THE FIFTH SEAL
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.” Revelation 6:9-11.
Review and Herald, vol 11, April 22, 1858, #23, p 181.
We understand those who were to be "killed" referred to in Rev.vi,11, ("And it was said unto them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled,) as those who were slain in the Papal persecutions under the fifth seal. That the fifth seal carries us to the end of the Papal persecution is clearly manifest in the fact that the sixth seal opens with those signs which are located, (by the discourse of Christ, Matt.xxiv,) immediately following the tribulation by the Papal power; namely, the darkening of the sun and moon, and the falling of the stars.
Our idea of the time when these are killed, will be clearly seen by reading the testimony concerning the fourth and fifth seals in connection. When the fourth seal was opened John says, "I looked and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." Here John beheld a power commissioned to go forth and kill. When the fifth seal was opened, John saw those who were slain, &c. Those which John saw when the fifth seal was opened, we understand were those who had been put to death under the previous seal. He here states that these souls cried, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth. . . And it was said unto them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." They had been killed under the fourth seal. Their brethren were to be slain during that "little season" in which they "must rest." When their brethren were slain "as they were," then would commence the avenging of their blood on them that dwell on the earth. Of course this would be in process of fulfillment when the judgment should have set on the Papacy. Daniel says, [chap.vii,26,] "But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end." The dominion of the Papacy was taken away in 1798. Then the judgment set on that power previous to that time.
That which the martyrs plead for, was the judgment of the power persecuting them. And it was to come when "their fellow-servants also, and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." When we come to 1798, this was fulfilled and judgment begun on the Papacy which is to be carried out in consuming and destroying that power unto the end.
Some have supposed that those who were to be "killed," as brought to view under the fifth seal were to be slain just prior to the coming of Christ. Where is the proof of that position? Why says one, the martyrs are to be redeemed as soon as their fellow-servants are slain as they were, and in Rev.xiii, we see that the last decree that is passed against God's people, is that of the Two-horned beast that they "shall be killed." On this we reply. The testimony does not say that the martyrs should be redeemed as soon as their brethren were killed. It simply shows that then will commence the work of avenging their blood, which as we claim above, commenced with the taking away of the dominion of the Papacy. And in regard to those of whom it is said, the image of the beast should "cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed, it is inconsistent with Scripture itself to claim, because such a decree is made, therefore it must be executed, and those comprehended in the decree must be killed. Allowing that Rev.xiv,1-5 concludes the prophecy of the preceding chapter, all is plain. Although decrees of death are passed, victory comes on the side of God's people. This too, accords with the Lord's manner of dealing with his people in past time; which is, when he shows great persecutions that are coming on his people, he also presents the manner of their deliverance. The 144,000 are delivered from the decree of the Two-horned beast by being redeemed from the earth.
Review and Herald, vol 20, July 8, 1862, #6, p 44.
It seems proper that a period of time should be given to the events under the fifth seal, the same as the other six, which time, it may appear evident from the following remarks, was from the rise of the reformation to near the time when civil power was taken from the Papacy.
1. It is evident that these souls were not in heaven when John had this vision, from the fact that they had not been born. A. Barnes makes the following remarks in reference to this subject:
"We are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altars - for the whole representation is symbolical; nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on the earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured and the oppressed, as if such prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance. The wrongs done to the children of God, to the orphan, the widow, the down-trodden, to the slave and the outcast, will be as certainly remembered in heaven as if they who are wronged should plead for vengeance there, for every act of injustice and oppression goes to heaven and pleads for vengeance. Every persecutor should dread the death of the persecuted as if he went to heaven to plead against him; every cruel master should dread the death of his slave that is crushed by wrongs; every seducer should dread the death and the cries of his victim; every one who does wrong in any way should remember that the sufferings of the injured cry to heaven with a martyr's pleadings, saying, `How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?'"
2. The scenes which John was viewing were upon the earth, hence, in the absence of proof that any other altar is meant, it seems a necessary conclusion that John saw the place of slaughter of the church of God by Papal Rome, where the earth has drunk up the blood of martyrs slain, under the figure of an altar of sacrifice.
