November 3: Revelation 14:6-13

Revelation 14:6-13

This is the second of three visions in chapter 14 (on the first in vv. 1-5, see the previous note). In terms of the basic framework of early Christian eschatology, it marks the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) and announces the beginning of the great Judgment (kri/si$). It thus holds the same place as the half-hour of silence (at the opening of the seventh seal) in 8:1f; note the parallel structure:

  • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 5-6)
  • Vision of the 144,000, together with the Lamb (chapter 7)
  • Angels & the preparation for the Judgment (8:1-2)
  • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 8-9)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 12-13)
    • Vision of the 144,000 together with the Lamb (14:1-5)
    • Angels & the preparation/onset of the Judgment (14:6-13, 14-20)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 15-16)

While the 144,000 symbolize the People of God (believers) generally, there is also a specific reference to those who have faithfully endured the period of distress (7:14; 14:4-5), whether or not they were put to death for following Christ. Since the author/seer and the first readers of the book would have assumed that they were about to enter into this period (i.e. that it was imminent and about to begin), there is no real contradiction in this. Modern-futurist interpretation (in its various forms), of course, requires that the period of distress is yet to come, and so the 144,000 must symbolize future believers.
[The entire question of modern-futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation will be discussed at the end of this series]

The vision in 14:6-13 describes the appearance of three heavenly Messengers (Angels), each of whom delivers a different, but related, message regarding the coming Judgment.

Verses 6-7: First Messenger

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing in the middle of the heaven, holding (the) good message of the Ages to deliver (as) a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, upon every nation and offshoot (of the human race), and (every) tongue and people, declaring in a great voice: ‘You must fear God and give to him honor, (in) that [i.e. because] the hour of His Judgment (has) come, and you must kiss toward [i.e. worship] the (One) making the heaven and the earth and (the) sea and fountains of waters!'”

The image of the Messenger flying “in the middle of the heavens” echoes that of 8:13, confirming the Judgment-setting. There, however, it was a message of woe to the people on earth; here, along with the warning of the Judgment is a message of hope. The idea seems to be that God is giving humankind one final chance to repent and turn to Him, much as we saw in the earlier Trumpet-cycle depicting the Judgment—note the remnant motif (i.e., two-thirds survive) and the specific notice at the close of the cycle (9:20-21).

I have translated the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion literally (“good message of the Age[s]”). It is typically rendered “everlasting Gospel” or “eternal Gospel”; however, I feel it is especially important here to preserve the etymological meaning, since the “good message” relates to the consummation of the Ages, the end of the current Age. The Judgment marks the moment when God will eradicate evil and wickedness from the world, fully establishing His justice and rule over humankind. At the same time, no early Christian reader could hear the word eu)agge/lion without associating it with the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like many symbols in the book of Revelation, the great Judgment itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects—i.e. Judgment that takes place on earth, and that which takes place (subsequently) in Heaven. It would seem that the visions allow for the possibility of people turning to faith in God (and Christ?) during the earthly Judgment (cf. below).

For the expression “good news” (using the eu)aggel– word-group), its background and usage in connection with the Roman emperor and the imperial cult, see my earlier Christmas season note and the recent Word Study series on Gospel/eu)agge/lion.

The use of the aorist tense (h@lqen, “came”) in verse 7 is interesting, since it suggests that the Judgment is a past event, even though it is just now being announced by the Messengers. Most translations render this like a perfect (“has come”); it may be considered as an ingressive aorist, indicating the start of an action. The focus on God as Creator, may reflect a style of Gospel-preaching to (Gentile) non-believers (cp. Acts 14:15-18; 17:23-31), but may also refer back to the idolatry and false religion emphasized in the chap. 13 visions (cp. Wisdom 13:1-19; Rom 1:18-25; Koester, p. 612). The chain of terms in verse 7, summarizing all of the inhabited world, is a direct echo of 13:7.

Verse 8: Second Messenger

“And another Messenger, a second, followed declaring: ‘Babilim the great (has) fallen, fallen!—the (one) who has made all the nations drink out of the wine of the (evil) impulse of her prostitution!'”

