The 144,000 and the gospel heard

Revelation chapter 7. Where are the 12 tribes of Israel today? Why are 144,000 called out from them? And what is the meaning of the great multitude that is now seen before the throne?

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on the earth or the sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin sealed.
The twelve tribes are those descended from the twelve sons of Israel, omitting Dan and counting Joseph as two tribes, viz. his son Ephraim (the tribe here listed under the name Joseph) and his son Manasseh. These were the two sons born to Joseph when he was in Egypt, a Gentile land, whom Israel blessed as if they were his immediate sons. “Although Manasseh will also become a people and become great, his younger brother will be greater. His offspring will become a host of nations.” How this, and indeed other prophecies that Israel/Jacob uttered on his deathbed, were fulfilled in the ‘latter [or last] days’ (Gen 49:1), is not clear. Dan is omitted from the list because he would be “a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backwards”.

The first and last-named tribes, Judah and Benjamin, also Simeon and part of Levi, survive to the present day. They are the Jews, who descend from the people who lived in the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonian Exile, i.e. before 586 BC. After the Exile most of them returned to the land; some remained in Babylonia and subsequently spread to other parts of the Near East, retaining their identity (Esther 3:8). After the first and second revolts against the Romans, those in Judaea were nearly all exiled. Despite many returning to the land over the past 100 years, more Jews still live in other parts of the world – chiefly the United States – than in Palestine itself. ‘Jew’ is a collective term derived from the name of the territory, Judah or Judaea. Although some can reasonably claim to descend from the tribe of Levi, genealogies going back to specific tribes are now lost.

Sargon II, the king who conquered the city of Samaria and deported its citizens to AssyriaThe non-Jewish tribes have long ceased to exist as ethnic entities. In 930 BC they broke away from Judah and Benjamin and formed a separate kingdom called Israel, distinct from Judah, which continued until the Assyrians conquered it in 721 BC. ‘In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried Israel away into Assyria and placed them in Halah [N Iraq], in Gozan on the Habor river [NE Syria] and in the cities of the Medes [NW Iran]’ (II Ki 17:6). People from other parts of the Assyrian empire were brought in to populate the cities in their stead. Some Israelites, notably from the tribes of Asher, Issachar, Ephraim, Manasseh and Zebulun, escaped deportation (II Chron 30); others fled to the southern kingdom and became part of Judah. For example, the prophetess Anna, who recognised the baby Jesus as the Messiah when he was presented at the Temple, belonged to the tribe of Asher. Nonetheless, by that time most of the original twelve tribes lived beyond Judaea and had ceased to have a distinct identity. James’s reference in his letter to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ was notional, even though some were now considered to be living in the provinces of Anatolia, or modern Turkey (I Pet 1:1).

‘Israel’ in the prophecies can refer either to the whole nation of Israel (even Judah where Judah is seen as representing Israel as a whole) or, more commonly, to the northern kingdom of Israel distinct from the southern kingdom. In Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, about 150 years after the Assyrian deportation of the northern tribes and 11 years into the Babylonian deportation of the southern tribes, God explicitly said, “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” He promised that he would raise the whole nation from their graves and place them in their own land. ‘Judah and the people of Israel associated with him’ would be re-united with ‘Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him’. They would no longer be two nations, but one king would be king over them all.

God had banished the northern tribes from the promised land because they did not want to be set apart as God’s own people, distinct from the other nations (II Ki 17:15). To abandon the true God was necessarily to lose their identity as a nation, and that is what happened. In contrast to Judah’s history, there were no post-exilic prophets, and there is no book showing that the nation ever came back to its senses. On the other hand, the individuals raised from the dead in Ezekiel’s vision were distinguishable as descendants of Israel. They must, therefore, be the northern tribes before they lost their ethnic identity.

So why did God treat Judah differently from the northern kingdom? And if he still had a purpose for the Jews in bringing them back to the land in 536 BC, why did he apparently have no further purpose for the descendants of the tribes who did not come back?

Just before the fall of the northern kingdom, the prophet Hosea addressed these questions. Like other prophets before him, he warned that the kingdom of the house of Israel was about to be terminated. Because of their spiritual adultery God would cease to regard them as his own people. Yet in days to come,
the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.
The children of Israel, the northern kingdom, up to this point had never been as numerous as the sand of the sea; the first half of this word refers to future descendants of Israel. They would become exceedingly numerous at the same time as they would lose their ethnic identity. Hosea goes on to say:
The children of Israel will dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod [priest’s garment, as in Ju 18:14] or household gods.
Paul quotes the first half in affirming that God has called people in mercy ‘not only from the Jews but also from the nations’ (Rom 9:24-26). The antithesis is no longer Judah and Israel, but Jew and Gentile. Having lost their identity, the children of Israel and the ‘nations’ amongst whom they dwell and with whom they have married are one and the same. They have become sons of the living God by receiving the gospel which went out to the nations (so also I Pet 1:1-2:10). Paul advances the same antithesis later in his letter, when he says:
I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a hardness has affected Israel in part, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And thus all Israel will be saved.

