Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:
“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)
The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.
- “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
- “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
- The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.
The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.
Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:
- they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
- they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”
Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.
Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:
- Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
- Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
- Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment
As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”
This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:
“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”
The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:
Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).
Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17
The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):
- The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
- The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.
As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.