The Fifth Seal: Martyrs in Heaven – Revelation 6:9-11

When the fifth seal is opened John sees all the souls of those had been slain for the word of God gathered under the altar of God calling out for vengeance.

Souls under the Altar

The altar (θυσιαστήριον) can refer to the altar in the court of the temple used for the daily sacrifices or the altar of incense inside the temple itself (Luke 1:11). But it can also refer to the sacrifice on the altar itself.

Who are these souls under the altar in Revelation 6? Are they just people killed in the tribulation or throughout the history of the church? Revelation refers to people killed for their testimony and their refusal to worship the beast (13:15) or refused his mark (20:4). The souls are under the altar because the resisted the kingdom of the beast. This could refer to all the martyrs for the whole history of the church (an idealist view) or just those who died in the tribulation (a futurist view). Beale suggests their location under the altar “emphasizes the divine protection that has held sway over their “soul” despite even their loss of physical life because of persecution” (Revelation, 392).

The people under the altar call out to God as “Sovereign Lord.” Lord is δεσπότης (despostes), a term that is normally used by a slave addressing their master, although it is used in the LXX 17 times for God. Aune points out it is a “regular Greek translation of two Latin terms for the Roman emperor” (Aune, Revelation 6–16, 407). This is a hint of the identity of the source of the persecution of God’s people in Revelation, the master who rules the world is not the real, “holy and true” master in heaven.

The people crying out are wearing white robes and are standing under the altar of God. To be under the altar is to be covered in the blood of the slain Lamb of God. In the seven letters, the ones who have overcome are given white robes (3:4-5; 18).

These souls ask God how long he will wait before avenging their deaths. The cry “how long?” appears in the Psalms and Zechariah 1:12. For example, Psalm 6:3, “my soul is greatly troubled, But you, O Lord, how long?” Psalm 13 begins with the words “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 74:10, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?”

The Lord tells them to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers is complete. This answer can be taken several ways. First, it could refer to the total number of martyrs is reached. This implies God knows how many have been chosen to give their lives. Second, some would take this as a reference to when the last martyr dies, then Christ will return and destroy the kingdom of the Beast. The view of the early church was that God had established a “number” for the martyrs. A third possibility is this refers to the end of suffering on earth in general This may include martyrdom, but some will survive until the end to enter into the kingdom.

The souls call on God to avenge them. This is a common Old Testament theme: God is the avenger of the innocent. The souls under the altar are making a legal complaint to God for justice. Since God is the “just judge,” the martyrs can ask him to give them the justice they deserve by punishing the ones who put them to death.

Psalm 9:13 O Lord, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death,

Fourth Ezra has a similar theme. In 4 Ezra 4:35-37 the souls of the righteous call out “how long” and look forward to the harvest when they would be rewarded. Like Revelation 6:10, they are told they must wait until “the number of those like yourselves is completed.”

4 Ezra 4:35–37 Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, ‘How long are we to remain here? And when will the harvest of our reward come?’ 36 And the archangel Jeremiel answered and said, ‘When the number of those like yourselves is completed; for he has weighed the age in the balance, 37 and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move or arouse them until that measure is fulfilled.’ ”

In 1 Enoch 9:10 the ones who have died of blood and oppression bring a lawsuit to the gate of heaven, described as groaning under in the face of their oppression.

1 Enoch 9:10 And now behold, the Holy One will cry, and those who have died will bring their suit up to the gate of heaven. Their groaning has ascended (into heaven), but they could not get out from before the face of the oppression that is being wrought on earth

The fifth seal therefore vividly pictures those who have given their lives resisting the empire and holding on to their testimony for the Lord waiting on the Lord to avenge their deaths. The Lord’s words are comforting, they only need to wait a little while. The Lord will judge rightly between the oppressor and the oppressed and he will punish and reward with justice.

A Rider on a Pale Horse – Revelation 6:7-8

If the natural result of war was famine, the natural result of famine is plague. The fourth horse is a sickly pale color, the color of death. The Greek χλωρός (chloros) is pale greenish gray (BDAG). Although the world is sometimes used for green grass or the flow of water, in medical texts the color is used in contrast to a healthy body, a “sallow” complexion (BrillDAG) or “typical of a corpse” (LN 79.35).

This is the only one of the four horsemen who is given a name: Death, and Hades following behind. Death is personified in Isaiah 25:8, for example. Hosea 13:14 refers to death and the grave as malevolent powers. In the Testament of Abraham16-20 personified Death comes to Abraham in the guise of youth and beauty.

