Chapter 7: The 144,000

Chapter 7: The 144,000

Synopsis: God knows His own. They serve Him on the earth and they will serve Him in eternity. He protects His own. He alone knows their number and they come from every possible part of the earth. 

Let us begin by looking at the text of this chapter. There are 17 verses and 398 words in the original Greek text.

1 After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.

2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea,

3 saying, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed:

5 of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand were sealed;

6 of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand were sealed;

7 of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand were sealed;

8 of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed.

9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

12 saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 “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 dwell among them.

16 “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat;

17 “for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This chapter begins in a logical point (note that chapter and verse divisions are man-made). It starts with the words, “After these things.” There are several points in Revelation where a change is made with this same wording – 4:1, 7:1, 7:9, 15:5, 18:1 and 19:1. This may very well mean that what occurs in chapter seven is not a continuation of the sixth seal in chapter six. This is a different vision with a distinct message. This point in Revelation represents an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. This is a pattern which can also be seen repeated between the sixth and seventh trumpets in chapters ten and eleven. There are many patterns in Revelation to be discussed in another article.

Revelation chapter seven, like so many other chapters in Revelation is written in very symbolic language. Each point and detail needs to be taken with care as to what is literal and what is figurative. From this we must be able to come away with a lesson. What is it teaching? Is the lesson that the literal number of the saved (those going to heaven) is 144,000? No. Chapter seven is not informing us of the end sum of the saved (verses 4-8) any more than it is trying to teach us that the world has four literal corners (verse 1). We must tread carefully and consider not only the current text but also what Revelation is telling us in other parts of the book, how it relates here, and what the Bible has already told us prior to this book. The Bible will never contradict itself.

1 After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.

2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea,

3 saying, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

John is given a new vision: there are four angels at the four corners of the earth holding the four winds of the earth. Note this pattern:

1. Four angels
2. Four corners of the earth
3. Four winds

All of these are connected together because the subjects (four angels) are at specific locations (the four corners of the earth) and doing specific things (holding back the four winds). We now introduce a logical process so we might come to an understanding of this passage. Since I do not currently have a name for this method we will call it the Law of Interactions. This can be used in sections and passages where everything is connected with a subject at a location doing some action. You cannot separate the subject from its action. Nor can you separate the subject and action from the location where it all took place. A figurative subject must be connected to figurative actions in a figurative place. A literal subject on the other hand must do a literal actions in a literal place. This can be used for interpreting visions, parables and determining if particular passages are meant to be literal or figurative. Obviously this cannot be used in every verse or difficult passage as we will soon demonstrate since not every passage has this combination.

In the construction of this verse everything is connected as:

1. Subjects (four angels)
2. Locations of the subjects and actions (four corners of the earth)
3. Actions done by the subjects (holding the four winds)

If any one part of this construction is proven to be symbolic then the rest of this grouping (four angels, four corners, four winds) can also be proven to be symbolic. If none can be proven to be symbolic then all could stand as literal. Because of the construction they are either all literal or they are all symbolic. You cannot have a symbolic subject committing a literal action nor can you have a figurative place where real subjects are doing real actions. It cannot hold up logically nor would it make any sense. The best way to illustrate this is to look at Luke 16:19-31 in which Jesus relates the events of Lazarus and the rich man. The same logical process must be considered:

1. Subjects – Lazarus, rich man, Abraham
2. Locations of the subjects and their actions – rich man’s gate, rich man’s table, Hades
3. Actions of the subjects – direct quotes

All of these are completely connected by the text. They are linked by interactions. You cannot have a figurative rich man talking to a literal Abraham. You cannot have a figurative rich man begging to a literal Abraham to help him in a figurative torment in a figurative Hades. Following the Law of Interaction we can come to a conclusion by determining where the passage may fit in one of three conditions:

Condition 1. If any one of these – any one subject, location or action – can be proven figurative then the whole must be figurative and this becomes a parable, or an allegory and is not to be taken literally. It will not matter if one portion is real: subject, location or action. It all falls into the realm of symbolism. One must then find the meaning of the parable or allegory and the lesson being conveyed.

Condition 2. If none can be shown to be figurative then one would have to consider the possibility of it as literal.

Condition 3. If none can be shown to be figurative, AND if one thing could be proven as literal then the whole MUST be literal. It becomes a telling of actual events and it stands on its own without further explanation.

Let us consider Charles Dickens. He wrote about two fictional characters (Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton) carrying about a story in two real places on the earth: London and Paris. The cities are real but the men (Darnay and Carton) are not. Thus the whole can be understood not as a literal telling of some historical event but fiction. Even though the places are real the people are not, thus their actions cannot be real, thus A Tale of Two Cities is not to be taken literally. If one portion (subject, location or action) involved is symbolic (or fictional) then it all becomes a tale that cannot be a set of actual events but is a fictional story that could bear some sort of lesson within.

