God’s people are sealed during the Time of the End.

SUMMARY

THE FIFTH SEAL IS THE POINT IN TIME WHEN THE ANGEL BRINGS THE SEAL OF GOD OUT OF HEAVEN.

The first four seals (Rev 6:1-8) describe the timeless realities of the church age. But the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11) seems to be a specific point in history when the souls under the altar receive white robes and are told to rest for a little while longer (Rev 6:9-11).

The article on the fifth seal considered this question and proposes that the fifth seal symbolizes a general principle, namely that the persecution of God’s people call out to God to set things right.

However, Revelation 7:1-4, where an angel brings the seal of the living God out of heaven and 144000 are sealed, is parallel to the fifth seal. For example, both: 

    • Refer to the past, present, and to future;
    • Involve a delay until God’s people are mature;
    • Give a token of salvation to God’s people; and
    • Are followed by massive destruction.

As discussed in another article, the seal of God is only available in the end-timeThis means that the angel brings the seal down from heaven at a specific point in time. Then the parallels between the sealing and the fifth seal imply that the fifth seal is more than a general principle and also a point in history; the same point in time when the angel brings the seal out of heaven (Rev 7:1-3).

THE SEAL OF GOD COMES FROM HEAVEN IN THE TIME OF THE END.

Time of the EndThen the question is, what is this point in time? Since the book of Daniel is the foundation on which Revelation rests, we should find this point in history in Daniel. Since, in the fifth seal, God’s people are killed both before and after this point in time, we need to find a similar point in time in Daniel. There is such a point in time in Daniel 12, namely “the time of the end” (Dan 12:4), when the prophecies of Daniel will be understood:

    • Before that time, God’s people will be persecuted for “a time, times, and half a time” and
    • During “the time of the end,” they will “finish shattering the power of the holy people” (Dan 12:7).

For these reasons, it is proposed that the point in history, when the souls under the altar are told to rest a little while longer, and when the angel brings the seal of God out of heaven, is the beginning of “the time of the end.”

THE LITTLE BOOK OF REVELATION 10 ALSO COMES FROM HEAVEN IN THE TIME OF THE END.

This conclusion finds support in Revelation 10. In that chapter, an angel brings something else out of heaven at a specific point in time, namely “a little book which was open” (Rev 10:1-2). He gives it to John to eat and tells John to “prophesy again” (Rev 10:9-11). In doing this, John symbolizes the church receiving a special message from heaven.

What makes the prophecy of Revelation 10 particularly relevant to the discussion above is that the little open book is understanding of the book of Daniel (see discussion below). This means that the little book comes down from heaven at the beginning of the time of the end (Dan 12:4). Therefore, both the seal of God and the little book come out of heaven in “the time of the end.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

IS THE FIFTH SEAL
A POINT IN TIME?

The first horseman (the first seal) has been interpreted as the gospel going out. This does not happen at one specific point in time; it happens throughout the church age. The same applies to the bloodshed, famine, and pestilence of the next three horsemen. The first four seals, therefore, describe timeless characteristics of the church age.

But the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11) seems to be a specific point in history. It describes God’s slain souls underneath the altar crying out:

How long, O Lord, holy and true,
will You refrain from judging and avenging
our blood on those who dwell on the earth?

But they are told to wait. Each of them is given a white robe and they are told that to:

Rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants …
who were to be killed …
would be completed also.

IT IS NOT A POINT IN TIME.

The article on the fifth seal considered this question and found indications that the fifth seal is not a specific point in history:

    • John sees the souls under the altar; symbolizing that God’s people are sacrificed on the altar for their witness. People have been dying for their witness ever since Abel.
    • They cry out for revenge; symbolizing God’s awareness of the injustice to His people and His desire to set things right. God has always been aware of this.
    • These “soulsreceive white robes; indicating acceptance into God’s kingdom. In Revelation, people keep and make their robes white while alive on earth (Rev 3:4-5, 18; 7:14; 19:7-8). They do not receive white robes at any specific point in history.
    • And they are told to waita little while longer.” In Revelation, time is always short (Rev 1:1, 3 and 12:12), so this does not prove that this is a specific event soon before the return of Christ.

IT IS A GENERAL PRINCIPLE.

The article on the fifth seal, therefore, proposes that the fifth seal is not a specific point in history but a general principle, namely that the main point of the seals is that the gospel will go out (first seal) but it will be rejected and God’s people will be persecuted. This is consistent with the conclusion that the sealed book is the book of life and that the purpose of breaking the seals is to refute Satan’s objections to the people whom God has chosen for eternal life. By breaking the seals, Christ directs events on earth to show that God’s decisions are perfect and that the people whom God has chosen for eternal life are worthy.  Similarly, Christ admonished the seven letters:

To him who overcomes,
I will grant to eat of the tree of life
which is in the Paradise of God
” (Rev 2:7).

