SYNOPSIS – 144,000 males from the tribes of Israel are numbered and assembled for the journey to the Promised Land – Revelation 7:4-8.
The “sealing of God’s servants” follows a literary pattern set in the fifth chapter with the introduction of the “lion of the tribe of Judah,” the “slain Lamb.” What John “sees” interprets what he first “hears.” In the next two paragraphs, first, he “hears” the “number” of the “sealed servants,” 144,000 males from the “twelve tribes of Israel,” then he “sees” an assembly of men and women from every nation far too numerous to count.
(Revelation 7:4-8) – “And I heard the number of the sealed, — a hundred and forty-four thousand, — sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel: — Of the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand sealed, of the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand, of the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand, sealed” – (The Emphasized Bible).
John did not “see” the group – He “heard” the number of the men that comprised it. In the fifth seal, the martyrs were told to remain “under the altar” until the completed number of the saints destined to die “just as them” was assembled. That “number” is now gathered in the numbering of the 144,000 males, twelve thousand from each of the “twelve tribes of Israel.”
The number 144,000 is built on the number ‘12’ – Here, it is squared and multiplied by a thousand. The final number is figurative and stresses fullness – The full congregation of the servants of God. The number twelve is associated with Israel – The “twelve tribes of Israel” – It symbolizes the full number of the people of the “Lamb.”
Twelve is squared by multiplying the twelve tribes of Israel by the names of the twelve “apostles of the Lamb.” In New Jerusalem, the city is laid out with square numbers. Its wall is 144 cubits, or 12 x 12 – (“The city lies foursquare…its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits”). The figure of 144,000 echoes the ancient image of the army of Israel arrayed for battle by its “thousands” – (Numbers 31:14, 31:48, Deuteronomy 1:15, 1 Samuel 8:12, Revelation 21:12-14).
In the Hebrew Bible, when the twelve tribes are listed their order varies. Reuben is often first, Israel’s first-born. Distinctive in this passage is the placement of Judah first in the list, the position of prominence. In chapter 5, the “Lamb” was described as originating from the tribe of Judah. The present list echoes this previous statement – “The lion out of the tribe of Judah” – (Genesis 35:23-26, Exodus 1:2-4, Numbers 1:5-15).
John “hears” the number of the sealed – “Out of the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand sealed, out of the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand,” and so on. Also, he “hears” the names of the twelve tribes. In chapter 5, he heard – The “lion out of the tribe of Judah,” but when he looked, he “saw” the “Lamb.” What John saw interpreted what he first heard.
The “lion of Judah” fulfills his messianic role as the “slain Lamb.” This same interpretive pattern is employed here. John “hears” the “number” of the “sealed,” 144,000 males from the tribes of Israel, but when he looks, he “sees” something quite different and extraordinary – A vast innumerable multitude of men and women from every nation that no man can “number” – (Revelation 7:9-17).
The tribe of Dan is excluded from the list of the twelve tribes. The image portrays ancient Israel assembled for travel to and the conquest of the Promised Land. Under the old covenant, the tribe of Levi was excluded from the census because it was prohibited from participation in warfare. Its priestly duties took priority – (Numbers 1:47-53).
Why Dan is excluded is not clear. Possibly, so the tribe of Levi may be included in the list of the “twelve tribes” assembled to march to the Promised Land. Under the rule of the “Lamb,” all members of his people belong to the priestly class and, in this vision, the entire company is assembled – (Revelation 1:6, 5:10).
The paragraph ends with God’s servants sealed, numbered, and presumably, ready for whatever awaits them on their journey to the New Jerusalem.