This second Messenger continues the “good message”, concerning the end of the current (and wicked) Age, with an announcement regarding “Babel” (i.e. the city Babylon). Greek Babulw/n is a transliteration of the name, presumably deriving from Akkadian b¹b-ilim (“Gate of God”); Hebrew lb#B* (B¹»el) is a similar transliteration, while English Babylon comes from the Greek. The nation-state centered on the city of Babylon was the pre-eminent (imperial) power at the time of the Judean exile, thus making it a fitting symbol for the conquering imperial power (Rome) in the first-century A.D.—the time of the Judean distress (c. 40-70) as well as suffering/persecution of believers when the book of Revelation was written. Most commentators regard “Babylon” as a cypher for Rome, both here and in 1 Peter 5:13. On the whole this is correct, and the identification is made more clear and specific in chapter 17; however, I believe that the symbolism is actually somewhat broader in scope. The interpretive key lies in the vision(s) of 11:1-13, especially the reference to the “great city” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) in v. 8, which is there identified with Jerusalem (cf. also vv. 1-2), but also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”, names specifically indicating worldly power and wickedness. Here, too, Babylon is called “the great (city)” (h( mega/lh), and, I believe, the meaning is generally the same. Whether identified by the specific name “Sodom”, “Egypt”, “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Rome”, the symbol refers primarily to the center of earthly power and influence, which is fundamentally (at least in this current Age) wicked and opposed to God.

Again an aorist form (e&pesen, “fell”) is used to describe something which, from the standpoint of the overall narrative, has not yet taken place. The use of a past tense (whether aorist or perfect in Greek) is sometimes used in reference to future events, speaking of them as something already completed—i.e. proleptic aorist. The use of the prophetic (and precative) perfect in Hebrew does much the same thing, often used to assure readers that something will take place. The specific form of the message (regarding Babylon) derives from Old Testament tradition and the nation-oracles in Isaiah and Jeremiah—specifically Isa 21:9 and Jer 50-51 (50:2; 51:8). It will be greatly expanded in chapter 18.

As is frequently the case in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the noun pornei/a (lit. referring to acts of prostitution) is used figuratively for wickedness and faithlessness to God (i.e. ‘idolatry’ and false religion, etc).

Verses 9-11: Third Messenger

“And another Messenger, a third, followed them declaring in a great voice: ‘If any one kisses toward [i.e. worships] the wild animal and its image, and takes the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between his eyes or upon his hand, even (so) th(is person) he will drink of the impulse of God’s (anger) having been poured out (for him), without (being) mixed (with water), in the drinking-cup of His anger, and he will be tested severely (and proven false), in fire and sulphur, in the sight of (the) holy Messengers and in the sight of the Lamb!—and the smoke of their severe testing steps [i.e. goes] up into the Ages of Ages, and they hold no resting up (from this) day and night, the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] the wild animal and his image (and), indeed, if any one takes the engraved (mark) of its name!'”

I view the message in vv. 9-11 as comprised of a single long (elliptical) sentence, which I have sought to make more readable by punctuating with commas throughout. Its elliptical structure can be illustrated with a chiastic outline:

    • Any one who worships the creature…and takes its mark
      • he will drink from the cup of God’s anger (i.e. divine judgment)
        • they will be tested severely in fire (judged & punished)
          • in the sight of the holy Messengers and the Lamb
        • the smoke of their severe testing rises (judged & punished)
      • they have no rest from it day and night (i.e. eternal judgment)
    • ones who worships the creature…and take its mark

The description of the one who worships (lit. “kisses toward”, vb proskune/w, a common Greek idiom signifying worship/veneration) the “wild animal” (qhri/on, i.e. the Sea-creature) occurs both at the beginning and end of the message, a dual-emphasis that shows just how serious the matter is. It also confirms the context of the visions in chapter 14 as that of chap. 13, with its depiction of the wicked influence exerted by the Sea-creature over humankind. It is specifically stated that anyone who so venerates the Sea-creature (and its living ‘image’ on earth), and takes the engraved mark (xa/ragma) showing that he/she belongs to the creature, will face the full brunt of God’s anger (o)rgh/) in the Judgment. The immediate context of these verses makes clear that it is the heavenly aspect of the Judgment that is in view.

Drinking from a cup (poth/rion) is a traditional motif for the fate a person will experience, often in the negative sense of suffering and/or punishment. For the idiom in the Old Testament, cf. Psalm 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 49:12, etc. Jesus famously uses it in the garden scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par, cf. also 10:38-39 par). This cup is controlled by God, and given out to human beings (who meet their fate over the course of their lives). Here it is meant as a precise contrast with the wine that Babylon made the nations drink (v. 8; cf. Jer 51:7). In both instances the noun qumo/$ is used, which I regularly translate as “impulse” (for lack of a better option in English); it basically refers to a violent or passionate movement, as of air, breath, etc, sometimes internalized as a movement of the soul or mind. The wine Babylon gives is from her wicked impulse to “prostitution”, whereas the wine God makes people drink in the Judgment comes from His impulse to anger, to punish the wicked. This wine is said to be a&krato$, “without mixture”, that is, without being diluted by water—at its full strength.

