|Altar of Incense and Altar of Burnt-Offering|
The description of the events of the Fifth Seal (approximately 1 A.D. to 1000 A.D.) is only slightly more descriptive than the first four seals. From Revelation 6:9-11:
9 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:
10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.The dominant theme of this time period is the martyrdom of the Saints.
Although most commentators, including Brandt, seem to focus on the martyrdom and persecution of the Christians of the First and Second Centuries, it is likely that John's vision was of his contemporaries: friends, family, and acquaintances. However, as verse 11 indicates, there is a future element as well, as it indicates that to these martyrs will be added "their follow servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were." In this, we should be cognizant of the greater tragedy than just the persecution under the Romans: the rise of Islam and the persecution of Christians that began in the 7th Century. By that time, the near and Middle-East, Northern Africa, and even portions of the Far East were Christianized. The center of Christian thought had shifted to Persia. Although Christianity would, to a great extent, be tolerated by Islam until the Thirteenth Century, the rise of Islam necessarily led to the eclipse of Christianity in the nations that fell to Muslim rule. As Philip Jenkins observes in his book, The Lost History of Christianity, "[t]he deeply rooted Christianity of Africa and Asia did not simply fade away through lack of zeal, or theological confusion: it was crushed, in a welter of warfare and persecution." (p. 100).
In any event, the imagery of "the alter" is reminiscent of the alter of burnt offerings and the alter of incense. Brandt notes: "The Seer places the martyrs under the alter of sacrifice. In Mosaic sacrifices, the blood of the unblemished animal is poured out onto the ground during the ceremony (Lev. 4:7, 11, 17). The fact that the martyrs were 'under the alter' suggests that their untimely deaths in mortality were, by heaven's perspective, an offering on the alter of life." But, there is also a call for justice and vengeance. This is not a call for personal retribution, but divine justice. Brandt writes: "Petitions of retribution follow a long-established Hebrew law requiring the plaintiff to serve as prosecutor, providing argument and evidence to support claims against the defendant. The blood of the martyrs crying from under the alter of sacrifice is sufficient evidence for conviction." In The Book of Revelation: Plain, Pure, and Simple, Mick Smith indicates that "[w]hat made their lives a sacrifice for righteousness was not in dying for the faith, but in living for it."
The white robes are symbolic of the rewards to the righteous. The robes are representative of the holiness, glory, and purity of the Saints--and a symbol of their exaltation. Isaiah refers to them as the "robe of righteousness." Isa. 61:10. (See also, Matt. 23:29-33; Luke 11:47-51; Acts 7 and 22:20; Hel. 13:24-28; D&C 135).
That the Lord would allow the martyring of these Saints begs the question of why the Lord allows the wicked to hurt the righteous. Brandt explains:
We must always remember that life is a time of testing, not just for the righteous, but for the unrighteous, who are permitted to demonstrate their works and desires in open and seemingly unobstructed ways. Persecutions fulfill part of the testing and proving in mortality. The gift of agency permits those who choose evil to pursue their desires and exercise choice; without agency justice and mercy would have no effect. ...
God permits wicked works for a season so that a righteous judgment may come upon the evildoer. ...The time period for allowing the wicked works is described in the Revelation as "a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." As we will see, that season will be fulfilled at the close of the 6th seal and opening of the 7th.
Related posts: "A Review of Revelations--Part 1--The Four Horsemen"; "Is Allah = Satan?"
Updated (11/23/2016): Some additional thoughts added.