Revelation 6:9

Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals

Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals1
fifth seal
With the opening of the fifth seal, we break from the judgments associated with the four horsemen. “There are no voices of command from heaven under this seal, and no messengers dispatched from the throne; for the reason that bloody persecutions of God’s servants come from beneath—not from above.”2 We now leave the “beginning sorrows” spoken of by Jesus behind and enter the time of tribulation characterized by martyrdom:

All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. (Mtt. Mat. 24:8-10) [emphasis added]

The beginning of sorrows have passed and the Great Tribulation is now upon the world, a time of unprecedented martyrdom and anti-Semitism (Mtt. Mat. 24:15-22; Rev. Rev. 12:6+, Rev. 12:13-15+). Mat. 24:8-28, martyrdoms.”3

under the altar
θυσιαστηρίου [thysiastēriou] , used Rev. 6:9+; Rev. 8:3+, Rev. 8:5+; Rev. 9:13+; Rev. 14:18+; Rev. 16:7+.”4 When Aaron and his sons were consecrated to the priesthood, after the blood of the bull was put on the horns of the altar of sacrifice (or burnt offering), the remaining blood was poured “beside the base of the altar” (Ex. Ex. 29:12; Lev. Lev. 8:15). This pattern was also followed for the sin offering (Lev. Lev. 4:7). The blood of the martyred saints is considered as an “offering” before God as it accumulates at the base of the altar during this time of intense persecution of all who name the name of Christ (Mtt. Mat. 24:9). “Like sacrifices, they had been slain for their testimony. Not sacrifices of atonement, but of devotion.”5

The picture of souls immediately in God’s presence after death is in harmony with 2Cor. 2Cor. 5:8, and the fact that the martyrs are beneath the altar is consistent with the symbolism of Lev. Lev. 4:7, for the priest poured the blood of the sacrifice at the bottom of the altar, and the blood represented the life of the sacrifice (Lev. Lev. 17:11-14). So these martyrs will sacrifice their lives for God, and Heaven acknowledges this.6

Some see this altar to be the altar of incense rather than the altar of sacrifice.7 Yet the location of the martyrs under the altar has more in common with the altar of sacrifice and there is no compelling reason to connect this altar with the altar of incense upon which the prayers of the saints are offered.

the souls
ψυχὰς [psychas] , these have yet to attain a resurrection body which they will receive prior to the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. Rev. 20:4+). The word can also denote physical life. “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life (ψυχὴν [psychēn] ) even unto death” (Rev. Rev. 12:11+).8 Given the location of the martyrs under the altar, souls may be intended to convey life. In the same way that the “life (נְפְשׁ [neeš] ) of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. Lev. 17:11) and the blood was poured beneath the altar (Ex. Ex. 29:12), the souls of the martyrs reside under the heavenly altar. Though their physical life was terminated, they themselves are still very much alive:

Their slaying, then, is not the end of them. It is not the total interruption of their being in all respects. It makes them invisible to men in the flesh, in the natural state; but it does not hinder their living on as souls, or their being visible to heavenly eyes, or to the eyes of John in his supernatural and prophetic exaltation. The holy Apocalyptist tells us that he “saw” them, although they “had been slain;” and heard them speaking with loud voices, though their material tongues had been burnt to ashes, and their corporeal organs of speech had been stiffened in death. It is altogether a wrong interpretation of the Scriptures which represents the dead in a state of non-existence, unconsciousness, or oblivion.9

who had been slain for the word of God
It is difficult to establish exactly when these saints were martyred. Some argue that they were martyred prior to the opening of the fifth seal, during the preceding four seals.

