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There are some strange numbers in Revelation. For example:

  • The seven Spirits of God (Rev 4:5);
  • Exactly 12,000 are sealed from each of the 12 tribes of Jerusalem (Rev 7:4).
  • The blood flows out of the wine press for a distance of 1600 furlongs (Rev 14:20).
  • The wall of the New Jerusalem is 144 cubits (Rev 21:17 - YLT).
  • The New Jerusalem itself is a square – 12,000 furlongs in length and in width (Rev 21:16 YLT). (A cube in the KJV)

Are these numbers literal or symbolic? If they are symbolic, what do they mean? For example, what does it mean that God has seven Spirits?

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    Might they all be both literal and symbolic, or some literal and others symbolic? There are a lot of numbers in Revelation and this question might get too big. Are these the only numbers you are asking after? If not, you might need to ask about each individually. Sep 10 at 14:37
  • 2
    Including the word "number" itself Catholic Resources — The Book of Revelation: Numbers lists 42 different numbers, most of which occur multiple times (about 230 altogether). ¶ (is 42 symbolic?) Sep 10 at 15:51
  • 1
    There are several main approaches to the book of Revelation (see John Metcalfe's The Revelation of Jesus Christ LINK so this question has to be scoped in regard to which view is being accessed - Praeterist, Historicist, Futurist or Resumptive.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 10 at 15:59
  • God has many spirits - spirit of grace, truth, wisdom, etc. Are they identities or persons?
    – steveowen
    Sep 10 at 22:44
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    @steveowen, can reconcile your comment above with Eph 4:4: "There is one body and one Spirit" ?
    – Ben
    Sep 11 at 14:15

4 Answers 4

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Short answer: nobody amongst mankind knows.

And, I submit to you it is meant to be inconclusive on purpose:

"It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.", Prov 25:2

God has deliberately presented us with a riddle, a mystery, to draw us in. No other book in the bible draws up inquiring than Revelations. God has revealed He does these things to get mankind to seek Him, e.g.

"God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.", Acts 17:27

And, eventually, he will cut off everyone who does not seek Him: Zeph 1

Many amongst men cannot put down a mystery, a riddle.

Also, Revelations deal with a pain point all men experience: man's government.

Acts 17:27 above is in the context of the nations, v26, which are man's government. And, few find more than grief in man's government in this life. Revelation is a documentary on the end of this age - man's government - and beginning of the new age: Jesus Christ on the throne ruling.

Anyone who tells you they know what it means, without explicit scripture reference, doesn't know what it means. The whole point is to draw mankind in - unto the end of the age. And, with the pain points of life even the non-religious are drawn to scripture through Revelations.

The truth is even if one did know:

"If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.", 1 Cor 13:2

And, what would you do with such knowledge now? Telling others, who'd believe you? What would it change? What would it solve in terms of this life's problems?

Now, Revelations is a revelation. What is conclusive in the book:

  1. God alone is Sovereign.

  2. God has been at work all along to end this age for the good of mankind.

  3. There will be an accounting, a judgement.

  4. The only thing you can know is Jesus Christ is the Person to look to.

A short exercise on inconclusive:

"Seven Spirits of God" Scripture does not say God is or has seven spirits,

"There is one body and one Spirit", Eph 4:4

They are seven spirits - of - God:

"the Father of spirits", Heb 12:9

The point: it gets your nose into scripture! And, it gets people talking scripture. But, scripture leaves a lot of the book inconclusive. Anything outside of Divine revelation is human conjecture at best.

There will not be a conclusive resolution to much of the book until it's all fulfilled - by design.

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    The problem I have with this idea is it makes Scripture unusable. It would seem the underlying concept of the Word of God, is one of conveying useful information from God to mankind. To assume that communication is indecipherable, is simply another description for miscommunication. In other words, a failure on God's part to perform an intended work of communication. The Scriptures claim all portions are profitable for specific task. But just to get people reading and talking is futile. They would all come up with erroneous ideas if none had any possibility of being correct. Sep 13 at 14:22
  • "But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase." (Daniel 12:4) It may be that the mysteries are concealed on purpose but the Holy Spirit will reveal them to the church near the end to aid her during the tribulation. The visions are meant to be useful and intelligible when God decides they are needed, not before. Oct 13 at 19:59
  • @PaulChernoch, that's precisely the point. Not all prophetic revelation was disclosed at the time it was written. "It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you", 1 Pt 1:12 & more. e.g. "THEN they will know I am the Lord" x10 times in scripture & more. In addition, revelation is distributed amongst the Body throughout the world, no one ministry has it all (e.g. Eph 4:8, one gift is prophetic revelation). Today, we see convergence of much of scripture, though. Numerous things have been revealed which were concealed throughout the church age.
    – Ben
    Oct 14 at 20:14
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This answer is going to say literal.

