PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS
|The Seals||First Seal: the Conqueror||The Opening of the First Six Seals||The Seals||The Lamb Breaks the Seven Seals|
|Second Seal: Conflict on Earth|
|Third Seal: Scarcity on Earth|
|Fourth Seal: Widespread Death on Earth|
|Fifth Seal: The Cry of the Martyrs|
|Sixth Seal: Cosmic Disturbances|
|The 144,000 of Israel Sealed||The Sealed of Israel||An Interlude||The 144,000 People of Israel||God's Servants will be Preserved|
|The Multitude from Every Nation||A Multitude from the Great Tribulation||The Enormous Crowd||The Rewarding of the Saints|
READING CYCLE THREE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")
FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT THE PARAGRAPH LEVEL
This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.
Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.
1. First paragraph
2. Second paragraph
3. Third paragraph
A. This section relates contextually to chapters 4 and 5. Chapters 4 and 5 describe events in heaven, while 6:1-8:1 describes the unfolding judgments of God on the earth. As a matter of fact, 4:1-16:21 forms one literary unit.
B. The identity of the first rider (cf. v. 2) is difficult, but assuming it is a symbol of evil, the four riders are symbolic of the persecutions believers face in a fallen, hostile world (cf. Matt. 24:6-7). The term "tribulation" (thlipsis) is used consistently and solely of the persecution of Christians by unbelievers.
The sixth seal beginning in v. 12 describes God's wrath on unbelievers. Believers are exempt from the wrath (orgē, cf. v. 16) of God, but they do face the persecution and rage of the unbelieving world.
C. There are three major interpretive problems in this section.
1. how do the seals, trumpets, and bowls relate to each other in history
2. who are the 144,000 of 7:4 and how do they relate to the second group mentioned in 7:9
3. to which period of tribulation and which type of tribulation does the group in 7:14 refer
WORD AND PHRASE STUDY
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:1-2
1Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, "Come." 2I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
6:1 "when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals" This verse shows the connection between chapters 5 and 6. These seals are broken before the book is read, so many interpreters have assumed that they are representative of problems that occur in every age (cf. Matt. 24:6-12). However, because of the growing intensity of the judgments, some see these as immediately preparatory to the end of the age. Here is the interpretive tension between the kingdom as present and future. There is a fluidity in the NT between the "already" and the "not yet." The book of the Revelation itself illustrates this tension. It was written for the persecuted believers of the first century (and every century) and yet prophetically addresses the last generation of believers. Tribulations are common in every age!
The seventh seal is the seven trumpets and the seventh trumpet is the seven bowls. As has been noted, each is more intense than the previous one. The first two are redemptive in purpose. They basically demonstrate that God's judgment is just because unbelievers will not repent, so the last cycle (i.e., bowls) have no opportunity for repentance, only judgment! But it seems to me that the sixth seal and the sixth trumpet describe the end of the age. Therefore, these are synchronous in nature and not chronologically sequential.
The one Second Coming is discussed three times, at the end of the seals (cf. 6:12-17) and trumpets (cf. 11:15-18), and not just at the end of the bowls in 16:17-21 and again in chapter 19:11-21. This is the structural pattern of the book. It is an apocalyptic drama in several acts! See Introduction to Revelation, C.
▣ "one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder" The four living creatures, like the elders, are levels of angelic creation. This voice, like thunder, is also mentioned in 14:2 and 19:6.
▣ "'Come'" This term means either "come" or "go forth." The text of the ancient Greek uncial manuscript Sinaiticus (א) adds "and see" (cf. KJV, NKJV, which wold refer to John), but Alexandrinus (A) has only "come" (which would refer to the four horses). UBS4 gives this shorter form a "B" rating (almost certain). In context this command (present imperative) does not refer to John or the church, but to the four horsemen (cf. 6:3,5,7).
