Apart from the first few chapters of Genesis, no other book of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures has been so hotly debated as the book of Revelation. The reason for this is obvious from even a cursory reading: the book is filled with strange imagery that is foreign to modern readers. Consider the description of Jesus from chapter one.
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (1:12-15, ESV)
Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible would recognize immediately the not-so-subtle allusions to the Jewish prophets. The white hair makes us think of the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:9) as does the phrase “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13). The voice that is “like the roar of many waters” harkens back to the prophet Ezekiel who describes “the coming of the glory of the God of Israel” as “the sound of many waters” (Ezekiel 43:2).
But there is other imagery that isn’t simply foreign, it is out-of-this-world! In chapter nine we read about locusts emerging from a pit who “were like horses prepared for battle” and upon whose head “were what looked like crowns of gold” below which were humanoid faces (9:7). To make matters more bizarre, they have feminine hair and lionesque teeth (9:8) and are covered in armor (9:9). And while most locusts are somewhat formidable because of their chompers, these locusts have tails like a scorpion’s and they have “power to hurt people for five months” with their tails (9:10). But these are not aimless, directionless locusts. They have a king – “Abaddon” in Hebrew and “Apollyon” in Greek – who is “the angel of the bottomless pit” (9:11).
The paragraph above sounds more like a scene from The X-Files than it does a biblical text. Yet there it is, in black and white, and there are as many opinions on what it means as there are people who have them. It is imagery like that which makes interpreting the book of Revelation so difficult.
A Sealed Remnant
It would take multiple blog posts to cover the entirety of book of Revelation, and by multiple I mean probably a couple hundred or more. Entire tomes have been written on the subject and they still do not exhaust the book so I’m fairly confident that spilling more words exegeting the entire text of the final book of the New Testament canon will not be coming from my fingers any time soon. But there is one section of the book of Revelation I wish to focus on in this blog post: Revelation 7:1-8, a section about the 144,000. Who are they? What is their function? Let’s begin by reading the passage itself.
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on the sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and 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 were sealed,
12,000 from the trip 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 were sealed. (Revelation 7:1-8*)
At first glance, it may seem quite intuitive who these 144,000 are. After all, isn’t the fact that they are “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (v. 3) a dead give-a-way?
[We] note that the 144,000 will all be Jewish. This is shown by the announcement in these verses that they come from all twelve tribes of Israel – 12,000 from each tribe. (Claeys, 2010, 58)
But as we will see, this literalistic reading is not a truly viable interpretation of the identity of the 144,000. Yet to get at their identity we cannot ignore the religion of the Jews nor its scriptures.
The Book of Revelation in Context
A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext, or so goes the saying (Carson, 1996, 115) and to understand Revelation 7:1-8 we must understand its context within the book of Revelation as well as the book of Revelation’s context within the wider setting of biblical texts. We will begin with the latter.
As I have already stated, the book of Revelation is full of allusions to passages within various books of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it borrows from the Hebrew Bible more than any other book of the New Testament. (Carson & Moo, 2005, 712) This fact is of the utmost importance if we are to truly understand the book of Revelation in general and 7:1-8 in particular. Failing to appreciate this will result in erroneous interpretations, typically of the fundamentalist variety.
We must also note that the book of Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalyptic.” This is, in some ways, an unfortunate moniker. The opening words of the book are Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, “the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” That word “apocalypse” simply means “revelation” or “unveiling” and is used throughout the New Testament to refer to something previous hidden or undisclosed that is now or will be disclosed. While it is certainly used to describe events about the end of the world (Romans 2:5; 1 Peter 1:7; etc.), it is also used to describe personal revelations received (Galatians 1:12). But for biblical scholars, the term “apocalyptic” now refers to literature pertaining to the end of the world.
Apocalyptic literature has certain characteristics, some of which are shared by the book of Revelation. In general, there are two types of apocalyptic categories: journeys to heaven wherein a prophet has a vision of heavenly events that affect earthly realities and futuristic visions of doom and gloom. These categories may, at times, overlap. The features of such apocalypses include the following features (Ehrman, 2016, 534-536):
- They are typically written pseudonymously in the name of some famous individual from the past. For example, we have The Apocalypse of Moses, The Apocalypse of Abraham, and more.
