The Numberless Throng - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 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.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
17 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.
In this chapter we consider briefly the numberless throng pictured in Revelation 7. We will leave the song of the redeemed and of the angels, found in verses 10-12, for a separate chapter.
The Identity Of The Throng
Who are these people who are pictured to John and to the church in this second vision of Revelation 7? What is their relation to the one hundred forty-four thousand who are mentioned in the first part of this chapter?
In order to answer these questions we must, of course, first of all study our text and discover what it tells us about them.
Then we find, in the first place, that they are a throng without number:
"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number..." In these words it is indicated at the same time that the apostle now beholds a different vision. It is not a mere continuation of the vision in the first part of the chapter, but it is something new. And when he says that he beheld a multitude which no man could number, he does not mean to say that in actual fact there was not a definite number, or that the multitude was actually infinite. That, of course, would be impossible. But he means to impress upon us that the throng which he beheld was so immense that the very attempt to count them seemed folly and impossible. There is an end to man's capacity of expressing things in number and of counting a certain number of objects. Thus it is, of course, with the stars of heaven. Who would deny that there are a definite number of stars in the sky, so that they surely can be counted, the number of which is also known, yea, the names of all of which are known to God Almighty? But the number of the stars is so immense that it is folly for man even to attempt to count them. This is also true of the sand which is on the seashore. There is a definite number of gains of sand on the shore; but to count these grains is beyond our human capacity. This, then, is also the case with this great multitude which John beheld. It is numberless, that is, the creature cannot count them. It is so immense that the very attempt to number them and to express their number is foolishness. And immediately we are reminded of the promise to Abraham concerning his seed. To Abraham a seed is promised as multitudinous as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable. This promise certainly is not completely fulfilled in the children of Israel: they always could be numbered. Nor is it completely fulfilled in the spiritual Israel of the new dispensation: for also their number is within our reach, and they may be expressed in the definite number, one hundred forty-four thousand. But here, in this particular vision, we see for the first time the fulfillment of that glorious promise to Abraham. For John beholds a numberless throng.
Secondly, we must also note that this throng is universal in character. It is a multitude "of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues." This implies, in the first place, that the Lord has His people among all nations. For there is no reason not to take these words in their full and literal meaning. There is no nation whatsoever that is excluded from this throng. The chosen people of God's grace are in this dispensation hid among all the nations of the earth. Hence, we have the suggestion here that it is incumbent upon the church to preach the gospel to all nations and tongues. Fully in harmony with the great commission which the Lord left to His church before He ascended to heaven, "Go ye therefore, into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature," or, "Make disciples of all nations," is the presentation in the words of this passage. Among all the nations of the earth are the people of God who shall once be gathered in glory. Since, therefore, these must be called by the Word of the gospel, that Word must be preached to all without distinction. In the second place, it seems to me that we have an indication here that even in the new economy of things there shall not be an endless monotony of men, all the same, the one the exact picture of the other, but that national and tribal characteristics shall be plainly visible and represented in the numberless throng. It is the Lord's will that the human race should develop into many nations. Not one nation forms the organism of the human race all by itself, but all together compose that organism. Not one nation can be missed. And therefore, the beauty of that organism shines forth in the combination of all the characteristics of each and every nation combined. This is implied in this present vision. Hence, there is a throng from all nations, and in the vision John immediately recognizes that every nation of the globe is represented. In the third place, we may remark in passing that also the Jews are included in this very throng. They do not live separately from it, but are included in this multitude: for it is a throng of all nations. Besides, of a separate Jewish multitude we read nowhere in the Word of God. It is, therefore, a universal throng, a glorious harmony of all nations, each with its peculiar characteristics, but each also with one great characteristic in common: they are all of Christ, and they are all in glory everlasting.
That the latter is true, namely, that this multitude is conceived as being in glory, is evident from the entire text.
