Revelation 18: The Lament over Babylon

Nicholas Roerich, Armageddon (1935-36)

Revelation 18

1After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2 He called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! 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. 3 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.”

4 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; 5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. 6 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. 7 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,’ 8 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.”

9 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.

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.

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.”

What is good news for some may be a tragedy for others. What for the recipients of Revelation would be view as God’s action to finally set them free and to set the world right; but would be viewed by those who benefited from their position in the empire as their world being turned upside down. The story of Exodus was good news for the Hebrew people and not for the Egyptians, and with the Exodus story being the defining story of the Jewish people they viewed the Lord their God with the expectation of a God who does see, does act, and does at times turn the world upside down. This expectation carries over into the beginning of Christianity where the expectation of God’s action would change fundamentally the relationships between the people of the world. Luke’s gospel reminds us of this in the beginning of the gospel with the song of Mary, commonly called the Magnificat,

He (the Lord) has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.  Luke 1: 51-55

For those saints who have suffered exclusion, persecution and even death at the hands of the empire the fall of Babylon is God giving justice to the world. The empire of Babylon (referring to the Roman empire) and the great city (Rome) had forged their empire through bloodshed and now they are given blood to drink. The language here echoes the wounded language lashing out from the pain of exile in Jeremiah 50-51 proclaiming a judgment against Babylon. Like Babylon in Jeremiah 50:39-40, now Rome becomes a place where only foul beast and birds reside amid the devastation. Like Babylon in Jeremiah 51: 7, now Rome has made all the nations drunk on her promises and splendor. In a strong echo of these chapters at the end of Jeremiah the people are commanded to come out of Babylon (Rome) so not to share her punishment. (see Jeremiah 51:6) Like the people of Judah during the Babylonian Exile, (587-538 BCE) the early Christians in the late first century felt powerless before the Roman empire. Yet, these early Christians believed in a Lord who would judge the unfaithfulness of their oppressors and that their world was about to turn. In the words of Rory Cooney’s interpretation of Mary’s Magnificat titled the ‘Canticle of the Turning,’

(Verse 3) From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone shall be left on stone. Let the king beware for you justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

(Refrain) My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fire of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

(Verse 4) Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise that holds us bound, till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.

For another perspective to understand what is happening here comes from the dystopian fiction series of novels, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In this fictional dystopic future, the United States is replaced by a set of districts held under the military oppression of a capitol district. All the resources of the districts stream into the capitol district making its residents wealthy at the expense of the residents of the rest of the districts who live in enforced service and struggle to survive. John’s portrayal of Rome in Revelation is similar to this, where the wealth of the empire is concentrated in the great city. The kings of the earth have benefited from their alliance with Rome and the merchants, sailors and seafarers who brought in their cargo from across the empire mourn at the loss of their trading partner. As Christopher Rowland can state,

the wealth of Babylon has been gained at the expense of millions. Luxury items here gravitate to the center to supply an insatiable need….The beauty, sophistication, and splendor of its culture, arts, social life, and technology may be great, but it is in a condition of death…Babylon and the kings and the mighty have committed fornication; great lengths have been taken in order to achieve wealth, status and power. (NIB XII: 696)

Gustave Dore, Babylon Fallen (1866)

To many within the empire they may not have seen the cost of their affluence, but within the worldview of Revelation the trade and accumulation of wealth are seen theologically as being intimately related to the promises, actions and beliefs of the Roman empire and its worship of the emperor. The imagery of the previous chapter portrays Rome as a harlot shamelessly flaunting its wealth and splendor to attract her suitors and even some early Christians would find the alluring possibilities of wealth and power a strong draw to compromise and participate in some of the public acts of religious patriotism expected in the cities and the trade associations.

For the early Christians the worship of the emperor as divine in combination with the plethora of religious options present in most Roman cities was viewed as idolatry. The people of the empire attributed to the Roman emperor and the various deities worshipped throughout the empire things that only come for the Lord. But within the lament of the merchants we see another way in which the commercial enterprise of bringing the riches of the empire may have been seen as idolatry as well. To illustrate this, it is helpful to lay the things highlighted in verses 11-13 next to the offering for the tabernacle in Exodus 25: 3-7:

This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. Exodus 25: 3-7

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, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice four and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. Revelation 18:12-13

The things, with a few exceptions, are the things that are parallel to what God commanded to be used for the building of the Tabernacle, or for the practice of sacrifice that took place in the Tabernacle or Temple. The exceptions come at the end of the list in Revelation: horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. This points to the false nature of the Roman promises for what is brought in is the sources of, in their day, military power, economic power and fear. From a Jewish perspective the law placed a limit on royal authority in accumulating this type of military power:

Even so, he (the king) must not acquire many horses for himself, or return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” Deuteronomy 17: 16

The slave ownership in the Roman empire was a sign or wealth and prestige even if the slave trade and slave traders were viewed with ambivalence. Some slave traders kidnapped people, others would traffic in the people conquered by the Roman military expansion. The manner of slavery would vary from young women and men sold into sexual slavery, to those who would be used as laborers, or some may find work as household slaves or managers. What Revelation wants us to understand is that the slave trade traffics in human lives, that they are selling ‘souls.’ In addition to the slave trade the human lives may also refer to entertainment of gladiatorial games and other events of brutal entertainments that were a part of the Roman world. Like the fictional analogy of the Hunger Games, the author of Revelation wants us to see behind the glamour of Rome to those who have suffered for its opulence. As Craig Koester can state, referencing the grave stele of a first century slave trader:

The text (Revelation)—like the grave stele—shows that the luxury of the few (Rev. 18:3) comes from the enslavement of the many (18:13). By analogy, readers are not to be beguiled by the empire’s promises of wealth. Instead, they must ask who has paid the cost. (Koester, 2014, p. 722)

As we conclude this chapter we here the funeral dirge of the people mourning the collapse of Rome as symbolically an angel throws a millstone into the sea to demonstrate the suddenness of Rome’s impending collapse. For the kings of the earth, the merchants and seafarers this is an image of great sadness and economic loss. Yet, for the community of the faithful who have been among those who have paid the cost of the empire’s promise of wealth we are about to hear their song of victory. Much like the story of the Exodus where the judgment of Egypt leads to the creation of the people of Israel and a new story for them. Here as God’s judgment comes upon the great city we see the beginning of God’s victory against the Beast, the great Dragon and all those forces that have oppressed and deceived God’s creation. We are nearing the end of this long journey and the fires of God’s justice are burning. For these early followers of Jesus the song has begun as their tears will soon be wiped away, for the dawn draws near and God is about to make the world turn.

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One Response to Revelation 18: The Lament over Babylon

  1. Pingback: Revelation 19 Celebration and Conflict | Sign of the Rose

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