- They contain truly weird and strange visions. We have already seen this in the description of Jesus from Revelation 1:12-15 and the locusts of 9:7-11. These visions are symbolic as taking them literally leads us to believe that all manner of weird beings exist.
- They contain repetitions. These repetitions are, in Ehrman’s words, violent in that they ruin any chance of taking the words of the prophet literally. In the book of Revelation we see the numbers three, seven, and twelve repeated often.
- They contain a triumphalist movement, that is to say that the forces of evil are overcome by the power of God. God always wins.
- They have a motivational function, to encourage readers to be faithful to God and not lose hope.
The aforementioned features do not necessarily have to be present in all apocalyptic texts. For example, the first feature, pseudonymity, is clearly not an aspect of the book of Revelation as it is purported to have been written by someone who was, at that time, still living (Revelation 1:2). Still, most of these features are present in one way or another in an apocalyptic text.
The Occasion of the Book
Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to ask the question, Why did John write the book of Revelation? To begin with, the book of Revelation was written sometime between 90 and 100 C.E. during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. (Carson and Moo, 711-712). Domitian, successor to the infamous Titus, was not particularly liked by anyone. He was killed in his own palace in 96 C.E. and the Roman senate decreed that his name should be erased from every inscription where it was found. (Gonzalez, 1984, 38) It was under his reign that some persecution of Christians commenced.
The suffering endured by Christians, whether in reality or in perception only, is addressed by the text of Revelation. John writes specifically that he is the seven churches’ “brother and partner in tribulation” having been exiled to Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). These seven churches listed in 1:10-11 were located in Asia minor, an area where the imperial cult was beginning to grow. (Kistemaker, 2001, 37) Refusal to participate in this cult was punishable by execution and we know that at least in the early decades of the second century C.E. Christians were killed because of their refusal to worship the emperor as dominus et deus. (Baker, 2002, 20)
The entirety of the book of Revelation is about the coming judgment of God and the triumph of Jesus. But it also serves a more pastoral and polemic function, namely as a warning against false teaching and compromise, issues that appear to have been problems in the churches of Asia minor (see 2:1-3:22). To remedy this, Christians are told be patient and to wait for the coming of Jesus in triumph over his enemies. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” Jesus tells the church in Smyrna. “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (2:10)
So the book of Revelation serves as hope for those suffering under the Roman’s heavy hand as well as a warning against compromising with false teachers. “And [the angel] said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (22:10-11)
Revelation 7:1-8 in Context
We should now consider the context that the 7:1-8 finds itself in. Various outlines for the book have been proposed including some very detailed outlines in Aune (1997, vii-ix), Johnson (2001, 47-48), and Kistemaker (66-70). The benefit of an outline is that you can see how the book of Revelation flows. However, this comes at the cost of being subject to the interpreters biases. Of course, bias is impossible to avoid.
I will not provide an outline here but I would like to break down the major sections of the book of Revelation that lead up to 7:1-8.
This section features the purpose of the book (“to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” – 1:1), the method of revealing this to John (“by sending his angel” – 1:1), and a blessing for those who read aloud and keep all that is written in it (1:3). We also see that this is essentially a work to the “seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) and includes a kind of doxology (1:5-8).
Opening to the Letters to the Seven Churches (1:9-20)
John gives a short history of events explaining why he is on the island of Patmos and relays that he heard a voice telling him to write what he saw in a book and send it to the seven churches of Asia (1:9-11). This is important: the book of Revelation is written to Christians. Therefore, what it describes must have relevance to them.
John also describes “one like a son of man.” The imagery is derived from the Hebrew Bible. (See the introduction to this post.) This is clearly Jesus who tells John to “write…the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (1:19).
The Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
Here John writes down the words Jesus spoke concerning the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Please note that attempts to turn these churches into time periods from the first century CE to the present are eisegetical and do not come from the text itself.
Jesus, the Scroll, and the Seals (4:1-8:1)
John is called up to heaven (4:1) where he sees out-of-this-world things: a massive throne (4:2) whose occupant has an appearance like “jasper and carnelian” and around whose throne is a rainbow that looks like emerald (4:3); twenty-four smaller thrones occupied by twenty-four elders (4:4); and more. He also sees “four living creature” that strongly resemble the cherubim of Ezekiel 1:10-14 and the seraphim of Isaiah 6:1-3.
