My attention was directed recently to an article by Kevin DeYoung, entitled “Who Are the 144,000 in Revelation?” DeYoung pastors a Reformed church in Michigan and identifies himself with the “young, restless, and reformed” movement.
Generally, I don’t make a habit of responding to the blogs of others, as (1) I am not the “correct” police and (2) I have a billion (literally…almost) other issues to deal with. However, because of the increasing influence of “young, restless, and reformed,” and because of specific requests that I answer this article, I thought it appropriate to offer another perspective on the subject matter.
Further, I do so with all due respect to the article’s writer, Pastor DeYoung, a man I have not met, and one whom I expect loves the Lord with all his heart and seeks to discover the truth of His word. I challenge here the conclusions he draws and the methodology whereby he arrives at them, but I commend him for caring enough about the Lord to attempt to resolve difficulties he perceives in the Bible. We all must have room to grow, and we need to be cautious in challenging each other to be sensitive to that process. So, if my responses to his article come across as harsh or even personally antagonistic, please know, reader, that my intentions are to avoid that entirely. We must be able to challenge one another in a loving manner, speaking the truth in love. I have attempted to do that here.
Now, onto the article, which asks the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4, quotes the verse, and argues that “the 144,000 are not an ethnic Jewish remnant,” but instead references “all of God’s people under the old and new covenant.” The article relies on five pieces of evidence, which I represent here exactly as the writer put them forth.
First, hermeneutics (method for interpreting texts) is worth mentioning, because usually theological differences are rooted primarily in hermeneutic differences. Some attempt (as I do) to rely consistently on the literal grammatical-historical method, while others, including Reformed (and Covenant) theologians, regard as legitimate the use of allegorical (non-literal) and theological interpretive methods. These distinctions in hermeneutic method often undergird irreconcilable differences in theological conclusions, and almost every area of Biblical understanding is touched by such differences in interpretive method.
So it is no surprise that different interpretations exist. The question is this: when there are competing interpretations of a passage, how does one determine which interpretation is closer to the author’s original intent? I believe the best understanding of a passage is always through the literal (natural) grammatical (considering the rules of grammar for the language used) historical (considering the rules of that language in the historical context of the passage’s writing), because the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic best represents our means of arriving at authorial intent and offers the most objective understanding of the passage in question. So let’s apply those principles to Revelation 7:4.
The passage itself reads, “and I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” The writer thinks it doesn’t mean 144,000 and he doesn’t think it means Israel.
In a literal grammatical-historical understanding of the passage, we would begin by assuming the plain sense of the words written unless there is something within the text indicating a metaphorical meaning. In an allegorical or theological understanding of the passage we can begin with any meaning supported by our overall theology. The writer does the latter. I will do the former.
Let’s consider the text itself. Ton arithmon (accusative) is the object of the verb ekousa – what was heard was the number – not a number but the (definite article) number. The passage begins with an emphasis of what was heard. What right do I, as the interpreter, have to discard the number when the text says that what was heard was the number. If we dismiss the number as being allegorical, then the entire premise of the verse becomes subjective, and the verse, meaningless. Ton esphragismenon (perfect passive, participle, genitive) identifies that the number that was heard was the number of those having been sealed. The number was ekaton (one hundred) tesserakonta (forty) tessares (four) chiliades (thousands). 144,000. The words have only numerical value in the Greek.
The next phrase describes from where the sealed 144.000 derive: esphragismenoi (perfect passive, participle, nominative) – those having been sealed, emphasized again. This is a second connection in the span of two phrases connecting those sealed with their number. Those sealed are ek pases, out of (or from) every phules huion Israel – tribe of the sons of Israel. If these don’t reference simple numbers of people from a specific lineage, then they have no discernible meaning.
To dismiss the number and the origin of those sealed is embarrassing in its lack of basic scholarship, arrogant in its enthroning of the interpreter above basic principles of meaning, and foolish in its disregard for the simple and obvious meaning of God’s word. Such textual gymnastics pay no attention to the text itself. Many otherwise wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ do at times commit these three errors (errors from which I am also not immune), but they are severe errors worthy of attention, nonetheless.