3. These slain are represented as crying to God to have their blood avenged on them that dwell on the earth, the same as the voice of Abel's blood from the ground, Gen.iv,9,10; or the cry of the stone from the wall, and the answer of the beam out of the timber, Hab.ii,11; or the cry of the hire of the laborer, James v,4. If it be said that these souls must be in conscious being in heaven in order to cry, then we reply, that Abel's blood, the stone and the beam, and money, are also conscious, as they are all represented as crying. But, really, if these souls are in heaven in the participation of fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore, why are they represented as crying for vengeance on those who cut short their mortal life with all its woes, and hastened them to the enjoyment of the perfect bliss of heaven?
4. The Scriptures sometimes attribute life, action, intelligence, and personality, to inanimate objects to show how God regards those connected with those objects, hence the unconscious slain are represented as crying from beneath the altar of Papal sacrifice. Justice, long trampled in the dust, now cries for judgment and vengeance on the Papacy which was spilling the blood of the church of Jesus Christ. Luther and his associates were imbued with the spirit of this cry which went up from the earth that had drunk the blood of millions of the martyrs of Jesus slain, and they exposed the corruptions of the Papacy, which trembles before the reformers, and in A. D. 1798 was stripped of its civil authority. Thus the blood of the martyrs was avenged on those that dwelt on the earth. This has no reference to the final judgment and punishment of the wicked; but refers to the change in the condition of the Papacy. "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity; he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword." Chap.xiii,10.
5. White robes were given to every one of them. They had been denounced by the Papacy as vile heretics, and executed as such, and thus their character had been robed in darkness. But the Reformation exposed the crimes of the Papacy, turned the scale, vindicated the cause of the holy martyrs of Jesus, and clothed them with white robes. Hence, the sermons, the prayers, and songs of praise of the Christian church, have held these millions of the slain for Jesus' name, forth to the world in spotless purity.
6. They were to rest yet a little season, until their fellow-servants and brethren should be killed as they had been. We stated that the opening of this seal commenced when the reformers began to expose the Papacy, and vindicate the cause of the martyrs. But the cry of justice was not answered at once. Time must be given to bring about these grand events. Their cause must rest yet for a little season. For notwithstanding the influence of the Reformation, the Papacy clothed with authority to punish heretics, did put to death more of the followers of Jesus. This done, the little season, or the period of the fifth seal, closed.
Uriah Smith, Biblical Institute, Lesson 21, “The Seven Seals”, p 255-257.
The fifth seal brings to view a scene which we will present in the language of the scripture itself: "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled."
This passage is supposed to furnish strong proof in behalf of the conscious existence of disembodied souls. But a little thought will show some insuperable objections to this view. These souls are under the altar; and the altar is the alter of sacrifice; for it is where they were slain; but there is no such altar in Heaven. They cried that their blood might be avenged; but the disembodied immortal soul has no blood. If they were in Heaven according to the popular view, they could look over into the vault of hell and behold their persecutors writhing in its inextinguishable flames; for such is their view of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16.19-31. How then could they cry for vengeance upon those who had slain them? Was it not enough to behold them in the flames of hell there to be punished through all eternity?
In view of these difficulties both Adam Clarke and Dr. Barnes give up the idea that this is a literal representation. Clarke says: "The altar was upon the earth," and Barnes says that we are not to suppose that such a scene literally occurred, but that justice cried to God for vengeance upon those who had slain the martyrs as really as if they cried themselves.
But how could they cry if they were not conscious? We answer, By a figure of speech, just as Abel's blood cried, Gen.4:10, and just as the stone cried out of the wall and the beam out of the timber answered it, Hab.2:11. The persons here brought to view are those who had fallen under the papal persecutions of the preceding seal. The expression, The souls of them that were slain, being simply a strong expression to denote the persons, with all their capabilities of being, who had been sacrificed by papal fury. Just as Dr. Clarke says that the expressions, "spirits of just men made perfect," Heb.12:23, and "Father of spirits." Heb.12:9, and "God of the spirits of all flesh," Num.16:22; 27:16, "means men not in a disembodied state." Note on 1 Pet.3:19. And the fact that they had been slain cried like Abel's blood to God for vengeance.
