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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Revelation 7

Verse 2

And I saw another angel ascend from the sunrising, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a great voice to the four angels to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea.

Another angel ... from the sunrising ... The east is often mentioned in Revelation, and "from the sunrising" seems to mean "from that direction," the source of earth's light. Certainly, for one of God's messengers, it is more appropriate that he should come from the sunrising, than from the sunset. Who this mighty angel was we have no certain way of knowing. Beeson thought, "This refers to Christ's coming in the Holy Spirit to his apostles on Pentecost";[27] and despite Beeson's being correct in seeing the connection between the sealing and the giving of the Holy Spirit, it is not necessary to impose any specific identity upon this mighty angel. He stands in the vision as an executor of the will of God, the big thought of the passage relating not to his identity but to his great authority to control nature itself in order to prevent any frustration of God's plans to seal his servants.

Having the seal of the living God ... "Here we have an instance of words used both figuratively and literally in one passage."[28] Seal is figurative, and living God is literal. For what the seal is, see under (2) in the chapter heading, above. Of course, the angel did not carry the Holy Spirit, but the imagery is aided by the picture of his carrying God's seal.

Cried with a loud voice to the four angels ... This mighty angel clearly had more authority than the four; nevertheless, the four were angels and were already restraining the destructive forces when the mighty angel delivered his order. There is no New Testament criteria for identifying this mighty angel, unless he is understood as Michael the archangel; but there is no certainty of this. See in my Commentary on Jude, p. 534, for more on the archangel.

[27] Ulrich R. Beeson, The Revelation (Little Rock, Arkansas: Ulrich R. Beeson, 1956), p. 69.

[28] John T. Hinds, op. cit., p. 111.

Verse 3

saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, until we shall have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.

Hurt not the earth ... sea ... trees ... The four angels who had such power are not depicted as having done any hurt at all, nor as ever having had either any intention or any desire to hurt anything. There was an extensive angelology among the Jews; but the mention in this prophecy of angels of the winds (as here), the angel of fire (Revelation 14:18), and the angel of the waters (Revelation 16:5), is not sufficient grounds for receiving the speculative Hebrew angelology as dependable. The New Testament purposely left us in the dark concerning any definitive teaching regarding the work of angels. Some of their functions may be inferred from various Old Testament and New Testament texts; and, for a glance at these, see in my Commentary on Hebrews, p. 31, and under Revelation 10:7.

Till we shall have sealed the servants of our God ... The future perfect tense, as well as the "till," suggests that the restraining of the destructive forces shall be continued throughout the Christian dispensation until the Second Advent, until all of God's servants are sealed.

We ... our ... These are not merely editorial expressions, but have the meaning that the work of all the angels in view here is one work; all are concerned with both the restraining and the sealing. Therefore, this would seem to be a reference to the work of angels who do service for them that are the heirs of salvation, as in Hebrews 1:14.

God's servants ... To the generation which first read Revelation, this expression could have had only one meaning, Christians. That is what it meant then, and what it still means. God has no bondservants who are not Christians. Furthermore, it is not merely some fraction of these, or some limited group, or class, such as martyrs, who are to be sealed. All are sealed; and not even any destructive natural force shall be allowed to impede or interfere with this sealing until it is totally accomplished.

In their foreheads ... Such a designated place for the sealing suggests that the countenances of the sealed will bear eloquent witness of their having been sealed, a truth exemplified by the radiant countenances of Christians all over the world. When the rich young ruler went away from Jesus, it is recorded that "his countenance fell" (Mark 10:22); and God's sealing of his servants gives the opposite of a fallen countenance. As Lenski put it, "The countenance identifies the person ... what the heart is, the face and eyes reveal."[29]

Verse 4

And I heard the number of them that were sealed, a hundred and forty and four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel:

Of the tribe of Judah were sealed twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Asher twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand;

Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.

Who are these 144,000? They are the saved of earth, servants of God just mentioned by the angel, particularly the Christians of all ages until the end of time. This meaning alone could have had any comfort at all for the suffering saints who first received this prophecy. The idea that John here comforted the Christians who were in the throes of a great tribulation brought upon them by the fleshly Jews who had murdered the Messiah and hindered the truth all over the world, with a vision of such a vast company of saved and redeemed Jews (literally) is absolutely preposterous. See chapter introduction, above, under (1).

