The first question confronting the reader in chapter 7 is, Why was it so crucial to prevent any wind from blowing (7:1). Why should wind bring harm to the natural order (v. 3)? There is wind in the destructive scene just described in 6:12-17, but it is only a simile: "the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind" (6:13). There the wind did not figure into John's vision, but he used it metaphorically to compare something he had never seen in real life (stars falling to earth) with something familiar to him (ripe figs falling from a tree). Even Jesus used the fig tree as a metaphor for the approaching end of the world (Mk 13:28-29). But in Revelation wind is factored into the imagery, so that the fig tree is not sprouting leaves but losing its fruit—perhaps its leaves as well.
John's beautiful poetic image comes to life as grim reality in chapter 7. The wind becomes part of the vision—and a very real threat—when John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree (7:1). All the disasters of 6:12-17 are now wrapped up in the single disaster of "wind." Those who live along the seacoast or in an area subject to tornadoes can understand this text better than those who yearn for refreshing breezes in the desert. The terror of wind lives on into the twentieth century in the movie Twister and in e.e. cummings' apocalyptic little poem, "what if a much of a which of a wind," where wind serves as a metaphor for catastrophic change. In the face of such disaster, "the single secret will still be man" for cummings. But the situation is viewed quite differently in the book of Revelation, as we will see.
Here, as in the case of the first four seals, John's language echoes the prophecies of Ezekiel, where scattering to the winds was the culmination of a divine judgment that included plague, famine and the sword: "A third of your people will die of the plague or perish by famine inside you; a third will fall by the sword outside your walls; and a third I will scatter to the winds and pursue with drawn sword (Ezek 5:12, italics mine).
These four angels, like the four riders in chapter 6, have been given something (Greek edothe; compare 6:2, 4, 8), in this case, power to harm the land and the sea (v. 2) by releasing the terrible four winds. Instead they hold the winds back, at least for the time being (v. 1). Another angel, ceremoniously introduced (v. 2), commands their restraint and supplies the reason for it: until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God (v. 3). Once again the imagery is drawn from the world of Ezekiel's visions, where a "man clothed in linen" was told to "go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it"; those so marked are spared the destruction threatening the city (Ezek 9:4, 6; in later Jewish literature see Psalms of Solomon 15.6, "For God's mark is on the righteous for [their] salvation. Famine and sword and death shall be far from the righteous"; Charlesworth 1985:664). John does not claim that he saw this ritual of sealing in his vision, only that he heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel (v. 4).
Sectarian groups in every age have seen themselves in John's 144,000 (compare also 14:1). The number has become synonymous with those who are saved, elect or chosen. Springfield, Missouri (population about 140,000), is widely known as "the buckle of the Bible belt." A colleague of mine once joked that when its population reached 144,000 the Second Coming would take place! When sectarian groups grow beyond that magic number, they often begin to interpret Revelation symbolically rather than literally, and in fact there are clues within the text that a symbolic interpretation is required. The number 144,000 is something John says he heard (v. 4), not something he saw or was permitted to count. There were twelve thousand, he was told, from each of Israel's twelve tribes, in the following order (vv. 5-8): Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph and Benjamin (the list being framed by reminders in vv. 5 and 8 that the group was sealed against the terrors to come; the NIV fails to repeat the word sealed in v. 8).
John's list does not match exactly any of the traditional lists of the tribes of Israel (for example, Gen 35:23-26; 49:1-28; Deut 33:6-25), either in the names or in the order of the names. Most conspicuously, it is a messianic or distinctly Christian list in that it begins with Judah, the ancestor of David and of Jesus, the "Root of David" (5:5). Just as the elder's voice had announced earlier "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" (5:5), so now John heard a list of tribes announced beginning with the tribe of Judah. In each case, however, what John immediately saw was something quite different from what was announced. Instead of "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" he had seen "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (5:6), and now instead of 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel he sees a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (v. 9).
