Before God answers their question ("How long . . .?"), they are each given a white robe. Much has been made of the fact that this robe is a stolé, a long, stately, often status-indicating garment, while the overcomer in Sardis receives a white himation, an ordinary outer garment like a cape or cloak (Revelation 3:5). This distinction should not be taken too far, as Christ Himself returns in a himation dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13), not a stolé. The important element is that the robe is white, the color of purity and righteousness, as well as joy, victory, and perfection. The giving of a white robe, formal or common, is a symbol of salvation for these martyred Christians.
Finally, God responds to their question: ". . . it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed." The immediate answer, "a little while longer" (literally, "yet a little time"), is ambiguously short-range. At this point in the prophetic timeline as we have learned it—the Great Tribulation has just commenced—this uncertain period is probably at most three and a half years long.
Yet, because Revelation was written to the church late in the first century—more than nineteen hundred years ago—this comforting and expectant phrase implies a longer duration for Christians through the ages since then. II Peter 3:8 reminds us "that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." There is even biblical backing to regard the day of the Lord as the whole period since Christ's first advent nearly two millennia ago! Written around the same time as Revelation, I John 2:18 goes even further: "[W]e know it is the last hour"! Certainly, God marks time differently than we do. Nevertheless, the phraseology assures us that, though it is still future, God's vengeance will fall justly on the guilty, and His saints will be free of suffering and receive their promised reward.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Fifth Seal (Part Two)
The explanatory material that fills out the remainder of the verse provokes varied interpretation. The reason for this is that two similar but variant readings of "was completed" have come down to us in the manuscripts: plerothosin and plerososin. The former is aorist passive, meaning, as in the New King James Version, that "the number of their fellow servants . . . was completed," while the latter is plain aorist, changing the sense to either "their fellow servants . . . should be complete" (less likely, according to the experts) or they "should complete [their course]" or "should fulfill [their calling]."
Yet, this may all be just a semantic argument. By using italics, most Bibles make it clear that the number of is not in the Greek text but has been supplied by the translators. This was done to conform to their misunderstanding of the passive form, plerothosin. Since mainstream Christians, including translators, do not believe in the biblical doctrine of sanctification as a lifelong process—in cooperation with God—of spiritual growth toward perfection, translations of this verse contain a built-in bias toward a certain number being saved by grace alone through faith rather than those whom God calls being transformed into the image of Christ through grace and works. Thus, they insert the italicized phrase unnecessarily to preclude the idea of Christian works—despite the fact that the entire passage exalts the particular works of witnessing and martyrdom!
Nevertheless, the verb—whichever is chosen as the better of the two—appears in the plural form, as it refers to its plural subjects, "servants and . . . brethren." "Number" is singular. This provides additional proof that Revelation 6:11 is not referring to a specific number of martyrs but simply that others either will be completed or will complete their calling through martyrdom. The latter half of the verse, then, is better rendered, ". . . until their fellow servants and their brethren, who are to be killed as they were, should also be complete [or, should also complete (their course)]." In other words, whether passively or actively, more sons and daughters will come to perfection through suffering and death, just as God's Firstborn Son did as our Forerunner (Hebrews 2:9-11).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Fifth Seal (Part Two)
This is where today's violence is headed. When people begin killing Christians, they will not feel any sense of wrong in doing so than those who are currently aborting babies. By that time, justifications will have been made, minds will have adjusted, and they will think, "We need to get rid of these people because they are a threat to society. They don't deserve to live."
Do Arabs and Israelis not find justifications for killing one another? Do dictators not find justifications for killing dissidents? The mind, the conscience, adjusts, and when that happens, people feel justified in what they are doing.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Handwriting Is on the Wall (1995)
Who Are the 'Souls Under the Altar' Mentioned in Revelation 6:9-11?
Some have claimed that these verses prove the immortality of the soul and that people go to heaven when they die. The Bible itself, however, shows that souls are mortal by nature (Job 33:22; Ezekiel 13:19; 18:4, 20) and that this entire description is symbolic, not literal.
What did John see? In vision he beheld a book or scroll sealed with seven seals. As Jesus opened each seal (Revelation 5:5), John saw a preview of an event that would "take place after this" (Revelation 4:1). John was "in the Spirit" while the seven seals were being opened (verse 2). So, the events he saw were not actually happening then; he saw heavenly enactments of what was to take place in the future on earth.
When the fifth seal was opened, John "saw under [at the base of] the altar the souls of those who had been slain" (Revelation 6:9). Because Jesus revealed the meaning of the seven seals when He was on earth, we know that the fifth seal is symbolic of the coming Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:9-28). This means that Revelation 6 reveals an event to take place on the earth just before Christ's return.
In vision, John is projected forward to our time now, a time when one martyrdom has already happened (during the Middle Ages) and a greater one (the Tribulation) is yet to come. The "souls" (Christians) who "would be slain [martyred]" are told to "rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed" (Revelation 6:11). Those who have died as martyrs are to continue to "rest" - remain in their graves (compare Acts 2:26-27) - until others, like them, are also martyred. Remember, heaven contains no graves, so this must occur on the earth.
The "souls" - the dead saints - crying "avenge our blood" (Revelation 6:10) is similar to Abel's blood (his life, see Leviticus 17:14) crying to God from the ground (Genesis 4:10; Hebrews 11:4). Since neither blood nor the dead talk (Psalm 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10), we know that the meaning is not literal. The "souls under the altar," then, is a symbolic picture of the martyrdom of saints.
Eroding Religious Freedom
'You Are My Witnesses...'
Do Human Beings Have an Immortal Soul (Genesis 3:4)?
Is Your Soul Immortal?
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Revelation 6:11: