Ted Grimsrud—July 19, 2015
We read at the end of chapter sixteen, “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (16:19). Now, in chapter seventeen and eighteen, the details of that “remembrance” will be presented. One of the bowl-plague angels comes to John to take him to see the “judgment of the great harlot” (17:1).
We should note that it is presumably the same angel who will later come again to John to take him to see “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” that is, New Jerusalem (21:9). The same exact wording is used in both places, indicating that these two visions should be understood in relation to one another. These are the two destinations that John holds out for his readers—trust in the Dragon and end up in fallen Babylon or trust in God and end up in New Jerusalem.
We have got here a central symbol that is referring to another symbol. The “great harlot” refers to “great Babylon.” Clearly John does not have in mind an actual prostitute. And by the time of this writing, the ancient city of Babylon no longer existed. Probably the main source for the metaphors is the Old Testament. Already in the Old Testament these two images were used to signify the social embodiments of idolatry, rebellion against God, violence, and injustice.
On the immediate level, John surely means to apply these symbols to Rome, the “city of seven hills” (17:9) that “rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Rome, who promises peace and insists that it operates with divine favor, stands as the most profound temptation for John’s readers. Those John most vociferously opposes apparently suggested that followers of Jesus many also function as comfortable actors in the Roman world—including taking part in the requisite public expressions of acquiescence to Roman civil religion. The worship moments scattered throughout Revelation are meant to counter that acquiescence.
We should read this account now as reflecting a broader critique. Just as Babylon, formerly a great empire but by John’s time a distant memory, worked metaphorically to provide insight into the character of the Roman Empire, so now Rome, also formerly a great empire but now a distant memory, works metaphorically to provide insight into the character of present-day empires (and all other empires throughout history)—most obviously for readers of this book, the American Empire. Continue reading