Revelation Chapter 6-7
6.1 I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”
The opening of the seals continues the vision begun in chs. 4-5. Now the scene shifts to events on earth. Before the exposition of each of the seals, it will be helpful to consider their overall meaning. As we have already seen (cf. comment on 5:1), the scroll itself involves the rest of Revelation and has to do with the consummation of the mystery of all things, the goal of history for both the overcomers and the beast worshipers. But what do the seals have to do with this mystery? Are the events of the seals representative and simultaneous world happenings that occur during the church age, or do they occur sequentially? Are they part of the final drama or merely preparatory to it? One thing is certain: the Lamb has the scroll and he himself opens the seals.
With the opening of the fifth seal, the martyrs cry out, “How long . . . until you judge the inhabitants of the earth?” and are told to wait “a little longer” (vv. 10-11). And when the sixth seal is opened, judgment appears imminent (v. 17); this seems to indicate a time progression in the seals. The writer of this commentary tentatively suggests that the seals represent events preparatory to the final consummation. Whether these events come just before the end or represent conditions that prevail throughout the period preceding the end is a more difficult question.
The seals closely parallel the signs of the approaching end times spoken of in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:1-35; Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-33). In these passages the events of the last days fall into three periods: (1) the period of false Christs, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and death, called “the beginning of birth pains” (Mt 24:8); (2) the period of the Great Tribulation (Mt 24:21; NIV, “great distress”; and, (3) finally, the period “immediately after the distress of those days,” when the sun, moon, and stars will be affected and Christ will return (Mt 24:29-30). This parallel to major parts of Revelation is too striking to be ignored. Thus, the seals correspond to the “beginning of birth pains.” The events are similar to those occurring under the trumpets (8:2-11:19) and bowls (15:1-16:21), but they should not be confused with those later and more severe judgments. In the eschatological reckoning of time (cf. comment on 1:1), the events immediately preceding the end can stretch out over the whole age of the church, from John’s time until now, and can still be viewed as “next” (4:1) in the sense that the “last days” began in the first century and are still continuing (cf. 1Jn 2:18).
The first four seals are distinct from the next two in that they describe four horses of different colors with four riders who are given different powers over the earth. Background for this imagery reflects Zec 1:8ff. and 6:1-8. In Zechariah’s visions the horsemen and chariots are divine instruments of judgment on the enemies of God’s people, while the colors represent geographical points of the compass. This may also be the best interpretation of the horses and their riders here, where each is sent by Christ through the instrumentality of the living creatures. The emphatic “Come!” (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7) should not be viewed as addressed either to John or to Christ but to the horsemen.
2 I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
- The identification of the first rider seated on a white horse has given interpreters great difficulty. The main difficulty is whether the rider on the white horse represents Christ and the victory of the gospel or the Antichrist and the forces of evil. In favor of the first identification is the striking similarity of this rider to the portrayal of Christ in 19:11-16, the symbolism of white throughout Revelation always being associated with righteousness and Christ (e.g., 1:14; 2:17; 3:4-5, 18; 4:4; et al.), and the references in the Olivet Discourse to the preaching of the gospel throughout the world before the end.
- Support for the identification of the white horse with the Antichrist and his forces is the parallelism with the other three horses, which are instruments of judgment. The references in 19:11-16 to the rider on the white horse as “Faithful and True” and as one who judges and makes war with justice stands in contrast to the rider in 6:2, who is not faithful or true and who wages war for unjust conquest. Moreover, the Lamb opens the seals and would not be one of the riders, nor would it be proper to have an angelic being call forth Christ. Again, a “bow” would most naturally be connected with the enemy of God’s people (Eze 39:3). Finally, Jesus himself shows that the first events mentioned are the rise of “false Christs and false prophets” (Mt 24:24).
- It must be admitted that the problem of the identity of the rider on the white horse may be solved either way. The evidence, however, seems to favor slightly the second solution, which identifies the white horse with the Antichrist and his forces that seek to conquer the followers of Christ. John sensed that these persecutions were already present in his day and that they would culminate in a final, more severe form (1Jn 2:18; Rev 13:7).
- Each of the first four seals, then, represents conflict directed at Christians to test them and to sift out false disciples (v. 10). This interpretation need not necessarily eliminate the fact that the seals may also refer to judgments on humankind in general. Yet since the fifth seal stresses the cry of the martyred Christians, probably the thought of Christian persecution belongs also in the first four seals. Each of them unleashes events that separate false belief from true. The destruction of Jerusalem is a case in point (Lk 21:20ff.). The white horse goes forth to conquer, and as he does so, judgment falls on the unbelief of Israel (Lk 21:22-23), while at the same time there is a testing of believers to separate the chaff from the wheat (cf. Lk 21:12-19).