Revelation knows nothing of the doctrine that is so prevalent in Protestantism, namely that God randomly chooses people, irrespective of how they live. For a discussion, see, Man is judged by his deeds; not justified by the works of the law.

THE SEALING IS PARALLEL TO THE FIFTH SEAL.

Revelation 7:1-4 describes the sealing of God’s people. While four angels hold back the four winds of the earth, another angel ascends from the east (the rising of the sun) with the seal of the living God and cry out to the four angels:

Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees
until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God
on their foreheads
” (Rev 7:3).

Then follows the sealing of the 144000 (Rev 7:4). For the following reasons, it is proposed that the sealing is parallel to the fifth seal:

1. Both precede the sixth seal.

The fifth seal precedes the sixth. The sealing also must precede the sixth seal because the sixth seal has the signs of Christ’s return while the sealing of God’s people must precede His return.

2. Both refer to the past, present, and to future.

FIFTH SEAL THE SEALING
PAST Some of God’s people have been martyred. Four angels have been restraining the winds
PRESENT White robes are given to the souls under the altar after. An angel brings the seal of God from the east.
FUTURE Their brethren must be completed. The angels will continue to restrain the winds until all of God’s servants are sealed.

3. Both involve a delay
until something happens to God’s people.

      • Fifth seal – The souls must “rest a little while longer” until their “fellow servants” have been completed.
      • Sealing – The release of the winds is delayed until the servants of God are sealed (Rev 7:1-3).

4. Both complete the saints qualitatively.

      • Fifth seal – The Greek text does not contain the word “number.” It contains the verb plêrôthôsin which means “filled, completed, made full.”  The NASB adds “the number” (Rev 6:11), but put it in italics. The article on the Fifth Seal explains this as qualitative completion.
      • Sealing – 144000 are sealed (Rev 7:4-8). The article on the 144000 explains that this number must be understood qualitatively; not quantitatively.

5. In both, a token of salvation is given to the saints.

      • Fifth seal – White robes (Rev 6:11)
      • Sealing – The seal of the living God (Rev 7:1-3)

6. Both are followed by massive destruction.

      • The fifth seal is followed by the 6th seal in which a great earthquake displaces all mountains and islands.
      • The sealing is followed by the winds that “harm” the earth and sea.

7. Both are followed by the plagues of Revelation 16.

      • Fifth seal: Still another article concluded that the Sixth Seal includes or follows after the seven last plagues. This means that the fifth seal is followed by the seven last plagues.
      • Sealing: A previous article concluded that the “winds” of Rev 7:1 are another symbol for the seven last plagues. Since the sealing precedes the release of the winds, the sealing precedes the seven last plague,

THE FIFTH SEAL BEGINS THE SEALING.

It was argued previously that the seal of God is only available in the end-time. That means that the angel brings the seal of God down from heaven at a specific point in time during the church age. The parallels between the sealing and the fifth seal steer us into the direction that the fifth seal is not merely a general principle but that it:

    • Also refers to a point in history and that it
    • Refers to the same point in history as in the sealing, namely when the angel brings the seal of the living God out of heaven (Rev 7:1-3).

These parallels also imply that:

1) The seal of God is related to the white robe of the fifth seal. However, they are not the same. Both signify acceptance into God’s eternal kingdom. But they are different because God’s resting (dead) saints (Rev 6:11; Dan 12:13) receive the white robe while the living saints receive the seal of God.

2) The ‘completion of their “fellow servants” in the fifth seal is the same as the sealing of “the bond-servants of our God” (Rev 7:3).

WHAT POINT IN TIME IS IN VIEW?

If we then conclude that the fifth seal also describes a specific point in history, namely when an angel brings the seal of God from heaven, then the question is, what is this point in time?

It must be much later than Christ’s ascension because there are four seals between Christ’s ascension and enthronement (as described in Revelation 5) and the fifth seal. But it is before the return of Christ, for the next (sixth) seal has the signs associated with the return of Christ (Rev 6:12-17; cf. Matt 24:29). The fifth seal, therefore, is a point in history close to the end of the church age. For it to be specifically identified like this, something specific and important happens at that point in time.

THE POINT IN TIME IN DANIEL

The book of Daniel is the foundation on which Revelation is built. (For a discussion of the links between Daniel and Revelation, see the Seventh Seal. E.g. Rev 10:6; 13:2) For that reason, and because the point in time in the fifth seal must be important, we should be able to find it mentioned by Daniel’s prophecies.

