THE UNLEASHING OF GOD’S WRATH IS DELAYED UNTIL 144,000 FROM THE 12 TRIBES OF ISRAEL CAN BE SEALED TO GUARANTEE THEIR PROTECTION
Marvin Rosenthal: Sealing has two basic concepts associated with it. In the Roman world, things were sealed to indicate ownership and to guarantee protection. Commenting on the sealing of believers in Ephesians 1:13, Ryrie wrote, “A seal indicates possession and security.” Here in Revelation 7 the 144,000 are sealed in their foreheads as an indication that they belong to God (possession) and will experience His security (protection). Their sealing will be for the purpose of exempting them from God’s wrath, which had just been announced and then delayed until they were sealed. Since their sealing occurs after the opening of the sixth seal, they could not possibly have been protected from God’s wrath if it had begun earlier. Contextually, therefore, once again God’s wrath cannot be understood to include the first six seals. . .
Angels are God’s servants. Since it is God’s wrath which is about to be poured out, angels will be employed (2 Thess. 1:7-8). Again, the first five seals represent the ultimate rebellion of man under the Antichrist, who is empowered by Satan. Thus, no angelic beings were involved. Now John beholds another angel ascending from the East. He probably is to be identified as the archangel Michael, who has a specific guardian relationship to Israel (Dan. 12:1), and the 144,000 are Jews.
Buist Fanning: After the breathtaking pace of judgments associated with the first six seals, John pauses before continuing with the seventh seal, which will unfold in further judgments heralded by seven trumpets (8:1ff). This respite is similar to the interlude that will come between the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1–11:14). Such interludes give time to add background and related details, but they also increase the dramatic tension of the narrative, since it is clear that further judgments are impending and cannot be put off for long. The pause here in chapter 7 consists of two separate visions, each of which responds in some way to the plaintive question of 6:17: “Who is able to stand?” (cf. “standing” in vv. 1, 9).
Main Idea: Further calamities are delayed until a large company of God’s servants from all of Israel is marked for protection from the coming judgments on earth while an innumerable multitude from every nation joins in the heavenly worship of God.
Robert Thomas: The two visions of chapter 7 separate the sixth and seventh seals. The obvious purpose of this pair of visions is to contrast the preparedness of God’s people to face the emergency with the panic of the world that is completely unprepared. They answer the question, “Who shall be able to stand?” (6:17), and act as a stimulus for hope for the believing remnant during this future period. Though the world around is apparently falling apart, God’s restraining and protecting hand is outstretched to undertake the cause of the faithful. They need not share the despair of the earth-dwellers.
Because the visions constitute a pause in the chronological progression represented by the opening of the seals, they have been called a parenthesis between the sixth and seventh seals, but there is some objection to this because the visions are an integral part of the book’s movement. Regardless of terminology, the function of the visions is agreed upon. They reflect that the status of believers at this point in the series is radically different from that of the world’s rebels.
I. (:1-3) RESTRAINT OF GOD’S WRATH UNTIL A SPECIAL GROUP OF GOD’S BOND-SERVANTS HAVE BEEN SEALED FOR PROTECTION
A. (:1) Role of Angels in Restraining God’s Wrath
- Universal Activity
“After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth,”
Buist Fanning: A common way of conceiving of the world in its entirety is by reference to “the four corners of the earth” in relation to “the four winds of the earth” (v. 1a–b) oriented along the cardinal points of the compass (cf. 1 Chr 9:24; Isa 11:12; Ezek 7:2; Dan 8:8; 11:4; Zech 2:6; 6:5; Mark 13:27; Rev 20:8). These winds are understood to be ultimately under the control of angels who, as God’s servants, direct their force toward the accomplishment of his purposes on earth (e.g., the angel of the waters, Rev 16:5; cf. 1 En. 60:11–22; 66:2; 69:22; Jub. 2:2). The winds are often seen as destructive, as part of God’s judgment against evil (Jer 49:36; Dan 7:2–3; Hos 13:15; cf. Sir 39:28–29; 1 En. 76:1–14). In John’s vision, however, the four angels are “standing” (ἑστῶτας; same word as in 6:17, “Who is able to stand?”) at the four corners and “holding back” the four winds, which by implication are ready to be unleashed in further widespread punishment from God. But the purpose of their current restraint (v. 1c) is to prevent the winds of judgment (as representative of wider calamities about to come; e.g., hail, fire; 8:7ff.) from bringing their destructive effects against the earth and its inhabitants until the time is right.
