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30 December 2018

The Fifth and Sixth Seals (Revelation 6:9-17)

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The fifth seal reveals the souls of martyrs underneath an altar from which they cry out for vindication and justice. It represents faithful saints from a period before the Lamb’s victory still waiting for their vindication. The functional but generic description of souls “slain for the word of God and their testimony” points to this conclusion. The fifth seal thus coordinates the assembling of Old and New Testament saints into one united people.
     The Lamb responds not with chronological information but with the declaration that all God’s witnesses must complete their testimony and join the assembly to bring in God’s judgment and kingdom (11:18-19).
     Heavenly temple imagery is continued; the altar is before the throne not in Jerusalem. The martyrs wear priestly robes while offering the ultimate sacrifice; their blood has been poured out around the base of the altar.
(Revelation 6:9-11) – “And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God and their testimony. And they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Sovereign, holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And there was given to each one a white robe; and it was said to them that they should rest yet little while until their fellow-servants also and their brethren who should be killed even as they were should be fulfilled.”
      The fifth and sixth seals share several characteristics. In the first four seal openings John “heard” commands from the “living creatures.” With the fifth and sixth seals the stress changes to what he “sees,” and they begin with identical language (“And I saw when he opened the fifth seal…”; “And I saw when he opened the sixth seal…”). Both include verbal links to the vision of the innumerable multitude; both pose questions answered in that vision (7:9-17): “How long?” “Who is able to stand?”
     The fifth seal uses language and imagery from Zechariah 1:12-16, as well as Daniel 12:1-13; John links them to the fifth seal through common terminology and imagery. The sequence of the fifth seal is literary, not chronological. Its place is dictated by the Lamb sequentially opening seven seals.
      As the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John seesunder the altar the souls of them who had been slain on account of the word of God and on account of their testimony.”
     The “altar” corresponds to the brazen altar of burnt offering located in the court of the Tabernacle. Blood from sacrificial victims was poured out at the base of this altar (Exodus 30:1-10; Leviticus 4:7; Hebrews 9:4). The dead souls “underneath” the altar conform to this image; placing them under the altar identifies their deaths with that of the Lamb. Just he was “slain,” so also the souls under the altar (cp. Revelation 5:6).
     “Them that dwell on the earth” refers throughout Revelation to human society in opposition to God and the Lamb (3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8; 13:12-14; 17:2; 17:8). The reference is not to a geographical location but to life orientation, whether one belongs to the Lamb or to the Dragon (cp. 13:8; 13:12-14).
     Each martyr was given a white “robe” or stolé, a Greek term in the Septuagint for the vestments worn by priests (Exodus 28:4; 29:21; Ezekiel 44:19). They point to the priestly function of the martyrs but unlike Levitical priests they offered their own lives, not to atone but to bear witness. Their blood had been poured out at the base of the altar.
     John uses “soul” in the holistic sense typical of the Old Testament for human life, a person’s entire being (Leviticus 17:11, “the soul of the flesh is in the blood”). Similarly, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12).
     “White robe” (stolé leuké) is a link to the “innumerable multitude” (7:9-14). The victorious saints exited the great tribulation to stand before the Lamb clothed in “white robes” (stoléleuké). Through their perseverance in tribulation they “washed their robes (stolé) and made them white (leuké) by the blood of the Lamb.”
     This is not a picture of the righteous dead receiving just rewards “in heaven”; the “slain” souls were “underneath the altar” whence they call on God to vindicate their witness. They must wait for a “short time until the number of their fellow-servants and their brethren should be fulfilled.”
     Until the full number of witnesses is assembled, they must “rest yet a short time.” The same phrase occurs in Revelation 12:12, the enraged Dragon has “but a short season” and in 20:3 when Satan is loosed “a short time.” This terminology links the period during which the full complement of witnesses is being assembled with the time of Satan’s war against the saints (cp. Revelation 11:7; 12:17; 13:7; 20:7-9).
      With the fifth seal, John sees a group of martyred saints under the “altar.” What stands out is what he omits. The souls were slain “on account of their testimony,” a more generic description in contrast to other instances where saints have “the testimony of Jesus” (1:1; 1:9; 12:11; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4).
     The distinction becomes clearer in Revelation 17:6-7; the Great Whore is drunk with the “blood of the saints” AND with the “blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Two recognizable groups are observed. Both are saints but the latter group is identified with to the Lamb.
