Questions From Readers
Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses take the number 144,000 mentioned in the book of Revelation literally and not symbolically?
The apostle John wrote: “I heard the number of those who were sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand.” (Revelation 7:4) In the Bible, the phrase “those who were sealed” refers to a group of individuals who are chosen from among mankind to rule with Christ in heaven over the coming Paradise earth. (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Revelation 5:9, 10; 20:6) Their number, 144,000, is understood literally for several reasons. One is found in the immediate context of Revelation 7:4.
After the apostle John was told in vision about this group of 144,000 individuals, he was shown another group. John describes this second group as “a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.” This great crowd refers to those who will survive the coming “great tribulation,” which will destroy the present wicked world.—Revelation 7:9, 14.
Note, however, the contrast that John draws between verses 4 and 9 of Revelation chapter 7. He states that the first group, “those who were sealed,” has a definite number. However, the second group, “a great crowd,” is without a definite number. With that in mind, it is logical to take the number 144,000 to be literal. If the number 144,000 were symbolic and referred to a group that is actually numberless, the force of the contrast between those two verses would be lost. Thus, the context strongly indicates that the number 144,000 must be taken literally.
Various Bible scholars, past and present, reached the same conclusion—that is, the number is literal. For instance, in commenting on Revelation 7:4, 9, British lexicographer Dr. Ethelbert W. Bullinger observed some 100 years ago: “It is the simple statement of fact: a definite number in contrast with the indefinite number in this very chapter.” (The Apocalypse or “The Day of the Lord,” page 282) More recently, Robert L. Thomas, Jr., professor of New Testament at The Master’s Seminary in the United States, wrote: “The case for symbolism is exegetically weak.” He added: “It is a definite number [at 7:4] in contrast with the indefinite number of 7:9. If it is taken symbolically, no number in the book can be taken literally.”—Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 1, page 474.
Some argue that since Revelation contains highly symbolic language, all numbers found in this book, including the number 144,000, must be symbolic. (Revelation 1:1, 4; 2:10) That conclusion, though, is clearly not correct. Granted, Revelation contains numerous symbolic numbers, but it also includes literal numbers. For instance, John speaks of “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:14) Clearly, the number 12 mentioned in this verse is literal, not symbolic. Further, the apostle John writes about “the thousand years” of Christ’s reign. That number is also to be taken literally, as a careful consideration of the Bible shows.* (Revelation 20:3, 5-7) Hence, whether a number in Revelation is to be taken literally or symbolically depends on its background and setting.
The conclusion that the number 144,000 is literal and refers to a limited number of individuals, a relatively small group when compared with the “great crowd,” also harmonizes with other Bible passages. For instance, later in the vision that the apostle John receives, the 144,000 are described as those who “were bought from among mankind as firstfruits.” (Revelation 14:1, 4) The expression “firstfruits” refers to a small representative selection. Also, while Jesus was on earth, he spoke about those who will rule with him in his heavenly Kingdom and called them a “little flock.” (Luke 12:32; 22:29) Indeed, those from among mankind who will rule in heaven are few in comparison with those of mankind who will inhabit the coming Paradise earth.
Hence, the context of Revelation 7:4 and related statements found elsewhere in the Bible bear out that the number 144,000 is to be taken literally. It refers to those who will rule in heaven with Christ over a paradise earth, which will be filled with a large and undetermined number of happy people who worship Jehovah God.—Psalm 37:29.
For more information on the Thousand Year Reign of Christ, see Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand! pages 289-90, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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The number of heavenly heirs is limited to 144,000
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The “great crowd” is unnumbered
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Stars: Courtesy of Anglo-Australian Observatory, photograph by David Malin