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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 7 - Verse 4

Verse 4. And I heard the number of them which were sealed. He does not say where he heard that, or by whom it was communicated to him, or when it was done. The material point is, that he heard it; he did not see it done. Either by the angel, or by some direct communication from God, he was told of the number that would be sealed, and of the distribution of the whole number into twelve equal parts, represented by the tribes of the children of Israel.

And there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. In regard to this number, the first and the main question is, whether it is meant that this was to be the literal number, or whether it was symbolical; and, if the latter, of what it is a symbol.

I. As to the first of these inquiries, there does not appear to be any good reason for doubt. The fair interpretation seems to require that it should be understood as symbolical, or as designed not to be literally taken; for

(a) the whole scene is symbolical—the winds, the angels, the sealing.

(b) It cannot be supposed that this number will include all who will be sealed and saved. In whatever way this is interpreted, and whatever we may suppose it to refer to, we cannot but suppose that more than this number will be saved.

(c) The number is too exact and artificial to suppose that it is literal. It is inconceivable that exactly the same number—precisely twelve thousand—should be selected from each tribe of the children of Israel.

(d) If literal, it is necessary to suppose that this refers to the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. But on every supposition this is absurd. Ten of their tribes had been long before carried away, and the distinction of the tribes was lost, no more to be recovered, and the Hebrew people never have been, since the time of John, in circumstances to which the description here could be applicable. These considerations make it clear that the description here is symbolical. But,

II. Of what is it symbolical? Is it of a large number, or of a small number? Is it of those who would be saved from among the Jews, or of all who would be saved in the Christian church—represented as the "tribes of the children of Israel?" To these inquiries we may answer,

(1.) that the representation seems to be rather that of a comparatively small number than a large one, for these reasons:

(a) The number of itself is not large.

(b) The number is not large as compared with those who must have constituted the tribes here referred to—the number twelve thousand, for example, as compared with the whole number of the tribe of Judah, of the tribe of Reuben, etc.

(c) It would seem from the language that there would be some selection from a much greater number. Thus, not all in the tribes were sealed, but those who were sealed were "of all the tribes"— ek pashv fulhv; that is, out of these tribes. So in the specification in each tribe —ek fulhv iouda, roubhn, etc. Some out of the tribe, to wit, twelve thousand, were sealed. It is not said of the twelve thousand of the tribes of Judah, Reuben, etc., that they constituted the tribe, but that they were sealed out of the tribe, as a part of it preserved and saved. "When the preposition ek, or out of, stands after any such verb as sealed, between a definite numeral and a noun of multitude in the genitive, sound criticism requires, doubtless, that the numeral should be thus construed, as signifying, not the whole, but a part taken out."—Elliott, i. 237. Compare Ex 32:28; Nu 1:21; 1 Sa 4:10.

The phrase, then, would properly denote those taken out of some other and greater number—as a portion of a tribe, and not the whole tribe. If the reference here is to the church, it would seem to denote that a portion only of that church would be sealed.

(d) For the same reason the idea would seem to be, that comparatively a small portion is referred to—as twelve thousand would be comparatively a small part of one of the tribes of Israel; and if this refers to the church, we should expect to find its fulfilment in a state of things in which the largest proportion would not be sealed: that is, in a corrupt state of the church in which there would be many professors of religion, but comparatively few who had real piety.

(2.) To the other inquiry—whether this refers to those who would be sealed and saved among the Jews, or to those in the Christian church— we may answer,

(a) that there are strong reasons for supposing the latter to be the correct opinion. Long before the time of John all these distinctions of tribe were abolished. The ten tribes had been carried away and scattered in distant lands, never more to be restored; and it cannot be supposed that there was any such literal selection from the twelve tribes as is here spoken of, or any such designation of twelve thousand from each. There was no occasion—either when Jerusalem was destroyed, or at any other time—on which there were such transactions as are here referred to occurring in reference to the children of Israel.

(b) The language is such as a Christian, who had been by birth and education a Hebrew, would naturally use if he wished to designate the church. Compare Barnes on "Jas 1:1".

 

1. Accustomed to speak of the people of God as "the twelve tribes of Israel," nothing was more natural than to transfer this language to the church of the Redeemer, and to speak of it in that figurative manner. Accordingly, from the necessity of the case, the language is universally understood to have reference to the Christian church. Even Professor Stuart, who supposes that the reference is to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, interprets it of the preservation of Christians, and their flight to Pella, beyond Jordan. Thus interpreted, moreover, it accords with the entire symbolical character of the representation.

(c) The reference to the particular tribes may be a designed allusion to the Christian church as it would be divided into denominations, or known by different names; and the fact that a certain portion would be sealed from every tribe would not be an unfit representation of the fact that a portion of all the various churches or denominations would be sealed and saved. That is, salvation would be confined to no one church or denomination, but among them all there would be found true servants of God. It would be improper to suppose that the division into tribes among the children of Israel was designed to be a type of the sects and denominations in the Christian church, and yet the fact of such a division may not improperly be employed as an illustration of that; for the whole church is made up not of any one denomination alone, but of all who hold the truth combined, as the people of God in ancient times consisted not solely of any one tribe, however large and powerful, but of all combined. Thus understood, the symbol would point to a time when there would be various denominations in the church, and yet with the idea that true friends of God would be found among them all.

(d) Perhaps nothing can be argued from the fact that exactly twelve thousand were selected from each of the tribes. In language so figurative and symbolical as this, it could not be maintained that this proves that the same definite number would be taken from each denomination of Christians. Perhaps all that can be fairly inferred is, that there would be no partiality or preference for one more than another; that there would be no favouritism on account of the tribe or denomination to which any one belonged; but that the seal would be impressed on all, of any denomination, who had the true spirit of religion. No one would receive the token of the Divine favour because he was of the tribe of Judah or Reuben; no one because he belonged to any particular denomination of Christians. Large numbers from every branch of the church would be sealed; none would be sealed because he belonged to one form of external organization rather than to another; none would be excluded because he belonged to any one tribe, if he had the spirit and held the sentiments which made it proper to recognise him as a servant of God. These views seem to me to express the true sense of this passage. No one can seriously maintain that the writer meant to refer literally to the Jewish people; and if he referred to the Christian church, it seems to be to some selection that would be made out of the whole church, in which there would be no favouritism or partiality, and to the fact that, in regard to them, there would be something which, in the midst of abounding corruption or impending danger, would designate them as the chosen people of God, and would furnish evidence that they would be safe.

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