Does God have a specific number of people He wants to save?
Chapter 6 concluded with a question: The day of God’s wrath has come and who is able to stand? Chapter 7 answers this question with a special group, featured several times in the book, who follow the lamb wherever He goes.
This chapter functions as a literary interlude between the 6th and 7th seals. A similar structure will be seen in the trumpets where an interlude falls between the 6th and 7th trumpets and shows God’s two witnesses.
The winds of strife do not blow on the earth until the saints of God are sealed. The timing of the “winds” may parallel the bowl plagues of ch. 16. God’s people have been marked as His own before the fall of Babylon and Christ’s return.
A typical question is whether the 144,000 is a literal, limited group or symbolic of a larger collection of souls. The latter seems to be the case for a number of reasons. First, why take this number literally in a book filled with symbols? Second, John doesn’t “see” the 144,000, he only hears the number according to vs. 4. Third, the precision of the numbers from each tribe are too exact to fit a literal group. Fourth, if the number is literal, then the race—Jewish—should also be taken literally, as should their tribal association. Fifth, they should also be literal virgins, since later in the book we read that they have not “defiled themselves with women.” Sixth, the 10 northern tribes of Israel no longer even exist today, thus these tribal distinctions have lost their meaning.
Two original tribes are missing from this list: Ephraim and Dan. Both became centers of idolatry and brought the judgements of God on themselves in the form of invading nations around them. Added back in is Joseph and His Manasseh.
If John only “hears” the number sealed, he’s in for a surprise when he turns around. There before him is a great multitude that cannot be counted, and they’re not just Jews, either! God’s sealed saints are people made up of every nationality, language-group and geographic location on earth. Like the souls under the 5th seal, these are clothed in white. If they are the same group, the picture is a beautiful one: they are literally resting in their graves, but figuratively, they are already pictured as present with Christ because of their faithfulness. If it includes more than just the souls under the altar, then it means that those who are sealed by God follow the lamb by faith and are accounted as citizens of Heaven even now.
The metaphor of Jesus as good shepherd with people as His sheep is here reversed: human people follow the Lamb wherever He goes now. His victory and Salvation for them is the theme of their praise.
John cannot answer the angel’s question as to their identity, so the angel explains: these have come through the great tribulation. It is this phrase that often gives the 144,000 an end-time identity. Jesus’ mention of an unmatched time of trouble in Matthew 24 appears to be a reference to tribulation that occurs after the fall of Jerusalem, but does it extend to the dark ages? To a final tribulation? Both? This tribulation is definite: “the” great tribulation. Either way, God’s people survive an experience that parallel’s that of Jesus Christ. They have trusted the lamb perfectly and have white robes because of His shed blood for them. Now, they reap the blessings of communion with God in language that foreshadows chapters 21-22 and the earth made new.
Does it make a significant difference if this group is literal or figurative? Have you ever hoped you could be part of this group?
7. Chapter 8 begins with the 7th seal, but in reality it would have been better to place the 7th seal in chapter 7. This seal is short: there silence in heaven for ½ hour. What does this signify? Is the time literal, or symbolic for prophetic time or for just a short while? It must be remembered that with the opening of the 7th seal, the book can now be opened. If it contains the scroll of who will inherit life or a picture of God’s plan of salvation, then the silence is perhaps in anticipation of its contents and the reading of those who will reign with Christ.
God’s sealed saints have the sign of God in their foreheads. This placement suggests the mental assent to God’s plan for them, and is congruent with the new covenant promise that God would write His law on their hearts and minds. These people belong to God and are associated with Him.
The sealing process likely requires tribulation in order to develop this kind of Christ-centered character, as Hebrews 5:8 says that even Jesus learned obedience through His suffering. We may not treasure trouble, but we can thank God for it as Paul says in Romans 5:3-5: “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”