The white robes that were given unto them were robes of character. They had gone down into the grave covered with obloquy and reproach. But the Reformation vindicated them in the eyes of all Christendom. It was seen that they were not the vile heretics that they had been represented to be, but the precious of the earth. They were to rest a little season. A few more were to be slain before the day for the final vindication of the people of God.
This seal covers the period from the beginning of the Reformation in the early part of the sixteenth century to the opening of the sixth seal about one hundred and thirty years later.
Uriah Smith, Daniel and Revelation, “The Seven Seals”, p 438-443.
"VERSE 9. And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held: 10. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? 11. And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled."
The events set forth as transpiring under the fifth seal are the crying of the martyrs for vengeance, and the giving to them of white robes. The questions that at once suggest themselves for solution are, Does this seal cover a period of time? and if so, what period? Where is the altar under which these souls were seen? What are these souls, and what is their condition? What is meant by their cry for vengeance? What is meant by white robes being given to them? When do they rest for a little season? and what is signified by their brethren being killed as they were? To all these questions we believe a satisfactory answer can be returned.
1. The Fifth Seal Covers a Period of Time. - It seems consistent that this seal, like all the others, should cover a period of time; and the date of its application cannot be mistaken, if the preceding seals have been rightly located. Following the period of the papal persecution, the time covered by this seal would commence when the Reformation began to undermine the antichristian papal fabric, and restrain the persecuting power of the Romish Church.
2. The Altar. - This cannot denote any altar in heaven, as it is evidently the place where these victims had been slain, - the altar of sacrifice. On this point, Dr. A. Clarke says: "A symbolical vision was exhibited, in which he saw an altar. And under it the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God - martyred for their attachment to Christianity - are represented as being newly slain as victims to idolatry and superstition. The altar is upon earth, not in heaven." A confirmation of this view is found in the fact that John is beholding scenes upon the earth. The souls are represented under the altar, just as victims slain upon it would pour out their blood beneath it, and fall by its side.
3. The Souls under the Altar. - This representation is popularly regarded as a strong proof of the doctrine of the disembodied and conscious state of the dead. Here, it is claimed, are souls seen by John in a disembodied state; and they were conscious, and had knowledge of passing events; for they cried for vengeance on their persecutors. This view of the passages is inadmissible, for several reasons: (1) The popular view places these souls in heaven; but the altar of sacrifice on which they were slain, and beneath which they were seen, cannot be there. The only altar we read of in heaven is the altar of incense; but it would not be correct to represent victims just slain as under the altar of incense, as that altar was never devoted to such a use. (2) It would be repugnant to all our ideas of the heavenly state, to represent souls in heaven shut up under an altar. (3) Can we suppose that the idea of vengeance would reign so supreme in the minds of souls in heaven as to render them, despite the joy and glory of that ineffable state, dissatisfied and uneasy till vengeance was inflicted upon their enemies? Would they not rather rejoice that persecution raised its hand against them, and thus hastened them into the presence of their Redeemer, at whose right hand there is fulness of joy, and pleasures forevermore? But, further, the popular view which puts these souls in heaven, puts the wicked at the same time in the lake of fire, writhing in unutterable torment, and in full view of the heavenly host. This, it is claimed, is proved by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, as recorded in Luke 16. Now the souls brought to view under the fifth seal were those who had been slain under the preceding seal, scores of years, and most of them centuries, before. Beyond any question, their persecutors had all passed off the stage of action, and, according to the view under consideration, were suffering all the torments of hell right before their eyes.
Yet, as if not satisfied with this, they cry to God as though he were delaying vengeance on their murderers. What greater vengeance could they want? Or, if their persecutors were still on the earth, they must know that they would, in a few years at most, join the vast multitude daily pouring through the gate of death into the world of woe. Their amiability is put in no better light even by this supposition. One thing, at least, is evident: The popular theory concerning the condition of the dead, righteous and wicked, cannot be correct; or the interpretation usually given to this passage is not correct; for they devour each other.
But it is urged that these souls must be conscious; for they cry to God. This argument would be of weight, were there no such figure of speech as personification. But while there is, it will be proper, on certain conditions, to attribute life, action, and intelligence to inanimate objects. Thus the blood of Abel is said to have cried to God from the ground. Gen.4:9,10. The stone cried out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber answered it. Hab.2:11. The hire of the laborers kept back by fraud cried, and the cry entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. James5:4. So the souls mentioned in our text could cry, and not thereby be proved to be conscious.
