PMW 2019-064 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Some readers of Revelation are perplexed as to why 12 squared times 1000 is significant to the original readers in the 144,000? What is at about that number that would lead the original readers to think, ‘Oh that’s a number signifying a perfect amount of Jewish converts?’”
1. The Nature of Revelation
In the first place, no one would suggest Revelation is an easy book whose images leap out at you. John himself is left wondering about things within it from time to time (Rev 7:13, 14; 17:6-7).
In fact, in his opening sentence he informs his readers that the book is symbolic. Symbolism obviouislyi requires some thought. His introductory sentence is: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John.” The word “communicated” is esemanen which could be translated “sign-ified,” i.e., symbolized.
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2.The Fact of the Number
Secondly, whatever the answer to your question is, the mysterious number 144,000 must mean something. John does specifically mention it. In Revelation John often — but not always — informs us what the symbols mean.
In his very first vision (1:13–18), for instance, we might well imagine that the Son of Man is merely walking around a room with candlesticks in it, for John states: “I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man” (1:12–13). But John tells us very clearly that this image speaks of Christ’s presence among the seven churches. “The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (1:20).
In Rev 17 an interpretive angel informs John that the seven heads of the beast do not really picture a grotesque polycephalic creature. Rather we read: “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings” (17:9–10a).
Other samples appear elsewhere: the seven lamps are the “seven Spirits of God” (4:5); the seven eyes of the Lamb are “the seven Spirits of God” (5:6); the incense bowls are “the prayers of the saints” (5:8; 8:3–4); the dragon is “Satan’ (12:9); the “tabernacle” represents “those who dwell in heaven” (13:6); the frogs from the mouth of the dragon, beast, and false prophet are “unclean spirits” (16:13–14); the ten horns on the beast are “ten kings” (17:12); the waters of the harlot are “peoples and multitudes” (17:15); the fine linen is “the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8).
3. The Error in the Question
Finally, you are looking at the number wrongly, I believe. The number 144,000 does not stand alone, but derives from other expressly mentioned numbers in the context. John specifically lists 12 tribes, so we have the number 12 directly given to us by the historic fact of the 12 tribes of Israel.
But then the 144,000 results from the fact that each of the 12 tribes is multiplied by 1000. Hence, we have 12,000 from each of the 12 tribe times, which gives us the 144,000. So 12 is not randomly squared. Thus, the question ultimately is: Why is the number 1000 significant?
The number 1000 derives from 10 cubed. In Scripture 10 represents quantitative perfection — apparently based on the number of fingers on a man’s hand. Regarding the number ten in antiquity, its significance “no doubt derives from simple calculations on the fingers” (ISBE2 3:560). The Jewish Philosopher Philo speaks of “the perfect number ten” (Spec. 2:11 §41).
Therefore 10 speaks of completeness — as we see in there being ten commandments (Ex 34:28), ten plagues (Ex 7:8–11:10), a tithe (Ge 14:20; Nu 18:21), ten righteous men would have saved Sodom (Ge 18:32), Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1), and so forth (cp 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16).
And the cube of 10 does not appear out of the blue in Revelation — in fact the color blue is not found in Revelation :). We find the number 1000 used throughout Scripture as designating completeness. Scripture often uses the value of 1000 symbolically.
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For instance, God shows his mercy to a 1000 generations (Ex 20:6) — which suggests the perfect fullness of his grace (10 x 10 x 10). The Lord promises to make Israel a 1000 times more numerous than they are in Moses’ day (Dt 1:11) — bringing them to numerical fullness as a people. The Lord even claims the cattle on 1000 hills (Ps 50:10) — showing that he owns all the cattle of the earth. None of these statements should be interpreted literally.
Thus, the figure of 1000 more often than not expresses complete fullness, not an exact numerical accounting of 999 + 1.
So then, the 144,000 represents the fullness of Israel as found in the new covenant Church.