In quite a few commentaries this chapter is called the first of several “interludes.” This would be a literary device in which the writer’s flow of thought is interrupted by something different.
With the term we shall not quarrel. But it can easily be misunderstood. If pressed, much of the beautiful unity of this writing would be lost. Indeed, at first reading there might seem to be a break. John does write, “After this I saw...” But as a man he could not see and hear everything at once. This chapter, an important unit within the book, answers the question: What will happen to God’s children when His wrath is poured out?
Along with this we must face a deeper issue. It involves how believers, all confessing God’s abiding Word to be completely true and reliable, ought to read and interpret it. Here are sharp, even unbridgeable differences which cannot be avoided. What is involved is the precise relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Does the Lord God have one or two ways of dealing with His elect? Are there one or two such saved peoples both in time and in eternity? What is the relation between the Jews then and now, and the Gentiles? Shall the former inherit the earth at the end of the ages with the latter receiving the new heavens? The response given determines not only how this chapter but also much of Revelation and the rest of the Bible will be explained. With all who confess a basic and undeniable unity we differ radically in interpreting what God has revealed from our premillenial and dispensational friends. And while we do well to listen carefully to others, any attempts to borrow details from the opposing view can only lead to misinterpretation and mystification.
In light of these comments we can turn to this lesson.
An array of angels, vss. 1–3
No one who accepts the Bible as God's infallible Word will for even a moment doubt the existence of angels. They are not the fairy-like creatures with lovely faces and wings who adorn our cards at Christmastide. The Bible calls them “the mighty ones” and “the armies of the Lord of hosts.” They are arranged in several orders and number ten thousand times ten thousand. They always stand before the face of the Lord. Here they worship and await their orders. In this they also are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Hebr. 1:14).
John now sees “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” They are “holding back the four winds of the earth.” This is the world in which we live. The “winds” signify the awesome and terrifying judgments about which the apostle has just been writing. Power is at hand, still under control, but ready to be let loose. It is the power to disrupt and then destroy everyone and everything that has pitted itself against God the Creator and Ruler of the universe.
Another “angel” also appears on the scene. He comes up “from the east,” the place where the sun appears to bless, cheer and give light to mankind. This one cries out to the four “who had been given power to harm the sea and the land.” Nothing small or insignificant about them. But they are commanded, “Do not harm...until...!” Certain parts of the created order are to be spared for a season; others like earthquakes, wars and famines will continue until the very end. The three from which man and beast receive food are to be left unharmed for a season. And the reason for this is given. The winds which bring complete devastation will be held back for the sake of God’s people and their ingathering.
The sealing, vss. 3b–4
From eternity the sovereign God has in Christ chosen a people to be His own possession. In His word He has repeatedly pledged their safety no matter what happens. Not a single one of them can or will fall short of the everlasting inheritance purchased for them by their Savior.
That plan is being fulfilled throughout the entire course of world history also as these elect appear one-by-one on its scene. Hence the sealing activity is not accomplished in a single day. Rather, it must and will continue “until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants (“douloi,” slaves) of our God.” As some commentators suggest, the angel who gives this command may likely be Christ, “the angel of the covenant.”
In a wide variety of ways sealing is mentioned in the Bible. It is a mark of genuineness on royal edicts and decrees (I Kgs. 21:8; Esth. 3:12). In a formal way it ratified transactions and covenants (Neh. 9:38; 10:1; Jer. 32:11–14). It was used to protect writings from tampering (Jer. 34:12; Dan. 12:4, 9). By this doors could be shut to prevent the entrance of unauthorized persons (Jdgs. 3:23; Dan. 6:17; Matt. 27:66). Most frequently it placed the stamp of ownership on certain people (Deut. 32:34; Dan 12:4; Rom. 4:11; Eph. 1:13; 4:30).
This is the seal of salvation for everyone purchased with the precious blood of Jesus. Also when the “winds” of divine wrath blow, their safety and security is guaranteed. Nothing can really “harm” them even if suffering strikes their lives. Precisely how the angels accomplish this we do not know. But that they “protect” us is clear. It is one of their God-assigned tasks.
Those who are sealed, vss. 5–8
Now the difference in the interpretations of this scene comes into sharp relief.
Those who think in terms of two distinct peoples of God — Israel to inherit the earth and Gentiles as believers the heavens — argue that the 144,000 are literally Jews from “all the tribes of Israel.” If this be so, then the “multitude” in the next section will be quite a different group of the saved. But if “Israel” here is actually only those with Jewish blood, then why is “Dan” not mentioned and why exactly “12,000” from each tribe? Such and similar questions our dissenting friends should answer unambiguously. To insist that the name is "literal" and the number somehow “symbolical” is totally inconsistent.
But in the light of a flood of New Testament texts there are greater difficulties with the premillenial interpretation. Let us review a few passages The church of the New Testament is referred to as “the twelve tribes” Jms. 1:1; I Pet. 1:1; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). For Paul all believers including those of Gentile blood are called true Jews (Rom. 2:29) as well as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Many designations for Old Testament Israel are applied directly to New Testament congregations (Eph. 1:11, 14; I Pet. 2:9, 19). Likewise, they are the Lord’s “peculiar people,” a phrase often used for Old Testament Israel but now for New Testament believers. They are “Abraham’s seed” (Gal. 3:29) and “the circumcision” (Phil. 3:11). And John does not hesitate to call the Jews of his day “the synagogue of Satan.” When we come to the last two chapters of Revelation, references to the Jewish people and temple are applied directly to the heavenly Jerusalem. Against a literal interpretation of Israel in this chapter, the evidence is overwhelming.
Symbolism seems to prevail also here without any reasonable doubt.
First in the names assigned. Notice that “Ephraim” is missing as well as “Dan,” while “Levi” which never had a territory of its own is mentioned. Remember. too, that the “twenty four elders” who are the patriarchs and apostles sit together on heavenly thrones. Also that “thousand” used in each case calls attention to completeness; it is ten times ten times ten. Even the order in which the tribes are listed here is found nowhere else in the Bible. This should guard us against insisting on a strict literalism. In an apocalyptic writing, symbols are used to express “ideas,” also when the events and things mentioned will all be accomplished. This is not a flight into fancy. The 144,000 are real persons and sealed. Not one of the Lord’s elect can or will ever be overlooked (2 Tim. 2:19).
Questions for discussion
1. Write out four or five texts where we are told never to worry. Is worry a sin?
2. What do you know about angels? What are we to learn from them?
3. What is “wind” good for? Explain from some Bible passages.
4. How deeply ought we be concerned about the plight of fellow-believers in Islamic lands, China, Africa and Latin America? How can we help them serve the Lord faithfully?
5. Explain the call “not to harm the trees,” when many have already been destroyed?
6. Is this restraint a kind of “common grace”? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
7. Why is baptism called a “sealing ordinance”? Are all the baptized sealed here?
8. Explain what the Bible means by God’s “longsuffering” and “patience.”
9. Can you suggest why “Dan” is excluded here?
10. To what kind of life should this “sealing” call us?