– Revelation 7:9
Why the great crowd cannot be numbered?
Ancient Israel was made up of 12 secular tribes and the tribe of Levi. An interesting distinction that God had made for the Levitical tribe was the prohibition to be numbered. In Numbers 1:45-49 we read:
And all those registered of the sons of Israel... came to be six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. However, the Levites according to the tribe of their fathers did not get registered in among them. Accordingly Jehovah spoke to Moses, saying: "Only the tribe of Levi you must not register, and the sum of them you must not take in among the sons of Israel."
In Revelation chapter 7 the "great crowd" is mentioned immediately after the counting of the 'slaves of God' from the 12 tribes of Israel, but its number is not revealed. Since in ancient Israel there were 13 tribes, it follows logically that the great crowd finds its correspondence in the 'unregistered' tribe of Levi. Its members, like the levites, have their dresses washed in order to do work at the temple. (Comp. Num 1:50; 8:7, 15)
There is also a literal reason why the great crowd of "Levites" cannot be numbered, beyond the prophetic prohibition. John says that "no man was able [literally, not capable] to number". A great crowd cannot be numbered, if its size is greater than the possibility of the numbering system or if its number is not constant. Evidently, the second case is the only one that can be considered. The great crowd does not have a constant number of members! Its number is open, in contrast with the closed number represented by the 144,000 mentioned previously. This means that after their coming out of the great tribulation, and later in the millennium, many others will join their number. This is possible because the members of the great crowd are not sealed as faithful before the millennium, as is the case with the 144,000.
The blessings that they will inherit are expressed by verbs at future tense, for example, shepherding of the Lamb leading them to the fountains of waters of life. (Rev 7:15-17) The promise for those washing their robes – to be given access to the tree of life and to enter the city gates – is open throughout the millennium:
And the nations will walk by means of its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. And its gates will not be closed at all by day, for night will not exist there. And they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it... Happy are those who wash their robes, that the authority [to go] to the trees of life may be theirs and that they may gain entrance into the city by its gates. (Rev 21:24-26; 22:14)
Isaiah has prophesied similarly:
Here I am extending to her peace just like a river and the glory of nations just like a flooding torrent...And they will actually bring all YOUR brothers out of all the nations as a gift to Jehovah... up to my holy mountain, Jerusalem... And from them also I shall take some for the priests, for the Levites. (Is. 66:12, 20, 21)
Of course this 'taking' takes place in the full sense only at the end of the millennium, after the final testing. The Levites have been a gift for Jehovah, taken by him from among the sons of Israel in place of the first born. (Num. 3:12; 8:13-16) Isaiah's prophecy shows that the members of the Israelite remnant will be called (no matter what tribe) priests of God and the foreigners will be their servants. (61:5, 6.) Since they are servants of the priests, the foreigners are logically symbolic Levites. This advancement in the hierachy of the divine ministry is in harmony with God's promise 'instead of the copper to bring in gold, instead of the iron to bring in silver,' etc. (60:17) After the creation of new heavens and new earth (65:17), the account shows that others will also be taken as 'Levites' from among the nations that hear about Jehovah at that time and see his glory. (66:19) "And from them also I shall take some (...) for the Levites." (66:21)
The number of the great crowd just out of the great tribulation, being open, that is, growing gradually, John rightly indicated that "no man was able to number" it.
"For priests as Levites"
One text that deserves special attention and which was quoted above is Isaiah 66:21. "I shall take some (...) for the Levites". In this quotation we have omitted the words "for the priests". Below is how this verse is rendered by WEB:
"Of them also will I take for priests (and) for Levites, says Yahweh." YLT, a literal translation, says: "And also of them I take for priests, for Levites, said Jehovah". Many other versions (KJV, ASV, NAS, NAU, NKJ, DBY, NWT) note that in the Masoretic text there is no conjunction "and", but that this is required both by the Hebrew and the modern languages. (Comp 2 Cron 31:2 ["priests AND Levites"]; also Neem 12:44; 13:30) Septuagint translators for example felt it necessary to insert it into Greek.
Since the nation of Israel was promised that it would become one day a kingdom of priests (by comparison with the other nations, Ex 19:6), and since Isaiah 61:6 and 62:3 show that this was actually fulfilled with the Israel remnant after a time of tribulation, it is hardly possible that same promise be made to the nations as well. (in 65:19-21) The preposition "for [as]" can also be translated "for [to the]", which gives the rendering: "I will take from among them some for priests as Levites." This rendering is in harmony with the prophetic context and is not defective from the perspective of the conjunction.
A similar lexical construction is found in Numbers 18:24: "to the Levites as an inheritance". In this text "to the [for]" and "as" are the same preposition in Hebrew which is also used in Isaiah 66:21. Things are the same in the case of 2 Chronicles 35:8: "as a voluntary offering... for the priests... to the priests for [as] the passover victims". The Levites were in fact a "gift" given to the priests, just as God told Moses: "Bring the tribe of Levi near, and you must stand them before Aaron the priest, and they must minister to him. And you must give the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They are given ones, given to him from the sons of Israel." (Num. 3:6, 9) "And I shall give the Levites as given ones to Aaron and his sons from among the sons of Israel". (Num 8:19) In harmony with Isaiah 61:5, 6 foreigners from among the nations are "taken" (in 66:21) for priests as Levites.
If the "Levites" added to the great crowd of symbolic Levites are a "gift" brought throughout the millennium 'to the holy mountain of Jerusalem' (Is 66:20) and "taken" for the priests by God, it is easy to understand why Revelation 14:4 says about the priestly group of 144,000 "Israelites" that they were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb."