And when the Lamb 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 testimony they had upheld.
i.e. men "that were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held." If they bad been slain for anything else they would not have been martyrs.
I. THEY LIVE IN SACRED SECURITY. "I saw under the altar the souls of them." The "souls," not the bodies; the bodies had been destroyed, their ashes were left Souls can exist apart from the body - a wonderful fact this. These souls were "under the altar." They were in a position of sacred security. No one could touch them there, safe forever from their persecutors.
II. THEY LIVE IN EARNEST CONSCIOUSNESS. They have an earnest consciousness of the past. "How long, O Lord, most holy and true." They remember the earth, remember the cruelties they received on the earth, and long, not maliciously, but benevolently, for justice being done to their persecutors. No doubt their desire was that God should strike such a moral conviction into their hearts on account of their wickedness that would lead them to repentance.
III. THEY LIVE IN HOLY GRANDEUR. "White robes were given to them." Or more probably, "a white robe," emblem of purity and conquest.
"Their blood is shed Till persecution dragged them into fame, And history, so warm on meaner themes,
Till persecution dragged them into fame, And history, so warm on meaner themes,
And history, so warm on meaner themes,
I saw under the altar the souls.I. St. John, we here read, was allowed to behold the souls of the martyrs, and they were living beneath the altar of the Lord. What, then, is the altar? In answer we say, that it is the place of a glorious and a happy security. It was to the altar that the murderer ran and clasped its horns, when the avenger of blood was in hot pursuit; it was to the altar, with all its beautiful accessories, the laver, the sacrifice, the shew-bread, and the golden candlesticks, that every mourner in Israel looked. Weary-hearted men, oppressed with the load of life, or weighed down by care, or burdened by sin, looked there and found an unfailing asylum. The martyrs are beneath the altar; they are under the security of its holy seal; they are hanging upon its strong horns; the persecutor's arm cannot reach them; the avenger of blood dare not come near them; they are kept by the power of God. The dust and defilement of earth, the fierce heat of flame, the lion's tooth, and the serpent's strangling coil, are all past; there is heaven's own calm; their souls are under God's care, and under the seat and the seal of Christ.
II. But what is their state of feeling? Are they in a state of passive rest, or earnest enjoyment, or tranquil or animated hope? "They cried with a loud voice, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" Is it possible that they desire vengeance? Did Jesus pray for His murderers? Did Stephen, the martyr, echo and repeat the prayer? And have not the rest of the glorious band of martyrs learned and used it? It cannot be that the martyrs should be under the altar of the Lamb, and yet have hearts for vengeance. It is the cry of their blood for vengeance, not of their hearts. Just as the blood of Abel cried from the ground against Cain, so does this blood cry for vengeance on that Cain-like satanic power which made them martyrs. But it may be objected that this destroys the very notion of the activity of their spirits. The picture before us is that of altar-covered souls asking for a certain consummation. And no doubt, for a consummation we may truly believe they do both wait and long. But that consummation will be with such vengeance as is here alluded to. And this shows us that while the sin of the persecutors, written in the blood of the martyrs, calls for vengeance, the cry of the martyrs may well be only for the day of Christ, and for the redemption of the bodies of the sons and saints of God. They long for the day of Christ, "because it is the year of His redeemed." But then it may be also said, and history will bear us out, that there is a certain cry of sympathy in behalf of friends and fellow Christians trodden down and persecuted, which issues by a kind of necessity in a cry of vengeance upon their persecutors. In the persecution which preceded that of Diocletian, we read how St. addressed the African proconsul in the following words: "Be assured that whatever we suffer will not remain unrevenged; and the greater the injury of the persecution, the heavier and more just will be the vengeance." Nay, this very prophetic anticipation of vengeance upon the enemies of the Church of Christ is only a phase of that conformity of the mind of the saint with the will of God, which will form the very essence and perfection of the heavenly state. If God in His justice comes forth for vengeance upon sinners, every saint must give the hearty "amen" of an entire concurrence to the infliction. So it ought to be on earth, and so it must be in heaven.
III. The explanation which we have given of the longing of the blessed departed for the year of Christ's redeemed shows us, at any rate, the activity of their souls. It tells us that being dead, they do not sleep, or even in a dream; nay, that they are well awake, and full of all that constitutes the life and activity of a living soul. They think of the past, for they refer to it; they refer to the blood that has been shed; it is past, but they have not forgotten it. They know something of the present; for it is because the great consummation lingers, because they know that it does so, because the world still drives on in its wickedness; it is because of all this present continuing iniquity that the souls of the martyrs cry out. Again, they look to the future; their question discovers this; they are conscious that the day of vengeance and the year of redemption must come, and they earnestly inquire when it shall arrive.
