The Fifth Seal - (Revelation 6:9-11)

Altars of Burnt Offering and Incense
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 waiting for their vindication. The generic description of souls “slain for the word of God and their testimony” points to this conclusion.
The Lamb responds to the martyrs, not with chronological information, but with a declaration that all God’s witnesses must complete their testimony and join the assembly or martyrs to bring in God’s judgment and kingdom (cp. Revelation 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.
The fifth seal, thus, presents the necessary condition for the assembling of Old and New Testament saints into one people. It also prepares the reader for the sixth seal opening, the sealing of God’s servants, and the innumerable multitude seen “standing before the Lamb” at the other end of the “great tribulation.”
(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 both begin with identical language (“And I saw when he opened the fifth seal…”; “And I saw when he opened the sixth seal…”). Both seals include verbal links to the innumerable multitude; both pose questions answered in that vision (Revelation 7:9-17): “How long” and, “Who is able to stand?
The fifth seal uses language from Zechariah 1:12-16 and Daniel 12:1-13. The order of the fifth seal and six seals is literary, not chronological. Sequence is dictated by when the Lamb opens each seal.
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 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 seen “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 were the souls under the altar (cp. Revelation 5:6).
The inhabitants of the earth” throughout Revelation refers to human society hostile 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 geographic 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 used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament for the vestments worn by priests (Exodus 28:4; 29:21; Ezekiel 44:19). Here they point to the priestly function of the martyrs but, unlike Levitical priests, they have poured out their own lives at the base of the altar. This was not to atone for sin but to bear witness.
John uses “soul” for human life in the holistic sense typical of the Old Testament; it signifies the entire person (Leviticus 17:11, “the soul of the flesh is in the blood”). Likewise, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12).
The “white robe” or stolé is a link to the “innumerable multitude” seen in Revelation 7:9-14). There, the victorious saints exited the great tribulation to stand before the Lamb clothed in “white robes” (stolé leuké). Through their perseverance, 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” from which they call on God to vindicate their testimony. 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”; likewise, in Revelation 20:3, Satan is loosed “a short time.” This terminology coordinates the period during which the full complement of witnesses is assembled with the time of Satan’s war against the saints (cp. Revelation 11:7; 12:17; 13:7; 20:7-9).
What stands out is what John omits in his description. The souls were slain “on account of their testimony,” a generic description in contrast to other instances where saints are identified with Jesus (e.g., “they have the testimony of Jesus” (1:1; 1:9; 12:11; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4).
The distinction becomes clearer in John’s vision of Babylon in the wilderness (Revelation 17:6-7). She was drunk with the “blood of the saints” AND with the “blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Two recognizable groups are observed; both saints but the latter group is identified with the Lamb.
Babylon rides the “beast with seven heads and ten horns.” Its heads represent seven kingdoms, five of which had already fallen in John’s day, one was present, and another was yet to come. When it comes, “it must continue a short while” (17:10).
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 compassions; my house will be built in it, declares Lord Almighty, and a line will be stretched forth over Jerusalem…Yet 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 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.”