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Rev. vi. 9, 10, 11. And when he had opened the fifth seal, I
saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the
word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord,
holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on
them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them ; and it
was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
The general character of this seal appears to be different from those we have lately considered. It is rather doctrinal than prophetical ; and, therefore, we have no mention of a horse and a rider, the usual symbol of a dispensation of Providence. So far as it is prophetical, it seems intended to represent the last and most severe persecution of the Christian church, under the Pagan state of the Roman empire. And in order to impress the mind with the great extent of the calamity, as if the whole ministry of the church had been either shut
in prison, or sent into banishment, or cut off from the land of the living, none of the living creatures is introduced at the opening of this seal, to give the usual invitation to the prophet, to come and see.
The history of this seal contains an account of what was seen, and of what was heard.
When it was opened, John saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain
for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.—The species of beings which the prophet saw are called souls. In Scripture, animal life is often put for the soul, and blood for the life. It has therefore been supposed, that when this seal was opened, John saw the figure or representation of blood about the bottom of an altar. This, however, is very improbable ; because, on the supposition that he had seen the usual sign or figure of blood, he would have told us that he saw the blood, and not the souls of them that were slain. Others have supposed, that he saw the picture of some refined creatures, whom, by certain explanatory notes, he knew to be the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.' But this view of the subject is more exceptionable than the other. John is not here acting the part of an interpreter ; he is giving us an account of the vision, and not any commentary or gloss upon it; he only informs us of what he saw, and this he assures us was the souls of them that were slain. Souls, being spiritual substances, cannot be discerned by bodily organs; they are nevertheless objects of sight to the mind. And as John was under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit, it is not more unreasonable to suppose, that he was made capable of discerning spirits, than to suppose, that spiritual substances are capable of seeing and conversing with one another. Not that John saw the identical spirits which had been slain, any more than he saw a material altar in the place where he stood; but as really as he was presented with the figure or representation of an altar, was he favoured with a symbol or hieroglyphic of the souls of the martyrs.
The condition in which they were seen is mentioned: they were in a state of separation from their bodies, which had been brought about by the hand of violence ; they were slain for the word of God. In the period of the former seals, the friends of Christianity had been subjected to innumerable evils; many of them had suffered bonds and imprisonments ; multitudes were spoiled of their goods, and sent into banishment; some had trials of cruel mockings, scourging, and every species of indignity; and others were actually slain. But as the punishment of death, when inflicted in the way of an ordinary execution, was judged to be too mild for Christians, their persecutors generally condemned them to die, by all those methods of cruelty and of torture which an ingenious barbarity could devise. It is impossible to sum up the multitudes who fell under these severities. Accordingly, when this seal was opened, John could see nothing under the altar but the souls of dead men.
The place in which they were seen was under the altar. As the victim was smitten down, and the blood poured out at the bottom of the altar of burnt-offering, it is natural to suppose that the allusion is to that altar at which the typical sacrifices were killed, and the blood poured out. Nor is it uncommon for martyrdom to be represented under the notion of a sacrifice: in this manner Paul speaks of his own martyrdom; • I am ready to be offered,' says he, . and the time of my departure is at hand,' 2 Tim. iv. 6. But none of you can imagine that either the death of a martyr, or the death of a bullock, could make a true and proper atonement for sin ; martyrdom partakes of the nature of an eucharistical, but nothing of a propitiatory sacrifice. In the true spirit of martyrdom, the dying saint presented his body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, not upon the footing of the intrinsic worth of the service, but upon the ground of the sacrifice and service of the Surety. He poured out his soul to God in the way of grateful acknowledgments for his benefits, especially for Christ, the great and unspeakable gift of God. The souls which John saw did not make the atonement; but, as they were lying under the altar at which the atonement was made, they must have enjoyed all the rich benefits which the atonement secured.
The true cause of their being slain was the word of God, and the testimony which they held. Their enemies brought many a railing accusation against them. The holy, tender, and circumspect lives which they led were no security against the imputation of the most aggravated crimes; yea, the more that they studied to give no just ground of offence, the more the spirit of the world seemed to be roused against them; because, instead of running to the same excess of riot and wickedness with others, they rigidly adhered to an opposite line of conduct. Whatever their enemies might allege, the text discloses the true ground of the quarrel, and the only cause of their being slain. It was their tenacious adherence, both in profession and in practice, to the truths and interests of Christ, called the word of God, and the testimony which they held.
One of the divine titles which this apostle frequently applies to the Saviour, is the Word of God. Here it is not intended of the personal, but of the written, word of God-the holy Scriptures. In many of the persecuting periods, the posséssion of the Scriptures was accounted such a high crime as to be judged worthy of the punishment of death; and the greatest diligence was used to deprive the Christians of this invaluable treasure. Greater exertions are not making in the present day for multiplying copies of the Scriptures, and promoting their circulation, than were used in the period of some of the seals for their suppression and destruction. Refusal to deliver them up to be burned, or otherwise destroyed, seldom escaped with a slight arbitrary chastisement : the punishment generally awarded to the friends of the Bible was death. The testimony here spoken of must be understood of the professed attachment of Christians to the system of truth and duty contained in the Scriptures. They did not consider it sufficient that they believed with the heart; they knew it was equally commanded by God that they should make confession with the mouth. And because they would not renounce this profession, either in whole or in part, nor do any thing which might be interpreted as disrespectful to it, on this ground also their enemies judged them to be worthy of death.
Though the thirst of persecutors for blood is insatiable, they are much more highly gratified with a single instance of defection from the truth, than by all the severities which they can practise upon its friends. This may be easily accounted for, as apostacy affords them something like a triumph, which martyrdom does not. The one is a sort of implied approbation of their own measures; but the other is a flat condemnation of them. The one says, that the cause in which the person was embarked was false, or not of sufficient importance to be contended for unto blood; but the other represents it as the very truth, most sure, and of such value and importance, that no sacrifices for it can be too liberal. Hence every method which craft and policy could suggest was employed to induce the Christians to apostatize : their enemies appeared willing to give them their lives, upon what they apprehended to be the simplest conditions. If they would not part with the whole volume of the Scriptures, they signified, that they were willing to accept of any particular book, or part of a book, which belonged to the Scriptures; and that they might retain the rest in their own custody, and make what use of it they pleased, provided it was done privately. Or if they would not deliver up the Scriptures, they also signified their readiness to accept of any other book in lieu of them, as a sort of implied token of their having renounced the other. If they would not return to the stated worship of the gods, they told them, that their lives would nevertheless be spared, provided they would occasionally present themselves in their temples. Or if this were accounted too much, they required that for once they would come and offer sacrifice; and if they accounted the sacrifice of a lamb, or a kid, or a hog, to be too great a mark of respect, they required that they should throw the smallest quantity of incense into the fires of the altars, as a simple testimony of respect to the gods of their fathers. In short, they assured them, that any token of respect, however small, would be accepted as the price of safety; and that after this was given, they would never be molested, either in their persons or property, in any future period, upon the score of religion.