This 22nd post in our series through Revelation studies the message of chapter 18. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.
We make use of metaphors in our daily conversations to bring across rich ideas. We refer to “Wall Street” collectively as the market economy system. “Hollywood” is synonymous for the movie industry. “Newspapers” rarely refer to printed media, but rather journalism as a whole. The “Cayman Islands” are synonymous with tax haven. In the same way we use words like “The East” or “The West” or “9-11” to bring across collective ideas, and with it the powerful sentiments.
Revelation is full of metaphors which are meant to move its readers emotively. We read about Christ being the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, etc. Judgments are depicted as seals, trumpets and bowls. The Church is called golden lamp stands, the 144’000, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc. In contrast, Rome is depicted as the Beast, the Great Harlot, Babylon, etc. Just as the 144’000 refer to God’s saints through the ages (7:4-8) so too Babylon refers to more than Rome. It refers to the all who “want to make a name for themselves” (Babel, Genesis 11:4), any and all empires or ideologies that resist God and his reign.
Revelation 18 paints the scene of the destruction of Babylon, with a funeral scene. In it the Author alludes to the judgments of the pagan cities Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), ancient Babylon (Is 13:19-21) and Edom (Is 34:11-17). John’s vision reveals three reasons for the destruction of Babylon – a warning to all.
Self-glorification (18:7-8). “Because she glorified herself” God poured out on her the seals and trumpets and bowls. Six times in this chapter Babylon is called “great” (18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21); like ancient Babel, this city has succeeded to make a name for herself (Genesis 11:4). Her boasting alludes to the arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar who said “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30). That very moment God brought the proud king down. Indeed, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).
The self-glorification and destruction of Babylon is in stark contrast to the thankful humility and exaltation of the New Jerusalem who “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23) Indeed, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Power, prosperity and perversion (18:3). The Caesars of Rome promised peace and prosperity to all who submit to their rule through the Pax Romana. The life they offered was one of sensuality, wealth and security through its military might. To the first recipients of Revelation, “Babylon” pointed to Rome. In this chapter we see three groups of people mourning its destruction: “Kings” representing the pursuit of power, “merchants” representing the pursuit of prosperity, “ship masters and sailors” representing the pursuit of immoral pleasures (18:9,11,17). The Author shows that Babylon is destroyed because it seduces and ensnares people with the lure of power, wealth and immoral living.
The bulk of the chapter is directed at Babylon’s failed promise of prosperity, its lure of “luxury” (repeated three times 18:3,7,9). Riches are said to be “deceitful” (Matthew 13:22) because it promises joy and peace – fullness of life – but Jesus warns that life does not consist in the accumulation of wealth and possessions (Luke 12:15). The same can be said about Babylon’s lies promising power and sensuality: it’s offers of security and pleasure is a mere mirage to the thirsty, forever visible on the horizon but failing to satisfy. These John writes elsewhere “are of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17).
Injustice and violence (18:11-13, 24). Verses 11 to 13 list 31 trade goods into ancient Rome – the most comprehensive list of its kind preserved for us. This thoroughness invites us to question the intent of such an extensive trade catalog in our text; it begs a closer look. The harsh reality of Babylonian culture highlighted in this text is revealed by the long list of luxury trade items, such as gold, ivory, perfume, etc. ending abruptly with “slaves and human lives.” Yes, Babylon also views human lives as tradable commodities and consumable resources. This empire renown for its “luxury” (18:3,7,9) shamelessly gains its wealth through slavery and oppression. A second list comprising city noises affirms this atrocity: the pleasant sounds of music and rejoicing, milling and production, etc. are contrasted with the scenes (or screams?) of martyred saints (18:22-24).
Rome, like every “great” empire before and after it, was known for its opulent splendor at the expense of human lives. Babylon seeks pleasure and prosperity at any cost – even human lives and the cruel execution of whoever disagrees with the injustice of the regime.
For these reasons God is judging and will ultimately destroy Babylon. How should the Church respond? There are two calls to the Church in this section.
Come out! (18:4) The first call is to “Come out!” a warning to not partake in the sins of Babylon, and thereby escape its judgments. This call to separate find its root in Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Israel’s distancing from the sinners during the Korah rebellion (Numbers 16:20-35), and the destruction of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6). This phrase is repeated by Paul to abstain from Rome’s sexual immorality (2 Corinthians 6:17), but here in this chapter the focus is on moral business and financial practices. In particular it calls to abstain from the unjust practices which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It warns of God’s impending judgment on those who enjoy luxuries while oppressing the poor. This is indeed good news to the oppressed!
Rejoice! (18:20) The church is called to joyfully celebrate God’s victory over this vile, oppressive city. And his judgment was “given… for you against her.” No longer will there be the reign of injustice which leads to oppression of the weak and poor, nor the persecution of the saints. God’s judgment has ended the reign of evil on earth.
Bringing it home
We can see our world in Babylon’s description above: the pursuit of greatness, driven by greed and lusts, with the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor to gain greater wealth and power. Therefore this promise of the fall of Babylon brings joyful relief, but also calls for sober assessment of our attitudes and actions towards power, pleasure and prosperity.
The call to come out is a call not to isolation from the world, but separation from its evil practices (John 17:15-18). This urges us to evaluate how we value self and others. Do we truly see every person as precious, bearing the image of God? It challenges us to not only measure our social justice in how much we give, but also how we earn our money (and what we buy into when we shop). This separation (or sanctification) requires a work of transformation in our minds and hearts through diligent study of God’s Word and prayer (Revelation 12:1-2; John 17:16-17).
We must also soberly acknowledge that although God’s faithful ones will escape the Final Judgment of Babylon, we may (continue to) experience the judgments over Babylon (depicted in the seals and trumpets and bowls). This requires joyful endurance while we wait for God to make all things new. Come Lord Jesus!