Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? (Interlude 4)

Is the 144,000 in Revelation 7 a literal number of saved individuals at the end of time, perhaps a subgroup of the great multitude in 7:9? To take the number literally requires several assumptions. It assumes that the twelve tribes of Israel still exist in a meaningful way. It assumes that most things in Revelation should be taken as literal unless proven otherwise. It often assumes that this is a reference to Jews who come to Jesus in the final crisis of the world’s history, although some people suggest that the numbers are literal but the tribes are symbolic in some way, a distinction the text itself does not make.

I believe that a symbolic reading of the number is to be preferred for a number of reasons. First of all, the list of twelve tribes is not found in this form anywhere else in the Bible or historical experience, it is not a literal or normal list. For example, Judah is listed first, instead of Reuben. Reuben was the actual first-born of Jacob, but Judah became the leader of the family later on. Joseph (father of Ephraim and Manasseh) is listed among the twelve, but so is Manasseh, his son. To make things stranger, Joseph’s other son, Ephraim, is missing from the list. The tribe of Dan is also missing from the list while Levi, the thirteenth tribe in the Israelite national census (compare Num. 1:5-15; 13:4-15) is included. They are also not listed in birth order (Gen. 49:3-28). So a symbolic reading of the tribes is clearly indicated, which would imply that the number is also symbolic.

Second, Revelation 1:1 indicates, right at the start of Revelation, that the whole book of Revelation was “signified” (KJV, Greek: esêmanen, often translated “made known”). The Greek word for “signified” represents symbolic language that refers to the future. See the comments on Revelation 1:1 in my Facebook commentary on Revelation. So Revelation is different from the rest of the Bible. Generally, you take the Bible at face value unless it is obvious that a symbol is intended. In Revelation you are expected to do the opposite. The best way to approach the text of Revelation is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is obvious that a literal meaning is intended. This applies also to the number in Revelation 7:4-8. A parallel to the 144,000 is the 200,000,000 of Revelation 9:16. A literal army that size is hard to imagine, even in today’s world.

Third, reading the tribes as literal descendants of Jacob flies in the face of the fact that at least ten of those tribes are essentially lost to history. The so-called “ten lost tribes” were taken captive by the Assyrians around 722 B.C. and scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire, being replaced by people from at least five other nations (1 Kings 17). By the time of the return from Babylon (539 B.C.) the identities of the ten tribes was already largely lost. While some Jews today can still trace their lineage back to Judah, Benjamin or Levi, most western Jews today trace their lineage back to European converts in the Middle Ages. The twelve tribes of Israel are largely lost to history today. For these reasons a symbolic reading or Revelation is to be preferred.

7 thoughts on “Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? (Interlude 4)

  1. Andrew Ellis

    Why does it appear that EGW clearly implies that the 144,000 is to be taken as a literal number. Was she wrong.????????????????

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      She is describing what she saw. She rarely does exegesis of the biblical text and often warned people not to read her writings until they knew what the Bible said. When the White Estate examined her writings in detail they concluded that she did exegesis less than one per cent of the time she quoted Scripture. Normally she used the Bible theologically or homiletically.

  2. Preston

    I see the number 144000 literally without any doubt based solely on the Bible and spirit of prophecy =revelation 7:1-4 and Ea
    rly writings page 15.John heard the number and sister white in vision see them in number proving to us beyond no doubt the precies of the number.

  3. Eben

    I cannot agree that Mrs White saw the 144 000 as literal.

    A close study of the Spirit of Prophecy shows that Mrs White was of the opinion that the 144,000 and the great multitude was indeed the same group, referred to in different terms. Arguably the best evidence of this comes from her work The Great Controversy. To highlight her understanding, the chapter and verse she quotes from, as well as the group it refers to, are listed in square brackets.

    ‘Upon the crystal sea before the throne, that sea of glass as it were mingled with fire,–so resplendent is it with the glory of God,–are gathered the company that have “gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name.” [Rev 15:2, 144,000] With the Lamb upon Mount Zion, “having the harps of God,” [Rev 15:2, 144,000] they stand, the hundred and forty and four thousand that were redeemed from among men; and there is heard, as the sound of many waters, and as the sound of a great thunder, “the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” [Rev 14:2, 144,000] And they sing “a new song” [Rev 14:3, 144,000] before the throne, a song which no man can learn save the hundred and forty and four thousand. It is the song of Moses and the Lamb–a song of deliverance. None but the hundred and forty-four thousand can learn that song; for it is the song of their experience–an experience such as no other company have ever had. “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.” [Rev 14:4, 144,000] These, having been translated from the earth, from among the living, are counted as “the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb.” Revelation 15:2, 3; 14:1-5 [144,000]. “These are they which came out of great tribulation;” [Rev 7:14, Great Multitude] they have passed through the time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation; they have endured the anguish of the time of Jacob’s trouble; they have stood without an intercessor through the final outpouring of God’s judgments. But they have been delivered, for they have “washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” [Rev 7:14, Great Multitude] “In their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault”[Rev 14:5, 144,000] before God. “Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple: and He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.” [Rev 7:15, Great Multitude] They have seen the earth wasted with famine and pestilence, the sun having power to scorch men with great heat, and they themselves have endured suffering, hunger, and thirst. But “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” Revelation 7:14-17. [Great Multitude]’ {GC 648.3}

    From this passage it is very clear that Mrs White used these quotes from Revelation, which has reference to the 144,000 and the great multitude, interchangeably to refer to the same group. The Spirit of Prophecy thus supports the view that the 144,000 and the “great multitude, which no man could number” are indeed the same group and therefore also supports the symbolic interpretation of the 144,000 rather than a literal.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.