The text describes these people as being arrayed in white robes, and as having palm branches in their hands, and as standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Now that they are arrayed in white robes indicates that they are purified of sin and of all the effects of sin, as is also indicated in the latter part of verse 14. This undoubtedly is their chief characteristic at this moment. That this is actually true is also evident from the latter part of this portion. John stands amazed at the sight of this multitude and is wondering as to their identity. And one of the elders who stand around the throne, seeing that he is wondering, places him before the question,
"What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?" And John, acknowledging his ignorance in regard to them, answers, "Sir, thou knowest." And the elder explains that they come out of great tribulation. So much concerning their origin. But as to their chief characteristic, the elder says that they are those who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Very strikingly we read here that they have done so themselves. They themselves washed their robes in the blood of Christ. You understand, of course, from all Scripture that this must not be understood as if they had saved themselves: for this certainly is not the case, and the throng do not conceive of it in that light themselves, as is plain from the song which they sing. The people of God certainly do not save themselves, and they do not obtain the forgiveness of sin and deliverance from corruption through their own efforts. For salvation belongs unto the Lord. He washed them in His own redeeming blood. Yet we must not imagine that this is a mere form and that this indicates identically the same thing as if the text had read, "They are those whose robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb." There certainly is a point of view from which we may say that the saints wash their robes in the blood of Christ. For, do not forget, through the Holy Spirit they receive the power of faith; and through that power of faith they consciously cling to Christ, are rooted in Him, draw from Him all they need, all the blessings of salvation. Through faith the Christian becomes active in his own salvation. Through faith he appropriates Christ and all His benefits. Through faith he consciously goes to the blood of Christ to wash his robes. And this throng consists of those who have thus washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are now delivered. Every spot of sin has been washed away. They are pure and holy, and they have gained the victory in the battle of faith. They stand here as having overcome already, as being victors in the battle.
The same truth is indicated by the palm branches which they hold in their hands. By these we are referred, no doubt, to the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, when the children of Israel commemorated how they had been in the desert and joyously thought of their being led out of bondage into the land of promise. So also this multitude: they have been in the wilderness of life, of sin and imperfection, of suffering and want and death. But they are all through; they are now in the land of promise. They celebrate their final deliverance and entrance into the land of glory.
Finally, this is also indicated by the place where they are now found.
They stand before the throne and the Lamb. They are in the place where the glory of Almighty God and of the Lamb shines forth, where the elders worship, and where all creation, with the mighty angels, praises the name of the God of their salvation. They are in that new economy of things which has been pictured to us in the fourth chapter of this book, that new economy which was to replace the old dispensation of imperfection, the new economy of the perfected kingdom of glory. And there they stand, that is, they are ready for worship and service and praise. To sum it up, this portion permits us to cast a glance into the future, to see what will be the portion of the people of God when all shall have been accomplished and when the new heavens and the new earth shall have been realized. This numberless throng is the multitude of the people of God after they shall have been gathered in eternal glory in the new creation.
Finally, it is of importance that we notice their origin. For also this is expressly indicated in the text: the elder tells John that they have all come out of the great tribulation.
To understand this clause fully, we must remember the general viewpoint of the Book of Revelation. We have seen time and again that it pictures to us the events of this entire dispensation as they, under the control of Christ, must lead to the completion of the kingdom of God. These events cover this entire dispensation, as we have stated repeatedly.
Nevertheless, they will increase in force and in number as the time draws near that the Lord shall return to establish the kingdom of glory forever. This must be remembered also with regard to this great tribulation. In the narrowest sense of the word this phrase calls to our mind the period immediately before the coming of Christ. There is no doubt in the light of Scripture that there shall be a period of persecution of the church, a period of great tribulation for the people of God, such as has never been before. When the power of the Antichrist shall develop and reach its climax, when the great apostasy shall take place and the few faithful shall stand over against a world which is filled with enmity against Christ and His people, then shall they be hated of all nations and shall be subjected to terrible persecution. To this particular period the phrase refers in its narrowest sense.
Nevertheless, we must never conceive of this great tribulation as standing all by itself. For that is not the case. It is merely the climax, the ultimate manifestation of the power which always was filled with bitter hatred against the church of Christ in the world. We must, therefore, not forget that this great tribulation is in process of formation all the time, throughout this entire dispensation. In a wider sense, it includes also those minor persecutions, terrible enough in themselves, but minor in comparison to the final tribulation, to which the people of God have already been subjected. There was the persecution under the Roman emperors, - under Nero, under Domitian, - the persecution in the period immediately preceding the Reformation, as well as during the time of the Reformation. All these were in principle the same tribulation as that which is still to come shortly before the coming of Christ. Only, they were not such fierce manifestations of it as the last one will be, according to the words of Jesus. We may understand this term, therefore, in the broadest sense, namely, as including the tribulation of the people of God of all ages. Principally the people of God from the spiritual point of view are always in this great tribulation. The power of Antichrist was in the world already in the time of John, has been in the world ever since, and is never out of the world. That power of Antichrist always is filled with enmity against God and His Christ and His people, always plans to hurt the children of God and to destroy the kingdom of Christ, - now in one form, now in another. And therefore the children of God always have a battle to fight if they are faithful: the battle against sin within and the power of evil without. And always the Word of Jesus is true, that we must take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him in the path of tribulation if we would be His disciples.
