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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Revelation 7

 

 

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Introduction

Verse 1

Revelation 7:1. The words After this denote succession of visions rather than of time.

The Seer beholds four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. The number four is that of the world; and hence ‘the four corners,’—North, South, East, West,—as well as four angels (comp. chap. Revelation 20:8). By the winds which these angels hold fast we are no doubt in the first place to understand natural winds, although it is clear that storm-winds or tempests must be intended. Yet it is as impossible to think here of mere winds as it is to think of mere earthquakes or of mere changes in sun and moon in the preceding chapter. The idea of four storm-winds bursting forth, when they are let loose, from all the four quarters of the earth is too unnatural, almost too grotesque, to be entertained. The winds are those upon which the Almighty rides, and the symbols of His judgments (comp. 1 Kings 19:11; Jeremiah 22:22; Jeremiah 49:36; Ezekiel 1:4; Daniel 7:2; Zechariah 2:1; Revelation 6:13). But God stays them at His pleasure, and there is a calm. Thus Psalms 29 describes a storm coming up from the ‘great sea,’ shaking the land, dashing the cedar trees, and dividing the flames of fire. The storm, however, is in the hands of One who sitteth King for ever, who gives strength unto His people, who blesses His people with peace. It is to be noticed that the winds here are not only ready but eager to be let loose: hence the four angels do not only hold them, but hold them fast.—The object is that no wind should blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. The word ‘tree’ is used in its ordinary sense, not as meaning the great ones of the earth,—an interpretation that would necessarily lead us to think of the ‘sea’ as the mass of the heathen nations, and of the ‘land’ as the stubborn Jews. Such meanings may be possible. They are by no means out of keeping with the tone of the Apocalypse. But they are not natural at present. The word, therefore, ought to be taken literally—‘trees’ being probably selected from amongst other objects on the surface of the earth because they are the first to be prostrated before the storm-wind. The figure used in this verse is at once appropriate and natural. We may compare Hamlet’s account of his father’s care of his mother—

‘So loving to my mother.

That he might not let even the winds of heaven

Visit her too roughly.’


Verse 2-3

Revelation 7:2-3. The more peculiar contents of the vision follow. And I saw another angel ascending from the sunrising, from the quarter whence issues that great orb of day which is the symbol of the Sun of righteousness (comp. chap. Revelation 16:12).—Having a seal of the living God, of that God who both has life and gives life.

And he cried with a great voice to the four angels already spoken of, telling them not to execute the judgments with which they were entrusted,—till we shall have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. In Ezekiel 9:4, a man ‘clothed with linen and having a writer’s inkhorn by his side’ is instructed to go through the midst of Jerusalem, and to set ‘a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.’ That mark is for their security, and for a similar purpose the seal of this angel is applied. The sealed shall be kept safe in the times of trial that are to come. Their Redeemer will set them as a seal upon His heart and upon His arm (Song of Solomon 8:6), and no one shall pluck them out of His hand. For the opposite marking, the mark of the service of the Beast, see Revelation 13:17, Revelation 14:11. The Seer next beholds the number of the sealed.