Hades is the god of the underworld, the place of the dead. In the Septuagint, the word Hades is used to translate sheol, a Hebrew word meaning pit which is used for the place of the dead (Psalm 6:5, for example).

The four ways that Death is allowed to kill is drawn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel; this is a standard list of disasters which occurred when Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. A similar list appears in 4Q171, and David Aune suggests Psalms of Solomon13:2-3, “The arm of the Lord saved us from the sword that passes through, from hunger and the death of sinners. Wicked beasts ran at them.” Dio Cassius describes the Second Jewish revolt in A. D. 135 using similar language (Aune 2:402).

Jeremiah 14:12 Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”

Ezekiel 14:21 “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague—to kill its men and their animals!

4Q171 Col. i (frag. 1 line 26-27) Its [interpretation] concerns the Man of Lies who misdirected many with deceptive words, for they have chosen worthless things and did not lis[ten] to the Interpreter of Knowledge. This is why Col. II (frags. 1 II + 2 + 4Q183 3) they will die by the sword, by hunger and by plague.

Dio Cassius 69.1-2: Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles [i.e., the sword], and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities.

Greg Beale suggests the four ways Death is given to kill humans is based on “the covenantal curse formulas of Lev. 26:18–28 and Deut. 32:24–26” (Revelation 383). He does not think there is a logical sequence from the first rider who is bent on conquest to the second (war), third (famine) and the fourth (pestilence). Although recognizing the curses do affect nations, they have “the dual purpose within the covenant community of purifying the faithful and punishing those disloyal to Christ” (384). For Beale, those slain by the plagues are “Christians as ‘slain’ and ‘killed’ (ἀποκτέννεσθαι) ‘because of the testimony that they held’” (386). This view does provide a neat segue into the fifth seal, the martyrs under the altar of God.

However, it seems best to see a general sequence of tribulation and persecution in the four horsemen, not unlike Jesus’s own words in the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew 24 Jesus describes a progression from international strife (wars and rumors of wars) to famine, earthquakes, persecution, and general apocalyptic events (eclipses of the sun and moon, falling stars, shaking of the “powers of heaven”). Revelation 6 follows this same pattern.

A Rider on a Black Horse – Revelation 6:5-6

When the Lamb opens the third seal, a rider on a black horse appears. The meaning of the black horse is famine. The natural result of war is famine, and the third horse is black horse, clearly intended to represent famine.

Scales Revelation Famine was well-known in the Roman Empire in the late first century. In A. D. 90 there was such a glut of wine and lack of grain that Domitian issued an edict forbidding new vineyards and commanding the destruction of half of the present vineyards so the land could be converted to grain production (Aune 2:398-99; Seutonius, Domitian 7.2). Asia Minor protested this edict and it was eventually reverse in A.D. 93.  It is possible John has this edict in mind with the time “do not damage the wine” (Aune does not think it is in the immediate background).

The rider is given set of scales used to measure grain and a voice declares a quart of wheat will cost one denarius. The English “quart” translates χοῖνιξ (chonix), a day’s ration for one person (BDAG). One denarius is about what an average working person could expect to earn for a day’s work. This means someone needs to work a whole day to earn enough to buy food for themselves for that day. If a man is supporting a family, his day’s labor will not feed his wife and children. Normally a denarius would buy as much as eight times the food. (Charles, 1:167; Aune 2:397).

A Roman soldier was issued thirty-two measures of wheat a month. According to Polybius, the standard ration was one “measure” for a man, and three for his horse (6.39.13). Barley is usually the grain given to animals, to feed one’s family with barley would be an indication of poverty.

Famine was an expected hardship in the ancient world. In 2 Kings 7:1 Elisha predicts merchants at the gates of Samaria will sell food at inflated prices: “a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel.” Although the weight/price is different, the idea is the same. Because of war, Samaria experienced famine and inflated food prices.

Famine is also common in apocalyptic literature. In the second Sibylline Oracle, the writer predicts famine, pestilence and thunderbolts in the final generation.

Sib. Or. 2.20–24 Then there will be bloody precipitation from heaven, but the entire world of innumerable men will kill each other in madness. In the tumult God will impose famines and pestilence and thunderbolts on men who adjudicate without justice.