As we examine this further we turn this slightly in another angle. There is a type of literature labeled Historical Fiction. In this genre a story may be filled with people who existed (such as Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler an officer of the East India Company), in real places (India) and even in actual historical events (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857), but not all the actions described are factual. The historical parts create a framework for a work of fiction. It becomes fiction because one of the elements (in this case the actions of the subjects) is not literally true. Thus it all falls into a figurative or fictional form. Historical fiction is created for an entertaining read. The Bible will employ similar devises but to convey a lesson. There is a real heaven, and certainly Christ is real. But is Christ an actual lamb? Does He appear in heaven as a literal lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (Revelation 5:6)? No. He appears as a warrior on a horse in Revelation 19, as an extraordinarily powerful being in chapter 1, and as a child in chapter 12. Yet He is described as a lamb in one vision. Why? Each description offers a different facet of who Christ is. In the case of Revelation 5:6 He is the Lamb of God, the sacrifice for all sin. He has perfect power (seven horns) and perfect sight (seven eyes) knowing all things His churches were doing with the authority to correct them, and knowing all things that were going to happen to His church and the power to protect it. All of this is through a simple figurative description. There is nothing literal about the vision but the lessons are very real.

Getting back to Luke 16:19-31 we can look at all the points.

19 ” There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.
20 “But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate,
21 “desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.
23 “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am
tormented in this flame.’
25 “But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are
tormented.
26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’
27 “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house,
28 ‘for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’
30 “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ “

Let us put this to the test. Can we prove any of the subjects as figurative? Can we prove Lazarus is figurative? No. He is given a name so already we know this cannot be a parable. The text does not inform us it is a parable nor does it provide any interpretation as sometimes is given to parables. Can we prove the rich man is figurative? There is nothing there to suggest that he is somehow a symbolic figure. Can we prove that the locations are figurative? There is simply no way to know about the rich man’s gate or his table. But what about Hades? Is Hades figurative? No. Hades is mentioned eleven times in five books (Matthew, Luke, Acts, 1 Corinthians and Revelation). Christ said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church in Matthew 16:18.

Matthew 16:18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”

It would seem odd that Christ would make such a claim if Hades did not exist. Can we prove that any of the actions done by Lazarus or the rich man are symbolic and not actually done by them? No. There would be some sort of indicator provided to let us know. Christ would not want us to think something is literal when it is not. We would be given a clue.

Now we get to Abraham. Can it be that Abraham in Luke 16 is symbolic? No. Actually he is the one who can be proven undeniably real. This is the key to the whole of Luke 16:19-31. The Bible will always provide a key to the things we need to know. When Jesus speaks of Abraham in Luke 16:22 all who were listening to him (disciples, apostles, Pharisees, others) knew precisely who he was talking about: The historical figure Abraham whose life is recorded beginning in Genesis 11:27. Then Jesus does something to show this must be real: He quotes Abraham. When Christ takes a historical figure and quotes that figure (which he did many times – David – Luke 20:41, Moses – Mark 7:10, Isaiah – Matthew 15:7-9, etc.) it is factual every time. Christ quotes Abraham three times in four verses (25, 26, 29 and 31) for a total of 69 words in the original Greek text. Thus the Bible gives us the clues necessary to determine if the events of Lazarus and the rich man are literal or figurative. If it is figurative then Abraham did not actually say those things. If it is figurative then Christ is using a real, historical person, placing him where he is not and having him say things he never said. That is telling a lie, especially since Christ does not give any explanation or qualification that this is figurative. So what is the conclusion. We go to condition 3: If nothing can be shown to be figurative, AND if one thing can be proven to be literal then the whole MUST be literal. It becomes a telling of actual events and it stands on its own without further explanation. That is why Christ did not explain it.

As promised there needs to be a demonstration of when the Law of Interactions cannot be used. Simply put it cannot be used in passages where things are not connected logically. When subjects or events are not bound to each other in the text then one potentially could be literal and the next figurative. They are independent of each other. The Law of Interaction concerns things that are logically linked together in the wording of the text. Some things simply are not locked together and stand on their own. The Bible can change from literal to figurative in a word. A book, a chapter and a verse may begin literal, turn figurative then back to literal again. Someone may have the notion that if one part of a book is symbolic then all of it must be as well. That is a bad approach and one I doubt anyone would be truly consistent. Jesus would speak in parables (Matthew 13) which are completely figurative. On occasion He would also speak in ways that would be figurative and less direct. Matthew 16:6 is an example of this.

Matthew 16:6 Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”

Does this mean that the entire book of Matthew must be figurative? No, that would be absurd. But let us look at how the Bible can change from literal to figurative in a single verse while even using the same word.