6:2 "I looked, and behold, a white horse" This context is an allusion to Zech. 1:8 (the four horses) and 6:1-8 (the four chariots). There has been much discussion about the identity of this horseman. The interpretations range all the way from Jesus (Irenaeus) to the anti-Christ. With that kind of confusion, dogmatism is inappropriate. Some believe that it refers to Christ because of a similar description found in 19:11-21, but the only similarity seems to be the color of the horse. Others see this as a reference to the spreading of the gospel. This is because they see these chapters as paralleling the Olivet discourse of Matt. 24; Mark 13, and Luke 21. Therefore, this is assumed to be a reference to Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10.
It has even been proposed, based on Ezekiel 39, that this refers to Gog leading his troops against God's people. This would symbolize the end-time anti-Christ (cf. II Thessalonians 2). It seems highly unusual that an angel could command Jesus to come. Although Jesus wears a crown in chapters 6 and 19, the Greek words to describe these crowns are different. There, Jesus is called "faithful and true," but not here. The conquest of the rider is not described at all. The rider is described as having a bow in chapter 6, but in chapter 19, Christ has a double edged sword in His mouth, therefore, the similarity is far overshadowed by the differences. This may be just one of the plagues of the OT. These plagues, which are an allusion to Leviticus 26 and Ezek. 14:21, are spelled out in v. 8. White was not only a color symbol for righteousness, but also a Roman symbol of military victory. Roman generals who had been victorious in battle rode in a chariot through the streets of Rome pulled by four white horses.
▣ "and he who sat on it had a bow" The bow was the weapon of choice of the feared mounted archers of the Parthian Hordes (who rode on white horses). The bow is often used in the OT to describe YHWH as Warrior (cf. Ps. 45:4-5; Isa. 41:2; 49:2-3; Hab. 3:9; Zech. 9:13 and possibly Gen. 9:13). There are also examples of YHWH judging other nations in the metaphor of His breaking their bow (cf Ps. 46:9; Jer. 51:56 and Hosea 1:5).
▣ "a crown was given to him" This is a "stephanos" crown, meaning a victor's crown, while the one mentioned in 19:11 of Christ is a "diadema," a royal crown.
▣ "he went out conquering and to conquer" The symbols in v. 1 are of war and conquest. Because the first and second horsemen are described with similar purposes, some see this first one as a war of conquest and the second as a civil war. This is speculation, but the two horses are somehow parallel.
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:3-4
3When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come." 4And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
6:4 "another, a red horse" This is an allusion to some kind of military slaughter.
▣ "a great sword was given to him" This was the small Roman sword called "machaira." It was worn on the belt of Roman soldiers and was used for capital punishment of Roman citizens (cf. Rom. 13:4). The phrase "men would slay one another" is interesting because in the OT this is one of the means YHWH used to defeat His people's enemies (cf. Jdgs. 7:22; I Sam. 14:20; II Chr. 20:22).
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:5-6
5When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. 6And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine."
6:5 "I looked, and behold, a black horse" This is a symbol of famine (cf. Matt. 24:7) which follows war.
6:6 "A quart of wheat for a denarius" A denarius was a day's wage for a soldier or a laborer (cf. Matt. 20:2). We learn from Herodotus that this would purchase the normal amount of food required for one man for one day. This shows the severity of the famine: that a man could work all day and have only enough food for himself.
▣ "three quarts of barley for a denarius" Barley was the staple diet of the poor. This Greek word "quarts" is "choinix" and equaled about 1.92 pints.
▣ "and do not damage the oil and the wine" It is amazing how many interpretations there are of this detail. Many try to go back to the Temple scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls to find some allusion to Jewish sacrifice. Oil and wine were staples of the diet of Mediterranean people. The fact that these were not hurt shows a limited famine. This limitation can also be seen in v. 8. God limits His judgment so that unbelievers will have time to repent (cf. 16:9). It is also possible that both of these were used for medical purposes.
