Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000


(Spectrumbot) #1

And I heard the number

of those who were sealed,

one hundred forty-four thousand,

sealed from every tribe

of the people of Israel (Revelation 7:4)

We have earlier read of “those who say about themselves that they are Jews and are not” (2:9; 3:9). Here, we have a group of “one hundred and forty-four thousand,” and the best hypothesis is that these are people who do not say about themselves that they are Jews but are. The “Jews” in the messages to the communities in Smyrna and Philadelphia are not ethnic Jews (2:9; 3:9), and now we have the flip side. Ethnicity is not the main concern, but inclusion in a “tribe of Israel” is. The most interesting features are neither the names nor their order. The “one hundred and forty-four thousand,” twelve tribes times twelve thousand, reverberate with completeness. The history of Israel, in every way marked by disappointment and failure, turned out well after all! God’s purpose in history, even when represented in the history of Israel, came out right. Against a background of apostasy and exile, Revelation presents a picture of faithfulness and return. All the tribes are represented, the good and the bad; the descendants of the concubines count as much as the children of Leah and Rachel; and all of them are there in an equal number even though the census at the time of the exodus show vast differences in terms of numerical strength (Numbers 1:20-46).

Not ethnic Jews, perhaps, but it must not be downplayed that the redeemed are represented as Jews, descendants of the children of Jacob. It is as members of Israel all will be saved. There is continuity between Old and New, promise and fulfillment. The continuity is theological and communal. In Revelation 15, the redeemed “sing the Song of Moses, which is also the Song of the Lamb” (15:3). They understand why the song has joint authorship: it is written by Moses and the Lamb (for an explanation, see my chapter on Moses in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense). In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem has twelve gates, on each gate written “the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites” (21:12). It also has twelve foundation stones, and on these are “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (21:14). This is a lesson in theological architecture and construction — whole, seamless, complete, and unbreakable. Theologians in Germany in the first decades of the twentieth century were eager to show that the Old Testament was passé; that it did not pass muster as Scripture for the New Testament community of believers. Count John as a person who disagrees! Count Revelation as a book that refuses to put asunder what God has put together! Count Luther to be on the wrong side on this one for his disparaging attitude toward Revelation!

“From every tribe of the people of Israel” (7:4). Home at last! If we look for a parallel in Paul, we find at least one although Revelation’s vision of communal wholeness is worked out in a poetic idiom that surpasses Paul’s, “And in this way all Israel shall be saved” (Romands 11:26). I have put it this way in The Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists.

Paul, more than his opponents, is attuned to the boundaries of the prophetic map of ‘Israel’ in the Old Testament. Isaiah leads the way because ‘Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me”’ (Rom. 10:20; Isa. 65:1-2). But ethnic Israel has not been abandoned or forgotten even though the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles are beginning to blur. Whether we hear Paul say, ‘and in this way (kai houtōs) all Israel will be saved’ along an axis of means (Rom. 11:26),88 or ‘so shall all Israel be saved’ along an axis of time (Rom. 11:26), he speaks of the fullness (plērōma) of the one Israel of Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 11:25; cf. 2:28-29). When we hear Isaiah and Paul in concert, gathering in general and gathering outcasts in particular are God’s way (Isa. 56.8; cf. Rom. 10:15; Isa. 52:7), not some version of divinely calibrated exclusion.

The Jewish part in the New Testament is undergoing a complete re-think and revision as we speak: in Krister Stendahl’s, Paul among Jews and Gentiles; in the New Perspective on Paul by E. P. Sanders and James Dunn, and finally, by belated attention to Martin Luther’s cruel vitriol against the Jews in his book On the Jews and Their Lies (1543).

The 233,000

Let us read the text in Revelation again, “from every tribe of the people of Israel” (7:4). This time we shall read it in the aftermath of the Holocaust. We shall imagine the trains going to the extermination camps in Poland “from every tribe of the people of Israel.” We shall see the hair and the shoes and the combs and the purses of the deceased, “from every tribe of the people of Israel.” As we meditate on the 144,000, we shall not forget the 233,000.

“The 233,000?” you say. “What do you mean — the 233,000?”

