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How Long?

Revelation 6:9-11
March 1, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 15:55 in the audio file.

Or, When the Vengeance of the Lord Is Ripe

We do not know the extent of evil on earth. We do not know how bad it has been in the past, we do not know how bad it is in other parts of the world, we do not know how bad it still could get. We do not know if we can believe how bad things are as reported, we do not know if it’s the reports themselves that are bad.

Perhaps the most dreadful wickedness is the persecution of God’s people, not just those who are mocked and mistreated through legal and/or economic methods, which are real trials, but those who are killed for their confession. Men and women have died, they are dying, and there are more who will give up their lives in order to witness to their love for God.

No one cares more about this than God Himself. No human being, no matter how sympathetic, no matter if they themselves are the ones being persecuted, know the extent of the anger and hatred in their persecutor’s heart, let alone the scale of persecution throughout history. No one is more offended by, or indignant against, unrighteousness. No one cares for His children more than our heavenly Father, our Father who sent His Son to endure crucifixion in order to redeem and adopt and fellowship with us. And yet, where is He? Why doesn’t He do something? Why not intervene and do justice?

One of the frequent cries of God’s people is “How long?” We might ask it appropriately in the midst of any pain and trial. But it applies especially to the greatest pains of a martyr’s cry. In Revelation 6:9-11 we hear that very cry.

The Lamb has taken the scroll and has begun to open the seals. In Revelation 6:1-8, as He broke each seal, one of the four living creatures called out for a horse and rider. The rider on the white horse conquered to establish a kind of superficial peace on earth, that was ruined by the red horse rider who took peace from the earth, followed by the black horse and rider of scarcity, and then the pale horse and the Death rider who killed a quarter of the earth’s population. The first four seals, however far apart they occurred or overlapping, make major movement on the earth.

The fifth seal is so different. There is no horse, and the result of the broken seal is that nothing happens on earth, not at least as part of this seal. Though John saw the living creatures in heaven, the horsemen rode out on earth. Now he sees others in heaven, and they are told to hold on for a while. The sixth seal has an earthquake and stars falling to earth and mountains on earth removed, but the fifth seal is just a discussion in the heavenly temple.

I have been more and more encouraged as I’ve meditated on this paragraph the last week. I pray you will be further emboldened to just conquer as well by this Word of the Lord.

The Characters (verse 9)

As usual John sees: When the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw souls. This is the original, “I see dead people.” The vision initially begs the question, how do you see souls represented?

These souls were under the alter. An alter is mentioned multiple times in Revelation, and could be a reference to the sacrificial altar or to the altar of incense in the temple (see later Revelation 8:3-5; 9:13); the prayers as incense seem to be the correct connection (Revelation 5:8). This is the heavenly temple edition of the altar, and it is in the throne room.

The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test
the children of man.
(Psalm 11:4 ESV, see also Isaiah 6:1)

The altar represents what is offered to God in worship, which these souls have done with their bodies. They have not been given their resurrection bodies yet. They are not asleep, they are conscious and audible.

These souls in particular had been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they had borne. They were martyrs, meaning that, from our perspective on earth, their deaths were not at the right time. They did not die from old age, or even from a disease, but by the hands of angry men. They have endured what the Lamb endured (Revelation 5:6), even though their deaths did not purchase anyone’s atonement. That they were slain for God’s Word does not mean that they were all preaching, though some of them could have been. It meant that they believed, and that believing cost them. They gave up their lives in confession of Christ.

Are these martyrs from all time? Are these martyrs from a particular time, in the past or future? Their question in the following verse seems to link the requested vengeance on their persecutors, so it suggests that this is not a representative retribution on any who are available, but a very personal return of justice. In addition, two of the words from the horsemen are repeated, “slay” from verse 4 is repeated in verse 9, and “kill” is repeated from verse 8 in verse 11. Since this paragraph follows, as also the fifth seal follows the first four, a close connection is made.

The preterist position sees these souls as the martyrs during Nero’s reign and persecution of Christians, with judgment falling on the Romans and Jews who killed many Christians leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The futurist position (for example, MacArthur) believes that it is the first half of the Great Tribulation, but applicable to the time of tribulations that come prior to Christ’s return.

