My son, from a very early age, was fascinated by numbers and very able at mathematics (totally unlike his mother, whose mathematical abilities are very decidedly countable.) His mental maths is excellent and he can deal with square numbers and cubed numbers quite swiftly; one of his favourite games is Triolet, which involves combining three numbers to make 15 and which it’s quite pointless for me to play as it always ends in ritual humiliation for me (I get my revenge at Boggle!) When I was starting to swim, he used to spur me on by telling me idly how many lengths made up half-a-mile or a mile or some other distance, which proved quite an incentive for me. His knowledge of numbers does not lead to punctuality, but it does lead to some interesting discussions in our family!

Numbers feature frequently in the book of Revelation, and it’s hard to know if they are meant literally or metaphorically. There were, for example, twelve tribes of Israel, so the number twelve and its associates (twenty-four, 144) feature on more than one occasion. In Revelation 7, we meet the infamous ‘144,000’ (12,000 from 12 tribes of Israel). Debates about who these are have raged throughout history and form the basis of heretical beliefs (Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians from Pentecost until the present day will be resurrected to heaven as immortal spirit beings to spend eternity with God and Christ. They believe that these people are “anointed” by God to become part of the spiritual “Israel of God”, a view which is clearly incompatible with the rest of the Bible which affirms the numbers of believers spending eternity with God will be much greater than this!) Just to make life even more puzzling is the fact that the usual twelve tribes are not the same in this chapter (Dan is omitted, Levi included; usually, Joseph is replaced by his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, but only Manasseh is mentioned in Revelation 7) and that within a few verses, the number of worshipping believers is given as a ‘great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.’ (Rev 7:9)

If we take this passage literally, it would seem that God will save a specific number of Jews who will become evangelists for the gospel and will be ‘sealed’ or protected by God from all that the Antichrist would seek to do during this period of tribulation. Paul speaks of Israel once again turning to God (Romans 11) and God has always kept a remnant from the twelve tribes of Israel who trust in Him (see 1 Kings 19:18). But it is also clear that the numbers worshipping God in heaven are greater than anyone could count. Whether we fully understand the numbers involved is debatable, but one thing seems clear from this chapter: God knows those who are His and will protect and keep them from eternal harm.