A thoughtful writer said some years ago: “Religious toleration is thought of as a thing too certainly fixed and long-rooted in the institutions of this country ever to be challenged.  On the contrary, it is a doctrine very modern, very vulnerable, and preserved in certain circumstances with very great difficulty.  The man who will rule England in the next generation may be quite indifferent to it.  This is often in my mind as I look at my little sons."


An extraordinary honour is put by God upon the martyr band.  Alone among the dead (with the shadowy exception of Isaiah 14: 9-11) the veil is drawn, and we behold the solitary class of departed souls ever revealed to living eyes.  Alone among the dead, these [spirits* of disembodied] souls are disclosed as removed to heaven, where we find them, not indeed on thrones, or rejoicing before God as later on are the risen and rapt (Revelation 7: 9), but beneath the Central Altar of the universe.  Alone among the dead, they - [as disembodied souls in Hades] - are given public recognition in heaven, even before Apostles or Patriarchs, and before the Bema has judged, or they themselves have been brought before it for judgment; even as they are the only class, as a class, named in the Apocalyptic catalogue of Millennial thrones (Revelation 20: 4).  It is a most extraordinary fact that the very worst that the world can do to us, its acme of cruelty and power, is to put us bodily into the most unique and radiant class of the saints of God.


[* It is not the ‘soul’ but the animating ‘spirit’ of man which returns to God at the time of death; the disembodied ‘soul’ goes down, into “the heart of the earth:” (Matthew 12: 40): Mohammedans may believe ‘spirits’ are detained there, but the word of God and the Holy Spirit teach the contrary (Acts 2: 27).]


We see first exactly when and where they appear.  Seals involving continuous and deepening judgments our Lord is breaking; and in the midst of them is heard the hoarse cry of blood: for murder is the supreme crime, making judgment inevitable and the killing of God’s saints is the supreme murder. “And when He opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar” - the place of most absolute security in the universe - “the souls” which, ordinarily unseen, can be as visible, as the soul of Samuel seen by Saul (1 Samuel 28: 14) – “of them that had been slain”  the word is ‘sacrificed’ and is the same as the word applied to the Lamb ‘slain’ (Revelation 5: 6). That these had been ‘sacrificed’ fixes this Altar as the Altar of Burnt Offering, made hollow beneath, for the reception of the poured out blood (Leviticus 4: 7) of the sacrifices.  “The soul is in the blood” (Leviticus 17: 11): so, as on earth the blood was emptied into the hollow beneath the altar, here, in heaven, the spirits themselves are there.* “I have myself stood,” says Dr. Seiss, “in the opening, under the rock, on which the altar had its place, and stamped my foot upon the marble slab which closes the mouth of the vast receptacle, and satisfied myself, from detonations, that the excavated space is very large and deep. The Mohammedans, to this day, as I was told on the spot, regard it as the place where spirits are detained until the day of judgment, and call it ‘The Well of Spirits.’ ”


[* “Desembodied spirits – (That is, souls without a resurrected body.) - still; and as such, beneath the Temple ; not admitted to the immediate presence of God” (Govett).  This sheds light as what it means to depart and to be with Christ: the condition of the dead by no means supercedes the necessity of resurrection: even the Martyrs are still unclothed, unsatisfied, unregnant, incomplete.]


So here is the unveiling of the vast martyr-host, the hecatomb of six thousand years of bitter hate.  For the phrasing appears purposely indefinite so as to cover all martyrs of all dispensations; “slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held”;* such sections of God’s utterances as each martyr-band possessed.  It was not only their possession of the Word of God, but their steadfast adherence to it at all costs, that made them martyrs: “the testimony which they used to hold”;  the testimony which they constantly maintained; which was the habit of their life.  “Slain for”  because of, on account of  “THE WORD OF GOD”: for a martyr is not merely an innocent man murdered; nor even a man murdered for his convictions; but a man murdered for the Word of God: if he has been slain for anything else, he is not a martyr. But he is much more: he has offered to God ‘the supreme sacrifice’; “them that had been sacrificed."  So Paul, on the brink of his own martyrdom, says: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering" (2 Timothy 4: 6): that is, a sacrifice, not of atonement, but of devotion; not a sin offering, but a burnt offering.  So, remarkably enough, Ignatius, who has been called the Prince of Martyrs, compared the martyr to the Meal Offering:  “God's wheat, ground fine by the teeth of wild beasts, that he may be found pure bread, a sacrifice to God  A ‘sacrifice’ is a description used of no other class of the saints of God.


