Jerusalem, and whose vindication would be embodied in his vindication, at that coming. They were martyred for their faithfulness to the Lord, their trust in the Lord in obedience of his Word, and their witness to the truths of his Word—their testimony in both word and deed. They are overcomers, who conquered in their death (like those spoken of Rev. 2:10-11 and also Matt. 24:13). They consist of the martyrs of the NT, including those mentioned in Revelation, but also they seem to include the OT martyrs in their number.

As for the OT martyrs, Jesus, in Matt. 23:29-36, ties them to the coming destruction and judgment of Jerusalem and the Temple—justice called for by the souls under the altar. Capping off the litany of woes Jesus had called down on the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus said that they would prove they were “sons of those who murdered the prophets” and that they would “fill up … the measure of their fathers.” Then, he rhetorically questioned whether they would escape hell for their crime. Jesus then foretold that they would prove they were of the prophet murdering ilk, deserving judgment, when they would “kill and crucify,” also “flog in [their] synagogues and persecute from town to town” various witnesses that he would send to them. Thus, according to Jesus, on them would be “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Matt. 23:35; also Luke 11:50-51).[3] Jesus’s statements thus encompass the blood of all the martyrs in OT Biblical history and the blood of the martyrs they would kill up through the apostolic times.[4]

Jesus further gave an explicit timeframe for when this would happen. In v. 36, he said it would come down upon the generation to whom he was speaking at that moment, consistent with Matt. 24:34. And he’s clear that Jerusalem would be at the center of the tempest of his wrath. Hence, his lament, in v. 37 (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”) and his Discourse, in ch. 24, (where he lays out for his disciples what was to come—birth-pangs followed by the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Temple).

As for the NT martyrs, Stephen (the first martyr after the Lord’s resurrection, just prior to his murder by the Jews of Jerusalem) … Stephen, in Acts 7:51-52, spoke, corresponding with the last woe in Matt. 23:

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.”

Jesus had, on various occasions, said persecution and martyrdom was what the Lord’s people would face, explicitly so in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:9, Luke 21:12-17 and Mark 13:9-13). The Lord’s servants were and are not above their master (John 15:20-21). Most of the Apostles were martyred before AD 70. The first apostle to be murdered was James, the brother of John and one of Jesus’ most intimate three (Acts 12:2). And the book of Acts provides numerous examples of the Jewish persecution and murders of Christians, starting with Stephen, followed by a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem scattering them throughout Judea and Samaria as they fled (Acts 8:1).[5] Paul himself was involved in this scourge of believers, delivering both men and women to death (Acts 22:24) before the Lord stopped him cold, calling him to apostolic ministry. Then there were the myriad of believers, not only in Palestine, but across the empire who were persecuted and martyred for their faith, hounded by the apostate Jews (Rev. 2:9; 3:9) who conspired with the Romans against them.[6] In this vein, the Lord, in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, mentions Antipas of Pergamum by name, as one of the martyrs (Rev. 2:13). And he said that more would die, like those in Smyrna (Rev. 2:10). There was also Nero’s great persecution of Christians going on at the time of John’s writing of Revelation (from AD 64-68), which swept from Rome throughout the empire.[7] During this time John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos and Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. So, as you can see, the churches were going through much tribulation (Rev. 1:9), and the Lord’s people were being killed for “the Word of God and for the witness they had borne.”

Now, this image of those who had been slain, being under the alter and crying out, hearkens to the blood of the sacrifices poured out at the base of the altar in the earthly tabernacle, as commanded by the Lord (Lev. 4:7; 5:9). Then, there is the teaching in Lev. 17:11 that “the life [or the “soul” (in Hebrew, the נֶ֣פֶשׁ nephesh)] of the flesh is in the blood.” As Milton Terry suggests, “the souls that went forth in the blood of them that had been slain for the word of God are conceived as so many sacrifices of life for the testimony which they held.”[8]

And like the blood of Abel cried out to God, in Gen. 4:10, the souls of the martyrs cried out to God. Take a look at Rev. 6:10.