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:7-8
7When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come." 8I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
NASB"an ashen horse"
NKJV"a pale horse"
NRSV"pale green horse"
TEV"a pale-colored horse"
The term "pale" referred to a yellowish green or off-white color. In English we get the word "chlorine" from this Greek word. It was possibly the color of a dead body. Because of the list of the means of death in v. 8, this may refer to those killed or eaten by wild animals, which was one of the OT curses (cf. Lev. 26:22; Jer. 15:3; Ezek. 5:17; 14:21).
▣ "he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following" This is an OT allusion to Pro. 5:5 or Hosea 13:14. It is a personification of the terms for the termination of physical life. These two terms are used three times together in the Revelation (cf. 1:18; 20:13-14).
The term "Hades" is synonymous to the OT term "Sheol," which meant "the holding place of the dead." See SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead? at 1:18.
▣ "Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth" Notice the pronoun "them" refers to all four horses and their riders. There is an intensification of the judgment in the trumpets (i.e.,one third, cf. 8:7,8,10,12); there is complete destruction in the bowls (cf. 16:1-21). These fractions are a literary device to show that God's judgments had a redemptive purpose (cf. 9:20-21; 14:7; 16:9,11), but fallen, rebellious, hardened mankind would not respond (although a few may have, cf. 11:13).
▣ "to kill with" These four horsemen represent the OT covenant judgments (cf. Lev. 26:21-26; Jer. 15:2-3; 24:10; 27:8; 29:17-18; 32:24,36; 34:17; Ezek. 5:12,17; 14:21; Amos 4:6-10). The term for "sword" is different from v. 4. This refers to the large battle sword, hromphaia. All four of the OT judgments of war, famine, plague, and wild animals are listed in Lev. 26:21-26 and Ezek. 14:21. These covenant judgments are clearly discussed in Deuteronomy 27-29. Remember, originally their purpose was to cause Israel to repent and turn back to YHWH. They function in that same redemptive sense here (cf. 9:20-21; 11:13; 14:7; 16:9,11).
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:9-11
9When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
6:9 "I saw underneath the altar" There has been much discussion as to which altar this refers. The term "altar" is used quite often in Revelation (cf. 8:3,5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7). Some believe that this refers to the sacrificial altar mentioned in Lev. 4:7 and by Paul in Phil. 2:17, while others believe that it is the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle (cf. 8:3-5) or temple of Rev. 11:1. It is probably the altar of sacrifice because
1. the rabbis saw this as a place of great honor
2. it is referring to death (i.e., blood) of the martyrs
One might ask, "Why do martyrs assemble under the altar?" Remember that in the OT "blood" was the symbol of life (cf. Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11,14). In the sacrificial system of Israel the blood was not placed on the horns of the sacrificial altar, but poured out at the base (i.e., Exod. 29:12; Lev. 4:7,18,25; 8:15; 9:9). Therefore, the life (i.e., souls) of the slain martyrs was at the base of the altar.
▣ "the souls of those who had been slain" These souls are the disembodied (between death and resurrection) martyred believers (cf. 13:15; 18:24; 20:4). This is surprising because it is more a Greek thought than a Hebrew concept. All Christians are called to be martyrs if the situation demands (cf. 2:10,13; Matt. 10:38-39; 16:24).
There seems to be no connection between those killed by the four horsemen of 6:1-8 and these martyrs!
NASB"because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained"
NKJV"for the word of God and for the testimony which they held"
NRSV"for the word of God and for the testimony they had given"
TEV"because they had proclaimed God's word and had been faithful in their witnessing"
NJB"on account of the Word of God, for witnessing to it"
This phrase is a recurrent theme in Revelation (cf. 1:9; 12:11,17; 19:10; 20:4). It is very similar in meaning to the phrase "to him who overcomes" (cf. 2:6,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21). These were killed because they were active Christians.
6:10 "How long. . .will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood" Many commentators view this as being sub-Christian. This is probably because these commentators have never been in severe persecution from unbelievers themselves. These people are not asking for vengeance, but for justice! This may be an allusion to Deut. 32:43 (cf. Rev. 19:2). This request follows Paul's admonition in Rom. 12:19.
