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)
I heard the number …
Johns hears a roll call of the sealed servants. Perhaps it is the angel from the east who calls the roll, the same angel who tells the four other angels not to harm the earth until the 144,000 receive the seal of God on their foreheads. John learns that the 144,000 are from “every tribe of the sons of Israel,” and then he listens as 12,000 from each of 12 tribes are called out.
R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset and D. Brown provide the following perspective of John’s use of numbers: “Twelve is the number of the tribes, and appropriate to the Church: three by four: three, the divine number, multiplied by four, the number for world-wide extension. Twelve by twelve implies fixity and completeness, which is taken a thousandfold in 144,000. A thousand implies the world perfectly pervaded by the divine; for it is ten, the world number, raised to the power of three, the number of God” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 7:4).
Some key questions come to mind:
- Why are the tribes of Dan and Ephraim missing? Many commentators believe it’s because Dan and Ephraim are largely responsible for leading the nation of Israel into idolatry. Some conclude that the Antichrist will come from Dan (see Gen. 49:16-17; Jer. 8:16). Just as there is a Judas among the 12 apostles, there is a traitor among the tribes of Israel. Evidently, the priestly tribe of Levi replaces Dan. Ephraim is not mentioned by name, but rather by his father’s name. Joseph is sometimes substituted for Manasseh or Ephraim when referring to either tribe.
- Are the 144,000 ethnic Jews, or a symbolic representation of some other group? Many scholars believe these are ethnic Jews because the text plainly says so and lists them by tribe; they also argue that the clear references to “tribe” and “Israel” distinguish the 144,000 from the Gentile multitude in the second half of Revelation 7. Some who hold this view contend that the 144,000, who are mentioned as “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4), are the first Jews converted in the early days of the church. Other interpreters argue that the 144,000 are God’s faithful people, both Jew and Gentile. Just as Paul declared that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6), the “true Israel” consists of Jews and Gentiles who have trusted in Christ; therefore the 144,000 symbolize the true church.
- Is the number 144,000 to be taken literally or symbolically? Commentators are divided on this question. Most futurists read this literally and believe that during the coming Tribulation God will anoint 144,000 Jewish evangelists. Others believe that 144,000 Jewish Christians heed the warnings of Jesus and escape the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But many Bible interpreters insist we must see this number as symbolic. The 144,000 may be seen as 12 x 12 x 1000, which stresses the completeness of the number; this is, after all, apocalyptic language, and reasonable readers should see it as such, they argue.
- Are the 144,000 in chapter 7 the same 144,000 we encounter in chapter 14? Again, there is no consensus among scholars. Some insist they are the same, since they are sealed by God on their foreheads and are redeemed from the earth. Those who hold this view stress that we see the 144,000 on earth in chapter 7 and in heaven in chapter 14. Other interpreters, however, say that these are two different groups: Jews in chapter 7 and the “redeemed from the human race” in chapter 14 (v. 4).
While these questions leave many of us scratching our heads and wondering whether the “right” answers may ever be known, we should not overlook the clear teachings that believers throughout the church age have embraced:
- God is not finished with Israel. Whether the 144,000 are ethnic Jews or redeemed of all the earth, Jews are welcome in the kingdom of heaven and have been receiving their King since the Day of Pentecost. Although proponents of “replacement” theology (also known as “completion theology”) contend that the church has taken the place of Israel in this age, no reasonable Christian would deny that ethnic Jews throughout the church age have trusted in Jesus as Messiah as therefore are members of the true church. One other point should be kept in mind: There are many scriptural promises of Israel’s future glory, including the city of Jerusalem, that are difficult to spiritualize and are better understood in light of a geographic location and ethnic people.
- God always keeps a faithful remnant. Even though the nation of Israel often has fallen into gross idolatry, the Lord has preserved a number of Jews faithful to Him. And even when Christianity is the particular target of persecutors – whether Roman or Jewish in the early centuries of the church, or communist or radical Muslim today – Christ preserves, strengthens, and expands His church. Clearly, the “forces of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
- God will judge the world one day in righteousness. The sealed servants in Revelation 7 and 14 are set apart before the Lord brings His particular judgment of the wicked to bear. While there is no doubt that many believers suffer persecution at the hands of the ungodly, God’s final judgment of the earth will target those who shake their fists at the Son of God as He returns in power and great glory. Whatever price believers have paid for their faithfulness on earth will be vindicated by Christ in His coming and compensated in eternity.
