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Revelation 7:9-17 Biblical Commentary
In chapter 5, John (the author of this book) saw a vision of one “who sat on the throne,” holding a scroll sealed with seven seals (5:1). These seals would be made of wax or clay, attached in such a way as to prevent the document from being opened without breaking the seal. Such seals therefore would give the document a measure of protection, because anyone seeking to tamper with the document would first have to break the seals.
The wax or clay seals would be marked with the impression of the authority’s signet ring, thus giving the document the authority of the one who had sealed it.
“Symbolically, people are sealed by God or the Spirit to mark God’s authority over them (2 Cor 1:22 ; Eph 1:13 ; Rev 7 )” (Drinkard, 141).
As we will see in chapter 6, this scroll contains the secrets of the future. The Lamb will open the seals one at a time, progressively revealing events that the seals had been hiding.
An angel asked, “Who is worthy to open the book, and to break its seals?” (5:2). No one on earth was found worthy, and John began to weep in despair. However, an elder said, “Don’t weep. Behold, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome; he who opens the book and its seven seals” (5:5).
John then saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth” (5:6). When the Lamb took the scroll in hand, the twenty-four elders and four living creatures sang a hymn exalting the Lamb’s worthiness to open the scroll,
“for you were killed,
and bought us for God with your blood,
out of every tribe, language, people, and nation,
and made us kings and priests to our God,
and we will reign on earth” (5:9-10).
Then a multitude of angels took up the song (5:11-12)—and then John heard “every created thing which is in heaven, on the earth, under the earth, on the sea. and everything in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb be the blessing, the honor, the glory, and the dominion, forever and ever. Amen!'” (5:13). Chapter 5 closes with the four living creatures saying “Amen”—and the elders falling down to worship the Lamb (5:14).
Chapter 6 shows the Lamb opening the first six of the seven seals. While it would not usually be possible to see any of the contents of a scroll until all the seals were broken, the book of Revelation is closer to poetry than to prose, and the progressive nature of the revelation that follows the breaking of each seal involves poetic license:
• The opening of the first four seals revealed riders on horseback who were sent to introduce progressively severe judgments: They were to conquer (6:2), to eliminate peace on earth (6:4), to introduce famine (6:6), and to kill (6:8).
• The opening of the fifth seal revealed the souls of “the souls of those who had been killed for the Word of God” (6:9), who were crying out for justice (6:10). They were told to rest a bit longer, because more martyrs would be joining them (6:11).
• The opening of the sixth seal revealed a series of cataclysms—earthquakes, the sun growing black, a moon like blood, falling stars, a vanishing sky, and mountains and islands removed (6:12-14). Then all people everywhere, from the greatest kings to the lowliest slaves, cried out to the mountains to fall on them so that they might be protected from the wrath of the Lamb (6:16)—”for the great day of his wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (6:17).
Chapter 7 is divided into two parts:
• The first part (7:1-8) takes place on earth, and depicts the sealing of the one hundred forty four thousand who were “sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel” (7:4).
• The second part (7:9-17) constitutes our lectionary reading. It takes place in the heavenly throne room, and depicts a future event that seeks to answer the question, “Who is able to stand?” (6:17).
Two questions arise: Who are the one hundred forty four thousand (7:1-8), and who is the great multitude (7:9-17)? While we can’t be certain of the answer, it would seem that the one hundred forty four thousand are martyrs and the great multitude is composed of Christians “out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages” (7:9).
REVELATION 7:9-10: A GREAT MULTITUDE THAT NO ONE COULD COUNT
9After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages” (v. 9a). As noted above, this great multitude is probably Christians from all times and places.
Long ago, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5) and as the sand of the sea (Genesis 32:12). Now we see that promise fulfilled.
This would be a heartening vision for John—exiled on Patmos Island—alone and presumably lonely. He has already scribed letters from Christ to seven churches, in which five of the seven were revealed to have serious problems (2:1 – 3:22). This vision, however, presents the other side—a huge multitude of triumphant Christians, so large that no one can count it.
“standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (v. 9b). The multitude is standing before the throne of God (see v. 10)—and in the presence of the Lamb.
