9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” – Revelation 6:9-17 ESV
With the opening of the fifth seal there is a change in the pattern established by the first four seals. There are no more horses and riders to be called forth and revealed. The last horse carried Death, and close behind them came Hades. Since Hades is a place and not a person, it would seem that this vision is indicating that, with the arrival of the fourth and final horse and rider, there would be a great many deaths on earth. In fact, John indicates that a fourth of the earth’s population will be killed “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8 ESV). And the reference to Hades lets us know that the souls of a great many of these individuals will end up in Hades, the abode of the dead. There they will stay until the Great White Throne judgment. But with the opening of the fifth seal, John is shown a scene taking place in heaven, where he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9 ESV). It would appear that this represents all those individuals who will come to faith in Christ during the tribulation and face martyrdom because of their witness. We will see in the very next chapter that, during the seven year period of the tribulation, 144,000 Jews will become followers of Christ and witnesses to the nations. And as a result of their testimony, many will believe in Christ.
…a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. – Revelation 7:9 ES.
While the 144,000 Jews will be preserved and protected throughout the period of the tribulation, all those who come to faith as a result of their witness will face martyrdom for their faith. They will be persecuted and put to death by the Antichrist and, at this point in his vision, John sees the souls of these martyrs beneath the altar in the heavenly temple. Notice that John mentions only their souls and not their bodies. This is a clear indication that he is not seeing martyred believers from the church age, because those individuals would have received their resurrected bodies at the time of the rapture of the church. In keeping with the fourth seal, John is being given a glimpse of what happens to those who come to faith during the tribulation and who die as a result of their faith. Their souls go to be with the Lord, but their bodies will not be resurrected until the end of the tribulation as revealed in Revelation 20.
Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4 ESV
John sees the souls of these martyred saints under the altar and they are crying out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10 ESV). This is in keeping with the imagery of sacrifice as practiced in the earthly temple. A portion of the blood of a sacrificed animal was poured out at the base of the altar. And the presence of these saints under the altar represents their lives poured out on behalf of the gospel. And they seek to know when God is going to bring judgment against those who killed them. But God informs them that there are more yet to be martyred. The time for Christ’s return has not yet come and there will be many more who come to faith in Christ and suffer martyrdom until the days of the tribulation come to an end. The number of martyred saints will continue to increase until that time.
With the opening of the sixth seal, John’s attention is refocused on the earth where he sees a series of cataclysmic events taking place. There is a massive earthquake accompanied by unprecedented cosmic disturbances. John mentions stars falling from the sky, the darkening of the sun and the moon turning blood red. There is no reason for failing to take these events as literal physical disturbances. While they may sound far-fetched and difficult to comprehend, they represent God’s intervention into the judgment of mankind. Up until this point, all of the judgments have come at the hands of men. The wars that take the lives of countless individuals are clearly the work of men. And the famine and pestilence that follow are the result of the deaths caused by war. Now, with the opening of the sixth seal, God makes it clear that He is the one behind all that is happening. These events are divinely produced, not man-made. And all that John sees is in keeping with what had already been revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures, thousands of years earlier.
The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. – Joel 2:10 ESV
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall,
as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree. – Isaiah 34:4 ESV
Enter into the rock
and hide in the dust
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty. – Isaiah 2:10 ESV
The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel,
shall be destroyed.
Thorn and thistle shall grow up
on their altars,
and they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,”
and to the hills, “Fall on us.” – Hosea 10:8 ESV
And this is exactly what John sees. As a result of these divinely-induced judgments, the people living on earth will run for their lives, in an attempt to escape the wrath of God. And John clearly indicates that all will feel the anger of God, including “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free” (Revelation 6:15 ESV). And they will know that it is God who is behind all that is happening. There will be no other explanation. The sheer scale and scope of all that is happening around them and to them will clearly prove that God Almighty is the cause, and it will force them to cry out to the rocks of the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16 ESV). They will prefer death to continued existence under the wrath of God. But notice that there is no repentance. No one begs for forgiveness. And rather than cry out to God for mercy, they call out to the rocks to destroy them. The great day of God’s wrath has come and no one can stand before it. But sadly, no one seems to repent as a result of it. Their hearts are so hardened by sin that they refuse to acknowledge their guilt and beg for God’s forgiveness.
This is the beginning of the end. The judgment of God will increase exponentially and the prophet Jeremiah explains that it will be a day like no other in human history.
Alas! That day is so great
there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
yet he shall be saved out of it. – Jeremiah 30:7 ESV
Here, Jeremiah reminds the people of Israel that there will be a remnant of them preserved from the judgment that is falling on all the earth. it is important to remember that these judgments are, in part, a fulfillment of God’s covenant that He made with Israel generations earlier. He had made them His own people and set them apart for His own glory. He had promised to bless them if they remained obedient and faithful to Him. But He had also promised to curse them if they failed to do so. And those curses are carefully and painfully outlined in the book of Deuteronomy.
58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. – Deuteronomy 28:58-63 ESV
While many of these curses were partially fulfilled by the fall of Israel to the Assyrians and Judah to the Babylonians, they will be fully fulfilled in the tribulation. As the rest of the book of Revelation unfolds, we will see God dealing with His people, Israel. They will become the focus of Antichrist’s wrath. This powerful world ruler, under the direct control of Satan himself, will make it his primary objective to eliminate the people of God from the face of the earth. He knows that part of God’s plan is to send His Son to redeem a remnant from Israel. So, if he can eliminate them, he believes he can thwart the plan of God and stall the return of Christ to earth. But as Jeremiah clearly indicates, God will redeem a remnant of Israel and His Son will return to the earth. All that John is witnessing is the preordained will of God. And His will will be done.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.