I mean the 233,000 Jews that used to live in Lodz in the western part of Poland at the outbreak of World War II; I mean that 233,000 are more than 12,000 times twelve.

When the Nazi occupation of Poland had taken hold, it became a goal to make the new territory Judenrein. It was not easy, given that more than three million of Europe’s Jews lived in Poland. The Jews of Lodz were mostly taken to Chelmno, the first of six camps devoted exclusively to extermination. You may not have heard of Chelmno or what happened there — I plan to say more on the subject in a project that has the working title, The Bible and the Bodies in the Basement. But you can get an idea by watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary of the survivor Simon Srebnik, when he returns to Chelmno.

God willing, I will go to Lodz in April this year. Lodz, the city of 233,000 Jews, is the place where Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the Jewish community, in 1942 gave his “Give me your children speech.” Google will help you find it, and I will help you, too, if I am able to bring my next projects to completion. After Lodz, I will travel the sixty kilometers to Chelmno. In Chelmno, I shall see the site where the mansion stood. The basement of the mansion was the place where the Jews of Lodz were kept in transit for one night before being gassed in the “gas vans.” The gas used was carbon monoxide from the van’s exhaust fumes. It took about ten minutes to kill the people inside the cargo space of the van, fifty people at a time in the small van, seventy at a time in the large one. Then the bodies were driven to a clearing in the forest five kilometers away, to be dumped into mass graves dug by Jews. I have more to say about the mass graves, but I cannot say it now.

In that clearing in the forest, God willing, I shall on April 11 come for a season of grief and existential clarity. I shall bring a snippet from my favorite book in the Bible, and I shall read aloud the following verses.

From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,

from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,

from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed (7:5-8).

I had not planned to share this with anyone. Indeed, I had not planned to write these comments on Revelation. But so it goes. The foregoing is not rhetoric. My plan has been months and years in the making. Surely, the God who notices the sparrow fall did not miss out on what happened to the 233,000. The God who knows how to count to 144,000 will also know the other numbers that should be memorized and remembered. If you wish, you can send me a note, and I will leave a sunflower (preferred) or some other flower from you — a person who aspires to be one of the 144,000 — as a tribute to that other group, the 233,000 buried in the forest in Chelmno. (The total was 400,000, but I have only counted the victims from Lodz). It will cost you nothing; I will pay for the flower.

In Holocaust-hindsight, hardly any text in the Bible soars more than this one. And there is more.

They shall hunger no more,

and they shall thirst no more;

the sun shall not hit them,

nor any heat;

for the Lamb

in the middle of the throne

will be their shepherd,

and he will guide them

to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away

every tear from their eyes (7:17).

Here, the “one hundred and forty-four thousand” are represented solely from the point of view of need. It would not be necessary to mention hunger, thirst, or exposure if these were not features of existence with which they are acquainted. There would be no need for a shepherd except for vulnerability and danger; no need for access to water except for scarcity and thirst; and no need to have tears wiped away except for the fact that they have experienced loss and grief. How can we relate to this, thinking mostly of North America and affluent parts of the world? We can talk about it in our after-dinner conversations, after the roast and the dessert, and we can imagine that this is a vision of future trials for which we should prepare. In the meantime, we can think of the thirst experienced during the transports to Auschwitz, of the hunger felt in the camps, of the scorching heat, and of the lack of protection. God has been on the side of the sufferer in the trials of life — this much is certain. God will make it up to them.

I am saying this because the “one hundred and forty-four thousand” are represented as members of “the tribes of Israel.” We need to travel on from where we stand to capture the meaning of this, beyond the nasty anti-Semitic tradition in Christianity that began with John Chrysostom in the fourth century; we even need to distance ourselves from the Protestant tradition and from Luther, in particular. For the precise identity of the “one hundred and forty-four thousand,” I shall plead ignorance except to say that their identity is not a foregone conclusion. While John is watching, a participant turns to him, saying, “These who are dressed in white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?” (7:13). Why would a being in heaven ask this question of John on earth? The reason cannot be that the elder in heaven — and all of this is happening in the presence of the heavenly council — does not know the answer. These beings are in-the-know (they even know, qualitatively, the content of the scroll). And I said to him, “My master, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and they worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is sitting upon the throne will shelter them” (7:14-15).

