1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed. – Revelation 7:1-8 ESV
Chapter six ended with a statement and a question: “…the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:17 ESV). Those experiencing the wrath of God as revealed through the first six seals, will attempt to hide from Him, but end up wishing for death. They will realize that their suffering is from the hand of God, but yet, there will be no sign of repentance on their part. And death appears to be their only option and means of escaping the increasing intensity of God’s anger against them. But chapter seven opens with the answer to the question. There will be those who can and will stand. God’s wrath and judgment will be balanced by His grace and mercy. Chapter seven acts as a brief interlude between the sixth and seventh seal, providing us with a wonderful insight into God’s plan for the people of Israel and for the nations of the earth during the tribulation.
John opens up chapter seven with the Greek words, meta touto, which is typically translated as “after this.” John used this same phrase in chapter four, verse 1, to indicate a change in vision. He is seeing something new. This is not a part of the sixth seal, but a different scene altogether which reveals an aspect of the tribulation to which John was unaware. In the midst of all the death and destruction, God was going to do something significant. In spite of the wickedness of mankind and the ongoing rebellion of His own people, Israel, God was going to extend His undeserved grace and mercy.
It begins with John seeing “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth” (Revelation 7:1 ESV). The wind is a reference to God’s judgment. There angels had been “given power to harm earth and sea” (Revelation 7:2 ESV), but at the present time they were holding back the full brunt of God’s judgment. There is going to be a time during the tribulation when the earth and sea, and every living creature on the planet will suffer the full impact of God’s righteous wrath. But first, God will redeem a remnant from among the Jews and the nations of the earth. Out of the east, another angel appears, calling to the other four angels to hold off judgment “until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3 ESV). A seal is a sign of ownership and authenticity. During the tribulation there are going to be some whom God declares to be His own, sealing their future and securing their eternal state by marking them as His possession. The sealing speaks of their God-ordained selection and protection. This does not mean these people will experience no suffering during the days of the tribulation, but that they will not suffer for their unrighteousness. They will belong to God.
And John is not left to guess who these people will be. He is immediately told that they will be made up of 144,000 Jews from every tribe of the nation of Israel. They will be equally represented by the 12 tribes, with 12,000 people coming from each tribe. It is significant that John is given a very detailed description of who these people are. It is not left up to his imagination. And it is clear that he is not being given a glimpse of the church or “spiritual Israel.” These will be Jews. The church will not be around when the tribulation takes place. Jesus will have already returned for the church, removing it from the planet and preserving it from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 5:9).
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV
The apostle Paul makes it quite clear that God has plans for His people Israel. As the apostle to the Gentiles, he knew that God had made the gospel available to them because of the hardening of the hearts of the people of Israel. They had refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. But their hardening will be partial and temporary.
25 …a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! – Romans 11:25-33 ESV
The people in John’s vision are clearly Jews and, more specifically, in Revelation 14 they are described as “the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” (Revelation 14:3-4 ESV). And John will be given further insight into their role during the dark days of the tribulation.
It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. – Revelation 14:4-5 ESV
These ethnic Jews will form a remnant whom God will use for His divine purposes during the tribulation. They will become witnesses to the rest of the world and, as we will see, their testimony will result in people from every tribe, nation and tongue coming to faith in Christ, even during the darkest days of God’s judgment.
One of the things we must understand is that Israel, the chosen people of God, have had their hearts hardened by God. While some Jews have accepted Jesus as their Messiah, the vast majority remain incapable of doing so. Paul points out their dilemma.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.” – Romans 11:7-8 ESV
But why would God do this? Why would He prevent His own chosen people from seeing and hearing so that they might respond to the truth of the gospel and the good news regarding their Messiah? It all goes back to the covenants God made with Israel. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised them a land, a seed, and a blessing. This covenant was non-conditional. In other words, God placed no requirements on them. It was a unilateral covenant, binding only Himself to keep the commitments He had made. They would be blessed by God regardless of their actions or attitudes. And God did eventually give them the land as He had promised. He also gave Abraham a seed or many descendants. But God also gave him “a seed” – which Paul explains to be Jesus Himself.
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NASB
And God went on to promise Abraham that “in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 NASB) – another reference to Jesus. But there is another covenant that played an important role in God’s dealings with the people of Israel. At Mount Sinai, in the wilderness, God had given them the Mosaic Covenant. This was a bi-lateral covenant, that was conditional in nature. God promised to bless the people of Israel, but they were required to live in obedience to His law. If they refused to obey, they would suffer curses, brought on them as judgment from the hand of God. But God had clearly told His people:
1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” – Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV
God knew they would disobey. And their disobedience would bring His judgment upon them. Which is why He could not allow them to accept Jesus as their Messiah. He was obligated by His own righteous nature to follow through with His promise to punish them for their sin and rebellion. And the coming days of tribulation will be the final stages of God’s punishment upon the people of Israel. And notice what God says in the passage above. He tells them that if they and all their children return to Him and obey Him with all their heart and soul, He will restore them. The prophet Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of what God is going to do on behalf of His people Israel. He will do for them what they could never have done on their own. He will extend grace to those who do not deserve it.
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV
God is not done with Israel. He must punish them for their breaking of the Mosaic Covenant. But He will keep the promises He made to them as part of the Abrahamic Covenant. He will restore a remnant. He will give them the capacity to seek and serve Him. They will “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4 ESV). And they will prove to be His witnesses to the nations, even to those suffering the wrath of His divine and well-deserved judgment during the dark days of tribulation.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.