[See notes on Revelation 17]
Revelation 18 continues the envisioning of God’s work of transformation, from Babylon to New Jerusalem. In Revelation 17, we read of Babylon’s comeuppance. At the end of chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues had been visited upon the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world has ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, had cried out: “It is done!” (16:17). Yet, the visions John reports are far from over.
Chapter 17 focuses on what happens to Babylon—a rather gruesome picture. However, we should not think of this picture as a prediction of what will happen in the future—rather the vision is simply part of Revelation’s broader message about our purpose (or “end”). When read in context, then, chapter 17′s vision actually is part of the bigger movement the book portrays of movement toward the New Jerusalem. In a paradoxical sense, the “destruction” of Babylon might actually be its transformation—or, at least, the transformation of the human city from Babylon to New Jerusalem.
Babylon falls, crushed by the self-destructiveness of its ways. But in the destruction lies the seeds of the city’s hope. Babylon is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6)—”blood” that links the witnesses with Jesus. That is, the “blood” of self-giving love that leads to Babylon’s downfall, the destruction of the three great Powers of evil (dragon, beast, and false prophet), and the re-creation of Jerusalem as a city of healing. The healing, as we will see, is not only for the faithful witnesses but also for the kings of the earth and the nations.
First, though, the destruction of Babylon requires more attention. So John gives us another vision in chapter 18, also of the destruction of Babylon but from a slightly different angle.
The vision features a different angel than the angel of chapter 17 who was one of the seven angels who had poured out the plague bowls in chapter 16. It begins with an assertion that indeed “Babylon the great” has met its doom. Instead of being a place of beauty and power, a true city of the gods, Babylon is actually pretty disgusting, a home for demons, foul spirits, foul birds, and foul and hateful beasts.
The picture here should not be taken literally, as if all of a sudden the capital city of the great empire has all of a sudden turned into a repulsive place. John would not need to share this vision warning his readers of the true nature of Babylon (or Rome or most any other imperial capital) if common people would find it repulsive. John’s point is rather to insist that from the point of view of the God of life and followers of the way of the Lamb, the power and greatness of Babylon should be recognized as actually demonic and foul. That is, John is once again warning his readers away from their attraction to empire as a way of life.
The problem with Babylon is that it corrupts all those who seek to find their home within her walls. The great ones—the kings of the earth and the merchants of the earth—have placed their trust in her, and been turned from the true God to the idol of empire.
The allusions to “drunkenness” and “fornication” are best understood, as we will see, in terms of injustice, oppression, and violence. The kings and merchants are complicit in the practices of Babylon that extract wealth from the exploitation of the vulnerable and oppressed masses. These practices are profoundly offensive and life-denying, reflecting the ways of death.
Though “blood” is not explicitly mentioned here, clearly the allusion to the nations drinking “of the wine of the wrath of [Babylon's] fornication” links with the “woman” (Babylon) being “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” from the previous vision in 17:6. The nations, the kings, and the merchants join directly with the Great Harlot Babylon in profound injustices that may make them wealthy for a time but will turn out to be the seeds of brokenness and self-destruction for the empire and all that trust in it instead of in the God of healing and life.
John’s concern is not with people who drink to much or engage in illicit sex (not that he would not have seen those behaviors as problematic, too). He has larger concerns—using out of control drink and sex as metaphors that speak of social processes that actually are all too controlling and intentional: the basic dynamics of the rich and powerful operating the levers of society in ways that enhance their own wealth and power and bring misery to those they exploit. But what is out of control in such social systems is greed and domination, the truly insatiable dynamics that attract even those in John’s faith communities.
The vision here in Revelation 18 draws heavily on earlier oracles especially from the great prophetic books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. The call to “come out of her, my people” (18:4) references Isaiah 48:20-22 and Jeremiah 50:8-10; 51:6-10. The message here must not be misunderstood as a call to abandon the faithful witness (martys) emphasized throughout the book and even, implicitly, in chapters 17 and 18. It’s not a call for physical separation but a call for discernment, sustained clarity about the appropriate object of worship in readers’ lives, and willingness to reject the core values that govern the actions of Babylon, the kings, and the merchants.
“Come out” reiterates what we have seen elsewhere in the book: trust in the ways of the Lamb, not the ways of the Beast. And be aware of the differences between these two claims for loyalty. Followers of the Lamb must separate themselves ideologically and religiously from the ideology and religion of empire. Since the ideology and religion of empire almost invariably includes nationalism, militarism, and consumerism (that is, aggrandizing the merchants and reinforcing the dominating power of the nations), the call to “come out” is a call to resist, to create alternative, to practice refusal in the midst of Babylon.
The voice from heaven continues by again emphasizing the true nature of empire as a way of life—Babylon’s “sins are heaped high as heaven” (18:5). As we read on, John makes it clear what the character of those “sins” are. The “sins” are the very respectable processes of commerce and national security that, when the veneer of respectability is torn away and Babylon’s true nature is revealed, may be boiled down to this: commerce that at bottom traffics in “human lives” (18:13) and national security that at bottom results in shedding “the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:24).