Revelation 1:4 John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne,

The number seven is used in two ways in this verse. The first use is literal (the seven churches) and the second use is figurative (seven Spirits). How can we determine this? It can be proven that the seven churches of Asia were real and not figurative at all. The message of Revelation is to them primarily. I will show the proofs of this in another article. The second use of the number seven is the seven Spirits who are before His throne. This can be none other than the Holy Spirit. Who else would be sending grace and peace with “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (the Father) and Jesus Christ (verse 5)? There is of course only one Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:4) but the number seven used here refers to a meaning other than an absolute sum. It is a numerical adjective which means perfection, complete or holy. This will be under discussion in the article on chapter one. The two components in this verse – seven churches and seven Spirits – are not linked an any way. They stand alone from the other. One being literal or figurative does not affect anything else in the verse. Each is independent and carries no logical links to define other components. So why use one word (or number) two different ways in one sentence? It is to show what can and will be done through the whole book of Revelation – tread carefully, consider and pay attention.

We now need to get back to Revelation chapter seven.

These four winds are intended to do great harm (verse 3). The four angels are holding back the four winds until it is time to release them. Then another angel ascends from the east having the seal of the living God. This seal is an instrument used to mark or designate something with an imprint (actually the same Greek word is used for the seven seals on the scroll in chapter five). Being that this is the seal of the living God means it carries an official purpose with great authority behind it. The angel with the seal tells the four angels at the four corners of the earth, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” The servants of God will be sealed – denoted – this will be in contrast to the mark of the beast which the everyone else carries (Revelation 13:17). One would either be a servant of God and sealed by God, or one would be a servant of the beast and have his mark. Though we may not necessarily know who is who, God knows just as if there were literal seals and marks on peoples foreheads. Note that the angel says “till WE have sealed.” Does this indicate that the angel ascending from the east is helped by another angel? Possibly. The “we” could also mean that the authority from God to seal His servants includes God in the sealing because He authorized it.

Let us look first at the angels in this. Are the four angels who are actually holding the four winds to be taken literally? Remember this is a vision – nothing has to be literal but the vision must teach something. Surely we understand that the “four corners of the earth” cannot be literal since a globe has no corners (only a map can have corners).The Bible has already stated its knowledge of the shape of the earth centuries earlier in Isaiah 40:22.

Isaiah 40:22 It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.

The Hebrew words translated “the circle of the earth” could be translated as “the sphere of the earth.” Isaiah living about 700 B.C. knew the earth was round. Of course Job who predates Isaiah knew the earth was suspended on nothing.

Job 26:7 He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.

Obviously the expression “the four corners of the earth” is common in English as it was in Koine Greek in the first century. It is a simple figure of speech which means the absolute whole of the earth. It is never intended to give the actual shape of the world just as the term “four winds” is never intended to give the total amount of wind on the earth. Figures of speech are just that – figures which are not to be taken literally but carry a meaning inside them. The author Meg Rosoff once wrote about working from “the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind.” The mind is truly shapeless (there is an enormous difference between the brain and the mind). It is beyond the scope of geometry to accurately describe anything amorphous. Does this mean that Meg Rosof is out of tune to that fact the subconscious mind cannot possibly have corners? Is she behind the times on this? Does this disqualify her and everything she has ever written from representing some sort of truth? Of course not, this is simply a figure of speech she employs to express an idea. Languages are filled with them.

If someone were to say, “I have sailed the seven seas” they are not trying to educate us that there are only seven seas in the world, or that they believe there must be only seven. It is obvious to anyone who understands idioms that they mean something else – in this case they mean they have sailed around the world. It would be silly to stand and argue with the person about the actual number of seas in the world (aside from the fact that the rules concerning the designation of seas is generally inconsistent). Figures of speech are expressions. That is why they are called figures. These are found all through literature and in many languages (possibly all languages though there is no way to actually prove that).  As mentioned in a previous article there are many types of literary devices and idioms found throughout the Bible.

From this we now go back to the four angels of Revelation seven. If there are not four literal corners of the earth, and if there cannot be four literal winds, then there cannot be four literal angels holding four figurative winds. It must all be figurative. Remember they are all liked together. Let us look again at the construction of verse 1:

1. Subjects (four angels)
2. Locations of the subjects and actions (four corners of the earth)
3. Actions done by the subjects (holding the four winds)

The central keystone is proven to be symbolic – the locations. The four corners of the earth cannot be literal. If the location is figurative and the actions at the location are figurative then the subjects at the location must also be figurative. Once again you cannot have real subjects doing figurative actions in figurative places. They are all linked together in the construction of the verse. Is a denial of the existence of angels? No, nor is it a denial that the earth exists or that wind, sea and trees exists. This is a vision and it does exactly as Revelation 1:1 said would happen. There would be signs in the message.

All of this must be figurative. So then what is the lesson of verses 1-3? God makes a distinction between the wicked and His own. There is some sort of devastation God was prepared to release but He calls for the sealing of the faithful. They are then marked and noted. The implication is that the righteous will be spared the punishment. Punishment is set for the wicked but the righteous are known by God and protected.