In the hand of the occupant of the massive throne there is a scroll that is sealed with seven seals (5:1). A strong man asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2) No one can do so apparently and John begins to weep (5:3-4). But one of the elders tells him to stop his crying because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5) John then turns to see this Lion and he sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6). This Lamb takes the scroll from the one seated on the throne (5:7) and begins to open the seven seals (6:1).
The first four seals are all different color horses with different riders who portend various calamities: a white horse (6:1-2), a red horse (6:3-4), a black horse (6:5-6), and a pale horse (6:7-8). The fifth seal is opened and an altar appears and under the altar are the souls of those who were martyred. They cry out to God asking him how long before he will take his vengeance for their deaths. But they are told to wait a while longer “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:9-11) The sixth seal is then opened and there is a vision of the end of all things (6:12-17).
A Brief Exposition of Revelation 7:1-8
But weren’t there seven seals? Yes, there are, and the seventh seal isn’t opened until after the passage we are looking into in 8:1. 7:1-8 (and 9-17) feel like an interlude between the opening of the sixth seal and the opening of the seventh. So what is going on?
Look back if you would at the sixth seal and the reaction of the people experiencing this end of the world event. They call to the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of God” (6:16) Then they ask a very important question: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:17) It is that question – “Who can stand?” – that leads us to this interlude in Revelation 7:1-8 (and 9-17).
Four Angels, Four Corners, and Four Winds
In this interlude the first thing John observes are four angels standing at four corners of the earth holding back the four winds of the earth (7:1). We cannot help but note the repetition of the number four. Numbers and their repetition play an important role in the book of Revelation, even if what they mean isn’t always clear. For example, the number seven appears numerous times: seven churches, seven spirits, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. In the book of Revelation, the number four conveys the idea of wholeness, especially with regards to a worldwide scope. (Beal, 1999, 59)
The four angels that John sees are tasked with holding back “the four winds of the earth.” The imagery is borrowed from Jewish apocalyptic literature like the book of Daniel – “Daniel declared, ‘I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea'” (Daniel 7:2). In the book of Jeremiah, the four winds are used to enact God’s judgment on Elam (Jeremiah 36:34-38). Here, too, in the book of Revelation the winds are there to cause destruction as the task of the angels is to hold back those winds “that no wind may blow on earth or sea or against any tree.”
In his impressive commentary on the book of Revelation, G. K. Beale identifies the four winds with the four horsemen mentioned in 6:1-8. (Beale, 406) He bases this on Zechariah 6:1-8:
Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses – all of them strong. Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the LORD of all the earth. The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”
The similarities are obvious. Both the books of Zechariah and Revelation feature four different kinds of colored horses. Both books also mention four winds, with the book of Zechariah making an explicit connection between the four chariots and the winds. It is not a very great leap, then, to connect the four winds of Revelation 7:1 with the four horsemen of 6:1-8. And if this is the case then the events that take place in 7:1-8 happen before those of 6:1-8. (Beale, 406)
While these four angels are restraining the four winds, another angel appears “from the rising of the sun” and cries out to the four angels, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” (7:3) The seal (Greek, sphragis) is not identified until chapter fourteen: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1). This seal stands in contrast to the mark of the beast which is described as “name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:17). The servants of God are sealed with the divine name and the servants of the beast are sealed with his.
The purpose of the seal is for divine protection against the impending doom of the seven seals. Here John is borrowing from other ancient sources, including Ezekiel where “a man clothed in linen” is ordered to “put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed” in Jerusalem. He is then to kill anyone without the mark as they were partakers in wickedness against God. (Ezekiel 9:3-8) This mark was for the purpose of protection from divine judgment, just as the seal is in Revelation 7:3.
At this point John hears the number of the sealed: “144,000…from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” (7:4) Earlier I wrote that if we are to ask who these 144,000 are, it seems intuitive to respond that they are Israelites. But few things in the book of Revelation are straightforward.
The Sons of Israel
The list of tribes featured in verses 5-8 is not a standard list found elsewhere in the Bible. But before we begin, let’s review some biblical history.