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?”

Looking to the highest authority for justice, the souls of the martyred cried out to the Lord, who is the sovereign ruler over heaven and earth.[9] Their covenant relationship with him, as his faithful people, made them citizens of his Kingdom. Consistent with his very being, the nature of the Lord’s relationship with his covenant people is holy and true, as he is the perfectly just King. Within the bounds of that relationship, sovereign to subject, these martyred saints in heaven accordingly called upon the Lord to judge their murderers and avenge their blood upon the guilty. Thus, they plead for the Lord to, as Terry puts it, “do that which is due to his holiness and truth.”[10] They cannot avenge themselves, but as the Lord has promised his covenant people, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).

So, upon whom do the martyrs call down judgment and vengeance? Verse 10 says, “on those who dwell on the earth.” But who are these people? Well, the answer to that should be pretty clear, if you’ve been listening even a little bit. But don’t shut down on me yet, as there are some important nuances that I want you to grasp. Notably, the Greek word for “earth” (γῆς), which is used in the phrase at the end of v. 10, can also be translated as “land,” and various scholars translate the word, in this verse, as “land” instead of “earth.” The particular phrase “those who dwell on the earth/land” acts like a code phrase, and comes up several times in Revelation, referring to “enemies of the church,” and it can either refer to apostate Judaism centered in the land of Israel (like the reference to the “Land” often used in the OT, e.g. Deut. 19:1-3, Zech. 3:9, Ezek. 12:19, etc.) or refer to enemies of the church across the Roman Empire—and sometimes either one or both seem to be in mind.[11] Context, of course, provides the key as to how the phrase should be understood.

So, here, in Rev. 6:10, let’s consider the context. The horsemen are poised, ready to trounce the Land of Israel, as we looked at last week. There is what the scroll itself signifies, with covenant curses coming down upon Israel due to their unfaithfulness. The term is used in response to the breaking of a seal on that scroll. The seal corresponds to birth-pangs mentioned by Jesus in his Olivet Discourse, leading up to the unleashing of the Lord’s wrath in his coming upon Jerusalem. And, as we’ve just considered, there is the woe Jesus pronounces due to the martyred saints, in Matt. 23. Considering all of that, it is hard to see how “the Land of Israel” could not be the primary referent here. In other words, the call to judge and avenge would be focused on “those who dwell on the Land,” the Jewish nation, whose center of power, culture, and religion was grounded in Jerusalem and the Temple.

Even so, the nuance of the phrase allows for a recognition of the Sovereign Lord’s actions worldwide. Jerusalem was the epicenter of Jewish persecution, and it would be ground zero for the Lord’s wrath. Consequently, in the overall scheme of the historical situation to which John is writing, there is the wider fallout and vindication, which would occur across the empire. The impact the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would have upon the diaspora Jews responsible for the deaths of many under the altar would be devastating. And such would be of direct significance to the churches in Asia, to whom Revelation was addressed, among other churches across the empire. Then, too, there was Rome, and Emperor Nero would commit suicide in AD 68, just a few years after Revelation was written and during the time that the horsemen trampled the Land. Nero was a man responsible for the death of multitudes under the altar. And with his death the empire would catapult into turmoil, involving the forces symbolized by the horseman: conquest (once again with Vespasian as the victorious conqueror—which tickles the imagination as to what the hand of Providence was up to there), also civil-war, economic distress, and death of all sorts. So, again, these things are multilayered and nuanced, with primary, secondary, and incidental fulfillments in dimension, time and space—the wrath of judgment coming from the throne room of heaven and Jerusalem at ground zero.

As it was, the Lord did not ignore the martyrs continuous cry for him to act, judging those responsible for their deaths and avenging their deaths. The Lord heard their plea, and moved to judge and avenge, with the entire drama of the breaking of the seals symbolically a part of his deliberate movement in that direction.

But until that last seal was broken, the trumpets of the Lord’s wrath would not sound. Rev. 6:11:

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.”