Verses 4-8

Revelation 7:4-8. One or two subordinate points may be noticed before we ask who these sealed ones are. (1) There is no difficulty in determining the manner in which the number 144,000 is obtained. First we have the number 12, that of the witnessing Church, taken from the 12 tribes of Israel; and, multiplying by 1000, we have the number taken from each tribe. This number is then multiplied by 12 for the twelve tribes, and yields 144,000. (2) In looking at the names of the tribes several remarkable circumstances at once strike the eye. (a) Dan is omitted. The reasons generally assigned for this are either that Dan had been peculiarly given to idolatry ( 18:1-31), or that it had disappeared as a tribe in the days of St. John. Both reasons are unsatisfactory; the first, because the idolatry of Dan does not appear to have been so excessive as to warrant its extinction; the second, because the fact has not been ascertained, and because, even though ascertained, it would be little to the purpose; for, as in the case of the Tabernacle, the Apostle takes the ancient condition of things for his guide. A more probable explanation is to be found in the words of Genesis 49:17, ‘Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path,’ a prophecy which, interpreted in a good sense denoting subtlety and skill in dealing with enemies, may have been the occasion of the tribe’s choosing a serpent for its emblem. When we remember St. John’s allusion to ‘the old serpent’ in chap. Revelation 12:9, and the possibility that in Revelation 2:24 he has the early heretical sect of the Ophites in his eye, the supposition seems not improbable that this connection of Dan with the ‘serpent’ may have been enough to make the Seer leave out that tribe from his enumeration of the twelve which constitute the Christian Church. It may be worth while also to recall to mind that, when the twelve apostles received God’s seal of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, one who had originally belonged to their number was no longer there. He had been cast out because he was ‘a devil,’ and his place had been supplied in order to make up the sacred twelve. St. John may have seen in this a sufficient indication that, when the twelve tribes making up the Church were to be sealed, it was proper that one of the original number, because found unworthy, should be absent, and its place be taken by another. (b) Levi is included, and this, owing to the peculiar inheritance of Levi, was not usual in the catalogues of the tribes given us in the later books of the Old Testament. The explanation usually offered seems correct. In the Old Testament Levi was the priestly tribe, and stood apart; in the New Testament such distinctions have passed away. All Christians are priests. The distinction between ministers and people are distinctions of function only, and do not touch the personal relations of each man to God. (c) Instead of Ephraim Joseph is substituted. This seems to be due to the fact that throughout the Old Testament history Ephraim was peculiarly untheocratic, so that it became the symbol of opposition to faithful Judah (Psalms 80:2; Isaiah 7:17; Jeremiah 7:15). (3) The order in which the tribes are named is worthy of notice. It is possible, indeed, that because of chap. Revelation 5:5 Judah may come first, and that Benjamin, as the youngest, may with propriety be last. Beyond this it seems as if nothing can be said. The tribes are not mentioned either in the order of the birth of the sons of Jacob, or of any pre-eminence we may suppose to belong to the children of his wives over those of his maidservants; nor is their order that of the lists presented to us in Ezekiel 48:1-27; Ezekiel 48:31-34.

We are now prepared for the further and more important inquiry, Whom do the 144,000 represent? Is it simply Jewish Christians? and, it not, Is it a select number out of the Christian community, or the whole of that community itself? These two inquiries may be taken together, and the following considerations will supply the answer:—

1. According to the analogy of the Apocalypse, in which Jewish terms are christianised and heightened in their meaning, the word ‘Israel’ must be understood not of Jewish only but of all Christians. Such is also the lesson taught by the strain of the New Testament generally (Romans 2:28-29; Romans 9:6-7; Galatians 6:16; Philippians 3:3). 2. The number 144,000 is a complete number—the number of the Church (not of Israel in its more limited sense) multiplied by twelve, and then taken a thousandfold. Christians so numbered can hardly be Jewish believers alone, but must be the Church of Christ in its widest extent and final comprehensiveness. 3. There is no limitation of the 144,000 in the description given of them in the third verse of the chapter, ‘Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we shall have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’ These words seem to imply that all the servants of God, and not merely a select portion, were to be sealed, just as the whole earth, and not a part of it only, was to be left unhurt 4. In the fourteenth chapter of this book we have again the 144,000 brought before us, and there the vision follows the description of the enemies of Christ, as these enemies have reference not to any one portion of the Church but to it all, while it precedes that harvest and vintage of the earth which are to be wide as the whole world in their effects. 5. In chap. Revelation 14:1 the 144,000 standing with the Lamb upon Mount Zion are spoken of as having ‘His Father’s name written on their foreheads;’ and in chap. Revelation 22:4 this trait marks all the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem—‘and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads.’ 6. The changes made in the tribes as here given, although the grounds of them may not be very clear, indicate in part at least that we are not to think of the literal Israel, and thus strengthen the argument. 7. In chap. Revelation 21:12 the ‘twelve tribes’ evidently include all believers. 8. There is another marking spoken of in various passages of this book, that by Satan of his own (chaps, Revelation 13:16-17, Revelation 14:9, Revelation 16:2, Revelation 19:20, Revelation 20:4), and no one acquainted with the style of St. John will doubt that this marking is the direct antithesis of the sealing by God. A comparison of the several passages referred to will also show that in both cases a sealing or marking on ‘the forehead’ is spoken of. Now it will not be denied that the mark of the beast is imprinted upon all his servants, and the contrast requires that the seal of God should be equally imprinted upon all His people. 9. The plagues that are to come threaten all, Gentile as well as Jew: the sealing must in like manner protect all believers. 10. The next following vision has its scene laid in heaven, not on earth; so that, if Gentile Christians are not included among the tribes of Israel, they are nowhere spoken of as ‘sealed.’ We conclude, therefore, that we have before us neither Jewish Christians in particular, nor a select portion out of the whole Christian Church. To the Church of God in every age and land the sealing is applied, and in it there is neither Jew nor Gentile; all its members are one in Christ Jesus.

