Between the sixth and seventh seals Revelation presents a group of 144,000 Israelites comprised of 12,000 males from each of the twelve tribes (Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). Is this a description of an actual group of male descendants from the tribes of Israel, or is it a symbolical picture of the church or churches?
To this point in Revelation, the only explicit mentions of Israelites are two references to “them who say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” Revelation links them to Satan because they level false accusations against the churches (2:9; 3:9).
The image of 144,000 follows the same pattern as that of the “lion from the tribe of Judah.” What John sees interprets what he hears; he hears the number, 144,000 (7:4), but sees an innumerable multitude (7:9-17). The latter explains the former.
(Revelation 7:1-4) – “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that no wind should blow on the earth, or on the sea, or upon any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand from all the tribes of the children of Israel.”
John sees an angel command four other angels holding back the “four winds of the earth” to do so until “THE SERVANTS OF OUR GOD” are sealed in their foreheads. “Servants” translates the Greek noun doulos that was applied earlier to the recipients of Revelation, the churches of Asia, “God’s servants” (1:1).
This term “servants” is applied to members of the church at Thyatira (2:20), the “prophets” including John (10:7; 11:18), Moses (15:3), God’s “servants” killed by the Great Whore (19:2-5), the inhabitants of New Jerusalem (22:3), and once more the churches of Asia, the recipients of Revelation (22:6). While “servant” can be applied to a physical descendant of Abraham (15:3), more often it is used for Christians. It is not a synonym for Jews or Israelites.
In his vision of the Throne, John saw a Sealed Scroll in the right hand of the one on the Throne (5:1-5). The only creature found worthy to open the sealed Scroll was the “lion FROM THE TRIBE OF JUDAH” (ek tés phulés Iouda).
John “heard” this declared by one of the twenty-four elders, but when he looked he saw “a Lamb as having been slain.” What he sees interprets what he hears. The messianic Lion of Judah conquered in his role as the slain Lamb. He was worthy to take and to open the Scroll because by his blood he redeemed men and women from every nation (5:8-12).
The first act of the Lamb was to break open its seals. The first four seals released four horsemen. Each was authorized to inflict harm on the earth but only within limitations allowed by the Lamb (6:1-8). The fifth seal revealed the souls of martyrs beneath the altar who were told to rest until their full number was assembled (6:9-11).
The sixth seal opening produced the Day of the Lord, a time of terrestrial and celestial upheaval, the day of the wrath of the Lamb (6:12-17). All men cowered in fear and attempted to hide in caves and under rocks, for on that day “who is able TO STAND” before the Lamb and the Throne (Greek, histémi)?
Chapter 7 begins “after this.” This indicates the order in which John received the vision, not the chronological sequence. He sees four angels holding back “the four winds of the earth that no wind might blow upon the land or upon the sea or upon any tree.” This echoes the four horsemen that were given authority over “a fourth of the earth.” God must seal His servants so that they can “stand” before the Throne and the Lamb (7:1-3).
John next “hears” the “number” of the sealed servants of God: 144,000 “from all the tribes of the sons of Israel” (ek pasés phulés hiōn Israél).
Judah is listed first because it is the tribe from which the Lamb sprang, “the lion from the tribe of Judah” (5:9). Thus, the list begins twelve thousand “FROM THE TRIBE OF JUDAH” (ek phulés Iouda).
Under the Mosaic system, a census was taken of Israel to determine the number of males available for military service (Numbers 1:3; 1:18-20; 26:2-4). The company of 144,000 is an army arrayed for battle, which is also why Revelation 14:1-4 describes them as male virgins.
Israelite men assembled for war had to maintain ceremonial purity during military campaigns. This included abstaining from sexual contact with women. The numbering of the twelve tribes in this passage draws on a passage from Numbers when Moses was commanded to number the children of Israel for war:
“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their tribes, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of the names, EVERY MALE, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their hosts” (Numbers 1:13; Deuteronomy 23:9-10; 1 Samuel 21:5; 2 Samuel 11:8-11).
A transition occurs (7:9). John heard the “number” of the sealed, 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. However, when he looks he sees an “innumerable multitude” of men and women from every nation, tribe, people and tongue redeemed by the Lamb.
This picture follows the interpretive pattern applied to Jesus in Revelation 5:5-6. What John hears (“lion from the tribe of Judah”) is interpreted by what he sees (a slain Lamb). The company of 144,000 males from the tribes of Israelis identical with the innumerable multitude from EVERY TRIBE AND NATION.
