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?
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 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 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 migrated and settled back in 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?
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.
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.”
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.
‘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’.
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), equivalent to the opening of the seventh seal. Silence for half an hour marks the transition to the trumpets.