Today's section of Revelations is one of those cases where St Bede, drawing heavily on St Jerome and an earlier commentary by Primasius in particular, draws a lot more out of the text than would be obvious to a modern reader, and indeed might seem a bit strained to us.
The messages he extracts for us though, seem to me to be rather important ones, not least because they echo a number of key themes of the Benedictine Rule. Accordingly, I think it is worth chewing on!
St Bede comments:
...as in the former seals, after the manifold conflicts of the Church, he saw the joys of triumphant souls, so now, also, he is to prove by examples the victory over the preceding kingdoms of the world, who have now submitted to the Church of Christ, which is to follow the reign of Antichrist. For greater matters must of necessity be confirmed by greater proofs...
The angel rising in the East is the Incarnation of Our Lord:
Who is the Angel of the great counsel, that is, the Messenger of His Father’s will, has visited us, “the day-spring from on high,” bearing the ensign of the cross, with which to seal His own in their foreheads. The “loud voice of the Lord” is the cry which is lifted up on high, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
From the time that the Lord suffered, not only was the dominion of the enemy who opposed Him destroyed, but that of worldly power too, as we both see with our eyes, and read of in the image which the stone from the mountain “broke in pieces.”St Bede views the sign on the foreheads of the servants of God as the cross:
For to this end was the empire of the nations broken up, that the face of the saints might be freely marked with the seal of faith, which these had resisted. For, again, the figure of the cross itself represents the kingdom of the Lord extending everywhere, as the old saying proves: “Behold the world four-square, in parts distinct,To shew the realm of faith possessing all.”
And not in vain was the sacred Name of the Lord, of four letters, written on the forehead of the High Priest, inasmuch as this is the sign on the forehead of the faithful, of which it is also sung in; the Psalm “for the winefats,” “O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is Thy Name in all the earth?” and the rest, until he says, “That thou mayest destroy the enemy and the defender.”
The number 144,000 stands for a great multitude and completeness, being derived from twelve:
By this definite number is signified the innumerable multitude of the whole Church, which is descended from the patriarchs either by the lineage of nature, or the imitation of faith. For, he says, “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed.” And it tends to additional completeness, that the twelve also should be multiplied by twelve, and brought to a sum of thousands, which is the cube of the number ten, by which is represented the enduring life of the Church. And for this reason, too, it is often denoted by the number twelve, because throughout the foursquare world it subsists by faith in the Holy Trinity, for three times four are ten and two. Finally, also, when the Apostles were to preach the same faith to the whole world, twelve were chosen, as signifying by their number the mystery of their work.At the end of this section of the chapter he comes back to this point:
So, then, from each tribe are sealed twelve thousand. For in whatsoever virtues each one of the faithful has made progress, he must needs be ever strengthened by the faith, and instructed by the examples of the fathers of old. And it is most certain that frequently the body of doctors, frequently that of the whole Church, is designated by the number twelve, because of the sum of the Apostles, or patriarchs.
St Bede notes that the order of the tribes here does not follow the birth order of the Patriarchs:
With good reason, he begins with Judah, from which tribe our Lord sprang; and has omitted Dan, from whom, as it is said, Antichrist is to be born; for it is written, “Let Dan become an adder in the way, a horned serpent in the path, biting the horse-hoofs, that his rider may fall.” For he has not proposed to set forth the order of earthly generation, but according to the interpretation of the names the powers of the Church, which from present confession and praise is hastening to the right hand of eternal life. For this is the meaning of the name of Judah, who is placed first, and of Benjamin, who comes last.He bases his explanation for their import on the meaning of the names, and there seem to me to be strong echoes of the Prologue to the Benedictine Rule in his comments here. The first name, Judah, he suggests, points us to the need for confession of our sins, whose opening line [Prologue 1] is a call to return from our disobedience:
So, then, Judah is placed first, who is interpreted “confession,” or “praise;” for before the first step of confession no one reaches the height of good works, and unless we renounce evil deeds by confession, we are not fashioned in such as are good.The Prologue to the Rule then invites us to take up good works, and Ruben, St Bede suggests, points to the need to do just that, highlighting the reward to monks and nuns who have chosen the higher path of virginity:
The second is Reuben, who is interpreted, “seeing the son.” That works are denoted in “sons,” the Psalmist testifies, when among the benedictions of the man who is blessed, he says with the rest, “Thy sons like olive-plants;” and below, “That thou mayest see thy sons’ sons.” For it is not, that he who fears the Lord cannot be blessed, unless he has begotten sons, and raised up grandsons, since a better reward awaits the faithful virgins; but in “sons,” he designates works, and in “sons’ sons” the fruits of works, namely, an eternal reward. Accordingly, after Judah there follows Reuben, that is, after the commencement of divine confession and praise, the perfection of action.The opening sentences of the Rule also allude to the need to fight temptation in the spiritual battle Gad represents the need to persevere in the face of temptation, and indeed the wording of St Benedict's introduction closely echoes that of Sirach 2, which St Bede quotes:
But because “we must through many tribulations enter into the kingdom of God,” after Reuben follows Gad, who is interpreted “temptation,” or, “girt.” For after the beginning of a good work, it is needful that a man should be proved by greater temptations, and be girt about for greater conflicts, that the strength of his faith may be approved. And so Solomon says, “My son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in righteousness and fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation;” and the Psalmist also, “Thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle.”
