The number 144,000 appears in scriptures in a number of places. (See D&C 133: 18; 77: 11; Rev. 7: 4-8; 14: 3.) The number is associated with the last days and Christ’s return. Although there are a number of myths associated with the number, the scriptures tell a specific account of these last-days people.
The number is highly symbolic. The account in Revelation makes it clear the number is associated with redeeming the Twelve Tribes of Israel from their scattered condition. When the tribes were located in their original lands in Biblical times, they intermarried. For example, the Ten Tribes of the north had been removed by Assyria 125 years before the Book of Mormon account begins. The Southern Kingdom, or Kingdom of the Jews, was where the opening of the Book of Mormon is set. The descendants of Joseph (Ephriam and Manassah) were among the Northern Kingdom. Lehi’s family were descended from Manassah. (Alma 10: 3.) Today, it is unlikely any individual descended from Israel is a pure descendant.
Therefore, when Rev. 7: 5-8 attributes “twelve thousand” from each of Judah, Reuben, Gad, “Aser,” Nepthalim, “Manasses,” Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zabulon, Joseph and Benjamin, once again the number is symbolic. The symmetry of the division between each tribe symbolizes the Lord’s intention to treat all Israel alike because He is no respecter of persons. (See D&C 38: 26.)
So if the Lord intends to show respect to all the Tribes of Israel, then the language of Revelation 7: 5-8 demonstrates by numerical symmetry this intent. Does it mean that literally there will be “twelve thousand” from each tribe? Does it mean of those gathered the bloodlines of each tribe will be preserved? If it means the latter, then can one person have mixed blood within them from more than one tribe? Can one person have the blood of all the tribes within them?
In D&C 77: 11, the 144,000 are explained in modern revelation. They are described as follows: “We are to understand that those who are sealed are high priests, ordained unto the holy order of God, to administer the everlasting gospel; for they are they who are ordained out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, by the angels to whom is given power over the nations of the earth, to bring as many as will come to the church of the Firstborn.”
To understand the description it is useful to know what is meant by:
-“those sealed are high priests”
Is this the office in the church?
If not, then are they going to be among the church’s priesthood?
-“ordained unto the holy order of God”
Is this the system in the church?
Will they hold “certificates of ordination” from a stake clerk?
Could it refer to the ordination described in JST Gen. 14: 28-30.
-“ordained out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people”
Is this literal?
Does every “nation” mean the nations of the earth, or the Tribes of Israel?
Does “kindred” refer to all peoples, or those who descend from Israel’s scattered bloodlines?
-“by the angels to whom is given power”
Does this refer to “ordination?”
Do angels have to ordain these chosen ones?
If the angels are to ordain them, will they be known or recognized by the church?
Are these the angels who ordain?
Are these the “high priests” who are ordained?
What power is given?
It is interesting the 144,000 are connected to “power” and to “angels” in this description. What do these things have to do with the end times? Why would there need to be high priests, angels and power connected to these last days events?
Is 144,000 an actual total number? Is it representative? Can one person preserve within them the bloodlines of more than one tribe? Can they also preserve the bloodlines of more than one family within the tribes? Can a much smaller group represent 144,000 family lines and fulfill the Lord’s intent to keep all “twelve sons” equally represented (D&C 38: 26) in the stock of families who begin the family of Israel again at the start of the Millennium. They, like Noah’s small group, will restart the human family. (Luke 17: 26; Matt. 24: 37.)
How many are really needed to fulfill the Lord’s prophecies concerning the 144,000? What does the number really mean?
The Lord caused his “servant” to perform all He determined to do for the vineyard. (5: 10.) The wild branches were grafted in and the covenant was suspended. The lines were broken. It would require a restoration of the covenant and adoption for the “natural fruit” to reappear. (5: 10.)
Labor was required from the Lord’s servant as well as the Lord Himself. The vineyard required “digging about” and “pruning” and “nourishing” in an attempt to preserve the “root” to which it would be possible to one day to return. (5: 11.) These words tell us how constant the care has been, while scattered and wild remnants have apparently lay fallow without any fruit. Though the people have fallen, the Lord labors on.