▣ "O Lord" This term "Lord" (despotēs) describes total authority. We get the English term "despot" from this Greek word. It is used of YHWH in Luke 2:29 and Acts 4:24 and of Jesus in II Pet. 2:1 and Jude v. 4.
▣ "those who dwell on the earth" This is a very common phrase in Revelation; it always refers to unbelievers (cf. 3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8,12,14; 17:2,8).
6:11 "there was given to each of them a white robe" This is a metaphor for "rest," "blessedness," or "victory." For some the theological problem involved here is how a disembodied soul could wear a piece of clothing. Be careful of hyper literalism, especially when interpreting an apocalyptic drama! The fact that commentators even discuss this shows how much they misunderstand the genre of the book! Do not push the details in Revelation!
▣ "until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also" One of the major truths of this book is that God is in control of all things (cf. v. 8), even the death of Christian martyrs! All of history is in His hand. God is not surprised by any events, actions, or outcomes. Yet there is still pain, suffering and unfairness in this fallen world. For a good discussion of the problem of evil see John W. Wenham's The Goodness of God.
This concept of a completed number of martyrs (cf. I Enoch 47:4) is a symbolic way of referring to God's knowledge and plan for mankind. This is similar to Paul's concept of "the fullness of the Gentiles" (cf. Rom. 11:12,25) which refers to God's knowledge of all the Gentiles who would be saved.
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 6:12-17
12I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. 14The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. 15Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"
6:12 "He broke the sixth seal" This verse is Jewish apocalyptic language for the end of the age (cf. Joel 2:30-31; 3:15-16; Isa. 13:9,10; 34:4; Jer. 4:23-28; Hag. 2:6; Matt. 24:29; and The Assumption of Moses, 10:5). Notice the seven items in vv. 12-14. This language is used in the OT for the Lord's Day. Its use here in the sixth seal and later in the sixth trumpet is the one reason, I believe, that each of these series of sevens terminates with the end of the age, the Second Coming of Christ (cf. 6:12-17; 11:15-18; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 19:11-21; 22:6-16). Revelation is not chronologically sequential. It is a drama of seven acts.
▣ "there was a great earthquake" There are many earthquakes mentioned in this book (cf. 8:5; 11:13,19; 16:18). It is interesting to note that there are seven aspects to this end-time, apocalyptic event. There are also seven different categories listed in v. 15 (see Special Topic: Symbolic Number in Scripture at 1:4). This is another example of the highly structured, literary pattern of apocalyptic literature (cf. 5:12).
▣ "the sun became black. . .moon became like blood" This is an OT allusion to judgment day (cf. Isa. 13:10; 24:23; 50:3; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:2,10,31; 3:15; Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25).
6:13 "stars of the sky fell" This metaphor may have two origins:
1. the stability of God's created order (cf. Job 38:31-33; Ps. 89:36-37; Isa. 13:10; Jer. 31:35-36; 37:20-26; Enoch 2:1) dissolves amidst God's judgments (cf. Matt. 24:29)
2. stars falling is a common intertestamental apocalyptic metaphor (which usually refers to angels, i.e., 12:4; Dan. 8:10)
In this context #1 fits best.
6:14 "the sky was split apart" The ancients viewed the sky as a solid dome of stretched skin (cf. Job 22:14; Ps. 104:2; Pro. 8:27; Isa. 40:22). This is a metaphor of deity breaking into the natural order (cf. Isa. 34:4).
▣ "every mountain and island were moved out of their places" In the OT, whenever God visited His creation, either for blessing or judgment, it convulsed. The description is often painted in apocalyptic terms. Verses 15-17 describe God's wrath on the unbelieving persecutors (cf. 16:20). These same descriptions are used in the OT to make physical access to God's presence easier, like the lowering of mountains, the drying up of rivers, etc. (cf. Isa. 40:4).