Later in the same oracle, famine is one of the signs of the end:

Sib. Or. 2.154–157 But whenever this sign appears throughout the world, children born with gray temples from birth, afflictions of men, famines, pestilence, and wars, change of times, lamentations, many tears.

In the third Sibylline Oracle “a sign to mortals of sword, famine, and death” (Sib.Or. 3.335) combines several of the images found in the four horsemen of Revelation 6. See also 3.317; 3.476).  in fact, famine is mentioned often in the Oracles as a sign of God’s punishment. So too 4 Ezra 15:5, the Lord says ““I bring evils upon the world, the sword and famine and death and destruction.” In 4 Ezra 16:21, “the calamities shall spring up on the earth—the sword, famine, and great confusion.”  In 2 Baruch 27.6 famine and drought are included as the appointed calamities before the coming of the messiah (cf., 2 Baruch 62:4).  The Apocalypse of Abraham 30.5 lists pestilence and famine among the “plagues on the heathens.”

The irony of this famine is that the luxury items, the “oil and wine” are not in short supply.  These things are plentiful, but the people cannot afford them since them must spend all their money on the day’s bread.

Greg Beale suggests the inflated prices for food has Christians specifically in mind (Revelation, 381). He argued the second horse was not war in general but rather persecution of Christians. So too the third horse refers to the economic difficulties faced by Christians suggested by Revelation 2:9. In addition, those who do not receive the mark of the beast will not be permitted to buy and sell, forcing them the pay inflated prices outside of the price-contrlled agora.

While it is clear the book of Revelation describes the economic effect of loyalty to Jesus (they cannot buy or sell, they hunger and thirst), to limit this famine to Christians does not do justice to the scope of the first four seals. The first rider is bent on conquest, which results in war; continual wars result in famine. Food shortages in the Roman world were not limited to Christians.

A Rider on a Red Horse – Revelation 6:3-4

As the Lamb opened the second seal, one of the four living creatures called to the second horse. This horse is red, a color that is normally associated with war. The word for red here is actually the word associated with fire (πυρρός), hence the NIV’s “fiery red.” This is the same word which will describe the dragon on Revelation 12:3. Revelation 6:3 uses a divine passive: the rider was given a large sword.”

Although it seems clear this rider represents war, it is less clear what kind of war is intended. If the first rider is the antichrist, the natural result of an emperor bent on conquest is constant war. In fact, Jesus predicted there would be “wars and rumors of wars” as part of the birth pangs leading up to his second coming. For most interpreters, the red house represents “international and civil strife” (Charles, 164).

In the context of the first century, this is a reversal of Pax Romana. While the Peace of Rome was not a universal peace, it did mean that the Romans maintained peace and prosperity throughout the Empire. That the rider as a great sword may allude to Rome since in the Roman Empire, only the Emperor was allowed to ride with a sword (Aune, 2:396; Dio Cassius, 42.27.2).

When peace is taken from the earth, people will slay one another. The verb (σφάζω) is associated with violence and murder; it is a vivid word meaning “to slaughter, either animals or persons; in contexts referring to persons, the implication is of violence and mercilessness” (LN 20.72). In Revelation 5:6 the same verb is used to describe the Lamb standing “as though it had been slain.” Greg Beale says “is used by John without exception to refer to the death of Christ or his followers” (The Book of Revelation, 379). Beale does notice Revelation 13:3, one of the heads “seemed to have a mortal wound” (ESV), using the perfect passive participle of σφάζω. But since this is a parody of the death of Jesus, he considered it in the same category.

A problem for the view the red horse represents persecution of the followers of Jesus is the reference to people slaying one another. If the slaughter is persecution of the Lamb’s followers, then it is hard to see how they would attack one another.

In the Animal Apocalypse the writer says one of the fallen angels using a sword against the other animals and they attack one another:

1 Enoch 88.1-2 I then saw one of those four who had come out earlier seizing that first star, binding his hands and feet, and throwing him into an abyss—this abyss was narrow and deep, empty and dark. 2 Also one of them drew a sword and gave it to those elephants, camels, and donkeys; then they began to attack one another, and on account of them the whole earth was quaking.

Notice the animals attack one another. Later, the writer says “a great sword was given to the sheep” who then used it against all the other beasts of the field in order to kill them (1 Enoch 90.19).

