The pace and location of the action in John’s vision shifts with the opening of the fifth and sixth seals. Four wild horsemen rode out to create various forms of destruction with the opening of the first four seals. But now it all slows down. A contrast will be made between those who are represented in the opening of the fifth seal and those who are seen at the opening of the sixth. The location shifts from earth, to heaven, and back to earth again.
The contents of the two seals form a sharp contrast. Both describe distinct communities of humans. On the one side, the sixth seal reveals those people who are deeply connected to the Lamb because, like him, they too have been slaughtered. But on the other side are those people who live on earth and who, because of their connection to the principalities and powers, will have to cry out for protection from the “wrath of the Lamb.”
At the heart of the text is an inversion of our preconceived notions about peace. Those who are tormented and face fears on earth rest and are at peace within the reign of God. But inversely, those on earth who have lived in security now find that everything they had placed their trust in is in a rapid state of flux.
6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar those who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “Holy and true Master, how long will you wait before you pass judgment? How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” 11 Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until their fellow servants and brothers and sisters—who were about to be killed as they were—were finished.
The fifth seal shifts the reader’s view back to the heavenly throne room. There under the altar are the souls of those who had been martyred as witnesses to the life and kingdom of the Lamb. The image of the temple altar is powerful and meaningful. This is surely intended to be viewed as the altar of sacrifice where the blood of the sacrificial lamb would be poured out and gather at the base of the altar. Little should probably be made about what this text has to say to us about the state of the dead, John’s vision is likely just a vivid way of depicting the deep connection between the death of the Lamb and the deaths of the martyrs. Both Jesus and those who have suffered for him have taken up the cross and followed the purposes of the One seated on the throne.
Who are these souls beneath the altar? Although the Revelator is not specific, it is likely that the early Christians imagined that the list included the ancient prophets, John the Baptist, Stephen and other Christians killed in the early days of the church in Palestine, as well as those killed during the persecution by Nero during the seventh century AD (in which he brutally murdered Christians in Rome by crucifying some of them, having others torn by dogs, and burning still others to death). The list may also include Antipas of Pergamum, the one martyr actually named in Revelation. However, there is no reason to limit the list of those represented under the altar of God’s reign to those John would have been aware of. The picture of the heavenly altar is a reminder that those who were mistreated on earth, as though God had abandoned them, are in reality as close to the presence of God as they could possibly be. As William Cavanaugh writes, “[Martyrdom] is a bridge between heaven and earth not because the martyr is soon to travel one way to her eternal reward, but because heaven has been brought to earth in the form of one who, in imitating Jesus the Christ, has cheated earthly death of its sting. A martyr is one who lives imaginatively as if death does not exist.”
The souls of the martyrs are simultaneously at rest and restless. They cry out like the Psalmist for God to stop delaying and act in ways of vindication.
How long, O Lord?… Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name…! Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of thy servants be known among the nations before our eyes! (Psalm 79:5-10)
It is theologically important to recognize their cry for God to act not as a cry for vengeance but as a cry for vindication. The cry is for the creation to be set right. If their identification with the Lamb was an act of victory rather than an act of defeat, when will God reveal it as such? When will the whole world see that it is the love of the Lamb and those who have identified with his love that have actually won? If the “lions” of history continue to conquer the instruments of love, then truth and goodness may never bring about the hoped for redemption of creation.
The response from the One on the throne is an act of vindication. Those who have been faithful receive white robes of life and purity and are told to rest a little while longer until their number is complete. It is highly unlikely that when the text talks about the number of martyrs being “complete” it means that God has predetermined a fixed number of saints who will be killed for the faith and once that number is reached, then judgment can commence. It is much more likely that the meaning here is that suffering love is not completed its work of redemption yet. Love still has work to be done. Others (indeed many across Christian history) have been and will continue to be called to share in the self-giving, sacrificial love of Christ. Nevertheless, there is assurance from God that this suffering will not continue without end. As Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “The response expresses not divine indifference by divine mercy. The plea comes from those whose pain and suffering have limited their ability to maintain their compassion for the ‘inhabitants of the earth.’ But apocalyptic literature reveals the big picture of history, in which God’s patience and mercy are greater than humanity’s. The time will come, indeed, ‘for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Rev. 11:18), but it is still ‘not yet.’”
