And I heard the number of those who were being sealed, 144,000, sealed from all the tribes of the sons of Israel. Rev 7:4.
One of the most fascinating puzzles in the Book of Revelation is what to do with the eye-catching number 144,000. What or who does this group represent and what difference might that make to those of us who read this text today?
The most obvious thing in the text, perhaps, is that the number is derived by multiplying twelve times twelve by 1000. The twelves represent the twelve tribes of Old Testament Israel, twelve-thousand coming from each tribe, thus reaching a total of 144,000. But in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for "thousand" (pronounced "eleph") can be used in a variety of ways, it is not just a number. As a number, of course, "eleph" would represent 144 groups of a thousand people each. Related to this, the word can also be used to designate a military unit. We would call that unit a brigade or battalion, the Romans called it a cohort. In a Roman cohort you had about 1,000 men, 960 soldiers plus their officers.
It appears that "eleph" ("thousand") could also apply to the administrative divisions of each tribe, something like counties or shires (Exod 18:21, 25). In ancient Israel there were rulers over ten thousands (the number of men in each tribe totaled five figuresB Num 26:4-62), rulers of thousands (this would be like the county administration), and rulers of hundreds (villages), fifties and tens (extended families).
Since the nation of Israel was originally descended from a single family (see Gen 49:1-28), these administrative divisions also represent a family tree: each of the tribes could be broken down into sub-tribes, clans, and families. The "eleph" then would not represent a number, but the leader of a major tribal sub-group or clan. The number 144,000 then would represent 144 heads of households, each ruling a clan numbered in four figures. What is the point? However you interpret the "thousand," the number 144,000 is a symbolic way of representing the totality of Israel's people.
So the 144,000 represents the people of God as a whole. In the Book of Revelation Israel is expanded to include those who follow the disciples of the Lamb in their allegiance to the Messiah. In the new Jerusalem (see Revelation 21) each gate represents one of the twelve tribes of Israel and each foundation represents one of the twelve apostles (see Matt 19:28). So the 144,000 is not some elite group that leaves most of us out. It is a symbol of everyone who has ever been faithful to the God of Israel, no matter when or where (Rev 7:9).