The Lord had promised a white robe for the overcomers, the symbolism, perhaps, being not only of the righteousness that is theirs by the blood of the Lamb, but also a symbol of victory, as they conquered by the Holy Spirit—holding out to the end, faithful to the Lord, in their witness.

That the martyrs were told to rest a little longer, implies that it would not be long before their cry for judgment and vengeance was answered. Indeed, from the time of John’s writing what he saw in heaven, it was but a few years before the detonation of the Lord’s wrath would come down upon Jerusalem. During that time more people (to a providentially determined number) would give their life for the sake of the Lord’s Word and their testimony, as the Jewish persecution continued (Rev. 2:9-10) and Nero’s official persecution raged until his death. It seems, too, that the capstone martyrdom might have been that of the two witnesses, in Jerusalem—Christians murdered for the Word of the Lord and their testimony, of which we read in Rev. 11:3ff. That will be an interesting study for us, I’m sure, when we get there.

Another thing, concerning the command to rest a little longer, it implies that after the Lord’s wrath was spent and they were vindicated, in the first-century (cf. Rev. 3:9), the martyred saints would be put to work. The groundwork for this was already laid, in the Lord’s promises for the overcomers in the seven churches—white robes, a crown, to reign with him, even to share his throne, etc. Kenneth Gentry’s insight clarifies, then, as to what follows their “rest:”

“Though they initially must wait that ‘little while’ … for vindication, the consequences of their soon-coming vindication will span an enormous period of time: ‘the thousand years.’”[12]

So, in Rev. 20:4, these martyred saints were put to work, and they have been and are even now reigning with Jesus until his final coming at the end of the age, when he will bring the consummation of his Kingdom in judgment and glory.

So, my friends, I hope this Word of the Lord bolsters you in a similar way to how the first century recipients of this magnificent book of the Bible would have themselves been bolstered. The Epistle of John’s Apocalypse was sent to the churches in tumultuous and uncertain times, amidst tribulation, tremendous persecution, and martyrdom. The letter was an assurance and a comfort to the Christian church that despite surface appearances (perhaps as the world might have seen them in turmoil, struggling, barely hanging on, even in poverty, as the world did its best to crush them), despite surface appearances, the reality was far different. These were a people who could rejoice in their sufferings due to the Spirit of God’s sanctifying work through them, strengthening their character, their hope, and refining their faith. They were redeemed with all the benefits that reality entails. Thus their enduring through the power of the Spirit, as his faithful people, confirmed the guarantee of their salvation, victory, vindication, and glory. Salvation in Christ’s blood. Victory in Christ’s victory. Vindication in Christ’s vindication. And glory in Christ’s glory.

The other side of that coin is that evil does not win. The guilty would not get away with persecuting and killing the Lord, much less the Lord’s people. Thus, with the breaking of the seals, the Lord was readying the hammer to bring it down, with all the fallout that would entail, in answer to the souls of the martyrs under the altar’s plea.

And imagine the comfort and joy of knowing that your loved one (killed for Christ) was in the presence of God, had the Lord’s ear, and was resting from his or her struggle, to soon be reigning with Christ. That’s a lot of comfort, for the grieving.

For us too, this passage should bring us comfort and hope. The troubles of the world really are just fleeting things. The end will come for us all, whether when we die or when the Lord returns. I guess we’ll see (Matt. 24:36-39). Evil will be judged and the guilty will be punished (Rev. 20:11-15). No one escapes, except by the blood of the Lamb, who, on the cross, took the punishment for the sin of all who believe, took it upon himself—like he did for the apostle Paul, who had the blood of the martyrs on his own hands. So saved by Christ, our future is secure and brilliant in its wonders—glorification and enjoyment of what the Lord has in store for us in heaven. Therefore, in anticipation of that glory, let us, for now, faithfully follow Jesus every day, living for him, as witnesses to his Word the gospel, enduring until the end.

Evil does not win. The Lord wins. Let that truth help sustain you.