A. T. Robertson, who has been acclaimed as America’s premier Greek authority of the 20th century, indicates that the verb form translated “were slain” in Revelation Rev. 6:9+ represents action that was completed before the action of the main verb “saw” . . . The fact that John did not see believers being slain, but instead saw the disembodied souls of saints who had been slain before he saw them, forces the conclusion that when Christ breaks the fifth seal, it will not cause the martyrdom of those saints . . . The martyred saints of the fifth seal will be living and dying during the first four seals.10

But it is difficult to avoid the emphasis a plain reading of the verse puts upon the timing of the fifth seal and the revelation of the martyrs. It seems clear that with the opening of the fifth seal God intends us to realize that we have gone past the beginning of sorrows into the actual Tribulation period. See Trouble Ahead. By now, a heightened religious persecution attends the events upon the earth for these saints did not perish due to beasts, famine, pestilence, or war—but were slain for the word of God . Their testimony was seen as a dangerous and undesirable witness against the false religious system riding the beast (Rev. Rev. 17:6+). At this point in the sequence of events, the Antichrist has not yet become the center of all worship:

[Some assume] that the fifth seal saints are martyred because they would not bow to the Antichrist. But, again, there is nothing in the context of the fifth seal to indicate this. To be sure, they are martyred for their faith. But it does not say that it was specifically for refusing to bow down to the Antichrist. The self-proclamation of deity by the Antichrist takes place at the time of the Abomination of Desolation (Mtt. Mat. 24:15; 2Th. 2Th. 2:4) which, . . . happens at the midpoint of the seven years. In Revelation, that midpoint begins with chapter eleven, when the Temple is taken over by Gentiles for 42 months (the second three and one-half years). Then Antichrist proceeds to remove all opposition by killing the two witnesses (Rev. Rev. 11:1+) and persecuting the Jews (Rev. Rev. 12:1+). He then proclaims himself to be God and sets up his image (Rev. Rev. 13:1+). Only those saints in and subsequent to chapter thirteen are being killed for refusing to accept the Antichrist.11

The revelation of the fifth seal makes clear that in the future time of tribulation it will be most difficult to declare one’s faith in the Lord Jesus. It may very well be that the majority of those who trust Christ as Saviour in that day will be put to death. This is confirmed in Revelation Rev. 7:1+ where another picture of the martyred dead of the tribulation is given, and in Revelation Rev. 13:1+ where death is inflicted on all who will not worship the beast. Martyrdom in those days will be as common as it is uncommon today.12

the testimony which they held
Like the first martyr of the Church (Stephen, Acts Acts 7:59) and Antipas of the church at Pergamos (Rev. Rev. 2:13+) they will hold a consistent testimony up to and beyond the point of death (Rev. Rev. 12:11+). They are faithful sheep whose blood is spilled for God’s sake. “Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Ps Ps. 44:22 cf. Rom. Rom. 8:36). Their death is as much a part of their testimony as their life. Those who “die in the Lord” have works which follow them (Rev. Rev. 14:13+).


1 Albrecht Durer (1471 - 1528). Image courtesy of the Connecticut College Wetmore Print Collection.

2 J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 140.

3 Jerome Smith, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), Rev. 6:11.

4 Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 366.

5 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), Rev. 6:9.

6 Monty S. Mills, Revelations: An Exegetical Study of the Revelation to John (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1987), Rev. 6:9.

7 “The description given in Revelation seems to fit the altar of incense better than the great altar of sacrifice which stood near the door of the tabernacle. The altar in Revelation is connected with the prayers of the martyrs (Rev. Rev. 6:9+), its fire is used to light the incense of the golden censer (Rev. Rev. 8:3+, Rev. 8:5+), and its location is ‘before God,’ which would accord much more closely with the place of the altar of incense that stood on the border between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, the inner shrine of the tabernacle.”—Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 171.

