And when He 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, will You not judge and avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9,10).

Those who have been martyrs for God have a special category in the judgment. Not only have they been faithful, but they have been “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10), suffering “mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword…destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:27,28). Following the “Captain of their salvation” who was made “perfect through sufferings”,[1] “they did not love their lives to the death”, sharing in “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Hebrews 2:10, Revelation 12:11, Philippians 3:10). This fellowship in the sufferings of Christ is symbolized by their position “under the alter.” The alter represents the atoning death of Christ on the Cross; thus these martyrs are as close as it is possible to be to Jesus as He pours out His love and grace.[2]

Under the alter” does not, at first glance, seem to be a particularly desirable place for the “souls” to wait for the vengeance of God, and in fact there are many problems with trying to make a literal application of this passage. The brief study of the soul that follows shows that the soul is a combination of the dust of the earth (the body) and the breath of life from God (the spirit). Souls are not immortal, they sleep after death, and will be resurrected, either to live eternally or to face judgment and destruction.

One of the first references to the soul is in Gen. 2:7, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This verse, quoted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:45, identifies the 3 ‘components’ of man listed in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “spirit, soul, and body”. However, note that Adam became a living soul by the combination of dust (body) and the breath of life (spirit). There is no suggestion that Adam had a soul—he was a soul.[3]

The concept of the soul as a unity, the whole person, fills the Old Testament. Typical of many examples are the uses of the Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, in Leviticus 5: “If a person [nephesh] touches any unclean thing, whether it is the carcass of an unclean beast”V.2 “Or if a person [nephesh] swears, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips…”(v.4) “If a person [nephesh] sins, and commits any of these things which are forbidden” (v.17). Here we see souls touching (physical), speaking thoughtlessly (mental) and sinning (spiritual). A study of the hundreds of verses in both the Old and New Testaments which mention the soul invariably show the meaning to be the person, self, life, heart, being.[4]

Therefore the souls under the alter are not some component of the martyrs that are waiting for their bodies, but the symbolize the martyrs themselves. They are not conscious entities (“the dead know nothing” Ecclesiastic 9:5[5], see chapter 20: The Soul Sleeps),[6] but rather they cry out in the same sense that the “soul”[7] of the first martyr cried out: “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?…The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:9,10).

The souls are depicted crying out for vengeance—“How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). Here is more evidence that this passage should not be taken literally. Those who believe that the souls of the righteous go straight to heaven at death also believe that the souls of the wicked go straight to hell when they die. According to a literal interpretation of this verse, the martyrs are not satisfied seeing the souls of their enemies in hell, but want further vengeance. But these martyrs are not bloodthirsty and vindictive; to the contrary, they have been the ones closest to the heart of God, and as such they loved their enemies (Matthew 5:44-46). This passage is not trying to reveal the thoughts and desires of the martyrs, who, after all, are resting in the grave (they are even told in v. 11 that “they should rest a little while season,” a reference to their unconscious condition).

The point of this passage is that God’s justice is to be delayed. “Then white robes were given to every one of them; and it was said to them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until both their fellow servants and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." (Revelation 6: 11). Some have concluded from this text that God has a quota of martyrs and that history cannot be completed until they have all been killed. But the Greek word, plihroo, does not mean “number”, but rather fulfillment or completion. In other passages of scripture where this word for fulfillment is used, it refers to the completion of an unfortunate but unavoidable requirement in the plan of God.[8]

These requirements are necessary because of the presence of sin and the challenges to God’s character and government that have been made by the enemy. Because of the great controversy it is necessary for history to continue, and Satan will always make sure that there will be martyrs. These martyrs provide the ultimate witness, to both humans and to the observing universe, of the value of Jesus and His kingdom: it is worth dying for. “God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9). But when “all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18) the great controversy will come to an end and the prayer of the martyrs will become reality.

Those who suffer persecution and face a martyr’s death sometimes feel alone and abandoned, even by God. But the message of the fifth seal teaches that God has a special place of honor in the judgment for those who make the ultimate sacrifice. It also teaches that far from being meaningless, every martyr’s death is a powerful witness on earth and to the angels of heaven. “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it. For love is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:7,6).

Continue to next section: 6:12-17 ROCKS, FALL ON US

[1] Jesus was “made perfect”, not in the sense of becoming perfectly holy (He was always perfectly holy—He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin”) but in the sense of becoming a perfect sacrifice, identifying perfectly with the human race which suffers the effects of sin—“He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:17,18).

[2] In the ancient sanctuary service the sinner brought a lamb and confessed his sins with his hands on its head, transferring his sin to the victim. The lamb was slain and its blood was collected in a bowl. This blood was the life or “soul” of the animal (“the life (soul) is in the blood” Leviticus 17:11) Some of the blood was put “on the horns of the alter,” but “the remaining blood” was poured “at the base of the alter” Thus the “soul” ended up under the alter.

[3] The souls of animals have the same components as humans. After the flood God promised, “behold, I establish My covenant with you…and with every living creature (soul—nephesh) that is with you: the birds, the cattle and every beast of the earth…” (Genesis 9:10). In Chapter 7, describing the death of these creatures (souls) God mentions the two componants: flesh (body) and spirit. “And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing…All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life” (Genesis 7:21,22).

[4] Jesus made this point clear in His parallel passages Mark 8:36 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul”, and Luke 9:25, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?”

[5] See also Psalms 6:5, Psalms 115:17, Psalms 146:4, Job 14:12.

[6] The unconscious state of believers who have died (including the martyrs) is made clear in Paul's description of the Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul did not want his brethren “to be ignorant…concerning those who have fallen asleep” (v. 13). Here we see the unconscious condition of the dead—they are asleep. There is no concept of the body sleeping while the soul lives in Paradise. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (v.14). Paul is not talking about bringing souls (who supposedly have been living with Him in Heaven) to be reunited with their bodies. It is “those who sleep”, in other words, the souls of the righteous dead, that he “will bring with Him” from earth back to heaven.“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead [“those who are asleep” v.15] in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (vs.16,17).

[7] Leviticus 17:11 states that “the life (soul—nephesh) of the flesh is in the blood”. Thus, when the blood of Abel cried out from the ground, his “soul” could be said to be crying out.

[8] For example, “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24. See also Matthew 26:54, 56, Mark 14:49).