- The “bow” suggests forces opposed to Christians (cf. Gog in Eze 39:3). A “crown” (GK G5109) refers to victorious conquest (cf. Rev 19:12). “He was given” is the formula for the sovereign permission to carry out acts that, from a human viewpoint, seem contrary to God’s character but nevertheless accomplish his will (cf. 13:5, 7, 15). Thus the rider on the white horse may also point to the attacks of the false Jews (2:9; 3:9) and to the affront to Christians from pagan religionists and the persecutions from Rome, as well as to all future, limited victories over the church by Satan (cf. 2:13; 12:17).
- While v. 2 would be sobering for first-century believers, at the same time it would encourage them, provided they understood that the Lamb had permitted their testing and suffering. So they could trust that in the midst of seeming defeat from their enemies, he would ultimately be the victor (17:14).
6.3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
- The second horseman is war and bloodshed. He rides on a “fiery red steed,” whose color symbolizes slaughter (2Ki 3:22-23). Therefore, he is given the “large sword” because the number of those he kills is so great (cf. 13:10, 14). John might have thought of Nero’s slaughter of Christians, the martyrdom of Antipas (2:13), or perhaps those slain under Domitian’s persecutions (cf. Mt 10:34; 24:9).
6.5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
- The rider on the black horse carries scales for measuring grains and their prices. A heavenly voice comments on the scales’ significance, citing inflated grain prices (8 to 10 times normal). Siege and disruption of commercial routes will produce scarcity, driving prices up (see Deut. 28:49–57; 2 Kings 6:24–25; 7:1–2). Local crops such as oil and wine are unaffected, however, showing that the scarcity is limited, not comprehensive. Some think the command not to harm the oil and wine may have a social significance, since the rich were the primary consumers of oil and wine. It could also be a prediction of events like that of A.D. 92, when the emperor Domitian during a grain shortage ordered the vineyards cut down to make room for more wheat fields. This caused such a backlash that he rescinded the order. In other words, extreme measures would have to be taken due to the progressive pouring out of judgment. (See chart below.)
- Progressively Increasing Destruction
- 6:8 Seals Death and Hades given authority over one fourth of the earth
- 8:7–12 Trumpets one third of all affected
- 16:3 Bowls every living creature
6.7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
- The fourth seal reveals a rider on a “pale horse.” “Pale” (GK G5952) denotes a yellowish green or the paleness of a sick person in contrast to a healthy appearance. This cadaverous color blends well with the name of the rider—“Death.” It probably refers to the death brought by pestilence, or plague, which often follows famine (cf. Jer 14:12; Eze 5:17, 14:71, Lk 21:11). “Hades [cf. comment on 1:18] was following close behind him [Death].” But how? On foot? On the back of the same horse? On a separate horse? Scripture does not say. The growth of intensity in the judgments goes from the sword (human violence), to famine, to plague, and now to the wild beasts of the earth.
6.9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
- The fifth seal changes the metaphor of horsemen and discloses a scene of martyred saints under the altar crying out for justice upon those who killed them. They are told to wait a little longer until their fellow servants are also killed.
- Who are these martyrs (cf. 13:15, “all who refused to worship the image of the beast [were] killed”; 8:24, “all who have been killed on the earth”; 20:4, “those who had been beheaded”? The question arises as to why the martyrs alone receive so much attention rather than all suffering or persecuted Christians. Perhaps John is referring to all those who faithfully follow Christ as forming a group that may be characterized as “the slain of the Lord.” They may or may not actually suffer physical death for Christ, but they have (like John) so identified themselves with the slain Lamb that they have in effect already offered up their lives “because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (cf. 1:2, 9).
- John says that he saw the “souls” (GK G6034) of those slain (v. 9). This is generally understood to mean the disembodied souls of these saints. However, the word “soul” has various meanings and probably stands here for the actual persons who were killed. John sees them as persons who are very much alive, even though they have been killed by the beast. “Under the altar” sets the scene as occurring in the temple of heaven. This is most likely the golden altar of incense (see 8:3, 5; 9:13) that stood in the tabernacle either in or before the Most Holy Place (Ex 30:1ff.; Heb 9:4). The other references in Revelation to “altar” also seem to refer to this altar of incense (11:1; 14:18; 16:7). In accord with this sense, the prayers of the saints would be for God’s vindication of the martyrs of Christ (cf. Lk 18:7-8).