Since the theme of the fifth seal is the persecution of God’s people, with the killing of God’s people both before and after this point in time (Rev 6:9-11), we need to find a point in time in Daniel’s prophecies that also has the persecution of God’s people both before and after that point in time. There is such a point in time in Daniel 12:

TIME OF THE END
– A TIME PERIOD

Daniel 12:4 reads:

But as for you, Daniel,
conceal these words and seal up the book
until the end of time;
many will go back and forth,
and knowledge will increase
” (Dan 12:4).

The phrase “end of time” sounds like one specific day right at the end of history. But Young’s Literal Translation renders it as “the time of the end,” which may be understood as a time period. For the following reasons, that is perhaps a better translation:

    • Daniel uses a different phrase for the very end of time, namely “the end of the days” (Dan 12:13 YLT) or “the end of the age” (Dan 12:13 NASB). At “the end of the days,” Daniel himself will “rise again for your allotted portion” (Dan 12:13). This is when “your people … will be rescued” (Dan 12:1) and “many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake” (Dan 12:2).
    • Furthermore, verse 4 indicates that “the time of the end” is not a point in time but a period during which “knowledge will increase,” namely knowledge of Daniel’s prophecies. This means that “the time of the end,” is not a single moment but a time period.

TWO PERSECUTIONS

Then, in Daniel 12:5, an angel asks:

How long will it be until the end of these wonders?

These wonders” refer to the resurrection of the dead and the events preceding it, as mentioned in the first verses of Daniel 12. This question received a double answer:

    • It would be for a time, times, and half a time;
    • and as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed” (Daniel 12:7).

The “time, times, and half a time” is first mentioned in Daniel 7:25, where it is the period during which the evil horn will persecute “the saints of the Highest One.” This evil horn grows out of the Roman Empire and has been identified as the Church of the Middle Ages. Consequently, the “time, times, and half a time” refer to the Middle Ages. Daniel 7:25 identifies it specifically as a period of persecution for God’s people.

While Daniel 7 and 8, where we find the “time, times, and half a time” for the first time, focus on history in general, the focus in Daniel 12 is on the end-time, as indicated by the references in the opening verses to the resurrection of the dead (Dan 12:2-3) and the promise in verse 4 that Daniel’s prophecies would be understood in “the time of the end” (Dan 12:4, 9). For this reason, it is proposed that the “finish shattering the power of the holy people” (Dan 12:7) is NOT part of the “time, times, and half a time” but a separate and later period of persecution DURING “the time of the end.

Given the context in Daniel 12, the “finish shattering the power of the holy people” is the final end-time persecution that will follow after Daniel’s prophecies have been understood and preached.

POINT IN TIME IN DANIEL 12

Daniel 12, therefore, also refers to a specific point in history with persecution on both sides of it. That point in time is the beginning of “the time of the end” when the prophecies of Daniel will be understood:

Before that point in time, God’s people were persecuted for “a time, times, and half a time.

After that point in time, during “the time of the end,” the prophecies of Daniel would be become understood and preached, followed by the “finish shattering the power of the holy people.

THE BEGINNING OF THE TIME OF THE END

Since both the fifth seal and Daniel 12 refer to a specific point in time in history, with persecution both before and after this point in time, and since Revelation is built on the foundation of Daniel’s prophecies, it is proposed that the point in history in the fifth seal, when the souls under the altar are told to rest a little while longer, and when the angel brings the seal of God out of heaven, is the beginning of “the time of the end.”

THE LITTLE BOOK OF REVELATION 10 ALSO COMES FROM HEAVEN IN THE TIME OF THE END.

We encounter another point in history in Revelation 10. An angel comes down from heaven. “He had in his hand a little book which was open” (Rev 10:1-2). He gives it to John to eat and tells John to “prophesy again concerning many peoples” (Rev 10:9-11). In this prophecy, John is not only an observer but symbolizes the church. It means that the church will receive a special message from heaven with instructions to “prophesy again,” which means that the church already prophesied before it received the new message from heaven. The new message coming down from heaven, therefore, is another point in history time, with prophesying both before and after this moment.

What makes the prophecy of Revelation 10 particularly relevant to the discussion above is that the little open book is understanding of the book of Daniel. This is made clear by the many parallels between Revelation 10 and Daniel 12. Compare, particularly, the oaths in Daniel 12:7 and Rev 10:5-7. This means that John’s eating of the little book symbolizes understanding of Daniel’s prophecies and the “prophesy again” is the preaching thereof. 

Since the little book from heaven is understanding of the book of Daniel, and since Daniel 12 promised that the book of Daniel will be understood in the time of the end, the little book comes down from heaven at the beginning of the time of the end.