During the Exodus, at the first Passover, the Israelites were instructed to slaughter a lamb and put some of its blood on the doorposts of their houses so that the death angel, seeing the blood, would pass over their houses (Exodus 12). God then prescribed that two lambs were to be offered on the altar every day (Exodus 29:38). Lambs were thus seen as vulnerable animals who suffered death in behalf of others.
A number of New Testament passages speak of the Messiah as a sheep or lamb:
• The Gospel of John depicts Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
• In the book of Acts, an Ethiopian eunuch was reading a passage from Isaiah 53:7-8 that said, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. As a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he doesn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation, his judgment was taken away. Who will declare His generation? For his life is taken from the earth.” (Acts 8:32-33). The eunuch asked Philip to explain this passage to him, and Philip, “beginning with this scripture, …preached to him Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
• Paul depicts Christ as “our paschal lamb… (who) has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
• Peter depicts the blood of Christ as being “as of a faultless and pure lamb” (1 Peter 1:19)—in other words, as a lamb fit to use for sacrifice on the altar.
• The book of Revelation speaks frequently of Christ as the Lamb (5:6, 8, 12-13; 6:1, 16; 7:9-10, 14, 17; 8:1; 12:11; 13:8, 11; 14:1, 4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22-23; 22:1, 3).
“dressed in white robes” (v. 9c). In the New Testament, white represents several things—all positive:
• It is associated with glory, as in Jesus’ dazzling white robe at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29)—and the white hair and white wool of the one like the Son of Man (Revelation 1:14)—and the white throne (Revelation 20:11).
• It is associated with resurrection, as in the angel’s white robe (Matthew 28:3).
• It is associated with salvation, as in the white stone given “to him who overcomes” (Revelation 2:17).
• It is associated with purity, as in this verse (see also Revelation 3:5). In verse 14, we will find that the white robes in this verse have been made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
“with palm branches in their hands” (v. 9d). Palm branches are associated with rejoicing and celebration. For instance, Torah law mandates their use at the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40). It is that association with celebration that led people to use palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (John 12:13)—and it is that association that results in their use in this verse.
“They cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (v. 10). It is the great multitude of 7:9 who are crying out. This is the beginning of the answer to the question, “Who is able to stand?” (6:17b). While this verse doesn’t answer that question directly, it does identify the source of salvation—God and the Lamb. The great multitude, clothed in white, palm branches in hand, is celebrating the salvation which they have experienced at God’s hand.
In that time and place, most people would consider the Roman Emperor and the Roman Empire to be the source of salvation. Rome had established the Pax Romana (Roman Peace)—in fact, this book would have been written at roughly the mid-point of the Pax Romana, which ran from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. The people for whom John is writing this book have had lived through decades of that “peaceful” period. However, that peace was established through military force, and was maintained by the threat of violence. Because Rome required its subjects to honor the cult of the emperor, the Pax Romana has been anything but peaceful for Christians.
The cry of the multitude in this verse celebrates the fact that they have found in God and the Lamb the peace—the salvation—that the Pax Romana promised but failed to produce.
REVELATION 7:11-12. BLESSING AND GLORY AND WISDOM BE TO OUR GOD
11All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
“All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God” (v. 11). John earlier reported seeing angels and living creatures and elders numbering “ten thousands (Greek: myriades) of ten thousands, and thousands of thousands” (5:11)—where the Greek word, myriades, means “an indefinite, large number” or “innumerable” (Zodhiates, 999).
We know that there were twenty-four elders (4:10) and four living creatures (5:5), so it is angels who are innumerable. The great multitude of verse 9, therefore, is joined in their chorus, perhaps antiphonally, by this innumerable choir of angels, elders, and living creatures.
These angels, elders, and creatures respond to the song of the great multitude by falling on their faces (a sign of obeisance or homage) and worshiping God.
“saying, ‘Amen! Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen'” (v. 12). Their worship consists of a song of praise, bracketed before and after by “Amen!”
