The 144,000 Sealed. After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on land or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God. ” I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites: twelve thousand were marked from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand from the tribe of Joseph, and twelve thousand were marked from the tribe of Benjamin.
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”
All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed:
“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
7:1-17. The situation seems dire, but there is reason for hope. In a two-part interlude between the sixth and seventh seal visions–7:1-8 and 9-17–John witnesses God’s protective action on behalf of the tribes of Israel, which represent the believing community. Like the previous vision, the setting is the earthly realm. First, John sees four angels holding back the forces of destruction, perhaps another reference to the four horsemen, so that they can do no harm to the universe. When the announcing angel orders them to hold back the forces of destruction a little longer, it becomes clear that this process of marking the servants of God with a seal is for their protection. In the Greco-Roman world, people branded slaves on the forehead to indicate ownership. Likewise, in Ezekiel 9:1-3 the Lord tells Ezekiel to put a mark on the forehead of the people who grieve over the terrible things that were happening in Jerusalem. Thus the sealing of the servants of God sets them apart as belonging to God and, therefore, under God’s protection. The number sealed–144,000, or 12,000 from each tribe–should be understood symbolically: perfection or fullness (12) multiplied by fullness (12), multiplied again by a number too great to count (1,000). In other words, John is not witnessing the sealing of a relatively small gathering of the elect, but an unbelievably massive crowd of people, a sea of humanity!
The second part of this interlude is introduced by John’s observation of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and the Lamb. The crowd that John sees is most likely the 144,000 who were sealed in the preceding scene. They are wearing robes of victory and crying out in praise and thanksgiving for the source of their salvation, namely, God and the Lamb. Their palm branches are symbols of victory in war but are also reminiscent of the feast of Tabernacles, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest festival and build booths or tents in remembrance of God’s living care during the Exodus. This feast also anticipates the messianic age, when God’s kingdom will be fully manifest and everyone will come to Jerusalem to worship God, and the whole city will be as holy as the temple. In the concluding vision of the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem, John will provide us with a fuller version of this Tabernacles motif.
Again John is permitted to witness the heavenly liturgy, with all the angels surrounding the throne, the four living creatures, the elders, and now the crowd too big to count gathering to worship God in song. It should be noted that their prayer contains exactly seven words of honor, symbolizing the fullness of praise to God.
Almost as if interrupting the liturgy, one of the elders asks John the identity of the ones in white robes. John defers to the elder, who then provides interpretation for him: these are the ones who have come through the persecution as martyrs, joining their blood with Christ’s. What follows is a prophecy of consolation: they will no longer need to build tabernacles (tents) for themselves because God will tabernacle (i.e., shelter) them. Echoing the prophet Isaiah, the elder further declares that the white-robed crowd will never again suffer hunger, thirst, hear, or grief and, instead, will be led to springs of life-giving water.
Imagine how the elder’s prophecy must have sounded to John and those soon to be martyrs! It is a profoundly moving message of hope. In fact, this entire interlude would have been seen as a defiantly faith-filled response to the problem of theodicy; despite appearances to the contrary, God is absolutely sovereign and just! God protects the holy ones and will surely rescue them from their sufferings, so that they can participate in this glorious liturgy of praise. John will return to these images once again in the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of the book of Revelation (21:2-22:5).
What are your thoughts on this reading in the book of Revelation?