Although slightly ambiguous, the sense is that spiritual blindness has affected part of Israel, not that partial spiritual blindness has affected all Israel. There is an ordained period when the Jews must be ‘enemies of God for your sake’. But when the harvest of Gentile souls is complete, then the blindness will be lifted and ‘the rest of Israel’ will be saved, i.e. the Jews.

The second half of Hosea’s prophecy above refers to the past and then-present descendants of Israel, ethnically still distinct, and to their reunification with Judah that will occur after they have risen from the grave. Similarly, Hosea says,
Afterward the children of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they will fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days.

The children of Israel, once dispersed, are said to return to their land because that is where they will be resurrected. They will seek the Lord God their coming Messiah and David their former king, whom God will also raise up for them (Jer 30:9). They are not so populous that they cannot be numbered. Rather, ‘I will set them in their land and multiply them’ (Ezek 37:26). The borders of the land allocated for each of the twelve tribes are set out in Ezekiel 47-48.

So the 144,000 who are ‘sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’ are Christians living in the countries into which, in the centuries after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations, the northern tribes migrated. The countries, one supposes, are those of Europe, for it was to Europe primarily that the gospel went. Nonetheless, since Gentile believers are grafted into the olive tree that is Israel and share in its root (Rom 11:17), and since they are part of the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven (Rev 21), ‘Israel’ here must have a still wider sense. Previously we were alienated from the state of Israel (Eph 2:12); now, being reconciled to God, we are fellow citizens with the saints and household of God (Eph 2:19). However, not everyone who has been sealed with the Holy Spirit (II Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13) will receive the seal that keeps him from harm.

There is no further specific mention of the four angels, or of great winds ravaging earth and sea, but presumably they are the angels that blow the first four trumpets. When the fifth angel sounds his trumpet, the demonic locusts that rise from the abyss are told not to harm the grass or the trees (what remains of them) but only human beings who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads; the protection of the 144,000 is re-affirmed. They are not harmed because their role is to prophesy of the one who is to come: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come. Worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.” As in Elijah’s day (I Ki 19:18), the number is relatively small, and not everyone in the tribes is chosen – they are chosen ‘from’ the tribes. Clearly those who do not fear God, do not believe that his judgement is near, and do not worship God as the one who created heaven and earth will not be among those sealed. Nor those who do not sigh and groan at the abominations now being committed in the city (Ezek 9:4) and who are not themselves sexually pure.

“These are ones who have not defiled themselves with women,” John is told with surprising directness (14:4). It is not simply that Christ has made them pure in this respect (II Cor 11:2) but that they are pure. Like Christ, they have never married; they are ‘virgins’. Since the Bride of Christ is the whole Church, male and female, the emphasis on male purity does not necessarily imply that only men are among their number. They follow the Lamb wherever he leads. This can be costly, for he does not always lead where we wish to go, but they follow him nonetheless. And like Christ (Isa 53:9, I Pet 2:22) they say in their testimony nothing false. They fulfil the prophecy of Joel, that he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh in the last days, on his male and female servants alike, and they will prophesy (2:28-31).
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and clouds of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and manifest day.

The 144,000 will prophesy to the rest of the world at the same time as the two witnesses in Jerusalem prophesy to the Jews, for it is during the time of the six trumpets that the two bear witness. After the 1260 days they will be martyred. They will be redeemed from mankind as first-fruits for God and for the Lamb (14:4), before the last trumpet.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. And they cry with a loud voice, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thankfulness and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in the white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are they who come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them. And they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, nor shall the sun strike them, nor any heat; because the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will lead them to fountains of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
‘This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.’ Christians have been sharing the gospel with the nations beyond Europe for more than two centuries, but here (Matt 24:14) Jesus is referring to a final push made more urgent by signs of the end and accompanying great persecution. The result of this testimony is that many, a multitude no one can number, will believe. They will wash the dirty clothing of their sins in the blood of the Lamb, and the blood will make them white. Whether they lose their lives or survive the tribulation, ‘those who endure to the end will be saved.’ In his first vision of heaven John saw myriads of angels but only twenty-four human beings. Now he sees a numberless multitude. At the sound of the last trumpet, soon after the 1260 days (11:14f, I Cor 15:52), they will rise as one, both the living and the dead, and enter the presence of their God.
For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. …
He will swallow up death forever,
and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.
If they have suffered from the famine, drought and stifling heat that come with the sounding of the first three trumpets, they will suffer no more. Both Lamb and Shepherd, their Saviour will lead them to the waters that give life, and the Father on the throne will himself soothe their sorrows. Having been gathered from ‘every nation and tribe and people and language’, they are now part of the holy city Jerusalem, the new Israel of God.