“Amen!” This word is Hebrew, and in the New Testament is transliterated into Greek. In other words, Greek letters are used to make the sound of the Hebrew word. In the Old Testament, it means “to confirm; to support; to be faithful… (and) is also used in response to worship and praise…. The English word amencomes from this word and means, ‘I agree; may it be so'” (Baker and Carpenter, 70). In this verse, the angels and elders use Amen to affirm the cry of the great multitude—and the second Amen to confirm their own song.
REVELATION 7:13-14. WHO ARE THESE, ROBED IN WHITE?
13One of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?”
14I told him, “My lord (Greek: kurie), you know.”
He said to me, “These are those who came out of the great tribulation (Greek: thlipsis). They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.”
“One of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?'” (v. 13). Now one of the twenty-four elders addresses John directly, so that John becomes a participant rather than just an observer. The elder asks two questions: “Who are they?” and “From where did they come?”
We know from verse 9 that the ones “arrayed in white robes” are the great multitude.
“I told him, ‘My lord (kurie—”sir” or “lord”), you know‘” (v. 14a). Instead of answering, John responds by telling the elder that he is the one who knows. John obviously believes that the elder has asked these questions rhetorically, so that he might provide the answer.
“He said to me, ‘These are those who came out of the great tribulation'” (thlipsis) (v. 14b). This great multitude has come through the great thlipsis—tribulation, trouble, affliction, or ordeal. The NRSV avoids using the word, tribulation, almost certainly to avoid the controversial associations with that word.
Earlier, in his letter to the church at Philadelphia, Christ spoke of “the hour of testing, which is to come on the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (3:10). He promised that the Philadelphian Christians would be spared that hour of trial (3:10), but also urged them to “hold firmly that which you have” (3:11), promising, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will go out from there no more” (3:12).
This white-robed multitude has passed through the great tribulation. While they might or might not have been martyred, this multitude almost certainly includes martyred saints. God’s protection didn’t mean that Christians wouldn’t suffer—Christ’s way is the way of the cross. God’s protection does mean that God saves his people in the end—vindicates them—provides a heavenly reward for their faithfulness.
“They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood” (v. 14c). As noted above (see the comments on v. 9c), white can denote purity, and that is the way it is used in this verse.
It seems odd that these saints would wash their robes in the Lamb’s blood to whiten them. However, this image hearkens back to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, where the blood of animal sacrifices provided the spiritual cleansing required for atonement. In the New Testament, animal sacrifices are superseded by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. His blood atones for our sins and makes us pure.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that something was required of these people. They had to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They had to accept the atonement that Christ offers. Later, Jesus will say, “Blessed are those who do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city” (22:14).
REVELATION 7:15-17. THEY WILL HUNGER NO MORE
15“Therefore (Greek: dia) they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle (Greek: skenoo) over them. 16They will never be hungry, neither thirsty any more; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat; 17for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shepherds them, and leads them to springs of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“Therefore (dia) they are before the throne of God” (v. 15a). The little word, dia, links this verse to the previous verse. Because this multitude washed their robes in the Lamb’s blood—and thereby were made pure—they are privileged to stand before the throne of God.
In the Old Testament, the tabernacle and temple had a super-sacred chamber called the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. This chamber housed the Ark of the Covenant. On top of the ark was the Mercy Seat—the place where Yahweh sat. In other words, the Holy of Holies was the dwelling place of God. Access to God’s presence was strictly restricted. The only person allowed in the Holy of Holies was the High Priest—and he was allowed there only on the Day of Atonement.
However, the author of the book of Hebrews tells how Jesus removed the barrier between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies—allow us into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).
Now we learn that the great multitude of verse 9 is authorized access to God’s throne.
We need to recover the sense of wonder that this should engender. To put this in perspective, consider how we feel about visiting certain places and meeting certain people—celebrities of various stripes.
I visited Elvis’ home (Graceland). It has the furnishings that were present when Elvis was alive. Even though I have mixed feelings about Elvis (I enjoy his music, but was disappointed by his dissolute lifestyle), I nevertheless felt privileged to wander through his home—and to go on board his private jet. The decor was pretty tacky, but it said something about Elvis and the time in which he lived. I moved through Graceland slowly so that I might see as much as possible—and, perhaps, come to a better understanding of the man.