If you think back to your Sunday School lessons, Abraham had two sons: Ishmael by Hagar and Isaac by Sarah. Isaac had two sons by his wife Rebekah: Esau and Jacob. Jacob manages to steal the blessing due to Esau by fooling an elderly Isaac (see Genesis 27). He is then sent by Isaac to Paddan-aram to find a wife amongst the daughters of his uncle Laban because Isaac forbids Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman (Genesis 28:1-5). He falls in love with Rachel, the youngest daughter of Laban, and works for him for seven years, presumably because he cannot afford a dowry (Genesis 29:15-20).
On their wedding night, Jacob quickly realizes something is amiss. Rachel is not Rachel but Leah, Laban’s oldest daughter. He had been tricked! When he confronts his uncle he is told that it is customary to marry the oldest daughter off first and then the youngest. If he will complete the seven-day wedding celebration he can then marry Leah but he will have to work for Laban for another seven years to pay for the dowry. This Jacob does but it is clear that he loves Rachel far more than he does Leah (vss. 21-30).
Seeing just how much that Jacob preferred Rachel to Leah, he “opened up [Leah’s] womb” and made Rachel barren (v. 31). So Leah conceives and Jacob’s firstborn son is Reuben. Then, in time, comes Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel sees that Leah has now had four children by Jacob and becomes envious. “Give me children, or I shall die!” she tells her husband (30:1). Jacob tells her that it is God who has made her barren. Rachel, however, has a plan. She offers her servant Bilhah to Jacob and tells him that she will have children through her. Jacob goes along with the plan and soon Bilhah conceives and gives birth to a son, Dan. Bilhah conceives again and gives birth to Naphtali (vss. 2-8).
Over the course of time, more children are conceived and born either by Leah’s servant Zilpah (Gad and Asher), Leah (Issachar and Zebulun), or Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin). Thus, the sons of Jacob are
Reuben (Genesis 29:32)
Twelve sons from four different women. The first to be born was Reuben and the last to be born was Benjamin.
Another list of the sons of Israel are found in Genesis 35:22-26.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
Now, it is clear from this list that the order is out of whack. But there is a simple explanation for this. The author is listing Jacob’s children not by order of birth but according to their mothers. Leah is Jacob’s first wife and Rachel is his second. Bilhah is the first of the servants to have children by Jacob while Zilpah is the second.
The Tribes of Israel
Fast forward a few centuries and the Israelites have escaped the clutches of Pharoah and are headed to the Promised Land. They are divided into thirteen tribes, each named for a son (or grandson) of Israel. The first list is from a census ordered by God designed to determine Israel’s military strength (Numbers 1:1-46). The second list comes from the twelve spies, one from each tribe, that are chosen to scout out the land of Canaan ahead of the rest of Israel (Numbers 13:1-16). The tribes listed are
Reuben (Numbers 1:5, 13:4)
Simeon (1:6, 13:5)
Judah (1:7, 13:6)
Issachar (1:8, 13:7)
Zebulun (1:9, 13:10)
Ephraim (1:10, 13:8)
Manasseh (1:10, 13:11)
Benjamin (1:11, 13:9)
Dan (1:12, 13:12)
Asher (1:13, 13:13)
Gad (1:14, 13:15)
Naphtali (1:15, 13:14)
Note: The verses in bold indicate a change in the order and, in the case of Manasseh, a change in the name of the tribe (13:11 calls the tribe “Joseph”) though it is clear from the text that it is still referring to the tribe of Manasseh.
If we compare these two lists of twelve tribes with the list of Jacob’s sons I produced previously, we see a couple of differences. First, Levi, Israel’s third son, appears nowhere on either list in Numbers. Second, Joseph is not on the first list in Numbers 1 and in Numbers 13 his name refers specifically to the tribe of Manasseh. What is going on?
Again, the biblical texts give us the answers we need. Levi is omitted deliberately as God told Moses that they were not to be counted in the military census. Instead, they were the priestly class, in charge of the tabernacle and would receive no territorial allotment. The Levites would surround the tabernacle on all sides to serve as a buffer between it and the rest of Israel (Numbers 1:47-54).
