Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)
The sealed of Israel
Between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, John witnesses the “sealing” of 144,000 “slaves of our God” from “every tribe of the sons of Israel” (vv. 4-5). He also views a vast multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” standing before the throne of God (v. 9). In this section we’ll focus on the 144,000.
No doubt, numbers are significant in this chapter. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. These angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea. But before they do, another angel tells them to wait until 144,000 servants of God are sealed, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.
A lightning rod for controversy
This passage is a lightning rod for controversy. Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the 144,000 make up a special class, “the spirit-begotten congregation” that will reign in heaven with Christ. Members of the Watchtower also refer to this class as the “little flock” of Luke 12:32; it is the only class of people who go to heaven. The rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called the “other sheep” (John 10:16) or the “great crowd” (Rev. 7:9-17) that hopes for future resurrection and life on Paradise earth.
Seventh-day Adventists say the 144,000 pertain to their communion, who are found observing the Jewish Sabbath when the Lord comes again and raptures them into glory. Other sects find similar solace in the belief that these sealed slaves come from their ranks.
More doctrinally sound commentators, who rightfully reject these views, still cannot agree among themselves. Some argue that these are 144,000 Jews converted and protected by God during the future Tribulation. Others contend that these sealed slaves represent the “true Israel” – the church. Others say this number symbolizes believing Israel, or the believing Jewish remnant to which Paul refers in Romans 9-11, or to the first Jews converted to Christianity.
But where are the tribes of Dan and Ephraim? Why have they been replaced? Should we read the 144,000 as a literal representation of some group of people, or as figurative? How did first-century Christians interpret this passage? And what does it mean for us today?
The number four dominates the first verse of chapter 7. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth. What is the significance of the number four in this passage? In Old Testament symbolism, the number four refers to the whole earth (see Isa. 11:12; Jer. 49:36; Dan. 7:2; Matt. 24:31).
The writers of BibleStudy.org make the following observations: “Now the number four is made up of three and one (3+1=4), and it denotes, therefore, and marks that which follows the revelation of God in the Trinity, namely, His creative works. He is known by the things that are seen. Hence the written revelation commences with the words, ‘In the beginning God CREATED.’ Creation is therefore the next thing – the fourth thing, and the number four always has reference to all that is created. It is emphatically the number of Creation…. It is the number of things that have a beginning, of things that are made, of material things, and matter itself. It is the number of material completeness….
“The fourth day saw the material creation finished (for on the fifth and sixth days it was only the furnishing and peopling of the earth with living creatures). The sun, moon, and stars completed the work, and they were to give light upon the earth which had been created, and to rule over the day and over the night (Genesis 1:14-19).”
So, the four angels perhaps share some responsibility for the whole earth. Just as there are territorial demons – like the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” in Dan. 10:13 – so, too, there may be angels with assignments to watch over God’s creation, or to bring judgment upon it, for verse 2 tells us the four angels are “empowered to harm the earth and the sea.”
These angels stand at the “four corners of the earth.” The word translated “corners” is the Greek gonia, which literally means angles or divisions. It is related to our modern divisions known as quadrants. The Hebrew equivalent is kanaph and is translated a variety of ways but generally means extremity. It is translated “borders” or “corners” in Numbers 15:38. In Ezekiel 7:2 it is translated “corners” and again in Isaiah 11:12. In Job 37:3 it is “ends” and in 38:13 it is “edges.”
It is doubtful that any religious Jew would misunderstand the true meaning of kanaph. For nearly 2,000 years, religious Jews have faced the city of Jerusalem three times daily and chanted the following prayer:
Sound the great trumpet for our freedom,
Raise the banner for gathering our exiles,
And gather us together from THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH
into our own land.
The Book of Isaiah describes how the Messiah, the Root of Jesse, shall regather his people from the four corners of the earth. They shall come from every extremity to be gathered into Israel (Isa. 11:10-12). So there is little doubt that these angels stand ready to bring down judgment upon the whole earth, perched from the “four corners” where all is in view.
But what are the four winds? There are several interpretations. The rabbis viewed the quarterly winds as evil, and even the apostle Paul may have wondered about the malevolence of the “northeaster” (Acts. 27:14). Others liken the winds to the judgments of God (Jer. 49:36). Matthew Henry has an interesting perspective. He writes: “here the spirits of error are compared to the four winds, contrary one to another, but doing much hurt to the church, the garden and vineyard of God, breaking the branches and blasting the fruits of his plantation. The devil is called the prince of the power of the air; he, by a great wind, overthrew the house of Job’s eldest son. Errors are as wind, by which those who are unstable are shaken, and carried to and fro, Eph. 4:14” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 7:1–12).
It’s difficult to tell whether the winds are God’s instrument of divine judgment or evil forces under Satan’s control. The angels are empowered to harm the earth and the sea and yet are restraining the four winds that will bring destruction. At first blush, it seems contradictory. But often it is this way in scripture until we look more deeply.
God is sovereign over His creation. And although Satan is the ruler of this age and is able to exercise some control over the natural elements of the earth, he can do nothing without his Creator’s permission. The evil that Satan desires to do God allows when it aligns with His divine will and good pleasure. So the issue is not so much who is stirring the winds as what God is accomplishing through them. As Henry explains, “the spirit of error cannot go forth till God permits it, and … the angels minister to the good of the church by restraining its enemies.” No doubt the winds will blow, but first the Lord must accomplish something in the calm before the storm: the sealing of His slaves.
Next: Another angel … from the east (Rev. 7:1-8)