What literary right does an interpreter have to so mangle God’s word? The writer offers five evidences for his interpretation:
(The Writer): “First, in chapter 13 we read that Satan seals all of his followers, so it makes sense that God would seal all of his people, not just the Jewish ones.”
I respond: Satan doesn’t seal his followers in Revelation 13 – the beast (distinguished from Satan in Rev. 19:20) requires a mark (the Greek karagma – a mark or a brand, not exactly a seal). This is a different word and a different concept from what God did to the 144,000 – this is the same word used of these sealed by the Spirit in Ephesians 1:13. Textually, the two markings (by God and the beast) are unrelated. Logically, on what basis should the interpreter seek out similarities between God’s activities and Satan? Certainly, Satan is a great counterfeiter, but if I am expecting each of Satan’s actions to counterpoint those of God, then I am in for some interpretive frustration. And if I place that expectation above the plain verbiage of the text, then I have hopelessly missed the mark. This first offering of evidence ignores the referenced passage (7:4) entirely, in favor of a questionable comparison in a more distant context. Does that seem methodologically fair to Revelation 7:4?
(The Writer) Second, the image of sealing comes from Ezekiel 9 where the seal on the forehead marks out two groups of people: idolaters and non-idolaters. It would seem that the sealing of the 144,000 makes a similar distinction based on who worships God not who among the Jewish remnant worships God.
I respond: Again, this is another discarding of the plain text of 7:4 in favor of a distant-context reference. Interestingly, this strand of evidence assumes a literal interpretation of Ezekiel 9:4. But if we can’t interpret 7:4 literally, why should we do so in Ezekiel 9:4? In fact, if some of the Scripture can be arbitrarily allegorized, then I can’t help but wonder how I can know that Christ really died for my sins, and that I have eternal life by belief in Him? How do I know that if the words that say as much can’t be trusted to say what they say?
Further, Ezekiel 9:4 also identifies the specific people to be marked – those located in the midst of Jerusalem, and specifically those who “sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst.” 9:5 prescribes not a marking for the “idolater,” but rather the death penalty for those not marked. Notice also the issue at stake in Ezekiel 9. Ezekiel himself wonders aloud to God, “Alas, Lord God! Art Thou destroying the whole remnant of Israel by pouring out they wrath on Jerusalem?” Ezekiel’s concern is for the remnant of Israel.
If Revelation 7 and Ezekiel 9 are connected, as the writer asserts, then how can he be so quick to deny that Revelation 7 references the remnant of Israel (a theme both passages seem to explicitly share). Again, this seems remarkably unfair to both the Revelation and Ezekiel texts.
(The Writer) Third, the 144,000 are called the servants of our God (Rev. 7:3). There is no reason to make the 144,000 any more restricted than that. If you are a servant of the living God, you are one of the 144,000 mentioned here. In Revelation, the phrase “servants of God” always refers to all of God’s redeemed people, not just an ethnic Jewish remnant (see 1:1; 2:20; 19:2; 19:5; 22:3).
I respond: 7:3 uses the word bond-servants (doulous), and so do 11:18 and 15:3 – two passages the article curiously omits. 11:18 references the prophets as bond-servants, and 15:3 describes Moses as the bond-servant of God. The word bond-servant certainly does not always refer to “all of God’s redeemed people.” Are all of God’s redeemed people prophets (11:18)? Are all of God’s redeemed people Moses (15:3)?
The article has here committed the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent
P1: “Bond-servants of God” always refers to all of God’s people.
P2: The 144,000 are called bond-servants of God
C: All bond-servants of God are the 144,000
Whether or not the conclusion is true in this case is to be determined by the text itself. But the form of the argument itself is invalid, being fallacious.
As for the immediate context, a number of different bond-servants of God are identified in Revelation. The immediate context must be considered in order to understand to whom the term refers in each instance. 7:3 anticipates the sealing of bond-servants of God. 7:4 tells exactly the number and derivation of those bond-servants.
