Four different horses and riders were released when Jesus opened the first four seals of the heavenly scroll, revealing that war, violence, disease, famine, economic calamity, and death will come and go around the world as we wait for the return of Christ (Rev. 6:1–8). Our Lord’s opening the fifth seal allows us to see not what is happening on earth during this era but rather what is happening in heaven. As we will see, however, the situation in heaven is not entirely disassociated from earthly events.
Christ opens the fifth seal, and John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (v. 9). John views Christians who have died for their faithfulness to Jesus, the company of martyrs who have paid the ultimate price for their gospel testimony. Their earthly lives having ended, they live on in heaven waiting for the resurrection of their bodies. That they are under the heavenly altar and able to converse with the Lord indicates that the close, ongoing relationship between Christ and His people does not end at death.
Scripture and first-century Jewish tradition both speak of the messianic woes, a period of intense suffering for the people of God that precedes the consummation of the Messiah’s reign (Dan. 7:21–22; Mark 13:19–20; Col. 1:24). God’s Word also talks about His truth going forth from Israel to the nations and the conversion of gentiles to faith in the God of Israel (e.g., Isa. 19:19–25; 43:10–12; Mic. 4:1–2; Zech. 2:11). Commentators note that John’s vision in Revelation 6:9–11 brings all these things together, making it plain that the conversion of the nations involves the suffering of God’s people as witnesses to the truth. As horrible as the death of the martyrs may be, it serves a purpose in the Lord’s eternal plan of salvation.
This does not mean that God will not hold to account the people who inflict such suffering. The martyrs in heaven cry out for vindication, and Jesus promises that it is coming, but not quite yet. First, the full number of those appointed for martyrdom must die (vv. 10–11). The Lord has not forgotten those who suffer for their faith. He takes note of every injustice visited on His children and will repay it in full. Matthew Henry writes, “When this number [of martyrs] is fulfilled, God will take a just and glorious revenge upon their cruel persecutors; he will recompense tribulation to those who trouble them, and to those that are troubled full and uninterrupted rest.”