(4) And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: (5) 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, (6) 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, (7) 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, (8) 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
To understand the number 144,000 literally would be a mistake, for to do so we must defy the instruction to understand this book symbolically (1:1, 22:6); And to be consistent, we would also need to understand the following information about the twelve tribes literally too. However, that presents more problems, as there were not twelve tribes still in existence when Revelation was written; at the most there were two left (Judah and Benjamin), the rest were dissolved by the Assyrians long before the first century. Further, these 144,000 will later be described as only males who are virgins (14:4). To begin interpreting something as literal by our own authority will bring us into a world of contradictions as the details unfold. However, we are given no reason to change gears and begin to consider the 144,000 as a literal number of people. It is clearly figurative, and the details make that clear.
Commentators often give the equation 12 x 12 x 1,000 = 144,000. I do not wish to follow in their footsteps; I believe this is emphasizing the wrong numbers. If we look again at the text we will see that the real calculation is: 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 + 12,000 = 144,000. We are not supposed to understand this as 12 x 12 x 1,000 = 144,000; but that there are 12,000 sealed from all twelve tribes and that adds up to 144,000. Twelve has always been a number which symbolically represented God’s people. In the Old Testament, the names of the twelve sons of Jacob represented God’s people. In the New Testament, the twelve apostles represented the disciples of Jesus. There is much to parallel in this text to the city foursquare in Revelation twenty-one, which is yet another representation of God’s people. In the latter text, we will see the names of the twelve tribes (21:12), the names of the twelve apostles (21:14), the number 12,000 (21:16), and even the number 144 (21:17). So, it is evident that we are dealing with symbolic representations of the faithful people of God. However, I think we are missing the whole message if we think this is only a symbol of God’s people. The time which God takes in these verses to count and add up the saints must be recognized! There is dedication to God’s count, it is careful, complete, foursquare symmetrical. It is a part of the nature of God to count and know every hair on our heads (Luke 12:7, 21:18); this is his careful concern for us. The perfectly complete and symmetrical number 144,000 demonstrates that God’s count of his faithful is complete, not one has been left out, he has redeemed them all.
On the unusual order of the list of names in this text, the double portion of Joseph’s sons, and of the exclusion of Dan, I have little to say. Other commentators have given various theories that I welcome you to read and consider if you are interested, but I have yet to determine anything conclusive on the order. I’m sure there is a reason which the first century brethren would have picked up on, but to focus on the theories would only draw us away from the purpose of the message.