Fifth Seal: Cry of the Martyrs
Revelation 6:9-11 From the scenes of military, economic and ecological disaster on earth we jarringly find ourselves transported to an altar in heaven. There are souls under the altar, who are identified as martyrs “for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” [NRSV]. Oddly enough, these Christian martyrs are demanding that God avenge their blood.
Notice that God does not rebuke them for desiring something “ungodly” like revenge. This strikes me as an image similar to that of Abel’s blood crying out to God after his murder by his brother Cain in Genesis 4:1-15.
They are told to “rest” until the rest of their brothers who would soon be killed joined them in death. Using this image of souls under the altar, John seems to be telling the living believers in the seven churches that persecution is far from over. They can expect great tribulation in the days, years (and centuries?) ahead.
Warning: Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not for the faint of heart!
This theme of the persecutions of the people of God comes back in 7:9-17 and much of Chapters 11-14. It culminates in a call in 14:12-13 for the “saints” to obey “God’s commandments” as they endure to their deaths. As the fifth seal is elaborated more and more in the book, it becomes clear that one of the major reasons for the judgment of all the nations is the continuous killing of Jesus’ disciples by all the peoples of the earth. This continues the “Tribulation” theme noticed in 1:9 (See Part 2). It also suggests how interrelated the “Kingdom” and “Patient Endurance” themes are with the theme of “Tribulation.”
Sixth Seal: “So You Want to Play Rough, Do You?”
The sixth seal is a compressed view of God’s response to the death of His saints. The various elements of earthquakes, darkness, falling stars, vanishing sky and mountains being thrown around are Old Testament prophetic language for God’s judgment. God is going to “shake down” all of the governments and the evil on the earth to bring them down to size.
These elements reappear several times in the remainder of the book, including the great earthquake, which appears in the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet plague (Rev. 11:19) and the seventh “bowl” plague (16:17-18). This suggests that the three series of judgments (seals, trumpets and bowls) are intensifications of judgment rather than following specifically in time. See Leviticus 26:14-33 for an example of this kind of intensifying, also featuring the number 7. We will take a look at how these images reappear in a later installment.