     The Whore rides the “beast with seven heads and ten horns.” Its seven heads represent seven kingdoms, five of which have already fallen in John’s day, one is present, and another is yet to come; and “when it comes it must continue a short while” (17:10). The reality represented by the Whore has existed for a long time; she has killed before.
     The martyrs’ plea echoes Daniel’s final vision:  “How long will it be to the end of these wonders?”
     Daniel was informed that in a future season “your people will be delivered, everyone found written in the book” (12:1). A voice cried out, “How long will it be until the end of these wonders?” The response:  “for a set time, times and part of a time, when the dispersion of a part of the holy people is fulfilled, then will come to an end all these things…Many will purify and make themselves white, and be refined…blessed is he that waits…But go your way until the end; for you will rest yet [anapauou eti] and stand in your portion at the end of the days.” Verbal parallels are based on the Septuagint version.
     Note the verbal parallels in Revelation 6:10-11, “How long, O Sovereign, Holy and True, do you not vindicate and avenge our blood from them that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to each one a white robe, and it was bidden them, that they should rest yet [anapauou eti] a little while until should be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brethren who are going to be killed, even as they.
     Note also the parallels from Zechariah 1:11-16, “Then responded they to the angel of Yahweh…We have gone to and fro through the earth, and all the earth rests and is quiet. Then the angel of Yahweh responded, O Lord Almighty, How long will you not have compassion upon Jerusalem and the cities of Judah against which you have had indignation seventy years? And Lord Almighty answered with pleasant and consoling words…Thus declares Lord Almighty, I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy; And with a great displeasure am I displeased with the nations at ease, in that when I was displeased a little, then they helped forward the calamity. Wherefore I have returned to Jerusalem with mercies; my house will be built in it, declares Lord Almighty, and a line will be stretched forth over JerusalemYet will my cities overflow with blessing.”
     The martyrs under the altar represent righteous saints who died before the Lamb’s victory.  They must wait until the last group of witnesses is added to their company, the completion of the kingdom of priests from all nations.  This must be accomplished before the judgment; the final tally of God’s witnesses must be completed and assembled.
     This background explains the passage in Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from now on; Yea, says the Spirit, that they may rest [anapauou eti] from their labors.”
     Likewise in Revelation 12:17; the woman represents the righteous remnant from the Old Covenant that produced the Messiah, the one destined to shepherd the nations (12:1-5). With his enthronement, the woman is taken to “a place prepared of God that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. She is now out of the Dragon’s reach. He is cast to the earth having great wrath, “because he knows that he has but a short time” Unable to persecute the woman, he “went off to make war with the rest of her seed, they who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
    At the beginning and the end of the book, Christ’s return is something glorious, an event eagerly anticipated by his followers. “Behold, he comes with clouds, and every eye shall see him”; “Surely I come quickly; even so, come, Lord Jesus” (1:7; 22:20). Yet when the sixth seal is opened only doom and destruction are revealed upon all men and the entire creation; there is no description of deliverance or vindication.
     All this is presented to raise a crucial question:  Who is able to stand before the Lamb on that day? That is the crux of the matter; all the noise and drama of the present creation order reaching its end functions to set the stage for this question.
     The fifth seal left the events hanging. The martyrs pleaded for judgment and vindication but did not receive it. Instead, they must wait for the gathering of the full number of witnesses. If judgment arrives at this point, no human being will be able to stand before God’s wrath.
  • (Revelation 6:12-17) – “And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell to the earth, even as a fig tree casts her untimely figs when shaken by a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!’ For the great day of his wrath is come, and who will be able to stand?”
The sixth seal is broken and the expected celestial and terrestrial trauma associated with the Day of the Lord appears. This is nothing less than the “great day of the wrath of God and of the Lamb.” Men from all societal ranks panic at the inevitable approach of wrath. Every attempt to hide is in vain, there is no escape for anyone.
     At the beginning and the end of the book, Christ’s return is something glorious, an event eagerly anticipated by his followers. “Behold, he comes with clouds, and every eye shall see him”; “Surely I come quickly; even so, come, Lord Jesus” (1:7; 22:20). Yet when the sixth seal is opened only doom and destruction are unleashed on all men and the entire creation; there is no description of deliverance or vindication.
     All this is presented to raise a crucial question:  Who is able to stand before the Lamb on that day? That is the crux of the matter; all the noise and drama of the present creation order reaching its end functions to set the stage for this question.
     The fifth seal left the events hanging. The martyrs pleaded for judgment and vindication but did not receive it. Instead, they must wait for the completion of the assembly of witnesses. If judgment arrives at this point, no human being will be able to stand before God’s wrath.
