The Altar in Revelation

By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.

It is quite common to find NT commentary on the “Altar” in Revelation (Rv) 8.3 as being representative of the Brazen or Brass Altar in the Courtyard of the Temple/Tabernacle. This altar stood on the outside of the Temple/Tabernacle complex seen in figure 1. However, there was another “Altar” inside the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon (as well as the Herodian Temple in Jesus’ day). This was the Altar of Incense which was in the Holy Place just outside of the veil into the Most Holy Place (figure 2). Thus, in Rv 8.3 we find this altar with the “incense” and “coals” as such. I propose that this is the same altar that we see in Rv 6.9.

Figure 2
Figure 1

As we can see in these pictures, there are two Altars, one inside, and the other outside. In Rv 6.9 John saw the “souls” of those who “have been killed” (Perfect Tense) praying to God to avenge their blood. John “saw” this image while he was still standing “in heaven” (4.1), where the whole scene unfolds. It is interesting that a “seal” has to be “broken” open in order for John to see these “fellowservants” and “brothers” (6.10), of which John himself was, too (1.9, “I am your fellowsharer and brother”). John was on the “isle of Patmos” because of the “witness of God” (1.9), which is also what these saints maintained (6.9). Thus, there is no doubt that these are human beings, here as souls, and that they are “dead”, yet alive to God in heaven. A soul in heaven means a dead body on earth.

Second, it is not at all mentioned how many of these souls there were. They “had been killed” is in the Perfect tense, meaning that they had died while maintaining “the word of God and the witness they bore” (6.9). That’s it. There is no mention of “martyrdom” here, although that cannot be excluded as counted among those that died. This is not a picture of those limited to martyrdom. They are told “rest” (anapauo). This is an indirect discourse, “they were told so that they will rest…” This verb is a Future Middle Indicative, which is common in indirect syntax, and does not carry with it “time” so much as “action” related to the main verb. They were “told” by someone (we are not told who; one of the four creatures, perhaps) so that they might continue resting. At the tearing of the fifth seal, John “saw” the “altar” and the “souls” and when that fifth seal was torn, “they began crying out”, “How long….?” The rhetorgraphical image here is that the souls were already there in heaven as was the altar. When the fifth seal was broken, they responded with crying out to God. Someone tells them to rest. “How long until you judge and avenge our blood on the earth dwellers?”. As they were seeing the seals being torn and the four horses of chaos being sent to render all sorts of disasters on earth, the fifth is opened (only two more left), and they begin to cry out, “how much longer?” “Settle down. Until the full number of those who must be killed as you are is reached” (6.11). Being killed by death (6.8, “killed in death”) demands vengeance. “To each one of them a white robe was given” – which in the Aorist form does not mean that they were then given white robes (suggesting that prior to John seeing them they did not have white robes). The Aorist being what it is can denote a prior action and is, thus, describing a previous action. The sentence would look like this: ‘They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”‘ (now to each one it was given to them a white stole) And he said to them….’ This follows the pattern of the ‘and I heard…saying, “Come!”‘. What’s interesting, though, is that this pattern breaks with the fifth seal. He sees the souls saying (Present), and reverts to the Aorist of the same verb, “it was told to them”. I pay attention to these little grammatical things.

I didn’t meant to get off on a bit of an interpretative tangent here, but these “souls” who had been “killed” (either by death, by evil people, whatever) are there “under” the altar. Typical styling of John’s writing down of these visions is that something is mentioned in word, then a vision or two later is blown up into a fuller meaning. This style has been long noticed and so there is no need to go into that here. For example, “the great city” is mentioned in 11 for the first time. Later, it is given a larger visionary definition in chapter 17. The Comer up out of the Abyss beast is seen in 11. Then we get a larger image in 13, 17. “Tree of Life” is mentioned in 2, and seen at a greater view in 22. Several more examples like this can be shown.

Thus, with this, 6.9 is the first time we “see” or “hear” about “the altar” (with the article, “the”). We do not encounter it again until 8.3 (2x) and 8.5. “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” Here we are given a much greater description of the altar. It’s gold. It contains coals and incense and represents “prayers of the saints” (which is what 6.9 pictures the saints-as-souls doing). Thus, it is clear here that “the altar” is “in heaven” since the coals are “hurled down” to the earth (the dwellers on the earth).

We find this same image in Isaiah 6 where Isaiah is standing in the temple (6.1) and before the throne is “the altar” (with the article). “Coals” are taken from it with a “tong”, which is what the golden “censors” were filled with. This is the incense altar, made of gold.

In the vision of Ezekiel we find him in the temple seeing “the altar” which is called, “the table of the Lord” (Ezekiel 41.22). It stands before the Lord. The “altar” is a “table”.

In Exodus 30.1-ff we are told of the construction of “the altar of incense” which is “gold” and has “golden bowls” and “four horns” on the corners. It stood directly “in front of” the curtain veil to the Most Holy Place (there is no curtain in John’s visions of the temple in heaven). In Ex 39.38 it is called “the golden altar.”

So, what do we find in Revelation? Well, “the altar” first appears in 6.9. It appears again in 8.3-5 and is the altar of incense (prayers) and coals. It is called, “the golden altar”. In 9.13 it is “the golden altar which is before the eyes of God” that has “four horns”. John is told to measure the heavenly temple and the altar and “count the worshippers in it” (11.1). “It” is the “temple.” The altar is in the temple. The worshippers are in the temple. The temple is in heaven, the temple of God. In 14.17 an angel comes out of the temple of God in heaven, and in verse 18 another angel comes out of “the altar”.

And here’s the final proof. In 16.6, the last time we see “the altar” mentioned, we read this: “And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve! And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” Now, why is “the altar” saying this? Because, as we have seen, the saints-as-souls in heaven were “crying out, saying, “How long until you judge the blood of us?” In the end, their pleas do not go unanswered. The altar is the saints, the golden altar, in heaven, before God – they are souls (souls in heaven, bodies dead on earth). Their death is a “pleasing aroma” of incense offered to the Lord.

Thus, the altar in Rv 6 pictures souls in heaven – already present in heaven – before the tearing of the 6th and 7th Seal. They are “resting” in heaven (“the rest of God” and “entering into rest” in Hebrews is entering into heavenly rest awaiting “with all the saints” resurrection of the dead). This is the “army of God” who by their very lives and prayers direct the vengeance of God and the Lamb on “the earth dwellers”. They rule with him in heaven (Rv 20.5). These are the ones who “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” from heaven when Jesus “descends” from heaven and raises “the dead” in Christ “First” (the First are those “asleep in Christ”, the “dead in Christ” yet “souls-in-heaven” alive to God). These are of the “First Resurrection” – the First to be raised, the souls in heaven. Obviously. If the “living” on earth are not dead, and God “brings with him” those saints who have died, then since they are already “with him” (“with the Lord”) in his building made without hands (his heavenly dwelling, eternal, in the heavens – 2 Co 5.1-ff), in his Temple above, they are the “first” to be raised: they are the “dead” who “have part in the First Resurrection” and are “blessed” on that account (Rv 14.13). Paul’s language follows John’s visions to a tee. The First Resurrection is the resurrection of “the dead in Christ”. The “living” in Christ who have not died will be instantly transformed when the dead in Christ are raised first. Why does Paul make such a deal about them being “first”? Quite simple: they have already gone on and are with the Lord in heaven! To comfort believers still living, Paul marks out those who “sleep in the Lord” (their bodies are asleep in the dust of the earth) with a special honor to those grieving: they are with the Lord. Your dead loved one will be counted as with the First to be raised! What an honor!

Anyhow, the imagery of John here is plain to see.