Rev 14:1-13, 2 Kings 6, 2 Sam 11:6-13, Genesis 2:1-3
The last few chapters of the Apocalypse have sketched for us, from different perspectives, and with different images, the persecution and hardship that must of necessity plague all those who follow the Lamb. In chapter 14, however, we come to the end of this grueling action, at least for a time, and glimpse the joy and glory of those who have been patient, remembering the suffering and victory of the Lamb. We are whisked off to the heavenly Jerusalem, where a great song is being sung, where three warnings are given about the judgment to come, and where a solemn declaration or blessing is conferred upon God’s people, who have come to their time of rest.
Here is Revelation 14:1-13:
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
We have already heard of these 144,000 taken from every tribe, back in chapter 7, where the numbered host of God’s people morphs into an innumerable crowd singing praises to God. Though some have differentiated between Jewish and Gentile Christians in these two pictures, many think that the symbolism of 144,000 actually suggests the whole body of believers. As St. Andrew of Caesarea puts it, “These thousands indicate either the full harvest of the apostolic seed, the grace in each being completed twelve times a thousand, the perfect fruit of the faith of those being saved, or they signify those from the New Testament who are chaste in both the inner and the outer person… the foreheads of all of these are sealed with the light of the divine countenance, by which they are revealed as holy to the avenging angels” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 14.1. MTS 1 Sup 1:146–47.) And he is joined by the Venerable Bede, who explains, “This finite number should be regarded as representing an infinite number and by the meaning of a hidden mystery suitable for that virginal throng that loves God with all its heart, all its soul and all its mind, and by the integrity of the body, which consists of four qualities, is consecrated to him” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 14.1).
These worshippers sing a mysterious song, known only to them. St Andrew goes on to speak of the “many waters,” “thunder,” and “harpers” in terms of “penetrating clarity” of song and “harmonious and melodious euphony.” He also reminds us in his commentary of the matching scene in Hebrews 12:22, where the “festal gathering” is also viewed, with a reminder that we living come to this glorious place whenever we worship. The vision tells us that only the redeemed know this song, but in the sixth century Oecumenius goes further, saying, “I think that no one is strong enough even to hear the mysteries of the new song except for those who are thought worthy to sing them” (Comm on the Apocalypse 14:1-5). His opinion is in harmony with one of the stories of the prophets, in which Elisha’s servant had to have his eyes opened in order to see the hosts of God who were guarding God’s people (2 Kings 6). We can think also of the two on the road to Emmaus who did not immediately recognize the risen and glorious Lord (Luke 24). Those things that are truly real are not easily seen by those of us who have not yet been glorified. As St. Andrew comments, “No one else… can learn this song except these, for the knowledge … is co-extensive to the measure of their behavior, just as the servants of people are allowed to know their master’s secrets in proportion to their good will.” After all, these human singers, stamped with the name of the LORD, sing in the company of the 24 elders and the four guardian angels of the throne—no longer are their prayers carried before God by representatives, but they themselves praise him, for they have been cleansed by the Lamb, and followed him in faithfulness. Here is a company which we long to join!
But is it possible that the text itself actually excludes this hope for some of us? For they are described as “virginal” and “not defiled with women”—does this mean that the married and the female cannot hope to sing that new song? Only a wooden reading of the text, and one that is not aware of ancient convention, would think so. First, we must remember that this host has been in spiritual battle with the Lamb—remember the events of the past few chapters, in which a war has been waging. It is helpful to remember that one of the major requirements of battle in the Old Testament was that the warriors abstain from sexual intercourse, keeping themselves wholly devoted to the LORD. This was true of the married, and not only the single. We can read about this in the instructions for battle in Deuteronomy 20, and 23, but find it also mentioned when David asks for holy bread for his men, who are famished after their ordeal, and assures the priest that the young men are always consecrated to God, but especially on this special expedition (1 Sam 21:4-5). And, of course, the best example of this is seen in the sad case of Uriah the Hittite, who refused to go home and be comforted by his wife while his men are still in battle, with the result that David’s sin with his wife is in danger of being discovered by him and others, for she is with child. To the king he explains, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” (2 Sam 11:11). When he continues to abstain faithfully even after David gets him drunk, David arranges for him to be slaughtered in battle. Ironically, it is the adherent Gentile who keeps the commandments of God, while David breaks the commandments concerning covetousness, adultery, false witness, and murder!