2 Timothy 2:19 Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.”

It is somewhat noteworthy to mention that in verse one it says the winds are held by the four angels so that they “should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.” Then in verse two it is mentioned that the four angels are “granted to harm to the earth and the sea.” There is no mention of trees. Then in verse three the ascending angel tells them, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees.” The wind represents some sort of destructive force which would harm the earth. The angels holding the destructive force back until commanded is a devise used at several points in Revelation. Everything is set and ready for God’s commands on His time.

From this John will hear the number of the righteous. This is very similar situation to the tenth plague in Exodus. In one night the first born in every household would die except in the homes where the blood of a lamb was on the lintel and doorposts. The Hebrews did. The Egyptians did not.

Exodus 12:22-23

22 “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning.

23 “For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you.

Very similar circumstances are found in the events surrounding the destruction of Jericho in Joshua chapters two and six. The city of Jericho is set for destruction but one woman and her family will be spared. To be saved from the decimation Rahab is to tie a scarlet cord in a specific window. With that in place everyone in her house will be left alive. Should anyone leave the house or should Rahab not tie a scarlet cord to the window then they will not be spared (Joshua 2:17-21). This was a sign of protection

We must now mention that Revelation 7:1-8 is a callback to Ezekiel 9 where God brings destruction through the midst of Jerusalem. All are to be killed except those who have a mark places upon their foreheads. A man dressed in linen having an inkhorn is sent by God to mark “the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.” These are the ones who will be spared.

Ezekiel 9

1 Then He called out in my hearing with a loud voice, saying, “Let those who have charge over the city draw near, each with a deadly weapon in his hand.”

2 And suddenly six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his battle-ax in his hand. One man among them was clothed with linen and had a writer’s inkhorn at his side. They went in and stood beside the bronze altar.

3 Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed with linen, who had the writer’s inkhorn at his side;

4 and the LORD said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.”

5 To the others He said in my hearing, “Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity.

6 “Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the temple.

7 Then He said to them, “Defile the temple, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out!” And they went out and killed in the city.

8 So it was, that while they were killing them, I was left alone; and I fell on my face and cried out, and said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Will You destroy all the remnant of Israel in pouring out Your fury on Jerusalem?”

9 Then He said to me, “The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great, and the land is full of bloodshed, and the city full of perversity; for they say, ‘The LORD has forsaken the land, and the LORD does not see!’

10 “And as for Me also, My eye will neither spare, nor will I have pity, but I will recompense their deeds on their own head.”

11 Just then, the man clothed with linen, who had the inkhorn at his side, reported back and said, “I have done as You commanded me.”

Once again Revelation takes previous concepts (from Exodus, Joshua and Ezekiel) and utilizes them in a similar fashion for a new lesson: the righteous (now in the last age – the Christian age) continue to be protected from the punishment wielded against the wicked. How are the events of Exodus, Joshua and Ezekiel different from Revelation chapter seven? It is the scale and scope of the destruction. Exodus relates the death of the first born in Egypt. Joshua tells of the decimation of Jericho. Ezekiel concerns destruction in Jerusalem. Revelation chapter seven is the whole world. Another part of this to consider is the construction of the Bible. There are four similar events but these are presented in different ways: Exodus and Joshua are literal recordings of the events while Ezekiel and Revelation are both through visions which take on figurative forms. Exodus, Joshua and Ezekiel prepare the way for understanding Revelation chapter seven. Revelation knows what we should already know. It knows all past scripture and fashions its message from the vast wealth of prep and learning of all past scripture. The Bible prepares us for what is next in its text.

We have established that this portion of chapter seven is another vision in this series of visions. The four angels are ready to release great harm on the earth and they are delayed momentarily until the righteous can be sealed. The next section is the number of the sealed.

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed:

There are two places in Revelation where John says that he “heard the number.” In 7:4 it is the righteous who have been numbered – 144,000. In 9:16 John hears another number and it is the number of a huge army appearing after the sixth trumpet. It is an army of 200 million. At the moment we need to focus on the 144,000. The first question to ask is: Does this number represent the total of the righteous?

Are there only 144,000 people total who will be saved (from Adam to the last one born)? The answer is no, and it is an answer given through the text. It should be stated first that if the total 144,000 is to be taken literally then the thing numbered should also be taken literally as well. It would seen odd to accept the sum as absolute but not the objects which create the sum. The text of verse four is clear this is numbering “all the tribes of the children of Israel” who are sealed. Then to completely reinforce this idea verses five through eight mention three tribes apiece and the number sealed from each tribe (which turns out to be absolutely even).