I see in these images a vision of cleansing and commitment, the commitment made manifest in sharing the experience of the Lamb: “these follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

When R. H. Charles described the meaning of the seal of the living God, he made the seal the expression of an inward reality, not the other way around.

In its deepest sense this sealing means the outward manifestation of character. The hidden goodness of God’s servants is at last blazoned outwardly, and the divine name that was written in secret by God’s Spirit on their hearts is now engraved openly on their brows by the very signet ring of the living God. In the reign of the Antichrist goodness and evil, righteousness and sin, come into their fullest manifestation and antagonism. Character ultimately enters on the stage of finality.

It is not my purpose to dislodge anyone from his or her conviction that these are scenes of a reality still future. Or that the “one hundred and forty-four thousand” is a symbolic number that will be constituted mostly by people with whom we go to church every week. But I am grateful to Spectrum for the opportunity to say a word about a number less well known, the 233,000 Jews of Lodz, most of whom perished at Chelmno.

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Image: Family members say goodbye to a child through a fence at the ghetto's central prison where children, the sick, and the elderly were held before deportation to Chelmno during the "Gehsperre" action. Lodz, Poland, September 1942. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9384

#2

I have come to believe the number (144,000), in the way it is composed, illustrates the diversity of the moral and ethical backgrounds from which this group emerges, as illustrated by Jacob’s enumeration of the diverse character traits of his son’s… (Gen 49) Symbolically, it represents the non-partisan nature of God’s call and man’s response…


#3

No, 144,000 is the number from 12 different tribes mentioned. Not 233,000. You are adding to.
"God willing, I will go to Lodz in April this year. Lodz, the city of 233,000 Jews, is the place where Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the Jewish community, in 1942 gave his “Give me your children speech.” "
Please give the verse.


#4

Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942


#5

Bible verse?.
I’ll wait…


(Patrick Travis) #6

There is an interesting thing to me that this list in Rev.7 is different from the other 12 tribes. Ephraim was omitted here.
Ephraim’s attitudes and apostasy should be noted also as Hosea tells us. His desire was to seek help of the other nations and He/Northern tribes had the continual habit of idolatry and false worship. He had a jealousy for Judah and Zion finding its home there.
“Modern Ephraims” seek help from other nations and their idolatry is in not accepting the Christ of Judah and the Zion which is above. They instead help and hope to build the Babel/Babylon below to usurp the true. Just, as Ephraim in Bethel and Dan did in the North in the divided Kingdom.


#7

The tribe of Dan is missing. How am I wrong?


(Patrick Travis) #8

Ephraim and Dan the backbiter are both missing. Here included in the heavenly Jerusalem list, …Levi had no land allotted in OT and Joseph was not in the OT list rather both his sons.
There may be another thought here that Ephraim called the first born in power in. Jer. was not chosen but Manasseh the literal firstborn was…opposite to Jacob & Esau. Also, not all physical Israel but those chosen in Christ to make up by His choosing "spiritual Israel. " Not to Him who is willing or runneth but to whom God has mercy.
Some will say Ephraim was there in Joseph but it is not apparent. I suggest it has meaning.


(Eric Webster) #9

I found this essay to be insightful and pregnant with spiritual meaning. I even found the thoughts on the 233,000 to prod one’s sympathetic nerve!


(Sigve Tonstad) #10

There is no verse, only mass graves. And then Revelation’s insistence that the 144 000 are made up of the tribes of the children of Israel. Try to feel the force of the metaphor. I have no other advice.


(Frank Peacham) #11

Maybe this is God’s response to bring an end to senseless human suffering that God fearing humanity has endured in all human history. Maybe the 144,000 are already “sealed,” this is living with white robes in anticipation of heaven’s response to unjust human suffering.