Four major views of the 144,000
So, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the 144,000?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the 144,000 is a symbolic number representing Jewish Christians who escaped Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 A.D. Because this group is called “the firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4), and because the church age has witnessed a continuous harvest of souls, the 144,000 must be early Jewish Christians rather than future ones. “God always has had a remnant in Israel who are faithful despite widespread apostasy,” writes Steve Gregg, explaining the preterist view. “This faithful remnant in the first century was the original core of the entity we now call the church; many Gentile converts have been added to their company since that time” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 130).
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the 144,000 as symbolic of the entire church, “the Israel of God.” Some historicists, however, take the 144,000 to be a select number of Jews spared during the destruction of Jerusalem (similar to the preterist view), or symbolic of God’s chosen remnant in the world.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – say the 144,000 constitute a godly remnant of Jewish people who are sealed for protection from later plagues. These are physical Israelites, not to be confused with the church, which is never described by tribal divisions. Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, refers to this group as “144,000Jewish Billy Grahams.”
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – argue that this company represents the church as the true and spiritual Israel. The irregular listing of tribes – with Judah named first as Messiah’s own tribe, and the omission of Dan and Ephraim, argue against a literal interpretation. “In any age, it is the church that is preserved from God’s judgments upon nations, though this does not mean the church does not suffer at the hands of sinners,” writes Gregg, summarizing the idealist view (pp. 132-33).
Next: A vast multitude — Revelation 7:9-17
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Isaiah 30 likely takes place early in King Hezekiah’s reign and is part of a series of woes in chapters 28-33 against those who oppose God’s word.
Isa. 30:27-28 – Look, Yahweh comes from far away, His anger burning and heavy with smoke. His lips are full of fury, and His tongue is like a consuming fire. His breath is like an overflowing torrent that rises to the neck. [He comes] to sift the nations in a sieve of destruction and to put a bridle on the jaws of the peoples to lead [them] astray.
Isaiah summarizes what Israel has done to God and what God will do to Israel. The people make their plans without consulting God; they demand that the prophets stop preaching against sin; and they ask for more comforting messages. As a result, the Lord’s judgment will fall on them like a bulging wall and they will be smashed like pieces of pottery. Even so, God calls His people to repent and return to the Lord, and He promises a day in which He will bring salvation to Israel. In that day He will comfort His people and hear their prayers; teach and guide them; give them abundant crops; defeat their enemies; and fill their hearts with joy.
Isaiah’s words in verse 10 have echoed through the ages. They are as much an indictment of the church today as a harsh rebuke of the Israelites in Isaiah’s time: “Do not prophesy the truth to us. Tell us flattering things.” The apostle Paul warns the Romans against divisive people in their congregation: “Now I implore you, brothers, watch out for those who cause dissensions and pitfalls contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them; for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Rom. 16:18). He goes on to warn the young pastor Timothy of those who neglect the truth in favor of having their ears tickled: “For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
The Egyptian Alliance (Isa. 30:1-17)
The chapter begins bleakly, with Isaiah comparing the citizens of Judah to obstinate children. The Lord already has made it clear that He will use Assyria to destroy Israel and to punish Judah, yet the leaders of the southern kingdom travel to Egypt, seeking an alliance against the Assyrian invaders. This is an act of rebellion against God and it will lead to Judah’s shame since Egypt does not have the ability to protect Judah from the Assyrian invaders (vv. 3, 5).
In verses 6-7, Isaiah describes the envoys from Judah who load their donkeys and camels with great treasures for the Egyptians and brave the dangerous Negev, where wild animals like lions and poisonous snakes lie in wait. But Isaiah calls feckless Egypt “Rahab Who Just Sits” (v. 7). “In Ugaritic literature Rahab was the name of a female sea monster associated with Leviathan (cf. Job 9:13; 26:12). Perhaps the hippopotamus, an animal that often sits in the water of the Nile doing nothing, represents that mythical water beast. Understandably Rahab came to be a poetic synonym for Egypt (and also for a demon behind Egypt) when God overpowered the Egyptian soldiers in the sea at the Exodus (cf. Isa. 51:9; Pss. 87:4; 89:10). So Egypt, Isaiah wrote, was good for nothing; she could not assist Judah in any way” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1080).
The Lord then tells Isaiah to write this message on a scroll, which will serve as testimony against the “deceptive children” who may later claim they never heard God’s warning. They are “rebellious people … children who do not obey the Lord’s instruction” (v. 9). They are unwilling to listen to the Lord and do not want the prophets to tell them the truth. In fact, they go so far as to shout, “Rid us of the Holy One of Israel” (v. 11).