Let us look at this  literally and what it would mean. If you are not an actual descendant of Jacob’s sons you cannot be part of this number. To take this literally  – if you cannot trace your ancestry directly to one of the twelve tribes of Israel you cannot be saved. How you would prove you are a direct descendant and belong to one of the twelve tribes is beyond me. There is hardly any reassurance in this – that one’s salvation is dependent on a complete unknown. The records of the genealogies as seen in Ezra 3:61-62 were real and taken very seriously. So much so that the Jews would not take a man’s word that he was a Levite and let him serve as priest. Nor would they take a man’s word that he was due a certain inheritance. It had to be proven through recorded genealogies. These records were kept very well even through the Babylonian captivity. But they were all destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Roman General Titus who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. No one living today can prove what tribe they belong to. No one today can actually prove they are a Jew except by traditions handed down, or word of mouth from grandparents, or that some long-ago ancestor claimed to be. To take the number 144,000 literally is to take what is being totaled literally as well. That would mean that no one prior to the twelve sons of Jacob could be saved. Jacob himself could not be saved since he was not in any tribe. This would also mean that neither Able, Enoch, Noah, nor Abraham could be saved. Yet all of these are mentioned by name in Hebrews 11 as “having obtained a good testimony through faith” (Hebrews 11:39). Then we have to consider the Gentile world. No Gentile could possibly be saved, yet something certainly happened to Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16. Why would there need to be an apostle to the Gentiles? Christ said that he was sending Paul to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15 and Paul said he was an apostle to the Gentiles in Romans 11:13, 1 Timothy 2:7 and 2 Timothy 1:11. Thus the sealing of the “servants of God” cannot be limited to the twelve tribes of Israel. That term must have another meaning. If the thing being numbered cannot be taken literally then it is very possible that the number itself cannot be taken literally either.

If I were to say, “I just bought fifty pounds of onions,” you could take it all at face value that I had a real, fifty pound bag of onions. You may take it as a hyperbole that I have a lot of onions but probably not fifty pounds. You may take it in another sense in that I have fifty pounds of something but not onions. Or you could take it in a consistent metaphorical sense that I had something else in mind (yet to be known), but it was not onions nor did it weigh fifty pounds. From the information provided you really could not know. You would have to go deeper to find the actual meaning. If you discovered that it could not be onions then would you accept the possibility the weight was not fifty pounds either? We have already come to a conclusion that the saved could not be exclusively to the twelve tribes of Israel. Could it now be that the number 144,000 carries a different meaning than an absolute sum? This is nothing new to the Bible. In Psalm 68:17 are the words, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand.” We must ask the question: do we take this literally? If we look to see how God has waged His battles and destroys His enemies it would not take us long to come to the conclusion that God does not need chariots. The One who flooded the world (Genesis 6,7), rained fire on cities (Genesis 19), brought death from both visible and invisible sources (Exodus 7-12), destroyed an army of 185,000 in the night (2 Kings 19:35) does not need the first chariot. This is an expression of might in whatever form it may take. The word “chariots” is a good choice to convey the idea of power on the battle field. If the word “chariots” cannot be literal then how could the total of the chariots – twenty thousand – be literal? If we simply continue in the text we find in the next line these words, “Even thousands of thousands.” Thus we can know the first number of twenty thousand is probably not meant to be an absolute total but, just like “thousands of thousands” is an expression. What does Psalm 68:17 mean if taken figuratively? God’s power is unlimited. He cannot be conquered. we see the same construction in Revelation 7. Just as 20,000 chariots become thousands of thousands, so too does 144,000 of all the tribes of the children of Israel soon become a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. The Bible is using multiple ways to describe the same idea. A shifting, changing picture is nothing new in the Bible and it is often used in Revelation.

Let us continue in Revelation seven.

Here we see the sum from each tribe of Israel who are sealed.

5 of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand were sealed;

6 of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand were sealed;

7 of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand were sealed;

8 of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed.

The pattern in this accounting from verse 5 to 8 is repetitive and consistent. Each tribe has 12,000 sealed for a total of 144,000. We need to look at the list of tribes as they are listed because something is being communicated. This is the order in which they appear in Revelation 7:5-8.

1. Judah (4)
2. Reuben (1)
3. Gad (7)
4. Asher (8)
5. Naphtali (6)
6. Manasseh (grandson)
7. Simeon (2)
8. Levi (3)
9. Issachar (9)
10. Zebulun (10)
11. Joseph (11)
12. Benjamin (12)

(The number in parenthesis is the birth order, i.e. Benjamin is the twelfth son.)

There is obviously a problem with the list. Dan is missing. The entire tribe of Dan, the fifth son of Jacob is gone. Why? You cannot have the twelve tribes of Israel represented and leave out Dan. That would be like listing the fifty states of the United States and omitting Missouri. The tribe of Dan is included in every other listing of the twelve tribes of Israel through the Bible. For the sake of notes here is the list of the sons of Jacob by order of birth as recorded in Genesis 29:31-35:18.

