Lighting Up the Apocalypse 31: Three Speeches About Babylon

Revelation 18: 1-8,  Is 13:21-22, 47:7-9, Hosea 2, Malachi 3

 Many of the disturbing scenes viewed in the Apocalypse give the sense that this is “just the way the world is:” godly people, as well as faithless people, can expect suffering.  The devil has “come down,” after all, in wrath, with the intent to destroy as many as possible (Rev 12:12).  But in chapter 18, the tide is turning.  In chapter seventeen we saw the source of all this pain unveiled — the beast from the abyss in cahoots with Babylon, the woman-city of this world.  These two have made a pact, and extended their agreement to all who will be complicit, to all who seek to benefit from the suffering of others.  But their time is up in chapter 18.  In the first eight verses of this chapter, we hear three speeches: the angel’s declaration of judgment concerning Babylon, a mysterious warning that those who still consort with her should flee, and Babylon’s own soliloquy concerning her stolen glory.  Here is John’s vision in Revelation 18:1-8:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, who had great authority; and the earth was lit up with his glory.  And he called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!

She has become a dwelling place for demons,

a guarded camp for every unclean spirit,

a camp for every unclean bird,

a camp for every unclean and hateful beast.

For all nations have drunk

the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,

and the kings of the earth have engaged in this immorality with her,

and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her sensuality.”

 

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,

lest you take part in her sins,

lest you share in her plagues.”

 

For her sins reach up as high as heaven,

and God has remembered her unrighteous deeds.

Repay her as she herself has paid back others,

and give her double for her deeds;

mix a double portion for her in the cup that she mixed.

As she glorified herself and delighted in sensuality,

so give her the same measure of torment and mourning,

since in her heart she says,

“I am seated as a queen,

I am no widow,

and will never know mourning!”

For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,

death and mourning and famine,

and she will be consumed with fire;

for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.

Let us examine each of the speeches more carefully.  First, there is the mighty angel from heaven, whom it seems we met already in chapter ten, holding the little scroll.  There he was clothed with all the colors of the rainbow and shone with a face like the sun.  What he shouted in that chapter was followed up by a voice from heaven, just as what this angel in chapter 18 says is followed by the mysterious heavenly voice.  At his first appearance, this angel from heaven spoke words wrapped up in mystery;  now he speaks plainly for all to hear, lighting up the earth with divine knowledge.  We hear divine words of judgment, making God’s plan definite and sure.  Though we have not yet seen the fall of Babylon in this vision, we hear that it is a “done deal.”  “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.”

In case we might think that the name “Babylon” refers to some unknown future society, or in case we might be tempted to leash it too particularly, as some have done,  to a city or society in the past (Rome; Jerusalem) or our time (the Roman Catholic Church, as some Reformers charged), let us consider the words of St. Caesarius of Arles: “Whenever you hear the name Babylon, do not think of it as a city made of stones, for “Babylon” means “confusion.” Rather, understand that the name signifies those people who are arrogant… dissolute and impious, and who persevere in their wickednesses. . .” (Exposition on the Apocalypse 18:2, Homily 15). Indeed, we are meant to think of a kind of conglomerate, not simply of individual godless people—Babylon is what happens when the rebellious band together in order to frustrate God’s plan and to make their own kingdom. Babylon’s archetype is, of course, the scene of the building of the tower of Babel, meant to reach divine heights.

The very reason for Babylon’s demise is embedded later in this passage—she refuses to repent, and instead boasts of her despicable life, basically claiming immortal glory.  Pride goes before the great fall! Because Babylon refuses to mourn for her sins, God can have no use for her except as a temporary holding place for the demons, before they meet their final fate. (The Greek word used three times in the text is frequently translated as a “haunt” for these unclean beings, but it is actually related to the word for “guarded prison,” and so I have translated it as a kind of “prison camp” for the devil and his minions.) Rebellious human society that collaborates knowingly with evil becomes a fit dwelling place, a holding place for demons, unclean beings, and those spiritual forces that oppose God. The aptness of “Babylon” being the haunt of these spiritual enemies is confirmed by her outward actions —revelling in sensual license, and encouraging others to join her.  The sexual references here may be understood both as symbolic of her infidelity to God, and as actual, since human beings are a psychosomatic unity:  the power of dark sexuality is well known in our society, and in Babylon appears as a kind of outward sacrament of her inner corruption.  She mixes the drink well, so that it appears pleasing and power-conferring to those upon whom she preys.  Those who lord it over others, both in power and in wealth, are taken in.  Together they dwell, paradoxically self-centered, yet joined in scorn of God.  And their dwelling is a wilderness, not really a home, but a limited holding place for them, a guarded spot where they are aptly confined.   The language used here is reminiscent of the darkly humorous way in which the prophet Isaiah describes the forlorn historical Babylon, punished because of her attack against God’s people, and reduced to her natural fate.  When we listen to the prophet’s description of her desolation, we may think today of the pictures of the wasted prideland in the Lion King when Scar usurps authority from the true king, and the hyenas take over what were the choicest meadows.  Here is Isaiah’s depiction of historical Babylon’s fallen state:

And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,

the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans,

will be like Sodom and Gomorrah

when God overthrew them.

It will never be inhabited

or lived in for all generations;

no Arab will pitch his tent there;

no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there.