The verb basani/zw (and related noun basanismo/$) is typically translated as “torment”, but more properly refers to an intense testing, as of metal that is tried by fire. That is the basic image here. The wicked, of course, are proven to be false in the fire of testing, which becomes a painful torture for them (a common denotation when basini/zw is used of human beings). The motifs of fire and sulphur, along with the rising smoke, allude to the destruction of cities (even a “great city”, cf. above), following the traditional imagery of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24, 28) which came to be used as a symbol of the end-time Judgment (Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. also Rev 11:8). Many Christians are naturally disturbed by the idea of the wicked being tormented endlessly; however, any ethical-religious issues we may have today are quite foreign to the text itself and its first-century setting. We should not try to soften or mitigate the imagery, nor should any attempt be made to view it as an absolute metaphysical description of the afterlife.

Verses 12-13: A Fourth Voice

“Here is the need for the holy (one)s to remain under [i.e. endure faithfully], the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and the trust of Yeshua. And I heard a voice out of the heaven saying, ‘Write (this): happy the (one)s th(at are) dying away in the Lord from now (on)’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘(so) that they will rest up out of [i.e. from] their beatings, for their works follow with them’.”

Verse 12 represents the author/seer’s own words to his readers. He stresses again the importance of remaining faithful to Christ during the end-time period of distress (which he and his audience are believed to be entering). The dangers for believers described in the chap. 13 visions—both in terms of being led astray and of being persecuted (and put to death) for remaining faithful—would have been realized already by the surrounding pagan culture and, especially, the imperial cult tied to Roman rule. What is envisioned in chapter 13 is a more extreme, intense, and wicked version of what Christians in Asia Minor, at the end of the 1st-century, were already facing. The description of believers in v. 12b echoes that of 12:17, there referring to believers as children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God on earth). See the prior note on that verse for a discussion of the plural noun e)ntolai/, usually translated “commandments”. In my view, the expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” is best understood and comparable to “the law [no/mo$] of God” in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21). It refers generally to the will of God, such as is expressed in the Old Testament law (Torah) and the teaching of Jesus, but should not be reduced to a specific set of commands or teachings. The pairing of expressions means that believers are people who generally live in a manner that corresponds to the will of God, and who also, specifically (and most importantly), have trust/faith in Jesus.

The final message is one of comfort for believers, given by a heavenly Messenger, and echoed by the Spirit. The main difficulty lies in the expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”); it can be understood three ways, moving from narrower to broader focus:

    • It refers to believers (or those who come to be believers) alive during the great Judgment on the earth. The message of the first Angel (cf. above) seems to allow for the possibility of people coming to faith during the Judgment, or just prior to its onset. Given the terrible events that will occur on earth at the Judgment (vividly described in the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles), death certainly would be a blessing.
    • It refers primarily to the period of distress that precedes the Judgment on earth; believers certainly will live through this (according to the visions of chaps. 12-13 and elsewhere in the book), and will suffer greatly. Here, too, death, even as a result of execution, would be a comfort.
    • It is meant more directly for the audience/readers of the book, who, it must be said, were expected to live into the (imminent) period of distress.

In my view, the last, and most inclusive interpretation best fits the context of both the vision and the book as a whole. In any case, the blessing (or happiness) of believers who die during this time is two-fold: (1) they receive rest from suffering and distress (referred to as “beatings” ko/poi, something with weakens or reduces strength), and (2) they are rewarded for their faithfulness (referred to here as “works”, e&rga).

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November 2: Revelation 14:1-5

Revelation 14

While some have been inclined to interpret the visions of the book of Revelation from a continuous chronological standpoint, the structure and symbolism of the visions, I believe, offers overwhelming evidence that the framework is instead cyclical. That is to say, the same end-time themes and events are repeated, presented from different points of view, emphasizing specific aspects and details, as the visionary narrative builds to a climax. This will be discussed further when we come to the Bowl-cycle of visions in 15:5ff; however, it is important to stress the point now as we look at the visions of chapter 14, for, in many ways, they are a key to the entire structure of the book.