1. Reuben
2. Simeon
3. Levi
4. Judah
5. Dan
6. Naphtali
7. Gad
8. Asher
9. Issachar
10. Zebulun
11. Joseph
12 Benjamin

The problem is that Joseph is listed as a tribe (number 11) and Manasseh is also listed as a tribe (number 6) in Revelation 7:5-8. Manasseh is Joseph’s son. Let us now consider the fact that the twelve tribes of Israel were actually thirteen tribes but yet only listed as twelve. How did that happen? There never was a tribe of Joseph. When Moses led Israel out of Egypt there was no tribe of Joseph mentioned. What would have been the tribe of Joseph was in fact two distinct tribes that were legally separate. They are named after his two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. In Numbers 13:4-15 there is a listing of the tribes (minus Levi) and Joseph is not there. It is Ephraim and Manasseh as two tribes. Revelation 7:4 states that, “One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed.” How could Dan be missed? No one could have numbered “all the tribes of the children of Israel” without Dan.

Has there been some mistake? Does God not know the names of all the tribes of Israel? Every child who has studied his Bible knows Dan should be there. When the tribes are listed in Ezekiel 48 it is correct.

Ezekiel 48:31-34
1. Reuben
2. Judah
3. Levi
4. Joseph
5.Benjamin
6.Dan
7.Simeon
8.Issachar
9.Zebulun
10.Gad
11.Asher
12.Naphtali

Note there are exactly twelve listed in Ezekiel 48:31-34 because Joseph is used instead of his two sons. Dan is included. What went wrong in Revelation? Nothing, but there is something communicated. God is providing more clues that this cannot be taken literally. Let us move on to a short illustration.

Suppose you have a friend you have known for many years. You have known your friend since you were a child and the two of you grew up together. You know his family. The two of you spent a lot of time together. You also know that your friend has three brothers. You know his brothers by name. You know what they do for a living. Then let us suppose your friend called you one day and asked a simple question, “How are my sisters?” You know he has only brothers. You know he has three of them. So what do you think of your friend’s question? Has he failed miserably to remember he has brothers only? No. You would know for a fact that he knows you know he has three brothers. Could it be that,  what may appear as a mistake is so blatantly obvious that is can be no a mistake at all. He could not forget his brothers, nor did he forget you knew. In fact he was counting on you remembering he has only brothers. There is something else in this message. Something is up.

God purposefully omitted Dan from the list in Revelation 7:5-8. He could not and did not forget Dan. God was counting on us seeing the omission, and He did so as a point: the 144,000 cannot be a literal number. It cannot add up. The accounting is all wrong. In the list are Joseph and Manasseh. Manasseh, as mentioned earlier is one of the sons of Joseph. If this were to be taken literally then Joseph should have had 24,000 (as representing both Ephraim and Manasseh) instead of 12,000. Manasseh would have been left out of the list and Dan included as Revelation 7:4 would tend to indicate. I realize this would have changed the count, but I think that is my point. The objective was to get and even 144,000 (12 x 12,000). That number expresses a meaning that 156,000 (13 x 12,000) could not. The omission of Dan is calling for us (screaming at us) to look at this in a different light. If all is to be taken literally then no one could possibly be saved unless they are born in one of the 12 tribes of Israel excluding Dan. No one in the tribe of Dan could be saved. If that conclusion does not strike you as being at odds with the rest of the Bible then I would ask you to merely look over the great commission. If you believe you are saved simply because you believe you are a direct descendant of one of these patriarchs (excluding Dan of course) then I simply ask you to prove it. No one can.

Let us look at numbers for a moment.

The number 12 is often used to represent God’s people. This will be discussed in an article on numbers and the Bible. If 12 is the number of God’s people then 12 X 12,000 is an amplification of that meaning (that brings us to 144,000) just as 70 X 7 is an amplification of the number 7 as used in Matthew 18:22. The number 144,000 is a figurative number which represents the total people of God in any given situation. The 144,000 in Revelation 7 had to have been contemporaries – they had to have lived at the same time. The four angel are about to release the four winds which were to harm the “earth, sea and trees.” Then they are called to wait until those who serve God can be sealed. That would mean that anyone dead is not part of the 144,000 because that number came from those living when Revelation 7 was to take place. Let us look at Revelation 1:1 the very first verse of this book.

Revelation 1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants —things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John,

This book concerns matters of the near future for the first century church, things that had not necessarily happened when this book was being written with John seeing the visions. If the 144,000 is a literal number of the saved then all of them would have been alive in John’s day or soon thereafter. Any apostle or disciple who had died prior to this book could not be among this number and therefore not among the saved number of 144,000. That would include Paul, The thief on the cross, Lazarus, and many more. Why? This was a sealing of the living only, not the dead, and not the yet-to-be-born. The angel with the seal of God went through all the earth – it was for their protection they (the living righteous) were being sealed. There are too many clues that point to this being symbolic to ignore. It cannot work literally and therefore must have a different meaning. That meaning is made clearer by a callback to Ezekiel.