A second important question meets us, At what time does the sealing take place? The answer is involved in what has been said of its comprehensiveness. If the 144,000 are the whole Church of God, then the sealing goes on during all the Church’s history. Through all the period of their earthly struggle God has been preserving and sealing His own. The vision has relation to no particular or limited period.

Another vision follows.


Verse 9

Revelation 7:9. The vision now introduced is distinguished from the former by the fact that it belongs to heaven, while the sealing took place on earth. Those beheld stand before the throne and before the Lamb (comp. Revelation 4:5-6; Revelation 4:10, Revelation 5:8, etc.), and the other particulars correspond. They are clothed with white robes, emblematic of priestly purity. They have palms in their hands, not palms of victory at heathen games, but palms of festive joy, especially of the least of Tabernacles. The whole scene appears to be modelled upon that of John 12:12, etc., even the great multitude here reminding us of that mentioned there.

This great multitude is out of every nation, the word ‘nation’ being then enlarged and supplemented. The terms used are four, an indication of the universality of the host. But not Gentile Christians alone are included; Jewish Christians must also be referred to; a fact throwing a reflex light upon the vision of the sealing, and confirming the conclusion already reached, that the 144,000 are not to be confined to the latter class. Nor does the statement that this is a multitude which no man could number prove that it is a larger company than the 144,000, for these figures are to be understood not numerically, but symbolically and theologically.


Verse 10

Revelation 7:10. They cry with a great voice, a voice expressing the intensity of their thankfulness and joy, and in their cry they attribute the glory of their salvation to Him whom they describe as our God which sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb. To this psalm of praise which, as shown by the use of the present tense ‘cry,’ is sung unceasingly, a choral response is immediately given.


Verse 11-12

Revelation 7:11-12. The angels spoken of in these verses must be the same as those at chap. Revelation 5:11, although it may be worthy of notice that the other beings in the neighbourhood of the throne are here arranged in a different order,—the ‘living creatures’ of chap. Revelation 5:11 there taking precedence of the ‘elders,’ while in the words before us the order is reversed. In the one case the throne is looked at from its outer circle to its centre, in the other from its centre to its outer circle. In the first passage also it is not said of the angels that they fell before the throne on their faces. This trait is probably now added because a higher manifestation of God’s purposes has been reached. Here, as there, the doxology is sevenfold, but the words and the order differ. The doxology of the angels includes no mention of the Lamb, for angels had not been ‘loosed from their sins in His blood’ (chap. Revelation 1:5). The vision thus given is so important that an explanation is subjoined.


Verse 13

Revelation 7:13. These which are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? The question is not asked by the Seer. It is Addressed to him in order that his attention may be drawn to it with greater force, and one of the elders is the speaker. In chap, vi the four living creatures spoke, because they represented creation, and were the instruments of vengeance. Now one of the elders speaks, because the elders represent the triumphant Church.


Verses 14-17

Revelation 7:14-17. The Seer does not say that he cannot answer the question, but he implies that the elder is better able to do so. He himself has no experience of the state described, and he cannot therefore speak of it as it should be spoken of. His language is peculiarly graphic, neither ‘I said’ of the Authorised Version, nor ‘I say’ of the Revised, but I have said, as given in the margin of the latter. The perfect tense has its appropriate power of bringing down to the present moment the feeling that is expressed. The wonder of that instant in the apostle’s life is not a matter only of the past. It presents itself still as vividly to his mind as when he first uttered the words, and asked an explanation of the glorious spectacle (comp. note on John 1:15). The word knowest is to be understood in a far deeper sense than that of possessing information only. It is used in the sense of the word ‘know’ in the Fourth Gospel, and expresses experimental knowledge (comp. note on John 4:32 and Revelation 3:17).

The answer to the question is next given, and its importance appears in the fact that it consists of three parts. The blessed company beheld by the apostle is first described in the words, These are they that come etc., and it must be at once obvious that the whole company, and not simply a portion of it, is thus alluded to. The terms of the description are peculiar and interesting, for the words ‘that come’ are neither equivalent to the words ‘which came’ of the Authorised Version, nor do they point only to the future. The idea, too, that the present tense is used because the redeemed are at that moment seen coming is not less to be rejected. They have been already represented as ‘standing before the throne’ (Revelation 7:9). In these circumstances we can hardly separate the expression ‘they that come’ from the designation of our Lord, ‘He that cometh,’ in the Fourth Gospel. We have here, in short, another illustration of that identification of believers with their Lord which is so characteristic of the writings of St. John. Members of the Lord’s body, they are one with Him in all His fortunes, and may be .fitly described by the same terms.