There are three visions in chapter 14:

    • The Lamb and the 144,000 on Mount Zion (vv. 1-5)
    • The Three Angels announcing the Judgment (vv. 6-13)
    • A vision of Jesus’ return and the onset of the Judgment (vv. 14-20)

These correspond roughly with the three main components of early Christian eschatology:

    • A period of distress (qli/yi$) on earth which includes severe suffering/persecution of believers
    • The coming (parousia) of the exalted Jesus (the “Son of Man”) to earth, together with heavenly Messengers (Angels)
    • The end-time Judgment: deliverance for believers, punishment for the wicked

Revelation 14:1-5

The vision in verses 1-5 both builds upon the prior visions of chapters 12-13 as well as repeating important themes and symbolic matrices from the earlier visions (in chapters 5 and 7) which precede the Seal- and Trumpet-cycles. The main imagery from those visions is centered on the exalted Jesus symbolized as a heavenly Lamb (a)rni/on). In each instance, the Lamb is surrounded by the People of God—in both their heavenly (chap. 5) and earthly (chap. 7) aspects. On the symbolism of the lamb, cf. the earlier notes on 5:1-14. Here in chapter 14, the imagery more closely reflects that of chap. 7 (cf. the note on 7:9ff).

Verse 1

“And (then) I saw, and see!—the Lamb having stood upon mount ‚iyyôn, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousands, holding his name, and the name of his Father, (it) having been written upon the (space) between their eyes.”

‚iyyôn (Gk Siw/n, English Zion, a transliteration of Heb /oYx!), is a traditional Israelite/Jewish name for Jerusalem. It likely meant something like (“fortress, fortified place”) originally, and refers specifically to the ancient Canaanite hilltop site taken over by David as the location of the Israelite Temple-Palace complex (and the oldest part of the later city). Near Eastern cities of the Bronze/Iron-ages, unlike most Greco-Roman (and modern) cities, covered a much smaller area, largely limited to the palace(s) of the ruling family and associated temple-complex(es). They were walled and highly fortified, on hilltop locations, often built-up as such through successive levels of occupation. The majority of population, as farmers and herders, lived outside of this fortress-city, but would take refuge behind its walls in times of invasion or natural disaster. Thus “Zion” came to be used as a symbol of refuge and salvation in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition; this imagery was enhanced due to the manifest presence of God (YHWH) in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple (on the Zion-site). The term (Siw/n) is rare in the New Testament, occurring just seven times (almost always in Scripture quotations), and only here in the book of Revelation. In Hebrews 12:22 it is used as a reference for the heavenly dwelling of believers, those saved and redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus; that is the same basic meaning here in Rev 14:1. The mountain location may also be intended to symbolize a point where heaven and earth meet—i.e., the people of God (believers) in both their heavenly and earthly aspects.

The motif of the 144,000 believers was introduced in the chapter 7 vision (vv. 4ff), comprising 12,000 from each of the twelve Israelite tribes. Interpretation of this symbolism as proven a bit difficult. Certainly the specific number is symbolic (12 x 12 x 10,000), and ought not to be taken in a concrete sense any more than should the image of the hybrid “creatures” that come up out of the “Sea” and “Earth”. However, there is perhaps more reason to take seriously the ethnic (i.e. Israelite) aspect of the image in 7:4ff, and, indeed, many commentators would interpret it as specifically representing Israelite/Jewish believers, perhaps along the line of Paul’s idea, expressed in Rom 11, of a widespread Jewish conversion at the end-time. In my view, this is correct, but only partly so. As I discuss in the previous notes (on 7:1-8 and 9-17), there are actually two groups in vv. 4-17 which make up the sum total of believers (the people of God): (1) the restoration of Israel (i.e. Jewish believers, vv. 4-8), and (2) those from all the other nations (vv. 9ff). While the 144,000, in that vision, more properly refers to Israelite/Jewish believers, here, in my view, it serves as a shorthand for all believers—i.e. the entire people of God.

The scene depicted in verse 1 clearly echoes the imagery of the two visions in chapter 13, at two main points:

    • Jesus as the Lamb, in opposition to appearance of the evil Earth-creature as a Lamb (13:11); more importantly, the Sea-creature was apparently slain and restored to life (13:3, 12), a wicked parody of the Lamb (5:6).
    • Just as those belonging to the Sea-creature have its name/number ‘written’ on their forehead (between the eyes), so those belonging to the Lamb have his name between their eyes (cf. also 7:3).
Verse 2

“And I heard a voice out of heaven, as a voice of many waters and as a voice of great thunder, and the voice that I heard (was) as harpers harp-playing on their harps.”