- The martyred address God as “Sovereign Lord” (GK G1305). This term implies “ownership” and is used elsewhere in the NT to denote slave masters (1Ti 6:1; 1Pe 2:18), God (Lk 2:29; Ac 4:24), or Jesus Christ (2Pe 2:1; Jude 4). (On the phrase “holy and true,” see comment on 3:7.) The martyrs cry for God’s vengeance on evildoers. The word “avenge” (GK G1688) relates everywhere in Scriptures to the idea of punishment or retribution. These saints follow the teaching of Paul in Ro 12:19 about leaving vengeance to the Lord. Though believers are forbidden to take revenge, God will vindicate his elect by punishing those who killed them (Lk 18:7-8; 2Th 1:8).
- The martyrs were each given a “white robe” as an evidence of their righteousness and victory before the Judge of all the earth, who will speedily avenge their deaths. The wait of a “little longer” is in God’s estimate but a fleeting moment, though for us it may stretch out for ages (cf. 12:12; 20:3; cf. Ps 90:4). The expression “until the number of their fellow servants . . . was completed” means either that the number of the martyred or their companions on earth who will be killed will be completed, or that their fellow servants on earth will fulfill their Christian calling, which will involve martyrdom. In any event, what constitutes the essence of Christian discipleship in John’s eyes should not be overlooked: every believer should be prepared for martyrdom.
6.12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
- The sixth seal is broken by the Lamb, and John witnesses certain eschatological signs heralding the imminent, final day of the Lord so often described in Scripture (e.g., Isa 2:10, 19, 21; 13:10; Jer 4:29; Joel 2:31; 3:15; Zep 1:14-18; Mt 24:29; et al.). The signs are threefold:
- (1) the great earthquake and its storm affecting the sun and moon,
- (2) the stars falling, and
- (3) the terror on earth (vv. 15-17).
- It is difficult to know how literally the whole description should be taken. Some of the events are described from the standpoint of ancient cosmology—e.g., the falling of the stars to earth like figs from a shaken tree, the sky rolling up like a scroll, and the firmament suspended like a roof over the earth being shaken by the great earthquake.
- The scene, whether taken literally or figuratively, is one of catastrophe and distress for the inhabitants of the earth. As later biblical authors seized on the earlier imagery of the theophany on Sinai to describe appearances of God to his people (e.g., Hab 3:3ff.), so John utilizes the imagery of the OT to describe this terrible visitation of God’s final judgment on the earth. Just as we might describe a chaotic situation by saying “all hell broke loose” (though not intending to be taken in a strictly literal sense), so the biblical writers use the language of cosmic turmoil to describe the condition of the world when God comes to judge the earth (v. 17). “Earthquakes” are mentioned in 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18 and sun, moon, and/or stellar disturbances in 8:12; 9:2; 16:8. Of course, physical phenomena may accompany the final judgment.
6.15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
- These verses record the terror of all classes of people at these events and at the wrath of God and the Lamb. “The kings of the earth, the princes [dignitaries], the generals” describe the powerful; “the rich, the mighty” describe the affluent and the heroes; finally, John refers to political distinctions of the widest kind—“every slave and every free man.” Since all kinds of people are included, we cannot say that God’s wrath is directed only at the powerful, at the rich, or at false Christians. His judgment will fall on all who refuse to repent and instead worship demons and idols and persecute Christ’s followers (9:20-21; 16:6, 9).
- The plea of people for the rocks and mountains to fall on them (v. 16) occurs in OT contexts of God’s judgment (Isa 2:19, 21; Hos 10:8). It expresses the desire to be buried under the falling mountains and hills so as to escape the pains and terrors of the judgment. Jesus said that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would cry out in this way when God’s judgment fell on the city, in A.D. 70 (Lk 23:30).
- The “wrath” (GK G3973) of the Lamb is not only a new metaphor but a paradoxical one. Lambs are usually gentle. But this Lamb shows “wrath” against those who have refused his grace (cf. Jn 5:27). Henceforth in Revelation the wrath of God and of the Lamb is a continuing theme and is described under the figures of the trumpets and bowls (11:18; 14:7, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). Moreover, God’s wrath is a present historical reality as well as an eschatological judgment (cf. Ro 1:18ff.; 2:5). So great is the day of destruction that they cry out, “Who can stand?” (cf. Joel 2:11; Na 1:6; Mal 3:2).