This will go against much of Church historical interpretation. I am specifically referring to orthodoxy from the time of Augustine, till present.

There are pre-requisites involved in claiming literal numbers in Revelation. Here are some:

  1. An acceptance that words mean things. Aligory and data are not the same thing.
  2. God conceals himself and information.
  3. God does not speak as a typical human, or see things from our reference point.
  4. Knowledge will increase at the end. This was described by Daniel, and evidenced by our explosion of technology.
  5. Our World and reality are real. It is not some spiritual magic. It can increasingly be described and explained by technology. This would require a birth in latter centuries, not Antiquity.

John was an eye witness to what he called, Lampo pyre. He stated there where seven.

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The numbers in Revelation are both literal and symbolic.

The nouns to which these numeric adjectives attach are mostly symbolic.

Thus seven lampstands stands for seven churches. Each lampstand is a metaphor, a symbol, pointing to a church. The count itself is not a symbol for a different number, so it refers to a literal seven churches. However, many take those seven churches to correspond to seven church ages or churches with seven distinct characters occurring throughout history. Yet again, whatever the metaphor, there are seven.

Thus the challenge with the numbers is not that they may be an estimate, or mean another number altogether, or mean a color or character attribute. The challenge is that the things counted are symbolic and the symbolism must be decoded.

However, the number seven also has a symbolic meaning, which in many cases is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Thus when you see seven, you are to both imagine seven things are being counted but also that the Holy Spirit is involved in the matter.

One other area of symbolism is at play. The collections of sevens on the surface seem to imply an ordering in time. Some of the items so listed may actually occur in a different order. Attempts to sequence the events of Revelation in time have led to problematic harmonizations. For example, there are reasons to assume that the fifth trumpet will be blown before the fourth trumpet. One such reason comes from the book of Job, chapter 3. Job's lament takes the shape of the seven days of creation, but instead is a decreation, offering darkness for light, etc. In Job's ordering, he puts a sea creature (Leviathan) in fourth position instead of fifth, the real day when sea creatures were created. He puts the stars in fifth position, not fourth, the day when sun, moon and stars were made. Jesus is the morning star, so Job is saying that the beast (leviathan) will come before the savior (the morning star), so he will not be saved.

This reversal of the fourth and fifth items in a list may also occur with the seven trumpets and in some other sevens. For example, some people match the seven days of creation to seven millennia of history. Thus day two, the separation of the waters and land is the only day that Genesis does not call good, and matches the flood of Noah, when the separation of water and land is reversed, only to be followed by the Tower of Babel, when the peoples were separated. Day three was when seeds were planted to make the plants and matches the beginning of the writing of God's Word, with the books of Job and the Pentateuch being written. Day five, when the sea creatures were made, is reversed into fourth position and the fourth millennium when the the first beastly kingdoms were created by God and identified by Daniel: Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. The fourth day when the sun, moon, and stars were made was rotated into fifth position and the fifth millennium (roughly 20 BC-980 AD). That was when the Sun of Righteousness and Morning Star, Jesus, was born, and the Moon (church) began to shine. The sixth day was the creation of mankind and the beasts of the field. The sixth millennium (roughly 980-1980 AD) saw the flourishing of human civilization, but also the beasts - our corrupt empires. The seventh day recently began. It will end in peace, the sabbath of God, but not until after a bitter war is fought.

In the end, we will find out that all the clues were there, but were too subtle for us to spot.

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PURPOSE

There are some strange numbers in Revelation. For example:

  • God has seven Spirits (Rev 4:5).
  • Exactly 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel are sealed by God (Rev 7:3-4).
  • When Christ returns, the blood will flow for a distance of 1,600 furlongs (Rev 14:20 - YLT).
  • The wall of the New Jerusalem is 144 cubits high (Rev 21:17 - NIV).
  • The New Jerusalem itself is a square – 12,000 furlongs (1500 miles) in length and in width (Rev 21:16 YLT).

The purpose of this article is to explain the meanings of these numbers. It shows that all numbers in Revelation are symbols. In other words, for example, God does not literally have seven Spirits. Rather, the number seven says something qualitatively about God’s Spirit. In the same way, God’s people are not literally 144,000 in number. That number says something qualitatively about the end-time remnant.

THE NUMBER 4

John “saw FOUR angels standing at the FOUR corners of the earth, holding back the FOUR winds of the earth” (Rev 7:1).

During the Millennium, “Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the FOUR corners of the earth” (Rev 20:7-8).

The earth does not literally have 4 corners and there are not literally 4 winds. The number 4 signifies THE WHOLE WORLD. This may be confirmed as follows:

FOUR WORDS TO DESCRIBE ALL PEOPLE

The number 4 is often hidden in phrases that use four related words to describe ALL the people of the world. For example, Revelation 5:9 could have read:

“You have … purchased for God with Your blood men from every NATION.”