Hence, the picture which we may form of this great tribulation is that of a great ocean, involving all history and every age. But in this great ocean there are higher and lower waves, while the great tribulation which is still to come is the highest of all and the most threatening to the church of Christ and the people of God. Hence, when our text speaks of great tribulation, it does no doubt refer especially to those times of persecution when the blood of the saints shall be shed for the testimony which they have and for the Word of God. Yet in general it implies this entire dispensation to a greater or smaller degree.
We are now ready also to answer the further question: what is the relation between the one hundred forty-four thousand, those who were sealed, according to the first part of this chapter, and those who are in the numberless throng, standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, who have already entered into everlasting glory?
There are, of course, various possibilities and also different interpretations. These different interpretations vary according to the explanation which is given of the first passage of this chapter. Those who claim that the first one hundred forty-four thousand are Jews in the national sense of the word also maintain that in our text there is a reference to an entirely different class of people. In support of this assertion, they point, in the first place, to the fact that in the former portion mention is made only of Israel, while this part speaks of people from all nations and peoples and tongues and tribes. In the second place, they point to the fact that in the first portion the people referred to are still in the midst of the battle, while this numberless throng in white robes and with palm branches in their hands evidently have already gained the victory. And, in the third place, they especially point to the proof that the former consists of a definite number, while here there is mention made of a numberless throng. For all these reasons they claim that we must accept the idea that these are not the same as the one hundred forty-four thousand, but are a radically different throng.
We will not enter into detail in regard to these interpretations. All we wish to do now is to make clear that essentially the numberless throng and the one hundred forty-four thousand are not a different class of people, but principally the same. This is shown in the first place, by the fact that the great tribulation is one of the main ideas in both passages, that which speaks of the one hundred forty-four thousand and that which is now under discussion. In fact, both passages find their reason, the reason why they are revealed, in the coming of that great tribulation upon the church. The purpose of both passages evidently is to reveal to the church their precarious position in the world, and nevertheless their safety over against that great tribulation. The only difference is that the one hundred forty-four thousand still confront that tribulation, while the numberless throng have already passed through it. It is very evident that it is the same throng: the one pictured as in the midst of the great tribulation, or rather, as standing on the verge of passing through it, and the other pictured as already having experienced it and having overcome. It is, therefore, the same multitude, only in different states, at different periods, and therefore from different points of view. In the first part they are upon the earth; in the second part they are already in glory in the new economy of the kingdom which is completed. In the first they are in tribulation; in the second they are already passed through that tribulation.
And if you ask, then, how the difference in number must be explained, then I ask you to recall our explanation of the one hundred forty-four thousand who were sealed. We found that they represented the people of God as they were upon earth at any period of history. One hundred forty-four thousand is the number of God's elect as they are in the world at any time. But the numberless throng represents the people of God of all ages added together. At the time of John the one hundred forty-four thousand existed. During the period of the early church there were the one hundred forty-four thousand of God's people. At the time of the Reformation they were there. And they are there today. Hence, remember: the one hundred forty-four thousand are all the elect existing at any time in the world. In every generation there are the complete number of God's elect on earth, as symbolized by the number one hundred forty-four thousand. But this numberless throng represents all these one hundred forty-four thousands added together, from every generation. From the beginning to the end of the world Christ Jesus gathers His church. Part of that church is always in the world; and that part is represented by the number one hundred forty-four thousand. It is the church militant. But at the end of time all these parts shall be gathered together before the throne and the Lamb. Is it surprising, then, that at the end of time we find no more than one hundred forty-four thousand, but nothing less than a numberless throng? Who then are these people? They are the people of God of all ages and climes and nations and tribes, gathered together in the new economy of things in the new creation.
The Blessed State Of The Numberless Throng
If you ask why it was necessary that also this vision was revealed at this time, what the purpose of this passage is, what is the comfort implied in it for the people of God in the world, we must place ourselves for a moment before the important question: what is the state of these people, and what is their present condition?