Robert Thomas: Though sometimes taken as reflecting the ancient cosmology of a square earth, this is an accommodative term used to designate the four directions of the compass, the whole earth (cf. Isa. 11:12; Rev. 20:8). The earth is not a flat square with four corners (Lenski). The language is figurative to indicate the worldwide nature of these angels’ responsibility. These four points of the compass are points of origination from which the four winds proceed (cf. Jer. 49:36; Matt. 24:31). The threefold repetition of the numeral tessaras (“four”) is a means of marking the universality of this angelic action. In light of this emphasis, gēs (“earth”) should not be limited to the land of Palestine or to the Roman world of the time in any of its three uses in v. 1. It is the earth in its largest sense (Scott).
Richard Phillips: These angels are closely related to the four horsemen of chapter 6. Not only are there four of both, but in the book of Zechariah, where these images originate, God’s horsemen are closely related to the four winds (Zech. 6:5). Winds present another image of judgment and disaster, as anyone who has endured a hurricane can tell you, and the four winds are a metaphor for the entirety of the earth. Here, the four angels are “holding back” the winds, that is, restraining God’s judgments from utterly destroying the earth.
- Restraining Activity
“holding back the four winds of the earth,”
John MacArthur: Holding back is from krateō, a strong word that suggests that the winds are struggling to break free from their restraint. The angelic restraining of the wind also symbolizes the withholding of the plagues associated with the imminent trumpet judgments (8:5ff.). So the next phase of God’s wrath is restrained for the moment. The winds of judgment are gathering force, soon to be released.
Van Parunak: In the OT, the four winds are agents of God’s destructive power (e.g., Jer 49:36). In particular, in Daniel 7, they are the agency that brings forth the four beasts representing the different stages of world empire. The seven heads of the beast in Revelation 13 reflects the total number of heads of the individual beasts in Daniel 7.
In Daniel, these beasts, like the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2, represent four successive world empires. The terrible beast that emerges from the sea in Revelation 13 combines the features of Daniel’s four beasts to represent the final Satanic empire.
Robert Thomas: see the winds as a picturesque apocalyptic way of referring to the plagues that are shortly to happen to mankind. Because of the fluidity of apocalyptic language, the release of the winds is not mentioned later, being replaced by the seven angels with trumpets, at whose sounding the plagues fall upon the earth (Johnson). The first two trumpet judgments affect the same parts of creation as the winds, i.e., the earth, the trees, and the sea (cf. 8:6-9), so the angelic restraint here is in essence a delaying of the initiation of the trumpet series. Further confirmation of the connection between the four winds and the coming trumpet judgments comes in the sealing that must precede the release of the winds (cf. 7:2-4). As reflected in Rev. 9:4, this protects the servants of God from the effects of the trumpets as the sealing of Ezek. 9:4-8 protected the righteous remnant from the ministers of slaughter in Jerusalem. Such a mark set on certain people protects them from the harm inflicted on the rest (Beckwith). The regular use of winds to depict destructive forces from God coincides with this interpretation.
- Purposeful Activity
“so that no wind should blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree.”
B. (:2-3) Restraint Commanded for the Purpose of Sealing
- (:2a) Administration of the Seal of the Living God
a. Procession of the Angel Administering the Seal
“And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun,”
Buist Fanning: This angel is said to “com[e] up from the rising of the sun” (v. 2b), that is, “from the east” (CSB, KJV, NET, NIV),8 which in a context like this is associated with God’s deliverance (Ezek 43:1–5; Luke 1:78; Rev 2:28; 22:16; cf. Sib. Or. 3:652). A second description is that he “ha[s] the seal of the living God” (v. 2c), a detail directly relevant to the purpose of the delay.
John MacArthur: That is a poetic way of saying from the east, the point of the compass in which the sun rises. From John’s perspective on the isle of Patmos, the east would be toward the land of Israel, the land where God’s promised salvation came through Jesus the Messiah, and from where the twelve tribes of Israel came–members of which are about to be sealed.
b. Possession of the Seal of the Living God
“having the seal of the living God;”
Marvin Rosenthal: They are sealed to indicate ownership and protection. This is in contrast to those who receive the mark of the beast “in their right hand, or in their forehead” (Rev. 13:16), an indication of ownership and protection by one (the Antichrist) who himself will one day be defeated. The 144,000 are said to have been “redeemed from the earth” (Rev. 14:3). They are “not defiled with women; for they are virgins” (Rev. 14:4). This reference to their being virgins may mean that they never married or perhaps that they purposely remained celibate in their separation unto God (2 Cor. 11:2). Perhaps, however, it reflects the fact that they did not submit to the spiritual seduction of the Antichrist and his enticements (Rev. 13:15; cf. Isa. 57:3, 4, 8).
