Even prophets of doom need a breather.
You might have noticed last week during our discussion of the seven seals and trumpets that we technically stopped short with the sixth of each series. This is because for both there is, mercifully, a pause or intermision of sorts between the sixth and seventh judgment. For this week’s post, we’re looking at the first break in chapter 7
Again, when we take into account the various genres of Revelation, we must remember that we are not viewing a literal account of what has or will take place, but a highly symbolic journey into the depths of the Gospel. We are being shown–or really, the original audience, for whom most of these images would be much more familiar if not less disturbing, are being shown–what it means to truly follow Christ.
In the judgment series, John speaks prophetic truth about several things, such as the fragility of human rule (how easily the pax romana could be destroyed by both human and natural disasters) and the net-result of such upheavals: namely, that they do not bring people to repentance (6:15-17; 9:20-21). Yet at the same time, he also takes a break to speak words of comfort to those who follow a God who they believe to be in control of all this chaos.
Remember, the prophetic vocation is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. With the seals and trumpets, John afflicts. With the interludes, he comforts.
As we dive into chapter 7 and look at the first of these breaks in the judgments, the primary question we have to ask ourselves is how do these visions bring comfort in the midst of pain?
The pain we’re speaking about is of course the judgments. In Revelation as in reality, God does not simply spare the church as though they were wearing some protective armor that kept out evil and misfortune. Yet it is to this same God that Christians are called to direct their cries and confusion, their anger and pain, with trust that the Divine is present and attentive, actively working in and through them. But in the midst of suffering, simply “believing” in the reality of an invisible presence is rarely very comforting. It was not an intellectual acceptance of the Divine’s presence that helped my wife and I through our early marital issues; nor is it what brings me peace today in the midst of sudden, painful life transition. No, it’s not “belief in God” that assuages my aching soul but the physical presence of living, breathing human beings. Physical people, sitting across the table, sharing a drink, or on my couch, wiling away the hours. Eyes lit up in mirth or swimming in tears; hands warm on your shoulder. These are the ways God brings comfort into the world: one living person, bearing the hope of resurrection Life in the here and now, at a time.
So it should not surprise us that John’s vision of comfort in the midst of affliction is not simply another peek at the throne, but instead of the people who surround it, and of the Lamb in its center–the Lamb who earned the right to sit there by His sacrificial suffering and death. It is people, and the Lamb who knows human troubles, who can most effectively say those two most vital words to the human experience: me too, and so it is they who we see in this breath between the judgments.
In keeping with Revelation’s highly symbolic form though, John doesn’t write some long exposition wherein the churches overhear the Lamb speaking encouragement to His suffering people, but instead uses two loaded images that depict not only those who have suffered and yet were victorious, but continues to develop exactly how they overcame.
The two images within this short chapter are divided between earth (vv. 1-8, where we see the messianic army of 144,000 loyal Israelites) and heaven (vv. 9-17, where we see the international multitude surrounding the Lamb). The 144,000 Israelites are the followers of the Lion of Judah, the messianic heir of David. They are His army, the promised reunion of God’s entire chosen people, ready to make holy war against the gentiles as they did in the days of their great king. Following this image we see the unnumbered multitude who surround the slain Lamb of God: worshipers who have been washed (sealed, covered) in His blood – all of which hearkens back to the salvific moment of Israel’s history, the Exodus.
Let’s take a closer look at these two groups.
We’re calling the 144,000 the “messianic army” because it is an accounting–a census–of the faithful from Israel. Now, one of the chief reasons an ancient king calls for a census is in order to gauge the military strength of his people (cf. Num. 1:2-3; 26:2; II Sam. 24:2). To count and divide them by tribes and seal or set-aside these groups is to compile your nation’s complete fighting strength, hence the 144,000 (or, the 12 tribes times 12 times 1000, an image for the “complete chosen people”).1 In fact, the next time we see this crowd (Rev. 14:1-5), we find out they have been commanded to remain sexually (i.e. ritually) and morally pure, as an ancient Hebrew army would have been.
