In the remaining part of this chapter we have the opening of the fifth and the sixth seals.
I. The fifth seal. Here is no mention made of any one who called the apostle to make his observation, probably because the decorum of the vision was to be observed, and each of the four living creatures had discharged its duty of a monitor before, or because the events here opened lay out of the sight, and beyond the time, of the present ministers of the church; or because it does not contain a new prophecy of any future events, but rather opens a spring of support and consolation to those who had been and still were under great tribulation for the sake of Christ and the gospel. Here observe,
1. The sight this apostle saw at the opening of the fifth seal; it was a very affecting sight (Rev. 6:9): I saw under the altar the souls of those that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. He saw the souls of the martyrs. Here observe, (1.) Where he saw them—under the altar; at the foot of the altar of incense, in the most holy place; he saw them in heaven, at the foot of Christ. Hence note, [1.] Persecutors can only kill the body, and after that there is no more that they can do; their souls live. [2.] God has provided a good place in the better world for those who are faithful to death and are not allowed a place any longer on earth. [3.] Holy martyrs are very near to Christ in heaven, they have the highest place there. [4.] It is not their own death, but the sacrifice of Christ, that gives them a reception into heaven and a reward there; they do not wash their robes in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb. (2.) What was the cause in which they suffered—the word of God and the testimony which they held, for believing the word of God, and attesting or confessing the truth of it; this profession of their faith they held fast without wavering, even though they died for it. A noble cause, the best that any man can lay down his life for—faith in God’s word and a confession of that faith.
2. The cry he heard; it was a loud cry, and contained a humble expostulation about the long delay of avenging justice against their enemies: How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth? Rev. 6:10. Observe, (1.) Even the spirits of just men made perfect retain a proper resentment of the wrong they have sustained by their cruel enemies; and though they die in charity, praying, as Christ did, that God would forgive them, yet they are desirous that, for the honour of God, and Christ, and the gospel, and for the terror and conviction of others, God will take a just revenge upon the sin of persecution, even while he pardons and saves the persecutors. (2.) They commit their cause to him to whom vengeance belongeth, and leave it in his hand; they are not for avenging themselves, but leave all to God. (3.) There will be joy in heaven at the destruction of the implacable enemies of Christ and Christianity, as well as at the conversion of other sinners. When Babylon falls, it will be said, Rejoice over her, O thou heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God hath avenged you on her, Rev. 18:20.
3. He observed the kind return that was made to this cry (Rev. 6:11), both what was given to them and what was said to them. (1.) What was given to them—white robes, the robes of victory and of honour; their present happiness was an abundant recompence of their past sufferings. (2.) What was said to them—that they should be satisfied, and easy in themselves, for it would not be long ere the number of their fellow-sufferers would be fulfilled. This is a language rather suited to the imperfect state of the saints in this world than to the perfection of their state in heaven; there is no impatience, no uneasiness, no need of admonition; but in this world there is great need of patience. Observe, [1.] There is a number of Christians, known to God, who are appointed as sheep for the slaughter, set apart to be God’s witnesses. [2.] As the measure of the sin of persecutors is filling up, so is the number of the persecuted martyred servants of Christ. [3.] When this number 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.
II. We have here the sixth seal opened, Rev. 6:12. Some refer this to the great revolutions in the empire at Constantine’s time, the downfall of paganism; others, with great probability, to the destruction of Jerusalem, as an emblem of the general judgment, and destruction of the wicked, at the end of the world; and, indeed, the awful characters of this event are so much the same with those signs mentioned by our Saviour as foreboding the destruction of Jerusalem, as hardly to leave any room for doubting but that the same thing is meant in both places, though some think that event was past already. See Matt. 24:29, 30. Here observe,
1. The tremendous events that were hastening; and here are several occurrences that contribute to make that day and dispensation very dreadful:—(1.) There was a great earthquake. This may be taken in a political sense; the very foundations of the Jewish church and state would be terribly shaken, though they seemed to be as stable as the earth itself. (2.) The sun became black as sackcloth of hair, either naturally, by a total eclipse, or politically, by the fall of the chief rulers and governors of the land. (3.) The moon should become as blood; the inferior officers, or their military men, should be all wallowing in their own blood. (4.) The stars of heaven shall fall to the earth (Rev. 6:13), and that as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. The stars may signify all the men of note and influence among them, though in lower spheres of activity; there should be a general desolation. (5.) The heaven should depart as a scroll when it is rolled together. This may signify that their ecclesiastical state should perish and be laid aside for ever. (6.) Every mountain and island shall be moved out of its place. The destruction of the Jewish nation should affect and affright all the nations round about, those who were highest in honour and those who seemed to be best secured; it would be a judgment that should astonish all the world. This leads to,
2. The dread and terror that would seize upon all sorts of men in that great and awful day, Rev. 6:15. No authority, nor grandeur, nor riches, nor valour, nor strength, would be able to support men at that time; yea, the very poor slaves, who, one would think, had nothing to fear, because they had nothing to lose, would be all in amazement at that day. Here observe, (1.) The degree of their terror and astonishment: it should prevail so far as to make them, like distracted desperate men, call to the mountains to fall upon them, and to the hills to cover them; they would be glad to be no more seen; yea, to have no longer any being. (2.) The cause of their terror, namely, the angry countenance of him that sits on the throne, and the wrath of the Lamb. Observe, [1.] That which is matter of displeasure to Christ is so to God; they are so entirely one that what pleases or displeases the one pleases or displeases the other. [2.] Though God be invisible, he can make the inhabitants of this world sensible of his awful frowns. [3.] Though Christ be a lamb, yet he can be angry, even to wrath, and the wrath of the Lamb is exceedingly dreadful; for if the Redeemer, that appeases the wrath of God, himself be our wrathful enemy, where shall we have a friend to plead for us? Those perish without remedy who perish by the wrath of the Redeemer. [4.] As men have their day of opportunity, and their seasons of grace, so God has his day of righteous wrath; and, when that day shall come, the most stout-hearted sinners will not be able to stand before him: all these terrors actually fell upon the sinners in Judea and Jerusalem in the day of their destruction, and they will all, in the utmost degree, fall upon impenitent sinners, at the general judgment of the last day.