Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Revelation 7:4

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

And I heard the number of them which were sealed - He does not say where he heard that, or by whom it was communicated to him, or when it was done. The material point is, that he heard it; he did not see it done. Either by the angel, or by some direct communication from God, he was told of the number that would be sealed, and of the distribution of the whole number into twelve equal parts, represented by the tribes of the children of Israel.

And there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel - In regard to this number, the first and the main question is, whether it is meant that this was to be the literal number, or whether it was symbolical; and, if the latter, of what it is a symbol:

I. As to the first of these inquiries, there does not appear to be any good reason for doubt. The fair interpretation seems to require that it should be understood as symbolical, or as designed not to be literally taken; for:

(a)the whole scene is symbolical - the winds, the angels, the sealing.

(b)It cannot be supposed that this number will include all who will be sealed and saved. In whatever way this is interpreted, and whatever we may suppose it to refer to, we cannot but suppose that more than this number will be saved.

(c)The number is too exact and artificial to suppose that it is literal. It is inconceivable that exactly the same number - precisely twelve thousand - should be selected from each tribe of the children of Israel.

(d)If literal, it is necessary to suppose that this refers to the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. But on every supposition this is absurd. Ten of their tribes had been long before carried away, and the distinction of the tribes was lost, no more to be recovered, and the Hebrew people never have been, since the time of John, in circumstances to which the description here could be applicable. These considerations make it clear that the description here is symbolical. But,

II. Of what is it symbolical? Is it of a large number, or of a small number? Is it of those who would be saved from among the Jews, or of all who would be saved in the Christian church - represented as the “tribes of the children of Israel?” To these inquiries we may answer:

(1) that the representation seems to be rather that of a comparatively small number than a large one, for these reasons:

(a) The number of itself is not large.

(b) The number is not large as compared with those who must have constituted the tribes here referred to - the number twelve thousand, for example, as compared with the whole number of the tribe of Judah, of the tribe of Reuben, etc.

(c) It would seem from the language that there would be some selection from a much greater number. Thus, not all in the tribes were scaled, but those who were sealed were “of all the tribes” - ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς ek pasēs phulēsthat is, out of these tribes. So in the specification in each tribe - ἐκ φυλῆς Ἰούδα, Ρουβὴν ek phulēs IoudaRoubēnetc. Some out of the tribe, to wit, twelve thousand, were sealed, It is not said of the twelve thousand of the tribes of Judah, Reuben, etc., that they constituted the tribe, but that they were sealed out of the tribe, as a part of it preserved and saved. “When the preposition ἐκ ekor “out of,” stands after any such verb as sealed, between a definite numeral and a noun of multitude in the genitive, sound criticism requires, doubtless, that the numeral should be thus construed as signifying, not the whole, but a part taken out” (Elliott, i. 237). Compare Exodus 32:28; Numbers 1:21; 1 Samuel 4:10. The phrase, then, would properly denote those taken out of some other and greater number - as a portion of a tribe, and not the whole tribe. If the reference here is to the church, it would seem to denote that a portion only of that church would be sealed.

(d) For the same reason the idea would seem to be, that comparatively a small portion is referred to - as twelve thousand would be comparatively a small part of one of the tribes of Israel; and if this refers to the church, we should expect to find its fulfillment in a state of things in which the largest proportion would not be scaled; that is, in a corrupt state of the church in which there would be many professors of religion, but comparatively few who had real piety.

(2) to the other inquiry - whether this refers to those who would be sealed and saved among the Jews, or to those in the Christian church - we may answer:

(a) that there are strong reasons for supposing the latter to be the correct opinion. Long before the time of John all these distinctions of tribe were abolished. The ten tribes had been carried away and scattered in distant lands, never more to be restored; and it cannot be supposed that there was any such literal selection from the twelve tribes as is here spoken of, or any such designation of twelve thousand from each. There was no occasion - either when Jerusalem was destroyed, or at any ether time - on which there were such transactions as are here referred to occurring in reference to the children of Israel.

(b) The language is such as a Christian, who had been by birth and education a Hebrew, would naturally use if he wished to designate the church. Compare the notes on James 1:1. Accustomed to speak of the people of God as “the twelve tribes of Israel,” nothing was more natural than to transfer this language to the church of the Redeemer, and to speak of it in that figurative manner. Accordingly, from the necessity of the case, the language is universally understood to have reference to the Christian church. Even Prof. Stuart, who supposes that the reference is to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, interprets it of the preservation of Christians, and their flight to Pella, beyond Jordan. Thus interpreted, moreover, it accords with the entire symbolical character of the representation.

