01 November 2023
Making sense of 144,000
in the Book of Revelation
and world population figures
on All Saints’ Day, 2023
Today (1 November) is All Saints’ Day, a celebration in the Church Calendar that dates back to Pope Gregory III (731-741). He dedicated a chapel to All Saints in Saint Peter’s in Rome on 1 November to honour ‘the holy apostles and … all saints, martyrs, and confessors, … all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.’
One of the outstanding depictions of All Saints is a five-panel altarpiece made by Fra Angelico’s workshop for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence.
Although the altarpiece was made in his workshop, it is not sure whether Fra Angelico (1395-1455) painted the work himself as he regularly had others do the actual painting. Gold leaves were used in altarpieces like this, and he paint is tempera, a mix of colour pigments with egg yolk that is long lasting. The blue colour was made with the expensive lapis lazuli.
The first of the three lectionary readings for All Saints Day today is:
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12 singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14 I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 7: 9-17)
In the verses immediately before this reading, we are told:
‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.’
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:
5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed. (Revelation 7: 3-8)
I love the clear implication that the salvation of humanity is directly and intricately intertwined with the command, ‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees.’
The number 144,000 is a natural number. It is significant in many religious traditions and belief systems. The number 144,000 appears three times in the Book of Revelation, in this passage (Revelation 7: 3-8), and in two other places:
Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads (Revelation 14: 1).
3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless. (Revelation 14: 3-5)
The number 12 is used throughout the Bible to symbolise completeness, perfection, and God’s power. Think for a moment of the 12 tribes of Israel or 12 disciples of Christ. There are also 12 patriarchs from Seth to Noah; 12 patriarchs from Shem to Jacob; 12 spies led the way into the Promised Land; there were 12 judges from Othniel to Samuel; and King David appointed 24 groups of 12 (a total of 288) to lead music of praise in the temple (I Chronicles 25).
Exodus 39: 14 recalls there Aaron’s breastplate had 12 precious stones, ‘corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they were like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribe.’
The figure 12 also has symbolic significance in the New Testament. Christ promises the disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matthew 19: 28).
Saint Mark’s Gospels recalls how in one hour, Jesus heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and then goes immediately to restore to life a girl who is 12 years old. The first woman is older, with a continual flow of blood, losing hr life blood; the young girl is given back her life blood and comes to life. Both touch Christ and after 12 years are restored to new life (Mark 5: 25-42).
In the Book of Revelation, Christ makes a similar promise to some who will come out of the last age of the church, known as Laodicea (which means ‘judging the people’): ‘To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne’ (Revelation 3: 21).
Revelation describes two groups of 12 (a total of 24) elders who sit around the throne of God, representing the 12 tribes in the Hebrew Bible and the 12 apostles in the New Testament (Revelation 4: 4). One vision in Revelation tells how a ‘great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12: 1). The 12 stars above the woman’s head are a symbol of the leadership of the church (I Corinthians 11: 10).
That great city, the holy Jerusalem … had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel … the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God … has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites … And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (see Revelation 21: 10-14).
The foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21: 19, 20) appear to be identical to the 12 precious stones on Aaron’s breastplate (Exodus 39: 14).
The figurative use of the whole number 1,000 is also found throughout the Bible. For example, God increases the number of the Israelites 1,000 times (Deuteronomy 1: 11); God keeps the covenant to 1,000 generations (Deuteronomy 7: 9); and God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills (Psalm 50: 10). Other examples are found in Exodus 20: 6; and II Samuel 18: 12; Psalm 84: 10; and Isaiah 60: 22.
The number 12 becomes a symbol of totality, and when it is squared and multiplied by 1,000 it acquires more emphasis. With 1,000 as a multiplier of 12, the numbers 12,000 and 144,000 are imbued with a particular significance that is interpreted variously in Christianity. Some take the numbers in the Book of Revelation to be symbolic, representing all God's people throughout history in the heavenly Church.
Even in conversation, I often find any discussion of the number 144,000 is met by references to the belief among Jehovah’s Witnesses that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians from the year 33 AD until the present day will be resurrected to heaven as immortal spirit beings to spend eternity with God and Christ, serving as king-priests for 1,000 years. They believe all other people accepted by God will have an opportunity to live forever in a restored paradise on earth.
Popular interpretations of the number 144,00, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to literalist evangelicals and fundamentalists, miss out on the interesting poetical and mathematical richness and significance of the number 144,000.
I try to imagine how many people are needed to make up 144,000 people in any one place at any one time. When I was working as a journalist, there were conflicting claims from the police and organisers about the number of people on the streets at any protest or march. To arrive at an impartial estimate, you would count how many people passed one point in a minute, and then multiply that figure by the number of minutes it took the marchers to pass that particular place.
Of course, adjustments had to be made. There are always bottlenecks that hold up a protest for minutes on end, and marches always have gaps and trail off at the end. But, with those allowances, it was a fairly accurate way of making an impartial count.
If the Book of Revelation is finding a poetic way of describing 144,000 passing through one particular point over one 24-hour period, that is a vast number: 6,000 people every hour, 100 people every minute, 2 or 3 people every second.
If the Book of Revelation is describing two lots of 144,000 people – one group of 144,000 standing on Mount Zion, and a second group of 144,000 before the throne – then we are talking about 288,000 people. In a 24-hour day, that would involve 12,000 people passing by every hour, or 200 every minute in a day.
The numbers 12, 60 and 144,000 are part of our cultural heritage dating back to Ancient Near East or Middle East societies. Sumerians looked to the heavens when they Invented the system of time we use to this day. It may seem curious that we divide the hours into 60 minutes and the days into 24 hours.
We use a multiple 12 rather than 10 because when the ancient Sumerians were inventing time, they did not operate on a decimal (base-10) or duodecimal (base-12) system but a sexagesimal (base-60) system.
For those ancient Sumerian innovators, who first divided the movements of the heavens into countable intervals, 60 was the perfect number. The number 60 can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30 equal parts. Moreover, ancient astronomers believed there were 360 days in a year, a number that 60 fits neatly into six times.
The Sumerian Empire may not have lasted for long. But, for more than 5,000 years, the world has continued to use its calculations when it comes delineating time.
In a burst of imagination on this All Saints’ Day, I thought of the figure 144,000 in the Book of Revelation as a poetic adaptation of Ancient Near East mathematical philosophy, and 144,000 are invited into the Kingdom of God, every day since, say the year 1 CE, for the past 2023 years, the total of people involved is 106,401,708,000. And if there two groups of 144,000 people in the Book of Revelation, that number doubles to 212,803,416,000.
And if the work of salvation is retrospective, going back in time as well as forward in time, perhaps that number could be doubled to at least 425,606,832,000, but probably much, much more.
That is more people than the number of people living today.
That is more people than the number of people who have ever lived on earth.
The UN estimates that the world population in mid-2023 is 8.1 billion (8,045,311,447).
In research for the National Library of Medicine some years ago, C Haub asked, ‘How many people have ever lived on earth?’ Assuming a constant growth rate and birth rates of 80 per 1,000 through to 1 AD, 60 per 1,000 from 2 AD to 1750, and the low 30s per 1,000 by modern times, he concluded 105 billion people have lived on earth, of whom 5.5% are alive today.
An earlier date for the appearance of human life on earth would raise the numbers. But any figures we come to are surpassed excessively by any number of people we could ever imagine ever alive on earth.
I am overwhelmed.
God’s love embraces more people than I can ever imagine, or could ever possibly exist in time, past, present or future. God’s love is beyond measure, is beyond limit, and the saints we celebrate and rejoice with today are beyond any number I can imagine or calculation you or I can make.