These people are ready to fight and kill God’s enemies. They are the, as the sneakily-disturbing children’s song says, “The Lord’s Army”: ready to heed the Messiah’s call and fall headlong into battle, spilling the blood of the unclean nations who would dare to harm the Divine’s chosen children.
We cannot forget that this was the central presumption of Jewish messianic hope. Leading the reunited armies of Israel, slaughtering God’s enemies, and purifying the land of Gentile presence was the whole point of the messiah in popular imagination. It was the subject of other Jewish apocalyptic works and a unifying hope among Jews who differed greatly in most other respects. It also led to the ultimate destruction and diaspora of the Jewish people. About 20 years prior to John writing Revelation, the frequent uprisings in Judea finally reached a fever pitch, and the future emperors Vespasian and Titus utterly destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple.
Jesus dealt constantly with this dominant view of the messiah’s calling, having to contend with his own disciples’ misunderstandings of his mission (Matt. 16:21-23; Mark 10:32-45; Luke 24:26; Acts 1:6), the crowds (John 6:14-15; 7:26; 10:24), and the political-religious leaders (Matt. 11:2-3; 26:63; Luke 23:2).2 This disconnect between Jesus’ assumed messianic role and the cross-carrying methods through which He sought to fulfill that role were one of the driving factors that led to His crucifixion.
I believe this is also one of the fundamental ways we as modern, western Christians misunderstand Jesus. We have for so long been in power that we have forgotten the path of our faith is one of downward mobility; that the victory of Jesus the Messiah is revealed in sacrificial death. Again, this is perhaps the central message of Revelation, which John is calling his readers to internalize and use as prophetic resistance against the allures of Caesar’s Gospel.
So, after meeting the messianic army who are counted and prepared for the messiah’s war, our attention is immediately redirected to another group of people: the great multitude of decidedly non-Jewish people surrounding the Lamb who sits in the center of the throne. And remember from chapters 4-5: thrones are for rulers, so whatever is at the “center of the throne” is symbolic for the ways and means by which God enacts Divine rule and in this case, it is a sacrificially-slaughtered Lamb.
Because, again, this is how the Lamb and His people conquer: through sacrificial death on behalf of the world.
The victory-through-sacrifice notes are becoming clearer: in chapter 5 we saw the slain Lamb who “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (v. 9). This act fulfilled the goal of the exodus, from which we originally get the sacrificial lamb imagery: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on earth” (v. 10; cf. Exod. 19:5-6). In chapter 6, the Lamb is the one overseeing the violent, plague-like judgments when He pauses to remind those killed in His service that their sacrifice was not in vain. Now in chapter 7 we see the people spoken of in 5:9 waving palm branches (a symbol of victory) and proclaiming the Lamb’s salvation, but we find that they surround the throne because they were killed – purified through blood like a sacrifice (v. 14). Now, they can fulfill their calling to be a kingdom, priests, and rulers as promised in 5:10, with the added consolations for those who enter God’s promised rest:
“Therefore, they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’” (Rev. 7:15-7).
So the followers of the Lion of Judah, the messianic army, are standing at attention in ordered companies according to their familial blood ties, while all around the Lamb we find a glorious menagerie of people from “every nation, tribe, people and language.” One is called in order to spill blood, the other has been called because their blood has been spilled. At first glance, these two seem hopelessly incongruous: the former a symbol of Israel’s deepest exclusivist hopes of earthly domination, the latter a symbol of the prophets’ intuitions of a far larger calling for God’s people (Ps. 87; Isa. 11:9; 27:13; 56:7; Zech. 8:20-23; et al.). What are we to do with this contradiction?
There are three ways I think these images serve to interpret one another.
We must first look at where these images coincide. While there are several consistencies, I think the most helpful for us to notice is the constant presence of a crowd, a multitude. There are no lone-wolf conquerors. No hipster martyrs. While the Romans lionized their great men and our civilization prizes the so-called “self-made man,” the Lamb does not conquer for Himself, but for the entire Divine community and His people. We must fulfill the Lamb’s calling together, or not at all.
