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Revelation 6:9-11 meaning

The fifth seal is broken, and this time the souls of the martyred speak and ask God how much longer they will have to wait for His judgement. God responds and tells them to rest while they wait for the remainder of the martyrs to join them. 

In Revelation 6:9-11, those who were killed for their faith in Jesus speak up. The scroll that was revealed in Revelation 5 is now being opened by breaking a series of seals. This is done by the Lamb, Jesus, the only one in all of heaven, and earth, and under the earth, who was found worthy to break the seals and open the scroll. There are seven seals on the scroll, so each time the Lamb will break open a seal, the contents of a new portion of the scroll is revealed. Rather than words alone, the story comes to life, and John watches the scene from God’s throne room, which is the seat of ultimate authority. 

Now, the Lamb broke the fifth seal. For the prior four seals, John describes that he heard one of the four living creatures say, ‘Come’” (Revelation 6:7). Each of the four creatures called forth and bestowed authority upon one of four horsemen. We were introduced to the four living creatures in Revelation 4:6-8 as attendants to God’s throne, who continuously give Him glory. 

With the fifth seal, we hear a new voice. This time, the ones who speak are the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained (v. 9). 

The Greek word translated testimony is “martyria” from which we get our English word “martyr.” One of the primary themes of Revelation is to exhort believers (Jesus’s “servants”) to be faithful witnesses and not fear rejection, loss, or death. Jesus exhorts all believers that if they will overcome their fear of these things and be a faithful witness (“martyria”), Jesus will give them immense rewards (Revelation 1:3, 3:21, 22:12). 

In this case, the faithful witnesses in focus are the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained. There is no indication that this group is limited to those who had lost their lives during the recent turmoil. It is inferred that this group includes all who had been martyred, killed for their faith. This might mean that some of the voices include John’s fellow disciples who had been slain for their witness of Jesus. 

John describes his own exile on the island of Patmos as being “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9) the same basic language as used here in verse 9. John’s “testimony” of Jesus also translates the Greek word “martyria.” The phrase had maintained can also be translated “held.” The Greek word translated as souls is “psyche” which is translated about half of the time as “life.” The idea of “psyche” is the essence of the person. When we die, we do not lose our self, we simply separate from our body. We are still a life, a person. 

These people are in heaven, underneath the altar in the throne room. That would indicate a special position of privilege. What these persons desire is justice. They desire God to avenge their deaths. It is interesting to note that these souls, these lives of people living in heaven have a strong desire for justice. 

Scripture exhorts us to not seek justice of ourselves. We are to give way to God’s justice, for He is the ultimate judge (1 Corinthians 4:5, Romans 12:19). But inferred in that command is that we can trust that God will judge, and bring all things to right. Here these believers who have been martyred for their faith are eager to see their murderers brought to justice. It is clear that believers in heaven a) still have strong desires b) continue to have a strong sense of justice, and desire that justice be done and c) are aware of time. 

John saw these souls underneath the altar (v. 9), 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?’” (v. 10). 

There is no doubt expressed whether the Lord will judge and avenge. It is expressed with complete confidence as an expected event. The question is not whether God will judge and avenge. The question is How long. These believers appear to be weary of waiting, and they are eager to see justice done.

This scene runs counter to many popular myths about heaven. The idea that time will be no more does not seem to be supported here, as these believers are aware that much time has passed and their deaths are still not avenged. (This would be another indication that this group includes martyrs from past eras). 

Perhaps these martyrs have been saying this for a long time. Or perhaps they are asking at this time because it is clear that now that the Lamb has been found worthy to open the scroll, events are taking place that will bring this age to an end, when all will be judged. 

This vision is taking place in the throne room, and the martyrs asking for justice are said to be underneath the altar. When we think of an altar, we tend to think of a sacrifice in a temple. There is no need for sacrifice for the cleansing of sin in the throne room; Jesus took care of that once for all time (Hebrews 9:12). 

But there is still an altar. We can discern this altar’s purpose from other mentions of altars in Revelation. It appears that the altar in God’s throne room is an instrument of prayer and of judgement. In context, perhaps the prayers that involve the altar are prayers from believers asking God to do justice and make all things right. 

  • Revelation 8:3—“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne.” 
    • Here the prayers of the saints are being offered up on the altar. This altar also appears to be before the throne.
  • Revelation 8:5—“Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and hurled it to the earth; and there were peals of thunder and sounds, and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.”
    • There’s a fire in the altar to refine the offering. 
  • Revelation 9:13—“Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God.” 
    • The altar itself has a voice coming from the four horns. 
  • Revelation 14:18—“Then another angel, the one who has power over fire, came out from the altar; and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, ‘Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe.’”
    • It appears that the angels can be inside the altar as well. 
  • Revelation 16:7—“And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgements.’”
    • Here, the altar speaks, and it has knowledge about God’s judgements. 