The description of this heavenly voice echoes that of 1:15, the introductory vision of the exalted Jesus (cf. the earlier note), which, in turn draws upon traditional Old Testament theophanic imagery. Here it is also described as the sound of music, specifically of heavenly musicians playing the harp (Gk kiqa/ra). The kiqa/ra is harp made up typically of seven strings (and almost certainly seven is intended here); for classic references to its use and symbolism, cf. Koester, pp. 378, 608-9, 618). Here its use reflects the heavenly worship of the Lamb in chapter 5 (v. 8).

(image courtesy of luthieros.com)

Verse 3

“And they sang (together) [as] a new song, in the sight of the ruling-seat [i.e. throne] and in the sight of the four living (being)s and the elders, and no one was able to learn the song if not [i.e. except for] th(ose) hundred and forty-four thousands, the (one)s having been (purchased as) at market [h)gorasme/noi] from (out of) the earth.”

This is essentially a repetition of the heavenly worship scene in 5:6-14, with the “new song” being that described in vv. 9-10ff. It is new (kaino/$) in the sense that it belongs to the New Age that was inaugurated with the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus (the Lamb). Since it relates to a true understanding of the person and work of Jesus, only Christian believers (represented by the 144,000) are “able to learn” this song—here the verb manqa/nw (“learn”) probably signifies both the ability to sing the song and to understand its meaning. On the traditional idiom of the “new song”, cf. Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa 42:10.

The verb a)gora/zw literally refers to going to the market-place (a)gora/) or public square (to make a purchase). It can be used in the specific context of purchasing someone’s freedom (out of slavery/bondage); that is generally how Paul uses it (in 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23, 30), referring to believers being purchased out of bondage (to sin) through Christ’s sacrificial death, and so also here in the book of Revelation (cf. Rev 5:9). Here the “earth” (gh=) has the basic meaning of the inhabited world (i.e. all of humankind), but also in terms of the world dominated by the forces of evil and wickedness (i.e. the Dragon and Sea/Earth-creatures). There is likely a play on the idea of those belonging to the Sea-creature needing the mark of its name in order to purchase (13:16-18), with those belonging to the Lamb bearing the mark of his name because they were purchased by him.

Verse 4a

“These are the (one)s that were not stained with women, for they are virgins—these (are) the (one)s following the Lamb wherever he would lead (himself) under.”

The 144,000 (i.e. believers) are now described using sexual imagery, introducing a strain of symbolism that will grow and climax in subsequent visions. The reference here is actually quite complex, drawing upon a number of traditional images. The most difficult point of interpretation is the phrase meta\ gunaikw=n ou)k e)molu/nqhsan (“they were not stained with women”). There are two ways this may be understood, depending on how the phrase is emphasized:

    • “they were not stained with women” —this reflects a male-centered orientation, defining sin/immorality in terms of sexual relations with women. That there was such an ascetic tendency in early Christianity cannot be doubted (of many passages, see esp. 1 Cor 7:1ff). A strict version of this interpretation would then view the 144,000 specifically as males (with parqe/noi as male virgins); more figuratively, one would say that the male-imagery may be applied to the purity and faithfulness of believers as a whole.
    • “they were not stained with women” —the emphasis here is that their relation with women was not stained through (improper) sexual contact; this would allow parqe/noi (“virgins”) to be used in its more common sense of chaste young women. Then, the second these (ou!toi) could refer to both aspects of the sexual/gender-symbolism—males not stained (i.e. pure) and (female) virgins.

I tend toward the second option; either way, the sexual imagery is largely figurative—symbolizing purity and faithfulness (to God and Christ). The Greek word pornei/a (literally, prostitution, but generally referring to improper sexual activity) in the New Testament often refers figuratively to a lack of faith and false religious belief and practice, etc, following a long line of Israelite/Jewish tradition going back to the Old Testament. And, given the context of the prior visions in chapter 13, the idea of sexual immorality here should be understood in terms of the wicked/false worship of the Sea-Creature (and Dragon). The second vision in 14:6-13 (discussed in the next note) will make this quite clear.

Several strands are built into the image of believers following the Lamb:

    • The basic idea of Christian discipleship as following Jesus (cf. the expression “Lamb of God” in this context in John 1:29ff)
    • Shepherd/pastoral imagery used to this effect—though normally the symbols are reversed: the sheep follow the herdsman (John 10:1-18, etc)
    • The Old Testament motif of faithfulness, whereby God’s people (Israel) follow Him into the wilderness; this can be combined with bridal/sexual imagery as well (Hos 2:14-15; Jer 2:2-3)
    • Traditional bridal motifs in ancient love poetry, etc., which depict the young maidens (including the betrothed) following after the bridegroom (Song of Song 1:3-4, 7-8; 2:4, 10ff; 3:1ff, etc). These maidens are referred to as “daughters of Jerusalem (i.e. Zion)”, which came to be a traditional expression for the people of God (the faithful ones).