In conclusion:

The ‘present time’ in both the seals and in the trumpets is the point in time in Daniel 12 when Daniel’s prophecies will be understood.

Both the seal of the living God and the little open book come down out of heaven at the beginning of “the time of the end.

There is another connection between the sealing (Rev 7:1-3) and the little open book (Rev 10:1-11); both are the first part of the interlude between the sixth and the seventh elements of their respective series. Both interludes, therefore, start at the beginning of the time of the end and describe events up to “the end of the age” (Dan 12:13; cf. Rev 8:1 and 11:15), with the seventh elements being “the end of the age” itself.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

The fifth seal symbolizes a general principle, but also a point in history; the same point in time when the angel brings the seal out of heaven (Rev 7:1-3).

This is the beginning of “the time of the end.”

This is also when the “a little book which was open” (Rev 10:1-2) comes out of heaven.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

For further reading on Revelation, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

Souls under the altar in the Fifth Seal (Revelation 6:9-11)

6:9 When the Lamb 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;

10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying,
“How long, O Lord, holy and true,
will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood
on those who dwell on the earth?”

11 And there was given to each of them a white robe;
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also.

SUMMARY

A POINT IN TIME OR A PRINCIPLE?

Is the fifth seal a specific event at a specific point in time or a general principle?

God’s slain people would not cry out for revenge, as they are symbolized to do in the fifth seal. Rather, like Jesus and Stephan, they would say, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)! This, therefore, is not a literal cry for revenge. Rather, it is similar to Abel’s blood that cried out to God from the ground (Gen 4:10). The crying out, therefore, symbolizes the general principle that God is aware of the injustice to His people and His desire to set things right. It is not something that happens at a specific point in time.

In response to their cry, they receive white robes. The implication is that receiving white robes is also not a specific event, but a general principle. 

The fifth seal, therefore, seems to symbolize the general principle that, during the church age, “they will … kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. … But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matt 24:9-11).

The main message of the seals is that God’s people remain faithful until death:

Before Christ became a human being, He defended God’s elect and God’s judgments, but Satan accused Him of being a false witness. The Son of God then became the vulnerable man Jesus and overcame the most severe temptations to reveal Himself as “the faithful and true Witness” (Rev 3:13; 5:5, 9).

Similarly, Satan accused God’s elect. They must suffer to reveal the true nature of God’s elect; they overcome the accuser because of the word of their testimony, and they do not love their life even when faced with death (Rev 12:11).

This is required for the final judgment, through which God will recreate eternal peace (Rev 21:1). In that judgment, the books will be opened. “The dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:12).

THE SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR ARE NOT ALIVE.

The fifth seal is often used to support the popular belief that believers go to heaven in a bodiless state when they die. However, below are several reasons why this must not be interpreted literally:

    1. In Old Testament sacrificial rituals, the blood of animals was “poured out” at the base of the altar. The fifth seal converts this ritual into a metaphor: God’s people are symbolically sacrificed ON the altar. They are not literally under a literal altar.
    2. The idea that humans consist of two parts – a physical body and an immaterial soul – comes from Greek philosophy. In the Bible, the soul refers to the entire human being (cf. Gen 2:7; 1 Cor 14:45).
    3. There are two indications in the text that the souls under the altar are dead:
      • They are told to “rest” for a while longer (Rev 6:11). “Rest” refers to death. For example, an angel said to Daniel: “You will enter into rest and rise again … at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13).
      • The same “souls” that are under the altar in the fifth seal “came to life” when Christ returns (Rev 20:2). That means that they are not alive today.
    4. For two reasons, the crying out for revenge is not literal:
      • God’s people would not cry for revenge. While dying, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34)!
      • Similar to Abel’s blood that cried out to God from the ground (Gen 4:10), the cry of the souls symbolizes God’s awareness of the suffering of His people.
    5. The souls under the altar receive white robes, which is confirmation of salvation, “a little while” before Christ returns (Rev 6:11). Therefore it makes no sense to suggest that they, at death, go directly to heaven.

CONCLUSION

There is much good quality information on the web that explains the Biblical view of the soul. For example, see What Does the Bible Say About the “Immortal Soul”? 

From a human perspective, time elapses between death and resurrection but the faithful dead are in God’s care and with God, time does not exist. From the experience of the dead, they are resurrected immediately on death.

GOD’S PEOPLE ARE COMPLETED IN CHARACTER; NOT IN NUMBER.

Verse 11 reads:

And there was given to each of them a white robe;
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also.