12 I looked on as he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became black as funeral clothing, and the entire moon turned red as blood. 13 The stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the officials and the generals, the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in caves and in the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the Lamb’s wrath! 17 The great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
With the opening of the sixth seal, the focus returns to earth. This seal reveals a number of very common apocalyptic images from Scripture. John makes use of symbolism drawn from many parts of the Old Testament: the earthquake from Haggai 2:6, the sun turned black and the moon turned to blood from Joel 2:31, the stars fallen from heaven like figs from a fig tree Isa. 34:4, and the sky rolled up like a scroll Isa 34:4.
Typical of the Revelator, seven (the number of completion) is the representative number for the cosmic judgments and the number of the groups affected by these cataclysmic events. There are seven events:
- there is a great earthquake
- the sun darkens
- the full moon becomes like blood
- the stars fall from the sky
- the sky vanishes
- the mountains and islands are removed
- the people feel great consternation
And seven groups or classes of people feel this great consternation – with the emphasis falling on the powerful to make it clear that not even the mightiest will escape:
- kings of the earth
- the rich
- the powerful
- the slave
- the free
The double set of sevens shows that the destruction is total. Nothing remains in place, and no one is high enough or low enough to escape God vindication.
Part of what the contemporary reader has to recover in interpreting the sixth seal is the nature of power in the ancient world and its connection to the heavenly bodies. Astronomers and astrologers were constantly observing and charting the movement of the heavenly bodies. The conviction was often that actions on earth were fixed and predetermined by the movement of the stars and planets. The gods in the heavens gave legitimacy to the reign of a ruler. History for ancient people was quite literally written in the stars.
But what if all the stars fell? What if the heavenly bodies whose movements determine and root history were to collapse into chaos? Then everything in which people put their trust would be gone. This is the power of these apocalyptic images.
“The response of the peoples of the earth is ironically to seek safety in a world that is rapidly dissolving into chaos… Their desire to hide in the crevices of a shaken world adds to the pathos. The sevenfold rhetorical listing of peoples includes everyone from the lofty to the lowly. No segment of society is absolved from the cosmic collapse – for at one time or other all have participated in creation’s descent to decay and chaos. As Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God in the garden when they realized their nakedness (Gen. 3:8), humanity will seek to hide from the wrath of God and the Lamb at the cataclysmic end. Yet no hiding place exists when the earth quakes and the mountains are uprooted… For those who embrace Babylon’s norms, values, and beliefs – a world that is passing away – the Lamb’s victory is experienced as wrath. The cosmic battle between evil and good and between the old order and the new order requires a complete overhaul of creation.” – James Resseguie
From this point on, we could easily imagine the story moving swiftly toward its divinely willed resolution. The opening of the sixth seal should culminate in the destruction of all the rebellious on earth. The opening of the seventh seal would form the climax, announcing the salvation of the elect and the final coming of God’s kingdom. This should be the moment where the seventh seal is opened and the end comes. How strange it is then, that the moment of definitive judgment does not arrive here. Not only is the opening of the seventh seal delayed while John narrates a long, apparently unrelated vision (Rev 7), but even the sixth seal itself leaves us hanging.
“If, however, we find ourselves at the moment not of the last things, but of the next to last, this means there is still time – time to acknowledge the crucified not as our enemy but as our hope. This is not to say that we have infinite time, because time, by its very nature, is finite… But for now, there is still time. One of the ways in which the Apocalypse subverts our expectations is that it shows us a God who, although decidedly impatient with evil, is extraordinarily patient with his creatures… He executes judgment on the world precisely in order to reclaim the world from the powers of death and hades.” – Joseph Mangina
The sixth chapter of Revelation ends with a question: Who then can stand? The question is rhetorical and assumes a negative response. The end of the world has come. The old heavens and the old earth are falling apart at the seams. There should be no one able to stand in the midst of the unveiling of God’s judgment. Yet that is in fact not the case, for the next chapter (Revelation 7) will show the reader that there are some who are able to stand before God and the Lamb, not because of their social position, but by grace.
In the meantime, the fifth and sixth seals invite the reader to begin to wonder: which side am I on? Is my identity connected to those who cry out from beneath the altar? Or is my identity connected to those who cry for creation to hide them from the face of God?