I have translated the verb u(pa/gw above literally as “lead under”, often used in the basic reflexive sense of “lead oneself under”, i.e. make oneself hidden, or, more generally, go away. I preserve the etymological meaning here for two purposes: (1) the prefix u(po/ (“under”) is often used in verbal compounds denoting obedience, endurance, etc, and (2) it captures the sense of the Lamb going away, i.e. so that he cannot be so easily seen, which requires faithfulness and devotion in order for his followers to search after him (esp. in times of great distress).

Verses 4b-5

“These are the (one)s purchased (as) at market from (out of all) men, the beginning of (fruit) from (the harvest) for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth was not found (anything) false, (for) they are without blame.”

Two different traditional images are introduced here, both drawing upon Israelite harvest traditions:

    • The beginning of the harvest (both grain and vine), represented in Greek by the noun a)parxh/, which, according to Israelite tradition (and specified in the the Torah regulations), was dedicated to God, belonging to Him. Believers are occasionally referred to by this term elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 8:23; 2 Thess 2:13; James 1:18). Here there are two aspects to be emphasized:
      (1) believers are the first-fruits in the sense that they belong to God and are dedicated to Him, and
      (2) in the vision that follows in vv. 14-20, which uses similar harvest imagery, the deliverance/rescue of believers at the time of the Judgment is given priority over the punishment of the wicked, occurring first in sequence.
    • Referring to believers as “without blame” (a&mwmo$) reflects the idea of the lamb that is without blemish, esp. the lamb slain for Passover (originally a harvest festival), cf. Exod 12:5 etc. Here “blame” is meant in the specific context of chapter 13, but it certainly extends to include the wider sense of purity and faithfulness among believers (especially during the end-time period of distress), which, in turn, reflects the holiness/purity of the Lamb (Jesus).

The lack of anything “false” in the mouth of believers is probably meant as a contrast to the deceptive/false speaking of the Sea- and Earth-creatures, by which non-believers on earth are led astray (13:5ff, 11-14ff). The idea of being “without blame” or “without blemish” also ties back to the earlier sexual imagery and bridal motifs—i.e., the bride as a chaste, virginal young woman who is presented to the groom at the time of the wedding. This entails remaining pure during the period of betrothal (engagement). Such bridal imagery is applied to (faithful) believers at a number of points in the New Testament (Matt 25:1ff; Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2, etc); it will take on even greater prominence later in the book of Revelation. Interestingly, it is not entirely unusual to combine bridal and harvest motifs, as we see this done throughout the Song of Songs and elsewhere in the Old Testament. A particularly noteworthy passage is Jeremiah 2:2-3, which resembles Rev 14:4-5 in a number of respects.

September 29: Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation 7:1-8

The relationship of chapter 7 to the seal-visions in chapter 6 is problematic for readers who might be inclined to view these chapters as representing a strict chronological sequence of events. There is, however, a definite kind of (visionary) logic at work, as we shall see. More significant as a connecting point between the two chapters is the closing question in 6:17: “who is able to stand” in the face of God’s approaching Judgment? Chapter 7 gives the answer to this.

First, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the vision-cycle:

    • Group of 4 visions (seals 1-4)—horses and horsemen
    • Group of 2 visions (seals 5-6)
      {interlude}
    • The concluding vision (seal 7), which opens up into the next vision-cycle

The fifth and sixth visions involved, respectively: (i) the persecution of believers, and (ii) disruption of the natural order marking the beginning of the great Judgment by God. Chapter 7 combines both of these themes.

Rev 7:1-3

The theme and setting of the sixth seal-vision continues in verse 1:

“With [i.e. after] this, I saw four Messengers having taken (their) stand upon the four corners of the earth, holding firm(ly to) the four winds of the earth, (so) that the wind should not blow upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon all tree(s).”

