Revelation 18:9-24; Amos 3:15-4:2
In the beginning of chapter 18, we witnessed God’s judgment upon Babylon. Now, in verse 9 and through the rest of chapter 18, we hear the response of those who colluded with her, and the response of those who are loyal to the LORD. Much of this chapter presents itself to us as a threefold lament such as one might hear at a funeral, though without the usual glorification of the deceased. Throughout the blowing of the trumpets, we heard of the “three woes” that would come upon the godless, and in this chapter, those three woes are uttered, as the kings, the traders, and travelling purveyors of Babylon’s wealth all cry out, “Woe! Woe! The great city!” Attached to their ironic lament is a final angelic sign of Babylon’s judgment, and a call for those who “dwell in heaven” to rejoice over her downfall, because it is well deserved. After all is said and done, darkness, desolation, and silence reign in the once-great city. Here is the passage:
And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. Standing far off, for fear of her torment, they say,
“Woe! Woe! The great city,
the strong city, Babylon!
For in a single hour your judgment has come.”
And the traders of the earth weep and mourn for her, because no one buys their goods anymore, goods of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of sweet-smelling wood, all manner of things made of ivory, all manner of things made of expensive wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves –that is to say, the souls of human beings.
“The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your delicacies and your glories
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”
The traders of these goods, all those who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, for fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
“Woe! Woe! The great city
that was wrapped around in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!
For in a single hour all this wealth has been destroyed.”
And all captains of the ships and sailors, all those whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out, as they looked upon the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,
“Woe! Woe, The great city
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in a single hour she has been destroyed.”
Rejoice over her, O heaven,
and you saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her!
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
“In this way will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more;
and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters,
will be heard in you no more,
and a craftsman of any craft
will be found in you no more,
and the sound of the mill
will be heard in you no more,
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 mighty ones of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by your witchcraft.
And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slain on earth.” (Rev. 18:9-24)
The rulers of the earth, those who gained power by their alliance with Babylon, are the first to mourn. But this is not really the kind of mourning that takes place at the funeral of a beloved one, when those who are bereaved come near to pay their final respects and perhaps take a final kiss. They stand at a distance, these kings, fearing that they, too, are liable to her destruction for what they have done to gain power. Their intimacy with her—described as sexual immorality—has given to them a temporary wealth, but they now see that her power was only transitory. Though they recall her evil beauty, they mourn what they have lost more than the city itself. She is no longer great and strong, but a cautionary tale for them.
Likewise, the merchants call out their lament from a distance, knowing that her downfall has made them poor. The detailed description of their “goods” prevents us from having much empathy for them, since they have traded not only in gold, silver, and sweet-smelling lumber, but in the souls of human beings! The kind of language used to describe how they have benefited from their participation with soul-destroying Babylon reminds us of the words of the prophet Amos, who gave similar details concerning those in Israel who lived their lives of luxury on the backs of the poor:
I will strike the winter house along with the summer house,
and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,”
declares the LORD.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you…” (Amos 3:15-4:2)
God’s judgment comes, then, not only because Babylon has been rebellious against the LORD, but in recompense for all the harm that she and her minions (kings, merchants, seafaring purveyors) have done to others. The minutiae in St. John’s description help us perceive the enormous harm that god-defying society does to all those in her wake. The craven longings of Babylon have made for pain and excruciating poverty of those whom she and her allies have plundered. Not only the kings and merchants, but even those who traffic in these riches lament when they see the swiftness of her doom—in a single hour. What had seemed substantial and solid –pearls, purple clothing, and all manner of earthly glory—is reduced to rubble. A contemporary vision might have transposed the allies of Babylon into corrupt government officials, drug war-lords, and the top suppliers, all of whom bear responsibility for the drug epidemic in our society. Or perhaps, to be more controversial, a society and government that has largely approved abortion, those who actually engage in the killing, and those who profit from the selling of fetal tissue and body parts.
The three woes of the rulers, merchants, and sailors is contrasted with the call to joy from those who inhabit heaven—saints, apostles and prophets. This is not a joy to be born of Schadenfreude—mere delight in the downfall of others. Rather, the celebration is enjoined because judgment against Babylon means vindication for the saints, who have been calling out under the altar for God to act. One contemporary scholar (Tina Pippin, Death and Desire) speaks of the destruction of Babylon in terms of a violent ravaging or rape that titillates the male lust for power. This makes the book of Revelation, she says, not a “safe place” for women. We should remember that Babylon is a symbol, not an actual woman, and that she is coupled with a male figure who is the real enemy—Satan himself. Her female aspect is meant to describe her corporate humanity, and what happens when human beings together ally themselves with God’s ancient foe, rather than turning to Christ as “the Bridegroom.” This is no anti-woman vision, then, nor are the “politics” of the vision intended to diminish women. (Of course, some will take issue with the traditional use of feminine imagery for humanity and masculine imagery for God, but that is a very long discussion, which we will dabble in as we consider the New Jerusalem in a few episodes from now. In this chapter, however, Babylon’s female appearance is not directed at or against women.) Rather, the call is to all, whatever their condition, to become the people of God by coming out of Babylon, and by refusing the mark of the Beast. It is important to see what the vision does not depict—unlike, say, a Terminator film, there is no extensive and detailed description of particular people who are judged by God. Viewers are not invited to feast their imaginations on the horrible and bloody downfall of particular people. Instead, the judgment comes to our eyes and ears as God’s definite and promised “no” to death-dealing actions. “Babylon” is, we must remember, drunk with the blood of the saints and the simple; she it is who trades in the souls of human beings; she it is, says the angel, who deceived many and was stained deep within by the “blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.”
God’s allies, then, are called to rejoice in the final conquest of evil, and the institutions that harbor and aid it. This is not divine hatred, but an ending to evil entailed in God’s truth and love. Indeed, the vision of Babylon’s being thrown into the sea is a graphic extension of Jesus’ own words regarding those who prevent others from true worship and living: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mark 9:42//Mat 18:6). Babylon herself is the millstone, and her own weight will bring about her sinking. The Messiah comes as Deliverer and not Destroyer—but destruction of evil is implicit in the deliverance.
The fate of the person with the millstone is the apt end of Babylon and any who refuse to become separate from her: she herself is the millstone Once a proud mother of abominations, engaging in orgies and sexuality and luxuriousness with her consorts, she now is a wasteland—no music, no light, no weddings, no artefacts. The Venerable Bede speaks of the thoroughness of her destruction, in which everything that commends itself to our five sense is no longer to be perceived: “It is as though it said, ‘What is beautiful to the eye, and melodious to the ear, and smooth to the touch, and sweet to the smell and delicious to the taste, all of that will pass away from the world.’” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 18:21-22). That is not to say, however, that God’s plan is simply to bring about an un-creation. We should know that from the promise of His rainbow after the ark. No, after the unmaking will come the remaking. He has come to bring low, and then to raise up. And we are almost there, at the remaking, in the scheme of these extravagant visions! But before there is resurrection, there must be death—the death of all that is in rebellion against the Lord of life! The woes must precede the new world which God has in store for us.