Theories which would read these 144,000 as, "the total number of the martyrs that must be completed before the prayers of those in heaven (Revelation 6:11) could be answered,"[30] are equally preposterous and are founded upon an inadequate conception of God who simply cannot be properly viewed as approving any specified number of martyrs. It is not martyrs that God desires, but Christians. Furthermore, the sealed here are not called martyrs.

The theory that these 144,000 are literal Jews from racial Israel is attractive to some, and was ably advocated by Seiss:

When God says "children of Israel," I do not understand him to mean any but people of Jewish blood, be they Christians or not. And when he speaks of the twelve sons of Jacob, and gives the names of the tribes, it is impossible for me to believe that he means Gentiles in any sense or degree, whether they be believers or not.[31]

The blindness of this view is identical with that of the Pharisees who claimed to be sons of Abraham (and, literally, they were); but Jesus said, "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham" (John 8:39). John's .calling the church the twelve tribes of Israel came directly from the lips of Jesus (Matthew 19:28); and therefore "fleshly Israel," called by Jesus himself "the children of the devil" (John 8:44), simply cannot fit into this passage in any way. That our interpretation entails come difficulty is freely admitted. Smith called this, "a passage of unusual difficulty";[32] but the difficulty of trying to make the tribes of literal Israel fit the meaning here is far more difficult.

The 144,000 ... This is a number made up of 12 10:12 10:1,000. Earlier in Revelation we had a number made up of 12 + 12, that of the "four and twenty elders" (Revelation 4:4); but here the "twelve" is multiplied by itself, and then again by a thousand, indicating completeness and perfection in the ultimate degree. What is meant? "That not one of those who are worthy shall be overlooked or forgotten."[33] It also carries the thought that the natural universe, the powers of evil, and the ravages of time shall not interfere with God's plans until all are accomplished. Therefore, the 144,000 are a symbol of the total number of the redeemed, a definite number, unknown to us, but surely known by God. It is the same as "the innumerable company" of Revelation 7:9.

Twelve tribes ... Why are they listed? First, the number "twelve" is a sacred number. There were twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, twelve foundations of the eternal city, twelve gates, twelve angels at the gates, twelve manner of fruits on the tree of life, twelve seasons in the year when the fruits were yielded, and twelve stars in the crown of the glorious woman arrayed with the sun! Are these literally the twelve sons of Jacob? How could they be? The ten northern tribes had already been lost for centuries when John wrote. Dan is not mentioned here, nor is Ephraim; but Joseph which includes both Ephraim and Manasseh is listed. As Beckwith said, "Nineteen different arrangements of these names are found in the Old Testament, with none of which does this list agree."[34] If these are understood as literal tribes, it would mean that exactly the same number would be saved from each one; and what kind of a straitjacket is that? It would also have to mean that none will be saved from the tribe of Dan. Thus we are driven to the conclusion reached by Roberts: "The 144,000 must represent the whole church of the New Testament as spiritual Israel."[35] No satisfactory explanation of this irregular list has ever been offered, unless it is this, "John intends to say that the twelve tribes of Israel are not literal Israel, but the true spiritual Israel, which is the church."[36] Foy E. Wallace, Jr., also agreed that, "They signify the whole faithful church, the total number of the redeemed."[37] Regarding the question of why, then, should John have broken the 144,000 into twelve tribes, Bruce thought he did so in order, "to emphasize that the church is the true Israel of God, and that the number represents the sum total of the faithful."[38] "The reference to the twelve tribes is therefore accommodative, as in James 1:1."[39] Besides all this, to bring racial considerations into the interpretation of this prophecy "seriously complicates the book of Revelation by bringing in racial considerations that no longer exist."[40]

Bruce, Caird, and others apply the sealing of the 144,000 to martyrs only, but there is no way we could agree with this. (See discussion in the chapter introduction.) The placement of Judah at the head of the list of twelve tribes was thought by McDowell to be due to the fact that Christ was of the tribe of Judah;[41] but since all Christians, being "in Christ" would thus belong to that tribe, it would have to imply that only twelve thousand could be saved from the tribe of Judah, including all the Christians who ever lived! These, and many other considerations, demand a spiritual interpretation of these twelve tribes.

