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Thursday: The Souls Under the Altar — 14 Comments

  1. And when he broke open the fifth seal, I saw an altar, and underneath it all the souls of those who had been martyred for preaching the Word of God and for being faithful in their witnessing. They called loudly to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge the people of the earth for what they’ve done to us? When will you avenge our blood against those living on the earth?” White robes were given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little longer until their other brothers, fellow servants of Jesus, had been martyred on the earth and joined them. Rev 6:9-11 TLB

    I am not sure that this passage deserves the description "contrary passage". In the middle of a book rich in symbolism, we have a reference to martyred souls under the altar crying out for justice.

    When I used to go to Software Engineering conferences here in Australia, there was often vigorous discussion about the ideas presented in papers. I can remember one time, I had presented a paper and someone challenged me on a point. My supervisor stepped in and he and the challenger had a very public and rather acrimonious exchange. It lasted about 20 minutes and I sat back quietly and let them go. In the aftermath of the discussion, I said to my supervisor that there was a bit of blood on the floor after that lot! (Just for the record - I have been to academic conferences in the USA where people present papers and nobody asks any questions. They just sit there stony faced waiting for the next paper. How on earth is someone supposed to learn from that?)

    Now, of course, there was no blood on the floor. It was a metaphor describing the vigor of the debate. Likewise, the above passage is essentially a metaphor for the call for justice and restoration for those who had been martyred for the Gospel. (It would be useful for us to have a series of lessons about the use of figures of speech in the Bible.)

    • I wholeheartedly agree with the point you are re-raising today regarding the need to give appropriate attention to figures of speech within the Bible - a common rather than rare occurrence across scripture. And your "blood on the floor" is a very good modern parallel example. Yes, a series of lessons about use of figures of speech in the Bible would be useful.

    • In Scripture an Altar represents the place of where a sacrifice is made. Where were those individuals sacrificed? Here on earth! As the blood of Abel cries out to God so does the blood of those sacrificed here, where their sacrifice was made! This “altar” is earth and from their graves does their blood cry out to God for “revenge!”

    • I think it helps to recognize that figures of speech are as common in the Bible as in more contemporary literature and even in our speech. Most of the time, the meaning is obvious - as long as we don't try to hard to assign some deep spiritual truths to each detail. Just as is true today, each figure of speech has a specific message, just as the parables do. But each detail is not necessarily significant.

  2. Who (especially of those who have been victims of injustice) hasn’t cried out for justice, which has not yet come? Why must we, by faith, trust that ultimately the justice so lacking in this world will nevertheless come? What comfort can you draw from this wonderful promise?

    I like to use the karma word in modern expression by reaping what you sow (Galatians 6:7). The cry for justice will come in God’s time to those who hurt others without remorse in this lifetime. But, the ultimate justice will come on judgment day when Christ returns. And, after one thousand years (Revelation 20:5), Christ will put the final nail in the coffin to end evil and sin forever. This sinful world lacks true justice and this is the sole reason why we should have faith in Jesus to redeem us from this fallen world. Three reasons why this wonderful promise is comforting for the Christian believer: (1) God rewards, (2) God punishes, and (3) God forgives.

    Promise (1) assures me of God’s rewards. It can happen here on earth or the next life to come. How can it happen in our lifetime? For example, the story of Joseph is a tragic experience for a young man who had every right to resent God. But despite the hardships of life, Joseph continues to walk with God who ultimately rewards him for his faithfulness (Genesis 37:5-9). How can it happen in the next lifetime? Just like how Joseph was faithful in this sinful world will ultimately be gifted with the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8).

    Promise (2) assures me of God’s righteous punishments. It can happen here on earth or the next life to come. How can it happen in our lifetime? For example, the story of Esther finds favor with the king by risking her life to stop the court official Haman from killing off her people which resulted in him being executed (Esther 7:3). How can it happen in the next lifetime? God will execute the final blow to death, evil, and sin (Revelation 20:14, 15).

    Promise (3) assures me of God’s grace and forgiveness. How? By accepting Him as Lord and Saviour. For example, the thief on the cross deserved his death sentence and justice served him right. But, his remorseful spirit recognized his need of a Savior to free him from the prison of sin (Luke 23:42).

    God is love (1 John 4:8).

    Let me talk about the contrary passage of Revelation 6:9 which many readers believe to be dead saints crying out to God under the altar in heaven.

    The Book of Revelation has a lot of powerful symbols to describe the meaning of the passage. Since many wordings are symbolic, then it shouldn’t be taken literally. Especially idiomatic expressions like the souls who were slain under the altar crying out loud for justice in Revelation 6:9, 10. For example, Abel was slain by Cain and his younger brother’s blood was crying out to God for justice in a metaphoric tone (Genesis 4:10). In short, the fifth seal describes a time period in the church’s history of the Reformation where many Christians lost their lives and were murdered like Abel for believing in the correct way to worship God and not a man-made (false) way of worshiping God. The Reformation started in the early 1500s from Huss and Jerome to a priest named Martin Luther protesting the Catholic church by nailing his ninety-five theses in the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

  3. Amidst all of the troubles we go through, TODAY is the time to say THANKS to God, because He already paid the price of our degenerated choices, in the blood of His Son! Here we may suffer, but then we will live in peace forever... this HOPE has to permeate our reality, because when we can't see God's justice He already judged us all, and the only chance we got is in the blood of Christ, offered freely. May we accept this GRACE now!

  4. God's love has removed any vengeance in my heart on those who do evil toward others, even if the evil is done to me. Instead, my heart weeps for them, knowing that their souls are in great danger of holy judgement, and that judgement is worse than I could even imagine. Instead of vengeance, love brings prayer 🙏 in hopes that God will draw them to repentance for the salvation of their souls. I am thankful, this very Thanksgiving Day, that God has put this love in my heart.

