(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.
The opening of the fifth seal opens John’s eyes to souls under the altar of God. The vision is either a like figure to the blood sprinkled and spilled on the altar of burnt offerings in the old covenant, or a figure of the altar of incense where the words of the saints are lifted up to God (5:8, 8:3-4). What ever the case, John identifies them as having been slain because of the word of God and their testimony of that word in their lives. I do not believe these souls to be New Testament saints only, but as the New Testament (and Revelation) suggests, these are a figure of all the righteous blood that had been slain for their faith in God. This goes all the way back to Abel! Consider what Jesus said to the generation of Jews in the first century:
(29) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, (30) saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ (31) Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (32) Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. (33) You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (34) Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, (35) so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (36) Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (37) “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (38) See, your house is left to you desolate.”
It is not just the faithful of the old covenant that are seen under the altar, but of New Testament Christians who have been slain too. Jesus also made this point: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16).
These are not alone, for the very one who broke this sixth seal open had also been slain (5:6, 9). We do not have a savior who cannot sympathize with our struggles, for he has gone through them too. The sufferings of Christ stand as our example to overcome (1 Peter 2:21-24, 3:18).
(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?”
This cry immediately takes me back to Genesis 4:10! After Cain murdered Abel, God said “‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’” Here the saints are crying with a loud voice for vengeance! These souls know two things: 1) It is the “Sovereign Lord, holy and true,” which avenges: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19); and 2) They knew that vengeance was certainly coming: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (Luke 21:20-22). The lamb had already promised to avenge; he even promised them a time frame (“these are the days of vengeance”), they only wish to know how much longer.
The subject of avenging the blood of the faithful is a critical theme in the book of Revelation: 11:18, 16:5-7, 18:20, 18:24, 19:2.
(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.
They were given robes of white. White is a figure of purity, brightness, and glory. They have arrived! There is nothing that man, nor Satan, can do to remove their garments of glory. The wicked may have killed the body, but after that there was nothing more that they could do (Matthew 10:28).
Rest a little longer. We have seen Jesus speak of those days in that generation as the “days of vengeance;” we have seen Revelation to speak of the things to shortly take place (1:1, 22:6), and that the time is near (1:3, 22:10); so it is consistent to hear that these souls must rest “a little longer.” It won’t be long before those days of vengeance would be accomplished and these same souls, along with the completed number of their brothers to be slain, will be enjoying full victory with Christ over the enemies: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. 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).