(The Writer) Fourth, the 144,000 mentioned later in chapter 14 are those who have been “redeemed from the earth” and those who were “purchased from among men.” This is generic everybody kind of language. The 144,000 is a symbolic number of redeemed drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews. Besides, if the number is not symbolic then what do we do with Revelation 14:4 which describes the 144,000 as those “who have not defiled themselves with women”? Are we to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men? It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is a symbolic number that is described as celibate men to highlight the group’s moral purity and set-apartness for spiritual battle.
I respond: I argue that the writer has not even begun to earn the right to make the statement, “This is generic everybody kind of language.” Speculating is not exegesis. Interpreting the 144,000 literally does not preclude the possibility that they could be redeemed from the earth or purchased among men. Just because God has redeemed others from the earth and purchased others among men at different times does not give indication that those others are part of the 144,000. To assert the contrary is a repeat of the earlier logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.
Further, the writer asks if we are “to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men.” He concludes without explanation, that “It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is…symbolic…” But why? This is speculation, and speculation is not exegesis. Why does it make more sense to disregard the verbiage and context in favor of a symbolic meaning? Why can’t this refer to those who have remained pure in a sexual sense? On what textual basis is the symbolic interpretation to be preferred? My apologies to the writer, but the symbolic interpretation doesn’t “make more sense,” in fact it makes little to no sense – especially in the absence of any textual appeal whatsoever.
(The Writer) Fifth, the last reason for thinking that the 144,000 is the entire community of the redeemed is because of the highly stylized list of tribes in verses 5-8. The number itself is stylized. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s 12 x 12 x 1000—12 being the number of completion for God’s people (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb) and 1000 being a generic number suggesting a great multitude. So 144,000 is a way of saying all of God’s people under the old and new covenant. And then look at the list of the tribes. There are over a dozen different arrangements of the twelve tribes in the Bible. This one is unique among all of those. Judah is listed first because Jesus was from there as a lion of the tribe of Judah. All twelve of Jacob’s sons are listed—including Levi who usually wasn’t because he didn’t inherit any land-except for one. Manasseh, Joseph’s son (Jacob’s grandson), is listed in place of Dan. So why not Dan? Dan was left out in order to point to the purity of the redeemed church. From early in Israel’s history, Dan was the center of idolatry for the kingdom (Judges 18:30-31). During the days of the divided kingdom, Dan was one of two centers for idolatry (1 Kings 12:28-30). And there is recorded in some non-Biblical Jewish writings that the Jews thought the anti-Christ would come out of Dan based on Genesis 49:17. The bottom line is that the number and the list and the order of the tribes are all stylized to depict the totality of God’s pure and perfectly redeemed servants from all time over all the earth. That’s what Revelation means by the 144,000.
I respond: To argue that the tribal list is “stylized” and as such is to be interpreted non-literally is baseless. Does the writer disregard other such lists as figurative? Lists like the genealogy of Jesus, or the two census’ of Numbers? Are also these “stylized” and intended as figurative? If so, it bears explanation what numbers and names in the Bible are to be taken literally – if any at all. And who determines what profound spiritual message is conveyed by these allegories? The writer again speculates that “144,000 is a way of saying all of God’s people under the old and new covenant.” But how does he know? There are no references in the context to either covenant – all that is found is a very detailed list. Finally, the writer speculates on Dan’s omission in the list that “Dan was left out in order to point to the purity of the redeemed church.” But how does he know? On what does he base this claim?
I conclude: I commend those who consider themselves young, restless, and reformed, for their intense desire to discern God’s word. I commend them also for their diligence in His service. However, I am reminded of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7, “But have nothing to do with worldly fables…” and again in v. 16, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching…”
If we are not handling the word of God accurately (a trap into which we can all fall if we are not on guard), then we are to be chastised and not commended. I pray that those in the young, restless, and reformed camp will understand the importance of a truly Biblical theology – one that is built on Scripture and that accurately represents Scripture, and one that is necessarily less influenced by theological traditions than by exegesis. When we handle His word poorly it reflects poorly not just on us, but also on Him. When we say, “Thus says the Lord,” thus better have said the Lord.