Not everyone is going to agree with me but I believe it would be accurate to describe the number of the righteous on any occasion as 144,000. How many people were on the ark? Literally there were eight, but figuratively there were 144,000. Noah and his family represented the sum total of the righteous on the earth. How many righteous were on the earth in Acts 2? the answer is symbolically expressed as 144,000. How many righteous are living today? 144,000. Thus far in this chapter the righteous are expressed in three ways. This is the way they are described while on the earth.

1. all the tribes of the children of Israel (verse 4)
2. 144,000 (verse 4)
3. the servants of our God (verse 3)

They will be described in a different way later in the chapter when they are beyond the earth. In this chapter this group was sealed, numbered, overcome, died and was rewarded.

Here is a list of proofs that the number 144,000 cannot be literal:

1. These are all living in the same time period on the earth. An angel commands that the earth not be harmed until he can seal the servants of God. This was to shortly take place (1:1). If this is to be taken literally then no one could be saved before or after this group.

2. Only the twelve tribes of Israel could be saved. So what was the Great Commission all about? What was Acts 10 and 11 all about? How could Cornelius and those with him possibly be saved since they were Gentiles? In Revelation 5:9 the twenty-four elders around the throne sing, “For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” This corresponds directly with Revelation 7:9.

3. The tribe of Dan is not mentioned. It is excluded in the number. There are two major problems with taking this literally. The first problem is that those of the tribe of Dan are completely and hopelessly doomed. Even those who take this literally include at least some of Dan in the number just out of mercy. The second problem is that you cannot have “all the tribes of the children of Israel” sealed if Dan is missing. It is simply impossible.

4. Joseph and Manasseh are both listed. If Joseph is listen then neither Ephraim nor Manasseh should be listed. Joseph would represent them both.

5. In Revelation 7:9 (the next verse after the numbering of the tribes of Israel) a multitude is seen in heaven which no one could number from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. Where did these people come from if they are not the 144,000? What are they doing in heaven?

6. The 144,000 are described in a way in Chapter 14:3 that no one will take literally. The 144,000 are all virgin men. If we take this all literally then only the virgin men from the twelve tribes of Israel could be saved except those from the tribe of Dan. No women could be saved. No married man could be saved.

7. The number 144,000 is 12 x 12,000 (It is the 12 tribes of Israel with 12,000 in each). That is a typical, Biblical amplification of a numerical meaning. This intensifies and magnifies the meaning of the number 12. The number 12 represents God’s people. the number 144,000 is not an unconditional number, nor is it a predestined number of the saved. It is a greater expressive number for those who were serving God. The fact that it is 12 x 12,000 forces the point that much further. It would seem a bit odd if John heard the number and there were only 12 who were sealed by the angel. That would seem to be a rather insignificant number for the point being made.

8. What about John? Throughout Revelation John tells us what he saw (5:1), what he heard (7:4), what he answered (7:14), what he tasted (10:10), what he felt (10:10), but he never said he was sealed or was among the 144,000. Why? He knew that “the servants of our God” would be sealed. He heard the number of them, but he says nothing of being in that number. He records his experience. Surely he would have mentioned this rather important fact that he was or was not among the sealed. This is a vision. It is in a coded language. It is teaching a lesson of events that would most assuredly happen in principle but not as described. It is not meant to be taken at face value.

9. Let us do the math for a moment. If there was an average of 72 righteous people who died every year then the number 144,000 would be met in a mere 2,000 years. If that is the case then it is very possible that the actual number of 144,000 saved souls could have been met before there was a Jacob to have 12 sons who would be the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. If we consider the earth at about 6,000 years old then there would be an average of only 24 righteous people dying each year. If the world becomes much older then the average falls off accordingly. That is a remarkably low number even considering Christ’s words in Matthew 7:14.

Matthew 7:14
“Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

10. Do you actually think God would give us the grand total of all who would enter heaven? That would appear to be a predetermined, predestined number. One could come to the quick conclusion that this is a zero-sum situation. That means there is a maximum number of spaces in heaven and once those are occupied no one else may enter. When Stephen died in Acts 7 that meant that one less space was open – another click toward zero. As time moves from year to year each generation has fewer slots available for heaven.  This could drive one to desperation or resigned to hell. What hope is in this? One could never know what the current count is. What Justice is this? There would be none. Regardless of how one lived their life they simply could not enter heaven because the limit has been reached and all vacancies filled by those who lived and died first. The objective would be to die righteous as quickly as one possibly could. 

If the number 144,000 is literal and firm then how is it then that the number changes once we get into verse nine? The clues are everywhere. They all lead to one direction. The number 144,000 cannot actually be the complete number of the saved throughout time. There simply is no proof. Every time the number is used it describes a group that cannot be taken literally (“all the tribes of the children of Israel,” “the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins”) but in figurative terms.