This translation adds the words “number of.” However, there is no such word in the Greek text of this verse. For the following reasons, the phrase “the number of” should not be added:

      • Would a God of love arbitrarily decree that a fixed number of people must suffer before He would interfere?
      • In Revelation 7, we see the people who receive white robes in the fifth seal standing before the throne of God. It is then said that “no one could count” them (Rev 7:9). So, the number is not important.

Elsewhere, Revelation indicates that completed” should be understood qualitatively, namely that God’s people must be completed in character; not in number. For example, in end-time context:

    • His bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7-8).
    • The 144000 are sealed on their foreheads (their minds) with the name (the character) of God (Rev 7:3; 14:1).
    • It is said of the 144000: 
      no lie was found in their mouth;
      they are blameless
      ” (Rev 14:4-5).

God’s end-time people will not be perfect in an absolute sense, but they will be completely loyal to God as David apparently was in spite of his many flaws (1 Kings 11:4-6).

– END OF SUMMARY – 

CONTEXT OF THE FIFTH SEAL

The Lamb is Jesus Christ (Rev 5:6). In Rev 5:7, He received the book that is sealed with seven seals. This book symbolizes the book of life, identifying the people God has chosen for eternal life. Jesus breaks the seals in the next two chapters:

The four horsemen in the first four seals portray the experience of people during the Christian age; the gospel going out, followed by persecution, famine and death.

The sixth seal shifts the focus to the end of time. The sealing of the 144000 in Rev 7:1-8 jumps back in time to before the sixth seal. The sixth seal continues with the innumerable multitude standing before the throne of God, dressed in the white robes they received in the fifth seal (Rev 7:9-17).

The seventh seal is extremely brief; only “silence in heaven” (Rev 8:1). This is interpreted as the sorrow in God’s heart at the destruction of the lost at the return of Christ.

THE FIFTH SEAL IS DIFFERENT FROM THE PREVIOUS.

We might expect the fifth seal to continue along the lines of the previous four. But instead, there are significant differences:

Horses, riders, and the four living creatures are central to the first four seals but completely absent from the fifth.

The voices heard in the first four seals are heavenly ones; the voices of the four living creatures and a voice from the “midst of the throne” (Rev 6:6). The voices in the fifth and sixth seals are that of suffering humanity:

        • The cries of the persecuted saints (Rev 6:10) and
        • The anguish of the wicked as they contemplate the approaching wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:16-17).
          (There are no voices at all in the seventh seal (Rev 8:1).)

What is added in the fifth seal, compared to the first four, is a strong sense of judgment. The souls under the altar cry for judgment and vengeance.

These differences signal a shift of emphasis in the fifth seal.

4-2-1 STRUCTURE OF THE SEALS

The seals, similar to the seven trumpets, may be divided into a 4-2-interlude-1 sequence:

Him Who sat on the White HorseFirst Four – The first four are much shorter than the others and portray the general realities of the whole Christian age.

Fifth & Sixth – Since the fifth and sixth seals are much longer than the first four, they are probably more important. They also shift the focus towards the end-time. The fifth seal promises the judgment of the people who oppress God’s people. The sixth seal shows the end condition of these two groups:

        • Those who will hide “from the presence of Him who sits on the throne” (Rev 6:16) and
        • Those who stand before His throne with palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).

Interlude – In both the seals and the trumpets, there is an interlude (interruption) in or after the sixth element in the series (Rev 7:1-8; 10:1 – 11:14). These interludes are very important because they reveal much about the nature of the seals and trumpets respectively, but in language that is easier to understand.

Seventh – The seventh seal is extremely brief. There is only “silence in heaven” (Rev 8:1). Furthermore, while the first six seals focus on earth, the seventh is located in heaven.

REVELATION 6:9

When the Lamb 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;

THE ALTAR

This is not a literal altar. There were two altars in the ancient Jewish temple:

      • The altar of incense was inside the temple.
      • The very large altar of burnt offerings was outside the temple in the center of the courtyard. Smoke from the sacrifices would rise over the city.

SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR

A casual reading of this text could leave the impression of disembodied souls literally crying out to God. This text is often used to support the popular belief that believers go to heaven in a bodiless state when they die. However, this is symbolic language:

AN ANCIENT TEMPLE RITUAL

According to Revelation 16:6, the people of the world “poured out the blood of saints and prophets.” This refers to the ancient temple ritual in which the blood of the animal sacrifices was drained into a basin and poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering (Exo 29:12; Lev 9:9, see also Exo 39:39; 40:29; Lev 4:7, 18, 25, 10, 34, etc.). Ancients noticed that when the blood is poured out, the animal dies. Therefore, they regarded blood to be the life of the being (Lev 17:11). In that thinking, the life of the animals was been “poured out” at the base of the altar. Paul echoes this thinking in 2 Timothy 4:6: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering” (see also Philippians 2:17).