This rider on a red horse therefore builds on the metaphor the first rider. Prior to the time when God intervenes in history to rescue his people, there will be continual civil strife, “wars and rumors of wars.” What is important here is the appearance of peace in the Roman Empire in the first century is an illusion. John is predicting the breakdown of peace as human empires strive against one another.

How is Jesus the Son of David? – Romans 1:3

Star of David with Hebrew BiblePaul contrasts Jesus’ physical descent from David and the spiritual declaration he was the Son of God. Although some detect a reference to Jesus’s human and divine nature in this verse, it is more likely Paul has in mind Jesus’s life prior to the resurrection and his life as a result of the resurrection (Kruse, Romans, 42).

As with the claim Jesus is the Son of God, Paul’s claim that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” underscores his messianic claim. If Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, then he must be from the line of David. Both Matthew and Luke include genealogies in their gospels to connect Jesus to the line of David through Joseph. Based on 2 Samuel 7:14, Davidic origin of the messiah is found in several texts in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple period. For example:

Jeremiah 23:5 (ESV)  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Psalm 89:3–4 (ESV) You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: 4 ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”

4QFlor 1:10-14 [And] YHWH [de]clares to you that 2 Sam 7:12–14 «he will build you a house. I will raise up your seed after you and establish the throne of his kingdom 11 [for ev]er. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me.» This (refers to the) «branch of David», who will arise with the Interpreter of the law who 12 [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: Amos 9:11 «I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen», This (refers to) «the hut of  13 David which has fall[en», w]hich he will raise up to save Israel. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Translations) (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 353.

4 Ezra 12:31-32 “And as for the lion that you saw rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, 32 this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings.

In each of these examples the messiah is related to David (the seed of David, a branch out of David, etc.)  Psalm 89:3-4 and the fragmentary Dead Sea Scroll both allude to 2 Sam 7:14, a text which anticipates a son of David will rule in Jerusalem (Solomon), but also that a son of David will rule forever (Jesus). This future messiah in some way restores the broken line of David.

As Richard Longenecker points out, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, Paul does not usually connect the idea of Jesus as the messiah and his physical descent from David (Romans, 65). So why does he make the connection at the beginning of the book of Romans? Longenecker (and many others) suggest Paul is using an early Christian confessional statement in these verses. In order to connect with congregations he does not know, Paul alludes to a familiar confessional statement used in their worship.

Going a step beyond Longenecker, if this is a confessional statement, I would suggest this tells us something about the congregations in Rome. The language in the introduction is thoroughly Jewish and messianic. The gospel Paul preaches is about Jesus the Messiah, who is the son of God (a messianic title) and the fulfillment of the line of David (a messianic expectation). We know Jewish-Christian congregations in Rome were persecuted because they were rioting over Chrestus, likely an indication of intense debate within the synagogues over Jesus as the Christ.

Since Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles and has a well-deserved reputation for preaching a Law-free gospel to the Gentiles, it is important for Paul to begin his letter to messianic Jewish congregations with a clear affirmation that he believes Jesus is the Messiah and fulfills Jewish expectations about the Messiah.

The Messianic Son of God – Romans 1:3

At the beginning of Romans Paul describes the Gospel as concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3-4). Although part of Paul’s address of the book to Christians in Rome, this is a rich theological description of Jesus which is based on Paul’s reading of the Hebrew Bible.

4q246The phrase “Son of God” is a messianic title used in Psalm 2. Other Second Temple period texts use a similar title for the coming messiah. In Psalm 2, the king of Israel is called the Lord’s anointed one (2:2) and “God’s son” (2:7) as he is enthroned in Zion. This anointed son of God will receive the nations as his inheritance (2:8) and all the kings of the earth (the nations) are to serve the Lord in fear (2:11). 2 Samuel 7:14 may be the source for Psalm 2, since David is promise that his son would rule after him forever.

Paul’s is not far from the language used by the Qumran community to describe a coming king who will rule on behalf of God:

4Q246 He will be called son of God, and they will call him son of the Most High. Like the sparks that you saw, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several year[s] over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a province another provi[n]ce. Until the people of God arises and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth. He will jud[ge] the earth in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease from the earth, and all the provinces will pay him homage. The great God is his strength, he will wage war for him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast them all away before him. Martınez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Translations) (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 493-95.