First Interlude (7:1-17)
Indications that ch. 7 is a true interlude are both the change in tone from the subject matter referred to in the sixth seal and the delay until 8:1 in opening the seventh seal. Two main subjects may be distinguished in this chapter. John first sees the angels who will unleash destruction on the earth restrained until the 144,000 servants of God from every tribe of Israel are sealed (vv. 1-8). Then he sees an innumerable multitude clothed in white standing before the throne of God, identified as those who have come out of the “great tribulation” (vv. 9-17). This chapter, one of the most difficult and yet most important in the book, probably functions both prospectively and retrospectively. Its principal exegetical difficulty centers around the identification of the 144,000 and of the innumerable multitude. Is the reference to the tribes of Israel symbolic, representative, or literal? What is the “great tribulation” (v. 14)? Are those described in vv. 9-17 martyrs?
a. The 144,000 Israelites (7:1-8)
7.1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
- The “four angels” at “the four corners of the earth” hold “the four winds of the earth” from blowing on the earth until the servants of God are sealed on their foreheads. The expression “the four corners of the earth” was used in antiquity among the Near-Eastern nations much as we use “the four points of the compass.” Since nowhere in Revelation do we read of the four winds actually blowing, they may be taken as representing the earthly catastrophes that occur under the trumpets and bowls.
- Another angel comes from the “east” (possibly from Jerusalem, to emphasize its mission of salvation?) and calls to the four others not to release their destruction until the servants of God have a “seal” (GK G5382) on their foreheads. Such a seal indicates ownership by God and the Lamb (14:1). It also offers protection or security for the bearers (cf. 9:4, where the demonic forces are told to harm “only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads”).
- We can better understand the “seal” if we examine what John sees regarding the “mark” (GK G5916) of the beast (13:16-17). Those who have the mark are not only identified as beast worshipers but they have become the objects of God’s irreversible wrath (14:9, 11). This implies, by contrast, that those who have “the seal of God” are God worshipers and are the objects of his abiding grace. In 16:2, the bowl of God’s wrath seems directed exclusively toward those who have the mark of the beast, thus excluding those with the seal of God (cf. 16:6). Furthermore, those having the mark of the beast are deluded by the beast (19:20), whereas the sealed of God are apparently not deceived. Finally, a martyred group is seen just prior to their resurrection and thousand-year reign with Christ and are described as not having the mark of the beast or worshiping him (20:4).
- In the light of these passages, we may say that the “sealed” are the people of God and that their sealing must be related to their salvation (cf. Paul’s use of “sealed” in 2Co 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30). Elsewhere, the sealed are described as those “who had been redeemed from the earth” (14:3-4; cf. Ro 8:23; Jas 1:18). In fact, “baptism” was considered a “seal” of salvation in the early church. While the seal may not protect the sealed against harm inflicted by human agency (13:7; 20:4), they are protected from the divine plagues (16:2). As for OT background, Eze 9:4-7 seems primary. In this passage, a divine messenger with stylus in hand was to go through the apostate Jerusalem of Ezekiel’s day and put a mark upon the foreheads of those who deplored the faithless idolatry of the Israelites. Those so marked were the faithful and true servants of God; they would be spared the divine slaughtering of the rebellious inhabitants of the city.
- The sealing language would have the effect of assuring God’s people of his special concern and plan for them. Even when facing persecution and martyrdom at the hand of the beast, they can be certain that no plague from God will touch them but that they will be in his presence forever because they are his very own possession (cf. 3:10). Therefore, the seal on the forehead is a divine mark of ownership, the presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2Co 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30). Consequently, those thus sealed must be Christians and not unconverted Jews or Gentiles.
4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
- John next gives the number of those sealed—144,000—and their identification: “From all the tribes of Israel.” There are two principal views regarding the identification of this group:
- (1) The number and the tribal identifications are taken literally and refer to 144,000 Jewish Christians who are sealed (to protect them from destruction) during the time of the Great Tribulation.
- (2) John uses the language of the new Israel and thus refers the 144,000 to the completed church composed of Jew and Gentile.
- In support of the first view is the normal usage of “Israel” in the NT as referring to the physical descendants of Jacob (Gal 6:16 is too uncertain to be conclusive). There is no unambiguous identification of the church with Israel until A.D. 160, and even then the term “Israel of God” is not used for the church. Reference to the twelve tribes (vv. 5-8) would most naturally be understood to refer to the ancient historic Israel and not to the church. Thus, John is symbolically describing the beginning of what Paul foretold in Ro 11:25-29 as the salvation of “all Israel.”