The fifth seal uses this as a symbol of God’s slain people. They are represented as “underneath the altar.” In other words, God’s people are symbolized as having been sacrificed ON the altar and their lives are poured out “underneath the altar;” at the base of the altar.

IN GREEK PHILOSOPHY

In Greek philosophy, human beings consist of two parts; a physical body and an immaterial soul. In this view, when a person dies, it is the body that dies and disintegrates into nothing but the soul lives on in a disembodied state.

In contrast, in the biblical context, the human being is a unity. The soul is the living combination of God’s breath (or life principle) and the material body (Gen 2:7). In other words, human beings do not have souls, they are souls. In light of the biblical context, this passage does not depict disembodied souls. It depicts whole persons, who died for their faith, as sacrificed on the altar. (For a discussion, see What Does the Bible Say About the “Immortal Soul”?)

COME ALIVE WHEN CHRIST RETURNS

Revelation 20:4 confirms this understanding. It is part of the description of Christ’s return (Rev 19:11). It describes the same group of people as in the fifth seal and says that they will come alive when Christ returns:

I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and the word of God. … they came to life” (Rev 20:4).

If they come to life when Jesus returns, they are not alive today.

Revelation 20:4 refers specifically to “those who had been beheaded” but they represent all martyrs throughout history. Actually, they, and therefore the martyrs in the fifth seal, include all of God’s people of all ages; also those that have not been killed for their faith. In Revelation’s symbolism, all of God’s people are murdered because all God’s people suffer some form of persecution.

RESURRECTED IMMEDIATELY AFTER DEATH

The faithful dead are in God’s care. With God, time does not exist. From our perspective, there is a time delay between death and resurrection but from the perspective of God and in the experience of His dead people, they are resurrected immediately after death.

WHAT DID JOHN SEE?

John is described as seeing “souls” (Greek: psuchas) under the altar. What did he see? What does a soul look like? He did not see things through his physical eyes. In vision, images and thoughts came directly to his mind. Perhaps he simply knew things in vision, rather than receiving visual images. Artists have great difficulty drawing the images of Revelation because these images were not designed to be seen.

SLAIN = SACRIFICED

In the Greek Old Testament (LXX), the Greek word translated “slain” is the primary word used in connection with sanctuary sacrifices (Exo 29:11, 16, 20; 34:25; Lev 1:5, 11; 3:2, 8, 11; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33, etc.). This confirms that Revelation presents these people as sacrificed on the altar. The Book of Revelation also uses this word for Christ’s death (Rev 5:6; cf. 13:8).

THEY INCLUDE ALL OF GOD’S PEOPLE.

Earlier in the book of Revelation, the phrases “word of God” and “the testimony which they had maintained” describe the revelation John received (Rev 1:2). It is also the reason John himself was on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). These phrases indicate that the souls under the altar died because they were faithful to the gospel. However, since Revelation 20:4 shows that they represent all of God’s people, it may be more appropriate be to say that they remained faithful to God to the day of their death, in spite of the persecution they suffered.

REVELATION 6:10

and they cried out with a loud voice, saying,
“How long, O Lord, holy and true,
will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood
on those who dwell on the earth?”

CRIED OUT

In the first four seals, the voices came from heaven. Now, the loud voice comes from the souls under the altar.

The souls under the altar cry out for revenge. This does not confirm some kind of spirit-existence in heaven. God said that the blood of Abel is crying out to Him from the ground (Gen 4:10). It was not Abel that cried out because Abel himself was not conscious; Abel’s blood cried out. In the same way, the souls under the altar cry out for revenge (Rev 6:10) in a figurative manner. It should not be understood as the desire of God’s people for revenge but as God’s awareness of the suffering of His people on earth and His desire to set things right.

HOW LONG, O LORD

This cry has a long history in the Old Testament. It was used repeatedly around the time of the first destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). For example:

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? … make known among the nations that you avenge the out poured blood of your servants.” (Psalm 79:5-6, 10 – NIV; cf. Psalm 94:3; cf. Hab 1:2; Dan 8:13; 12:6; Zech 1:12 – NIV)

According to Revelation 6, this same cry will continue in John’s future. “How long” is a cry of protest over persecution. People suffer but God does not seem to be doing anything about the wrongs of the past.

O LORD

It is not clear whether “Lord” here is addressed to God or to Christ. Revelation refers to both God and Jesus as “Lord:”

    • Him who sits on the throne … Him who lives forever and ever … our Lord and our God … You created all things” (Rev 4:10-11; cf. 1:8; 11:15, 17; 15:3-4; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22).
    • Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (Rev 11:8; cf. 17:14; 19:16; 22:20-21).