The great tribulation is that out of which they come. It is ‘the tribulation’ of Matthew 24:21, and is surely universal, including Jewish as well as Gentile Christians in both passages. Nor are we to understand by it merely a special tribulation at the close of the world’s history. It is rather the trials experienced by the saints of God throughout the whole period of their pilgrimage, at one time greater than at another, but always great.

Secondly, they washed their robes, and that too, it is obviously implied, in the blood of the Lamb. The idea of many ancient expositors that the martyrs washed their robes in their own blood may be at once rejected. But neither can we refer the ‘washing’ to justification alone, and the ‘making white’ of the following clause to sanctification. ‘Robes’ are the expression of character (comp. the English word ‘habits’), not simply of legal standing, and lead us to the thought of the whole cleansing efficacy of the work of Christ, to its removal of the power of sin as well as to pardon, to new life imparted as well as to old transgressions forgiven (comp. Zechariah 3:4). In the view of St. John, water alone does not exhibit the special blessing of the New Covenant (comp. 1 John 5:6). The Old Covenant has water; the New has ‘blood,’ and blood is life. What is here signified, therefore, is that these believers are made new creatures in Christ Jesus; they are alike justified and sanctified, when they are ‘washed’ in the blood of Christ.—Thirdly, they made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. This is more than the mere result of the washing. It is the addition of a new feature. In the blood of the Lamb they made them not only clean but glistering, so that they shone with a dazzling brightness (comp. Hebrews 9:11-14).

Such being the persons spoken of, the place occupied by them is next described in two particulars; first, in the terms already employed in Revelation 7:9, and secondly, as the innermost sanctuary of the temple of God, the innermost recess of the heavenly abode. Then follows a description of the blessedness of the righteous in what seems to be seven particulars having reference to the future. Why we should have the future here instead of the present, as in the former parts of the vision, may be difficult to say. Probably it is because we pass at this point to a change of thought, not now to the place of blessedness, but to that blessedness itself which shall never end.

(1) He that sitteth, etc. (comp. Revelation 21:3). God shall be their constant shelter and defence—especially shall He spread his tabernacle over them at the joyful feast of Tabernacles to be celebrated by all nations (Isaiah 4:5-6; Zechariah 14:16).—(2) They shall hanger no more (Isaiah 49:10).—(3) Neither thirst any more (Isaiah 49:10).—(4) Neither shall the son strike on them nor any heat (Isaiah 49:10).—(5) The Lamb shall as a Shepherd tend them (Psalms 23:1).—(6) He shall guide, etc. (Isaiah 48:21).—(7) God shall wipe, etc. (Isaiah 25:8). Before passing from these two consolatory visions we have still to notice the manner in which they are related to each other. In doing so it is important to observe, in the first place, that the second vision does not refer to Gentile, the first to Jewish, Christians only, and that the second class is not treated simply as an ‘appendix’ to the first. We have already seen that the 144,000 embrace the whole Israel of God without distinction of Jew or Gentile. The same remark has to be made on the ‘multitude which no man can number.’ In their statements as to the persons saved the two visions are identical. Nor is it difficult to see why the redeemed should be numbered in the one vision, and not in the other. In the one they are looked at as they are sealed by God, and He knoweth His own; He calleth them by their names; to His eyes they are a definite number. In the other they are seen by man, and man cannot count them; he beholds only a ‘great multitude, which no man can number.’ Compare the promise to Abraham, ‘Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou art able to number them’ (Genesis 15:5), with God’s language to His afflicted people. ‘He thereth together the outcasts of Israel. . . .He counteth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names’ (Psalms 147:2; Psalms 147:4). The difference between the two visions, then, is to be sought not in any distinction between the persons referred to, but rather in the different circumstances in which the same persons are brought before us in each. In the first we behold the Church in her conflict; in the second in her victory. In the first, even though troubled on every side, she is safe; in the second her troubles have closed for ever. In the first she is tempest-tossed but her Lord is with her, and she is assured that she shall reach the haven of rest; in the second the haven has been reached, and she shall never again be exposed to the raging of any storm. Even in her time of trial God has marked her for His own; affliction may refine but cannot vanquish her; and the day is not distant when every trace of affliction shall yield to perfect, uninterrupted, endless joy.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 7:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/revelation-7.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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