- In support of the second view is the fact that the NT identifies the followers of Christ as “Abraham’s seed” (Gal 3:29), as “the true circumcision” (Php 3:3) and as the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16, though disputed). John himself has already made a distinction between the true Jew and the false (cf. Rev 2:9; 3:9); that could imply that here in ch. 7 he intends also to designate the church as the true Israel. Additional support is found if there is a unity between the first and second groups in ch. 7, groups that otherwise must be treated as different and unconnected.
- Without discussing at length this disputed issue, we agree that those who argue that the term “Israel” in other NT books refers exclusively to Jews are in our opinion correct. Strict exegesis, however, must also ask whether the author of Revelation wishes the term to have this same more restricted usage or whether he in fact uses it differently. It is plausible that the usage of the term “Jew” among Christians had undergone a historic development from the earlier days when Paul wrote Romans (A.D. 56) until Revelation was written toward the close of the century. Paul himself made a distinction between the true, spiritual Jew and the physical descendants of Abraham (Ro 2:28-29; 9:8). Only those Jews who recognized Jesus as Messiah could rightly be called “Israel” (Ro 9:6), though the term might be used with qualifications to refer to the historic descendants of Jacob (“Israel after the flesh” [lit. tr. of 1Co 10:18]). Peter likewise described the church (Jew and Gentile) in terms drawn from the OT that historically describe the true people of God among the Jewish descendants (“holy priesthood . . . chosen people . . . royal priesthood . . . holy nation” [1Pe 2:4, 9]). Moreover, Gentiles who received Jesus as the Messiah and Lord were considered “Abraham’s seed” (Gal 3:29) and the true “circumcision” (Php 3:3).
- Already in Revelation the distinction has been made between Jews who were Jews in name only and not true Jews because they did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord (2:9; 3:9). Also, John uses the OT image of the people of Israel as a “kingdom” and “priests” to God for the followers of Jesus (1:6). Similarly, many promises to the victors in the churches of Asia (chs. 2-3) are fulfillments of OT promises given to the true people of Israel. In Christ’s rebuke to the churches, we have the OT imagery of “Balaam” and “Jezebel” describing error that had influenced not the OT Israel but the NT church. In 21:9-12, the church is called the “bride, the wife of the Lamb”; she is identified with the New Jerusalem, and on its twelve gates are inscribed the “names of the twelve tribes of Israel.” Even in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the “true vine,” which many commentators understand to be an allusion to the vine that decorated the temple entrance and stood as a symbol for Israel (cf. Isa 5:1ff. with Jn 15:1ff.). Jesus is thus claiming to be the true Israel and his followers are the branches, who are related to the true Israel (cf. Ro 11:17-24).
- This usage is evident in the NT itself; the only question is whether John takes the final step in Revelation and, in the context of a largely Gentile church, uses the OT terminology to speak of the church. It is entirely possible that when the church actually separated itself from Israel (as seems apparent in Revelation), it could appropriate to itself the name “Israel.” Other Jewish sectarian groups (such as at Qumran) also restricted the name “Israel” to their group and denied its use to other Jews. Thus in John’s mind the followers of Jesus (14:4) are undoubtedly the true servants of God, the Israel of God (cf. Jn 11:51-52).
- The identification of the 144,000 with the whole elect people of God, including both Jews and Gentiles, does not negate Paul’s teaching to the effect that the majority of the Jews themselves will one day be brought back into a relationship of salvation before God. John simply is not dealing with Paul’s emphasis at this point in Revelation (but cf. 11:2-3).
- The number 144,000 is obviously obtained by combining 12,000 for each of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 5-8). Earlier (cf. 4:4), twenty-four (a multiple of twelve) served as a symbolic number. The “thousand” multiple appears again later, in relation to the size of the Holy City: “He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long” (21:16). Thus, 12,000 is symbolic of completeness and perfection. Even the wall is “144 cubits” (i.e., twelve times twelve; v. 17). The tree of life bearing “twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month” (i.e., twelve months; 22:2) further supports the view that John intends the number twelve to be taken symbolically. By 144,000, he signifies the sealing of the total number of God’s servants who will face the Great Tribulation.
