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After this, I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth, or on the sea, or on any tree. I saw another angel ascend from the sunrise, having the seal of the living God. He cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was given to harm the earth and the sea, saying, "Don't harm the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, until we have sealed the bondservants of our God on their foreheads!" I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel: Of the tribe of Judah were sealed twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.
This is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals
It asks the question: "What will happen to God's people when he executes his judgment on his enemies?"
The scene begins with four angels holding back the winds to delay God's judgment for a time.
The picture of God using the four winds as agents of his judgment are seen in various places in the Old Testament prophets.
The prophets use wind to describe God's judgment on Judah
Jer 4:11-12 WEB At that time shall it be said to this people and to Jerusalem, A hot wind from the bare heights in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow, nor to cleanse; a full wind from these shall come for me: now will I also utter judgments against them.
Jer 18:17 WEB I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy; I will show them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity.
Jer 49:34-38 WEB The word of Yahweh that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning Elam, in the … reign of Zedekiah king of Judah .., Thus says Yahweh of Hosts: Behold, I will break the bow of Elam … On Elam will I bring the four winds from the four quarters of the sky, and will scatter them toward all those winds; and there shall be no nation where the outcasts of Elam shall not come. I will cause Elam to be dismayed before their enemies, and before those who seek their life; and I will bring evil on them, even my fierce anger, says Yahweh; and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them; and I will set my throne in Elam, and will destroy from there king and princes …
Wind also describes God's judgment of the north
Zec 6:1-8 WEB I … saw … four chariots … In the first … were red horses; in the second … black horses; in the third … white horses; and in the fourth … dappled horses, all of them powerful. Then I asked the angel who talked with me, "What are these, my lord?" The angel answered me, "These are the four winds of the sky, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth…" The strong went out, and sought to go that they might walk back and forth through the earth: and he said, "Go around and through the earth!" … Then he called to me, and spoke to me, saying, "Behold, those who go toward the north country have quieted my spirit in the north country."
The primary OT background for this scene is found in Ezekiel 9:1-11
Eze 9:1-11 WEB Then he cried … Cause you them that have charge over the city to draw near, every man with his destroying weapon … Behold, six men came from the way of the upper gate … every man with his slaughter weapon … and one man … clothed in linen, with a writer's inkhorn ... They went in, and stood beside the brazen altar … and he called to the man clothed in linen ... Yahweh said to him, Go through … the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark on the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry over all the abominations that are done in … it. To the others he said … Go you through the city after him, and strike: don't let your eye spare, neither have you pity; kill utterly the old man, the young man and the virgin, and little children and women; but don't come near any man on whom is the mark: and begin at my sanctuary ...
The prophet sees armed guards taking stations at the temple
While they wait, a scribe goes throughout Jerusalem, placing a mark on the foreheads of godly people who grieve because of the corruption of Jerusalem
When all the godly are marked, the guards are told to start at the temple and to kill everyone who doesn't have the mark
The vision is designed to assure the godly that they will be preserved when God hammers Jerusalem with the sword of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC
God’s seal of approval is placed on his people before he hammers his enemies.
This assures that God can take care of his own while dealing with his enemies.
2Ti 2:19 WEB However God's firm foundation stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let every one who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness."
This is intended to make us think of the numbers 12 and 1000, because we are told that the 144,000 consists of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes.
In other words, the 144,000 consists of 12 X 12 X 1000.
Remember that 12 and its multiples are used to identify God’s people
When we think of God's people in the Old Testament, we think of the twelve patriarchs and the twelve tribes. When we think of God's people in the New Testament, we think of the twelve apostles. We've already seen God's redeemed people depicted as twenty-four elders sitting on thrones around God's throne in heaven and we identified them as the redeemed under the old and new covenants.
Rev 4:4 WEB Around the throne were twenty-four thrones. On the thrones were twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads.
What will happen to God's people when he destroys his enemies?
God knows those who are his and he will preserve them. But the reader might wonder whether the godly might be overlooked and fall victim to God's judgment?
