The 144,000 and an innumerable multitude

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

And 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 rising of the sun, bearing the seal of the living God, and he called in a loud voice to the four angels to whom it had been given 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. Near the end there will be ‘anguish of nations in perplexity, of noise of sea and surge, of people fainting with fear and anticipation of what is coming on the world’ (Luke 21:25f). The storms will begin when the sealing is completed. ‘From the rising of the sun’ is a Hebraism, meaning ‘the east’, the direction from which God comes (Isa 60:1, Ezek 43:2).

The tribes are those descended from the twelve sons of Jacob (or Israel, the name God gave him), omitting Dan and counting Joseph as two tribes through his son Ephraim (listed under the name Joseph) and his son Manasseh (Jos 14:4). These were the sons born to Joseph when he was in Egypt, whom Jacob blessed as if they were Joseph’s 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.” On his deathbed Jacob spoke extraordinary blessings on their descendants in the ‘latter [or last] days’ (Gen 49:1). If the prophecy was fulfilled in Old Testament times, it can only have been partially (e.g. Hos 10:1, 13:1), for the tribes Ephraim and Manasseh rejected God, and eventually he rejected them. Dan is omitted from the list in Revelation because the tribe lost most of the territory allotted to it (Jos 19:47), followed an idolatrous religion (Ju 18:30f) and was therefore 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 does most of Levi. They are the Jews, a collective term derived from the name of their eponymous territory, Judah, or or Judaea (the Latin name). They descend from the people who lived in the kingdom of Judah until the Babylonian Exile in 586 BC, when Nebuchdrezzar deported those who lived in the cities to Babylonia; the poorest people remained. After 50 years some of the exiles returned, while the rest remained in Babylonia and subsequently spread to other parts of the Near East, where they retained their identity (Ezra 9-10, Esther 3:8, I Pet 1:1). After the first and second revolts against the Romans, those in Judaea were also 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 Jews have returned to the land. Nonetheless, more 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.

As a single kingdom, Israel existed for only about 100 years. Solomon, Israel’s third king, was succeeded in 931 BC by Rehoboam. At his accession the ten tribes that were not part of Judah and Benjamin (counting Ephraim and Manasseh separately) broke away from the house of David and formed a separate kingdom called Israel, distinct from Judah. Their first king was Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim. A few years into his reign he abandoned Judah’s Jerusalem-centred religion, built two new religious centres, and persuaded Israel to identify Yahweh with a golden calf. Objecting, most of the Levites (not all, Ezek 44:10) went over to Judah.

Israel continued until Assyria conquered the kingdom. In 732 BC Tiglath-pileser conquered the land of Naphtali immediately north of the Sea of Galilee and deported the population to Assyria (II Ki 15:29). Then in 721 BC, ‘in the ninth year of Hoshea [king of Israel], the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He carried Israel away into Assyria and placed them in Halah [N Iraq] and on the Khabur, the river of Guzana [in 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, rendering the dispossession irrevocable. The territory of Ephraim and Manasseh became an Assyrian province, named Samaria after Israel’s former capital. In New Testament times the inhabitants were called Samaritans. The territory of the tribe of Issachar was also annexed – hence Jacob’s prophecy that Issachar would become a gang of slaves (Gen 49:15). Thus some Israelites remained in the land. As in the reign of Baasha (II Chr 15:9), some 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. Those who had been deported to Assyria, however, will have long since merged with the Gentiles. James’s reference in his letter to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ (also 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, some 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, one head, would rule over all the nation.

God drove the northern tribes out of 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 over time 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 therefore must 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 also, 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’.