It is no doubt this tradition of sexual abstinence that has carried over into our own tradition, remembered by some during periods of fasting! These warriors, then, show their dedication to God by disciplining their natural marital desires. And such a motivation is found even in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians, where he allows for this as part of ascetical discipline among married couples, in measure (1 Cor 7:5). The reference to abstinence from sexual relations, in this prosaic (rather than visionary piece) makes it clear that women, too, are included in the ascetic life that is part of our Christian struggle. As St. Cyprian puts it, “Indeed not to men only does the Lord promise the grace of continence, disregarding women; but since woman is a part of man and was taken and formed from him, almost universally in the Scriptures God addresses the first formed because they are two in one flesh, and in the man is signified likewise the woman” (FC 36:34–35).
It may also be helpful to glance down in this text, and see the reference to the whore, Babylon, with whom, as we find in chapter 17 of Revelation, all the kings of the earth have unlawful intimacy. These 144,000 are sealed by God, not the beast, and so do not consort with her. The symbolism of their not “being defiled” extends, within the symbolic grammar of the vision, to keeping oneself wholly for the Lamb, and not for the spirit of the world, or its distorted philosophies and actions.
But is the text speaking only of virgins? This is possible, because towards the end of this scene we hear about these being a “firstfruits” to the Lord. Certainly, the gift of celibacy is an important one to the Church, never to be downplayed. Some, then, have seen these 144,000 as the vanguard of the Lord’s hosts, those with the special calling to celibacy. Others, though, without dismissing the importance of celibacy, have allowed for this group to include others, as we saw with St. Andrew’s explanation. Augustine puts it beautifully this way, in his Sermon 304: “That garden of the Lord’s brothers and sisters, includes, yes it includes, it certainly includes not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people and the violets of widows.” Elsewhere, he has this to say regarding what it means to follow the Lamb wherever he goes:
Many things in him are revealed for all to imitate, but bodily virginity is not set forth for all, for those who have already lost their virginity have not the means of being virgins. So the rest of the faithful, who have lost their virginity, must follow the Lamb not wherever he goes, but so far as they themselves can go. They can in fact follow everywhere except where he has advanced into the glory of virginity,” (Holy Virginity 14 ABC 79, 81, 101–5.)
To Augustine’s words we might add he exception of St. Mary of Egypt, who certainly was not celibate in her early life, but who is now the patroness of chastity.
So, then, this passage can be read as inviting all who have been sealed by the LORD to join the great company of worshippers on the holy mountain. There are some who are literally celibate, and others who are “virginal” in a spiritual sense, just as St. Paul spoke of his desire to give the church of Corinth, made up of married and unmarried, men and women, “as a chaste virgin to the Lord” (2 Cor 11:2). The joy of the worshippers is infectious. This scene of joy is soberly joined, though, to angelic warnings by three angels. Shockingly, the first angel shows us that the “eternal gospel” includes holy “fear,” and an awareness that the God who created all will also come in judgment. Similarly, the second angel actually rejoices in the fall of Babylon, whose days are numbered. And the third heavenly being speaks plainly about the judgment that will fall on any who are associated with her, by receiving the mark of the beast.
There is no true worship of God without a repudiation of the beast and Babylon. There is no recognition of God’s glory without acknowledging that His judgments are righteous. There is no cleaving to God without a refusal to be marked by evil. These are hard sayings, but they are no different than what the LORD Jesus Himself said, when He was with the disciples in the flesh: “Strive to enter by the narrow way.” It cannot be otherwise, since the conditions that allow our willing love for God include the impossible possibility that some may say “no.” If we want the good news that tears have been wiped away, then we must allow for evil to be vanquished.
These 144,000 beckon to us to follow them in their company. Indeed, when we worship before the altar of the LORD, we are, for a time, caught up with them. The solemn words of assurance that we hear from heaven close this dramatic scene of worship and warning. John is told, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” To the beatitudes are added two more blessings—a blessing for those who “die in the LORD” (that surely includes us!) and the promise that those who have fought and labored will be given rest. This week we read about the LORD God resting from His creational works; we know that on Holy Saturday the Incarnate God rested from His redeeming works; and we are assured here that the blessing of divine rest will be extended to those of us who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” Just as Jesus blessed those who heard Him on the mountain, so the Spirit blesses us today with this hope, a hope that is even more poignant as we struggle in Lent, with concern for our Orthodox brothers and sisters who have more tangible struggles across the sea.