6:15 "hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains" As God's persecuted people had to hide from the persecutions of unbelievers (cf. Heb. 11:38), so now the rich and powerful (possible allusion to Ps. 2:2) seek shelter from God's wrath (cf. Isa. 2:10,19,21). This verse describes fallen, unbelieving mankind in seven ways. This use of sevens is a basic pattern in John's book (see Special Topic at 1:4).
6:16 "fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne" This is an allusion to Hosea 10:8 (cf. Isa. 2:19,21 and Luke 23:30). Notice that the Father's and the Son's wrath are linked as they deplore what is happening to their family of faith. They act in history to vindicate the faithful and punish the rebellious (cf. Gal. 6:7).
▣ "wrath of the Lamb" This is a powerful mixed metaphor. This imagery of a victorious lamb is from Jewish interbiblical literature. For "wrath" (orgē) see note at 7:14.
6:17 Verse 17 seems to be an allusion either to Joel 2:11 or Mal. 3:2. Many commentators believe that v. 17 sets the stage for the interlude found in chapter 7, which attempts to answer the question, "What about the believers who are on the earth during these apocalyptic events and series of judgments?" There has always been a debate among commentators as to whether the seals in chapter 6 are redemptive or judicial (cf. 9:20-21; 14:7-8; 16:9,11). Chapter 6 refers to God's judgment on unbelievers who refuse to believe. These judgments start out effecting 1/4 of the world, then 1/3 and finally in the bowls the entire unbelieving world (cf. Zeph. 1:14-18).
CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS TO 7:1-17
A. Chapter 7 forms an interlude between the sixth seal and the opening of the seventh seal (cf. 8:1, as does 10:1-11:13 between the sixth and seventh trumpets). It deals with the question of what is happening to believers during these cycles of God's judgment on unbelievers. The seventh seal becomes the seven trumpets.
B. This interlude deals with two groups of believers
1. The 144,000 from the Twelve Tribes on earth (cf. vv. 1-8, esp. v. 4)
2. The innumerable host from the tribes of the whole earth who are now in heaven (cf. vv.9-17, esp. v. 9)
C. God acts in powerful, protective, assuring ways on behalf of His people. There is no distinction in Revelation between believing Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom. 2:28-29; 3:22; I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). The OT's racial distinctions have been universalized into believers and unbelievers.
WORD AND PHRASE STUDY
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 7:1-3
1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 3saying, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads."
7:1 "I saw four angels. . .standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth" In OT number symbolism, four referred to the whole earth (cf. Isa. 11:12; Jer. 49:36; Dan. 7:2; Zech. 1:8; 6:1,5; Matt. 24:31, see Special Topic at 1:4).
There have been several interpretations of these four winds.
1. the rabbis viewed the quarterly winds as evil (cf. Acts 27:14)
2. some refer it to the evil winds or possibly the judgments of God of Jer. 49:36 and Dan. 7:2
3. some see it as an allusion to the number four in Zech. 1:8 and 6:5, where the four horsemen and four chariots are servants of God throughout the world (cf. Matt. 24:31)
▣ "no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree" This, like 6:6 and 8, shows a limited judgment (cf. 7:3; 9:4).
7:2 "saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun" The east (sun) was a symbol of life, health, or a new day.
▣ "having the seal of the living God" God's seal is referred to again in 9:4 and 14:1 and probably 22:4. Satan's seal is mentioned in 13:16; 14:9; and 20:4. The purpose of this seal is to identify God's people so that the wrath of God will not affect them. Satan's seal identifies his people, who are the object of God's wrath.
In Revelation "tribulation" (i.e., thlipsis) is always unbelievers persecuting believers, while wrath/anger (i.e., orgē or thumos) is always God's judgment on unbelievers so that they might repent and turn to faith in Christ. This positive purpose of judgment can be seen in covenant curses/blessings of Deuteronomy 27-28.
The phrase "the living God" is a word play on the title YHWH (cf. Exod. 3:14; Ps. 42:4; 84:2; Matt. 16:16, see Special Topic at 1:8). This same word play is often found in biblical oaths, "as the Lord lives."