I have taken a tour through the White House, and felt a similar sense of wonder and privilege. It isn’t that I view the occupants of the Oval Office as wonderful leaders. A few were good, but most were middling and a few have been disastrous. Nevertheless, I felt privileged to visit there. I would have felt even more privileged if the President had joined our tour—if I had had the opportunity to shake his hand—to converse with him. I would have been “blown away” if he had invited me to join him in the Oval Office.
If we respond to modern-day celebrities with such enthusiasm, can’t we understand the privilege of visiting the throne room of God—of being in God’s presence—of worshiping him in person?
“they serve him day and night in his temple” (v. 15b). If we are honest, worshiping God day and night doesn’t really sound all that wonderful. We would like to worship God, but we would also like some personal time—time to spend with our family—time to go boating or fishing—time to knit or quilt—time to tinker with our car—time to watch a football game or a movie.
But we need to remember that our tastes and preferences change as we mature. If, when I was five years old, you had told me that one of the pleasures of growing up would be the opportunity to kiss a girl, I would have thought that to be pretty yucky. However, a decade later, my attitudes had changed decisively on that subject.
I feel confident that, when we get to heaven, we will have matured to the point that we will experience constant worship as wonderful—the most wonderful thing possible.
“He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle (skenoo) over them” (v. 15b). The noun,skenos, is the word that was used in the Old Testament for the tabernacle—the dwelling place of God. Now, in this verse, John uses the verb, skenoo, to speak of God tabernacling the great multitude—spreading his tabernacle over them—bringing them into his presence
“They will never be hungry, neither thirsty anymore; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat” (v. 16). This is the fulfillment of Isaiah 49:10, which says, “They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun strike them: for he who has mercy on them will lead them, even by springs of water he will guide them.”
In its original context, the passage from Isaiah promised the exiles protection as God prepared them to return to the Promised Land. Now John’s vision expands that promise to cosmic proportions as it adapts the promise to those exiles to apply to the great multitude of these verses.
“for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne shepherds them” (v. 17a). Speaking of mixed metaphors—how can the Lamb be the shepherd? We must keep in mind that the text of the book of Revelation has much of the character of poetry—and the shift from Lamb to shepherd involves an exercise in poetic license.
Shepherding was a lowly occupation, involving long hours, hard and dangerous work, and modest pay. However, people respected the attentiveness shown by good shepherds toward their sheep. Sheep were not very smart and, absent good leadership, were inclined to wander away on their own. They were defenseless against predators such as lions or bears. They needed a shepherd to lead them to water and pasture—and to guard them against a host of dangers.
Because of the care that shepherds took with their sheep, they became a metaphor for other leaders (Psalm 78:71; Isaiah 44:28), including God (Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52; 80:1).
In the New Testament, Jesus referred to himself as “the good shepherd (who) lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The author of the book of Hebrews referred to Jesus as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). Peter refers to him as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25)—and “the chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). Now John says that Jesus will be the shepherd for the great multitude.
“and leads them to springs of waters of life” (v. 17b). In an arid land such as Israel, water is indeed the stuff of life. Water fills streams and ponds and makes grass grow. Without water, sheep (and people) soon die.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of giving people “living water” (John 4:10). He says, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). He is speaking metaphorically, of course—spiritual water—water for the soul.
We might be inclined to think, “Oh, that’s a disappointment! I wanted physical food and water”—but we need to remember that many people who have physical food and water to spare are nevertheless hungry and thirsty—hungry for food to nourish their souls—thirsty for water to slake their spiritual thirst. In the absence of that which Christ offers our lives tend to be hollow even if our bellies are full. We need Christ to “lead (us) to springs of waters of life.”
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17c). Isaiah promised that God would “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). Now John restates that promise for this great multitude.
Are these tears of sorrow or tears of joy? Are the people weeping because of the terrible things they have experienced in the past, or do tears come to their eyes when they see the lovely future that lies ahead. It could be either. In any event, a compassionate God provides the comfort that we need. Who could ask for more?
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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