Even when the digging, pruning and nourishing have been finished, and while the results are unknown, the Lord of the vineyard directs His servants to “watch” carefully, and to provide yet further “nourishment” when the damaged tree requires it. (5: 12.) Throughout, it is all done by the Lord’s “words.” He is not absent. He is diligent; ever watchful. He owns the vineyard and everything that is located there. Because it is His, He wants the best for it.
As to the young branches He wants to preserve, so it may be possible at last to return to producing good fruit, He decided to move them “to the nethermost part of my vineyard.” (5: 13.) This allegory contradicts the idea of Jehovah as Lord of Israel alone. The Lord claims the entire vineyard, the world itself, as His. The notion of Jehovah being only a local Diety, as is thought by many scholars to be the prevalent idea at the time of Zenos’ prophecy, is destroyed by this assertion of ownership over the entire vineyard. Even “the nethermost part” of the world belongs to the Lord of the vineyard.
Even as He relocates His people throughout the vineyard, He continues to view the scattered branches as part of the same, single “tree” He hoped to preserve. He explains: “[I]t grieveth me that I should lose this tree and the fruit thereof.” (5: 13.) His intent is to continue to have covenant people, part of His Family, His own sons and daughters. Even though they are unable to continue in that relationship during the scattering, it is hoped ultimately it will allow Him to yet “lay up fruit thereof against the season.” (Id.)
This purposeful and attentive effort was reassuring to Jacob’s people. Though they were long separated from Jerusalem, and although the rising generation had never been there, this allegory assures them of God’s watchful eye. The covenant of Jehovah with Israel continued to be with the scattered branches though they had been transplanted across an ocean and were living in an island of the sea. (See 2 Ne. 10: 20.)
The history of the world is the history of Israel. The events are supervised by a Lord whose purpose is to lay up fruit against the season of the harvest. As we grow ever closer to the season of harvest, the plan will need to result in the appearance of natural fruit again. Otherwise, the entire vineyard will be gathered in bundles and burned.
As Israel decays, the Lord of the vineyard takes the dramatic step of cutting away the “main branches” or in other words the leading families, the recognized genealogical well-breds, or the families of rank and distinction. They were to be “burned” rather than further cultivated. (5: 7.) Their pride and arrogance disqualified them from preservation or further work. They were riddled with “decay” and unworthy of further effort. They were to be destroyed by fire. Fire is always a symbol of the Lord’s judgments designed to cleanse or purge. Killing the decayed and corrupt leading families was cleansing the tree of the decay that had taken hold in the lofty, inner-circles of the people of Israel.
Men may have respected, even admired the success and status of these “main branches” of the Israelites, but that was nothing to the Lord. All their great rank, position, support structure and apparent security were nothing once the Lord decreed they were to be burned. Invading conquerors would target these specific social leaders for removal as a precaution against further loyalty. These would have to be removed for the outside ruler from a foreign power to succeed. The very thing which made them secure was the reason they were targeted to be killed. In a natural political purge the “main branches” who seemed forever entrenched to rule were swept away. No more would they “cumber the ground of [His] vineyard.” (5: 9.)
To replace the notable families of distinction, the Lord determined to bring in “wild olive tree” branches, or those who have no distinction, or even family connections with the roots of Israel. (Id.) There would be new blood brought in by the conquerors with resultant intermarriages.
Unlike the main branches, there were “young and tender branches” which were not to be destroyed, but were instead to be transplanted. From Assyria or Babylon, these dislocated tribes would be spread into the nethermost part of the vineyard, or in the words of the Lord of the vineyard: “I will graft them whithersoever I will.” (5: 8.)