Secondly, it’s important to note that the Lamb’s martyred multitude follow the messianic army; meaning, we interpret the former through the lens of the latter. We see the army and the first thought is, “Well, that’s nothing new. It’s what the Hebrew people hoped for in the Old Testament and even Jesus’ contemporaries.” But it is immediately re-interpreted through those whom the Lamb sees fit to honor with His presence: those who conquered through sacrifice.
Finally, the image of the army itself is re-interpreted when we meet them again in chapter 14. Just as in chapter 5 when the military imagery of the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” is immediately re-interpreted in sacrificial terms (5:5-6), so too is the messianic army re-envisioned as a collective of martyrs. Notice in 14:1-5 how the messianic army and multitude of martyrs from chapter 7 have been conflated – the only ones around the throne is the army. But here we do not see them waging the bloody war for which they prepared, but instead see that they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” and it’s become quite clear that the Lamb goes to death. Also, the symbolism of ritual purity immediately moves from military (remaining sexually pure as an ancient soldier must) to sacrificial purity: “offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb . . . they are blameless.” Bauckham again sums this up well:
“By juxtaposing the two contrasting images, John has forged a new symbol of conquest by sacrificial death. The messianic hopes evoked in 5:5 are not repudiated: Jesus really is the expected Messiah of David (22:16). But insofar as the latter was associated with military violence and narrow nationalism, it is reinterpreted by the image of the Lamb. The Messiah has certainly won a victory, but he has done so by sacrifice and for the benefit of people from all nations (5:9).”
This is more than an escapist hope for rest in the sweet by and by; not some simple “just get to heaven” theology. The Lamb and His followers’ victory is perceived as quite real and physical, known “on earth as it is in heaven.” Ultimately, the hope of victory we see in the interlude of Revelation 7 is the hope of resurrection, of easter. It is John challenging his audience to re-envision what it looks like to be the Lord’s army – what it means to conquer and win the eternal Life and promised rest of God (cf. Heb. 4).
Our scene began with an angel rising out of the east (the place of hope, of the rising sun), bearing the seal of God for those who are preparing to fight the messianic war (Rev. 7:2), and it ends with those who have now conquered being led by their shepherd to springs of living water (7:17), which He promised would well up within those who committed themselves to His way of bringing Life to the world (John 7:38).
This is what lies on the other side of the Lamb’s victory through death: Life and rest for all creation. It is all that comes from resting in the intimate presence of the Divine. Not a destructive purge of the untouchables. Not a personal mansion on a cloud in some ethereal heaven where the chosen few forget about the troubles of earth. But eternal Life in the here and now as the Christ reigns in the hearts of people from all tribes and nations, eventually extending that intimate presence into all the earth. That is a message worth dying for, one John hopes will strengthen his readers in the days to come.
To close, I want to leave you with the words of theologian (and my man-crush) David Bentley Hart. In The Doors of the Sea, Hart uses the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a frame for probing the problem of evil, he eventually says that there is no answer except Easter. Much as the martyrs begging God to avenge their blood, we find there is no answer to the senseless, pervading evil of this world without the hope of resurrection Life in this world. But with the hope of new Life, we can resist both the allure of Caesar and the despair of pain.
“The cosmic, sacred, political, and civic powers of all who condemn Christ have become [been revealed as] tyranny, falsehood, and injustice. Easter is an act of ‘rebellion’ against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance. It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the ‘elements.’ It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the ‘world.’ Easter should make rebels of us all.”
1. There are some really interesting things about this list, especially the exclusion of the tribe of Dan and the half tribe of Ephraim. Instead, Manasseh (Ephraim’s other half) is given full status, and their father Joseph is given his own tribe (rather than being “hidden” in his sons’). Dan is most likely missing due to their association with cowardice, violence, and idolatry (Judges 18:27-31; I Kings 12:28-30), and Ephraim for similar reasons (Ps. 78:9-17, 65-7; Hosea 5:9-11).↩
2. One of His disciples was actually part of a radical militia movement known as the Zealots, who sought to inspire violent uprising against their Roman occupiers (Luke 6:15).↩