But it is expanded to read:

“You have … purchased for God with Your blood men from every TRIBE and TONGUE and PEOPLE and NATION.”

The following are further instances where four words are used while one word might have been sufficient:

  • “Every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Rev 7:9);
  • “Many peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (Rev 10:11);
  • “The peoples and tribes and tongues and nations” (Rev 11:9);
  • “Every tribe and people and tongue and nation” (Rev 13:7);
  • “Every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (Rev 14:6);
  • “Peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (Rev 17:15);

These seven instances use only the following five concepts but in different permutations:

  • Nations
  • Tribes
  • Peoples
  • Tongues
  • Kings

The fact that all seven of these instances use exactly four words while one word might have been sufficient confirms the significance of the number four. And since all seven instances describe ALL the people of the world indicates that the number four signifies THE WHOLE WORLD.

ALL CREATION

The meaning of the number four can also be seen in that creation is sometimes described as consisting of four parts:

  1. “Worship Him who made the HEAVEN and the EARTH and SEA and springs of WATERS” (Rev 14:7).

  2. “Every created thing which is in HEAVEN and on the EARTH and UNDER THE EARTH and on the SEA” (Rev 5:13)

CONCLUSIONS

  1. Since the number four symbolizes the whole earth, and since the “four living creatures (are) full of eyes in front and behind” (Rev 4:6), they symbolize awareness of EVERYTHING that happens on earth.

  2. 1600 is equal to 4x4x100. In other words, it is the superlative form of 4, just like 144,000 (12x12x1000) is the superlative form of 12. Therefore, since the number 4 symbolizes the whole earth, the blood that will flow out of the wine press for a distance of 1,600 furlongs (Rev 14:20 YLT) means that people will die all over the world.

  3. The first four trumpets attack the four elements of creation as described in Revelation 14:7; the earth, the sea, the waters, and the heavenly bodies (Rev 8:7-12). In other words, they attack the whole world.

  4. The same applies to the first four plagues. They also attack the earth, the sea, the waters, and the heavenly bodies (Rev 16:2-8).

THE NUMBER 12

The number 12 appears more than a hundred times in the Scriptures and consistently represents the people of God. For example:

12 IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Since Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8), Israel consisted of twelve tribes (Gen 35:22; 49:28). The lists of the tribes in the Old Testament differ, but there are always 12 in the list. Since the number 12 was regarded as important, there were:

  • Twelve spies of Israel (Deut 1:23),
  • Twelve stones of the Jordan River (Josh 4:2-9),
  • Twelve cities of the Levites (Josh 21:40),
  • Twelve governors for Solomon (1 Kings 4:7),
  • Twelve bronze oxen that held up the bronze sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:44; 2 Chr 4:2-4; Jer 52:20),
  • Twelve lions in front of Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Chr 9:17-19),
  • Elijah’s twelve stones (1 Kings 18:31), and
  • Twenty-four courses of priests, each with twelve trained musicians (1 Chr 25:1-31).

12 IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Similarly, Jesus chose exactly 12 disciples; not 11 or 13.

Judas fell away, leaving only 11 disciples, but Revelation still refers to “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14).

12 IN REVELATION

The number 12 also symbolizes God’s people also in Revelation. For example:

  1. The pure woman has a crown of “twelve stars” (Rev 12:1). She first gave birth to Christ (Rev 12:5) but, after Christ had ascended to heaven (Rev 12:5), she also had other “children” (Rev 12:17). She, therefore, represents God’s people both before and after Christ. For a further discussion, see - Who are the woman and the child?

  2. “The New Jerusalem,” which is another symbol for “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (Rev 21:12), meaning that only Israelites may enter. But it also has 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (Rev 21:14), meaning that this city is built on the foundation of the message of the New Testament. This also means that Revelation merges the church into Israel.

  3. In the original language, the height (or width) of the wall of the city is 144 = 12 x 12 cubits (Rev 21:17 YLT).

In conclusion, in both the Old and New Testaments, the number 12 symbolizes God’s people.

THE 144,000 ISRAELITES

Since the number 144,000 equals 12x12x1000, it is derived from the number 12. Since 12 symbolizes God’s people, the number 144,000 symbolizes something more specific about God’s people.

Another article (See – Who are the 144000?) shows that the 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (144,000 in total) are using Old Testament military language as a symbol. In other words, the doubling of 12 (12x12) in the number 144,000 symbolizes the perfection of the end-time remnant of God’s people; prepared for spiritual battle.

"No lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless" (Rev 14:1, 5).

They "have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste" (Rev 14:4), meaning that they were not defiled by Babylon, the mother of harlots, or by her harlot daughters (Rev 17:5). They will be pure in their worship of God.

