The two seals which follow receive no explanation, as to the time of their beginning, from the animated beings, and therefore no riders on horses are any longer here to be seen, upon which that index of the animals depended. The period of each, then, is to be sought from the time when the event of the preceding seal ceased; which indeed is very easy, when the events, as here, are of such a nature that their termination cannot be concealed, in consequence of their manifest perspicuity.
The fifth seal, therefore, will begin with the emperor Aurelian, in the year 268, at which time the longest of the calamities of the former seal, the pestilence of fifteen years' duration, was extinct.
Now, the most signal event of the Roman state, under this seal, and which surpassed all other events of that time, is that persecution of the Christians which begun with Diocletian, was continued by others, and was far the most severe of all.
Former ages saw nothing to compare with it. |It was longer, and more cruel,| (these are the words of Orosius,) |than all that went before. For it was incessantly carried on for ten years, with the burnings of churches, the proscription of the innocent, the slaughter of martyrs. Immediately on the beginning of the tenth, within thirty days, about seventeen thousand men are said to have been sacrificed; nor did the fury of the persecutors abate with the progress of time. In Egypt alone, (what a small particle of the Roman empire!) if faith is to be given to St. Ignatius, patriarch of Antioch, according to Scaliger, |a hundred and forty-four thousand men were sacrificed, seven hundred (thousand) were driven into exile;| whence the Diocletian era derived its name among the Egyptians, so that it is called, even at this day, the era of martyrs. What now should you suppose was done throughout the other provinces of the Roman empire? |Almost all the world was stained with the sacred blood of martyrs,| says Sulpitius Severus. |The world was never more drained of blood by any wars, nor did the Church| (the words are those of the same author) |ever conquer with a greater triumph, than when it could not be overcome with the slaughters of ten years.|
This butchery is represented by the vision of |souls slain for the word of God, and for his testimony which they maintained, lying under the altar,| that is, on the ground, at the foot of the altar, like victims recently slaughtered. For martyrdom is a certain species of sacrifice; whence that assertion of the apostle to Timothy, when his own martyrdom was near approaching: |I am now about to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.| 2 Tim. c. iv.6. To which also applies that expression of the same apostle to the Philippians: |If I am offered for the sacrifice and service of your faith,| &c.
Further, as they are said to have cried with a loud voice to God, requiring vengeance for their blood, this is a periphrasis for a cruelty so extreme, and ripe for judgment, that it might for its barbarity solicit even the long suffering of God to vengeance. |How long,| say they, |O Lord Holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?| In the mean time, white garments were given to each of them, that is, they were adopted into the order of the blessed. The parable is taken from the custom of the Jews, in approving and admitting priests. Those whom they had judged worthy, from their genealogy and perfect form of body, they received into the hall of priests, |clothed in white garments,| and so adopted them into the sacerdotal order. Maimonides in Mishne, b. viii. c. vi. s.11. Which is plainly expressed in c. vii. vv.13, 14, 15, where it is said of those who are clothed in white garments, |that they are before the throne of God, and worship him (as priests) day and night in his temple.|
The answer to this cry of blood is, |That they should rest for a short time, until (the number of) their fellow servants and of their brethren who should be killed, even as they should be complete;| that is, that they should endure for a little, until some of their brethren, who, after Christianity had begun to prevail, were, under Licinius, Julian, and the Arians, to be butchered in like manner, should be added to the number; and then, on the sounding of the trumpets, a remarkable vengeance should be taken on the empire for the guilt of so much blood.