Notes (NET Translation)
9 Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given.
That the souls of the martyrs are under the altar implies that they were sacrificed (cf. 2 Tim 4:6) but also that they are now under God’s protection.
This is now the third instance of the combination of “word” and “testimony,” which appeared first in 1:2 and 9, where the latter is called “the testimony of Jesus.” As before, the two phrases most likely mean “the word from God” and “their testimony about Jesus.” Here the emphasis is not on the content of their testimony as such, but on their loyalty to it; it was “the testimony they had maintained.” In John’s view this is the essence of what had led, and would continue to lead, to martyrdom—the insistence on the part of believers that the crucified, now risen Jesus is Lord, the only Lord, and thus not the emperor, who as a mere earthling would dare to assume such a title for himself. Indeed, probably as much as, if not more than, anything else, this unyielding persistence on the part of these early believers to refer to the risen Jesus alone as “Lord” would lead them toward a path of martyrdom. Thus, in its own way this seal in particular anticipates much of the rest of the book. (Fee 97)
10 They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?”
God’s holiness and trustworthiness lead the martyrs to ask how long it would be until their blood was avenged instead of asking whether it would be avenged at all. “Those who live on the earth” refers to the unrighteous (3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12; 17:2, 8).
Some (R. Charles 1920: 1.175; Kiddle 1940: 119) believe that the vindictiveness shown here is problematic and contrasts with the prayers for forgiveness on the part of both Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34) and Stephen when he was martyred (Acts 7:60). Like the imprecatory prayers of David, however, this cry does not constitute an ethical low in the book but rather a call for divine justice. As Fee and Stuart (1993: 203) note, such prayers are in keeping with the covenant curses of Deut. 28:53–57 and 32:35. This is also in keeping with Rom. 12:19, which quotes Deut. 32:35, “ ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord”; and Luke 18:7–8, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Caird (1966: 84–85) points out that this is a cry not for personal revenge but for public justice. They stand before the righteous judge presenting their case for judgment against their persecutors, much like Jesus, who “entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). In other words, this is not a low point for ethics but a high point for divine justice and for the centrality of the sovereignty of God in the life (and death) of the saints. (Osborne 286)
11 Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.
Recall that white garments were promised to the faithful in Sardis (3:4-5) and were worn by the twenty-four elders (4:4). This kind of robe was a symbol of high social status and here is a sign of heavenly reward.
Several (R. Charles, Lohmeyer, Caird) interpret this in the light of extrabiblical evidence as meaning the martyrs will be given their glorified bodies early, while the rest of the departed saints will not receive theirs until after final judgment. However, this is reading too much into this brief sign. More likely, it indicates more generally vindication and reward for their faithfulness. The color “white” could refer to purity and holiness or perhaps also their victory (at a Roman triumph the conquering general would wear such a white robe). However, purity and glory are the primary thrusts. In the parallel passage of 7:9, 13–14 the great multitude in heaven are wearing “white robes” because they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As Roloff (1993: 90) says, “The white robe is a symbol for the salvation granted to the faithful on the basis of Christ’s saving act and, for their communion with God, to be preserved in faithful obedience… . White is the color of end-time joy, but also of immaculate purity.” Therefore the church as the bride of Christ will be given “fine linen, bright and clean,” which “stands for the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:8). (Osborne 288)
The martyrs are to wait (rest) “a little longer”.
Yet this phrase itself presents a theological problem, since it appears to allude to an imminent end of history. But from God’s viewpoint what may be but a few moments could be a long period from the human perspective, as is evident from comparison of the parallels in Rev. 12:12 (“short time”) and 20:3 (“thousand years”). Time in heaven, which is referred to in 6:11, may be reckoned differently than time on earth. This antinomy is part of the tension inherent in the already-and-not-yet aspect of eschatology in Revelation and the NT in general (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:1–14). (Beale 395)
That God knows the “full number” of martyrs illustrates his sovereignty.
[E]ven though John’s ultimate concern in this book is to reassure his readers of their final destiny, despite present and anticipated increased suffering, he neither downplays nor enhances the latter reality. They are, after all, followers of the Crucified One, whose own death was at the hands of the Empire, even though it had been instigated by the fear and hatred of the very people he came to deliver. (Fee 99)
The martyrs are called “servants” because they are servants of God. They are called “brothers” because they are brothers (and sisters) of fellow Christians.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.