144,000 is designed to assure the godly that God doesn't make mistakes.
How many of God’s people are going to get sealed & protected? All of them!
How many are going to slip through the cracks? None of them!
Numbers are important in apocalyptic literature
For example 1,000 signifies "all" of something. Psalms uses the number to assert that all cattle in the world belong to God
Psa 50:9-11 WEB I have no need for a bull from your stall, Nor male goats from your pens. For every animal of the forest is mine, And the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains. The wild animals of the field are mine.
When the Lord says "the cattle on 1,000 hills" belong to him, that is tantamount to saying "all the cattle" belong to him
Before Jacob died, he adopted Joseph's sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, in place of Joseph.
Gen 48:1-22 WEB It happened after these things, that someone said to Joseph, "Behold, your father is sick." He took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. … Israel strengthened himself, and sat on the bed. Jacob said to Joseph, "… Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, will be mine. …
In the place of Joseph, there were two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim.
Thus, even though Jacob had twelve sons, Israel actually was divided into thirteen tribes.
In the list in Revelation 7, the tribe of Joseph refers to Ephraim, since Manasseh is listed separately. This is consistent with other OT references.
OT references to a tribe of Joseph refer to one – or both – of his sons
It could be a reference to both Ephraim and Manasseh
Jos 18:11 WEB The lot of the tribe of the children of Benjamin came up according to their families. The border of their lot went out between the children of Judah and the children of Joseph.
Or it could be a reference to Ephraim, alone
Psa 78:67 WEB Moreover he rejected the tent of Joseph, and didn't choose the tribe of Ephraim
There were only twelve land divisions in the Promised Land
But there was no land division assigned to the tribe of Levi.
Jos 13:14 WEB Only to the tribe of Levi he gave no inheritance; the offerings of Yahweh, the God of Israel, made by fire are his inheritance, as he spoke to him.
Jos 13:33 WEB But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance: Yahweh, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as he spoke to them.
So there were 12 patriarchs and 12 land divisions, but 13 tribes
In Revelation 7, you have to look closely to find that one of the tribes is missing.
When John recites 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes, he lists Ephraim as Joseph and leaves Dan out of the list, entirely.
Why would that be? Is it because there is no one from the tribe of Dan who is godly?
No, rather, it is because the purpose of the numbers is not to mathematically quantify the godly.
Remember that the ancients did not view numbers as we do
Matthew left out names in order to list 14 generations between Abraham & David, David & the Exile, & the Exile & Jesus.
Mat 1:17 WEB So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the exile to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ, fourteen generations.
He wanted the reader to see the number 14 the number of David’s name.
Don't take 144,000 literally and don't look for 12,000 each from 12 tribes
The point is: God knows his people & doesn't miss even one
He protects every godly saint
Why 144,000 from Israel?
Were there no godly Gentiles around?
By now, Christian writers have taken to considering the church as the real Israel of God.
Gal 6:15-16 WEB For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. As many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be on them, on God's Israel.
Paul was pointing out the futility of Judaism and the superiority of Christ
Being a Jew, or not being a Jew doesn't matter. All that matters is being in Christ.
Phi 3:3-7 WEB For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh; though I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. However, what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.
Jesus' brother described Christians as "12 tribes of the dispersion"
Jam 1:1 WEB James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Likewise, when John speaks of the 144,000 as the tribes of Israel, that is not literal
He is speaking of Christians - Jew and Gentile - who are sealed for protection in the day of tribulation associated with God's judgments
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. They cried with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen." One of the elders answered, saying to me, "These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?" I told him, "My lord, you know." He said to me, "These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb's blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. They will never be hungry, neither thirsty any more; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shepherds them, and leads them to springs of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
If the 144,000 is the church on earth, who is the great multitude of 7:9-17?
Some writers say that the 144,000 represent the redeemed of the Jews and that the great multitude represents the redeemed of the Gentiles.
They point to the fact that the 144,000 come from the tribes of Israel and that the great multitude comes from "every nation, tribe, people and language".