With the mixing of foreign blood in the remaining “root” of the tree, and grafting of the “young and tender branches” into “wild” trees throughout the vineyard, the Israelite bloodlines become fragmented, scattered and no longer purely either Jacobian (by blood) or Israelite (by adoption). It would not matter if you look to the main root, or to the many scattered branches, they were all mingled with the “wild” gentile stock to produce a hybrid people. The corruption of the family was too deeply entrenched. They would not be able to repent any longer because their arrogance and ignorance prevented them from seeing their true condition. They thought themselves so highly favored of God they could not fall. Therefore, it was altogether necessary for them to fall. Without such a traumatic message delivered to the entire family, they would continue to presume safety meant they were justified. Any sign of prosperity was interpreted to mean they were right with God.
The family of Jacob needed this trauma for the covenant with Israel to be preserved. They were dying and not noticing it. Though it was terrible to endure, the Lord of the vineyard had the ultimate best interests of the entire tree in mind. He did what was needed to restore health and vigor. The covenant had been broken anyway, and this would make possible a renewal of the covenant and restoration from scattered Jacob the Family of Israel.
Israel was and is the only family which will be saved. It is the “tame olive tree” that the Lord “took and nourished in his vineyard.” (5: 3.) Despite all the Lord’s efforts, however, the actual family tree “waxed old, and began to decay.” (Id.) It lost its vitality. It tired of the Lord. His desire and “nourishment” was not able to overcome the tree’s indifference to what He offered them. It began to decay.
The Lord was unwilling to abandon His tree even when there was no productivity in it. He intended to continue to create the Family of God, despite the failure by the family to respond to His invitation. He initially set about to “prune it” (that is, to cast away from the Family of God or Israel, those who failed to live worthily) and to “dig about it” and then to “nourish it.” In the initial work it is the Lord directly who does the work. He does not send a servant to perform the labor. (5: 4-5.)
“Pruning” involves cutting away. It destroys. The goal is ultimately to bring about vigor and life. But the initial work requires destroying to clear away and make the growth possible. The result is harsh and violent in the short run, but there is something important going on in the work of “pruning” away. The larger purpose is what the Lord has in mind. The short term sacrifices and difficulties are unavoidable and necessary. They must be endured.
“Digging about” the tree is also violent. It is threatening, and imposes upset and difficulties. The Lord’s benign intent is not understood when the pruning and digging are measured against short term standards. They must take a longer view.
The Lord’s purpose is to “perhaps” produce “young and tender branches.” (5: 5.) It is “perhaps” because the Lord grants the tree agency to respond, not compulsion to force compliance. The Lord can coax, but the tree must grow.
The older branches are not intended to be preserved. They bear nothing but bad fruit. The young and tender branches are the goal. These, however, will not yield fruit for some time. They must have an opportunity to develop.
This description of ancient Israel shows how the Lord’s work was always purposeful and designed to preserve the tree and continue to create sons and daughters of God. However, despite all He did, the “little, young and tender branches” were comparatively small in the scheme of things. As to the “main top thereof” it “began to perish.” (5: 6.)
The infrastructure, the hierarchy, the temple, the priestly class, the learned Rabbis and the schools of thought were rotting. They were nothing like what would be required to produce fruit. They were religious but heritical. They were devoted, but not His sons and daughters. The family line was broken. They needed to be adopted back again, because they lacked the power to remain connected.
This is an odd juxtaposition: The “main top” is corrupt. The “young tender branches” are nothing like the great growth overshadowing them. Yet the Lord sees in the young growth what He seeks. As to the “main top” there is nothing but “perishing” and decay.
Israel is so often in this predicament. They despise the truth, but respond warmly to flattery telling them they are righteous. (Hel. 13: 27-28.) When someone is sent by the Lord of the vineyard calling for repentance, Israel rejects him, says he is a sinner and a false prophet. (Hel. 13: 25-26.) Ultimately, however, for the bloodline of Jacob to rise up and become fruit worthy of preservation, there must be a change from blood connection to Jacob to an adoption into Israel. Then they become sons and daughters of God, and fruit worthy of preservation. (Mosiah 27: 25.)
Of all the material Jacob could have adopted as his prophecy, his selection of Zenos’ allegory of the Olive Tree is telling. The account is a journey through various dispensations of the Gospel, tracking a bloodline of chosen people. To Jacob’s credit, he realized the work of salvation was devoted primarily to rescuing the descendants of a chosen line beginning with Abraham.