The Second Section of chapter 7
Verses 9-17

9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

12 saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 “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 dwell among them.

16 “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat;

17 “for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

John starts a new section beginning in verse 9 with the same words from verse 1, “After these things.” A new vision is starting and John says, “I looked.” It was all experienced first-hand and in what could be described as realistic surrealism. It would appear to him as though he was set bodily in the middle of these extraordinary, fearful and overwhelming visions. He hears, sees, feels, asks questions and responds to questions. The visions run the full scale of complete experiential realism. John is not a distant witness or an unaffected viewer. He is there and all who are in the vision know John is there.

John is once again back at the throne of God, but now there is an innumerable assembly worshiping God and the Lamb. These are souls from “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.” They stand before the throne of God. This changed from 144,000 from “all the tribes of the children of Israel” into a massive gathering of unknown number which includes all possible people. They worship God and are joined by “all the angels”, the 24 elders and the four living creatures who “fell on their faces before the throne.” The only one not worshiping God would be John. Why does he not join in? This is a vision and he is a witness to it. Otherwise one would expect him to be part of this.

This massive number of people are dressed in white robes and carry palm branches. Note what they say, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Then come the words, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” The palm branches are very similar to John 12:13.

John 12:12- 13
12 The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
13 took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ The King of Israel!”

This is a perfect example of how the Bible uses what it has already introduced. What is the significance of palm branches in Revelation 7:9? To answer that all we have to do is ask: what is the significance of a great multitude holding palm branches as Christ entered Jerusalem in John 12? The text of John 12 makes it obvious. It is the entrance of a king and the acceptance of a king. They call Him (at least at this point), “The King of Israel.” The palm branches are a display of victory. They represent a grand reception with great glory and honor given. We do not actually need another source to understand this since John 12 gives us the context and meaning of why a great multitude would do this. They would never do it for a merchant or farmer coming into town, but they would at the sight of the King. How many cultures have come and gone since the first century and had no idea what palm branches would mean? There would be too many to count. They do not have to understand it from their own culture. The Bible supplies the meaning by simply including the events of John 12.

As mentioned earlier there are many patterns in Revelation. What is said in worship to God in Revelation chapters 4, 5 and 7 can be found in patterns of sevens and threes. In the list containing seven words proscribed to God most of them are repeated in chapter seven from chapter five. The words in red are the words not repeated. What is the significance in this? None that I am aware except that Revelation has patterns that tend to fit together.

5:12
1. Power (6)
2. Riches

3. Wisdom (3)
4. Strength
5. Honor (5)

6. Glory (2)
7. Blessing (1)
( said by the 4 living creatures and the 24 elders)

7:12
1. Blessing (7)
2. Glory (6)

3. Wisdom (3)
4. Thanksgiving
5. Honor (5)
6. Power (1)

7. Might
(said by the great multitude, all angels, the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures)

4:11
1. Glory (2)
2. Honor (1)
3. Power (3)
(said by the 24 elders)

5:13
1. Honor (2)
2. Glory (1)
3. Power (3)
(said by all of creation)

In verse 13 one of the 24 elders asks John a question, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” John responds with, “Sir, you know.” John cannot answer the question. How is it that John cannot answer the question? Surely he is one of these and he should know exactly who they are. Once again this is a vision. What he is seeing represents something but is not the literal thing. In this case the great multitude which no one could number represents the righteous who are no longer on the earth. This is different way to describe same group of people in the first section of this chapter. The number 144,000 represents the righteous who were on the earth currently going through tribulations. This “great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues,” is the same group but now are described at the throne of God. Their life on earth is over. Their trials are over. Their tribulation is over. They are seen serving God beyond this earth. God is seen taking care of them:

1. They will never be hunger again
2. They will never be thirsty again
3. The sun will not strike them
4. They will not be struck by heat
5. The Lamb will shepherd them
6. The Lamb will lead them to fountains of waters
7. God will wipe away every tear

It is no accident there is obvious irony in the text. The Lion is also The Lamb (5:5-6). The Lamb will be the Shepherd (7:17). For a better discussion on literary devices in the Bible you may want to read the article entitled Theories of Interpretation.

Let us note the two ways the righteous are portrayed in chapter 7. They are protected from God’s punishment on the earth. They are known and sealed with the seal of God. they are described and symbolized by the twelve tribes of Israel. Revelation uses many items from the Old Testament as symbols to represent something greater. Galatians 3:7 also needs to be brought out in this.

Galatians 3:7 Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.

The number of the righteous is given the total of 144,000 (12 X 12,000). Thus there is a limited number from a limited people (Israel only). There is a shifting of the picture or a change in the vision. The righteous are described as unlimited in number and unlimited in people (all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues). These are now beyond the earth and beyond the enemies of God.

…to be continued

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