The writer of this document describes a coming king as a “son of God” and a “son of the Most High” (ובר עליון) who will crush the enemies of God’s kingdom and establish an eternal kingdom. The scroll alludes to Psalm 2:9 (“crushing enemies”) and Isaiah 1 (the sword being removed, nations paying homage, but also Ps 2:11). The scroll also resonates with Luke 1:35, Gabriel’s words to Mary announcing she will be overshadowed by “the Most High” so that the child she bears will be called “holy, the son of God.” Not everyone agrees the scroll refers to a messianic figure (see Collins for a survey of the options). The title “son of God” has clear messianic overtones in the New Testament, and as Collins shows, sometimes the phrase was messianic at Qumran (184).

Paul begins Romans by announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God. To a Jewish ear, this is a clear statement that Paul believes Jesus is the Messiah and in some ways fulfills the messianic expectations of the Hebrew Bible. But he does not burst into history and destroy Israel’s enemies, crushing them with a rod of iron and ruling over a kingdom of peace. The Gospel is “God’s intervention in Christ” (Moo, Romans, 43), but the action of God in Christ destroys the power of the real enemy, the power of sin and death.

How does this apocalyptic reading of the first line of Romans playout over the rest of the book? How is Jesus “God’s intervention”?

 

See also:

García Martínez F. “The Eschatological Figure of 4Q246,” in Qumran and Apocalyptic. Studies on the Aramaic Texts from Qumran (STDJ 9; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992) 162–179.

Collins, John J. “The Messiah as the Son of God,” in The Scepter and the Star (Second Edition; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010) 171–190.

Cross, Frank Moore. “Notes on the Doctrine of the Two Messiahs at Qumran and the Extracanonical Daniel Apocalypse (4Q246),” in D.W. Parry, S.D. Ricks (eds.), Current Research and Technological Developments on the Dead Sea Scrolls (STDJ 20; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996): 1–13.

Peter’s Sermon in Acts 3

In chapter 3 Peter is a bit more pointed than in his Pentecost sermon. He says that the people who are hearing the sermon are guilty of killing the Messiah. There are men in the audience who for Barabbas rather than Jesus! Peter accusing the crowd and the Temple aristocracy of killing an innocent man who was vindicated by God by the resurrection and ascension.

It is also more pointed in its description of what will happen when they repent – the “times of refreshing” will come. It appears, then, that Peter is promising the soon-return of the Messiah after Israel repents. The phrase is unusual, only appearing here in the New Testament.  In the  LXX the word “refreshing” (ἀνάψυξις) only appears only in Exod 8:15 to describe a pause int he cycle of plagues on Egypt.  It appears in the Apoc.Sedrach 16.3 as a description of heaven. There is no exact equivalent of the phrase in Acts 3 to describe the messianic age, despite E. Schweizer’s statement that the word refers to “messianic refreshment, the definitive age of salvation” (TDNT 9:644).

Solomon's PorticoThere are, however, a number of similar phrases in the literature of the Second Temple period which indicate that the language would have been well understood by the biblically minded Jews who were congregated in Solomon’s Portico that day.  Referring to the coming kingdom as “times and seasons” is also common, especially using the Greek καιρός (kairos). This word for time has the idea of the right time, the appointed time. Jesus used it in Acts 1, telling the twelve it was not for them to know the “times and the seasons.” It is highly unlikely that anyone in the Jewish crowd would have missed these eschatological allusions, even if they did not agree with them!

If the people repent, Peter says that God will send the Christ, Jesus who will fulfill the words of the prophets. Peter claims here that if the nation repents, then the messiah will return and establish the kingdom promised in the prophets. What is more, the ones who repent will participate fully in that kingdom, since a major aspect of the Messiah’s return (in virtually every view of the messiah) was a separation of “real” Israel from “false” Israel.

When Christ returns, he will restore all things (verse 21), a term which is also unique in the New Testament, yet a theologically packed term. The word does not appear in the New Testament or the LXX, but seems to have the sense of restoring creation to its original state. This too is a major expectation of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Second Temple period, the kingdom would be a restoration of the world to Eden-like conditions.

What we see therefore here in Acts is a clear statement that the Kingdom of God is about to begin. But there seems to be a condition – repent of the sin of killing the Messiah!  Acts 4-8 will describe the response to this offer from the majority of the “men of Israel.” Despite large numbers of Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah and Savior, Israel as a nation continues to resist the Holy Spirit in the chapters which follow.

Acts 2 and 3 are therefore the foundation for the resistance to the Kingdom found in Acts 4-8.  Are there other elements of this sermon which sound like they promise the dawning of the eschatological age?