“Number” in verse 4 translates the Greek noun arithmos (“I heard their number”). In verse 9 John sees a multitude that “no one can NUMBER,” here using the related Greek verb arithmeō. The 144,000 sealed servants of God are in fact the “multitude that no one can number…from every nation and tribe and people and tongue” (7:9-17). This last phrase is the same description applied to the redeemed purchased by the Lamb’s blood (Revelation 5:9).
The first image of 144,000 Israelite males is fitting. The original promise of innumerable descendants from every nation made by Yahweh to Abraham is behind the image. The innumerable company from every nation fulfills that covenant promise. National Israel was always the first-fruits of the promises harvest, an interim stage in God’s greater redemptive plan to redeem the Creation. Note the following promises given to Abraham:
- (Genesis 13:16) – “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, YOUR DESCENDANTS ALSO CAN BE COUNTED.”
- (Genesis 12:2) – “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and BY YOU ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BLESS THEMSELVES.”
- (Genesis 15:5) – “And he brought him outside and said, look toward heaven and number the stars IF YOU ARE ABLE TO NUMBER THEM. THEN HE SAID TO HIM, SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.”
- (Genesis 18:18) – “Seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and ALL THE NATIONS OF THE EARTH shall bless themselves by him?”
The innumerable multitude now “stands” (histémi) before the Throne and the Lamb; just as Jesus overcame and stood (histémi) in the midst of the Throne, so saints “stand” (histémi) before the Throne and the Lamb, having washed their robes in his blood. This passage answers the question from the sixth seal, “who is able to stand” (histémi); only those who are washed by the Lamb are enabled to do so.
One of the “elders” asks John “who are these arrayed in white robes and whence came they?” John does not know. The elder responds, “These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation.” The “Great Tribulation” is named but not delimited; the passage does not specify its duration.
Noteworthy is the use of a Greek present rather than the expected future tense. John sees this company already in the process of “COMING out of the Great Tribulation.” This group represents not a “final generation” of believers just prior to the end of the age, but all those redeemed by the Lamb including the churches of Asia. Previously John described himself as a “fellow participant in the tribulation” with the churches of Asia.
144,000 on Mount Zion
The 144,000 appear again in Revelation 14:1-5, now standing on “Mount Zion” with the Lamb. They have the Father’s name written on their foreheads, in contrast to them who take the mark of the Beast. The Beast’s mark is placed on the right hand or forehead of its victims; it is not “written” but branded on them.
In contrast, those who follow the Lamb have the Father’s name written on their foreheads. This is equivalent to the “seal of God” described in Revelation 7:3. Jesus previously promised to write the name of God upon the one who overcomes in his letter to the church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:12).
This second vision of the 144,000 follows chapter 13 in literary sequence to set this group in contrast to men that take the mark of the Beast. When they do so they bow the knee to its master, the Dragon. Note, for example, that the Dragon was last seen standing on the sand by the sea, whereas the Lamb stands on Mount Zion.
The 144,000 sing a “new song” no one can learn, save the ones who follow the Lamb. Previously the four living creatures and twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb and sang a “new song” (5:8-9). “New song” is spelled precisely the same in Greek in both passages. The song in 5:9 is a hymn of praise to the Lamb, because “he was slain and purchased for God with his blood men FROM EVERY TRIBE AND TONGUE AND PEOPLE AND NATION,” the same description applied to the innumerable multitude in Revelation 7:14. The wording in 5:9 is close to that of 14:4 (“these were PURCHASED FROM THE EARTH”), indicating the same group is in view.
Twice the passage states the 144,000 saints were “purchased out of the earth,” both times using the Greek verb agrogazō (14:3-4). This parallels the description of the men from every nation, tongue, people, and tribe “purchased” (agrogazō) by the blood of the Lamb, who sing the new song and reign with the Lamb as “kings, priests” (5:9-10).
The 144,000 “follow” the Lamb wherever “he goes,” that is, the slain Lamb not the militaristic Lion of Judah. Christ’s “army” follows the same path he did. This “army” is sent into battle in response to the question from chapter 13, “who can make war with the beast?” The Lamb and all who have the Father’s name, follow the Lamb, sing his “new song” and do not “render homage” to the Beast are well-able to war with the Beast.
Like the Lamb, his followers overcome the Dragon and his minions in a paradoxical manner, not with physical violence, economic might or political power, but through faithful witness and even martyrdom. Just as Jesus overcame through suffering and faithful witness, so also they that follow him overcome by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony, and because they love not their lives even unto death (12:11).