The altar seems to be multi-dimensional. These martyrs are underneath the altar. This would indicate that the altar is suspended over a large area that holds people. We also see angels proceed from the altar to execute judgment. The altar holds fire that is used to judge the earth. It also appears that the altar speaks. So not only do the four living creatures speak, but also the altar. John is doing his best to describe what he sees, but it does not seem to fit experiences common to us in our world. 

Those in the throne room who have been martyred are crying out for justice. Jesus does not ignore them. Next, we see Jesus’s response to their cries.

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 (v. 11). 

Jesus tells the souls to hang on and wait a little longer for justice to be delivered. They did their job, and now they need to wait for Jesus to do His. God gets to decide; we need to be faithful. 

However, Jesus rewarded their witness with a white robe. The white robes likely represent a reward for good deeds done while on earth. We saw this in the letters to the churches, where Jesus said:

“He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life”
(Revelation 3:5). 

We can also infer this from Jesus’s admonition to the Laodicean church, where He admonished them not to focus on earthly treasure, which makes the soul naked. Rather, Jesus exhorts them to purchase “white garments” by listening to His voice, engaging with Him in intimate fellowship, and following His ways (Revelation 3:17-18). 

Since clothing is often associated with status, it could be that what is being represented here is that these witnesses are being given special recognition for their faithful testimony to the word of God. This would appear to be in keeping with Jesus’s expressed desire to give special recognition to anyone who confesses Him before men by confessing them before His Father (Matthew 10:32). 

Sadly, it also appears that during this time of death and famine, there is a deliberate attempt of the tyrant making war and conquering to bring death to those who believe and stand on God’s word. Further, it seems God has appointed a number who will be His witnesses and fill up this number as Jesus tells the eager martyrs 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 would seem to be the inverse of Genesis 15:16, where God forestalls judgment on Canaan because “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” It seems God allows iniquity to reach a certain limit before He judges. It also seems He has a certain quota of faithful witnesses He desires to reward, and will not bring the ages to a close until that roster has been filled. 

We see that although the martyrs under the altar are eager to see justice done, they are in a state of rest. This might show that these believers will in time get to work, and accompany Jesus on His return to earth. Revelation 19:14 describes “armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean” attending Jesus on His return to earth. It will be after His return that Jesus will judge the earth. It could be that these martyrs are asking, “When are we going to saddle up and get going? We are ready to go down and cleanse the earth so all things can be judged and restored.” 

During the Great Tribulation, the last half of Daniel’s “seventieth week” or period of seven years, it seems many believers will be killed. 

Two points which should be considered:

  1. scripture indicates that believers can be caught up in the air with Jesus at any time (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17) and 
  2. Jesus said that the Great Tribulation will not occur until the sign predicted by Daniel is seen (Matthew 24:15

Therefore, it would seem that many people might become believers in Jesus during these last days—the time between when believers meet Jesus in the air and when Jesus returns to earth. This could be because of the great signs, including the witness of many believers being caught up in the air with Jesus. It could also be a response to an angelic pronouncement of the gospel (Revelation 14:6-7). 

Any reader might have a question as to whether being a faithful witness (“martyria”) requires physical death. This does not appear to be a requirement, although those who die physically do seem to gain special recognition and reward. 

What seems to be clearly set forth in Revelation is that to be a faithful witness, a faithful “martyria” is to not be motivated by fear of death, loss, or rejection. Rather, the faithful witness is motivated by faithfully living out the Word of God. Jesus suffered all rejection, loss, and death. Scripture tells us that if we live godly lives, we will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). 

The darkness of the world will not have fellowship with the light of Christ. From the letters to the seven churches we can surmise that to be a faithful witness is to overcome whatever circumstances and difficulties we encounter. We are to be faithful in spite of these difficulties. That would include not forgetting to love if we are in a circumstance where truth is being upheld, as with the Ephesian church, or to cling to our faith in the face of persecution, as with the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:1-7, 8-11). 

In order to be a martyr/faithful witness in this sense, believers do not have to be killed physically. Rather, to be a faithful witness means to be willing to suffer loss of the world’s approval. 

This is how believers become overcomers. As we saw with the fourth seal, “Authority was given to [Death and Hades] over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8). Many people are going to die. There will come a time when God will bring judgment upon the earth. But God promises that He will be faithful to His people through the tribulation. 

There’s even a special blessing for those who die during the Great Tribulation: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘So that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them’” (Revelation 14:13). 

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