Yet, I wish I understood why God uses the very means that evil has utilized, invented and made popular in His dealing with evil–the painful suffering of the wicked in hell fire, with all haven enjoying the smoke of their torment “forever and ever,” as the third angels message says. Being an American it seems to me to be against human rights as “cruel and unusual” punishment.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #12

Dennis Johsonin in his seminal book The Triumph of the Lamb postulates that the 144000 are those martyred, which is fitting to the remarks of the author. [quote=“Trust_Him, post:2, topic:17814”]
15).
[/quote]


(Patrick Travis) #13

I don’t think that those who have suffered martyrdom in history will think it is “cruel and unusual” punishnent Frank. Are we more righteous and “loving” than God? Rom.2 :5 ;12:19


#14

Prof. Dennis Johnson has provided several valuable, invigorating works. Many are available online: Books By Dennis E. Johnson

Johnson’s Table of Contents to The Triumph of the Lamb provides inviting descriptions:

  1. Introduction: A Strategy for Seeing
  2. Structure: Framing the Pieces of the Puzzle
  3. Vision: The Son of Man among His Churches (1:7-20)
  4. Letters: The Son of Man Speaks to His Churches (2:1-3:22)
  5. Scroll Opened: The Lamb Is Worthy (4:1-5:14)
  6. Seals: Instruments, Rationale, and Climax of Judgment (6:1-8:5)
  7. Trumpets: Current and Coming Woes (8:1-9:21; 11:15-19)
  8. Scroll Delivered: The Prophet Eats, Measures, and Testifies (10:1-11:14)
  9. Cosmic Conflict 1: The Mother, the Dragon, and the Beasts (12:1-13:18)
  10. Harvest: Celebration (14:1-15:8)
  11. Bowls: The Last Woes (16:1-21)
  12. Harlot: Babylon’s Luxury, Violence, and Destruction (17:1-19:10)
  13. Cosmic Conflict 2: The Thousand Years and the Last Battle (19:11-20:15)
  14. Bride: New Jerusalem, Wife of the Lamb (21:1-22:21)
  15. Conclusion: What Should This Book Do to Us?
    Appendix A: A Concise Overview of the Book of Revelation
    Appendix B: Schools of Interpretation

.


#15

Good article just out on the subject…


(Patrick Travis) #16

Hi Paul,
I’ve read a few articles in Proclamation and agree wholeheartedly with some.
I do find their views a bit dispensational at times however. I haven’t studied them in depth however.
I am not referring to adventism. I REFER TO GENTILES who have accepted Christ and become part of the commonwealth of Israel. One temple of Jew and gentile is now being built…not 2. Eph.2: 11-22 .

Hans LaRhondelle wrote a excellent book entitled “The Israel of God in prophecy.” He writes with the view of covenant continuity not dispensationalism. Again, Colleen may not be dispensational. I would suggest it would be a good read for both of you.
Regards,
Pat


(Frank Peacham) #17

I fail to understand what you mean. I was not talking about anybody that suffered martyrdom. I am not sure how you reached your conclusion.


(Patrick Travis) #18

Did I read your comment wrong? Does God destroy evil on two levels or is He just to destroy the wicked?
Some things are imagery. But, He did destroy righteously Sodom & Gomorrah and He will righteously destroy after judgment. NOT cruel and unusual.


(Frank Peacham) #19

The moral issue I am thinking about, I know I should just accept it as fact and let it be, is the long suffering that the wicked endure in hell fire. EGW says some burn in hell for very long periods while others a short time and black slaves will be as if they were not born. After everyone is all consumed, Satan burns on…while the saints inside New Jerusalem can watch it all in real time.

So I wonder out loud, how can one use the means that sin has created, to destroy sin? (This is not said out of disrespect for God, just honest reflection looking for answers, if there are any. If Hitler were caught alive, would it be humain for us to burn him slowly for years in a concentration camp–or just publicly try him and hang him?)


(Patrick Travis) #20

Hi Frank. I don’t hang my hat on all the extra biblical “insights” of Ellen.
I do believe SDA’S are correct about annihilation. Other notable Protestants such as Stott are open to that view.
I’ll be happy to let the judge call the length of time. I dont see it by God or the saints as something relished. The imagery reminds them of the results of sin and rebellion…don’t go there again. God is Just and Love. That’s the way I see it.