But why is Joseph left out and his sons included? The answer to this is simple as well. Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are brought before an aged and infirmed Israel and are blessed by him (Genesis 48:8-22). Since Levi is omitted, Joseph is dropped as well but is still represented by his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Therefore, the number of tribes remains twelve in terms of territorial allotments.
Back to the Future
So we have a list of the sons of Israel and we have a list of the tribes of Israel and both lists differ but for reasons we discussed. So now we can ask the question, How does the list of tribes in Revelation 7:4-8 differ from the aforementioned lists?
First, in the list in Revelation 7 Judah is listed first for reasons not explained by the author. But given that Jesus is alleged to have been a descendent of Judah (Matthew 1:3) and is described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” in Revelation 5 (5:4), it makes sense that Judah would be listed first. We also know that following the death of King Solomon (1 Kings 11:43) Israel split in two (see 1 Kings 12) leaving a northern kingdom made up of the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali, and a southern kingdom made up of Judah and Benjamin. The ten northern kingdoms became known as Israel and the two southern kingdoms became known as Judah. By-and-large, the kings of Israel are wicked whereas the kings of Judah feature some righteous leaders including Hezekiah and Josiah. Furthermore, Israel falls to foreign armies long before Judah succumbs, a sign of Judah’s general allegiance to the cult of Yahweh.
Second, the list of Revelation 7 is missing a number of traditional tribes. In the list of tribes in the book of Numbers we discovered that Joseph was missing and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh were included. But in Revelation 7 we find that Joseph is included (7:8), Manasseh is included (v.6) but Ephraim is nowhere to be found. And because we see that Levi – a tribe with no territorial allotment – is included in the list (7:7) then another tribe must be missing too. That tribe is Dan. What happened to Dan?
Again, the author does not explain himself. A number of hypotheses have been put forward to account for the missing tribe. For example, the late New Testament scholar Robert Mounce suggested in his commentary that the reason Dan was missing from the list was because of the tribe’s “early connection with idolatry.” (Mounce, 1977, 169) Following their entry into Canaan with the rest of Israel, the Danites were essentially without territory, having been thwarted by the Amorites in attempting to take their territory (Judges 1:34-36). As they continue their search for a home, they visit with a man named Micah, a nefarious character whose mother is complicit in his idol-making (Judges 17:1-5). With Micah is a Levite who serves Micah as “a father and a priest” (17:10). When a scouting party of Danites meets with Micah, they ask his priest to bless their journey for territory which he does (18:5-6).
The scouting party reports to a larger force that Micah has cultic objects in his house including an ephot, household gods, a carved image, and a metal image (18:14). They steal these items along with the priest but are confronted by Micah’s neighbors who drive out the Danites and an argument ensues. But Micah doesn’t have the force to take back what is his so he lets it go (18:21-26). The Danites then take the city of Laish, killing its inhabitants (who are described as “quiet and unsuspecting”) and rebuild it, naming it “Dan,” after their ancestor. They set up the carved image for worship and apparently continued their idolatry until either the Assyrian captivity or the Babylonian captivity (18:27-31).
Is this the reason Dan is omitted from the list? Did their sinful reputation force the author of Revelation to axe them entirely? Perhaps, but the author simply does not offer us an explanation so whatever the reason it is conjecture, though Mounce’s hypothesis does hold promise.
What about Ephraim? Again, since the author does not explain himself we are left to conjecture. Under normal circumstances, Manasseh and Ephraim are paired together since they are Joseph’s sons. We also know that, at least in the book of Numbers, the name “Joseph” is a stand in for Manasseh (Numbers 13:11). Furthermore, in the book of Ezekiel – a work that the book of Revelation borrows from heavily – Joseph and Ephraim appear to be interchangeable (Ezekiel 37:16, 19). Could it be that here in Revelation 7:8 Joseph is standing in for his son Ephraim? We simply do not know.
12 x 12 x 1000
So there are some differences, that the readers of Revelation would have picked up on, between the traditional set of tribes of Israel and the list that appears here in chapter seven. Now we must ask, why 144,000?
If you have ever read the entirety of the book of Revelation, you should have noticed the repetition of numbers. For example, in chapter one we read about “seven golden lampstands” (v. 12) and “one like a son of man” holding “seven stars” (v. 15). Then we read that the seven stars are seven angels and the seven lampstands are seven churches (v.20). Then in chapters two and three we read about those seven churches. The number seven appears over fifty times in the book of Revelation.
Other numbers appear frequently as well. The number three appears nine times; the number ten appears eight times, and so on. We cannot forget that the author was in all likelihood a Jew, or, if not, someone very familiar with the Hebrew Bible. From the very first chapter of the Torah, numbers are obviously significant, particularly the number seven as it was “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). Numbers are also significant in the two main books of the Hebrew Bible that the book of Revelation draws from: Ezekiel and Daniel. To ignore numbers and their symbolic value is to miss a huge part of the book of Revelation.
Here in Revelation 7, the number 12,000 (12 x 1000) appears twelve times. When multiplied together, we arrive at 144,000. The math, then, is simply 12 x 12 x 1000. What is the significance of the number twelve and the number one-thousand?
Later in the book of Revelation, the author has a vision of a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). The identity of the woman is not explicit but the symbolism employed gives us a clue as to who she is. This is yet again an allusion to the Torah for in Genesis 37 we read of Joseph’s dream where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow to him, a dream which angers his father and brothers (vvs. 9-11). The sun is his father Jacob, the moon Jacob’s wife, and the stars Joseph’s brothers. John is adopting the imagery in Revelation 12 leading us to the natural conclusion that she represents Israel.
The number twelve also appears prominently in the description of the New Jerusalem. It has “a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12). It also has “twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (v. 14). The city also has an equal length, width, and height and is measured at 12,000 stadia (12 x 1000) while the walls are measured at 144 cubits (12 x 12) (vss. 15-17).
As for the number one-thousand, it appears in only one chapter in Revelation but within that chapter it is mentioned six times (20:1-7). What is its significance?
In the Hebrew Bible, the number one-thousand appears multiple times and is used in a variety of ways. For example, the Psalmist declares, “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8, cf. Deuteronomy 7:9). This is a parallelism whereby the Psalmist compares a covenant remembered “forever” with “the word that he commanded” remember “for a thousand generations.” So “a thousand generations” isn’t a literal amount but is intended to represent a long time, or “forever.”
Other passages use the number one-thousand to represent a large quantity. In the book of Judges Sampson claims that he slew “1,000 men” with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15-16). Are we to assume that Sampson counted as he struck each man and stopped at one-thousand? Of course not. Sampson is boasting that with such an unlikely weapon he was able to kill a large amount of men.
It is possible and, in my view, highly likely that the thousand years in Revelation 20:1-7 is to be understood symbolically. However, even if we were to understand the thousand years literally (as in premillennial eschatology) it would not preclude us from thinking of it as being representative of a large amount of time. In either case, one-thousand is short hand for “a whole lot.”
But what bearing does this have on Revelation 7:1-8? Well, remember that 144,000 is 12 x 12 x 1000. As we have seen, twelve comes up quite a bit in the description of the New Jerusalem, a city built upon the foundation of the twelve apostles and with gates named for the twelve tribes of Israel. Is it possible that this 144,000 is meant to incorporate that symbolism?
There are a number of interpretations of who exactly these 144,000 represent. In his excellent three-volume commentary on the book of Revelation, David Aune lays out a number of possibilities (Aune, 1998, 440-445, 460-461):
- It refers to Jews or Jewish Christians.
- It refers to the Christian church, including both Jewish and Gentile Christians.
- It refers to Christian martyrs.
In his commentary, Aune lays out the arguments put forward to support each position and I will be relying on his thoughtful analysis as we briefly consider the possibilities.
The 144,000 as Jews or Jewish Christians
A straightforward reading of Revelation 7:1-8 might lead us to consider that when John says that “12,000 from the tribe of Levi” were sealed that perhaps he means that 12,000 Levites were sealed by God. Or, they are 12,000 Levites who are also Christians, protected by God from the tribulation that will come during the eschaton. Aune lays out some arguments that have been put forward to support this view (Aune, 440-441).
- The author of Revelation gives a specific number, 12,000, which is hard to consider to be allegorical.
- The author of Revelation is a Jewish Christian so it makes sense that he would believe Jewish Christians might have a special part to play during the eschaton.
