The 144,000 and the gospel proclaimed

Revelation 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 now seen before the throne?

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, controlling the four winds of the earth so that no wind might blow on the earth or on the sea or against any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the dawning of the sun, bearing the seal of the living God, and he called in 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 four angels with power to harm the earth and the sea are distinct from those that blow the first four trumpets (8:2ff). The former stand at the four corners of the earth, the latter before God in heaven, but they are active at the same time. Although the destruction is not described, the angels are poised to harm the planet by huge storms. Jesus warns of the ‘distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of sea and surge, as people faint with fear and anticipation of what is coming on the world’ (Luke 21:25f).

The tribes are those descended from the twelve sons of Israel, omitting Dan and counting Joseph as two tribes (Jos 14:4) through his son Ephraim (listed under the name Joseph) and his son Manasseh. These were the two sons born to Joseph when he was in Egypt, 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 fullness of nations.” It remains unclear how this and other prophecies that Israel/Jacob uttered on his deathbed were fulfilled in the ‘latter [or last] days’ (Gen 49:1). Dan is omitted from the list because the tribe lost most of the territory allotted to it (Jos 19:47), followed an idolatrous religion (Ju 18:30f) and was accordingly omitted from the genealogies (I Chr 1-7). It is not, however, excluded from final inheritance of the land (Ezek 48:1).

The first and last-named tribes, Judah and Benjamin, survive to the present day, as do part of Simeon and part of Levi. They are the Jews, a collective term derived from the name of the territory, Judah or Judaea. They descend from the people who lived in the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonian Exile, i.e. before 586 BC. After their deportation some of them returned, while some remained in Babylonia and subsequently spread to other parts of the Near East. They retained their national identity (Ezra 9-10, Esther 3:8, I Pet 1:1). After the first and second revolts against the Romans, those in Judaea were all exiled. Although some today can reasonably claim to descend from the tribe of Levi, genealogies going back to specific tribes were lost when the Temple was destroyed. Over the past 100 years many have returned to the land. Nonetheless, more Jews still live in other parts of the world – chiefly the United States – than in Palestine itself. It is remarkable that the Jews retain their identity at all.

The ten tribes that were not part of Judah and Benjamin ceased to exist as ethnic entities. In 930 BC they broke away from the house of David and formed a separate kingdom called Israel, distinct from Judah. Israel continued until Assyria conquered the kingdom in 721 BC. ‘In the ninth year of Hoshea [king of Israel], the king of Assyria captured Samaria [Hoshea’s capital]. 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). In their stead the Assyrians transferred people from other parts of the empire to populate the cities. God thereby ‘despised’ the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali and the other tribes around Galilee (Isa 9:1). A few Israelites remained in the land and, as in the reign of Baasha (II Chr 15:9), a few fled to the southern kingdom and became part of Judah. Anna, for example, the woman who recognised the baby Jesus as the Messiah when he was presented at the Temple, belonged to the tribe of Asher. However, most of the northern tribes had long since merged with the Gentiles. James’s reference in his letter to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’, like Paul’s in Acts (26:7), was largely notional.

‘Israel’ in the prophecies can refer either to the whole nation of Israel (even Judah alone where Judah is perceived to represent the whole nation) or to the northern kingdom distinct from the southern; usually the context makes clear which. In Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, about 150 years after the Assyrian deportations and 11 years into the Babylonian Exile, God said, “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” He promised that he would raise the Israelites from their graves and place them in their own land. ‘Judah and the children 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 estranged, but one king would rule over all the nation.

God had banished the northern tribes from the promised land because they did not want to be set apart as his own people, distinct from the nations around them (II Ki 17:15). To abandon Yahweh was necessarily to lose their identity, and that is what happened. No prophets followed them into exile, and there is no evidence that they ever came back to their senses. On the other hand, the people raised from the dead in Ezekiel’s vision are distinguishable as descendants of Israel. They must therefore be the northern tribes before they lost their identity.

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

The prophet Hosea (or Hoshea, a contraction of Yehoshua, ‘Yah saves’, as, in reverse, was Isaiah) addressed these questions just before the fall of the northern kingdom. He warned that the kingdom 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 will 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 will be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel will be gathered together, and they will appoint for themselves one head. And they shall come up from the earth, for great will be the day of ‘God Sows’.
The descendants of Israel up to this time had never been as numerous as the sand of the sea. The first half of this word must therefore refer to future descendants. They would become exceedingly numerous at the same time as they lost 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 [a totemic version of the high priest’s garment] or household gods.
Paul quotes the first half in affirming that in his mercy God has called people ‘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 (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 not free of ambiguity, 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, although some believed, must be ‘enemies of God for your sake’. But when the harvest of Gentile souls is complete, the blindness will be lifted and then the whole house of Israel will receive mercy.

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

It is after their resurrection that the children of Israel, once dispersed, will return to their land. They will seek the Lord their 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); “I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast” (Jer 31:27).

