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Rev 6:9 (NIV) "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".

Rev 7:9 (NIV) "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands".

Rev 14:3 (NIV) "And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth".

  • I read somewhere that kings kept their most treasured items under their throne. Under the altar might have some similar significance. Standing before a king's throne likely has similar significance to appearing before a "judge's bench." – Dieter Jan 12 '19 at 6:09
  • @Dieter. Although I am undecided at this point, I agree with you to a certain extent. Isa 57:15 has it that "God is high and lifted up". An "altar" would also be lifted up from the ground, but probably not as high as one would picture God's throne to be. It would be more logical to say that someone is below a "throne", and that someone is standing before an "altar". In this case it is the other way around; "under the altar", and "before the throne". That could be an indication that these two might mean the same thing. – Constantthin Jan 12 '19 at 13:11
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We should not confuse several things in the "sanctuary". The Book of Revelation can be read as walk through the sanctuary as revealed in Exodus and Leviticus (See Heb 8:5). There were two altars: the bronze altar of burnt offering in the courtyard, and, the golden altar of incense in the Holy place in front of the inner curtain which is immediately in front of the ark of the covenant.

In most cases, the distinction between the two is obvious. The word "altar" (Greek: "thusiasterion") occurs just 8 times in Revelation.

  • Rev 6:9 - "souls under the altar". In the OT only the altar of burnt offering had anything under it. Ex 27:5, 38:4. It was on this altar that animals were sacrificed and the ashes placed beneath it.
  • Rev 8:3, 5 - the altar of incense representing the prayers of the saints
  • Rev 9:3 - voice coming from the four horns of the golden alter before God. This, again, can only be the altar of incense in front of the inner curtain separating the holy from the most holy place.
  • Rev 11:1 - The altar that is NOT in the outer court; that is the golden altar of incense.
  • Rev 14:18 - Angel from the altar. Because this was from inside the sanctuary, it is, again, the golden altar of incense.
  • Rev 16:7 - Voice from the altar. Again, this is the golden altar of incense.

Thus, in Revelation, there is only one reference to the great bronze altar of burnt offering in Rev 6:8. Because it was placed in the outer court, it was not near the most holy place and the ark of the covenant. It is the only one that has something beneath it.

However, all other seven references to an altar in Revelation are to the golden altar of incense placed immediately in front of the curtain and so "in front" of the ark of the covenant. Ex 40:5, Heb 9:1-4.

The Throne

The OT sanctuary had no throne. The closest we get is the ark of the covenant which (at least sometimes) was accompanied by the Shekinah Glory. If the Ark of the Covenant represented the throne of God by its mercy seat, then only the golden altar of incense is in front of the "throne".

Therefore, Rev 6:9 "beneath the altar" is NOT equivalent to "before the throne" (Rev 7:9, 14:3), as the altar before the throne is a different altar.

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    Heb 8:5 (NIV) "They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” – Constantthin Jan 13 '19 at 10:44
  • Thanks @Constantthin - I will add this reference as will. – user25930 Jan 13 '19 at 22:13
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    A very penetrating and informative answer. +1 To add to your observations just a bit I would mention that in Hebrews 6 the author says that the outer court was to be eliminated in the new covenant: [Heb 9:8-9 NIV] 8 The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. 9 This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. – Ruminator Jan 13 '19 at 23:10
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I would say no.

Revelation is of course notorious for the diversity of interpretations. But when it comes to interpreting particular words, there are probably two primary options: the word is literal or symbolic.

If we take these words with their normal literal meaning, then throne and altar are different objects. It is arguable that if the altar is "before the throne" and the martyrs' souls are "under the altar" then they are also "before the throne". But in that case why didn't John say "before the throne"?

It seems obvious to me that because throne and altar have different meanings, John is wanting to bring out those different meanings by referring to throne or altar in appropriate contexts. Which leads me to the symbolic aspects of the word.

"Throne" is most obviously a sign of kingship. In this respect Revelation 4 is illuminating. When John gets his first peek of heaven, his whole focus is on the throne. It's the first object that John sees and describes. And we get the impression that it takes his breath away. The NIV translation of verse 2 says,

At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven.

This is correct, but boring. The old King James version brings out more of the sense of the Greek when it translates:

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven.

We get the idea of John saying, "The Spirit took me into heaven and ... Oh wow, look at the throne!" So throughout chapter 4 the throne is John's whole focus, the centre of his attention. This is reinforced by his description of the other elements in the picture. Every single object - God himself sitting on the throne, the thunder and lightning, the seven spirits, the sea and the rainbow, the creatures and the elders - all of them are described in terms of their placement in relation to the throne. So thematically John is emphasising that God is sovereign, God is in charge as we see the story unfold throughout the rest of the prophecy.

"Altar" also has its core meaning and symbolism, especially for Jewish readers. The altar is the place of sacrifice. It is where people make offerings to God, and in the Old Testament the sign of the altar surely points to God's holiness.

The altar is not mentioned in Revelation as often as the throne, but it seems to me that when it does appear it has this focus of sacrifice, offering and holiness. Thus in Revelation 6.9 the souls of the martyrs are under the altar because their death and their testimony are a sacrificial offering to God. And in Revelation 8.3-5 we read this:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

Here there is a strong picture of an offering which rises up to a holy God, as well as judgment hurled down on a rebellious earth. The purifying work of sacrifice and of fire flows in both directions, and the altar is the centrepiece of this activity.

It's worth noting that this verse is the only verse in Revelation that refers to both the throne and the altar by relationship, and they are not in the same place. Here the altar is before the throne, and thus separated from it. (But then we are talking symbolically, and words that are distinguished in our language refer to a God who is one, who is fully integrated in all aspects of his activity and character.)

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  • +1. Thx for your answer. It was especially interesting to read that the altar is located in the vincinity of the throne, and that it might be made of gold. – Constantthin Jan 13 '19 at 3:42
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after my research - under the altar is a picture of the trib saints before the new covenant is being enjoyed by the nation of Israel. that will not occur until the nation of Israel calls upon the Name of the Lord and accepts Christ as Messiah. once this happens, the souls under the altar can receive resurrected bodies per rev 20:4.

once they are resurrected, they are entitled to stand before the throne (rev 7:9) and the enjoy the benefits of the new covenant.

ps. the timing during the trib is similar to OT, Age of the Law. the audience is Jews. when Jesus was in upper room prior to the Cross, He offered the cup as a symbol of His blood which would usher in the new covenant. however, Jesus knew that the nation of Israel would not accept Him as Messiah. therefore, the new covenant was not enjoyed by the jews at that time. in jer 31:31, it tells us when the jews would enjoy new covenant.

not until the 2nd coming of Christ after great trib.

does this help?

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