IV. Consider further the answer which they received.
1. First, white robes were given them; their dishonoured names are all enshrined in honour; they were dressed as in preparation for the marriage feast of the Lamb; and when thus arrayed, words of peace were spoken to them. They are told to rest, and we may well imagine them sitting in the tranquillity of a blissful hope. They were to walt fill their brethren's arrival, which was to be through the same stormy straits as they had passed.
2. But then, is it only the martyrs that are thus reserved? Is it only they that wear white, and in that white array await the consummation? Nay, for there is a daily dying, which in many instances is no less precious in the sight of God than the glorious setting of a martyr's sun. Our beloved friends that have died in faith are thus before Him, they are in His very presence, they have the sunbeams of His radiant countenance shining directly upon their beatified spirits.
3. And they too, like the martyred spirits, are looking forward. They, like them, remember the past, and muse upon the present, and look to the future. And if so, they remember what they did on earth, and more than this, they remember those whom they loved, and whom they have left here. Death and forgetfulness do not affect that which is innocent and sinless.
4. And this thought is a sweet and holy solace.
(C. E. Kennnaway, M. A.)
1. He has shadowed out to us the nature of the work that He has to do before the end comes; that is, to make up a certain number whom God has foreseen and predestinated to life eternal (Malachi 3:17; Matthew 24:31; Hebrews 11:13, 40). Whether this secret number be measured by the fall of angels, as some of old were wont to believe; whether the companies of angelic ministers shall be filled up by the redeemed of mankind, we know not, but we know certainly that, until the foreseen number is completed, the course of this turbulent world shall still run on.
2. Again, in this gathering out of the mystical body of His Son, God is carrying on the probation of mankind. In the inscrutable secrets of His providential government, He is so ordering the strife of the seed of the woman with the seed of the serpent, of the Church with the world, as to fulfil the manifold purposes of love and of long-suffering.(1) And, first, we see that this long-permitted strife is ordained for the perfecting of His saints. By it our patience, meekness, faith, perseverance, boldness and loyalty to Christ are ever tried; and by trial made perfect.(2) And this mysterious work, as
2. has an aspect of love towards the saints, so it has an aspect of long-suffering towards sinners. It is thus that God gives them a full season for repentance. He gives all things for our salvation — warnings, blessings, chastisements, sorrows, sicknesses, words of fire, and sacraments of love; He stays His hand, and leaves the sinner without excuse, that at the winding up of this weary life, "every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God."
3. And now, from all this, we see what ought to be the master-aim of our lives, that is, to make sure of our fellowship in that mystical number.
(A. H. Simms, M. A.)
Homilist.I. Thev live in SACRED SECURITY. "I saw under the altar the souls of them." The "souls," not the bodies; the bodies had been destroyed, their ashes were left behind. Souls can exist apart from the body — a wonderful fact this.
II. They live in EARNEST CONSCIOUSNESS. They remember the earth, remember the cruelties they received on the earth, and long, not maliciously, but benevolently, for justice being done to their persecutors. No doubt their desire was that God would strike such a moral conviction into their hearts on account of their wickedness that would lead them to repentance. Souls in heaven do not forget the past.
III. They live in HOLY GRANDEUR "White robes were given to them." Or, more properly, a white robe, emblem of purity and conquest.
(J. Trapp.)I. John, being in the spirit, could see spirits. Men, indeed, clad in flesh, can hardly imagine how a soul can have existence out of the flesh. Eagles can see that which owls cannot; so is that visible and credible to a spiritual man which to a natural is invisible, incredible. And yet even nature's dim eyes have been clear enough to see this truth. The soul's eternity is an inbred instinct in the souls of men.
II. Now if this much revived John to see the soul's continuance after death, how much more to see their safety and rest under the altar; that is, under Christ's protection and custody. The phrase alluding to the altar in the tabernacle, which gave the offerings grace and acceptation; and partly to the safety of such as fled from the avenger to the altar.
III. If John had seen souls at rest, though in poor and mean condition, yet were a corner of a house with peace to be preferred to a wide palace with disquiet. But behold, he sees not naked, beggarly, ragged souls, but adorned with white robes; that is, endowed now, and glorified with perfect righteousness, purity, clarity, dignity, and festivity, of all which white apparel hath ever been an emblem and symbol in Divine and human heraldry, a clothing of princes in their great solemnities of coronation, triumphs and ovations. The lilies, and Solomon, in all their royalties, not like unto the meanest of them.