But John also addressed one of the elders as “lord” (Rev 7:14). In the Greek, it is the same word (kurios). Whether the first letter is capitalized depends on the context.  When the title “God” is used in combination with “Lord,” it refers to the Father.

The context, therefore, must indicate whether “Lord” here refers to God or to Christ. In Rev 19:1, God is praised for avenging the blood of His people. For that reason, our verse (Rev 6:10) probably refers to God.

THE HOLY AND TRUE ONE

This combination of “holy” and “true” recalls Jesus’ self-introduction to the church at Philadelphia (Rev 3:7). This may indicate that this cry is directed to the Lamb. On the other hand, in 16:4-6 the “Almighty” is said to be the “Holy One” and “true,” and the title “Almighty” always refers to the Father (e.g. Rev 21:22).

When humans are called “holy,” it means devout or pleasing to God (1 Tim 2:8; Tit 1:8). Revelation says of “Lord God, the AlmightyYou alone are holy” (Rev 15:3-4; cf. 16:5). As the One who exists without a cause, the Almighty is truly different from all else. The word in Revelation 6:10, on the other hand, is hagios, which means ‘set apart’ by God, and is a more appropriate choice for Christ than for God.

The word for true means the perfect realization of an idea. For example, while Moses gave the Israelites bread, Jesus is the true bread (John 6:31-32). While Israel was the vine of God’s planting (Psa 80:8; Isa 5:1-7), Christ is the true vine (John 15:1). While the Bible refers to Jesus as theos a number of times, the Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3).

DO YOU NOT JUDGE AND AVENGE OUR BLOOD

Revelation 19:1-2 uses the same words “judge and avenge” when “a great multitude in heaven” says:

He has judged the great harlot … He has avenged the blood of his bond-servants on her.

This great multitude, therefore, praises God for complying with the request of the souls under the altar. Revelation 19 is a continuation of the seventh plague, where:

Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath” (Rev 16:19).
In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (Rev 18:24).

Her judgment, therefore, is the answer to the cries of the souls under the altar.

Many are troubled by the implication that here the people of God in some sense are calling on God for vengeance, seemingly contrary to the example of Stephen (Acts 7:60) and Jesus Christ Himself, who, while dying, cried out “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)! But it is not the slain ones themselves who are calling for vengeance, any more than it was Abel himself who cried out to God from the ground (Gen 4:10). These are figures of speech, symbolizing God’s burning desire to set things right.

There is no vengeance with God. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44, ESV). This reflects God’s character. In the end, God will set things right, but not because He hates or is angry. God does not have “an impatient thirst for blood revenge” (Expositor’s Greek New Testament). God will deal with oppressors in the most constructive way possible.

THOSE WHO LIVE ON THE EARTH

Consistently in the book of Revelation, “those who live on the earth” represents those who oppose God and His people (Rev 1:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:2). In contrast, the faithful saints of God are depicted as “those who live in heaven” (Rev 13:6; cf. 14:3; 15:2). 

As an example of this, Revelation 12 describes a war in heaven (verse 7) but then verse 11 implies that the war in heaven was won on earth:

They overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.

Therefore, is that war literally or symbolically in heaven? It is a war of accusations (Rev 12:10) that is won by demonstrations, firstly of the character (worthiness – Rev 5:9) of the Son of God, but secondly also of the faith of God people (Rev 12:11). I would propose that we understand this as a literal war of words in heaven that is won through demonstrations on earth.

As another example, Revelation 19 describes the return of Christ. “The armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (Rev 19:14). Fine linen is the clothing of God people on earth (see below) and of angels (Mark 16:5), and the “white horses” remind of the white horse of the first seal, which is the gospel. Elsewhere in the Bible, “the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels” (Matt 16:26). Are the “armies which are in heaven” angels or people on earth?

Examples like these show how difficult it is to distinguish between heaven and earth in the book of Revelation.

REVELATION 6:11

And there was given to each of them a white robe;
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer,
until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren
who were to be killed even as they had been,
would be completed also.

AND THERE WAS GIVEN
TO EACH OF THEM A WHITE ROBE

The robe (Gr. stolê) is a long, flowing robe (Luke 15:22; 20:46) which is also worn by angels (Mark 16:5) and by Jesus:

I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet” (Rev 1:13).

White robes” and related terms are mentioned elsewhere in Revelation:

      • You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:4-5).
          
      • Buy from me … white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed” (Rev 3:18).
          