JERUSALEM'S WALL

The other symbol in Revelation that employs the number 144 is the wall of the New Jerusalem, which “was 144 cubits thick” (Rev 21:17; NIV or YLT). In ancient times, the wall of a city was the most important defense for the people of that city. Both this huge wall and the 144,000 sons of Israel in Revelation 7:4 use military strength to symbolize something about God's people:

The 144,000 Israelites symbolize that God’s end-time army will not surrender. They will be willing to die for their testimony (Rev 12:11).

The huge wall of the New Jerusalem symbolizes the spiritual strength of God’s eternal people: Never again will anybody be able to tempt them to sin.

THE 24 ELDERS

In Revelation, there are 24 elders in God's throne room (e.g., Rev 4:4); comparable to the 24 names written on the New Jerusalem.

Since the number 24 is equal to 12 + 12, the root number for the 24 elders is 12. And since the number 12 symbolizes the PEOPLE OF GOD, the number 24 symbolizes some aspect of God’s people.

The number 24 could be drawn from the fact that the Old Testament priests were organized into 24 divisions, each of which served consecutively in the temple for a week at a time (1 Chr 24:1-19). In Revelation 5:8, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding … golden bowls full of incense.” The incense seems to imply that they function as priests. So, associating the elders with the 24 divisions of the Israelite priesthood is certainly possible.

Specifically, another article has concluded that the 24 elders are human representatives of God’s people in God’s throne room. They sit on thrones, meaning that they rule the world under “Him who sits on the throne” (Rev 4:9).

THE NUMBER 7

Seven is the most prominent number in Revelation (e.g., seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven heads of the beast, etc.). This number is mentioned 56 times in Revelation.

The number seven is derived from the seven days of the week. Similar to the days of the week, many of the sevens in Revelation imply a sequence of events, namely, the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh being the last or the end (e.g., the seven seals). In that respect, the number seven in Revelation is different from the other numbers in Revelation.

The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time. Just like the number 4 means EVERYWHERE, the number 7 means ALWAYS.

SEVEN SPIRITS

One of the sevens in Revelation is God’s seven Spirits (Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). This number must be interpreted symbolically. God does not literally have seven Spirits.

Since the number seven symbolizes ALWAYS, and due to the connection between the Spirits and the seven lamps in the temple (Rev 4:5) that were ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS with us.

THE SEVEN HEADS

There are three beasts in Revelation that have seven heads and ten horns each (Rev 12:3; 13:1; 17:3). Although these beasts represent different things, they all have the same seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads of the beast are the seven phases of the beast, covering all time.

THE NUMBER 2

Similar to the number 4, the number 2 is often hidden in phrases that mention two related things, for example:

“John, who testified to the WORD OF GOD and to the TESTIMONY OF JESUS CHRIST, even to all that he saw” (Rev 1:1).

“The WORD OF GOD and … the TESTIMONY OF JESUS” (Rev 1:2);

“I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the WORD OF GOD and the TESTIMONY OF JESUS” (Rev 1:9).

“Those who had been slain because of the WORD OF GOD, and because of the TESTIMONY which they had maintained” (Rev 6:9).

“Her children, who keep the COMMANDMENTS OF GOD and ... the TESTIMONY OF JESUS CHRIST” (Rev 12:17);

“The saints who keep the COMMANDMENTS OF GOD and their FAITH IN JESUS” (Rev 14:12);

“Those who had been beheaded because of their TESTIMONY OF JESUS CHRIST and … the WORD OF GOD” (Rev 20:4).

These seven verses, therefore, refer to only four related concepts:

  • The word of God,
  • The testimony of Jesus,
  • The commandments of God, and
  • Faith in Jesus.

These seven instances combine these four concepts differently but always list only two of the four concepts, indicating the significance of the number two. Since these seven verses always describe God’s people, the number 2 symbolizes God’s people. This symbolism is probably based on the Old Testament principle that at least two witnesses are required to confirm evidence (e.g., 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).

The following are further examples of the number 2:

  1. The two witnesses (Rev 11:3);

  2. The strong angel's two "feet like pillars of fire," which He placed on the sea and on the land; The sea and the land symbolize the people of the world (cf. Rev 13:1, 11). The angel's fiery feet are another symbol of the fire that flows out of the mouth of the two witnesses (Rev 11:5).

  3. Revelation 13 mentions the dragon, the beast, and the beast from the earth (Rev 13:1-2, 11) but later Revelation identifies the beast from the earth as the “the false prophet” (Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). The beast from the earth has “two horns like a lamb” (Rev 13:11). In name, it is a Christian organization. But “he spoke as a dragon” (Rev 13:11). For that reason, it is “the false prophet” (Rev 16:13).

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