The same truth is indicated in 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 all creation with the mighty angels praise the name of the God of their salvation. They are, in a word, in that new economy of things that has been pictured to us in the fourth chapter of this book, that new economy that 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. In a word, 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 that is expressly indicated in the test. The elder tells John that they have all come out of the great tribulation. To understand this clause fully, we must remember the general standpoint 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 r in the light of Scripture that there shall be a period of persecution of the church and a period of great tribulation for the people of God, 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 that 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 that always was filled with bitter hatred against the church of Christ in the world. And therefore we must 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 the one that is still to some 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 their 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 farm, 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 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 that is still to come is the highest of all and most threatening to the church of Christ and the people of God. Hence, when our text speaks of the 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 that were sealed, according to the first part of this chapter, and these that are in the numberless throng, standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, that have already entered into everlasting glory? There are, of course, various possibilities and also different interpretations. These different interpretations vary according to the explanation that 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 that these are not the same as the one hundred forty-four thousand, but are a radically different throng. We will not enter into details 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, the passage that speaks of the one hundred forty-four thousand and the one we are discussing now. In fact, both passages find their reason, the reason why they are revealed, in the coming of that great tribulation over 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 that is completed. In the first they are in tribulation; in the second they are already passed through that tribulation. And if you ask, then, but how must the difference in number be explained, then, I ask you to recall our explanation of the one hundred forty-four thousand that 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 of God’s people 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. So 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, symbolized by the number one hundred forty-four thousand. But this numberless throng represents all these one hundred forty-four thousands added together, of every generation. From the beginning of the world to the end of time, 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 the 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. And if you ask, then: but why was it necessary that also this portion was revealed at the time, and what is the purpose of this passage, what is the comfort there is 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 makes His abode. And in the second place, it is the sanctuary of His holiness, where He 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, with 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 that 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 that 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 that 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. And therefore, hunger and thirst 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 no more be any need that is not immediately and completely fulfilled. No more hunger and thirst there shall be in the new creation. There shall be no hunger and thirst either in the physical or in the spiritual sense of the word. O, 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, they were hated and persecuted in the world, they were chased over all the world, homeless, breadless, miserable. They were shut up in dingy cells, behind prison bars. They were brought to the scaffold, and burned alive at the stake. They were poor, naked, hungry, despised. And no one there seemed to be that 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, that 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 altogether they shall be in harmonious relation to the Lord God Almighty in Christ Jesus their Lord.
The reason for all this is expressed in the last words of our text: “For the Lamb which is in the not 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.