Now we hear their cry.  As judgment dawns, these forgotten souls voice the inarticulate Abel‑blood that has never been silent.  “And they cried with a great voice” - for souls can be audible, as well as visible: the psychical life, though not the physical, continues after death conscious and reminiscent - “saying, how long” - for, being still disembodied, they are perfectly aware that judgment has not yet burst the tombs  -  “O Master” - Despot: the cry is to Christ, for it is He who is opening the Seal; Autocrat, not of all the Russias, but of all the Worlds: it is the appeal of the murdered to Sovereign Power  - “the holy and true” - for what Christ is is the ground of their appeal; absolute power must avenge injustice, if it is really guided by holiness and truth - “dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” how long dost Thou forbear to judge? how long dost Thou refrain from bringing to trial earth’s monster criminals?  As they had proved faithful, so must He.  It is a parallel cry, among the dead, to a simultaneous cry among the living: “Avenge me of mine adversary.  And shall not God avenge His elect, which cry to him day, and night?” (Luke 18: 3).  “Be assured,” said Cyprian to the African proconsul, “that what­ever we suffer will not remain un-avenged; and the greater the injury the heavier the vengeance  “Mark well our faces,” said Saturus to a crowd who visited the prison overnight, and broke in on the Lord’s Supper; “that you may recognize us again on the day of judgment  As Milton voiced it:


“Avenge, 0 Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold;

Even them who kept Thy truth so pure of old,

When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones,

Forget not: in Thy book record their groans

Who were Thy sheep, and in Thine ancient fold


If vengeance is absent for ever, God cannot be God: the moment approaches when grace becomes impossible and vengeance inevitable; and when intercessions for mercy change to imprecations of doom.* “The martyr‑hope,” as Dr. H. Bonar says, “is the hope of the first resurrection; of reigning with Christ; of entry into the celestial city; of the crown of life; of the inheritance of all things


[* That the Martyrs’ cry is a cry of righteousness, not of grace, is a proof of the profound revolution wrought in God’s saints under Grace by the arrival of judgment; for even Stephen, whose dying cry was an intercession for his murderers, will, shortly after this judgment seal, be breaking mutinous nations as a potter smashes clay (Revelation 2: 27).]


The first response to the cry is an act.  “And there was given them to each one a WHITE ROBE”; like the blue sash of the Order of the Garter; in sharp and glorious contrast to vestures torn by lions’ teeth, or rags foul with dungeon mire.  “The white robe, in this book," says Dean Alford, “is the vestment of acknowledged and glorified righteousness in which the saints walk and reign with Christ  Our Lord had said to Sardis:-  “Thou hast a few names in Sardis which did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy.  He that OVERCOMETH shall thus be arrayed in white garments” (Rev. 3: 4).  “The honours of victory have already been conferred upon them individually” (Swete), though the crown is not yet given, for the Kingdom has not yet come.  “The cause of these martyrs,” as Vitringa says, “shall be publicly vindicated, and they shall be recognized and extolled as sharers in the glory and kingdom of Christ , their cause having for a time appeared in a dubious light


Finally, a remarkable reason is given for the delay in the Judgment for which they ask.  “And it was said unto them that they should rest” - for though there is no sleep of the soul in death, it is in profound repose (1 Samuel 28: 15) – “neither awake nor asleep” (Cardinal Newman) - even as the body is recumbent as if in slumber; a passive rest, where the Kingdom will be an active rest (Hebrews 4: 9)  -  “yet”  -  not simply to wait, but to enjoy repose (Swete)  -  “for a little time”  -  what would three and a half years be to Abel’s six thousand years?  -  “until”  -  that is, the prayer is granted, but deferred - “their fellow‑servants also” - Jewish and post­Church Gentile converts  -  “and their brethren” - un-rapt Christians: the Christian title of endearment (Moses Stuart)* - “which should be killed even as they were” – hecatombs and holocausts yet to be - “should be fulfilled  That is, the martyr-roll, completed, perfects human sin, and automatically erupts judgment.  But though the martyr-roll must be accomplished, human malignity will exceed it by not a solitary martyr: Christ holds that key, as all keys, in His own hands.  How many are in the roll we have no conception: “there is no day in the whole year," wrote Jerome of his own age, “to which the number of five thousand martyrs cannot be ascribed  “a vast multitude in Rome alone,” says Tacitus; “inexhaustible wells of martyrs,” says another Roman author, “burnt, empaled, beheaded”; many myriads must be put to the  credit of the Inquisition - 32,000 were burnt alive in Spain alone; and myriads more must be added in our own day of Russian, Armenian, Assyrian and Chinese Christians.


One word of Christ explains the martyr-heart:- “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee THF CROWN OF LIFE,” (Revelatrion 11: 10).  “Do you suppose,” asked the prefect Jumus Rusticus of a little band of martyrs, “that you will ascend up to heaven to receive some recompense there  “I do not suppose it,” replied Justin, “I know it  “The tortured,” said Cyprian, himself afterwards a martyr, “stand more firm than the torturers; the torn limbs overcome the hooks that tear them  “As a rule,” said the Emperor Diocletian  -  and none knew better, for he martyred freely  -  “the Christians are only too happy to die  “Why are you so bent upon death?” an official said to Plonius of Smyrna ; “you are so bent upon death that you make nothing of It   “We are bent,” the martyr replied, “not upon death, but upon life


[*Or else (with Swete) follow-servants of all dispensations, and brother-martyrs.]