John next saw four angels, evidently standing at the four compass points of the land and sea visible to him. The “earth” at which he looked could not have been the globe as seen from outer space, for he would not have recognized our planet as did astronauts in the twentieth century. At their respective positions, the four angels were holding back fierce winds from blowing on the land and sea and against the trees. (7:1)
In the eastern location where the sun rises, John saw another angel ascending with the seal of the living God. He did not, however, describe this seal, which, like the scribe’s equipment in the prophecy of Ezekiel (9:3-6), would serve to place an identifying mark on those who would be spared from the effects of the destructive winds. With a loud voice, the fifth angel called out to the other four not to use their authority to harm the land and the sea until God’s slaves had been marked on their foreheads with the seal. This angel identified himself and the other four as sharing a precious relationship with those to be marked, for he referred to them as the “slaves of our God.” (7:2, 3)
In vision, John still found himself in the position of one who had passed through the open door in heaven. (4:1) He did not see any of those to be marked with the seal but heard their number — 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel. (7:4)
Based on the angelic proclamation, John knew that all of those to be marked with the seal were slaves of God, Israelites, or God’s people in the real sense of the word. The earlier messages to the congregations in Smyrna (2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9) left no doubt regarding the radical difference between those who were Jews merely by natural descent and those who were truly Israelites or God’s people. Upon hearing the number of those to be marked with the seal as being “from” or “out of” every tribe of the sons of Israel, John would have understood that the true slaves of God were to be found among those professing to be his people. The manner in which the tribes are listed (Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin) seemingly would have alerted him to the fact that what was being presented to him in symbol did not apply to Israel according to fleshly descent. (7:5-8) In ancient Israel, the tribe of Levi occupied a special position in sanctuary service and was not listed as one of the twelve. With the inclusion of Levi, the name of one of the tribes of Israel had to be omitted, and this was Dan. The name Joseph is not the designation of a tribe, but he is represented by his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh in ancient Israel. The order in which the tribes are listed is distinctly different from the order in which the tribes variously appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Compare Numbers 1:5-15, 20-43; 7:12-78; 13:4-15; 26:5-50.) Moreover, the slaves of God or those whom he recognizes as his people do not have a distinctive tribal identity, and so those marked with the seal would not be able to identify themselves as belonging to any of the twelve tribes that John heard mentioned.
In relation to the number who returned from Babylonian exile, the number 144,000 is significant, much larger in fact. (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66) As a multiple of twelve, the number 144,000 reflects the New Jerusalem that John later saw in vision, with its wall height of 144 cubits and its shape as a cube measuring 12,000 stadia on all sides. (21:16, 17) As a representation, therefore, the number 144,000 fittingly reveals that the complete Israel of God existing just prior to the execution of divine vengeance would still be a significant, though not necessarily a huge, number. Not a single one of them would be overlooked, for an equal number (paralleling the dimension of each side of the perfect city, the New Jerusalem) from each tribe would be marked with the seal of the living God.
