1383.) Revelation 18

Rev18 city burningRevelation 18   (NRSV)

The Fall of Babylon

Following the description of Babylon as a drunken prostitute seated on the scarlet monster, the angelic interpretation of this vision, and a prediction of her fall, Revelation now describes in vivid terms the aftermath and its effects.  The fall itself is not described, but left to the imagination of John’s audience, based on the violent announcement of the last chapter (Revelation 17:16-17) —

The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.  For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled.

This same idea will be picked up again at the end of this chapter (verse 21-24).

The response to Babylon’s fall will continue into chapter 19.  There, however, things will be viewed from the heavenly vantage point.  In this chapter, although heavenly beings and voices are involved, things are viewed from an earthly perspective, with human voices caught up in the drama and pathos of the great city’s demise.

–Ian Boxall (and all following comments in red)

Angelic announcement of doom:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. He called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!

“Babylon” is John’s code word for Rome.

    It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
    a haunt of every foul bird,
    a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
For all the nations have drunk
    of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

This eerie description of Babylon is one of a ghost town, a deserted city which once knew so much activity, now reduced to a dwelling for wild and uncivilized beasts.  The reason for this desolation is directly related to Babylon’s idolatrous arrogance (metaphorically expressed as her flagrant sexual immorality) and her excessive luxury.  Rome’s crime is not simply that of political dominance supported by worship of the deified emperors, in which earth’s kings are implicated; it is also one of economic dominance and exploitation, necessary to support the extravagant lifestyles of a tiny minority of her population.  For this, the complicity of earth’s traders has been necessary; for them, in their turn, the benefits of their compliance have been immense.

Summons to God’s people to leave the doomed city:

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
    and God has remembered her iniquities.

What does it mean to “come out of Babylon”?  It is a call to the Lamb’s followers, wherever they find themselves, to abjure that unjust, idolatrous culture which can permeate any city in any age.  The values of God’s people are to be the values of the new Jerusalem.

Render to her as she herself has rendered,
    and repay her double for her deeds;
    mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,
    so give her a like measure of torment and grief.
Since in her heart she says,
    ‘I rule as a queen;
I am no widow,
    and I will never see grief,’

She is so entitled that she feels nothing amiss with her life.

therefore her plagues will come in a single day—
    pestilence and mourning and famine—
and she will be burned with fire;
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

Lamentations of those who have been enriched by the wicked city:

That they weep and mourn suggests a lament over the dead; however, they are probably lamenting not simply the city’s demise but also their own personal loss which that demise has brought to them as kings, merchants, and seafarers.  From a human perspective, it is difficult not to be moved by the words of these three groups.  But there are two reasons for not reading this section as a straightforward lament.  First, the words of all three groups include not only words of woe, but also, ironically, words of judgment.  Second, the laments are almost certainly being reported by the heavenly voice of verse 4:  viewed from a heavenly perspective, the appropriate response is not lament but a cry of “Hallelujah!”

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas, alas, the great city,
    Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.”

11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.

John’s list of twenty-eight products specifically reflects the imports of the city of Rome in the first century.  Virtually every area of the known world is covered, from Spain to China, Greece to North Africa, Sicily to Egypt.  The emphasis is not upon items required for daily life, but upon extravagant luxury goods.  Most shocking is the end of the list, particularly if what is mentioned last reflects its position as the least significant — slaves.

14 “The fruit for which your soul longed
    has gone from you,
and all your dainties and your splendor
    are lost to you,
    never to be found again!”

15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

16 “Alas, alas, the great city,
    clothed in fine linen,
        in purple and scarlet,
    adorned with gold,
        with jewels, and with pearls!
17 For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!”

And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?”

19 And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, the great city,
    where all who had ships at sea
    grew rich by her wealth!
For in one hour she has been laid waste.”

20 Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.

In this last great act of judgement and justice, the cry of the martyrs (6:9-11) and all the “prayers of the holy ones” (8:3-4) have definitely been answered in the heavenly court.

Symbolic action representing the total destruction of the city:

21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“With such violence Babylon the great city
    will be thrown down,
    and will be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flutists and trumpeters
    will be heard in you no more;
and an artisan of any trade
    will be found in you no more;
and the sound of the millstone
    will be heard in you no more;
23 and the light of a lamp
    will shine in you no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
    will be heard in you no more;
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
    and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
24 And in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
    and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”

The angel reminds Babylon again of the reason for her fall.  She has blood on her hands.  This is not simply, however, the blood of God’s faithful people, including those recently slaughtered under Nero.  Babylon in her Roman incarnation has gone farther than that.  Recalling the unnamed multitudes regarded as indispensable in the swift progress of Roman dominance across the Mediterranean world, hinting at the vast numbers of silent deaths necessary to establish the Pax Romana, the angel adds a third group to the list.  Roman Babylon is answerable no less for the blood of all those slaughtered on the earth.  That explains why her fall must be so great.

God acts in history and he will have the final word.

_________________________

Music:

Years ago, following World War II, a short poem was found carved on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany. The cellar was a place where many Jews had hidden during the holocaust.

“I believe in the sun,
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God,
even when he is silent.”

HERE is this poem, now a haunting anthem composed by Mark Miller.  Amid so much ugliness and death, as in the chapter above, we still believe that God in his mercy and justice will do what is eternally right.
_________________________

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)  New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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