      • Behold, a great multitude which no one could count … clothed in white robes … they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:7-14).
           
      • The marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev 19:7-8)
          
      • Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame” (Rev 16:15).

From these verses, we learn the following:

White robes are a sign of acceptance with God.

The white robes given to each of these martyrs is the assurance that they will be accepted in the judgment at the end of time. For example:

      • The innumerable multitude “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
      • He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:4-5).
      • In Revelation 20:4-6, the souls under the altar, who have received these white robes, “came to life and reigned with Christ.”
      • In Matt 22:11-14, Jesus told a parable of a wedding where there was a man “who was not dressed in wedding clothes.” The king then gave instructions that the man be thrown “into the outer darkness.”
      • Isaiah also wrote: “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD … For He has clothed me with garments of salvation” (Isa 61:10).

White is the same as clean.

White is the opposite of “soiled” (Rev 3:4-5). White and “clean” have the same meaning (Rev 7:7-14). In Revelation, the color white is always associated with God and His people. (See the discussion of the first seal.)

AND THEY WERE TOLD
THAT THEY SHOULD REST
FOR A LITTLE WHILE LONGER

This phrase implies that they have been resting and currently still are resting. It is the injustice they had to endure that cries out to God; not living beings. “Rest” means that they are sleeping, for example:

    • Those who have died in the Lord “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Rev 14:13).
    • The righteous man perishes … They rest in their beds” (Isa 57:1-2).
    • An angel said to Daniel: “You will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Dan 12:13).
    • Earlier in Daniel, we read: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake” (Dan 12:2).

The phrase “little while” occurs again in Revelation 20:3, saying that Satan, at the end of the millennium, will be loosed for a short time from his chains in the Abyss. Revelation always describes time as short (Rev 1:1, 3 and 12:12). The time on this earth is “little” in comparison with eternity.

Since they must rest for only “a little while” longer, it means that they receive their white robes only “a little while” before Christ’s return. Therefore, it makes no sense to suggest that the righteous dead at death goes directly to heaven or that the wicked dead go directly to hell.

UNTIL THE NUMBER OF THEIR FELLOW SERVANTS AND THEIR BRETHREN WHO WERE TO BE KILLED EVEN AS THEY HAD BEEN, WOULD BE COMPLETED ALSO.

Servants and Brethren

The “servants” and “brothers” are mentioned together again in Revelation 19:10 and 22:9. They refer to the same people. They are “servants” of the “master” (“Lord”—Greek: despotês – Rev 6:10) but also brothers of Christ.

Completed

Since it may seem awkward to say that people must be completed, many translations add the phrase “number of” to the verse. However, there is no such word in the Greek text. The NASB puts “the number of” in italics to acknowledge that it has been added.

For the following reasons, the phrase “the number of” should not be added:

      • If John meant that the “full number” must be “completed,” he would have stated that.
      • In Rev 7:9-14, John indicates that no one will be able to number those who come through the great tribulation. So, the number does not seem to be important.
      • Would a God of love arbitrarily decree that a fixed number of people must suffer before He would interfere?

According to the Greek, it is not the number to be killed that was to be made complete. Rather, the fellow servants and brothers must be “completed” in character.  There are many indications in Revelation that God’s end-time people will be made ‘complete’ in character before Christ returns:

      • His bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7-8).
      • The 144000 are sealed on their foreheads with the name of God (Rev 7:3; 14:1).
      • They “follow the Lamb wherever He goes …
        no lie was found in their mouth;
        they are blameless
        ” (Rev 14:4-5).
      • Those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14).

God’s people may not be perfect in an absolute sense, but they are completely loyal to God as David apparently was in spite of his many flaws (1 Kings 11:4-6).

This is discussed further in the article on the sealing (Rev 7:1-8). That article shows that to “be completed” is the same as that God’s 144000 Israelites are sealed on their foreheads. Until they are all sealed, the winds (the seven last plagues) are delayed.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

      • The souls under the altar are NOT believers that went to heaven in a bodiless state when they died. Rather, it is a symbol of God’s slain people as sacrificed ON the altar.
         
      • The cry of the souls under the altar for revenge is a symbol of God’s awareness of the suffering of His people and His desire to set things right.
         
      • The answer to the cry of the martyrs is the seventh plague; the judgment of Babylon.
         
      • White robes are a sign of acceptance with God.
         
      • God’s people have to clean their own robes. People are judged by their “deeds” but salvation is a gift by God’s grace; never deserved.
         
      • The souls under the altar must wait until God’s end-time people have been made complete in character; not in number.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

OTHER ARTICLES

THE BOOK OF DANIEL

BOOK OF REVELATION

OTHER ARTICLES