It is noteworthy that, when asked whether only a few would be saved, Jesus Christ did not provide any hint about a number but replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Luke 13:23, 24, NAB) The message conveyed by the number 144,000 is in full harmony with these words, revealing that all who will have heeded Jesus’ admonition will be among those to receive their portion “in the kingdom,” whereas many who would claim to be God’s people would lose out. (Luke 13:25-30) Instead of having a specific numerical value that would suggest a limit to the number that would be spared the execution of divine vengeance, the words about the sealing of the 144,000 provide the assurance that, at the very end, the angels will find a significant number of slaves of God among those professing to be his people. Apparently regarding such ones, Jesus Christ told Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 13:3) that, after the developments that would terrify unbelievers, he would send out his angels to gather his elect from every place where they may be found. (Matthew 24:30, 31; Mark 13:24-26)
The next scene John saw was one of an innumerable large crowd from every nation, tribe, people, and language group standing before God’s throne and before the Lamb. Unlike the 144,000 whom he did not see, as they were on earth, he did see this huge crowd in the location to which his being transferred beyond the open door in heaven had led him. Attired in white robes and with palm branches in their hands, they acknowledged salvation as coming from God and the Lamb. (7:9, 10) The palm branches may have reminded John about what the crowd did when acknowledging Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the “Son of David” and “the king of Israel,” when he rode on a donkey’s colt to Jerusalem. (John 12:12-15)
All the angels standing around God’s throne, the twenty-four elders, and the four living beings apparently fell to their knees and then bowed down, with their faces touching the floor of heaven. Their “amen” (so be it) expressed their full agreement with the acknowledgment of the white-robed crowd about salvation belonging to God and the Lamb. Prostrate before the Almighty, they continued with an expression of praise, “The blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the strength [be] to our God for ever and ever. Amen.” (7:11, 12)
As at a previous time (5:5), one of the elders spoke to John. In reply to the elder’s question about the identity of the large crowd, John said, “You, my lord, know.” (Not all manuscripts include “my.”) As representing the congregation of believers, the elder would have known what Jesus Christ had taught and would have been in a position to answer accordingly. He told John that they are the ones who had come out of the tribulation or suffering and then referred to it as “the great one.” The elder explained that, because of having washed their robes and whitened them in the Lamb’s blood, the large crowd had been granted to be before God’s throne. Thus he indicated that their faith in the atoning value of Christ’s blood had made it possible for them to appear as acceptable before the Most High. There, where John saw them, they served continually (day and night) in God’s sanctuary. No more would they experience suffering, for God’s tent would be over them, assuring them of all the blessings and benefits associated with being his guests. No hunger or thirst or anything comparable to the intense, oppressive heat of the sun in summertime would ever affect them. Like a shepherd, the Lamb would lead them to fountains of waters of life, enabling them to enjoy life without end in an abiding relationship with him and his Father. Everything that may formerly have occasioned tears would cease to exist, for God would wipe every tear from their eyes. (7:13-17)
It logically follows that the people of God at the time culminating in the execution of his judgment would be appropriately represented by a much smaller number than would all those who have remained faithful to him throughout the centuries. Suffering or tribulation when in the past is often spoken of in a specific way as “the tribulation” or “the suffering.” The Contemporary English Version renders the elder’s words, “These are the ones who have gone through the great suffering.” This is consistent with the clear teachings set forth in other parts of the Bible about tribulation or suffering. (Luke 11:49; John 16:2; Acts 14:22; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4; Hebrews 10:32-36; 12:3, 4; 1 Peter 4:12-16) Moreover, the Scriptures do refer to two groups of believers—(1) those who have completed their earthly life and thus passed through tribulation or suffering in faithfulness and (2) those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return in glory and the execution of divine vengeance. (1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) The vision of the slaves of God yet on earth prior to the execution of divine judgment and an innumerable throng before God’s throne, having entered upon their reward, appears to present this reality in vivid imagery.
The genealogical and census lists of ancient Israel primarily list males. Similarly, in 14:4, the 144,000 are portrayed as men who did not defile themselves with women. Just as the ancient Israelites, during military campaigns, refrained from sexual intercourse to remain ceremonially clean, all the members of the true Israel existing prior to the unleashing of the destructive winds maintain purity in all respects. (Compare 1 Samuel 21:4, 5; 2 Samuel 11:8-11.)
In his letter to the Galatians (4:26, 27), the apostle Paul quoted from Isaiah 54:1 and applied the words to the “Jerusalem above,” which would come to have many more children than did the Jerusalem of old. The promise to Abraham likewise pointed to his having a large number of children. After he had demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, he heard God’s promise: “I will increase your seed [to be numerous] like the stars of the heaven and like the sand of the seashore.” (Genesis 22:17) This “seed,” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (3:29), came to include all who belong to Christ. (See the Commentary section for additional information.) Understandably, therefore, those before the throne of God proved to be a large crowd. (7:9)
In 7:12, a number of manuscripts, including fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, omit the concluding “amen.”