The sixth seal had a cosmic orientation, involving the universe (heaven and earth) as understood by ancient cosmology. Now the visionary setting has shifted to the surface of the earth. In ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, while the universe was more or less spherical (or a hemisphere), the earth itself was essentially flat, typically envisioned as a disc or cylinder. There is no reason to think that this traditional image is not being followed here (the picture used at the top of the header above is quite inaccurate in this regard). The idea of four “corners” does not require a square shape; the number four is again traditional. Winds could be seen as coming from the ends of the earth, also identified as four (Mark 13:27; cf. Psalm 135:7; Jer 10:13; 25:32, etc). God’s power and control extends to the “ends of the earth” (Job 28:24; Psalm 46:9; 59:13; 72:8; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:28, etc), and His destructive Judgment both comes from the ends of the earth and goes out to them as well (Deut 28:49; 1 Sam 2:10; Isa 5:26; 13:5; 41:5; Jer 25:31f; 50:41). Similarly, God’s salvation extends to the ends of the earth, a motif found often in the book of Isaiah, which came to be part of the Messianic imagery (Psalm 2:8; 46:9; 65:5; 98:3; Isa 41:9; 43:6; 45:22; 48:20; 49:6; 52:10; 62:11; Jer 31:8; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10; and cf. Acts 1:8; 13:47; Rom 10:18).

“And I saw another Messenger stepping up from the rising up of the sun [i.e. the east], holding (the) seal of the living God, and he cried (out) with a great voice to the four Messengers to whom (it) was given to them to take away the right (order) of the earth and the sea, saying: ‘Do not take away the right (order) of the earth, nor of the sea, nor of the trees, until we would seal the slaves of our God upon the (space) between their eyes [i.e. their forehead]!'” (vv. 2-3)

This makes clear that the (four) winds coming from the ends of the earth have a destructive power, and their unleashing by the Messengers (natural celestial forces were typically seen as being controlled by heavenly beings or Angels) is to be part of, and/or symbolic of, the great end-time Judgment upon the world. The adjective a&diko$ fundamentally means “without (a)) justice (di/kh)”, and the verb a)dike/w “be/act without justice”, sometimes in the sense of “take away [i.e. remove] justice”. However, here such a translation would be quite misleading; di/kh must be understood in the broader sense of “right (order)”. Thus the verb a)dike/w would be rendered “take away the right (order of things)”. In English, this is often translated more simply as “injure, harm”, but, in light of the theme of the disruption of the natural order in 6:12-17, it is perhaps best to retain this wider aspect.

The verb sfragi/zw is related to the seven-fold seal (sfragi/$) upon the scroll in chapters 4-6. As previously noted, it refers to the act of stamping an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) upon a seal of clay or wax (or lead). This stamp marks the ownership (of the document, etc) by the one who has the signet (ring). Here it is stated that the winds will not be released (to disrupt/destroy the surface of the earth) until the “slaves of God” are stamped with the “stamp/seal of the living God” (v. 2). It is possible that this alludes to the marking/branding of slaves, such as occurred in Roman society (and many other cultures); if so, then it is a mixing of images with the sealing (through wax/clay/lead) of a document or object. The primary motif is doubtless the same, however—that the “slaves”, like the scroll, belong to God, who is their owner/master. In Romans 4:11, Paul refers to circumcision—the essential sign (shmei=on) of God’s binding agreement (covenant) with Israel—as a seal (sfragi/$) of God’s righteousness. As applied in an early Christian context, this seal marks believers as the people of God. Much the same is stated in 2 Tim 2:19:

“Yet (truly), the firm (foundat)ion set down by God has stood, holding this seal [sfragi/$]: ‘The Lord knew the (one)s being [i.e. who are] His (own)’…”

The theme of sealing will be used further in the book of Revelation, including a contrast between those sealed by God (true believers) and those stamped by the mark of the “Beast”. In this regard, it is quite likely that the stamp/seal here also is meant to indicate God’s protection. This seems to be the point for the way this detail is included in verses 1-3—the seal gives God’s “slaves” protection from the natural disasters (and other suffering) to come in the time of Judgment. The precise significance of this will be discussed and clarified in the upcoming notes.

Who are these “slaves”? The word dou=lo$ means “slave” or “(bond)servant”, but, to avoid confusion with certain historical occurrences and modern conceptions of slavery, it is often translated as “servant”. The word was regularly used, by early Christians, as a self-designation for believers—i.e. those belonging to God (and Christ), and bound to serve him (Acts 4:29, etc, and see earlier in Rev 1:1; 2:20). It could also refer specifically to one chosen by God for special service (as apostle, minister, etc). Paul uses it frequently to refer to himself (and his fellow ministers)—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; cf. also James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1, etc. Here in the book of Revelation, the point of reference is expounded in the verses which follow.

