(9) I saw under the altar . . .--Read, when He opened, and, instead of "were slain," &c., had been slain because of the Word of God, and (because of) the testimony which they held. The seal indicates that the mission of the Christian Church can only be carried out in suffering. An altar is seen, and at its foot tokens of the martyrs who had laid down their lives upon it. The word "souls" is to be taken as the equivalent of "lives"; the vision tells that their lives had been sacrificed. The blood of the victims was in the temple service poured out at the foot of the altar. St. Paul makes use of the same imagery--"I am now ready to be poured out" ("offered" in English version). In union with Christ Christians are called upon to suffer with Him, even to carry on to its great end the work of Christ in the world, and so fill up that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). The word "souls" has been made a resting-place for an argument respecting the intermediate state. There is no ground for this: it is quite beside the object of the seal, which simply exhibits the sufferings of Christ's people as the necessary accompaniment of the progress of the gospel. These sufferings are because of the Word of God and the testimony which they held. It was because of the Word of God and the testimony that the sacred seer himself suffered (Revelation 1:9). The words here remind us that the same issue which St. John fought, the suffering ones of after ages would be fighting. Their witness and his was the God-man; to this testimony they clung. They were not ashamed of Christ, or of His words, and they suffered for their courage and fidelity.
I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain; these include not only all the martyrs that were put to death in the persecution of Dioclesian, but all those that suffered in all the persecutions preceding; for this, being the last, involves them all. "Souls", being immaterial and incorporeal, are invisible to the bodily eye; these therefore were either clothed with corporeal forms, as angels sometimes are, or rather John saw them in a visionary way, as he saw the angels: and these were the souls of such as "were slain"; their bodies were dead, but their souls were alive; which shows the immortality of souls, and that they die not with their bodies, and that they live after them in a separate state: , "the souls of them that are slain", is a phrase used by Jewish writers (a), and who have a notion that the souls of those that are slain are kept in certain palaces, under the care of one appointed by God (b): and these were seen "under the altar"; either this is said in allusion to the blood of the sacrifices, which was poured out at the bottom of the altar, Leviticus 4:7, in which the life and soul of the creature is; or because that martyrdom is a sacrifice of men's lives, and an offering of them in the cause of God and truth, Philippians 2:17; or with some reference to a common notion of the Jews, that the souls of the righteous are treasured up under the throne of glory (c) they have also a saying, everyone that is buried in the land of Israel is as if he was buried "under the altar" (d); for they think that being buried there expiates their sins (e); to which they add, that whoever is buried "under the altar", is as if he was buried under the throne of glory (f); yea, they talk of an altar above, upon which Michael the high priest causes the souls of the righteous to ascend (g). Christ may be meant by the altar here, as he is in Hebrews 13:10, who is both altar, sacrifice, and priest, and is the altar that sanctifies the gift, and from off which every sacrifice of prayer and praise comes up with acceptance before God; and the souls of the martyrs being under this altar, denotes their being in the presence of Christ, and enjoying communion with him, and being in his hands, into whose hands they commit their souls at death, as Stephen did, and being under his care and protection until the resurrection morn, when they shall be reunited to their bodies which sleep in Jesus: and they were slain
for the word of God; both for the essential Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose faith they professed; and for the written word, they made the rule of their faith and practice, and which Dioclesian forbid the reading of, and sought utterly to destroy; and for the Gospel principally, which is contained in it:
and for the testimony which they held; the Syriac and Arabic versions read, "for the testimony of the Lamb"; and so the Complutensian edition; either for the Gospel, which is a testimony of the person, office, and grace of Christ, the Lamb, which they embraced, professed, and held fast; or for the witness they bore to him, and the profession which they made thereof, and in which they continued.
(a) Tosaphta in Zohar in Exod. fol. 79. 4. (b) Shaare Ora, fol. 31. 2.((c) T. Bab. Sabbat, fol. 152. 2. Zohar in Numb. fol. 39. 4. Abot R. Nathan, c. 12. Raziel, fol. 39. 1. Caphtor, fol. 15. 2. & 112. 2. Nismat Chayim, fol. 16. 2.((d) T. Bab. Cetubot, fol. 111. 1.((e) Maimon. Hilchot. Melacim, c. 5. sect. 11. (f) Abot R. Nathan, c. 26. (g) Tzeror Hammor, fol. 85. 3.