Ted Grimsrud—May 18, 2013
As a rule, the book of Revelation is read as a book emphasizing God’s judgment on the rebellious world. The visions that begin in chapter six (centering on the three sets of seven plagues in chapters 6, 8-9, and 15-16) are typically seen as visions of destruction coming down from heaven in order to punish wrongdoers and clear the ground for the New Jerusalem. I propose a different way of reading the book as a whole, including a different way to read these plague visions.
As part of this different way of reading, I suggest that chapter 7 be seen not as a kind of “digression” or “tangent” from the main story line. Rather, chapter 7 is better read as helping us see the main point that the book as a whole is making—Jesus is Lord and as Lord calls people from throughout the earth to embrace and witness to his ways of mercy and compassion. As people walking Jesus’ path, followers of the Lamb become agents of healing the rebellious world, ultimately even the kings of the earth (even as the nonhuman powers of oppression and domination are destroyed).
Our step in reading chapter 7 as central to the plot of the book as a whole is to recognize that it follows shortly after the crucial vision of chapter 5 that establishes the Lamb and his path of compassionate witness as the path the one on the throne embraces as the the meaning of history. That is, in a genuine sense, the plagues that are visited on the earth beginning in chapter 6 are the “digression” or “tangent” in relation to the core message of God’s healing love. Thus, the plagues actually serve that healing love—not the healing love as a side point to the plagues.
Chapter 6 has shown the dynamics of the wrath that characterizes life in history, during what we will learn later in Revelation may be symbolically terms the “3 1/2 years” of time between Jesus’ life and the final embodiment of the New Jerusalem. That set of plagues ends with the cry “who is able to stand” in face of “the wrath of the Lamb”? This cry in answered right away in chapter 7. Many indeed will stand (7:9)! That is, the point of chapters 6 and 7 when read together is this standing, not the destruction of the plagues.
The answer to the question about who will “stand” begins right away with symbolic action beging taken to show the depth of the “protection” that God’s people have in face of the plagues. The “four angels” (7:1) are the counterparts to the “four riders” of 6:1-8. The riders accompany the plagues; the angels here accompanying God’s “sealing” of God’s people. This sealing is a sign of God’s care, God’s protection, God’s calling, God’s recognition, God’s presence. There may be “damage” that in some providential sense comes from the sovereign God. But the calling back of the angels, “do not damage” (7:3), indicates that the plagues are not more powerful than God’s healing love. In fact, as we will see as we continue in Revelation, the plagues (though originating with the Dragon) actually serve God’s healing purposes—healing of humanity while destroying the spiritual forces of evil (the “destroyers of the earth”).
The title “servants of our God” and the act of “sealing” these servants speak to the vocation these people have. God has chosen (elected) God’s people out of the earth (that is, in the context in which Revelation was written, out from among the Roman Empire). But this calling is anchored in the original election of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
The initial picture of who the elect people seems to confirm that this is a select group, a limited number. We read of (only) twelve sets of 12,000 people, corresponding with the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The meaning of election has always been a vexing one—we see that in the Old Testament and in the post-biblical history both of Christianity and Judaism. What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean to be chosen by God?
Is the focus more on what we could call the privileges of election—that we are in, we are blessed by God, we are part of the select few over against the godless multitudes out in the world? Or is the focus more on what we could call the vocation of the elect—to be agents of healing, blessing, and transformation for the entire world?
Starting with this small number of elect grouped explicitly into the twelve-tribe ordering of God’s people in ancient Israel could be seen as emphasizing the privilege aspect. The world is a terrible place, full of plagues—as it must be for God to punish the wrongdoers. But in mercy, God has singled out a few to be safe, “sealed” and carefully numbered, the faithful remnant that will inherit the cleansed earth after the plagues scour it of the unclean godless masses.
Well, based on the vision of Revelation five, we would not expect that John’s vision actually is this kind of celebration of privilege over against punishment against those outside the circle of God’s redemptive election. As we will see in the second half of Revelation seven, such an expectation is vindicated. John repeats his creative literary upturning of images from chapter five to portray a very different, inclusive, vocation-oriented understanding of election.
Back in Revelation five, John set his readers up for a certain kind of understanding of how God will exercise redemptive power (with his kingly imagery in 5:5) only to turn such an understanding on its head. What is revealed as the way God exercises kingly power in Revelation five is the persevering love of the Lamb, the powerlessness of self-sacrifice. God vindicates the kingliness of the Lamb’s weakness—and all of creation celebrates the Lamb’s victory.