Still another question regards the purpose of the sealing, whether it was to exempt the sealed from tribulation, or to preserve the saved safely through tribulation. Since there is not a line in the New Testament, nor in the experience of any Christian through out history, of any exemption of the Lord's people from tribulation, the conclusion is mandatory that the safety of the soul through tribulation is meant. See more on this in the chapter introduction under (3). As McGuiggan said:

Does this sealing assure saints of physical preservation? No! In the Old Testament vision of Ezekiel 9, we read of others who were sealed, but many of them died. Both Lindsay and Walvoord say that this means the 144,000 are physically preserved; but it did not mean that in Ezekiel; then why should it mean that here? Where is the proof?[42]

[30] Martin Rist, op. cit., p. 419.

[31] J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1900), pp. 405,406.

[32] Wilbur M. Smith, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 1070.

[33] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 207.

[34] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 542.

[35] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 71.

[36] George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 114.

[37] Foy E. Wallace, Jr. The Book of Revelation (Nashville: Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Publications, 1966), p. 100.

[38] F. F. Bruce, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 645.

[39] E. M. Zerr, Bible Commentary, Vol. 6 (Marion, Indiana: Cogdill Foundation, 1954), p. 311.

[40] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 168.

[41] Edward A. McDowell, The Meaning and Message of the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1951), p. 97.

[42] Jim McGuiggan, op. cit., p. 112.

Verse 9

After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands;

After these things ... See under Revelation 7:1. The logic of the first vision of this chapter (Revelation 7:1-8) coming first is inherent in the fact that two different states of Christians are in view: (1) their state on earth suffering persecutions and martyrdom, and (2) their state in heaven where they are eternally safe. The saints on earth are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a pledge of their ultimately receiving their inheritance; but the saints in heaven are not said to be sealed, for they have already received the great inheritance. The first vision (Revelation 7:1-8) symbolized by the old Israel's embattled condition during the wilderness wanderings suggests the similar condition of God's church throughout the ages; and the second vision (Revelation 7:9-17) shows them finally triumphant and redeemed. The imagery borrowed from the old Israel applies here to the new.

A great number which no man could number ... This is the same group as that of the 144,000 (Revelation 7:1-8). This is not contradicted by the number 144,000 being given there and the "innumerable" group here. The 144,000 is also an "innumerable" throng. "If they had been different groups, both would have been sealed,"[43] for both are servants of God. Those in heaven had already been sealed while upon earth. "This innumerable company are the whole church of God."[44] However, this vision of them is not a view of them at a time when they are suffering persecutions, but a view of them as they appear eternally after the Second Advent of Christ. "The interpretation of most of Revelation pivots upon the proper identification of these two groups as one and the same."[45] "This vision shows how the saints (the 144,000) are preserved, not delivered from death, but delivered by death."[46]

The premillennial proposition that the sealing in this chapter can not be "fulfilled before the rapture of the church,"[47] has no support from the New Testament. We take the view of Strauss to be correct: "This picture is the church triumphant in heaven; they have prevailed over persecution and death because of the blood of the Lamb."[48] The time of their sealing, not mentioned here, was that during their sojourn on earth after they obeyed the gospel.

Out of every nation ... tribes ... peoples ... tongues ... The worldwide, universal nature of the church is seen in this.

Standing before the throne and before the Lamb ... This is in heaven and justifies the view that here we have a glimpse of the Church Triumphant. What better comfort could be provided for those who were confronted with suffering and martyrdom?

Arrayed in white robes ... "Trench stated that no symbol of heathen origin is used in the Apocalypse."[49] Therefore, we do not need to look to Babylon, Greece, or Rome for the origin of the "palms" carried by these white-robed saints. The citizens of Jerusalem spread the branches of palms before the Saviour upon his triumphal entry (John 12:13), a fact recorded by the author of this Apocalypse.

[43] Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentaries, Vol. 20, the Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969). p. 114.

[44] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 542.

[45] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 257.

[46] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1079.

[47] Finis Jennings Dake, Revelation Expounded (Lawrenceville, Georgia: Finis Jennings Dake, 1950), p. 56.

[48] James D. Strauss, The Seer, the Saviour, and the Saved (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1972), p. 125.

[49] Trench as quoted by Plummer, op. cit., p. 209.