In each case John's vision accomplishes a transformation (compare Gundry 1987:260). A Lion is transformed into a Lamb, and 144,000 Jews are transformed into an innumerable multitude from every nation on earth! The great multitude, wearing white robes and . . . holding palm branches in their hands (v. 9), break out in worship of God and the Lamb in a manner recalling chapters 4-5 (v. 10) and are answered by the amen of all the angels . . . standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures (vv. 11-12; compare 5:11-14). At this point, one of the elders (also familiar from chaps. 4-5) asks John, "These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?" (v. 13). When John disclaims any knowledge of who they are (v. 14), the elder answers his own question: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (v. 14).
There has been a curious shifting of roles here. We would have expected John to ask the question and the elder to give the answer, just as Jesus' revelation to his disciples in Mark 13 was prompted by questions from four of his disciples (Mk 13:3-4). But a striking feature of Revelation is that John never asks a question in the entire book. In chapter 5 it was not John but a "mighty angel" who asked, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" (5:2). John then wept "because no one was found who was worthy" (5:4), and an elder announced the answer to the angel's question. Here the elder both asks and answers the crucial question, while John is a passive (and ignorant) observer. These visions follow the principle laid down explicitly in another book of early Christian prophecy, the second-century Shepherd of Hermas, to the effect that every spirit from God "is not asked questions, but has the power of the godhead and speaks all things of itself because it is from above, from the power of the Divine spirit. But the spirit which is questioned and speaks according to the lusts of man is earthly and light, and has no power, and it does not speak at all unless it be questioned" (Hermas Mandates 11.5-6; see Aune 1983:226-27).
The same principle was at work in John's Gospel when Jesus told his disciples, "In that day you will no longer ask me anything" (Jn 16:23), and the disciples said, "Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you come from God" (Jn 16:30).
The effect of the elder's initiative is to assure John's readers that the elder's explanation of the innumerable multitude comes from God and can be trusted. The explanation includes both the "prehistory" of the group John sees (v. 14) and a glimpse of what is in store for them (vv. 15-17). The prehistory is familiar to John from 6:9-11, where "the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (6:9) were told to "wait a little longer" until their full number was complete (6:11). These "souls" have come out of the great tribulation by martyrdom, and now the implication is that their number is complete. They can be recognized as the same group by the white robes they have been given (7:9; compare 6:11)—like the white garments of the twenty-four elders in heaven. The identification of the souls under the altar with the innumerable multitude before the throne of God testifies to the continuity John sees between the fifth and the sixth seals.
In the real world, blood leaves unsightly stains on white clothing, but in the world of the Revelation blood washes away all other stains and makes the clothing pure and all the whiter. It is important to notice that these martyrs are not cleansed by the shedding of their own blood, but, like all Christian believers, by the blood of the Lamb (v. 14; compare 1:5, where John's doxology reminds all his readers that Christ has "freed us from our sins" by the shedding of his blood). Martyrdom has no merit in itself, yet John wants to make very clear to the congregations in Asia that martyrdom is likely to be the price of any serious commitment to Jesus Christ.
If this is so, it is important to assure the churches of the vindication of those who are (or will be) martyred. So the elder's explanation continues. The martyrs' vindication, he points out, consists partly of what John has just seen—that they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple (v. 15)—and partly of what he has not yet seen (vv. 15-17). The conclusion to the sixth seal provides a glimpse of the final blessedness of God's people. God will spread his tent over them (v. 15). They will never be hungry or thirsty again, and they will be protected from the scorching heat of the sun (v. 16; compare Is 49:10). The Lamb will become their shepherd, leading them to springs of living water (compare 21:6), and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (v. 17; compare 21:4).
The vision of the sixth seal ends in much the same way that the book of Revelation as a whole comes to an end. It is important to remember that John does not actually "see" any of this final blessedness, either here or in chapter 21. Rather, he hears it from a heavenly being, in this case one of the elders, and in chapter 21 "a loud voice from the throne" (21:3) or the very voice of the one "seated on the throne" (21:5). The principle of vindication is established by what John has seen in verses 9-12, but the particulars are described with a certain reserve, as a promise to be taken on faith. Although John is far more eager than Paul to tell about his visions (contrast 2 Cor 12:1-6), he still adheres to the common early Christian principle that "we live by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7), "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13:12), and "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known" (1 Jn 3:2). It is no accident that the breaking of the seventh and final seal will introduce a half hour of silence before the visions resume.