Rev 7:4-8

“And I heard the number of the (one)s having been sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, (one)s having been sealed out of all the offshoots of the sons of Yisrael—…” (v. 4)

A more precise syntax would have been “…out of the all the offshoots of Yisrael”, i.e. the tribes of Israel; we might paraphrase the actual wording here as “…out of all the tribes which make up the sons of Israel”. This brings up a somewhat difficult question of interpretation—do the ‘tribes of Israel’ here refer (1) to ethnically Israelite believers, or (2) to believers in Christ generally? The question is complicated by the relationship between vv. 4-8 and the description which follows in vv. 9-17. The answer may also depend, to some extent at least, on the orientation of the author and his audience. Was he writing (primarily) to Gentile believers, Jewish believers, or a mixed audience? On one level, it would seem that vv. 4-8 definitely refer to Israelite believers, in an ethnic sense. This would be confirmed by: (a) the combined use of “tribes (of Israel)” and “sons of Israel”, and (b) the ‘census’ in vv. 5-8, listing out the specific tribes. At the same time, the relationship between believers (Jews and Gentiles both) and the ethno-religious identity of Israel as the people of God, was extremely complex in early Christianity, and could be expressed in a number of ways. Even limiting ourselves to Paul’s letters—the most complete evidence we have from the first century—there is a wide range of images and concepts. We must be cautious in how we approach this religious dynamic in the New Testament. I would suggest three avenues for interpretation which, I believe, are supported by the 1st-century evidence:

    • Historical—Nearly all of the earliest believers were Jewish (and, presumably, Israelites); from this standpoint, Christianity was seen as a natural extension (and fulfillment) of God’s covenant with Israel—i.e. Israelites who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Only after the Gospel began to be proclaimed farther afield, in the Greco-Roman world, did this understanding change (and not without some difficulty) through the inclusion of significant numbers of non-Jewish believers.
    • Pauline—Paul’s letters give us a vivid picture of the formation of a new, and distinctly Christian, religious identity, in the years 50-60 A.D. Especially in Galatians and Romans, Paul forges this through a rich and complex series of arguments and illustrations. Even when writing primarily to Gentiles, he draws upon the Old Testament and the covenant traditions related to Israel as the people of God. All of this is redefined, as the “new covenant”, strictly in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, accompanied by the presence/work of the Spirit (of God and Christ). It is, however, also the fulfillment of the original covenant (with Abraham, etc), one which many Israelites and Jews have rejected. According to Romans 9-11, Paul views this as temporary—a brief period during which Gentiles are included (with Jewish believers) as the people of God; ultimately, at the end of this period, the Israelite/Jewish people will come to accept Christ in larger numbers. It is possible that Rev 7:4-8 reflects a similar eschatological idea.
    • Restoration Imagery—According to at least one line of tradition (and interpretation), believers represent the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time. This is symbolized through the tradition, fundamental to much eschatological and Messianic thought, that Israel—the twelve tribes—will be restored, coming back to the land (and to Jerusalem) from the surrounding nations. As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles likely has this idea in mind. Certainly, it features in the eschatological awareness of the book of Acts (cf. the upcoming article on this subject). Only, instead of the emphasis being on the twelve tribes (and, eventually, the nations) coming to Jerusalem, here the twelve apostles (representing the tribes), along with others, go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel into all the nations.

All three of these approaches have merit and value in understanding the symbolism of Rev 7:4-8. And, it should be stated in passing, that there can be little doubt as to the symbolic character of the numbering (a)riqmo/n) here—144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1000. We will look again at the interpretative possibilities when we turn to vv. 9ff (in the next daily note).

Finally, it is worth considering two peculiarities in the list of tribes here in vv. 5-8:

    1. The order does not match that of the traditional lists elsewhere in the Old Testament (Gen 35:16-26; 46:8-27; 49; Deut 33; Num 1:5-15; Ezek 48, etc). Placing Judah first has obvious Messianic significance (Rev 5:5, etc); but otherwise, there does not appear to be any clear meaning to the ordering of the rest of the names.
    2. The tribes of Levi and Joseph are not included in the tribal allotments of land, etc, but would be included in any proper genealogical list of the tribes which make up the “sons of Israel”. However, the list here in Revelation, curiously, includes Joseph’s son Manasseh (half-tribe for Joseph), but leaves out Dan. While there are negative traditions associated with Dan in the Old Testament (Gen 49:17; Judg 18:30, etc), it is by no means certain that this is the reason for the exclusion here. Some early Christian commentators came to adopt the explanation that the ‘Antichrist’ would come from the tribe of Dan (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.2; Hippolytus On Christ and Antichrist 14:5ff; Koester, p. 418); but there is nothing in the book of Revelation itself to confirm this.