- Those who are sealed come from “all the tribes of Israel,” and this emphasizes even more the universality and comprehensiveness of the Christian gospel. Whereas in first-century Judaism there were many sects with exclusive tribal claims to being the “true Israel,” for the followers of Jesus all such sectarianism is broken down and all groups, regardless of race, culture, religious background, or geographical location, are accepted before God (7:9; 14:4). There is an exclusivism in Revelation, but it is based on loyalty to Christ.
7.5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,
from the tribe of Gad 12,000,
6 from the tribe of Asher 12,000,
from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000,
from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,
7 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000,
from the tribe of Levi 12,000,
from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,
8 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,
from the tribe of Joseph 12,000,
from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.
- John goes even further. He enumerates each of the twelve tribes and their number: “From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,” etc. Why was it necessary to provide this detailed enumeration? And why the particular tribal selection? In answering these difficult questions, some facts about the list should be noted. John places Judah first, evidently to emphasize the priority of the messianic King who came from the tribe of Judah (5:5; cf. Heb 7:13-14). Nowhere in the tribal listings of the OT except in the space arrangement of the wilderness camp (Nu 2:3ff.) does Judah come first. This exception may itself be linked with the messianic expectation through Judah (Ge 49:10; 1Ch 5:2). John’s priority of Judah is comparable to the emphasis placed in Judaism on the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe). It is significant that John includes Levi among the other tribes, and thus gives no special place to the Levitical order; he places Levi in the comparatively unimportant eighth place.
- The particular order and names of the tribes as given here by John are unique. The OT has no fewer than twenty variant lists of the tribes, and these lists include anywhere from ten to thirteen tribes, though the number twelve is predominant (cf. Ge 49; Dt 33; Eze 48). The grouping of twelve may be a way of expressing the corporate identity of the elect people of God as a whole and may be maintained—even artificially at times—to preserve this identity (cf. the “twelfth” apostle chosen when Judas fell [Ac 1:25-26]). John omits Dan (which elsewhere is always included) and Ephraim. In order to maintain the ideal number twelve with these omissions, he must list both Joseph and Manasseh as tribes. This is peculiar because the tribe of Joseph is always mentioned in the other lists by either including Joseph and excluding his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Ge 49), or vice versa (Eze 48). Moreoever, only when the Levitical priesthood gained more prominence was the tribe of Levi omitted from the lists and replaced by the two sons of Joseph.
- Various efforts have been made to solve the enigma of John’s list and especially to explain the absence of the tribe of Dan. While no solution is completely satisfactory, the early church held that the Antichrist would arise from the tribe of Dan (this belief may in fact be a pre-Christian Jewish tradition). Furthermore, Dan was associated in the OT with idolatry (Jdg 18:18-19; 1Ki 12:29-30). This may be the clue. If John sought to expose Christian idolatry and beast worship in his day by excluding Dan from the list of those sealed, it may also be possible to explain, on the same basis, why Manasseh and Joseph were chosen to fill up the sacred number rather than Manasseh and Ephraim, for in the OT Ephraim was also explicitly identified with idolatry (Hos 4:17).
- If idolatry is the reason for omitting Dan and Ephraim, the readjustment of the list to include Joseph and Manasseh to complete the twelve can be understood. Since Dan will be reckoned first in the tribal listing of the restored eschatological Jewish community (Eze 48) and John’s list puts Judah first, it may be that John’s listing describes the church, not ethnic Israel.
- It is important to note that John does not equate the 144,000 with everyone in the tribes. Rather, his repeated use of the preposition “from” (lit., “out of”; GK G1666) in vv. 4-8 implies that the sealed were an elect group chosen out of the tribes. If John had the actual Jewish Israel in view, this use of “from” would indicate an election from the whole nation. On the other hand, if he intended to imply something about the church, his language might indicate God’s selecting the true church out “from” the professing church. This thought has already been mentioned (cf. 2:14ff., 20ff.; 3:16ff.) and is supported by Eze 9:4-7, where the seal distinguished the true servants of God from the false ones among the professing people of God. Paul states the same thought: “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness’” (2Ti 2:19).
- The description of the judgments under the sixth seal (6:12ff.) ends with the question, “The great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:17). John answers this question by implying that only the true servants of God, who are divinely sealed, can be protected from the wrath of God and the Lamb.
- b. The great white-robed multitude (7:9-17)
- John now sees a great multitude from every nation and cultural background, standing before the throne of God and clothed in white robes. They are identified by the angel as those “who have come out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). Again, the question is that of identity. Are they the Gentiles who are saved in the Tribulation in contrast to the Jews in vv. 1-8? Presumably not, because they are described as coming from every nation and tribe and language, and this would mean both Jews and Gentiles. Are they martyrs who have given their lives in the Great Tribulation and have been slain by the beast? If martyrs, are they the rest of those to be killed referred to when the fifth seal is opened (6:11)? Are they the complete group of martyrs? Or do they represent the whole company of the redeemed in Christ as seen in glory?