The 144,000 are also said to be “the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). They are the forerunner of a host of Jewish people who will survive the Day of the Lord and come to the Savior at the end of the seventieth week.
G.K. Beale: The picture of the seal here is the same as what was seen by Ezekiel when the Lord commands the angel to put a mark on the foreheads of those who hate sin before He strikes the city in judgment (Ezek. 9:4-6). This mark protects them spiritually and likely also physically from the coming judgment. This is comparable to the mark of blood on the doors of the Israelites so that they would be protected from God’s judgment on Egypt (Exod. 12:7, 13, 22-28). This becomes significant when we note that this mark protects believers during the period of the trumpet and bowl plagues, which, as we shall see, are closely modeled on the plagues of Egypt.
Robert Thomas: This text does not explicitly say what this seal is, but Rev. 14:1 suggests that it is the name of the Lamb and that of His Father (cf. Isa. 44:5) (Beckwith; Mounce).
William Barclay: The living God is a phrase in which the writers of Scripture delight; and, when they use it, there are certain things in their minds.
(a) They are thinking of the living God in contrast to the dead gods of the Gentiles. Isaiah has a tremendous passage of sublime mockery of the Gentiles and their dead gods made with their own hands (Isaiah 44:9–17). The smith takes a mass of metal and works at it with the hammer and the tongs and the coals, sweating and parched at the task of manufacturing a god. The carpenter goes out and cuts down a tree and works at it with line and compass and plane. Part of it is used to make a fire for warmth; part of it is used to make a fire to bake bread and roast meat; and part of it is used to make a god. The Gentile gods are dead and created by human efforts; our God is alive and the creator of all things.
(b) The idea of the living God is used as an encouragement. In the middle of their struggles, Joshua reminds the people that with them there is the living God and that he will show his strength in their conflicts with their enemies (Joshua 3:10). When we are up against it, the living God is with us.
(c) Only in the living God is there satisfaction. It is the living God for whom the soul of the psalmist longs and thirsts (Psalm 42:2). Human beings can never find satisfaction in things but only in fellowship with other people; and they find their highest satisfaction in the fellowship of the living God.
(d) The biblical writers stress the privilege of knowing and belonging to the living God. Hosea reminds the people of Israel that once they were not a people, but in mercy they have become children of the living God (Hosea 1:10). Our privilege is that the friendship, the fellowship, the help, the power and the presence of the living God are all open to us.
(e) In the idea of the living God, there is at one and the same time a promise and a threat. The story is vividly told in 2 Kings of how the great king Sennacherib sent his messenger Rabshakeh to tell Hezekiah that he proposed to wipe out the nation of Israel. Humanly speaking, the little kingdom of Judah had no hope of survival if the forces of Assyria were launched against it. But, with Israel, there was the living God, and he was a threat to the godlessness of Assyria and a promise to the faithful of Israel (2 Kings 18:17–37).
- (:2b) Attention of the Angels Charged with Unleashing Divine Wrath
“and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels
to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea,”
- (:3) Activity of Sealing Requires Restraint of Divine Wrath
“saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees,
until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.’”
Marvin Rosenthal: It cannot be demonstrated that this is a parenthesis looking back to an earlier event for it is not the seals which hurt the earth, sea, and trees, but the trumpet judgments which follow (Rev. 8:7-11).
Van Parunak: The angels who control the destructive power of the four winds are to restrain them until God’s servants receive a seal. This seal is nowhere said to protect them from persecution, but from the locust demons of the fifth trumpet (9:4).
William Barclay: Note what the text specifically says: those sealed are already God’s servants (Greek doulos, “bond-slave”). The first verse of Revelation uses this as a term for believers in general. Thus, the mark is not the same as the “seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13) which all believers receive at the time of conversion.
The present sealing of God’s servants protects them from yet-to-be-seen judgments. This verifies our view of chapter 6 that none of the events described there (conquest, warfare, famine, death, nature in upheaval) are in fact final end-time judgments. Land and sea will be harmed by God’s judgment winds, but the sealed servants will not be so harmed, implying that humans not sealed with God’s mark will be hurt by the divine judgments. This is consistent with the teaching of Scripture as a whole: God’s people go through the trials caused by “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (thus there are many martyrs), but they are spared the experience of God’s wrath because of Christ.