▣ "the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea" This is an aorist passive indicative. God is in control of the judgments on the earth and unbelievers. His limits on judgment have two purposes:
1. that believers will not be hurt by them
2. that unbelievers might repent, call upon His name, and give Him glory (cf. 9:20-21; 14:6-7; 16:9,11; 21:7; 22:17)
7:3 "until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads" This is an allusion to Ezek. 9:4,6 (cf. Rev. 9:4; 14:1). The opposite of this sealing is Satan's sealing, the mark of the beast (cf. 13:16,17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 7:4
4And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
7:4 "one hundred and forty-four thousand" This same mysterious group is mentioned in 14:1,3. There has been much discussion about this number and who it represents. This number is symbolic, not literal, for the following reasons.
1. the number itself is a round number and all the tribes have an equal number (which they never did in the OT)
2. the number is a multiple of twelve which is the biblical number of organization (or possible the people of God) and ten, which is the biblical number of completion (see Special Topic at 1:4)
3. chapter 7 is in apocalyptic language
4. the list of the tribes of Israel is slightly altered (Dan is omitted, and Ephraim is replaced by Joseph). A Jew would know that it was not meant to be taken literally.
Some of the possible interpretations of this group have been:
1. that it is literally end-time believing Israel (cf. Zech. 12:10)
2. that it is those newly-converted believers present after the secret rapture of the Church
3. that it is the believing Jewish remnant (cf. Romans 11)
4. that it is a title for the NT Church (cf. 1:6)
The sealing is not limited in Revelation to one group, but represents God's ownership and protection of His people (cf. 2:20; 11:18; 19:2,5; 22:36). Satan seals all of his followers (cf. 13:16,17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4), mimicking God (cf. 3:12; 7:3; 14:1; 22:4).
The NT often describes the Church in terms which were used of Israel (cf. Rom. 2:28-29; 4:11; 9:6,8; Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Phil. 3:3) and particularly in the book of the Revelation where in 1:6 the Church is addressed by a title used of Israel in Exod. 19:4-6 (cf. I Pet. 2:5,9). In the books of James (cf. 1:1) and I Peter (cf. 1:1) the Church is also described as the "Diaspora," the name for scattered Jews who were not living in Palestine.
It seems best to me at this point in my study of this book to identify the 144,000 in v. 4 and "the great multitude" of v. 9 as the NT people of God—those who trust Christ, but viewed in two different senses (believing Jews and believing Gentiles).
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 7:5-8
5from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
7:5 "from the tribe of Judah" The list of tribes in v. 5 does not agree with any of the twenty-plus lists found in the OT. It especially does not agree with Ezek. 48:2-7, which lists the eschatological people of God. Dan is omitted, Judah is listed first, Ephraim is left out, but Joseph is listed in its place and Levi is included with the other tribes. Any Jew would recognize that this list is irregular and meant to be taken symbolically.
F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p. 139, mentions that the reason the tribe of Dan was omitted from the list in Church tradition goes back to Irenaeus' interpretation of Jer. 8:16 in the Septuagint. It reads:
"We shall hear the neighing of his swift horses out of Dan: the whole land quaked at the sound of the neighing of his horses; and he shall come, and devour the land and the fulness of it; the city, and they that dwell in it."
Irenaeus saw the coming Antichrist as coming out of the tribe of Dan. This is mere speculation, not exegesis!
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 7:9-12
9After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, "Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen."
7:9 The great multitude mentioned in this verse is obviously different from the one hundred forty-four thousand which are mentioned in v. 4. As the first group came from different tribes of Israel, this group comes from every tribe of the earth. It seems that these two groups represent the same group of people in two different senses. If vv. 1-8 refer to believing Jews, then v. 9 refers to the people of God of all people groups (cf. 5:9; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15).
However, the fact that they are said to (1) have come out of the great tribulation (cf. v. 14); (2) were standing before the throne (cf. v. 9); and (3) they have white robes (cf. 6:11) may identify them as the complete number of martyrs (cf. 6:11; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4).