And, as we’ll consider next week, in answer to the cry for judgment and vengeance by the martyrs of the fifth seal, the birth pangs Jesus foretold crescendo when the sixth seal is broken. The wrath of the Lamb (primed for retribution), thus rears its head, and the people of the Land of Israel hopelessly cry out in terror.

Because the Sovereign Lord’s wrath is holy and just, we must trust his plan of retribution.


[1] See, for instance, Ex. 25:9 & 40; Num. 18; also Heb. 8:5 & 9:23.

[2] Rev. 8:3, 5; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7. The altar mentioned in 11:1 is the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem.

[3] Zechariah’s murder is in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, and he is the last martyr of the Hebrew canon.

[4] See also Hebrews 11:35-37.

[5] Gentry lists Acts 4-9; 11-14; and 17-26 as chapters that contain examples of “Israel’s persecution against her Christian offspring” (Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 78.

[6] The vigorous first century persecution of the Jews is a regular theme in Acts. Under Roman rule, the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish religious authorities), had no authority to execute outside Roman concurrence (cf. John 18:31) – nor did any synagogue. This is why the Jews needed Pilate to condemn Jesus and order his crucifixion. Such was consistent through the empire. Hence, Robert H. Mounce speaks to the Jews conspiring with Rome in Smyrna (Rev. 2:9) saying, “Antagonism against believers would lead Jews to become informers for the Roman overlords” (The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 75. Denying the Christians as being true Jews (which they were), the protections the Jews had in place to not have to bow down to Caesar were removed, making the Christians vulnerable to being taken and killed by the Romans (and many were), when they refused to worship the Beast (Rev. 13:15). For more on this see Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, Second ed. (Fountain Inn, SC: GoodBirth Ministries, 2010), Chapter 5.

[7] Cf. Tacitus, Annals and Histories, trans. A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 353-354; Annals, 15:44. Also, Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 384 fn1. Schaff, 389, also states that “Sulpicius Severus, Chron. II. 28, 29…. and Orosius (Hist. VII. 7) first clearly assert that Nero extended the persecution to the provinces. George Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1913), 143, translating from Latin, quotes Orosius, (Historiae adversus Paganos, VII.7, ca. AD 417): “The boldness of his [Nero’s] impiety towards God increased the mass of his crimes, for he was the first at Rome to visit the Christians with punishments and deaths, and through all the provinces he commanded that they should be tortured with a like persecution.”

[8] Terry, 91. Cf. Rev. 1:2, 9 on “testimony.”

[9] δεσπότης – BDAG 1. “lord, master” b. “of subjects.”

[10] Terry, 92.

[11] David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, vol. 52A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1997), 240, comments on the term: “The phrase οἱ κατοικοῦντες ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, “those who dwell on the earth,” is a favorite of the author’s and occurs eight more times in Revelation (6:10; 8:13; 11:10[2x]; 13:8, 14[2x]; 17:8) and three additional times with varied phraseology (13:12; 14:6; 17:2), always in the negative sense of non-Christian persecutors of Christians. The phrase “inhabitants of the earth” (יושׁב הארץ yôšēb hāʾāreṣ or יושׁבי הארץ yôšbê hāʾāreṣ) occurs with some frequency in the OT, though in the Pentateuch it usually means “native Palestinians” (Lam 4:12; Isa 24:6, 17; 26:9, 18, 21; Jer 1:14; 25:29, 30; 38:11; Ezek 7:7; Dan 4:35[2x]; Zeph 1:18).” For a breakdown of the uses of γη (which can mean either “land” or “earth”) in Revelation and his suggestions as to their reference cf. Kenneth L. Gentry, “A Brief Study on ‘The Land’ in Revelation,” in Terry, The Apocalypse of John, 291-295. Every use of the word in Revelation needs careful consideration, and sometimes there is a definite focus on the Land of Israel, but the nuance can allow for a larger understanding at times, like I argue for in this sermon.

[12] Gentry, Navigating the Book of Revelation, 173.