And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God…
First, the righteous are taken away, and no man regardeth it, as the prophet says (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.
Parallel VersesKJV: And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: