In Revelation 7, we read about the 144,000. As you look at this passage, we can first note some information about the four winds. According to Jewish thought, four winds stood at each compass corner. These winds could destroy a nation (Jer. 49.36) or bring new life (Ezek. 37.9). Zechariah portrays these winds as chariots pulled by different teams of horses which leave the Lord’s presence and go out into all the earth (Zech. 6.5-7). Jesus taught that at His coming during the destruction of Jerusalem that the angels would gather the elect from the four winds (Matt. 24.31).
We, next, observe the faithful being sealed. Ezekiel 9 sets the backdrop for the sealing of God’s faithful. This imagery of the seven executioners is present in Babylonian literature as well. There they punish those having committed religious offenses, as is the case here (Ezek. 9.4). The imagery of Ezekiel’s seven would have reminded the audience steeped in idolatry about the impending punishment that comes from Yahweh. The mark on their forehead in Hebrew was the taw. This was the last character of the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it looked like a modern “X,” or cross. Moreover, the Greek letter “chi” was equivalent to taw and was the first letter in Christ’s name in Greek. The church father Origen (A.D. 185-254) wrote, “A third [person] one of those who believe in Christ, said the form of the Taw in the old [Hebrew] script resembles the cross, and it predicts the mark which is to be placed on the foreheads of Christians.”
In Revelation, the seal separates God’s faithful from the faithless. A pseudepigraphical writing called the Psalms of Solomon was composed in the first century B.C. (it details Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.). It also gives a little insight into the marking of God’s people: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine, sword, and death shall be far from the righteous; for they shall pursue sinners and overtake them, and those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord” (15.6-8). Sometimes branding in antiquity was also a sign of a slave (3 Macc. 2.29). In Christianity, sealing became symbolic. The Holy Spirit sealed the Asian churches (Eph. 1.13; 4.30). This wasn’t a physical mark, as some might think. It was a mark distinguishable only by God and His agents of wrath (cf. 2 Cor. 1.22), and it distinguished the faithful from the wicked (cf. 2 Tim. 2.19). This seal in Revelation is to protect God’s faithful, as in Ezekiel (Rev. 7.3).
Now, we arrive at 144,000. This list in Revelation of the 12 tribes differs from other lists (see Gen. 35.23-26; 49.3-27; Deut. 33.6-25): Reuben usually heads the list, but Judah does here likely because this is the tribe from whence Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, came (Rev. 1.5; 5.5); and John included Manasseh while omitting Ephraim and Dan (see 1 Kings 12.29-30). Since this group is spared divine wrath but not earthly persecution, it may be that they will be those who complete the number of the slain souls under the altar (Rev. 6.9-11). These twelve tribes are used figuratively for Jewish Christians (James 1.1). Jewish Christians were predominant over the first decade of the early church. Staying with the Jewish identity, their being “first fruits” (Rev. 14.4) was also well founded as spoken of by the Jews (Jer. 2.3; Rom. 11.16; James 1.18). If this concerns Jewish believers, the great multitude in Revelation 7.9ff were Gentile believers. This could also reference the church — God’s new Israel (Gal. 6.16; cf. Gal. 3.7-9, 29).
Whomever they were, they sang a new song described as the roar of rushing waters, a loud peal of thunder, and harpists playing their harps. No heavenly creature could learn this song because participation is limited to those redeemed from the earth (cf. 1 Peter 1.12; Eph. 3.10) centered on redemption by the Lamb from the beast. They were “virgins” (cf. 2 Cor. 11.2) who were blameless (Rev. 14.4). This may mean that they maintained ritual purity before battle (Deut. 23.9-10; 1 Sam. 21.5; 2 Sam. 11.11). Later on, Babylon (Rome) is referred to as the mother of harlots (Rev. 17.3-5), and those who consort with her would have defiled themselves (cf. Rev. 2.22).