Nevertheless, Isaiah confronts them with a stark message from the Lord. By rejecting God’s call to repent of their sin and trust Him, by relying on their own plans and by engaging the deceitful Egyptians, they would bring down judgment upon their heads. Isaiah likens this judgment to a cracked wall that suddenly collapses, and to shattered pottery whose pieces are so small they are no longer of value. They would be alarmed by the approaching enemy, and though they would flee on horses, the Assyrian horses would be faster and overtake them. In their crushing defeat, the survivors would stand like a banner on a hill – a warning to others not to trust in military might or political alliances.
The Lord’s Mercy (Isa. 30:18-26)
These verses anticipate the coming of the Messiah and the spiritual and material blessings that will result from His reign. Although the inhabitants of Judah have turned away from the Lord, they are still His covenant people whom He desires to grant mercy, compassion and justice. Isaiah implores them to wait patiently on Yahweh. During times of calamity they will suffer hardship and survive on bread and water, but the day is coming when they will dwell securely on Mt. Zion and “never cry again” (v. 19). The Israelites will eagerly learn from their Teacher – the Messiah – and embrace the instruction of the prophets and priests. They will be sensitive to God’s Word, as if He were speaking softly to them, “This is the way. Walk in it” (v. 21). The people they will see their idolatry as God sees it and be repulsed. They will throw away their silver-plated idols and gold-plated images “like menstrual cloths, and call them filth” (v. 22).
Isaiah then describes what life will be like when the Messiah comes and their hearts are in tune with Him. The Lord will send rain and the earth will produce rich and bountiful crops. “Physical prosperity accompanies national piety; especially under the Old Testament. The early rain fell soon after the seed was sown in October or November; the latter rain in the spring, before the ripening of the corn. Both were needed for a good harvest” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, S. Is 30:23). In addition, the cattle will graze in open pastures and the beasts of burden will have plenty to eat. There will be ample fresh water flowing from the streams and fountains on every hill and mountain. Even the natural light will be increased. The moon will shine as brightly as the sun, which will glow seven times more brightly. Perhaps this is figurative language to illustrate God’s presence among and provision for His people (see Isa. 60:19-20; Rev. 21:23-24; 22:5). In any case, the same Lord who chastens His people with a rod of iron will bless them with His very presence as He “bandages His people’s injuries and heals the wounds He inflicted” (v. 26).
Yahweh’s Burning Anger (Isa. 30:27-33)
Isaiah now returns to the present situation, prophesying that the Assyrian army, which surrounds Jerusalem, would be defeated. This is fulfilled in 701 B.C. as the Lord strikes dead 185,000 soldiers in a single night (Isa. 37:36). Notice how Isaiah contrasts the Lord’s mercy toward Israel in the previous section with his fiery anger toward Assyria: His anger is burning and heavy with smoke; His lips are full of fury; His tongue is like a consuming fire; and His breath is like an overflowing torrent that rises to the neck; He sifts the nations like a farmer shaking his grain to clear it of the smallest pebbles; and He puts a bridle in the jaws of the people to lead them astray (vv. 27-28).
This graphic imagery, depicting God’s defeat of Assyria, is continued elsewhere in Scripture to describe the Lord’s wrath on the day of judgment. For example, the apostle Paul says that when Christ returns He will take “vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God” (2 Thess. 1:8). And the apostle John describes the returning Christ as having eyes like “a fiery flame,” a “robe stained with blood,” striking the nations with a sharp sword coming from His mouth, and “trampling the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 19:12-15).
God’s miraculous work on behalf of His people will cause them to break out in celebration, rejoicing as in the days of the three annual festivals in which they made their way to the temple on Mt. Zion. Meanwhile, the sulfurous breath of God will ignite a fire that consumes Judah’s enemies. The Assyrian army will be destroyed like a pile of wood or a sacrifice in Topheth (v. 33), an area in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem where children are sometimes sacrificed to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31). In Jesus’ day the valley was a burning trash dump, which He used to illustrate the never-ending fires of gehenna – a transliteration from the Aramaic form of the Hebrew ge-hinnom, “Valley of Hinnom.” The apostle John continues this imagery of hell in Rev. 19:20; 20:10; 21:8.
Gary V. Smith comments: “Trust in God in such dire circumstances is a risk that is not easy to accept. It puts everything on the line for what often appears to be a nebulous hope that God will act. What does one have to do to truly trust God? Isaiah indicates the people need to (a) repent of their present rebellious acts; (b) rest securely in God’s salvation; (c) be calm rather than fearful; (d) rely on God’s heroic strength; and (e) stop trusting in human power (30:15-16)…. Faith is not blind acceptance of something totally unknown; it is a confident relational walk based on spiritual knowledge that directs the will to act in reliance on the character and promises of someone who sovereignly controls this world” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, pp. 528-29).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips