The 144,000 in the Holy Scriptures

Mentioned in two places:

The Holy Scriptures mention “servants of God” who, before the final judgments fall on the earth, will be sealed. In the place where they are first mentioned (Revelation 7:4), they are presented as one hundred forty-four thousand people who are marked with the seal of God in their foreheads. In a second passage (Revelation 14:1-5), they are identified as redeemed from the earth and singing a special song which only they can learn. Different questions have been asked about this group of redeemed: In what time do they live? What identifies them? What are their characteristics? Another more frequent question is: Is this number, “one hundred forty-four thousand,” a literal or a symbolic number? Other questions have been asked concerning this group of redeemed, but in this study our attention is focused on only one question, the last one: Is the number one hundred forty-four thousand given in Revelation a real or a symbolic number?

Following are the two Biblical passages related to the one hundred forty-four thousand:

  •  “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” Revelation 7:1-4.
  • “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with Him an hundred forty and four thousand, having His Father’s name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.” Revelation 14:1-5.

Is there Biblical support for a symbolic interpretation?

If this number is symbolic, how many people would the number 144,000 represent? Analyzing the second passage, we note that the one hundred forty-four thousand are presented as redeemed from the earth, as people who have spoken no lies, as first fruits who are consecrated to the Lord, and as followers of the Lamb wherever He goes. In both passages, other elements are presented and definite terms are used to indicate them. There is no reference to anything symbolic. The Bible often uses types and symbols in prophecies, parables, and poetry; but in these passages this is not the case.

In Bible prophecy, for example, the term “day” is sometimes used symbolically. When this is the case, the Bible provides an explanation to help the reader determine what it represents. Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6 are two well-known examples of this, where the prophetic key of “a day for a year” is presented. In these two verses, the term “day” is clearly used in a symbolic way; and the Scriptures provide the clear equivalency, “year,” so that there need be no confusion. Now, if one real year is the equivalent of one prophetic day, and the figure “one hundred forty four thousand” were to be understood as symbolic, what is the equivalency of this number?

In the Scriptures, there is no hint of a corresponding number, and this should be sufficient to understand that the figure is not symbolic! Not only that! If “one hundred forty-four thousand” were symbolic and no corresponding figure is revealed, what would this number mean? Why would the Lord even give it? Would He reveal a number without supplying its meaning? Actually, He has revealed it–“one hundred forty-four thousand,” exactly as written.

A definite number

When in common conversation we speak about people in general terms without specifying how many there are, there is no concrete concept of their number, because no exact figure is given. But in this case the number is given: “And I heard the number of them … an hundred and forty and four thousand.” Revelation 7:4. So, the angel is not speaking of an unknown or indefinite number of people, but of a specific “number”; and a definite number always indicates a set number of people, whether large or small. Because the Scriptures mention a definite “number” (Revelation 7:4), we can hardly imagine that it uses such a well-defined concept to present something vague or unknown.

There are indefinite expressions used in the Bible to indicate many people. Two examples are “as the stars of the heaven” and “as the sand which is upon the sea shore” (Genesis 22:17), depicting a great number of people– innumerable and indefinite.

Other expression are: “thousands,” sometimes even repeating the same word, such as “thousand thousands” (Daniel 7:10) or “ten thousands” (Deuteronomy 33:2, 17), to emphasize a huge number. In these cases, the figures are used but in a way that indicates an indefinite number. Not so in Revelation 7:4 and 14:1. The numbers are very definite–“one hundred forty-four thousand.” This group is presented two times in the Bible, and both times the same definite terms and the same exact number are given.

A meaningful comparison

It is very significant that in Revelation 7, just a few verses further down, another group of redeemed is presented, but in completely different terms. No number is given to identify them. They are simply introduced as “a great multitude” so great that no man could number it. Revelation 7:9. The contrast is inescapable. It is obvious that this is an indefinite number, because “great multitude” is a general indication, nothing like the specific number in Verse 4. Comparing the two verses–4 and 9 of the same chapter–the reader can understand that these are two completely different groups. The first is a well–defined, specific number, while the second is a great, indefinite multitude.

“Great multitude” is an expression also found in Matthew 8:1, 18; 13:2; 14:14; Mark 4:1, and other verses. In all of these cases, we have no idea exactly how many people were present, because no exact number is given; it is indefinite. And it is the same in Revelation 7:9–but not in Revelation 7:4 and 14:1, where a very definite number is written.

One hundred forty-four thousand

The first passage records the number of those who would be sealed: “I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand” (Revelation 7:4), without any indication that this number is symbolic. In the second passage, the sealed ones are seen with the Lamb on Mount Zion, and there is no indication that the number is not to be taken literally: “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with Him an hundred forty and four thousand, having His Father’s name written in their foreheads.” Revelation 14:1. Here the one hundred forty-four thousand are seen as triumphant, and additional details about them follow in the subsequent verses; but there is no hint that this number is not literal. Therefore, the only conclusion one can draw is that human interpretation, not the Bible, is supposing that this number is symbolic.

We are not dealing with abstract symbols, indefinite numbers, or vague expressions here but with a concrete, precise number, “one hundred forty-four thousand.” These people are sealed and numbered; they are real people who inherit eternal life, and so the number must be real and literal, as literal as if we would say that one hundred and forty-four thousand people live in a certain place, or that the members of a tribe are one hundred forty-four thousand, or that the people living in a certain region are one hundred forty-four thousand. There is no reason to think of symbolic numbers.

Among the billions living on the earth, these texts present a remnant, escaped people who are redeemed for eternal life. When the flood came on the earth in Noah’s day, out of thousands and possibly millions of people, only a remnant was saved–“eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:20)–and everyone believes that there were exactly eight people, no more and no less. When Elijah believed that he alone remained as the one prophet faithful to the Lord, the answer come that it was not so: “Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.” 1 King 19:18. Was this a figurative, symbolic number, representing millions, or was it an actual figure? There is no doubt that these figures were real, and so there is no doubt that one hundred and forty-four thousand is also a literal number.

The 144,000 in the Spirit of Prophecy

Up to this point we have considered the Biblical passages. We will also look at what the writings of Ellen G. White present. What will we note in making a comparison? Do we find elements that help us better to understand the subject? In the inspired statements, we never read that this special number is a symbolic or indefinite number. The one hundred forty-four thousand are always presented as a group of saved people, a wellidentified group with special privileges. The number is never presented as symbolic or associated with a symbolic meaning. Following are some statements.

The 144,000 triumphed

Referring to the moment when Jesus will appear, the Spirit of prophecy makes different references to the condition of the believers. In this description, they are called “the righteous,” “the saints,” “all the saints,” “the 144,000.” No indication is given of a symbolic number: “I saw that the four angels would hold the four winds until Jesus’ work was done in the sanctuary, and then will come the seven last plagues. These plagues enraged the wicked against the righteous; they thought that we had brought the judgments of God upon them, and that if they could rid the earth of us, the plagues would then be stayed. A decree went forth to slay the saints, which caused them to cry day and night for deliverance. This was the time of Jacob’s trouble. Then all the saints cried out with anguish of spirit, and were delivered by the voice of God. The 144,000 triumphed. Their faces were lighted up with the glory of God.” –Early Writings, pp. 36, 37.

“The living saints, 144,000 in number”

In Early Writings, some visions are presented in which the 144,000 are mentioned. How are they presented–as real or as a symbolic number? The answer is: “the living saints, 144,000 in number.” “The living saints, 144,000 in number, knew and understood the voice, while the wicked thought it was thunder and an earthquake. When God spoke the time, He poured upon us the Holy Ghost, and our faces began to light up and shine with the glory of God, as Moses’ did when he came down from Mount Sinai.” –Early Writings, p. 14.

What do the words, “The living saints, 144,000 in number,” mean? They mean that the living saints were 144,000 in number–exactly 144,000, no more and no less. They were not 144,000 in symbol, but 144,000 in number; and this means that there were really 144,000 of them. Thus the Spirit of prophecy confirms that the number 144,000 is literal and not symbolic.

“The 144,000 were all sealed”

The next quotation gives additional details about these redeemed individuals. Is there any indication that the number of them is symbolic? No. Here is the quotation: “The 144,000 were all sealed and perfectly united. On their foreheads was written, God, New Jerusalem, and a glorious star containing Jesus’ new name. At our happy, holy state the wicked were enraged, and would rush violently up to lay hands on us to thrust us into prison, when we would stretch forth the hand in the name of the Lord, and they would fall helpless to the ground.” –Early Writings, p. 15.

The 144,000 shouted, “Alleluia!”

“Then Jesus’ silver trumpet sounded, as He descended on the cloud, wrapped in flames of fire. He gazed on the graves of the sleeping saints, then raised His eyes and hands to heaven, and cried, ‘Awake! awake! awake! ye that sleep in the dust, and arise.’ Then there was a mighty earthquake. The graves opened, and the dead came up clothed with immortality. The 144,000 shouted, ‘Alleluia!’ as they recognized their friends who had been torn from them by death, and in the same moment we were changed and caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” –Early Writings, p. 16. Here the 144,000 are seen at the moment of the general resurrection of the just, as they recognize some of their friends who had been separated from them by death. Sister White could very well have written here that this group is to be seen as symbolic, but no such explanation is found.

By Antonino Di Franca

Source:  Sabbath Watchman