13) Rev 6:9–10: The book of Revelation consists of the Apostle John’s vision during his exile on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9–11).

When he wrote it, persecution affected many churches. However, only a few regions of the Roman Empire experienced martyrdom. While some of what John saw pertained to his own era, much of his vision related to the unfolding of future events.[1]

Christ charges every believer to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mark 8:34–38).[2]

Therefore, none of us should be surprised when persecution comes (John 15:18–21; Rom 8:35–39).

The Lamb represents the crucified and risen Christ (Rev 5:6–10).  When the Lamb broke the other seals, plagues afflicted humanity (Rev 6:1–6, 11–17; Rev 8:1–5). His opening of this one revealed those whom humanity afflicted praying for justice.[3]

In the book of Revelation, “inhabitants on the earth” refers to the persecutors of God’s people (Rev 3:10).[4]

John “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered,” indicating that the scene took place in heaven.[5]

This view of the afterlife differed from the Old Testament conception of entry into the underworld (Sheol), upon one’s death (Num 16:30–33; Job 7:6–10).[6]

These believers chose to identify with the suffering of the Lamb, receiving execution for their witness to the redemptive work of Jesus.[7]

This passage affirms that God ushers his people into his presence immediately when our lives on earth reach their end (2 Cor 5:1–8; Phil 1:21–24; 1 Thess 5:9–10). However, our bodily resurrection will not occur until Christ returns (1 Cor 15:42–58; 1 Thess 4:13–17).

Stoic philosophy promoted a similar view. However, its adherents considered the body a prison of the soul.[8]

According to Seneca (ca. 1 BC–65 AD):

This body of ours is a weight upon the soul and its penance. As the load presses down the soul is crushed and is in bondage, unless philosophy has come to its assistance and has bid it take fresh courage by contemplating the universe, and has turned it from things earthly to things divine.

There it has its liberty, there it can roam abroad; meantime it escapes the custody in which it is bound, and renews its life in heaven.[9]

Israel’s priests poured a sacrificial bull’s blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering (Lev 4:7). Therefore, the souls of martyrs dwelling under the altar in heaven indicates that the Lord views their deaths as a sacrifice, “because blood for a soul (nephesh) will make atonement” (Lev 17:11).[10]

Paul considered the ongoing persecution he experienced and his impending death “a drink offering” (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6).[11]

However, the altar in heaven does not necessarily represent the bronze sacrificial altar (Exod 27:1–3). Given that the martyrs’ prayers rose to God, their souls might rest under the altar of incense (Exod 30:8–10; Rev 8:3–5; Rev 9:13–15; Rev 16:4–7).[12]

While the theme of sacrifice points to one type of altar and prayer to another, in John’s vision both images may converge into one reality.[13]

The Babylonian Talmud states, “The souls of the righteous are hidden under the Throne of Glory” (b. Shabbat 152b).

Therefore, the altar could also signify the throne of God, protecting the souls of martyrs after they lose their lives (Matt 10:26–39; Phil 1:27–30; 2 Tim 1:8–12).[14]

Crying out for vindication “with a loud voice,”[15] these souls pled, “How long, O master, holy and true, will you not judge and grant justice to our blood from the inhabitants on the earth?” (Cf. Gen 4:8–11).

A man subjected to persecution under Domitian (51–96 AD) noted, “Well, how I bore my exile…bearing up under the hatred…of the most powerful, stern man, who was called by all Greeks and barbarians both master and god, but who was in reality an evil demon.”[16]

This meshes with John’s view of the real power behind the Roman Empire (Rev 12:9; Rev 20:2–3).[17]

In a Jewish intertestamental apocryphal account, some citizens of Israel appealed to their ruler. “They went to the king and said, “How long will you fail to do justice and to avenge our kindred?” (1 Macc 6:22, NRSVCE)

A Jewish tombstone from the same era features a similar plea:

I call upon and pray the Most High God, the Lord of the spirits and of all flesh, against those who with guile murdered or poisoned the wretched, untimely lost Heraclea, shedding her innocent blood wickedly: that it may be so with them that murdered or poisoned her, and with their children; O Lord that seeth all things, and ye angels of God, Thou before whom every soul is afflicted this same day with supplication: that Thou mayst avenge the innocent blood and require it again right speedily![18]

In Hebrew tribunals, plaintiffs argued their own cases before the judge.[19]

After condemnation by human courts, the martyrs in John’s vision sought vindication in the heavenly one. Had God remained silent, he would have signaled that the martyrs’ murder was justifiable.[20]

“How long?” pleads for the Lord’s quick intervention,[21] for much time has passed without justice (Ps 13:1–4; Ps 79:1–7; Zech 1:12).[22]

According to these martyrs, by failing to vindicate them, God put his reputation at stake (Luke 18:1–8).[23]

Although they received an immediate response (Rev 6:12–17), their prayers shall not be fully answered until the events of Rev 18–9:2 occur. At that time, the Lord shall serve as “the avenger of blood” (Num 35:19; Ps 9:10–16).[24]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Rev 6:9–10. Why are the souls of these martyrs under the altar? Consider this in light of the sacrificial altar, the altar of incense, and God’s throne. For what are they waiting? How does this passage affect you?






Go to The Full Number of Martyrs


[Related posts include The Full Number of Martyrs (Rev 6:11); Cain Arose against His Brother (Gen 4:8); Misappropriated Blood (Gen 4:9‒10); A Charge of Hypocrisy (Matt 23:29‒33); From Abel to Zechariah (Matt 23:34‒36); Blood Given for You (Matt 26:26‒28); Christ’s Resurrected Body (Luke 24:31, 35–44); Passed from Death into Life (John 5:24–27); A Second Resurrection (John 5:28–29); Dead in Adam but Alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:20–23); Perishable Flesh and Blood (1 Cor 15:50); We Shall Be Changed (1 Cor 15:51–52); Victory over Death (1 Cor 15:53–55); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Brothers (Genesis 4:1‒16)]


[1]G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 395.

[2] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 391.

[3]Craig S. Keener, Revelation (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 217.

[4] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 392.

[5]David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 403.

[6] Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ABD 2:101–5, 102.

[7] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 390.

[8] Aune, Revelation 6–16, 403–4.

[9]Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Epistles, Vol. 1 (trans. Richard M. Grummere; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), 94–5, https://archive.org/stream/adluciliumepistu01seneuoft#page/452/mode/2up.

[10] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “נֶ֫פֶשׁ” (nephesh), BDB, 659–60, https://archive.org/stream/hebrewenglishlex00browuoft#page/658/mode/2up. This word can be translated as “soul,” “living being,” “life,” or “self,” among other options.

[11]Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 146.

[12] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 391.

[13] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 146.

[14] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 391–2.

[15] Keener, Revelation, 218.

[16]Dio Chrystostom, Orations, Vol. 4 (trans. H. Lamar Crosby; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), 45.1, 207, https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.57803/2015.57803.Dio-Chrysostom-Vol-4#page/n217/mode/2up.

[17] Aune, Revelation 6–16, 407.

[18] Adolf Deissman, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan; New York; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), 435, https://archive.org/stream/lightfromancient00deis#page/434/mode/2up.

[19] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 148.

[20] Keener, Revelation, 218.

[21] Keener, Revelation, 218.

[22] Aune, Revelation 6–16, 407.

[23] Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 392–3.

[24] Aune, Revelation 6–16, 407–8.