▣ "which no one could count" This may be an allusion to the promises to Abraham of abundant descendants.
1. dust of the earth – Gen. 13:16; 28:14; Num. 23:10
2. stars of heaven – Gen. 15:5; 22:17; 26:4; Deut. 1:10
3. sand on the seashore – Gen. 22:17; 32:12
4. a general statement – Gen. 16:10
▣ "palm branches were in their hands" Some try to identify this with Lev. 23:40 or Neh. 8:15 as a sign of joy and triumph. Others relate it to the rituals of the Feast of Passover as in John 12:13 and still others, because this passage is linked to the Wilderness Wandering Period (cf. vv. 15-16), with the Feast of Tabernacles. The palm branches may simply be a symbol of victory.
7:10 "Salvation to our God" This is the normal Greek term for "salvation" (sōteria from sōzō), but it may be used in the sense of "victory" (NEB) or "have completely overcome." Therefore, it could refer to (1) deliverance from the problems of life on earth or (2) spiritual, eternal salvation. The OT term (yasha) meant physical deliverance (cf. James 5:15). This same term is used in a series of blessings to God three times in Revelation (cf. 7:10; 12:10; 19:1).
▣ "and to the Lamb" Notice that the Messiah is blessed in the same way as YHWH. This stresses the divine essence of the Son.
7:11 Notice that several groups are differentiated.
1. the angels
2. the elders
3. the four living creatures
These groups are all connected to the throne room of God in heaven. They are separate from the 144,000 and the great multitude.
For "the elders" see SPECIAL TOPIC: ELDER at 4:4.
7:12 "saying" Notice the sevenfold blessing to God (and Messiah, cf. v. 10), which is similar to the sevenfold blessing of the slain lamb of 5:12.
▣ "Amen" Notice how it starts and concludes the blessing. See Special Topic at 1:6.
NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 7:13-17
13Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?" 14I said to him, "My lord, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. 16They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; 17for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes."
7:14 "I said to him, 'My Lord, you know'" This is a common human response to angelic messengers (cf. Zech. 4:5,13; Dan. 10:16), which reinforces the identification of the elders with a group of angelic beings.
Apocalyptic literature is characterized by angelic mediation and interpretation. These interpretations become crucial (as are the choir's songs) in defining and understanding the symbolic language.
▣ "these are the ones who come out of the great tribulation" This is a present participle and is an allusion to the persecuted churches in John's day (cf. 1:9; 2:9,10,22). However, it is obvious that the historical allusions in the Revelation address the persecution of the saints in every age and also point to an end-time intensification of persecution (cf. Dan. 12:1). This is related to
1. the persecution of God's children (cf. Matt. 24:21-22; Mark 13:19; II Thess. 2:3ff; Rev. 2:10; Dan. 12:1)
2. God's coming wrath on unbelievers (cf. II Thess. 1:6-9; Rev. 3:10; 6:17; 8:2ff; 16:1ff)
These problems, to some degree, have been associated with every age. Christians have often suffered in Jesus' name (cf. John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3; I Pet. 4:12-16). Both of these events are often called the birth pangs of the new age of righteousness (cf. Mark 13:8 and the apocryphal book of II Baruch, chapters 25-30).
The Greek term thlipsis (tribulation) in Revelation is always used of believers' suffering persecution at the hands of unbelievers (cf. 1:9; 2:9,10,22; 7:14). The Greek terms thumos (cf. 12:12; 14:8,10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1; 18:3; 19:15) and orgē (cf. 6:16,17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15) are always used of the Father's or the Son's wrath on rebellious, stubborn unbelievers.
As a theological aside, if the book was written to encourage believers going through tribulations, why do some interpreters insist on a secret rapture to spare some future generation of believers persecution? Persecution was the lot of most of the Church's first leaders, and every generation of believers. Why then should one future group be spared?