The 144,000 are on earth; the great multitude is in heaven
The great multitude is "before the throne and before the Lamb, " wearing white robes, praising God and the Lamb.
The 144,000 were sealed for protection while still on earth.
The 144,000 are the redeemed facing distress on earth; the great multitude is the redeemed after the distress of the earth is behind them.
An elder asks "who are they, and from where did they come?"
John doesn't know the answer; the elder gives it: they are the overcomers enjoying their reward.
Rev 7:13-14 WEB One of the elders answered, saying to me, "These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?" I told him, "My lord, you know." He said to me, "These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb's blood.
These are the martyrs we saw under the altar in the fifth seal
Rev 6:9-11 WEB When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been killed for the Word of God, and for the testimony of the Lamb which they had. (10) They cried with a loud voice, saying, "How long, Master, the holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (11) A long white robe was given to each of them. They were told that they should rest yet for a while, until their fellow servants and their brothers, who would also be killed even as they were, should complete their course.
The 144,000 are on earth; the great multitude is in heaven
The 144,000 saints face persecution and are promised God's protection
The great multitude are saints who have gone on to their reward.
Both may be the same group from two perspectives:
From earth's viewpoint, they are protected and preserved by God
From heaven's viewpoint, their reward is already secured
Even if they are not the same group at the moment, the 144,000 will become a part of the great multitude if they are faithful to death
Shifting vantage points is a common feature of apocalyptic writings
It is seen in elsewhere in Revelation.
Remember that John saw Jesus ascend to heaven in Acts 1, but in Revelation 5, he saw the same scene from heaven's viewpoint, as the Lamb enters the throne room of God.
In Revelation 1:9ff, John sees Jesus walking in heaven's tabernacle
In that scene, he is inspecting the lampstands that he identifies as the churches.
Then, in Revelation 2-3, he sends a message to each of the churches on earth in the seven cities.
The vision is of Jesus walking among his churches, but the messages are sent from heaven to earth.
Revelation 12 shifts from earth to heaven and back to earth
First, the Dragon (identified as Satan) seeks to devour the child of the woman.
When he is unsuccessful, he chases the child into heaven.
When he loses the conflict in heaven, he pursues her other children on earth.
Other passages refer to activities in heaven that have an effect on earth
Daniel 10 gives insight into this
Daniel's prayers are interrupted by an angel who tells Daniel that he had intended to come to set Daniel's mind at ease earlier, but he had been detained by conflict with the Prince of Persia
Michael showed up to take over the fight with the Persian prince, so that the angel could make his trip to see Daniel
Then, the angel leaves Daniel to join Michael in the fight against the Prince of Persia
He goes on to say "when I go, the prince of Greece will come"
Behold, a hand touched me, which set me on my knees and on the palms of my hands. He said to me, Daniel, you man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright; for to you am I now sent. When he had spoken this word to me, I stood trembling. Then said he to me, Don't be afraid, Daniel; for from the first day that you did set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard: and I am come for your words' sake. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but, behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me: and I remained there with the kings of Persia.
Dan 10:20-21 WEB Then he said, "Do you know why I have come to you? Now I will return to fight with the prince of Persia. When I go forth, behold, the prince of Greece shall come. But I will tell you that which is inscribed in the writing of truth: and there is none who holds with me against these, but Michael your prince."
Cyrus, the Persian king thought he was fighting Alexander the Great
He didn't know he was in a heavenly conflict, involving angels, that was designed to bring down Persia and to elevate Greece!
This fulfills the vision of a ram and a goat in Daniel 8
Dan 8:19-21 WEB He said, Behold, I will make you know what shall be in the latter time of the indignation; for it belongs to the appointed time of the end. (20) The ram which you saw, that had the two horns, they are the kings of Media and Persia. (21) The rough male goat is the king of Greece: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king.
Revelation 7 presents two perspectives of one common theme
The message is the same, whether you look at it from the vantage point of godly people on earth (the 144,000) or godly people who have gone on to their reward (the great multitude)
The message is this: God is able to protect and preserve his people here - and he is able to provide for them hereafter!