- Although there is no direct evidence that the great multitude are martyrs, there are some indications of this: (1) they are seen in heaven “before the throne” (v. 9) and “in his temple” (v. 15); (2) they are described as those “who have come out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). Thus it is assumed that, since they have died in the Great Tribulation, they have most likely been martyred because the Tribulation will be a time of great killing of the saints (17:6; 18:24, 19:2; 20:4; et al.). The multitude would then not be the whole company of the martyred throughout history but only those who were victims of the beast persecution during the Great Tribulation. The group is then those future martyrs referred to under the fifth seal as those “who were to be killed as they had been” (6:11). They cannot be seen as the whole redeemed church, unless all Christians are to be identified with the martyrs.
- The identification of this second group is related to the identification of the first one (vv. 1-8). Some argue that the two groups must be different since the first is numbered, the second innumerable; the first is limited to Jews, the second refers to every nation. These objections are not serious if we recall that in vv. 1-8, (1) the number of the sealed was symbolic and not literal, and (2) the delineation of the Twelve Tribes was seen as John’s deliberate attempt to universalize the election of God. Thus what some have seen as contrasts may actually be designed to complement each other and show the continuity of the first group with the second. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that John does not see any group at all in vv. 1-8 but merely hears the number of the sealed, whereas in vv. 9-17 he actually sees a group and describes what he sees and hears. Therefore, the unity of both groups can be maintained and vv. 9-17 understood as the interpretative key to the 144,000. John’s vision then leaps ahead to a scene in heaven after the Great Tribulation has run its course and views the glorified Tribulation saints as being in God’s presence, at rest from their trial and serving him continually.
- Two variations of the more literal Jewish identity of those in vv. 1-8 and the relationship of this first group to the second (vv. 9-17) are popular today. (1) Some see the 144,000 as a select group of Jews who will be converted to Jesus shortly after the rapture of the church to heaven. These Jewish evangelists will preach the gospel to the world during the Tribulation, resulting in a great multitude of Gentiles being converted to Christ. (2) Others, accepting a posttribulational view of the church’s rapture, understand the 144,000 as a literal Jewish remnant preserved physically through the Tribulation and converted immediately after the Rapture. They will be the people who will constitute the beginning of the restored Jewish Davidic Kingdom at the inception of the millennial reign of Christ on the earth.
- There are three different types of “tribulation” (GK G2568), and it is important to distinguish between them.
- (1) There is tribu-lation that is inseparable from Christian life in the world (Jn 16:33; Ac 14:22; Ro 5:3; 2Ti 2:11-12; 1Pe 4:12; Rev 1:9; 2:10; et al.). All Christians during all ages participate in tribulation; they share in the continuing sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24).
- (2) The Bible also speaks of an intense tribulation that will come on the final generation of Christians and climax all previous persecutions (see Da 12:1; Mt 24:21; 2Th 2:3ff.). In Revelation this more intense persecution is mentioned in 7:14; 11:7-10; 13:7; 16:6; possibly the events under the fifth seal should be included here (6:9-11). This future tribulation is distinguished from previous persecutions of the church in its intensity, in its immediate connection with Christ’s second coming, and in the presence of Antichrist during it.
- (3) Scripture also speaks of a future time of God’s intense wrath on unbelievers. Revelation refers to this as “the great day of their wrath” (6:17) and “the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (3:10). Such wrath from God comes especially under the trumpets and bowls (8:2ff.; 16:1ff.). Probably drawing on the teaching of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24), Paul refers to this punitive action of God in 2Th 1:6-10. While for Christians the Great Tribulation may be concurrent with a portion of the period of God’s wrath on the rebellious, the final and more intense judgment of God seems to follow the Great Tribulation itself and is directly connected with the coming of Christ (Mt 24:29; Rev 6:12ff.; 19:11ff.).