  5. What comfort can you draw from this wonderful promise?

    Rev 6:9-11 reminds me of Gen 4:9,10 where Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground. Could both verse groups be God reminding man that He is omniscient and omnipresent? None have fallen without His knowledge (whether for good or bad causes.) (Matt 10:29-31)

    Could this be pointing man to Christ, as well? Man’s blood can only cry out for justice because vengeance is the Lord’s (Rom 12:19), which leads us to acts of mercy in Rom 12:20 but cannot be performed by a dead human. However, Christ’s blood is living and speaks of hope, mercy, love and justice, (Heb 12:24.)

    Each unrepented act of sin (small and great) leaves scars on the soul which has the potential to harden man toward God’s saving grace, but when we truly look to His shed blood He is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:19 NIV).

  6. In Genesis 4:10 God is speaking to Cain. “But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” Genesis‬ ‭4‬:‭10‬ ‭NLT‬‬ Obviously Abel’s blood was symbolically crying out for justice. So likewise the souls under the altar are symbolic and not literal.

  7. Gen.4:10 - “What have you done?” replied the LORD. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” This passage and Rev. 6:9 speak to the mystery of God’s omnipresence in all things spiritual - His ability to perceive that which cannot be observed by man.

    The answer to the lesson's question: 'What comfort can I draw from the promise that He will come'? is finding comfort in believing that He is able to recognize our agony and suffering, as well as our joy and contentment. I have accepted to believe that He is intimately aware of every aspect of my life.

    Regarding justice, my comfort rests in believing and trusting that He will rectify that which is wrong. Establishing true justice is the essence of His promise that He will never leave us or forsake us – Heb. 13:5; John 14:3. He has the motivation, the desire, the will, and the means to set right that which was wronged.

    Finding that the ‘evidence of suffering' of those who gave their lives is found/placed under the 'altar', comforts me. They gave their lives as a free-will offering, so testifying of their love for their Lord and Savior, Jesus. It started with Abel’s blood and will continue until the time is full – Matt. 28:20.

  8. This whole lesson is about alleged contrary passages! Many of our Christian brothers believe that verse is proof there are living souls in heaven and they are crying out from beneath an altar in heaven for justice!! Again the lesson is about alleged contrary passages! Almost all of these posts are dealing with God's justice. No one would find that contrary regardless of what church one belongs too.

    So where is this altar? Is it in heaven OR is it speaking really of WHERE they were sacrificed?

    • I think the verses given under the Thursday section put clear where the altar was found: "the reference to “blood” (instead of “incense”) in Revelation 6:9-11 leads us to see here an allusion to the altar of burnt offering, where the blood of the sacrifices was poured (Lev. 4:18, 30, 34). As the blood of those sacrifices used to be sprinkled around the altar, so the blood of the martyrs was symbolically poured at God’s altar when, by remaining faithful to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 6:9, see also Rev. 12:17, Rev. 14:12), they lost their lives."

      • Was Abel's blood that cried out from the earth poured at the base of the altar of burnt offering? Symbolically the court yard of the Sanctuary represents the earth and that is where the martyrs were slain. THEIR blood is crying out from the earth as was Abel's asking how long LORD?

        Again as I noted earlier the majority of Christianity believes there is an altar in heaven in which those who have died are their under it crying out to the LORD. The lesson is dealing with alleged contrary passages! We as Adventists know the truth re those verses but when confronted by others what will you say that will show them the truth?

  9. The altar of sacrifice (under which are the souls of those slain for Jesus and their witness for him) continues the imagery of the Jewish temple sanctuary and its sacrificial service that is thematic throughout John’s book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. These are souls which have symbolically demonstrated their total devotion to the Lord by being totally consumed on the altar of sacrifice.

    The Greek word in this passage (Revelation 6:9-11) translated as “slain” is αποκτεινω, an intensive form of “slay” (κτεινω) and has the sense of not just killing, but of complete destruction. If you were asked to identify someone you knew who had been “κτεινω” you would be able to do so without difficulty because you would be able to identify form and features. But if you were asked to identify someone who had been “αποκτεινω”, you might be able to say the remains were of animal origin, but that would be about all you could say.

    To understand this passage, we need to understand how a sacrifice was offered on the temple altar of burnt offerings. First, the sacrifice was killed by slitting its throat, and then its blood (symbolic of its life) was collected in a bowl, splashed against all four sides of the altar. (None of the blood is taken into the holy place.) The sacrifice would then be dismembered and arranged on the grating of the altar so that it would be completely consumed by a wood fire until all that remained were the ashes and bone fragments. These would fall through the grating of the altar and lie underneath its base to be disposed of in a ceremonially clean place. In vision, John sees the ashes of these martyrs underneath the altar of sacrifice in heaven, and as Abel’s blood “cried out” to God for justice, so too do these.

    As with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, to take this passage literally is problematic. How could a soul that has gone through this sacrificial process be recognizable underneath the altar? There could be no identifiable remains. And why would souls be living underneath this altar in heaven? Is this what it means to be with Jesus when we go to heaven? If these souls are in a state of “disembodied consciousness” how do they wear the white robes they are given? And most significantly, why are they told “they should rest a little while longer?” In the vision, it appears their rest (the “sleep” of death) was symbolically interrupted to make the point that the Lord would avenge their martyrdom at the appointed time. That their “sleep” was interrupted appears to validate death as a “sleep” of the soul; however, the symbolic nature of the passage would not make such a proof sound.

    Just some thoughts.


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