So the 144,000 who are ‘sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’ are disciples living in the countries into which, in the centuries after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations, the northern tribes gradually dispersed. The countries, one supposes, include 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 whose gates bear the names of the twelve tribes (Rev 21), ‘Israel’ here must have a still wider sense. Previously we Gentiles were alienated from the polity of Israel (Eph 2:12); now, being reconciled to God, we are citizens of Israel alongside the saints and household of God (Eph 2:19). We have become a ‘company of nations’ alongside the nation of Israel proper (Gen 17:6, 35:11).

Since the tribes are notional, so presumably is the number of 12,000 attributed to each, though the total may be actual. As in Gideon’s (Ju 7:3-6) and Elijah’s day (I Ki 19:18), the total is relatively small. Not everyone in the tribes is chosen – they are chosen ‘from’ the tribes, believers who fear God rather than man, who worship him as creator of heaven and earth, and who sigh and groan at the abominations being committed in the city (Ezek 9:4). The seal appears to be equivalent to the blood daubed on the doorposts and lintels of the tribes of Israel at the Exodus, when God’s consecration of Israel’s firstborn was like a mark on the hand or frontlets between the eyes (Ex 13:16). It implies protection against supernatural evil and anointing for a special purpose (II Cor 1:21f). The role of these servants of God is to prophesy of the one who is to come. Like the seventy that Jesus sent ahead of him into every city and town, they will heal the sick, preach a message of repentance, and tell the people, “The kingdom of God is near.”

“These are ones who have not defiled themselves with women,” John is told (Rev 14:4). It is not simply that Christ has made them pure in this respect (II Cor 11:2) but they have kept themselves pure. Like him, they have never married; they are ‘virgins’. Since the Bride is the whole Church, male and female, the emphasis on male purity may not necessarily mean that only men are signified. They follow the Lamb wherever he leads. This can be costly, for he does not always lead where we wish to go. They follow him, and like Christ (Isa 53:9) they say nothing false. They fulfil the prophecy of Joel, that he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh in the last days, on 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 columns of smoke.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day.

Like the apostles at Pentecost who prophesied to the Jews before their day of wrath, they will urge people to be saved from this crooked generation (Luke 3:7, Acts 2:40, Rom 2:9). The 144,000 (including Jews from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) will prophesy to the rest of the world (including the Jewish Diaspora) at the same time as the two witnesses prophesy in Jerusalem, for it is during the trumpets that the latter bear witness. After three and a half years they will all be martyred.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation and tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, 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 animals. 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 strength be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”
And one of the elders spoke to me, saying, “The ones clothed in the white robes: who are they, and where have they come from?” And I said to him, “My lord, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming 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 will hunger no more, nor thirst any more, nor will 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’ (Matt 24:14). Christians in Europe and North America have been sharing the gospel with the nations beyond for more than two centuries, but there will be one final push, made more urgent by signs of the end and intensifying persecution. In response an innumerable multitude (in pointed contrast to the 144,000) will believe. Before God made his covenant with them, the Israelites washed their garments in water (Ex 19:10). In a spiritual sense the Gentiles wash their dirty clothing in the cleansing blood of the Lamb. That is enough to gain them access to the throne. The unexpected tense of ‘they cry’ is an example of ‘dramatic present’.

Thlipsis, ‘tribulation’, occurs 45 times in the New Testament, mostly in non-apocalyptic contexts. It occurs with ‘great’ in two other places (Matt 24:21, Rev 2:22). The preceding words ‘the great’ occur only here, with reference to the persecution and natural disasters that all believers will have to go through. Some will be killed; some will survive. At the sound of the last trumpet (Rev 11:15, I Cor 15:52) the living and the dead will rise as one 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, a shade from the heat. … (Isa 25:4)
On Mount Zion he will make for all peoples a banquet of rich food and vintage wine (Isa 25:6-8).
He will swallow up death forever,
and the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Having suffered the famine, drought and stifling heat that accompany the first three trumpets – there is no suggestion of martyrdom here – they will suffer no more. God will shelter them (skenωsei ep’ autous, lit. spread his tent over them) and soothe their sorrows. The Lamb will be their shepherd and lead them through the valley of the shadow of death to waters of rest. In his first vision of heaven John saw myriads of angels but only twenty-four human beings. Now he sees a multitude from all nations. A prophecy relating to Israel (Isa 49:10) is applied to them.

An elder provides the explanation for what John sees, for in due time the multitude will join the elders. The tenses are significant: the cleansing of their souls occurred in the past, their emergence from the great tribulation and their service in the temple are continuous present, and the time when they will suffer no more is future. Service (latreia) refers to the inquiring after, discernment of and praying for the will of God as a consequence of bowing down before him (Rom 12:1). “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”. The New Testament singles out constant fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37, I Tim 5:5). Spiritually this takes place in the sanctuary of God in heaven (Ps 11:4, Heb 4:16, Rev 8:3f), much as sacrifices were performed – and will be performed (latreia in Rom 9:4) – in the earthly temple.

Chronologically, the vision of the 144,000 and the great multitude relates to the period of the seven trumpets, a vision of mercy prior to the wrath of God. It thus steps out of the sequence of the six seals that culminates with the wrath. The promise of an end to suffering with which it culminates connects with the point later in the narrative when that promise is fulfilled (Rev 21), after the opening of the seventh seal. Silence for half an hour marks the transition to the trumpets.