IV. Were heaven nothing else but a haven of rest, we know how welcome the one is to a seasick weather-beaten traveller, and may by that guess how desirable the other should be to a soul that long hath been tossed in the waves of this world, sick of its own sinful imaginations, and tired with external temptations.
How long, O Lord,... dost Thou not Judge?I. THE WORDS AS FROM MAN TO GOD. Looking up to God, man breathes the deep-drown sigh, "How long?" (Psalm 6:3; Psalm 13:1; Psalm 35:17; Psalm 74:10; Psalm 79:5; Psalm 89:46; Psalm 90:13; Psalm 94:4; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10). These are the chief passages in which the expression occurs. Instead of dwelling on each in succession, let me thus sum up and classify their different meanings. It is the language —
1. Of complaint. The righteous man feels the burden and the sorrow and the evil that have so long prevailed in this present evil world, and he cries, "How long?" Have these not lasted long enough? Would that they were done! In this complaint there is weariness, and sometimes there is sadness — almost despair — when unbelief gets the upper hand. Creation groans. Iniquity overflows. Death reigns. The wicked triumph.
2. Submission. While impatience sometimes rises, yet the cry does not mean this. It is really a cry of submission to a wise and sovereign God. It is the cry of one putting all events, as well as all times and seasons, into His hands.
3. Inquiry. In all the passages there is an implied question. It is not merely, Oh that the time would come! but, When shall it come?
4. Expectation. It is the voice of faith, and hope, and longing desire. The present is dark, the future is bright; God's Word is sure concerning the coming glory; and so we, looking for and hasting to that glory, and depressed with the evil here, cry out day by day, "How long?"
II. THE WORDS AS FROM GOD TO MAN. I note the following instances (Exodus 10:3; Exodus 16:28; Joshua 18:3; 1 Kings 18:21; Psalm 82:2; Proverbs 1:22; Proverbs 6:9; Jeremiah 4:14). Taking up these words of God as spoken to different classes, we would dwell on the following points:
1. Long-suffering. Jeremiah's words to Jerusalem are the words of a long-suffering God, "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."
2. Expostulation. How long halt ye between two opinions? How long shall ye be of deciding? How long of trusting Me?
3. Entreaty. How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? God beseeches man; He entreats him to give up his sin, to come and be saved. How long will ye refuse My love?
4. Earnestness. God's words are all sincere. He means what He says, and says what He means. "Ye will not come to Me!" "How often would I have gathered thy children!" "O that thou hadst known!"
5. Sorrow. Every moment's continuance in unbelief is vexing and grieving the Spirit.
6. Upbraiding. There is the land, the kingdom, why do ye not go in? The door is open; the way is clear.
7. Warning. How long will ye persist in your unrighteousness and unbelief? The day of grace is ending. The day of wrath is coming. Be warned. Flee from the wrath to come.
(H. Bonar, D. D.)Isaiah 57:1). Their days are cut short by violence and cruelty, and yet their persecutors live and are mighty. What did the heathen say to this, who had good report for their moral conversation? Is there no justice in heaven? Yes, here is the best assurance that can be demanded, a scene, as it were, acted in heaven, wherein is represented that the wrongs of the saints are fresh in memory, and shall never be forgotten. The poor oppressed is more likely to obtain redress against his enemy when he is dead than when he was alive. His soul is then most precious to the Lord, his prayer most fragrant, he is so near to Christ that he is next to the altar; his understanding is so enlightened that he knows what to ask and never fail. Here you have a petition, then, put up to a mighty King by some persons that had sustained injury. First, Consider TO WHOM THE SUPPLICATION IS PREFERRED, to one from whom there lies no appeal, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And the words are so laid together that the souls under the altar do beseech Him by His three mighty attributes. He is the Lord, therefore they implore Him by that power which can do all things. He is holy, therefore they solicit Him by that goodness which detests oppressions. He is truth, therefore they urge Him by those promises made, which He cannot but accomplish. It is the Lord, holy and true, into His hands they commend their petition. He that makes his address to God, let him begin with His praise, let him commemorate His excellent greatness, let him delight to rehearse His titles of Majesty. No man can speak of the King of heaven according to His due honour, but it will procreate devotion and reverence; no man doth advance the name of God in the preface of his prayer, but it is a tacit confession that he prefers the glory of his Maker before his own necessity. I come to THE PRAYER ITSELF: the souls under the altar cry out unto the Lord to judge and avenge their blood. This is a voice which came not from earth but from heaven, and therefore we must maintain it.
1. First of all, vengeance being not usurped by the hand of a private man, but prosecuted under the shelter of lawful authority, like usque quo Domine. In this place it is not unlawful. It is a stirring up of that part of justice which distributes punishments to them that deserve them, and to demand it in a regular way is in no wise rugged to the law of charity.