Regarding this question, we read in the text, in the first place, that they are in the temple of their God. Thus we read in verse 15: "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."
A moment's reflection will make it plain that in both parts of this verse the same idea is expressed: they shall serve Him in His temple, and He shall spread His tabernacle over them. The central idea of the temple, in the first place, is that it is the place where God dwells, the place where He holiness, where He makes His abode. And, in the second place, it is the sanctuary of His is worshipped and served in the true sense of the word. In the old dispensation this was the building in Jerusalem, the type of the true temple which was in heaven, especially in the most holy place. The idea was, of course, that since sin came into the world, God's temple was no longer found everywhere, as it was in the beginning, before the fall; but the place where He dwelled was limited to a definite building. In the beginning, before the fall, all creation was His temple: in all creation He dwelled, and in all creation He was worshipped and praised and glorified. But through the fact of sin this was changed. God no longer dwelt in all creation. In the old dispensation He dwelled typically among His people in a definite, limited place, to the exclusion of the rest of creation. That was the meaning of the temple in Jerusalem. In the new dispensation, however, there is this development, that the idea of a definite place is removed, and that since the Spirit is poured out, God now dwells in His people and makes His abode in their hearts. He tabernacles among them and with them. However, still He does not dwell in all creation; and still all creation is not His temple. His temple in the new dispensation is the church of the living God in Christ Jesus our Lord; and with His people He dwells in the spiritual sense of the word. But this is not the end, and this is not the ideal situation. It is a step in advance of the old dispensation, and there is evidently progress. But although it is true that the time has come that the people of God worship no more at Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth, nevertheless, the ideal is not reached before all the world and all creation has again become the temple of the living God, and God not only tabernacles and dwells with His people, but spreads His tabernacle over them. This is the condition which is pictured in verse 15 of this chapter.
In that new economy they are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His temple. God's temple shall again be all creation, heaven and earth. And wherever the redeemed in eternity shall turn, whether they shall rise up to heaven or shall dwell on the earth, whether they shall sit down at the streams of living water and dwell in all the glorified creation,-everywhere they shall see their God and be aware of His presence. All creation shall again spell the name of their God and reveal His glory, even as it was in the typical temple of Jerusalem. Thus God shall widen His tabernacle. He shall spread His tabernacle over them. He shall spread His tent over all the world. And in Him and in His presence we shall be in the literal sense of the word. In all creation He shall be
revealed. By all creation He shall be glorified. In all creation shall be His temple. And the redeemed, walking constantly in the presence of God and in His fellowship through the Spirit of Christ in their heart, constantly enlightened by that Spirit, shall serve Him day and night in the new creation. Surely, day and night in the literal sense of the word: not only in the sense of always and continually, but literally day and night they shall serve Him in the new creation. The old creation shall again shine forth in all its beauty and purity, and the night as well as the day shall sing of the glory and of the power and wisdom of God Almighty.
In the second place, we read something about the personal condition of these saints of the numberless throng. Several details are mentioned here which all find their central idea in this, that they shall be perfectly delivered also from all the effects of sin. Thus we read in verse 16: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat." This implies, in the first place, that the saints of this numberless throng shall never know any want. They shall lack nothing, absolutely nothing. Hunger and thirst are the most emphatic manifestations and expressions of dire need and want. When one has no bread wherewith to feed himself and no water to quench his thirst, he is in dire want and lacks the very necessities of his existence. Hunger and thirst, therefore, are here taken as the symbols of all need and want. Notice, it does not say that we shall have no more desires and no more needs; them we shall surely have, even in glory. A life and existence without needs and without wants is inconceivable, and, in fact, would be no life at all. But this is the condition of the numberless throng in glory, that all their desires shall be completely satisfied. There shall be no more any vain desire; there shall be no more any need which is not immediately and completely fulfilled. No more hunger and thirst shall there be in the new creation. There shall be no hunger and thirst either in the physical or in the spiritual sense of the word.
