The fifth seal
Jan 27, 2016
The first four seals are broken by the four living creatures around the throne. These four were pictured on the flags of the four leading tribes of Israel that were encamped around the Ark of the Covenant (God’s throne on earth). The order in which they were called to break the seals ran counterclockwise beginning with Reuben (Man) on the south side, then moving to Judah (Lion) on the east, Dan (Eagle) on the north, and finally Ephraim (Bull) on the west side.
This shows that the Lamb who was the only one worthy to take the book and to open the seals is a corporate Lamb and not just Jesus Christ Himself. As the Head of the Lamb’s body (arnion), Jesus directs all things, but the body itself is the executor of Christ’s will and provides His double witness.
We then come to the fifth seal, which reveals the souls under the altar. Revelation 6:9 says,
9 And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.
These are the overcomers who, as we will see later, are called to reign with Christ (Revelation 20:4). They bear witness (“testimony”) of Christ. That is, they are the Amen people who, as a body, are Christ’s double witness in the earth.
The Souls under the Altar
Christ’s witnesses are not described as spirits, but as “souls,” because “the soul [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). The blood of sacrifices was to be poured out under the altar (Leviticus 8:15). Hence, we see the “souls” under the altar.
For this reason also Isaiah prophesied of the Suffering Servant who came “as a lamb to the slaughter” in Isaiah 53:7 KJV. In Isaiah 53:12 KJV we read, “He hath poured out His soul unto death,” where the soul is a reference to the blood being poured out under the altar.
From Acts 8:32, 33 we know that Jesus Christ Himself was that Lamb. Paul identifies “God’s elect” in Romans 8:33, and then he quotes David in Psalm 44:22, showing how God’s elect are also treated as sacrificial lambs. Paul says in Romans 8:35, 36, 37
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
So when the fifth seal is opened in Revelation 6:9, we discover that the slaughtered lamb includes all of the martyrs who bear witness of Christ’s work on the cross. Their souls have been poured out under the altar of sacrifice as well. The world treats them as they treated Jesus, for we read in 1 John 2:6,
6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the manner as He walked.
Paul says that God’s elect “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” How do they conquer? Through the love of Christ. The hatred of the world is designed to test love, and real love comes through the persecution and distress strong and firm, if not bruised and bloodied. No one, Paul says, can separate us from the love of Christ.
Those who hate God’s elect are like Cain, who killed his brother (1 John 3:12). Such hatred characterizes the world, but not God’s elect, for “He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Of the elect, we read in 1 John 3:16,
16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
Therefore, it is evident that God looks upon all the martyrs as sacrificial lambs, whose blood has been poured out under His altar in the heavenly Temple. These are the arnion of God, and as a body joined to the Head, they are found worthy to open the book and to break its seals. In the end, the four living creatures around the throne represent all the tribes of Israel and, indeed, all of creation. Their privilege of breaking the first four seals prophesies of the day when all creation sings in 4-part harmony, bearing witness to the mighty works of God.
The Voice of the Martyrs
Revelation 6:10 continues,
10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging [krino] and avenging [ekdikeo] our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
These martyrs are not crying out for “vengeance” as would those who are carnal. We cannot interpret this with a Greek mindset, but understand it with Hebrew eyes in light of biblical law. Neither should we understand it through the lens of Judaism, for this is one area where the Jewish leaders misunderstood the law.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount showed the contrast between the Jewish understanding of the law and Jesus’ own understanding. He did not put away the law, but showed its proper meaning. In Matthew 5:43-45 Jesus said,
43 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 in order that you may be sons of your Father…
Leviticus 19:18 says,
18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Judaism limited their love requirement to their fellow Jews, which gave them a license to hate their enemies (i.e., most non-Jews, so they thought). Jesus renounced this interpretation. In fact, Leviticus 19:33, 34 says,
33 When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
The passage continues with the Law of Equal Weights and Measures, which establishes the will of God in treating all men equally in matters of justice. This law is set forth more plainly in Numbers 15:16,
16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.
Considering the fact that the martyrs are those who cannot be separated from the love of Christ, it is clear that we must not malign their motives when they cry out for justice in Revelation 6:10. They long for true justice—not the “justice” of men, or even of religious men claiming to known the law of God. The souls under the altar are not demanding vengeance for the terrible way in which the world treated them in their life on earth. John shows clearly in his first epistle that if they did not have a heart of love, they would not be overcomers, nor would they be bearing witness of the works of Christ.
The Avenger of Blood
The souls under the altar are seen crying out, “How long, O Lord.. wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood…?” The word translated “avenging” is ekdikeo, which means “to vindicate one’s right, to do justice.”
The manner in which one does justice is a different matter. Carnal judges may “avenge” in carnal ways; those who know the heart of God will “avenge” according to the heart of God. Either way, the parent or guardian of the victim was responsible to intercede and to see to it that his ward was compensated for his loss. The law thus speaks of the “avenger of blood,” (Deuteronomy 19:12), which is a poor translation. The word “avenger” is from the Hebrew word ga’al, which means a REDEEMER.
The Hebrew word dam, “blood,” does not mean bloodshed, but kinship. Hence, he is the Kinsman Redeemer, not the “avenger of blood” as men view it with carnal eyes. This was the legal term for the guardian (or judge) of the extended family who was responsible to maintain law and order and to resolve disputes according to the procedure given in Matthew 18:15-20.
The souls under the altar thus appeal to Christ as their Kinsman Redeemer, asking Him to rectify the wrongs done to them and to redeem their blood. This is not an appeal to destroy those who killed the martyrs, nor even to give the wicked ones what they “deserve.” What they deserve is what Jesus took upon Himself on the cross, for that is the meaning behind all sacrifice in the temple.
Jesus Himself showed the purpose of His sacrifice on the cross, saying in John 12:32, 33,
32 “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.
In other words, if Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, He will become their Kinsman Redeemer and will “draw all men” to Himself. He was using the prophetic metaphor of the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness which, if men looked upon it, they were healed (John 3:14, 15).
The Hebrew word ga’al, “redeemer,” is spelled with three Hebrew letters: gimel, alef, and lamed. The gimel is literally a camel, but it signifies being “lifted up.” The alef and lamed spell the word El, which is “God.” So ga’al literally means “to lift up God.” Hence, Jesus used this word picture of being lifted up on the cross as a subtle claim to deity as well as to show Himself as the Kinsman Redeemer, who would draw all men to Himself.
We see, then, that the martyrs cry out for the word of Jesus to be fulfilled. They do not cry out for divine “vengeance” upon those who shed their blood. They cry out for Jesus to fulfill His promise that if He was lifted up on the cross, He would draw all men to Himself. This is the true justice and “vengeance” of God. While the law holds every sinner accountable for sin, Jesus came as the Lamb of God to pay the penalty for the sin of the world.
This is part 51 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones