This chapter shows us what is happening backstage during the seven seals. God reveals himself to a remnant of 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel, and seals them for their protection. We then see an enormous crowd of Christian martyrs worshipping around God's heavenly throne.
The Sealing of 144,000 from the Tribes of Israel (v1-8)
Here in chapter 7, it is as though the video has been temporarily put on 'pause' and we are shown what is happening 'backstage' in heaven.

John sees that four angels are stationed at the four corners of the earth, in other words at the north, east, south and west (v1). They are holding back the wind so that it cannot blow on the earth, on the sea, or on the trees. It is possible this is a miraculous intervention to minimise the spread of nuclear fallout from a nuclear explosion at the sixth seal (Revelation 6:12-16).

He then sees another angel coming from the east, with God's seal or signet ring (v2). He commands the first four angels to keep holding back the wind until he has sealed the foreheads of God's servants (v3). These servants are then revealed to be twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, totalling 144,000. Given that so many Old Testament scriptures prophesy God's end-time restoration of the twelve tribes and their reunification as one nation under Messiah's rule (Isaiah 11:10-16, 14:1-2, 19:24, 27:9, 65:9, Jeremiah 3:16-18, 30:1-24, 31:1-40, 33:1-26, Ezekiel 36:1-38, 37:1-28, 39:21-29, Hosea 2:14-23, 3:5, Amos 9:11-15, Obadiah 1:15-21, Micah 5:3-9, Nahum 2:2, Zephaniah 3:8-20, Zechariah 9:10-16, 10:3-12, 12:1-14, 14:5-21), it seems clear to me that these are literal descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel. Why else does John name each of the twelve tribes?

Interestingly, the tribe of Dan is omitted, but John still lists twelve tribes. Joseph (Ephraim) and Manasseh count as two tribes, since Joseph received the rights of the firstborn and inherited a double portion (1 Chronicles 5:1). In most Old Testament listings of the twelve tribes, it is Levi that is omitted, since the Levites became Israel's priests and did not inherit a tribal territory like the rest of the tribes. If Dan's omission is something of a snub, it may be because of their historic association with idolatry (Judges 18:30, 1 Kings 12:30). However, in the land distribution of Millennial Israel in Ezekiel 48:2, Dan is included.

The ten northern tribes of Israel were exiled by Assyria in 722 BC, and never returned. Instead, they assimilated into the nations where they were scattered, and eventually lost their identity as Israelite tribes. Today they are referred to as the lost ten tribes, but they are not lost to God. According to 2 Kings 17:5-6 and 1 Chronicles 5:26, they were settled along the River Habor, and among the cities of the Medes. The River Habor is known today as the Al-Khabour River and is a tributary of the River Euphrates, in north-eastern Syria. The Medes were an ancient Iranian people group located on the east side of the River Tigris. So the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel are most likely concentrated around Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and therefore it is likely that the majority are Muslims today. But God is able to reveal himself to Muslims. When he does so, it is often through dreams and visions. John's vision here in Revelation 7 indicates that God will send his angel to seal a remnant of 12,000 from each tribe. It is likely that those who are sealed in this way will have some awareness of their angelic encounter. Speaking of their end-time restoration, Jeremiah 31:3 says, "In a faraway land the Lord will manifest himself to them. He will say to them, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love'." See also my commentary on Isaiah 63:7-18, which seems to be a prayer by the lost tribes for God to intervene on their behalf. According to 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6, the Assyrians also left a remnant of Israelites in the land of the northern kingdom. In the New Testament, their descendants feature as the Samaritans. Jesus reached out to them through the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Many more Samaritans turned to Christ during the ministry of the Apostles (Acts 8:14).

The two tribes of the southern kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon in 586 BC, but were allowed to return after Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon in 539 BC. The Jews are their descendants.

What is God's purpose in sealing the 144,000? Prophecy scholars who teach a pre-tribulation rapture of the Church usually identify these Israelites as God's primary witnesses on Earth during the Great Tribulation. However, my understanding is that the Church is raptured at the seventh trumpet, and is still present on earth at the time in view here before the seventh seal. In Ezekiel 36:22-38, God explains that he will restore the tribes of Israel for the sake of his reputation, and in order that the world might know him as Lord through his deliverance of Israel. In Isaiah 66:19 he says that he will perform a mighty act among them, and then send them to the nations to tell of his splendour. If most of those sealed are Muslims up to that point and are living in Antichrist's empire, they will need a very real conversion experience to draw them out of Islam. They will then need God's supernatural protection so that they survive as new believers in Jesus.

Why does God seal all these Israelites, but not Christians. I guess the answer is that Christians have already been sealed with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13, 4:30). The 144,000 are sealed for their protection from the coming trumpet judgments, and from the apparent fallout from the sixth seal. Will God also protect Christians, who have already been sealed? It seems reasonable to assume so. But as we see in the next section of this chapter, large numbers of Christians will die as a result of persecution.

A Great Multitude from Every Nation, Tribe, People and Language (v9-17)
Having seen his vision of the 144,000 who are Israelites, John now sees an enormous crowd of Christians standing before God's throne and the Lamb. The description of persons from every nation, tribe, people and language certainly reminds us of the coronation scene in Daniel 7:13-14. But personally, I believe that what John sees her in chapter 7 is like a dress rehearsal for the coronation. The coronation takes place later at the seventh trumpet, when Jesus descends upon the clouds in view of those on earth. Here in chapter 7, we are still looking at an event that takes place in God's temple in heaven.

The description of them holding palm branches and proclaiming 'Salvation belongs to our God' also reminds us of Palm Sunday. It is like a prophetic drama, looking forward to Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem that will soon take place, not in heaven but on earth (Psalm 24:7-10, Psalm 118:26-27, Matthew 23:39).

In verses 11 to 12, we see that all the angels, the twenty four elders and the four living creatures are still around the throne as in chapters 4 and 5. Considering that there are a hundred million angels (Revelation 5:11), this would be an enormous crowd even without the Christians. All of them prostrate themselves before the throne and worship God.

In verse 13, one of the elders asks John an obvious question, "These dressed in long white robes – who are they and where have they come from?" John does not know, so the elder tells him the answer in verses 14 to 17. What does it mean that they have come out of the great tribulation? Some prophecy scholars would say they have been raptured. But why are they wearing long white robes like the martyrs in the fifth seal? The white robes signify that their sins have been washed away and they have been clothed in Christ's righteousness, enabling them to serve God night and day in his heavenly temple. But they also identify them with the martyrs (Revelation 6:11). There are also several additional clues that they have come out of the great tribulation by having been killed. These are things which contrast their heavenly circumstances with the ordeal they went through on earth during the great tribulation. It is said that God 'will shelter them', implying that they were not sheltered. They will never go hungry or thirsty again, implying that some of them died of hunger and thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat. These descriptions portray them having died in a sun-scorched desert where there was no shelter, food or water. These are not people who have been evacuated in a pre-tribulation rapture before all the trouble started!

If these are martyrs, this passage reflects the shocking scale of international persecution and martyrdom of Christians during the Great Tribulation. In Matthew 24:9, Jesus warned, "Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name". It is also consistent with Revelation 20:4-6, in which John sees 'the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God'. But if there are Christians from every nation, tribe, people and language who are prepared to die for Jesus rather than submit to the Antichrist, then this passage also points to a world-wide revival taking place during the end times. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, the Apostle Paul tells us there will be a great apostasy before the Antichrist is revealed. But it appears that this is followed by a great revival during the Great Tribulation (see also Isaiah 24:14-16, Ezekiel 30:26, Joel 2:28-32).

In verse 17, these martyrs are comforted and cared for by Jesus who shepherds and leads them to springs of living water, and by God the Father who wipes away every tear from their eyes. As Messiah, Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd in Isaiah 40:11, Jeremiah 23:1-4, Ezekiel 34:11-12, Micah 2:12-13, 4:6-7, 7:14, John 10:11-16. The springs of living water represent the blessings that we can experience as believers through the Holy Spirit living within us (Isaiah 55:1, 58:11, John 4:10, 7:37-39).
Symbols: White clothes, Holy Spirit as living water, Shepherds, Sealed
Tags: 144000, Crowd in heaven, Lost tribes of Israel, Restoration of Israel and Judah, Supernatural protection, Sealed on foreheads, Names on foreheads, Rapture, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Persecution of Christians, Martyrdom, End-time triumphal entry, End-time revival, Heavenly temple
The Sealing of the 144,000
7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so no wind could blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.
2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He shouted out with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given permission to damage the earth and the sea:
3 “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees until we have put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
4 Now I heard the number of those who were marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from all the tribes of the people of Israel:
5 From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand,
6 from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand,
7 from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand,
8 from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands.
10 They were shouting out in a loud voice,
“Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood there in a circle around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground before the throne and worshiped God,
12 saying, “Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanksgiving, and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes – who are they and where have they come from?”
14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat,
17 because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”