Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester
The redeemed are identified as a group of 144,000 people from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8). The use of this particular number has fascinated many readers of Revelation. Groups like the Davidians and Jehovah’s Witnesses have understood that gathering a group of 144,000 prior to Christ’s second coming is part of their evangelistic task, although though they have not assumed that the members of this select group must be physical descendants of the twelve tribes. Other forms of premillennialism do expect the 144,000 to be ethnic Jews who convert to Christianity during the great future tribulation, while the “great multitude” depicted in 7:9-17 will be the non Jews who convert to Christianity during this same period (see chapter 1 above). Although many are intrigued with these theories, it is unwise to take the number in a literal sense. When John later says that the New Jerusalem is a cube that measures 12,000 stadia or about 1500 miles on each side, most readers quickly realize that he is not giving the precise dimensions of the heavenly city, but is using numbers to symbolize the city’s perfection (21:16). Similarly, when John speaks of 12,000 being gathered from each of the twelve tribes, for a total of 144,000, the numbers symbolize completeness.
More importantly, this passage uses two different images for the same reality. The redeemed are identified as an assembly of 144,000 in 7:4-8 and as a “great multitude” in 7:9-17, but both refer to the same group. On one level, to be sure, the images appear to contrast, since the first refers to a definite number of people who come from the twelve tribes of Israel, while the second refers to a group that cannot be numbered, who come from every tribe and nation. Nevertheless, this vision makes the same contrast between hearing and seeing that was used in 5:5-6 where John heard that the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” had conquered, but he saw a Lamb that had been slaughtered. The reference to the Lion of Judah and the Root of David recall Old Testament promises concerning a messianic king, and the vision of the slain Lamb shows that these promises are realized through the death of Christ. In exactly the same way, John hears (7:4) about the redeemed who come from the twelve tribes, which recalls Old Testament promises concerning God’s preservation of Israel; but when he actually sees (7:9) the realization of the promise, he encounters a countless multitude coming from every tribe and nation (Bauckham, Theology, 76-77).
Just as references to the Lion and the Lamb enable readers to consider sider the same person (Christ) from two different perspectives, the references to the 144,000 and to the great multitude allow readers to see the same community (Christ’s followers) from two different perspectives. The community of faith encompasses people from many tribes, nations, and languages (7:9-17), yet this same community represents the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the preservation of Israel (7:4-8). If the promises concerning “the Lion of Judah” are not negated but fulfilled through the blood of the Lamb (5:5-6), the promises concerning “the tribe of Judah” (7:5) and the other tribes are not negated but fulfilled through the multitudes that are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (7:14).
The Lamb “conquers” through his death, and his followers celebrate his triumph by waving palm branches – traditional symbols of victory (1 Macc. 13:51) – in their hands (Rev. 7:9). The chorus of praise that was first heard at the beginning of this vision cycle is now repeated, as the four living creatures, the elders, and the angels who encircle the throne again ascribe “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might” to God forever (7:12; cf. 5:11, 13).
The torrent of threats that appeared at the end of Revelation 6 gives way to a cascade of promises at the end of Revelation 7. Virtually all of the language in 7:15-17 echoes what was said through Israel’s prophets. According to Ezek. 37:27, God said that he would make his dwelling or “tabernacle” with his people, and Rev. 7:15 repeats that the one who is seated on the throne will “tabernacle over them.” According to Isa. 49:10, God promised that the redeemed “shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of living water will guide them.” Revelation 7:16-17 declares that these promises are fulfilled filled by the Lamb at the center of the throne, who is the shepherd that guards them against hunger, thirst, sun, and heat, and guides them to springs of the water of life. Finally, Isa. 25:8 said that “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,” and Rev. 7:17 repeats that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The chorus of echoes of Old Testament promises creates a resounding sounding affirmation of the faithfulness of God. The words spoken through the prophets are not forgotten but given new life through the blood of the Lamb. If the threats in Revelation 6 take away the readers’ confidence in the security provided by nation, community, economic prosperity, and health; and if they warn that positions of wealth and influence ultimately fail to shield people from the wrath of God; the visions sions in Revelation 7 call readers to be confident that God will be true. Instead of identifying with the multitudes who call upon the mountains and hills to shelter them from God and the Lamb (6:16-17), listeners are invited to seek the shelter that God and the Lamb provide (7:15-17). If God brought Christ, the Lamb, through death to a place on the heavenly throne, readers can persevere in faith, confident that God will bring all of his people through tribulation to a place in his court.
At the opening of the seventh seal (8:1), the echoes of celestial praise fade into reverent silence. The quiet, which lasts for half an hour, offers a respite from disaster and celebration, allowing readers to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Rather than serving as an anticlimax to this cycle of visions, the silence adds suspense to the drama. The earth has been shaken by the mere opening of the seals that bound the scroll of God. Therefore, one might expect even more terrible and wonderful things to occur now that the scroll is opened so that it can be read. The next cycle of visions will show whether this is to be the case.
Craig R. Koester. Revelation and the End of All Things (Kindle Locations 1135-1172). Kindle Edition.