1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The previous chapter ends with the mighty of the earth brought low in their fear of the face of the one seated on the throne and the wrath of the lamb and we are left expecting the vengeance of God to be unveiled. What follows in this chapter is another great reversal of expectations: where wrath is expected we find restraint, where the mighty wonder who is able to stand we see a countless multitude standing before the throne, where seals have been broken and the mighty brought low now a lost people is sealed and lifted up. In a pattern that Revelation will repeat, we pause before the last unveiling and we are reoriented to the worship that is ongoing in heaven. We will see the contrast between earth and heaven, but Revelation’s trajectory is that what happens on earth will be the same as what happens in heaven.
Our scene opens with four angels restraining the four winds at the four corners of the earth. After the great earthquake and the signs in the heavens which even the nations can see and respond to we pause. The earth is not to be damaged at this point, although the upcoming series of trumpets will direct much of the damage towards the earth. But here, while the 144,000 are sealed the earth gets a reprieve. As St. Paul can say in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;” (Romans 8:19) Creation and humanity’s destiny are tied together throughout the Bible beginning with the creation narrative when, after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is creation that bears the curse that is originally to fall on Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3: 17) Now there is restraint as the servants (literally slaves) of God are to be sealed. The vocation which they have had before was unseen in the world but now they are being marked as servants of the living God. This sealing marks them as honored in this narrative and the slaves of God are higher than the generals and kings of the earth. The mighty are brought down and the humble and humiliated are here lifted up.
The one hundred forty-four thousand from the nation of Israel brings the people of God back into Revelation. As I’ve mentioned multiple times John, the author of Revelation, uses the language of Israel’s vocation in relation to the church but here the tribes of Israel are reassembled and marked for their own vocation. Numbers are symbolically important to Revelation and this twelve groups of twelve thousand symbolically points to a census where the total number of God’s people are sealed. John’s visionary approach may not lead to the type of declaration that Paul would make in his wrestling about the place of Israel in Romans 9-11 where he declares that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) but the azimuth of this vision points in the same direction. God has not forgotten Israel and has sealed them as God’s own.
The close reader will notice that the listing of the tribes has two peculiarities: Ephraim and Dan are not named. The two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are typically listed as half tribes. While Manasseh is named in the list Ephraim is not. Yet, there is a tribe of Joseph which would include Ephraim, but it is peculiar that Manasseh receives note and Ephraim (which becomes a way of talking about the northern tribes in general in some of the prophets) is not. Dan is missing from the list. We do not know the reason for Dan’s omission. Medieval interpreters favored an explanation that the Antichrist was to come from Dan, but these traditions all post-date Revelation by centuries. Yet, symbolically there are twelve tribes even if the names do not line up perfectly with the designation of the tribes elsewhere in scripture.
There has always been a temptation for Christian groups, from the Franciscans of the thirteenth century to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth and twentieth century to see the 144,000 as a special group that needed to be gathered to bring about the end age. Other Christians have seen this group as representing the church which may include Jewish Christians, but they read this in line with other parts of Revelation where the church assumes the vocation of Israel. As pointed out above, I view this as talking about the Jewish people and including them in a place of honor among the multitude among the nations which are gathered around the throne.
The seal of the living God has its opposite in the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. In the vision of Revelation there is no middle group, one either is marked by God or by the forces opposed to God. To be sealed by the 144,000 will provide them with protection, for example the demonic locusts in Revelation 9 will be able to torment those who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Like in the plagues on Egypt in Exodus the people of God will not be targeted by all the destructive forces that are unleashed in later cycles. However, they will also be a target for those opposed to God and aligned with the forces of the devil. I am reminded of Luther’s advice to parents and churches baptizing young children:
Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. (Luther, 1978, p. 68)
Those who have been sealed by God are now in opposition to those whose power is opposed to God in the world. Like in Exodus, those whom God has chosen may seem like the lowest of slaves before the kings and generals of the world, but they are those who are able to stand before the face of the one on the throne and the wrath of the lamb.
Yet, this salvation is not only for Israel. It is inclusive and broad and encompasses a multitude beyond counting of all nations, languages, tribes and peoples. This multitude joins the elders in wearing white. They have come out of the great ordeal and they hold palm branches celebrating the victory of the Lamb and the salvation that God and the Lamb have brought. Revelation operates in the space between Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the time of the Messiah’s return to earth to bring the peace that occupies heaven to earth. The time of the great ordeal is most likely not a reference to a time of future woe and tragedies but rather, like most of Revelation, an understanding that the current brokenness and suffering of the world is due to the influence of Satan and other forces opposed to God’s reign in the world.
The countless multitude cry out that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb. The language of salvation was frequently used in Roman declarations as the role of Caesar, but here the singing multitude attribute it to its proper place, to the Lord and to Jesus. The angels and elders join in with a seven-fold praise of God as symbolically the voices of heaven and earth join in praising God. God and Christ in this vision remain at the center of not only the praise of the people and angels and creatures, but also in the center of reality. Revelation enables John to show us a world that is struggling with the forces opposed to the creating God who desires to dwell among God’s world and people and yet God still reigns and is in control of the things that seem beyond control.
This vision also foreshadows the hope of Revelation which will come to fruition in Revelation 21 and 22 while it also pulls from a rich storehouse of prophetic images of hope. The great multitude are sheltered and then in language resonant of Isaiah 49:10:
They shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall scorching wind strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by the springs of water will guide them.
In another image reversal it is the Lamb at the center of the throne who shepherds the multitude. Instead of a shepherd watching a flock of sheep now the Lamb is the shepherd of the people. As many Christians may recognize the familiar imagery of Psalm 23 in this image, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ but may miss the image of Ezekiel 34 where in protest to the unfaithfulness of the existing shepherd/rulers the LORD sets up a new shepherd:
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. Ezekiel 34: 23-24
And in an allusion to the great banquet that the LORD promises in Isaiah 25 we hear what is for me one of the most powerful images that appears here and in Revelation 21:4. As Isaiah 25: 8 states:
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
In combining language from several places in the prophets we have a beautiful and peaceful image of God’s consolation and care for those who have undergone suffering in the world. Many people focus only on the images of destruction in Revelation but miss these significant pauses and moments of restraint which point to the reality that amid the suffering God remains the one who has glory and power and honor and might. The Lamb is the place where salvation will come from instead of the kings, generals and the mighty of the world. And that, even with the death and terror in the world, heaven is centered on praising God. Revelation is leading us on a journey to a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.