(c) The reference to the particular tribes may be a designed allusion to the Christian church as it would be divided into denominations, or known by different names; and the fact that a certain portion would be sealed from every tribe would not be an unfit representation of the fact that a portion of all the various churches or denominations would be sealed and saved. That is, salvation would be confined to no one church or denomination, but among them all there would be found true servants of God. It would be improper to suppose that the division into tribes among the children of Israel was designed to be a type of the sects and denominations in the Christian church, and yet the fact of such a division may not improperly be employed as an illustration of that; for the whole church is made up not of any one denomination alone, but of all who hold the truth combined, as the people of God in ancient times consisted not solely of any one tribe, however large and powerful, but of all combined. Thus understood, the symbol would point to a time when there would be various denominations in the church, and yet with the idea that true friends of God would be found among them all.

(d) Perhaps nothing can be argued from the fact that exactly twelve thousand were selected from each of the tribes. In language so figurative and symbolical as this, it could not be maintained that this proves that the santo definite number would be taken from each denomination of Christians. Perhaps all that can be fairly inferred is, that there would be no partiality or preference for one more than another; that there would be no favoritism on account of the tribe or denomination to which anyone belonged; but that the seal would be impressed on all, of any denomination, who had the true spirit of religion. No one would receive the token of the divine favor because he was of the tribe of Judah or Reuben; no one because he belonged to any particular denomination of Christians. Large numbers from every branch of the church would be sealed; none would be sealed because he belonged to one form of external organization rather than to another; none would be excluded because he belonged to any one tribe, if he had the spirit and held the sentiments which made it proper to recognize him as a servant of God. These views seem to me to express the true sense of this passage. No one can seriously maintain that the writer meant to refer literally to the Jewish people; and if he referred to the Christian church, it seems to be to some selection that would be made out of the whole church, in which there would be no favoritism or partiality, and to the fact that, in regard to them, there would be some something which, in the midst of abounding corruption or impending danger, would designate them as the chosen people of God, and would furnish evidence that they would be safe.

Uriah Smith
Daniel and the Revelation, 446

Verse 4

The number sealed is here stated to be one hundred and forty-four thousand; and from the fact that twelve thousand are sealed from each of the twelve tribes, many suppose that this work must have been accomplished as far back at least as about the beginning of the Christian era, when these tribes were literally in existence. They do not see how it can apply to our own time, when every trace of distinction between these tribes has been so long and so completely obliterated. We refer such persons to the opening language of the Epistle of James: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting. My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations,” etc. Those whom James here addresses are (1) Christians; for they are his brethren; (2) They are not the converts to Christianity from the Jews, the twelve tribes of his own day; for he addresses them in view of the coming of the Lord. (See chapter 5.) He is thus addressing the last generation of Christians, the Christians of our own day; and he calls them the twelve tribes scattered abroad. How can this be? Paul explains in Romans 11:17-24. In the striking figure of grafting which he there introduces, the tame olive tree represents Israel. Some of the branches, the natural descendants of Abraham, were broken off because of unbelief (in Christ). Through faith in Christ the wild olive scions, the Gentiles, are grafted into the tame olive stock, and thus the twelve tribes are perpetuated. And here we find an explanation of the language of the same apostle: “They are not all Israel which are of Israel,” and “he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, ... but he is a Jew which is one inwardly.” Romans 9:6-8; 2:28, 29. So we find on the gates of the New Jerusalem — which is a New Testament or Christian, not a Jewish, city — the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the foundations of this city are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Revelation 21:12-14. If the twelve tribes belong exclusively to the former dispensation, the more natural order would have been to have their names on the foundations, and those of the twelve apostles on the gates; but no, the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates. And as through these gates, so inscribed, all the redeemed hosts will go in and out, so, as belonging to these twelve tribes, will all the redeemed be reckoned, whether on earth they were Jews or Gentiles. Of course we look in vain for any marks of distinction between the tribes here on earth; and since Christ has appeared in the flesh, the preservation of the genealogy of the tribes is not necessary. But in heaven, where the names of the church of the first-born are being enrolled, we may be sure there is order, and that each name is enrolled in its own tribe. Hebrews 12:23.DAR 446.2

It will be observed that the enumeration of the tribes here differs from that given in other places. The twelve sons of Jacob, who became the heads of great families, called tribes, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, and Joseph. But Jacob, on his dying bed, adopted the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, to constitute two of the tribes of Israel. Genesis 48:5. This divided the tribe of Joseph, making thirteen tribes in all. Yet in the distribution of the land of Canaan by lot, they numbered but twelve tribes, and made but twelve lots; for the tribe of Levi was left out, being appointed to the service of the tabernacle, and having no inheritance. But in the passage before us, Ephraim and Dan are omitted, and Levi and Joseph put in their places. The omission of Dan is accounted for by commentators on the ground that that tribe was the one chiefly addicted to idolatry. (See Judges 18, etc.) The tribe of Levi here takes its place with the rest, as in the heavenly Canaan * the reasons for their not having an inheritance will not exist, as in the earthly; and Joseph is probably put for Ephraim, it being a name which appears to have been applied to either the tribe of Ephraim or Manasseh. Numbers 13:11.DAR 447.1

