John the Revelator has just completed the census of the 144,000, twelve thousand each from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:5-8). “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages...” (verse 9, emphasis added). I suppose one could conjecture John is now seeing the same crowd, just from a different angle, but this would seem to domesticate the vision and the stark contrast between the numbered tribes and the uncountable host, arriving from “every nation” and “all tribes.” Either way, John’s vision is growing, as if the camera is zooming out upon a scene in which 144,000 could no longer be literal. The people keep overwhelming the horizon.
Pardon the crass analogy, but this is arena rock at its best. It reminds me of the scene at the end of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody when Queen walks on stage for their legendary 1985 Live Aid performance. The overhead camera sweeps down through the crowd packed into London’s Wembley Stadium until it reaches the stage. Before long, the whole multitude is transfixed, singing along to the anthems. Queen played for 22 minutes, but it could have been an eternity.
We could stretch the analogy further. It was not just that 70,000 people were swaying to “We are the Champions.” It is that nearly two million people were tuned in worldwide, transfixed before a television screen, just as much as in the stadium.
Or I am thinking of my own experience in an arena in St. Louis, Missouri, mere months after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. U2 is playing their second encore, and as the opening chords of the ballad “One” begin to play, the names of the fallen begin to stream the screen behind the band, then overflow the screen to list their names in white light upon all of us. We were, each and every one of us, transfixed in a glimpse of the healing of the nations that can happen through song.
This is a mass gathering which includes a crowd transfixed from either side of the grave.
I know the analogy is crass, but I bring it up because this might be the contemporary cultural analogy to John’s vision. Especially in a time when such mass gatherings have become increasingly scarce (the pandemic has only accelerated the trend where mass-mediated gatherings happen more in hyperspace than physical space), it is more accurate than ever. In this way, it is worth noting how the other time this text appears in the lectionary is on All Saints Day. This is a mass gathering which includes a crowd transfixed from either side of the grave. It is also worth mentioning that such mass gatherings would not have been foreign to John and John’s audience. They would have known them from the imperial shows of power coming from Rome, the Caesar making sure his spectacle of domination would bring all under his authority to fall on their faces before his throne, in dread fear and terror.
John’s post-colonial vision undercuts such spectacles of political power, rendering them flimsy and farcical. The image of those “robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (verse 9) is reminiscent of the recently celebrated Palm Sunday (do not forget that as Jesus rode in on a donkey, Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem on a chariot with his garrison from the other side of town), and even further back to the Feast of Booths (Sukkot, see Leviticus 23:33-43), the autumn ingathering of the harvest dedicated to God. Perhaps we are still coming out of our own “great ordeal” (verse 14), and there are ordeals yet to come. Nevertheless, we gather and join in this great multitude because the Lamb is at its center, and the Lamb’s Kingdom ushers in the peaceable eternity of life resurrected. There is no fear here, nor any terror. We fall on our faces out of sheer gratitude and praise.
The Gospel poetry of verses 16-17 are set in the future tense, but they sum up the hopes of all the multitudes who gather throughout the history of the Scriptures. Its themes energize the Hebrew Bible, not least the Psalms and the Prophets (refer to Isaiah 49:9-10 and Psalm 121:6). But these hopes find their climax and culmination in the Lamb who would become “their Shepherd” (glorious paradox! Refer to Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34:23-24). Indeed, here is where John’s vision connects with John’s Gospel and the overarching theme of John 10 in today’s Gospel reading. Here is the promise in which our hope is anchored: “My sheep hear My voice...” (John 10:27). Little did we know that the voice of the Christ is the singing of an anthem as clear and resounding as anything from Bono or Freddie Mercury. The difference is their voice fades, while the Lamb’s is just getting started.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Revelation 7:9-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 7:9-17.