8 “This Greek word occurs 105 times in the New Testament, and its uses and occurrences may be classified as follows: (1) Metonymy of the Cause, ‘soul’ put for ‘life,’ which is the effect of it. The natural life of the body, Mtt. Mat. 2:20; Mat. 6:25, Mat. 6:25; Mat. 10:39, Mat. 10:39; Mat. 16:25, Mat. 16:25; Mat. 20:28. Mark Mark 3:4; Mark 8:35; Mark 10:45. Luke Luke 6:9; Luke 9:56; Luke 12:22, Luke 12:23; Luke 14:26; Luke 17:33a; John John 10:11, John 10:15, John 10:17; John 12:25a, 25b; John 13:37, John 13:38; John 15:13; Acts Acts 15:26; Acts 20:10, Acts 20:24; Acts 27:10, Acts 27:22; Rom. Rom. 11:3; Rom. 16:4; Php. Php. 2:30; 1Jn. 1Jn. 3:16, 1Jn. 3:16; Rev. Rev. 8:9+; Rev. 12:11+. Rendered ‘soul,’ Mtt. Mat. 16:26, Mat. 16:26; Mark Mark 8:36, Mark 8:37; Luke Luke 12:20; 1Th. 1Th. 2:8. (2) The immaterial, invisible part of man: Mtt. Mat. 10:28; Acts Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31; 1Th. 1Th. 5:23; Heb. Heb. 4:12. (3) The disembodied man (2Cor. 2Cor. 5:3, 2Cor. 5:4; 2Cor. 12:2): Rev. Rev. 6:9+; Rev. 20:4+. (4) The seat of personality: Luke Luke 9:24, Luke 9:24; Heb. Heb. 6:19; Heb. 10:39. (5) Metonymy of Cause. The seat of perception, feeling, desire: Mtt. Mat. 11:29; Luke Luke 1:46; Luke 2:35; Acts Acts 14:2 (mind), 22; Acts 15:24. (6) Metonymy of Cause. The seat of will and purpose: Mtt. Mat. 22:37; Mark Mark 12:30, Mark 12:33; Luke Luke 10:27; Acts Acts 4:32; Eph. Eph. 6:6; Php. Php. 1:27; Col. Col. 3:23; Heb. Heb. 12:3. (7) The seat of appetite: Rev. Rev. 18:14+. (8) Metonymy of Cause, soul put for person. Synecdoche of the Part, an integral part of man (individually) is put for the whole person. Used of persons or individuals: Acts Acts 2:41, Acts 2:43; Acts 3:23; Acts 7:14; Acts 27:37; Rom. Rom. 2:9; Rom. 13:1; Jas. Jas. 5:20; 1Pe. 1Pe. 3:20; 2Pe. 2Pe. 2:14; Rev. Rev. 18:13+. (9) Synecdoche of the Part. The expression ‘my soul,’ ‘his soul,’ etc., becomes by Synecdoche the idiom for me, myself, himself, etc. Used to emphasize the personal pronoun (a) in the first person: Mtt. Mat. 12:18; Mat. 26:38; Mark Mark 14:34; Luke Luke 12:19, Luke 12:19; John John 10:24 (us); John 12:27; 2Cor. 2Cor. 1:23; Heb. Heb. 10:38 (soul); (b) in the second person: 2Cor. 2Cor. 12:15; Heb. Heb. 13:17; Jas. Jas. 1:21; 1Pe. 1Pe. 1:9, 1Pe. 1:22; 1Pe. 2:25; (c) in the third person: 1Pe. 1Pe. 4:19; 2Pe. 2Pe. 2:8. (10) Synecdoche of the Part. ‘Soul’ (Gr. psyche ) is also used of animals. An animate creature, human or other: 1Cor. 1Cor. 15:45; Rev. Rev. 16:3+. (11) The ‘inward man,’ seat of the new life: Luke Luke 21:19; 1Pe. 1Pe. 2:11; 3Jn. 3Jn. 1:2. Compare the classification of the corresponding Old Testament term nephesh at Gen. Gen. 2:7 (note).”—Smith, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, Mtt. 2:20.

9 Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation, 142.

10 Renald E. Showers, Maranatha, Our Lord Come (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1995), 110, 119.

11 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, A Review of the Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, n.d.), 43.

12 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), Rev. 6:9.