Twelve thousand were sealed “out of” each of the twelve tribes, showing that not all who in the records of heaven had a place among these tribes when this sealing work commenced, stood the test, and were overcomers at last; for the names of those already in the book of life will be blotted out, unless they overcome. Revelation 3:5.DAR 448.1

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
In the figurative language of Scripture, the blowing of the four winds together, means a dreadful and general destruction. But the destruction is delayed. Seals were used to mark for each person his own possessions. This mark is the witness of the Holy Ghost, printed in the hearts of believers. And the Lord would not suffer his people to be afflicted before they were marked, that they might be prepared against all conflicts. And, observe, of those who are thus sealed by the Spirit, the seal must be on the forehead, plainly to be seen alike by friends and foes, but not by the believer himself, except as he looks stedfastly in the glass of God's word. The number of those who were sealed, may be understood to stand for the remnant of people which God reserved. Though the church of God is but a little flock, in comparison with the wicked world, yet it is a society really large, and to be still more enlarged. Here the universal church is figured under the type of Israel.
Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

I heard the number of them which were sealed - In the number of 144,000 are included all the Jews converted to Christianity; 12,000 out of each of the twelve tribes: but this must be only a certain for an uncertain number; for it is not to be supposed that just 12,000 were converted out of each of the twelve tribes.

Ellen G. White
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, 59-60

Soon we heard the voice of God like many waters, which gave us the day and hour of Jesus’ coming. The living saints, 144,000 in number, knew and understood the voice, while the wicked thought it was thunder and an earthquake. When God spake the time, He poured upon us the Holy Spirit, and our faces began to light up and shine with the glory of God, as Moses’ did when he came down from Mount Sinai. 1T 59.1

The 144,000 were all sealed and perfectly united. On their foreheads were the words God, New Jerusalem, and a glorious star containing Jesus’ new name. At our happy, holy state the wicked were enraged, and would rush violently up to lay hands on us to thrust us into prison, when we would stretch forth the hand in the name of the Lord, and they would fall helpless to the ground. Then it was that the synagogue of Satan knew that God had loved us, who could wash one another's feet, and salute the brethren with a holy kiss, and they worshiped at our feet. 1T 59.2

Soon our eyes were drawn to the east, for a small black cloud had appeared, about half as large as a man's hand, which we all knew was the sign of the Son of man. In solemn silence we all gazed on the cloud as it drew nearer, and became lighter, glorious, and still more glorious, till it was a great white cloud. The bottom appeared like fire; a rainbow was over the cloud, while around it were ten thousand angels, singing a most lovely song; and upon it sat the Son of man. His hair was white and curly and lay on His shoulders, and upon His head were many crowns. His feet had the appearance of fire; in His right hand was a sharp sickle, in His left a silver trumpet. His eyes were as a flame of fire, which searched His children through and through. 1T 60.1

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Ellen G. White
SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (EGW), 978

(Vs. 9-12; see EGW on ch. 16:13-16.) The Signet of Heaven—John saw a Lamb on Mount Zion, and with Him 144,000 having His Father's name written in their foreheads. They bore the signet of heaven. They reflected the image of God. They were full of the light and the glory of the Holy One. If we would have the image and superscription of God upon us, we must separate ourselves from all iniquity. We must forsake every evil way, and then we must trust our cases in the hands of Christ. While we are working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, God will work in us to will and to do of His own good pleasure (The Review and Herald, March 19, 1889). 7BC 978.1

Christ Formed Within—[Revelation 14:1-3 quoted.] Why were they so specially singled out? Because they had to stand with a wonderful truth right before the whole world, and receive their opposition, and while receiving this opposition they were to remember that they were sons and daughters of God, that they must have Christ formed within them the hope of glory (Manuscript 13, 1888). 7BC 978.2

Eternal Interests Supreme—Those who have in their foreheads the seal of the infinite God will regard the world and its attractions as subordinate to eternal interests (The Review and Herald, July 13, 1897). 7BC 978.3

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Ellen G. White
Selected Messages Book 1, 174

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.... This do, and thou shalt live” (Luke 10:27, 28). All who will conform their lives to the plain requirements of God's Word will inherit eternal life.—Manuscript 28, 1904. 1SM 174.1

In this work there is danger of bringing before the people theories which, while they may be all truth, will create controversy, and will not lead men to the great supper prepared for them. We want the love of God formed within to subdue and soften our human nature and to bring us into conformity to His holy character. Then we shall spread before the people the unsearchable riches of Christ in all their abundance. The invitation is given by Christ Himself, and it is the work of all His followers to call attention to the board of provisions that has been made accessible to all. Then let not subjects difficult to be understood come first. Christ is calling men to the banquet, and let all who will, come.—Letter 89, 1898. 1SM 174.2

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