Something quite similar happens here in chapter seven. One of the standard symbols of Revelation, the number 144,000, so often seen to be a symbol of limited salvation and restrictive election, gets turned on its head. The actual meaning of 144,000 is not a limited salvation but an abundant salvation. The 144,000 are revealed here to be a multitude beyond counting.
In Revelation five, the contrast is between what John hears (imagery of violent kingship expressed in the particularity of ancient Israel with its intimations of election as privilege for a select few over against the multitudes) and what John sees (imagery of kingship as suffering servanthood that results in celebration for all of creation including people from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” 5:9). The consequence of this expansive vision that does not repudiate the specificity of Israelite election but reframes it as a vocation to bless all the families of the earth is to emphasize the vocation of the “saints” to “be a kingdom and priests serving our God and [reigning] on earth” (5:10). Those who celebrate the Lamb’s victory are given the task of helping the whole earth be transformed in light of the Lamb’s way of being (with the ultimate result, we will see in Revelation 21-22, of the healing of the nations and the transformation of the kings of the earth).
John repeats this message here in chapter seven—again making clear the link between those two chapters and the sense that the plagues are the sideshow. He starts with what he hears—the 144,000 being sealed (marked by God for “protection” and service). Twelve thousand from each of Israel’s twelve tribes, a limited number, an exclusive group. Then, beginning with 7:9 we are told what he sees: a transformation of the image of 144,000, just as the slain and resurrected Lamb transformed the image of kingly power in chapter five.
What John sees is the 144,000 as a countless multitude, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (the same image used of the worship of the Lamb in 5:9-10 and the naming of those the Lamb has redeemed—that is, the people in chapter five and in chapter seven are identical). Just as the slain and risen Lamb provides the definitive interpretation of what “king” means in Revelation five, so the multitude from every nation show what “144,000” means—an image that conveys the abundance of God’s healing love. The “sealing” of 7:3 is not for a tiny remnant but for countless multitudes.
The “white robes” that the members of the multitude wear (7:9) are a symbol used throughout Revelation of those who have followed the Lamb’s path of faithful witness—certainly indicating the possibility of death in service of God’s healing work, but most of all simply indicating the willingness to follow the path of persevering love. The “white robes” signify active discipleship, nonviolent resistance to empire, confronting the kings of the earth—but in ways that allow for the transformation of those kings. The white robes signify an army that fights, but with the weapons of the Spirit.
The multitude confesses the inextricable link between the Lamb’s way and the One on the throne (7:10), another reiteration of the confession that stands at the heart of the vision that takes up chapters four and five. And, as in chapter five, the multitude is joined by the angels and four living creations and their song is virtually the same as well (7:12 compared with 5:12).
We learn more about the multitude: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This mixed metaphor (“washed…white in the blood”) carries great theological and ethical weight. The point is not forgiveness of sins that follows from belief in Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement (he died so that we don’t have to). Rather, the point is about the call to discipleship. “Washed” here signifies active imitation. Jesus’ followers gain their “white robes” by living how he lived. “Blood,” throughout Revelation, works as a master metaphor that signifies Jesus’ path of persevering love taken all the way, even in face of harsh opposition from the Powers. The robes are “made white” by ethical faithfulness, not by belief in certain doctrines.
The consequences of the persevering love that may well involve suffering since it involves resistance to the Beast and its demands for loyalty are a litany of safety, hope, and joy. “For this reason” (that is, due to following Jesus in faithful witness), the multitude will worship God and the Lamb (7:15—another reference to the close link between the One on the throne and the Lamb) without pause “within [God’s] temple” (which we will ultimately learn is simply a way of talking about all of creation—see Revelation 21–22).
No hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat, no tears. Images of comfort and security meant to steel the resolve of readers to keep the Lamb as their “shepherd” (7:16-17). This reference to shepherd here clearly is meant to be a comfort and to convey a sense of partnership in faithful witness. We should let the sense of “shepherd” here shape our understanding of the scattered references in Revelation to the Lamb “ruling” with a “rod of iron” (12:5; 19:15)—this is one kind of “ruling,” suffering servanthood (see Mark 10:42-45).