The processes of the wrath, the plagues, the self-destructiveness of greed and exploitation in a moral universe are portrayed graphically in 18:6-8. This moral universe, as it were, takes its vengeance on this great city: “render her as she herself has rendered, repay her double for her deeds;” “as she glorified herself and lived luxuriously. . . give her a like measure of torment and grief;” in face of her arrogance, “her plagues will come in a single day.”
We must note that it is “Babylon” (a metaphorical entity, not precisely the same as actual people) that is crushed here—not the kings and merchants themselves. Babylon is “burned with fire” from the Lord God’s judgment (18:8)—ultimately for the sake of the kings of the earth themselves who in the end find healing in the New Jerusalem (21:24). The notion of city-ness, the social organization of humanity, is not destroyed but only this manifestation of it. Cities need not be fueled by greed and arrogance—when Babylon goes down that signals the destruction of greed and arrogance, not of the human denizens of the city. The city as Great Whore goes down so that the city as Bride might arise and become the true home for humanity, even for the transformed kings. The New Jerusalem will welcome the glory of the nations (21:26).
Revelation 18:9-19 draws on songs of lament from Ezekiel 27. We must read this section carefully. It is a poignant treatment of the self-destructiveness of Babylon, the chickens come home to roost. We should be clear by now that Babylon’s fall is a good thing. It’s dynamics of domination need to end for humanity to survive, not to mention thrive as God’s creatures living as we are intended to live.
But the processes of building Babylon have included many elements that have been humane and reflect creativity and beauty. So the fall of Babylon is also something to be lamented.
We even get a whiff of humanity from these characters who joined with Babylon’s corruption. The shock and grief are genuine, the pain is real, the loss is grievous. The kings cry out, “Alas, alas, the great city” (18:10). And the merchants mourn, “the fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you” (18:14). And then the shipmasters, “What city was like the great city?” (18:18).
Even in these laments, though, it is clear that these are the wealthy and powerful whose wealth and power came, at least in part, from their commerce with Babylon. They mostly lament the loss of the wealth and the loss of the opportunity to gain more wealth. As the shipmasters lament, “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!” (18:19).
John’s critique runs throughout in subtle ways but a jarring denouement at the end of the merchants’ lament where they mourn the loss of the great buyer of all their cargoes: precious stones, fine wood, spices, food, livestock—and the weapons of war (“horses and chariots”), “slaves—and human lives” (18:13). Yes, this wonderful fruit of the great city that enriched so many rested on the backs of slaves and human souls. “Repay her double her deeds” indeed!
The vision concludes with John providing more clarity about what actually is happening. The fall of Babylon, the laments of the great ones notwithstanding, is an event to be celebrated by followers of the Lamb. Babylon’s violence and injustice against “human lives” has been enormous. So, “rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets” (18:20).
One way to interpret this call to celebrate is not as a promise of some future day when this vision will literally be experienced in history, but rather as a statement for the present. As people see Babylon for what it is, as people withdraw their consent to Babylon’s “fornications” with the world’s great ones, as people turn from domination toward cooperation, Babylon will go down—and this is to be celebrated, even as those who have benefited from Babylon’s injustices cry in mourning.
“For God has given judgment for you against her” (18:20) refers back to the cry of the witnesses under the altar in 6:10 for vengeance. We must notice something subtle but important here, though. The witnesses cried out for vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth”—but here it is Babylon that is judged. As Babylon goes down, the “inhabitants” (the kings, merchants, and shipmasters) stand to the side and mourn the loss of their meal ticket. But they themselves do not go down. As we will see, the destruction of Babylon (and even more obviously the destruction of the Powers that created Babylon, the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet) allow the kings of the earth to be transformed and healed (it would not seem farfetched to assume the merchants and shipmasters experience a similar fate). God’s justice does not lead to punishment for the “inhabitants” but to their healing. By this time in the story, the witnesses will rejoice at this expression of God’s justice.
The vision concludes with a quite poignant recital by another “mighty angel.” As this angel throws a great millstone in the sea to symbolize Babylon’s fate, it recites what will be lost when Babylon goes down. The litany portrays the human (and humane) side of life in the great city—music, the work of artisans, the light of a lamp, wedding parties—that will no longer be found in Babylon. Though only barely hinted at here, we may assume that these humane elements will actually be quite present in the city as it is transformed into the New Jerusalem.
Finally, we are reminded again that Babylon needs to go down. The great ones dominated the earth, and Babylon deceived the nations—once the “sorcerer” (Dragon) is no more, the nations will find healing. To cap the litany that has listed the elements of the life that will no longer be found in Babylon (and powerfully to remind John’s readers once more why they need to turn from Babylon), we read of what was found in Babylon: “The blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth,” 18:24).
This is what is at stake: Follow the Lamb, respond to enemies with love, center life of compassion and generosity, and be at home in the New Jerusalem that even now is at hand. Or, follow the Beast, respond to enemies with violence, center life on competition and possessiveness, and be at home in doomed Babylon.
[See notes on Revelation 19 (coming soon)]