Verse 10

and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.

They cry with a great voice ... The present tense indicates the constant and unceasing nature of this adoration.

Salvation unto our God ... and unto the Lamb ... The identification of the Lamb with God upon the throne is invariable throughout Revelation. The presence of Christ at the very center of universal power and authority is an essential Christian conception. The meaning of this first clause is that God has given salvation and is therefore praised for it. "It is characteristic of John to announce the final victory before it has occurred,"[50] his purpose, of course, being that of maintaining a high level of hope and encouragement among those who were suffering and facing a prospect of martyrdom. Such anticipations are called "proleptic visions."[51]

[50] Charles M. Laymon, op. cit., p. 105.

[51] Ibid.

Verse 11

And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell down before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,

All the angels ... round about the throne ... All things in heaven and upon earth shall at last join in the hymn of universal praise to God in Christ, summing up all things in Christ, "the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth" (Ephesians 1:10).

Elders and the four living creatures ... What is said above regarding the angels applies equally to these beings also.

Verse 12

saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amen ... Amen ... This usage of such an expression both to introduce and to close this sevenfold doxology is most impressive. See further comment on the use of "Amen" in this prophecy under Revelation 5:12f, above. The great doxology here is similar to the one recorded there.

Unto our God ... does not exclude either Christ or the Holy Spirit, but is inclusive of the entire Godhead.

Verse 13

And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, These that are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they?

One of the elders ... This was one of the four and twenty elders mentioned in Revelation 4:4.

These in white robes ... With such an appearance, these could hardly have been unrecognized by John as the saved of earth; but he did not offer his own opinion on the question, as evidenced in the next verse.

Verse 14

And I say unto him, My lord, thou knowest. And he said unto me, These are they that came out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Lord, thou knowest ... The very fact of the elder's asking John of their identity suggests that John probably understood who they were and whence they came; but, as being appropriate for one still under probation, the apostle refrained from saying so, his response, "Lord, thou knowest," being noncommittal. It is a gross misunderstanding to make John's respectful reply here the basis of denying that one of the Twelve is the author through whom this prophecy came.

These are they that came out of the great tribulation ... This verse is the principal proof-text for sponsors of the Great Tribulation theory; but the words "they that came are translated from the present middle participle, meaning they continue to come."[52] Bruce translated this, "These are the comers.[53] This positively identifies the "coming" of these white-robed saints w dispensation. "The whole history of the church is a time of tribulation.[54] "The Great Ordeal (tribulation) is a prolonged process, which from John's temporal standpoint was partly past and partly future."[55] Right here is the key to Revelation 1:19. Many of the scenes in Revelation mingle visions of things past, present, and future simultaneously. Any neat little scheme of making one section of Revelation past, another present, and yet another future, collapses in a careful understanding of the text. We agree with Beckwith that, "There is nothing here which points to any one particular distress."[56]

And they washed their robes ... The undeniable reference in this is to the conversion of the saints at the time of their residence upon the earth. Thompson stated that, "The understanding of this passage derives from such Scriptures as Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; and Titus 3:5,[57] all of which refer to primary obedience to the gospel, the unique manner by which anyone since Pentecost was ever able, in any sense, to "wash" his robes in the blood of Christ. This is a metaphor, but it surely stresses the part which sinners themselves have in their own salvation. They must obey the gospel. Note that it is said, "They washed," a reference to what one must do to be saved. Christ provides the means of our redemption, but he requires of people that they appropriate the blessings of it through obedience. All of the apostles taught this same truth. Peter, on Pentecost, commanded those who wished to be saved to "Repent and have yourselves baptized ... save yourselves from this crooked generation" (Acts 2:38,40). "Save yourselves ... wash your robes," etc., all such passages stress the human response in salvation.

Again, note the doxology of Revelation 7:12, which was being spoken by this white-robed throng. When they praised the Lord for salvation, they spoke not of what they had done (though they could not have been saved without it), but of the blood of the Lamb.

"The great tribulation of this passage is the persecution of the followers of Christ which broke in such intense malignity in John's day and continues until the ultimate triumph of Christ.[58] The following verses, designed to comfort and encourage the suffering church, must be understood with reference to the dark background of persecutions.

[52] James D. Strauss, op. cit., p. 126.

[53] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 646.