2. But it is a second conclusion that the spirits of good men departed may cry out to have judgment pass upon tyrants for the effusion of their blood, because they can ask nothing inordinately; they that are confirmed in grace and cannot sin, they cannot make a petition that is over-balanced with the least grain of rancour or partiality.
3. The third conclusion is so cautious to give no scandal, so circumspect not to open the least window to malice and hatred, that it resents the word revenge in this place to be of improper signification; and that which the souls departed sue for is not revenge, but deliverance. Deliverance? Of what? Not of themselves, who are out of harm's way, but of their brethren tormented here beneath. As who should say, How long, O Lord, wilt Thou not deliver the blood of our brethren, the poor members of the militant Church, from them that rage upon the earth? So I leave this point with a probable assent, but no more, that the saints desire not the vengeance of the ungodly, but the deliverance of the righteous. The next point is almost of the same piece, and very conjunct with the petition itself, it is THE MANNER OF PREFERRING IT which, to the greater terror of them that live by wrong hostility, is done WITH ALL VEHEMENCY AND IMPORTUNITY, with a loud voice, and a solicitous iteration. The heathen poets fancied that the souls in the Elysian fields did not utter their mind with audible and vocal sounds, but with a low whispering, as if reeds were shaken with the wind. Sometimes they would strive to speak out, but all in vain. This is fiction, and not philosophy; for separated souls speak not with corporeal organs, but with their wills and affections. Their words which they utter are their desires, which they send forth; and therefore David says, "Thine ear hath heard the desire of their heart." Oppression and tyrannizing over the poor and helpless make the loudest clamours of any sins in the ears of God. Not the martyrs themselves, but the wrongs which they endured exclaim against their enemies.
(Bp. Hackett.)I. THE MARTYR-CRY. It is the widow's cry, "Avenge me of mine adversary." "How long, O Lord (or, O Master), holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth!" This has been that long and bitter cry of the ages. It may seem" narrow," or worse than narrow — it may be called bigotry, or worse than bigotry — to sympathise with such sentiments; but these words stand. Let modern sentimentalists tell us what they mean, or else boldly proclaim them false and cruel.
II. THE MARTYR-HONOUR. "White robes were given them." What a contrast to the poverty of their raiment here, as they came out of prison; to the blood-stains and filth upon their earthly apparel!
III. THE MARTYR-REST. They get immediate rest as well as honour. "To you who are troubled," the apostle says, "God will recompense rest with us" (2 Thessalonians 1:7). The fulness of the rest — the Sabbatism (Hebrews 4:9) — is a reserve for the Lord's revelation from heaven; but rest, meanwhile, is theirs; rest, how sweet after the torture and toil of earth! It may be that there is peculiar rest for the martyr-band; and yet there is rest for all who are the Lord's, even though they may not have passed to it through the flames.
IV. THE MARTYR-HOPE. It is not expressly mentioned here. It is something which shall be given when the whole band is gathered; the whole martyr-band from the beginning. The seven epistles reveal that hope; and the three closing chapters of this book unfold it more fully. It is the hope of the first resurrection; of reigning with Christ; of entry into the celestial city; of the crown of life; of the inheritance of all things.
(H. Bonar, D. D.)
(W. Milligan, D. D.)
White robes were given unto every one of themI. White robes remind us of INNOCENCE. It is a grand thing to be innocent; it is more glorious to be virtuous. Each part of yonder powerful locomotive and of that stupendous tubular bridge has been tried by great pressure, and stood the test. So a man who has been tried by the pressure of temptation, and has stood the test, is virtuous. Never blame any human bridge or broken human engine unless you have been tested with a similar pressure. But what a blessing to know that though a man has fallen, God does not lay him aside as useless! The glory of the gospel is that it offers the white robes of innocence to guilty men and women. The sinner is not only forgiven, but transformed. His second nature is of a higher kind than the first.
II. White robes also remind us of SUCCESS. It is only the few who seem to succeed in this world. Carlyle speaks of men as being "mostly fools," while another writer describes the world as being "strewn with human wrecks." As a rule, a successful man possesses genius and enthusiasm. How seldom one sees a perfect man or a perfect work! How grand to be successful as a man, a father, a brother, a friend! Alas! how few are really successful! You set forth to be a pure and honourable man; as such, have you been a success? Are you a failure? Alas! it is true; the world is strewn with the wrecks of human resolves and aims. But the white robe of success is placed once more within your reach. The Lord will work in you to will and to do of His good pleasure, and you shall be successful as a Christian.
III. White robes also remind us of BEAUTY.
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