The 144,000 Servants of God: a case study in apocalyptic symbolism

A few posts ago we took a brief look at the most popular approach to the book of Revelation in our culture, the "literalist" hermeneutic, and we pointed out its serious inadequacy when faced with many of the bizarre images which John conveys to his readers. When dealing with a literary composition from a period and culture different from our own, and especially with the visionary medium of an apocalypse, we simply cannot decide what is literal and what is non-literal in advance. A one-size-fits-all approach actually never fits anything. I've tried to model a more empathetic and contextually sensitive alternative to the literalist hermeneutic in several posts on this blog (here, here, and here, for instance), but I'd like to take this post and look briefly at one more passage in Revelation: the famous vision of the 144,000 sealed servants of God (Rev 7:1-8).

The question which concerns us is this: are we to understand Revelation 7:1-8 in a non-symbolic fashion, showing us 144,000 actual Israelites who are sealed and protected as God's true servants, or are we to understand it as a visionary symbol which actually represents something else? I am personally convinced of the latter. In fact, I think this passage is a perfect case study to illustrate the weakness of a "literal if possible" approach.

The first thing we must acknowledge, when coming upon this passage within the larger narrative of Revelation, is that John elsewhere speaks of the "church" with Israel-language from the Old Testament. In fact, throughout Revelation the church is constantly spoken of as if it were Israel. Take 1:7 and 5:9-10, for instance, which both identify the Jew-plus-Gentile family of God as "a kingdom of priests" who will "reign on the earth". This is quoting from Exodus 19:5-6, where the Lord calls Israel a "special treasure above all people" and declares their calling to be "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation". Consider also the passage just after the one in question, where we see a great multitude in heaven, again "from all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues", celebrating the Jewish feast of Tabernacles (7:9-17). These are just two of the many examples where the calling and place of Israel is referenced and then attached to everyone in Jesus, which  contrasts starkly with the ironic portrayal of unsaved, corrupt Jews which we find in 2:9 and 3:9.

In fact, this one passage aside, there is no mention of Jewish believers apart from their Gentile brethren anywhere else in Revelation. The emphasis throughout is on one group, the redeemed from every nation, the faithful overcomers who are to inherit the blessings of the new world. And within the narrative this one group is linked inextricably with the seven churches of chapters 2-3, churches composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Thus it would only be in keeping with the language of the rest of the book if 7:1-8 was a symbolic representation of the whole new covenant family of God.

Secondly, if we are to read an apocalyptic passage such as this with the appropriate historical sensitivity, then we must recognize that in the first century A.D. the twelve tribes of Israel literally did not exist; and, as George Caird puts it, "the hope of their eventual restoration, which is frequently found in Jewish literature, belonged to the ideal world, not to the real."

On the other hand, Jesus himself seems to have envisioned the formation of the church, the ekklesia which he was building, in the historical terms of a renewed Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; cf. Matt 16:18), and the earliest Christians saw their emerging movement in precisely those terms as well (e.g. Acts 1:6; Phil 3:3; Jas 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1; 2:9). So then, in light of the rest of the New Testament, it would not be surprising for a Christian apocalypse such as Revelation to take the eschatological ideal of a renewed "twelve tribes" and apply it to the whole new covenant community. Indeed, granted the emphasis on the "complete number" of God's servants in this passage, it's highly likely that that's the whole point of the numerical symbolism (7:4; cf. 6:11).

Third, and most importantly, there is a close relationship between this passage, where John hears of the sealing of God's servants, and the passage immediately following, where he sees a great multitude of the redeemed before the heavenly throne. This is one of those key passages where, if we've been paying attention to what John has told us so far, we would quickly recognize one of his trademark rhetorical devices. In Revelation John repeatedly hears something, conveys what he hears, and then sees that same thing; but what he sees conveys a startlingly different perspective from what he hears, even though object is the same. The effect is profound, for the way in which these contrasting perspectives are conveyed allows multiple and often paradoxical layers of meaning to be set against each other in order to draw out the deepest significance in the encounter.

In the opening vision John hears the voice of YHWH, like the sound of a trumpet, proclaiming "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," but when he turns "to see the voice that spoke" the reader is surprised to find, not the Ancient of Days, but "one like a son of man". The importance of this scene cannot be overstated, for it explicitly places Jesus, as a human, within the divine identity of YHWH himself.

Similarly, and perhaps even more startlingly, John hears of a triumphant lion in 5:5, the Davidic Messiah who has prevailed and proven himself worthy to advance God’s eschatological plan. What he sees, however, is not a triumphant lion, but a slaughtered lamb. The graphic point, which is then expounded upon in the “new song” of 5:9-10, is that the crucifixion of this would-be Messiah is actually the means by which God has accomplished the great victory over the enemy and delivered his people. Far from a symbol of defeat, the cross of Christ belongs to the way God rules the world.

This same pattern occurs in chapter 7, where John hears the number of the servants of God who were sealed, “one hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel,” but then he sees “a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues”. The contrast between what he hears and what he sees is stark, but the contrasting perspectives follow the same pattern that John has already expounded previously in the vision, a pattern which he goes on to expound again (e.g. 21:9-10).

The dissimilarity between 7:1-8 and 7:9-17 is thus not a proof that these two groups are different from one another, but rather it strongly suggests that they are the same. In the same way that John hears of Israel’s deliverer in 4:5 but then sees a sacrificial lamb in 4:6, so he hears of a numbered remnant from the twelve tribes of Israel in 7:4-8 but then sees an innumerable assembly from every tribe, tongue, and nation in 7:9-17. And the point is that this great multitude is the renewed Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, the faithful remnant who will enjoy the blessings of God’s new world.

Of course none of this bears any weight with the literalist camp, because it conflicts with what they deem to be the "normal" reading of the passage. But if such a judgment is made without even considering the differences of literary style and genre, and without acknowledging the force of context which leads to a non-literal alternative, then how is the equation of "normal" with "literal" anything less than a gross anachronism, imposing a set of rules on Revelation which are at odds with its own inner integrity? The kaleidoscopic images of John are simply nothing like the straight prose of Hemingway. Yet such is the bias which has resulted from the modernist ideal of objectivity, a bias which ironically fulfills its own fear of subjectivity.