God had promised Abraham he would multiply his offspring ‘as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore’ (Gen 15:5, 22:17). The similes are distinct! Israel had become as numerous as the visible stars already by the time entered Canaan (Deut 1:10). By contrast, Israel had never been as numerous as the sand of the sea – it was, as Hosea indicated, a promise still awaiting its time. Therefore the first part of the prophecy refers to future descendants, those who would come into the promise through faith (Rom 4:16-18). Only after losing their ethnic identity would the children of Israel be beyond number. The rest of the prophecy then refers to a time still more distant, when the pre-exilic descendants of Israel would be reunified with Judah after rising from the grave. The place where they were told, “You are not my people,” was Israel. It was from there, and from the countries to which the first exiles were deported, that they were to be resurrected (Jer 23:7f). They would not be so populous that they could not 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).

Paul cites the first half of the Hosea passage in confirmation that 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. The children of Israel and the nations amongst whom they dwell, and with whom they have married, are one and the same. They 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 nations 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, apart from the minority who 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.

Hosea enacted God’s relationship with Israel by marrying, on his instructions, a woman who habitually committed adultery. Eventually he divorced her. However, after drawing the parallel with himself, the abandoned husband, God told Hosea to love her and take her back. So the prophet did. Then he writes,
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. 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.

In the latter days (same phrase as in Gen 49:1) they will seek the true God and remember his covenant with David, their king before they seceded.

Gentile believers are grafted into the olive tree that is Israel and share its root (Rom 11:17). Previously they were alienated from the polity of Israel; now, being reconciled to God, they are fellow citizens with the saints and household of God (Eph 2:12-19), a ‘company of nations’ alongside the nation of Israel proper (Gen 35:11, Amos 9:12, Rom 4:17). So ‘Israel’ now has a wider sense than the genealogically defined tribes (most of which no longer exist). Ethnically defined, the 144,000 ‘sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’ are Gentiles, even the 12,000 from Judah.

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 is equivalent to the blood daubed on the doorposts and lintels of the tribes 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 natural as well as supernatural evil, and anointing for a special purpose. The role of these servants of God is to prophesy of the one who is coming. 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.” Their adversaries will be powerless to contradict them, for the Holy Spirit will tell them what to say.

“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 their master (Isa 53:9) 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

So there will be one final push. 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). Their prophesying to the rest of the world (including the Jewish Diaspora) will be 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 these things I looked, and behold, a great throng 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 living beings. 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 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.”

In his first vision of heaven John saw myriads of angels but only twenty-four human beings. Now he sees an innumerable multitude from every nation, like the sand of the sea, in contrast to the 144,000, who can be numbered. On Mount Horeb the Israelites washed their garments in water (Ex 19:10). On Mount Zion the Gentiles wash their 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 ‘dramatic present’ – common in classical literature but not today. ‘Salvation to our God’ reiterates the declaration in Psalm 3:8 and Jonah 2:9, ‘belongs’ understood. The palm branches celebrate the victory of the one who rode into Jerusalem to purchase that salvation (John 12:13).

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 survive; some will be killed – believers are ‘coming out’ of the tribulation as the elder speaks, including those who have responded to the preaching of the 144,000. But it will be at the last trumpet (I Thes 4:15-17) that they 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 the heavenly Mount Zion he will prepare for all peoples a sumptuous banquet (Isa 25:6-8).
He will swallow up death for ever,
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. Some of the words come from a prophecy relating to Israel (Isa 49:10), but they apply equally to them. The Lamb will be their shepherd and lead them through the valley of the shadow of death to waters of rest.

An elder explains the vision, for in due time the multitude will join the elders. The tenses are significant: the cleansing of their souls occurred in the past, their service in the temple is continuous present, and the time when they will suffer no more is future. Serving (latreia) has the religious sense of serving a deity in worship, distinct from serving in other ways (douleia). “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), which spiritually takes place in the sanctuary of God in heaven (Ps 11:4, 141:2, Heb 4:16, Rev 8:3f), much as sacrifices were performed, and will be performed (Rom 9:4, Rev 22:3), in the earthly temple. More generally, it is devotedly to seek and do the will of God in daily life (Rom 12:1).

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 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.