7.9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
- As in 5:4–5, where John first heard an OT title (the Lion of Judah) and then saw its NT fulfillment (the Lamb slain), so here John hears (7:4) the names of the sealed sons of Israel and then sees the NT fulfillment: a countless multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (cf. 5:9), whom God has rescued from wrath through the blood of the Lamb (7:14). They stand before the throne and before the Lamb in heaven, worshiping their Savior. They wear the white robes of victorious martyrs (6:11; see note on 2:17). Many who hold to a pretribulation “rapture” of the church think that the two groups of 7:1–8 and 7:9–17 are different (converted Jewish people still suffering on earth in vv. 1–8, but the raptured church rejoicing in heaven in vv. 9–17). Others think these are Gentiles converted during the tribulation through the witness of the 144,000 Jewish believers who remain on earth (v. 4). Those who do not hold to a pretribulation rapture usually see vv. 1–8 and vv. 9–17 as the same group, with their suffering in vv. 1–8 turned to joy and reward in vv. 9–17.
10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
- In accord with the literary symmetry of chs. 4-7, this group also expresses their worship of the King and the Lamb. Their praise to God is for his “salvation” (GK G5401), not their own accomplishments. Since this same word is associated with the final manifestation of God’s power and kingdom (12:10; 19:1), here it may also denote God’s final victory over sin and the principalities of this world that crucified Christ and that kill his true disciples (cf. Isa 49:8; 2Co 6:2).
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
- Finally, the angelic hosts (cf. 5:12-13) respond to the cry of the redeemed (v. 10) with “Amen” and voice their praise and worship of God for the salvation given to humanity (cf. Lk 15:10).
7.13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
7.14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
- After the manner of the OT apocalyptic passages, the interpreting angel asks concerning the white-robed throng, “Who are they, and where did they come from?” (cf. Da 7:15-16; Zec 1:9, 19; 4:1-6). Here and in 5:5 are the only references in Revelation to an elder speaking individually, a fact that supports the view that the elders in Revelation are angels and not a symbolic group representing the church. The reference to the washed robes should be viewed in relation to 3:4, where soiled clothes represent defection from Christ through unbelief and worship of false gods (cf. 21:8). On the “great tribulation,” see comments on 7:9-17.
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
- This and the following verses describe the activity and condition of the true servants of God in their future and eternal relation to the Lamb. This scene is one of the most beautiful in the Bible. In it those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb are described as being before the throne of God without fear or tremor, fully accepted by the divine Majesty. What are they doing? Theirs is no state of passivity but of continual service of God in praise and worship.
- The reference to the “temple” (GK G3724) of God raises the question whether the scene describes the final state of the saints or an intermediate state, since 21:22 tells us that the New Jerusalem has no temple. However, the language used in vv. 15-17 (esp. v. 17) seems to depict the same condition as that of the saints in chs. 21-22 (cf. 21:3-4, 6; 22:1). Since v. 15 relates to worship, it would be appropriate to refer to the presence of God and the Lamb as “in” the temple. In 21:22, however, the future existence of the people of God is described as a city; and in that glorious city, unlike the pagan cities of the present world, there will be no special temple in which to worship God because God himself and the Lamb will be present everywhere.
- To “spread his tent [GK G5012] over them” calls to mind the Shekinah presence in the OT tabernacle or temple (Ex 40:34-38; 1Ki 8:10-11; cf. Eze 10:4, 18-19) and later in Jesus (Jn 1:14) and also the idea of a permanent heavenly dwelling (Rev 21:3). Never again will these people endure torment. They have the supreme protection of the living God himself.
16 Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
- The condition described here contrasts to the earthly experience of those who suffered much for their faith (cf. Heb 11:37-38). For them, starvation, thirst, and the burning desert are forever past. There may be allusion here to Isa 49:10, which places the time of relief from such distresses in the days of Messiah’s kingdom. There may also be an allusion to what the four horsemen bring (6:1-8; cf. Mt 24:7).
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
- We now have a beautiful pastoral figure—that of the Lamb shepherding his people (cf. Jn 10:1-8; Heb 13:20; 1Pe 2:25). It is not through some perfect environment but through the continual ministry of the Lamb that their sufferings are forever assuaged. Whereas on earth their enemies may have tormented them, now the Lamb guides them: “He will lead them to springs of living water.” In contrast to the burning thirst they experienced in their tribulation, now they will enjoy the refreshing waters of life. Thus in the future life the saints will not know stagnation, boredom, or satiation (Ps 23:1-2; Jer 2:13; Eze 47:1-12; Zec 14:8).
- Finally, even the sorrowful memory of the pain and suffering of the former days will be mercifully removed by the Father: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (cf. 21:4). Tribulation produces tears. Like a tenderhearted, devoted mother, God will wipe each tear from their eyes with the eternal consolations of glory itself. Never again will they cry out because of pain or suffering.