But wild animals will lie down there,

and their houses will be full of howling creatures;

there ostriches will dwell,

and there wild goats will dance.

Hyenas will cry in its towers,

and jackals in the pleasant palaces;

its time is close at hand

and its days will not be prolonged.

(Isaiah 13:19-22)

Historical Babylon, then, is seen by the prophet to be like Sodom and Gomorrah, with only hyenas to cry out in its towers, and only wild animals to enjoy its one-time beauty. In John’s vision, this is amplified, because we are hearing not of a particular historical city, but of arrogant and God-defying society in general. The confinement of these evil beings within her boundaries is, indeed, God’s mercy to others.  As St. Andrew of Caesarea exclaims, “It is the habit of beasts and of evil demons to stalk in arid places. This is due both to the divine economy, which frees people from their harm, and their own dislike of humankind” (Comm on Revelation 18).

Even for those who have compromised with present-day Babylon, there is an escape, however. The hope of this gleams from heaven, as the beseeching divine voice calls, “Come out of her, my people!”  The first speech, then, is joined by a second deeper, more poignant voice. Judgment is followed by an offer of mercy. This term “my people” is not a common one in the book of Revelation, but recalls God’s great tenderness for Israel, and indeed for the Gentiles who join new Israel through Christ.  Both the prophet Hosea and Paul, in his letter to the Romans, play upon this title “my people.” Because of the faithlessness of Israel, Hosea names one of his sons ‘no mercy” and the other “not my people;”  at the turning point of the prophecy, however, God gives this consolation:

I will have mercy on No Mercy,

and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;

and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’ (Hosea 2:23)

Then, Paul understands this not only as a consolation of repentant Israel, but as a promise that God will include Gentiles, through Christ, among His people:

As indeed He says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’

and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”

“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

(Romans 9:25-26)

Those who are in Babylon are clearly not the people of God: the particular characteristic of that city is that she belongs only to herself, and that she ensnares rather than serves. The invitation to leave Babylon, however, implies that those who are not God’s people may become such.  And if they need a motivation other than the love of the One who calls them, God condescends even to give this—so that they will no longer participate in her sins, nor suffer her fate, nor receive her inevitable destruction.

Many commentators understand the verses following God’s plea to His people to also be His personal explanation for Babylon’s destruction, and His call for the rest of creation to wreak vengeance upon that city, eye-for-eye, and limb-for-limb. It is helpful, however, to remember that the Greek text has no quotation marks, and so we must decide by context where God’s voice speaks, and where the divine commentator, St. John, continues.  It seems clear that the divine voice calls His people out of Babylon.  It is not so clear, however, that God Himself is telling others to repay Babylon for her iniquity and her arrogance.  Rather, these words may be the approval of the visionary John as he comments upon God’s assurance that Babylon will be judged.  It is meet and right that Babylon should be destroyed because of the extent of her mercilessness and her unrepentant evil deeds.  To ask for God’s judgment on a hardened society is not sub-Christian, since Jesus Himself warned us that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.  Mercy only makes sense, in fact, if there is a robust sense of justice.  And indeed, though Babylon is judged by God, she implodes from within, as her minions turn against her.  Divine judgment corresponds to reality. Here is St. John’s explanation for her fall:

For her sins reach up as high as heaven,

and God has remembered her unrighteous deeds.

Repay her as she herself has paid back others,

and give her double for her deeds;

mix a double portion for her in the cup that she mixed.

As she glorified herself and delighted in sensuality,

so give her the same measure of torment and mourning,

since in her heart she says,

“I am seated as a queen,

I am no widow,

and will never know mourning!”

This one is justly remembered by God, who will not allow a reign of terror to exist forever.  The words echo Isaiah 47, where God Himself mocks and judges Babylon for that nation’s cruelty to Israel.

You said, “I shall be mistress forever,”

so that you did not lay these things to heart

or remember their end.

Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures,

who sit securely,

who say in your heart,

“I am, and there is no one besides me;

I shall not sit as a widow

or know the loss of children”:

These two things shall come together

in a moment, in one day;

the loss of children and widowhood

shall come upon you in full measure,

in spite of your many sorceries

and the great power of your enchantments.  (Isaiah 47:7-9)

The one who dares to name herself, like God, “I AM” is about to learn the limits of her own enchantments.  She will lose both her “children” (those who follow her in sin) and her consorts (those who collaborate with her), because when God calls out His own for salvation, this entails judgment for any who remain His enemies.

In this short passage, we have heard the angel announce Babylon’s doom.  We have heard the Great Mercy offer us a way out. And we have heard the impudence of Babylon, with her pretense to be all-powerful.  The apt conclusion to this passage assures us that  “she will be consumed with fire, for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”  We are reminded of the searching words of the prophet Malachi, “Who may endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire” (Mal 3:2).  The prophet answers his own question.  Who may endure His coming? —those who respond to the refiner’s fire, and are purified rather than consumed. God’s words are directed to everyone, for Babylon’s seduction is strong, and we are tempted towards her ways. “Come out of her, my people!” speaks to us all, ringing down through the centuries the good news of God’s entwined mercy and justice. What we hear about with our ears –the separation of God’s friends from God’s enemies— we shall see in the next visionary sequence.

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