      The sixth seal produces “a great earthquake” to initiate chaos throughout the cosmos (cp. Revelation 8:5; 11:13-19; 16:18). This picture draws imagery from several Old Testament passages related to the “Day of Yahweh”:
  • (Joel 2:10) - “The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
  • (Joel 2:30-32) - “And I will set forth wonders in the heavens and on the earth; blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the coming of the great and awful Day of Yahweh.”
  • (Isaiah 34:3-5) - “Then shall be dissolved all the host of the heavens, and the heavens shall roll up as a scroll, Yea, all their host shall fade like the fading and falling of a leaf from a vine, and like what fades and falls from a fig-tree.”
      Thus this seal anticipates the “Day of Yahweh” (cp. Mark 13:24-27; Matthew 24:29-30; Luke 21:25). The disruption is portrayed as universal, not local, the overthrow of the existing order to make way for the in-breaking of the New Creation. This is not another series of plagues but the end of the age and final judgment. The “hour of trial” has arrived (3:10).
      Cosmic chaos causes terror in all levels of society; neither political rank nor economic standing can save anyone from God’s wrath. All hope is gone; it is too late for everyone when this day arrives. There is no place to hide and no escape. The section draws heavily on Isaiah 2:17-21. Note the verbal parallels:
(Isaiah 2:17-21) - “And the haughtiness of mean men shall be humbled and the loftiness of great menshall be laid low, and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day. And the idols shall wholly pass away, and they shall enter into the holes of the rocks and into the caves of clay, because of the terribleness of Yahweh and for his majestic splendor when he arises to shake terribly the earth. In that day shall the son of earth cast his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which had been made for him to worship, into the hole of the mice and to the bats; that he may enter into the clefts of the rocks and into the fissures of the crags, because of the terribleness of Yahweh and for his majestic splendor, when he arises to shake terribly the earth.”
     The inhabitants of the earth are divided into several categories ranging from kings to slaves: “kings of the earth, princes, chief captains, the rich, the strong, slaves and freemen” (6:15). Parallel groupings occur in Revelation 13:15-18 and 19:17-21 (“kings, captains, mighty men, freemen, slaves, the lowly and the great ones”).
     This is the predicted “hour of trial” to come upon the whole habitable earth (Revelation 3:10). Jesus promised the church at Philadelphia they would escape from this hour. The martyrs under the altar were told to wait for the completion of their number to receive vindication and to rest in the interim. Yet at this point in the narrative no one is prepared for the arrival of wrath, hence the question
      What strikes terror in men’s hearts is the knowledge that “wrath” is about to fall from which there is no escape. In the book of Revelation “wrath” (orgé) always refers to final judgment at the end of the age (11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15).
     The passage already included terminology from Joel 2:10-11, “great is the day of Yahweh and awful exceedingly, Who then shall endure it?” This may be the verbal source of the question. Another possible source is Nahum 1:2-6) – “Yahweh is an avenger and a lord of wrath, an avenger towards his adversaries…Mountains have trembled because of him, and the hills have melted, and the earth has lifted itself up at his presence, the world also and all who dwell in it. Before his wrath, who will stand? And who will abide by the fierceness of his wrath?
     But the primary Old Testament source for the sixth seal is Isaiah 2:19-22, as pointed out above. The passage from Isaiah ends with, “because of the terribleness of Yahweh and for his majestic, splendor, when he rises to shake terribly the earth. Cease from man in whose nostrils is breath, for what account is he?”
      The martyrs’ question in the fifth seal received a partial answer; they must wait for vindication until all the Lamb’s witnesses are assembled. But the sixth seal ends with its question left hanging. Can anyone stand before the Lamb?
     Both questions will be addressed in the next two paragraphs; the assembly of the complete number of witnesses (7:1-8), and an answer to the question: who is able to stand before the Lamb and the One who sits on the throne (7:9-17)?
     The events set into motion by the Lamb’s sacrificial death have yet to run their full course. The consummation of this process must wait until the full number of God’s witnesses is gathered “under the altar.”
     This is not about bringing in an exact number of martyrs foreordained in “eternity past,” but the completion of the testimony of God’s saints before the “inhabitants of the earth.” The vision of the sealing of 144,000 males from Israel (7:1-8) and its interpretation (7:9-17) will provide further insight.
    The Sixth Seal ends with an open question: Who is able to stand before the Lamb on the day of wrath? The noise and drama of the first six seals have set the stage for the answer to this question.

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