We’ve been looking this week at the fifth seal in Revelation 6:9-11. Here it is again:
“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. 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?” 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” (Rev. 6:9-11).
The prayer of these martyred saints is a cry for justice: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (v. 10). There are several things of great importance here.
First, they obviously have a keen sense of divine justice. They wait in anticipation of God’s justice and vengeance on the enemies of his kingdom. Clearly they understand that it is not their responsibility or right to avenge the blood on those who had killed Christians (see Rom. 12:19). They knew that it was God’s prerogative to determine when and where and how. There is nothing wrong or unchristian to desire that God’s enemies and those who persecute God’s people be held accountable and judged for their wicked deeds (see Psalm 94:1-6).
A similar cry for vengeance is found in Psalm 79:5-6 and may provide the background for John’s language: “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!”
God doesn’t tell them they are misguided, that they shouldn’t desire justice on the enemies of Christ. In fact, they are simply turning back into prayer a promise that God made to them about what he would do to those who persecute the church. Here is how Paul put it:
“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thess. 1:5-10).
But we also see in this passage that God’s delay in bringing justice against the unbelieving world is simply an expression of his sovereign purpose and decree that many more suffer martyrdom. There is a complete and explicitly specified number who must suffer martyrdom as these have. And the fact that Jesus has not yet returned is an indication that the total of those whom God has ordained will die in this manner has not yet been reached. In other words, God has it well within his perfect plan that a specified number, not one more or one less than he has willed, shall die for their faith.
Note well: (a) God has determined that many of his people should be killed at the hands of unbelievers; their deaths are neither an accident to them nor a surprise to God. (b) God has also determined to hold morally accountable those unbelievers who he knows will sin by persecuting his people.
Some say that what John means is simply that the mission of their fellow believers has not yet been fulfilled. But most argue that John’s point is that the full number of those Christians whose destiny is to die for their faith has not yet been reached. This not only indicates that there is a specified number, ordained by God, who will suffer death, but also that God knows precisely who they are. This is why Jesus can’t yet come back. The full number of martyrs ordained by God has not yet been fulfilled.
The restraint of God in bringing vengeance to bear on those who killed these saints, and thus one reason why Jesus has not yet returned to consummate this judgment, is due both to his longsuffering (granting extended opportunity to repent) and the fulfillment of his pre-ordained purpose. Only when all have been killed in accordance with God’s plan will he act in judgment. Only then will Christ return.