Oh, what a glorious contrast there is between this numberless throng as they are now in glory and that same throng as they existed throughout the ages of the world! These people came out of the great tribulation. They were in a state of imperfection. Often they were in suffering and tribulation. Often they were in want, physically and spiritually. Often their soul thirsted after God. Often they were in trouble and in affliction because of their many wants, spiritually as well as physically. Still more: they were the despised, the hated and persecuted in the world. They were chased all over the world, homeless, breadless, miserable. They were shut up in dingy cells, behind prison bars. They were brought to the scaffold, and they were burned alive at the stake. They were poor, naked, hungry, despised. And no one there seemed to be who took pity on them in the whole world. But now, behold, they suffer no more want! There is no more lack of anything. But they dwell in the temple of their God, without fear and without any unfulfilled desire. They now serve Him perfectly and have perfect fellowship with Him, according to the desire of their heart, and that too, constantly, day and night. The heat of the sun, nor any heat, shall strike them no more. There shall be nothing outside of them, not in nature nor in the world of men, which shall ever do them any harm. Nature shall be perfectly redeemed. All the evil forces of nature shall have disappeared. All that harms us now and that causes sickness and pain and suffering and death because of the disharmony in nature shall be forever removed. At the same time, all that harms and inspires us with fear and causes trouble and tribulation from the world of men shall also be removed, so that all is perfect and all adds to their bliss, both physical and spiritual. Their body and their soul and their spirit shall be in perfect harmony also with the world about them. And all together they shall be in harmonious relation to the Lord God Almighty in Christ Jesus their Lord.
The Source Of Their Bliss
The reason for all this is expressed in the last words of the passage: "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."
Is not this glorious and beautiful in the highest sense of the word? Does not this fulfill all the desires of our hearts even in the present world? Are there among the people of God to whom this does not appeal in the highest sense of the word?
Human language could never say it more beautifully than it is expressed in this beautiful and rich symbolism of the Book of Revelation. But a few words of explanation we must nevertheless stammer. We often forget, perhaps, that Christ will be our head and our all even in eternity. He is not a Savior Who serves only in this dispensation, unto the end of this present time, and Who will leave us again as soon as we are perfectly redeemed.
No, Christ is now our head in the absolute sense of the word, our Lord and our King. He now sits at the right hand of God and rules over us in perfection. The time shall come indeed when He will deliver His kingdom, deliver it to the Father, and He Himself shall also be subject. This, however, does not mean that then He shall disappear as our Savior, lay aside, perhaps, His human nature, or abdicate entirely and occupy no place in the new creation. On the contrary, then He shall occupy the place of our head and of our King under God as the second Adam, and that too, forevermore. Also in eternity we shall be organically one with Christ. Also then He shall be our head. He shall be our King, our leader, in the new creation. Also then we shall have our all in Him, and our life we shall draw from Him forevermore, and through Him from God. He is now our redemption and our sanctification: and all we receive in the line of grace we receive by faith from Him. But also then HP shall be the fount of our life, through which we shall draw the living water of eternal life from the Lord our God. That is the meaning of the expression that He shall lead us to fountains of waters, of the water of life. No more suffering and no more want shall there be. And why not? Because the Lord Jesus Christ shall forevermore be with us and shall forevermore give us the true life, the abundant, perfect, eternal life, life without the taste of death in it, life of everlasting satisfaction and glory. And God shall remove all the causes of suffering and sorrow from our body and from our soul and from the entire creation; and thus He shall wipe away all the tears from our eyes.
Thus we also understand the meaning of this particular portion, and that too, in distinction from the immediately preceding. The first portion contained for us the comfort that the Lord keeps us in the midst of tribulation and that we shall not be harmed, however high the billows of affliction may go over our heads. For we are sealed, and the Lord through His Spirit keeps us and always gives us strength according to the tribulation. But this second portion pictures before our eyes what will be the outcome of the tribulation, in order to inspire us with confidence and courage, and to cause us not to be afraid of the tribulation of this present time. The glory which is pictured to us is so great, so beautiful, so all-comprehensively abundant, that for it we are willing to give our all, our life and our possessions. And with a view to it, in the strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can well afford to suffer a little persecution and a little pain for a little while. For it quickly passes away; and then the glory, everlasting glory, is awaiting us. Then our dear Lord Jesus Christ will forevermore be with us, and in Him our God and our Father shall have perfect communion with us! Surely, then we shall serve Him day and night!
What will be the expression of our service we hope to see in our next chapter. Let it now be sufficient that we have again by faith grasped a glimpse of that everlasting bliss, and that we have learned to understand the words of the apostle: "For the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us!"