The allegory is a family story. The use of the Olive tree is a deliberate symbol of a family, and of the tree whose value was beyond question in the culture from which the allegory sprung. To understand the story, it is necessary to settle on meanings.
The tree is a family line belonging to the “house of Israel.” (Jacob 5: 3.) The work of the Lord of the vineyard and his fellow laborers is designed to cause the chosen family line to produce fruit worthy of preservation. The “fruit” is people, or more correctly, children raised in righteousness who comprehend and accept the Gospel and abide by its teachings. The name “Israel” is the new name given to Jacob. Jacob was renamed by the Lord because the Lord took him into His own family. Naming signifies Fatherhood over Jacob, and the name Israel signifies the Family of God.
Not every descendant of Jacob is also a descendant of Israel. Blood is one thing, adoption into the Family of God is another. The allegory should be read with the proper context. It is about preserving the Family of Israel, or in other words, the Family of God.
To correct and instruct the chosen family, it was necessary for the Lord of the vineyard, in a desperate attempt to cause the family to produce fruit worthy of preservation, to disburse the children, scatter them throughout the vineyard, graft wild branches into the roots and tame branches into wild roots. In one sense the failure of the chosen family is to the world’s great blessing. In the end, the world overcomes the chosen family and all those grafted into it, and in the final effort the work returns to the original roots and the original branches in a desperate final attempt to salvage something from the vineyard before it is burned.
Choosing this allegory as the great central theme of Jacob’s book shows his comprehension of sacred history and prophecy, and his knowledge of the future. Unlike Nephi, whose muse was Isaiah, the fully mature prophet Jacob turned to Zenos to act as “second witness” to his prophecy. We have in Jacob Chapter 5 the great explanation of how we got where we are today, and what will unfold before the Lord’s return to burn the vineyard. It is odd we spend so little time with the material. It is the central theme of all man’s history (from God’s point of view).
The family is scattered into several different parts of the vineyard:
First, the location of the original tree.
Second, an undisclosed number of “nethermost parts of the vineyard.” (Verse 14.)
Third, a “poorest spot.” (Verse 21.)
Fourth, a “poorer spot than the first.” (Verse 23.)
Fifth, a “good spot.” (Verse 25.)
However, there is no attempt to quantify the number of spots because the allegory is intended to convey meaning apart from numbers. You can cross check the other prophecies from Nephi (2 Ne. 29: 3) and Christ (3 Ne. 17: 4) and find there is no definitive number given of how many separate groups are included in the “nethermost parts of the vineyard” where Israel was scattered.
What should leap out to you from this allegory is the nature of the Gospel and God’s work among mankind. It was and is related to preserving a single family line. The “God of Israel” is concerned with preserving the chosen line of heirs. The Gospel was and is a family matter, and the target of the Lord’s work is now and always has been the preservation of a specific group He intends to preserve.
This is an image we have trouble with in our current multiculturalism. We tend to view all mankind as the beneficiaries of God’s plans to save mankind. They are to some extent. After all, He provides the sun and rain to everyone regardless of their ethnicity. (Matt. 5: 45.) And every people are given according to His mercy some portion of truth calculated to benefit them. (Alma 29: 8.) However, Zenos and Jacob agree the Lord’s primary effort has been directed at preserving one family, and the world has been the incidental beneficiaries of this global effort to preserve them.
We will look at the history of this family as told through the allegory of the Olive tree.
“And it shall come to pass that I will establish my people, O house of Israel. And behold, this people will I establish in this land, unto the fulfilling of the covenant which I made with your father Jacob; and it shall be a New Jerusalem. And the powers of heaven shall be in the midst of this people; yea, even I will be in the midst of you.”
The Lord will establish His people, including all of the “house of Israel.” The plan is global. But when it comes to the Americas, His people are those in the audience at the moment He was speaking to “this people.” And the land of promise for them is “this land.” Meaning that wherever it was that Christ was speaking involved two things: The ancestors of the remnant, and the land of promise.