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30 December 2018

The Sealing of God’s Servants (Revelation 7:1–8)

SynopsisGod’s servants are now sealed, numbered, and assembled for their journey to the Promised Land, New Jerusalem.

Israel in the Wilderness
The seventh chapter of the book of Revelation appears to interrupt the sequence of seal openings between the sixth and seventh seals. However, this “interlude” or interruption is an integral part of the series of seven seal openings and it follows a literary pattern established in Chapter 5.

The “sealing of God’s servants” includes several verbal links back to the unveiling of the Lamb in the vision of the throne and the sealed scroll (Revelation 5:6-14). Chapter 7 is comprised of four sections:
  1. The sealing of God’s servants (Revelation 7:1-3).
  2. The numbering of the sealed (7:4-8).
  3. The vision of an innumerable multitude (7:9-12).
  4. The interpretation of the innumerable multitude (7:14-17).
In Chapter 7, the same group is portrayed with two different images:  the tribes of Israel assembled for travel and the innumerable multitude that John sees exiting the “great tribulation.” In the end, the full number of the saints is found “standing before the Lamb and the Throne” in the new creation. The fifth and sixth seal openings asked two questions that are addressed in this section:
  1. How long must the martyrs wait for vindication?
  2. Who can stand before the wrath of the Lamb?
The sealing of the servants of God borrows imagery from the Exodus story of Israel. The full number of martyrs is assembled for the march to the real Promised Land, New Jerusalem. The vision of the innumerable multitude presents overcoming saints who now “stand” before the Lamb in that Promised Land, having faithfully endured the tribulation.

The Four Winds (7:1-3)

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding fast the four winds of the earth.” After this” refers to the sequence in which John received the vision, not the chronology of actual events. This paragraph cannot follow the sixth seal chronologically since the opening of the sixth seal produced the day of the Lord and the time of final judgment.

John now sees four angels holding back the “four winds of the earth,” a clause that alludes to Zechariah 6:1-5, “Behold, four chariots came forward from between two mountains…the first with red horses, second with black horses, the third with white horses, the fourth chariot with spotted horses…These are the four winds of heaven.”

The “four winds” are identical with the four riders unleashed when the first four seals were opened. They were given” authority “to injure the earth and the sea,” the same verb used for the powers granted to each of the four riders (Revelation 6:1-8).

The wording of Zechariah is changed from the “four winds of heaven” to the “four winds of the earth,” most likely because the four horsemen had authority “over a fourth part of the earth.” The wording also echoes Daniel 7:2 where the four beasts ascended from a sea disturbed by “the four winds of heaven.”
This “sealing” occurs before the openings of the first four seals; malevolent forces are unleashed against the saints only after they are sealed by God. “Servants of God” elsewhere refers to followers of the Lamb (Revelation 1:1, 2:20, 19:2, 19:5, 22:3, 22:6). 

The angel with the seal orders the “four winds” to forebear “until we seal the servants of our God.” This alludes to the Exodus story when the homes of the Israelites were marked with the blood of freshly slain lambs to protect them from a destroying angel (Exodus 12:13-28).

The sealing of God’s servants also echoes Ezekiel 9:4 where a mark was placed on the foreheads of men in Jerusalem (“Set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who are sighing and crying over all the abominations that are being done in her midst”).

Unlike with Israel in Egypt, this sealing does not protect saints from death; martyrdom is the church’s highest calling. Instead, this “sealing” empowers them to persevere through the tribulation. Since the “four winds” are withheld until God’s servants are sealed, this “sealing” is related to the effects of the first four seals (Revelation 1:9; 6:9; 11:7; 12:11; 12:17; 13:7-10; 20:4).

The four angels are commanded, “Do not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” This is a verbal link to Chapter 9 where the “scorpions” from the Abyss are told they should not “hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree, but only such men as have not the seal of God on their foreheads.” This indicates there is some overlap between the series of seven seals and seven trumpets (Revelation 9:1-4).

The “seal” of God designates ownership. It is placed on the foreheads of His servants. The same sealed company reappears in Chapter 14where the “seal” is that of the Lamb and “his Father’s name is written upon their foreheads” (Revelation 3:12, 14:1-5).

Above all, based on the imagery from Exodus and Ezekiel, the “sealing” protects God’s servants from the final wrath on the Day of the Lord. Faithful believers may suffer in this life, but God enables them “to stand” on the Day of Judgment.

Number of the Sealed (7:4-8)

The text does not state whether John saw the group about to be numbered; only, that he heard their number. In the fifth seal, the martyrs were told they must remain under the altar until their full number is assembled. That numbering is now portrayed with the numbering of the 144,000 men from the tribes of Israel.

The number 144,000 is based on twelve squared and multiplied by a thousand. The number is figurative; it stresses fullness, the completed congregation of God’s people. Twelve is associated with Israel, the “twelve tribes of Israel,” and symbolizes the full number of the people of the Lamb.

The squaring of twelve is done by multiplying the twelve tribes of Israel by the names of the twelve “apostles of the Lamb.” New Jerusalem is laid out with square numbers; its wall is 144 cubits (“The city lies foursquare…its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits”). The square of twelve is multiplied by a thousand. This echoes the 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).

When the twelve tribes are listed in the Old Testament, the order varies.  Reuben is often listed first, Israel’s first-born.  Distinctive in this passage is the placement of Judah first in the list, the place of prominence. Already, John has heard that the Messiah sprang from Judah. The present list echoes that previous declaration (“the lion out of the tribe of Judah” - Genesis 35:23-26, Exodus 1:2-4, Numbers 1:5-15).

 John now 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. He also “hears” the names of the twelve tribes. In Revelation 5:5, John heard, “lion out of the tribe of Judah”; when he looked, he “saw” a slain Lamb; what he saw interpreted what he heard. This interpretive technique is employed again in the present passage.

The tribe of Dan is excluded from the list. The picture is of national Israel assembled for travel to the Promised Land. Under the old covenant, the tribe of Levi was excluded from the census because that tribe was prohibited from participation in warfare. Its priestly duties took priority (Numbers 1:47-53).

Dan is left out so that Levi can be included among the “twelve tribes.” Under the Lamb, all members of God’s people belong to the priestly class, but in this vision, the entire company is assembled (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).

In ancient Israel, only males of military age were numbered. Likewise, only “males” are numbered here, the “sons of Israel.” This is another indicator that this company is figurative since “females” are excluded (Numbers 1:1-3; 1:18-20, 1 Chronicles 27:23, 1 Samuel 24:9).

The paragraph ends with God’s servants sealed, numbered, and, presumably, ready for whatever awaits them on their journey to the New Jerusalem.

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