Since the turn of the 21st century, three Chicago sports teams have won championships. Each time it has happened, a huge crowd of people filled the parade routes that these teams followed to celebrate their victory. In 2008, a Chicago citizen, Barack Obama, was elected President of the United States. Again, a huge crowd filled Grant Park to celebrate his victory. News reports estimated that as many as 5,000,000 people were present for some of these occasions.
So a crowd of 144,000 as reported in the Book of Revelation today, seems very small by comparison. Were we to take this number literally, and there are those who do, it would mean that very few people are going to get to the heavenly throne room. However, taking the number literally would be a very big mistake on our part.
First of all, we must consider that the entire population of Israel at the time Jesus lived would never have reached that number. The Gospels tell a story of Jesus feeding 5,000, not counting women and children, with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That number would have been astounding for the people of that time. No one who lived at the time of Jesus could even begin to imagine a crowd that large. While modern day cinematic efforts about Biblical stories are filled with extras, the fact of the matter is that the population of the world at the time of Jesus was very small indeed.
144,000 must, therefore, be considered a symbolic number. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Multiplying that number by 12,000 yields this number, a number that is very much “unimaginable” for the people of that era. In other words, what the Book of Revelation is trying to say is that a great number of people fill the throne room of heaven, a number that is simply larger than anyone could imagine.
Far more important than the number of people in this scene is what they are doing. They are singing “a new hymn.” This phrase is used extensively in the Scriptures. Many of the psalms bid us sing a new song to the Lord. Once again, it is important not to take the words literally. It is the event or occasion itself that makes the song new. It is a song of praise sung by those who have followed the lamb.
Huge numbers are always impressive, no matter what the occasion. Rather than concerning ourselves with the number, it is far more important that we remember to praise God for all that God has done for us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.