Asher, he suggests, takes us to our hope of attaining sanctity, in a passage that echoes the end of the Prologue to the Benedictine Rule:
And because “we esteem them blessed who have maintained sufferance,” for this reason, after Gad is placed Asher, that is, “the blessed,” an order which is not unsuitable. For “Blessed is he who endures temptation, for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life.” But, inasmuch as they who rely upon the sure promise of this blessedness, are not straitened, but “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” sing with the author of the Psalm, “In tribulation Thou hast enlarged me,” and also, “I ran in the way of Thy commandments, while Thou didst enlarge my heart;” and say, exultingly, with the mother of the blessed Samuel, “My heart is enlarged above mine enemies, because I rejoiced in Thy salvation;” therefore, Nepthali succeeds, that is, “enlargement.”Manasses, he notes, means “forgetting,” or, “necessity.”, from which he advises us to focus on the kingdom of heaven, and avoid indulging in worldly pleasures:
By the mystery of this name we are admonished that, schooled by the anguish of these present temptations, and forgetting what is past, we should (according to the apostle) so strain towards those things which lie ahead that we shall continue our care of the body strictly to what is necessary for the human condition, and make no provision for the flesh in its desires. Sighing for better things, the Psalmist prays for this: Deliver me from my necessities. (trans Wallis)
Simon, Bede reports, means “he heard of sorrow,” or, “the name of his habitation;”, accordingly:
For the joy of the heavenly habitation will be given to those whose mind is here made sorrowful by a fruitful repentance; to whom it is also said, “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”On Levi he comments that:
that is, “added,” in whom we either understand those who by temporal obtain eternal things; as Solomon says, “The ransom of a man’s life are his riches;” or those who, by following the counsel of God, “receive in this world a hundredfold with tribulations, but in the world to come, eternal life.” And to these, also, belongs this that is written, “He who adds knowledge, adds grief.” For to this end also the bitterness of tribulation was added to the blessed Job, that having been proved, he might receive a greater recompense of reward.Issachar means reward:
And so, not without reason, there succeeds him in direct order, Issachar, who is interpreted “reward,” because, as the Apostle teaches, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the future glory which shall be revealed in us,” inasmuch as we fight with better success when there is hope of a sure reward.
Zabulon means strength:
But God operates and perfects this in the habitation of strength, [cf rb Prologue 5-6] which Zabulon means, when “strength is made perfect in weakness.” So that the body, which is considered weak by its enemies, and through the material substance of which they also strive to bring destruction to the soul, is found to be invincible through God Who strengthens it; and there succeeds a happy increase in this. This is also denoted by the word Joseph, for it signifies, gifts and graces to be added, whether thou understand the increase of spiritual gain from the double return of the talents, or whether thou take it in respect of the offerings which are made to God the Redeemer by the devotion of the faithful.Finally comes Benjamin:
Now, in order that thou mayest perceive that all these, who both by the succession and interpretation of the names are shewn not to be placed without significance, will be at the right hand of Christ, the eternal King, in the judgment to come; Benjamin, that is, “the son of the right hand,” is set last, as I said before, as the end of the line. For, after the last enemy, death, has been destroyed, the bliss of the eternal inheritance will be given to the elect. And this, whether each one of the faithful is rightly called the son of the right hand, or the whole assembly of the Church, of which it is sung: “Upon Thy right hand stood the queen, in a vesture of gold, clothed in variety.”He then provides a summary of the discussion:
For whether each one is counted worthy of praise from confession, as in Judah; or is illustrious from the progeny of works, in Reuben; or is strong from the discipline of temptations, in Gad; or is happy from victory in conflicts, in Asher; or is enlarged by abundant works of mercy, in Napthali; or is forgetful of the things which are behind, in Manasseh; or is still sorrowful, as in the valley of tears, but always rejoicing in the name of his habitation, while sighing for the heavenly Jerusalem, in Simeon; or is rejoicing together in the promises of the life that now is, and of that which is to come, resting upon temporal good things, added to the eternal good, in Levi; or is strengthened by the contemplation of the future reward, in Issachar; or is laying down his life for Christ, in Zabulon; or is labouring earnestly for an increase of spiritual substance, and offering something more beyond the commands of God, either in virginity, or from the abundance of his means, in Joseph; or is expecting the right hand of eternal bliss, with unwearied prayer, in Benjamin; it is fitting that each should be sealed in his own profession by the rule of the preceding fathers, as by the number twelve, and that from the merits of individuals, should the most perfect beauty of the Church, as the sum of a hundred and forty-four thousand, be made up.