When he opened the fifth seal, I say under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
6:9-11. Here St John sees all who gave their lives for God. The vision takes in the Old Testament martyrs from Abel down to Zechariah, and Christian martyrs of all eras; St John sees them under the altar of holocausts where victims were sacrificed in honour of God and their blood collected beneath. Here we see a heavenly copy of that altar, meaning that the martyrs are very close to God and that their death has been a most acceptable offerings to him.
The presence of the martyrs in heaven shows that when man dies his soul receives its reward or punishment immediately. God’s judgment of each soul begins to take effect the moment he dies, although it is not until the resurrection of all dead that it will have its full effect, on body as well as soul.
The martyrs’ song is a clamour for justice: our Lord refers to it in the Gospel and it echoes the aboriginal lament raised at Abel’s death. What the martyrs say seems to be at odds with Christ’s prayer on the cross and Stephen’s on the eve of his martyrdom, but there is really no contradiction. “This prayer of the martyrs,” St Thomas says, “is nothing other than their desire to obtain resurrection of the body and to share in the inheritance of those who will be saved, and their recognition of God’s justice in punishing evildoers.”
It is, thus, a prayer for the establishment of the Kingdom of God and his justice, which causes his divine holiness and fidelity to shine forth.