The Cry (verse 10)

They were not making a bureaucratic appeal, silently pushing papers into the Lamb’s inbox for later administrative processing. They are crying out. They cried out with a loud voice: ‘How long, Master, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?’

Master or “Sovereign” (ESV), “Lord” (NAS) is the Greek word despotes, rarely used of God and, interestingly, only used to address Him directly in prayers. If there is a nuance to this word for master, it may emphasize legal control and authority as an owner (BAGD).

The two attributes, holy and true, are also appropriate for the situation, not merely to distinguish Him from other masters, but as an appeal to the fact that He must care. Who cares about what is holy more? He cannot bear unrighteousness. Who cares about what is true more? He knows those who have slain the souls. He is the judge who distinguishes all right from wrong. He avenges, afflicting punishment due to the rebels. The description, those who dwell on earth, is used throughout Revelation as the belligerent, beast-worshipping humans whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb (for example, Revelation 13:8).

But, how long?? The question does not imply despair, as if the souls questioned if they would ever be vindicated. It’s not a lottery. The question has more to do with urgency. “We believe You will act, so act now! What are You waiting for?” It is a regular cry of believers, one that we are taught to sing in the psalms.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
(Psalm 13:1-2, see also 94:3)

A comparison can be made, not just with Jesus’ prayer on the cross (Luke 23:34), but with Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:60) as he was stoned. Both of them prayed for their killers to be forgiven. But these martyrs have more of the imprecatory psalm sort of prayer in their soul-mouths.

Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood
of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes!
(Psalm 79:10 ESV)

There are times to pray for mercy for one’s enemies, but there are times to pray for the Lord to do justice against committed enemies. God says, vengeance is His, and He will repay (Deuteronomy 32:35, quotes in Romans 12:19).

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. (Revelation 22:12 ESV)

Being in heaven has not softened their perspective. It has not made them just want everyone to get along. They want what is just. They also cry for that justice to God. It is His alter on which they are presented and to Him appeal is made to make it right.

The Completion (verse 11)

Though they are souls and not bodies, they are given clothes and counsel.

Then they were each given a white robe, which is usually a symbol of righteousness in Revelation. How would they wear it? That is a question that remains. What the vision affirms is that they not only were heard, but that their prayers were received by God with His approval. Those who dwell on earth rejected them to death, God declares His acceptance.

It is the counsel that is most interesting: they were told to rest a little longer, until [the number], both of their fellow servants and also of their brothers who were to be killed as they were, was completed.

Why would they need to rest? They are in heaven. They are with the Lamb. What else could they want? And yet they are told to be at peace.

The thing they are waiting for is not indefinite. There is no dashboard on the wall of the heavenly temple, and they aren’t told the quantity, but they are told, probably by the Lamb Himself, that there is a total, a fullness, chosen and known and ordained by Him, of those who would be killed.

Why would this comfort the souls? On one hand this shows the Lord’s control, of course. On another hand it shows the limitations of wickedness; it will kill so many, but no more. On the third hand it shows that He avenges when the wickedness of man is ripe. He is getting maximum glory. He has already opened the first four seals and initiated the judgement. The story, though, will not peak too soon. His righteousness will not miss a man, either in showing His persevering grace to all those chosen to just conquer as faithful martyrs, or in showing His righteous wrath on all who attack and kill His people.

The “fullness” can’t be a symbol, otherwise it would be meaningless, or at least a vague comfort to the souls.

The souls are not told to be quiet. Nothing is wrong with their cry. The prayers are pleasing to the Lord, as a fragrant incense (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4).

None will be hidden behind a leaf, able to escape notice on the branch. The tree will be shaken when the harvest is ready.


However you understand the timing of the seals and the identification of the martyrs, the fifth seal opens onto the attention given to the vengeance of the Lord when unrighteousness is ripe. Answers to “how long?” come as early as the sixth seal in 6:12-17.

In the meantime, we likewise wait, and our waiting is not in vain, like those at St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength. Sometimes waiting is the best thing we can do in the Lord’s battle. The righteous will be received, by the Lord’s grace. The wicked will get what’s coming to them, by the Lord’s justice.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23 ESV)


Here are some inspired encouragements: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” so “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:28–29, 31). You may ask, “How long?” And He will say, “The days are numbered.”


Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7–8, ESV)