II. (:4-8) IDENTIFICATION OF THE SEALED BOND-SERVANTS OF GOD
A. (:4) Nationality of the Sealed 144,000
“And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:”
This passage at this point in end times prophecy should put to rest the false replacement theology of amillennialism that sees the church as replacing the nation of Israel and fulfilling the OT prophecies in some type of spiritual sense. God obviously still has a program for national Israel that He is executing in the end times. Israel still exists as a defined entity with specifics tribes of people.
This is a special group of Jewish believers that are sealed to protect them from God’s wrath as they serve a special role during the Day of the Lord. All other believers will have been raptured just before the Day of the Lord and thus appear as a great multitude in heaven before God’s throne and the Lamb in 7:9-17.
Van Parunak: These people are identified as Israelites, further reinforced by the enumeration by tribe in vv. 5-8. Many commentators view the use of the term “Israelite” here as figurative, denoting the people of God, in line with Paul’s observations that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom 9:6), but “they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (Gal 3:9). It is true that Israel, as the people of God, in some passages anticipates the church. That image is possible because we are in Christ, who is the perfect Israelite. But in this passage, such a usage is highly unlikely, for two reasons.
- The two paragraphs explicitly contrast “the tribes of Israel” with “all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”
- It’s one thing to suggest that Israel may symbolize the people of God. But what symbolic meaning should one assign to the individual tribes that are here called out?
Some object that these people cannot be ethnic Israelites because since the Assyrian captivity, ten tribes have been lost. But Paul, in his defense before Agrippa, didn’t think any were missing:
Act 26:6 And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: 7 Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come.
A useful way to look at the question is to ask: If a writer who usually uses “Israel” symbolically, as an image of the church, wanted to refer unambiguously to national Israel, how would he make this clear? The details given here, together with the contrast with v. 9, would be just what one would expect. If these details do not identify Israel in this place as national, it’s doubtful that anything could, and our exegesis has been overtaken by a theological precommitment to denying any distinct role for national Israel in the last days.
The OT contains many texts that clearly do promise a future for Israel as a nation, not just as a symbol fulfilled in the church. The Lord promised Zechariah that at his return, he would bring the nation again to himself:
Zec 12:9 And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. 10 And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. … 13:1 In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.
We will take the list in Revelation 7 at face value: the Lord is showing John that the answer to the question of 6:17 consists of two groups of believers, one ethnically Jewish and the other from all nations. At this point in history (just before the appearance of Antichrist), the mass conversion of Israel has not yet happened, but these 144,000 represent the faithful Jewish remnant that maintain their witness on earth during Antichrist’s reign.
Buist Fanning: The number of those sealed totals “a hundred and forty-four thousand” (v. 4a–b). There is debate over whether this number should be understood literally. Contrary to what is often said, not all numbers in Revelation are figurative. For example, the referents of “the seven churches in the province of Asia” (1:4) are literally the seven churches that are listed specifically in 1:11 and chapters 2–3. However, the significance in that case is not merely or only literal, since the number seven can connote completeness or totality and so the seven churches represent in some sense “God’s church” more broadly. The number here in 7:4 is contrasted with “a great multitude that no one could count” (v. 9), so it is hard to conclude that 144,000 is symbolic for “a very large number” and hard also to take the two groups as identical when John explicitly portrays one as numbering a certain amount (even a large round number) and the other as innumerable (whether the two groups are the same is discussed further below). On the other hand, multiples of the number twelve clearly resonate with significance for redemptive history and prophecy (e.g., features of the New Jerusalem symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles in Rev 21:12, 14; cf. Jesus’s selection of the twelve as representative of Israel in Matt 19:28; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 22:30). It is likely that 144,000 represents ideas of fullness and completeness whether or not it intends to give an actual or approximate count of these “servants”. . .
On the face of it, the meaning of this description is quite straightforward: they are ethnic Israelites, physical descendants of the sons of Jacob. The parallel in 14:1–5 narrows the scope by showing that they are followers of the Lamb, thus Jewish Christians, not Israelites from the days prior to Christ’s coming or Jews who refuse Christ. Some of the earliest patristic commentators understood vv. 4–8 in this way, either of Jewish believers in Christ who were preserved from destruction in AD 70 (Oecumenius) or of a final turning of Jews to Christ at the end times (Andrew of Caesarea, Irenaeus, Jerome, Victorinus). Given the explicit contextual contrasts between this group (vv. 4–8) and the multitude described in vv. 9–17, taking these servants as ethnic Israelites appears to be the most straightforward reading of the text, and this interpretation is taken by a number of recent commentators. . .