The incongruity of the popular view on this verse is so apparent that Albert Barnes makes the following concession: "We are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar, for the whole representation is symbolical: nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be a as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured, and the oppressed, as if such a prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance." - Notes on Revelation 6.
On such passages as this, the reader is misled by the popular definition of the word soul. From that definition, he is led to suppose that this text speaks of an immaterial, invisible, immortal essence in man, which soars into its coveted freedom on the death of its hindrance and clog, the mortal body. No instance of the occurrence of the word in the original Hebrew or Greek will sustain such a definition. It oftenest means life, and is not infrequently rendered person. It applies to the dead as well as to the living, as may be seen by reference to Gen.2:7, where the word living need not have been expressed were life an inseparable attribute of the soul; and to Num.19:13, where the Hebrew Concordance reads "dead soul." Moreover, these souls pray that their blood may be avenged, - an article which the immaterial soul, as popularly understood, is not supposed to possess. The word souls may be regarded as here meaning simply the martyrs, those who had been slain, the words souls of them being a periphrastic for the whole person. They were represented to John as having been slain upon the alter of papal sacrifice, on this earth, and lying dead beneath it. They certainly were not alive when John saw them under the fifth seal; for he again brings to view the same company, in almost the same language, and assures us that the first time they live after their martyrdom, is at the resurrection of the just. Rev.20:4-6. Lying there, victims of papal bloodthirstiness and oppression, they cried to God for vengeance in the same manner that Abel's blood cried to him from the ground. Gen.4:10.
4. The White Robes. - These were given as a partial answer to their cry, "How long, O Lord, . . . dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?" How was it? - They had gone down to the grave in the most ignominious manner. Their lives had been misrepresented, their reputations tarnished, their names defamed, their motives maligned, and their graves covered with shame and reproach, as containing the dishonored dust of the most vile and despicable of characters. Thus the Church of Rome, which then molded the sentiment of the principal nations of the earth, spared no pains to make her victims an abhorring unto all flesh.
But the Reformation began its work. It began to be seen that the church was the corrupt and disreputable party, and those against whom it vented its rage were the good, the pure, and the true. The work went on among the most enlightened nations, the reputation of the church going down, and that of the martyrs coming up, until the corruptions of the papal abominations were fully exposed, and that huge system of iniquity stood forth before the world in all its naked deformity, while the martyrs were vindicated from all the aspersions under which that antichristian church had sought to bury them. Then it was seen that they had suffered, not for being vile and criminal, but "for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held." Then their praises were sung, their virtues admired, their fortitude applauded, their names honored, and their memories cherished. White robes were thus given unto every one of them.
5. The Little Season. - The cruel work of Romanism did not altogether cease, even after the work of the Reformation had become wide-spread and well established. Not a few terrible outbursts of Romish hate and persecution were yet to be felt by the church. Multitudes more were to be punished as heretics, and to join the great army of martyrs. The full vindication of their cause was to be delayed a little season. And during this time, Rome added hundreds of thousands to the vast throng of whose blood she had already become guilty. (See Buck's Theological Dictionary, art. Persecution.) But the spirit of persecution was finally restrained; the cause of the martyrs was vindicated; and the "little season" of the fifth seal came to a close.
James White, Signs of the Second Advent, p 20-21.
The events to transpire under the fifth seal are, the crying of the martyrs for vengeance, and giving to them white robes. This represents the work of the reformers, and covers the period of the great reformation. In reference to the souls under the altar, Dr. Clarke says: "A symbolical vision was exhibited in which he saw an altar. And under it the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God - martyred for their attachment to Christianity - are represented as being newly slain, as victims to idolatry and superstition. The altar is upon earth, not in Heaven."
"We are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar - for the whole representation is symbolical; nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in Heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in Heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on the earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured, and the oppressed, as if such prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in Heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance. The wrongs done to the children of God, to the orphan, the widow, the down-trodden, to the slave and the outcast, will be as certainly remembered in Heaven as if they who are wronged should plead for vengeance there; for every act of injustice and oppression goes to Heaven and pleads for vengeance."