[54] James William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 631.

[55] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 102.

[56] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 545.

[57] W. S. Thompson, Comments on Revelation (Memphis, Tennessee: Southern Church Publications, 1957), p. 85.

[58] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 646.

Verse 15

Therefore are they before the throne of God; and they serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them.

Suffering Christians who overcome the sorrows and tribulations of life will ultimately be with God, in his very presence, and shall participate in the joys of heaven forever. "Only the blood-washed throng can stand before the throne of God and enjoy his presence forever."[59]

Spread his tabernacle over them ... This is a reference to the special love and care which God spreads like a mantle over his beloved children. This great love and protection is not withheld until we reach heaven, but it belongs to God's people now, and is instantly available for all who truly seek to know God and to follow him "in Christ."

Verse 16

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat:

The background of this verse is the hunger and privation suffered by the apostolic church. The savage hatred of the whole pagan world motivated ten great persecutions against the Christians. Not only were the Christians often cold, and tired, and hungry, and naked, they were also murdered for sport in the Roman Coliseum, and some of them were drenched in flammables and elevated as torches to illuminate the night time games and orgies of the emperor's gardens in Rome. Saints suffering such indignities and terrors needed such comforting words as those provided in this verse.

Neither shall the sun strike on them, nor any heat ... This continues in the same line of thought. During the persecutions, the church often found that its members did not have even the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter; and from this we should learn that, "The church should never expect to be preserved from the basic ills of mankind."[60]

Verse 17

for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. "Lamb in the midst of the throne ...

Here is the great consolation. "As long as this earth endures, Christ is still at the center of things; and his people are indestructible."[61] Furthermore, as seen above (Revelation 7:1-4), the mighty angels of God preserve the earth itself until God's great purpose is fully accomplished.

Shall be their shepherd ... This is strongly suggestive of John 10, where Jesus revealed himself as the "Good Shepherd." One does not ordinarily think of a lamb as a shepherd, but with this Lamb it is true. Pack pointed out that all of the language of these final two verses draws upon the language of Isaiah 49:10;[62] and Bruce found an echo of Isaiah 26:8, making the whole passage applicable to the new age, "when God will swallow up death forever."[63] Only then shall the redeemed find the fountains of living waters and have all tears wiped away. Even more obvious is the fact of these sentiments being fully in harmony with the great description of the final abode of the saints in the last two chapters of this prophecy. Rist's suggestion that, "John is here indoctrinating prospective martyrs by quoting a hymn"[64] cannot be correct, nor can Moffatt's notion that, "The Apocalypse confines Christ's shepherding to the future life."[65] As a matter of fact, it is only because Christ shepherds his people in the present life that John envisioned his also doing so eternally.

Shall wipe away every tear ... The repetition of this precious promise in Revelation 21:4, where it concerns the eternal state, makes it mandatory to see these verses as a description of the same state in heaven. This final heavenly vision describing the eternal bliss of the redeemed is most appropriate as a sequel to the terrors of the wicked in the final judgment at the end of Revelation 6, strongly indicating that it is the final judgment depicted here, but with the destiny of the righteous in focus, instead of the destiny of the wicked.

It will be noticed that the heavenly scene here follows the scene of the overthrow of the wicked in the final judgment at the end of Revelation 6; and this is exactly the order in which John will give the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20, followed by the heavenly scene greatly elaborated in the final two chapters of the prophecy. Ezell was correct in connecting Revelation 8:1 with this paragraph,[66] and understanding the half hour of silence which follows the opening of the seventh seal "as the full content of that seal."[67] Thus, this whole chapter is intimately related to the sixth seal; and the seventh seal merely shows that God has not revealed anything at all of what will happen after the final judgment. That half hour of silence really rings down the curtain and draws a dramatic line under all that is written through Revelation 7:17, effecting a complete separation of it from what is afterwards written in the prophecy, and compelling us to look for a new beginning in Revelation 8:2.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Frank Pack, Revelation (Austin, Texas: The R. B. Sweet Company, 1965), Part 1, p. 72.

[63] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 646.

[64] Martin Rist, op. cit., p. 424.

[65] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 401.

[66] Douglas Ezell, Revelations on Revelation (Waco: Word Books, Inc., 1977), p. 45.

[67] Ibid.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.