Instead of taking Israel as the church in these verses, a strong case can be made that John affirms the widespread ancient Jewish expectation of the regathering in the end-times of all the tribes of ethnic Israel from their exile among the nations. This is God’s pledge throughout the Old Testament (Deut 30:1–5; Isa 11:10–16; 27:12–13; 49:5–6; Jer 3:18; 23:5–8; 31:7–10; Ezek 11:13–21; 37:15–28; 47:13–14; 48:30–35; Mic 2:12; Zech 10:8–10), and it reverberates through early Jewish literature as well (Tob 13:3–5; Sir 36:11–17; 48:10; 4 Ezra 13:39–50; 2 Bar. 62:5–6; 77:19–78:7; T. Jos. 19:1–4; T. Benj. 9:2; 10:5–9; 1QM 2:1–3; 3:13–14; 5:1–2; 11QTem-ple 57:5–6; m. Sanh. 10.3; Shemoneh Esreh 10). Jesus’s choosing of twelve disciples to be with him represents this intent also (Mark 3:13–19), and his declaration that in the coming renewal, when he sits on “his glorious throne,” they will likewise “sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30) speaks to this promise of national restoration in the end times. John’s emphasis here in 7:4–8 on all twelve tribes captures the same anticipation that God has not abandoned Israel, but in his judgment and renewal of all things he will restore them through his Messiah, the promised king of David’s line (Rev 5:5; 22:16).
That John would record a vision of the preservation of Israel as a whole at this juncture in Revelation relates to a particular purpose that the future time of tribulation will serve in regard to ethnic Israel. In addition to its function to embody God’s climactic judgment against his (and Israel’s) enemies in the wider gentile world, the tribulation was intended to discipline his people Israel in preparation for their restoration in the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob under a renewed Davidic rule (Deut 4:29–30; 28:58–59; Isa 10:20; 26:16–21; 27:5–13; Jer 30:4–11; Zeph 3:11–20; Zech 13:7–9; Dan 12:1–3, 10).
Charles Swindoll: These 144,000 Hebrews will serve as faithful, courageous, and diligent witnesses for Christ during the darkest period of the earth’s history. God will miraculously preserve them from harm during the Tribulation [Ed: actually: the Day of the Lord] and will use them to fulfill the ancient Old Testament calling of the Hebrew people to be God’s witnesses among the nations (Isa. 43:1-12). God’s plan for Israel was always for the people to serve as the light of truth for the Gentiles. During the Tribulation they will serve as Christ’s servants who finally fulfill this mission. This believing remnant from ethnic Israel not only will be sealed for power and protection but also will survive the Tribulation period and become the first fruits of the nation of Israel when it is restored to the land during the coming millennial kingdom.
B. (:5-8) Numbering of the 144,000 by Israelite Tribe
Van Parunak: This enumeration of the tribes calls to mind the censuses that Moses performed at the beginning (Numbers 1) and end (Numbers 26) of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. We will see a group of 144,000 again in 14:1. This may be the same group, showing that at the end of the judgments we are about to see, they have been preserved, just as Israel was preserved during the 40 years it wandered in Sinai. The coming great tribulation under the Antichrist is thus anticipated by Israel’s years in the desert.
John Walvoord: Israel’s tribes are still in existence, and God certainly knows who they are. The genealogical records of the nation were lost in the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, but today there are a number of groups from India to South Africa to South America claiming to be remnants of the “lost tribes” of Israel, and with modern DNA identification techniques those claims may yet be established.
James Hamilton: The way this list is presented in chapter 7 is similar to the militaristic arrangement of Israel’s camp in Numbers 2.3 The list in Numbers follows the exodus from Egypt as God’s people are about to make their way toward the promised land to conquer it. So also here in Revelation God seals his servants, who are arranged in these legion-like battalions 144,000 strong. Then God brings the plague-like judgments of the trumpets and bowls to liberate his people before Christ conquers and brings the new heavens and the new earth.
- (:5a) Judah
“from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed,”
- (:5b) Reuben
“from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,”
- (:5c) Gad
“from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,”
- (:6a) Asher
“ from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,”
- (:6b) Naphtali
“from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,”
- (:6c) Manasseh
“from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,”
“from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,”
- (:7b) Levi
“from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,”
- (:7c) Issachar
“from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,”
- (:8a) Zebulun
“from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,”
- (:8b) Joseph
“from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,”
- (:8c) Benjamin
“from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.”