- There is precedent in the New Testament for the belief that there will be a faithful remnant of Israel. Paul wrote that “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” but “the elect obtained it” (Romans 11:7). Perhaps the 144,000 are that faithful remnant.
- The 144,000 are the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” according to Revelation 14:4. The gospel first went to the Jews so its first converts were Jewish.
- Some commentators believe that the number 144,000 is approximately the number of Jewish Christians who were alive at the time the book of Revelation was written (90 C.E.).
- If the sealing symbolizes salvation or baptism, it is more likely that those who are not sealed are Jews rather than Christians since it is easier to conceive of “unsealed” or unsaved Jews than “unsealed” or unsaved Christians.
- Early Christian literature is filled with the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians though both were considered to be part of the new people of God.
- The term sphragis is sometimes used to mean circumcision, a Jewish rite (Romans 4:11).
Some of these arguments are not particular convincing. For example, number 8 on the face of it seems strong but upon investigating the word sphragis you find that of the sixteen times it appears in the New Testament, thirteen of them are in the book of Revelation and there is no indication that it refers to circumcision among those instances. Number 5 is also unconvincing as there is no way John could have known how many Jewish Christians were alive at the time he wrote Revelation.
Aune (441-442) lays out a few counterarguments against the notion that the 144,000 are Jews or Jewish Christians.
- There were no “twelve tribes” that literally existed in the first century and any hope of their restoration was not real but ideal.
- By the end of the first century, the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians is no longer common.
- Throughout Revelation the Christian Church is described in language normally applied to Israel. It would seem odd if the author changed that up here in Revelation 7.
- The author of Revelation equates this 144,000 in Revelation 7 to the 144,000 mentioned in chapter 14 and the latter are certainly not Jews or Jewish Christians.
Of the three counterarguments, I find number 3 the most compelling. Throughout the book of Revelation, the Church (i.e. Christians) is described in terms normally used of Israel. John writes to his audience that Jesus “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6). This is repeated in chapter 5 where the twenty-four elders sing a song proclaiming that the Lamb “ransomed people for God from every tribe and langauge and people and nation, and…made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (5:9-10). The author is alluding to Exodus 19:6 where Yahweh tells Moses that Israel “shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
What is more is that the book of Revelation is a kind of tribute to the Hebrew scriptures what with its numerous allusions to prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel. The fact that these prophets foresaw a future of the nation of Israel that John employs in his description of Christians lends credence to the idea that the 144,000 are not actual tribes but are instead representative of something greater. But I may be giving away my own position on the topic so let’s consider another possibility that Aune lays out in his commentary.
The 144,000 as the Christian Church, Jews and Gentiles
Another possibility is that the 144,000 represent the Christian Church, both Jew and Gentile. Aune (442-443) lays out a number of reasons why this may be the case.
- The Church was widely considered in early Christianity to be the true Israel. Paul, for example, wrote that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly….But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28, 29). Similarly, the author of James writes his letter “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1) which is clearly a reference to the church (James 5:14). Peter also writes “to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1).
- In Revelation 9:4 the scorpions released from the pit are told that they cannot harm those with the seal of God on their foreheads, strongly suggesting that all Christians have the seal.
- The irregularity of the list of the tribes may be a “subtle clue” from the authors that real Israel is not intended in Revelation 7.
Of the three points Aune offers, the first is by far the strongest. It is hard to argue that the New Testament seems to strongly suggest that the Church is the new people of God and that those of faith are the true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Furthermore, Paul argues in the book of Romans that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Romans 9:6-7). In other words, being an “Israelite” is more than just being of Jewish descent and that being a child of Abraham is more than a matter of birth.
The 144,000 as Christian Martyrs
A third possibility is that the 144,000 represent Christian martyrs, “whose complete number must be fulfilled before the end” (Aune, 443). This view comes on the heels of the context of chapter six where John witnesses the fifth seal being opened and sees “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9). These disembodied souls are restless, crying out to God for vengeance, but are told that they must “rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be completed, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:11). Revelation 7:4-8 provides that number, in this view.
Aune mentions a variation of this view that sees the 144,000 as a holy army, an army for Christ himself. This is not a militaristic force which uses violence to accomplish his ends but is rather a force made up of those faithful to Jesus who are willing even to die for him. Aune offers some supporting arguments.