▣ "they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" This apparently refers to martyrs who die for their faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation. What a striking metaphor of redemption (cf. 22:14)! This idea of cleansing by means of the sacrificial death of Christ can be seen in Rom. 3:25; 5:9; II Cor. 5:21; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:20; Heb. 9:14; I Pet. 1:19; and I John 1:7. The truth of the cross is often alluded to in Revelation (cf. 1:5; 5:12; 7:14; 12:11; 13:8; 14:4; 15:3; 19:7; 21:9,23; 22:3).
Notice the combination of Christ's provision and mankind's need to respond to God's invitation. The covenantal aspect of both Testaments asserts God's initiation and provision, but the sovereign God has also chosen that fallen mankind must respond (cf. John 1:12; Mark 1:15; Acts 3:16,19; 20:21; Rom. 10:9-13).
7:15-16 A future time of bliss and heavenly peace is described in OT terms. This is an allusion to the wilderness wandering period and the Tabernacle (cf. Exod. 40:34-38; Num. 9:15-23). It is an additional allusion to the Shekinah cloud of glory, which symbolized God's presence with the people (cf. Isa. 49:10; Matt. 5:6; John 4:14; 6:35; 7:37). This period of Israel's history was in reality a period of judgment. However, YHWH was never closer and more attentive than during this period of judgment. It is often referred to by the rabbis as YHWH and Israel's honeymoon.
7:15 "they serve Him day and night" In the OT this referred to Levitical priests (cf. Ps. 134:1; I Chr. 9:33). The access to God and the service of God has been expanded to (1) persecuted believers and (2) all believers. There is no longer a Jewish elite priesthood! All believers are priests (cf. I Pt. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6).
The phrase "day and night" is a metaphor for continuance. It is found several times in Revelation (cf. 4:8; 7:15; 12:10; 14:11; 20:10).
▣ "in His temple" It is somewhat difficult to relate this passage (and Ezekiel 40-48) to Rev. 21:22 which says there will be no temple in heaven. Some try to make a distinction between a temporal millennial reign and the eternal reign. Obviously, the metaphors and time frame in this book are fluid. This may refer to the spiritual Tabernacle in heaven (cf. Heb. 9:23).
▣ "will spread His tabernacle over them" This is a verbal metaphor of God's dwelling intimately with His people. God's tent represents His permanent presence with His new people from every kindred and tribe. The initial purpose of the Garden of Eden is restored. Humanity is redeemed (cf. Gen. 3:15). Intimate fellowship with God is again possible (i.e., Gen. 3:8).
7:16-17 These are blessings (from the OT) for all believers, not just martyrs.
7:16 "they will hunger no more, nor thirst anymore" Verse 16 is an allusion to Isa. 49:10-13. God's physical provisions are used as a symbol of God's spiritual provisions (cf. Matt. 5:6; John 4:14; 6:35; 7:37).
▣ "nor will the sun beat down on them; nor any heat" This is an allusion to the shade provided by the Shekinah cloud of glory during the 38 year Wilderness Wandering Period (cf. Ps. 121:5-7).
7:17 "for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd" This is an OT allusion to Ezek. 34:23. Notice that the slain but risen Redeemer is the focal point of God's redemptive activity. The Good Shepherd of John 10:11 is now the Shepherd of all the sheep (cf. John 10:16).
▣ "and will guide them to springs of the water of life" For desert people water has always been a symbol of abundance and life. This is an allusion to Isa. 49:10 (cf. Ps. 23:2), which is repeated at the close of the book in Rev. 21:6; 22:1.
▣ "and God will wipe every tear from their eyes" This allusion is to the Messianic banquet and new city of God in Isa. 25:6-9 (cf. Rev. 21:4). What a comfort this must have been to the persecuted believers of John's day and every age!
This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.
These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.
1. Who are the 144,000? Explain your answer from the text of Revelation.
2. How do the 144,000 relate to the large group in v. 9?
3. Why are these symbols so hard for us to interpret?
4. What is the major thrust of chapters 6 and 7?
5. What is meant when it is said that chapter 7 is an interlude? Where are other interludes found in the book?
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