- The form that Revelation 7:4-8 takes resembles the census of the tribes of Israel (i.e. Numbers 1:1-46) and every census in the Hebrew Bible is a military census.
- In Numbers 31:4-6 we read of a military force composed of twelve-thousand men, an equal amount of men taken from each tribe.
- In some Jewish writings, the War Scroll for example, there is an expectation that there will be a messianic army that is composed of members from each of the twelve tribes.
- That this is a non-militaristic force is evidenced by the fact that elsewhere in Revelation an elder announces that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (5:5) but when John looks to see this great, conquering Lion he sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6). In other words, the conquering is accomplished by sacrifice.
- The 144,000 are only a portion of the Church, represented by the twelve tribes just as martyrs represent only a portion of the Church.
Of the five arguments put forward, the strongest are the first two. However, I remain unpersuaded that this is what the 144,000 represent.
Aune offers a solution, stating that he does not find any of the three possibilities as viable. He writes,
In my view, the 144,000 of Rev 7:4-8 represent that particular group of Christians (including all ages and both genders) who have been specially protected by God from both divine plagues and human persecution just before the final eschatological tribulation begins and who consequently survive that tribulation and the great eschatological battle that is the culmination of that tribulation. (Aune, 443)
Furthermore, he writes that “the number 144,000 (12 [tribes] x 12 [apostles] x 1000) is a Christian symbol for the fullness of the new people of God, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, constituting the remnant of Christians who survive the eschatological woes.” (444) There is much to like about Aune’s view.
First, the book of Revelation is about eschatology. While it is clear from the opening and closing chapters that the expectation would be that it would happen very soon (see Revelation 1:1, 3, 7, 25; 3:10, 11; 26:6, 7, 10, 12, and 20), this doesn’t mean that since it did not happen that we are warranted to rip the text from its historical context. John thought the horrific events detailed in his work were going to happen, if not in his own lifetime, then not long after his death.
Second, Revelation 7 comes on the heels of the opening of the sixth seal (6:12-17) and the question posed at the end of that section – “The great day of their wrath has come and who can stand?” – seems to be answered by, “The 144,000 sealed by God.” As the seals represent God’s judgment during the time of tribulation on the earth, it seems reasonable to assume that the 144,000 represent God’s people under his divine protection.
Third, as we have already noted, there is no need to take the number 144,000 as a literal number and due to the odd nature of the list of the tribes we should not presume that the author of Revelation means for us to take it to mean actual tribes.
Sealed for the Coming Judgment
It seems that given the apocalyptic nature of the text that the 144,000 are those sealed by God for protection from the coming judgment. It also seems that though they are described using Jewish tribes, these are not Jews but Christians of every ethnicity – the Christian church is the true Israel. And the number, 144,000 is symbolic representing a perfect number of believers chosen by God to be protected during the judgment – 12 x 12 x 1000.
Furthermore, the 144,000 are, from John’s point of view, living at the time of his writing. Remember, John is under the impression that Jesus is coming back soon. (1:1, 3, 7, etc.) So the expectation is that those who are sealed before the coming wrath of God are those who are already alive at the time. The 144,000 are among those who John has been with and ministered to at the end of the first century CE. This should not be overlooked.
I have to confess that other questions remain. For example, what is the relationship of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8 to the “great multitude that no one could number” of 7:9? And what is going on with the description of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-5? I may write more on those issues in a later post but for now I would recommend picking up the commentaries to which I’ve referenced here and seeing what more accomplished exegetes have to say. Their full information can be found in the “Print Bibliography” below.
As always, please feel free to leave any questions or comments in the comments section!
* All biblical citations unless otherwise noted are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001).
David E. Aune. Revelation 1-5. WBC: 52A. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997.
David E. Aune. Revelation 6-16. WBC: 52B. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Robert A. Baker. A Summary of Christian History. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002.
G. K. Beale. The Book of Revelation. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.
D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996.
D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
John Claeys. Apocalypse 2012: The Ticking of the End Time Clock. Sister, OR: VMI Publishers, 2010.
Lane T. Dennis, general editor. English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Bart D. Ehrman. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1984.
Dennis E. Johnson. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001.
Simon J. Kistemaker. Revelation. NTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation. NICOT. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.