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The Fall of "Babylon"

 


After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. He called out with a mighty voice,“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
    It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
    a haunt of every foul bird,
    a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
For all the nations have drunk

    of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
    and God has remembered her iniquities.
Render to her as she herself has rendered,
    and repay her double for her deeds;
    mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,
    so give her a like measure of torment and grief.
Since in her heart she says,
    ‘I rule as a queen;
I am no widow,
    and I will never see grief,’
therefore her plagues will come in a single day—
    pestilence and mourning and famine—
and she will be burned with fire;
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas, alas, the great city,
    Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.”

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.

“The fruit for which your soul longed
    has gone from you,
and all your dainties and your splendor
    are lost to you,
    never to be found again!”

The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

“Alas, alas, the great city,
    clothed in fine linen,
        in purple and scarlet,
    adorned with gold,
        with jewels, and with pearls!
For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!”

And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw 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,

“Alas, alas, the great city,
    where all who had ships at sea
    grew rich by her wealth!
For in one hour she has been laid waste.”

Rejoice over her, O heaven, 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,

“With such violence Babylon the great city
    will be thrown down,
    and will be found no more;
and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flutists and trumpeters
    will be heard in you no more;
and an artisan of any trade
    will be found in you no more;
and the sound of the millstone
    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 magnates of the earth,
    and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
And in you
 was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
    and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”

 

Bruce Metzger has summed up Revelation 18 in this way,

 

In chapter 18, John describes the fall of Rome with pathos and realism. The literature of the world contains few passages that compare in dramatic power with this dirge over the fallen city.

 

Most commentators divide this chapter into three sections. Michael Wilcock has titled these sections as follows: The Fall of Babylon, The Judgment of Babylon, and The Death of Babylon.

 

I.             The Fall of Babylon (18:1-3)

 

This chapter contains what might be called a Doom Song. John is echoing passages from the Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah.

 

In the totality of this chapter, John presents us with four reasons for the fall of Rome.

 

First, Rome falls because of the way she makes her wealth and the way she uses it. She lives in luxury at the expense of the poor. The author of Revelation sides with the oppressed majority of the Roman Empire.

 

Second, Rome falls because of her blasphemous self-glorification. She “glorified herself” (18:7) and saw herself as an eternal city. “I rule as a queen… and I will never see grief.” This boasting flows out of the worst sort of pride, what the ancients called hubris. It is blasphemous because Rome considers herself a goddess.

 

Third, Rome falls because of her emperor cult that promotes idol worship. This is one reason why Rome is called a harlot. She has seduced people into false worship. This is also why John uses the word “fornication” repeatedly. In the history of Israel this word was often associated with idolatry.

 

Fourth, Rome falls because she has used violence as her mode of operation, including the death penalty for Christians in matters of conscience. It is estimated that in the first few hundred years of the Church approximately two million Christians were martyred. (McCan) 

 

But as has often been said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” By AD 400 approximately 20% of the world population was Christian and the Scriptures had been translated into 11 languages. Today, over 30% of the world’s population is Christian and the Bible has been translated into over 700 languages.

 

II.          The Judgment of Babylon (18:4-20)

 

At the beginning of this second section, Christians are called to come out of Babylon. This raises the question: how do we live in the world without being of the world? 

 

There have been many different answers to that question through the ages. H Richard Niebuhr classified these responses in his book, Christ and Culture. He tells us of five different Christian responses to culture over the past 2000 years:

 

1.    Christ against Culture

2.    The Christ of Culture

3.    Christ above Culture

4.    Christ and Culture in Paradox

5.    Christ the Transformer of Culture

 

How do we decide which approach to take and when? Robert McCan addresses that question in this way…

 

Under the circumstances of Roman culture and imperial rule, it was appropriate for … Christians in Asia Minor to “come out of her,” to refuse to participate in political life. But it would be a grave mistake to make this a mandate for all times or suppose that Christians today in our country should not participate in community and government affairs. Indeed, quite the opposite; we have a responsibility to stand up for our convictions and concerns by taking our place in the political and community arenas.

 

Christians, then, need a guiding principle when deciding whether to participate in government—or any organization. We join those groups for which we feel responsible and that in general support our Christian perspective. In any organization, we may object to some particular policies or practices. We do not need to resign so long as we can make our voices heard and share our views with others, while acknowledging our need to learn from others. We should separate ourselves, however, when we can no longer bear effective witness. If the group has become overwhelmingly corrupt, or if we can no longer support the basic direction of the group, we can witness more effectively by withdrawing than by working for internal reform. The basic principle is clear: separate from sin while making a loving witness.[1]

 

The central section of this chapter shows us that the doom of pride is inevitable. Arrogance reaches a giddy height and then crashes to the earth like the Tower of Babel.

 

The judgments of verses 6 to 8 are structured in such a way as to make it clear that the destruction of Babylon/Rome is what she has brought upon herself. There is no arbitrary punishment here from the hand of an angry and vengeful god. A person reaps what they sow. The same is true for cities, nations, and empires.

 

In verses 9 through 19 we have three dirges echoing laments that we read in Ezekiel 26 and 27. First, there is the Dirge Song of the Kings in verses 9 through 10. Then there is the Dirge Song of the Merchants in verses 11 through 16. And finally, there is the Dirge Song of the Shipmasters & Sailors in verses 17 through 19.

 

Bruce Metzger points out that…

 

By mentioning slaves at the end of the list of commodities, John intends a climax: the essential inhumanity of Rome’s exploitation of the empire clearly reveals itself by the constant flow of slaves from the provinces to the city of Rome. By John’s time slaves made up almost half the population of the city.

 

Is it not interesting that the dirges in this chapter are spoken by worldlings, people who are totally focused on this world for their profit and pleasure? Though there are laments spoken by believers in the Bible, I do not think of lament as the dominant characteristic of the Christian. No, the dominant characteristic of the Christian is joy, the gift of the Spirit of Christ.

 

In reading this chapter I could not help but think of a story I once heard told by Pastor John Maxwell. Many years ago, Maxwell arrived as the new pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego. He followed the very successful founding pastor of the church, Orval Butcher, who left a church of 1100 people when he retired.

 

If you have ever heard John Maxwell speak, or read one of his books, you know he is a very positive, upbeat kind of guy. Shortly after becoming the Senior Pastor at Skyline, there was a Sunday where the organist at the church played a piece that did not set too well with John.

 

Afterwards, John approached the organist in private and asked, “What was that piece you played at the end of the service?”

 

The organist replied, “Oh, that was a seventeenth century dirge.”

 

“A seventeenth century dirge?”

 

“Yes, a dirge is a lament for the dead. It usually forms one part of the funeral rite.”

 

John said, “I see,” and then he continued by saying to the organist, “I would counsel you to purge the urge to dirge.”

 

I love that! I am glad that I am not serving in a church where there is an urge to dirge. Melodi, June, and I have talked about this. I believe that every worship service in the church should uplift people’s souls.

 

Yes, we will, as Jesus said, experience much tribulation in the world. And because of that, there is a place for lament. But lament for the Christian should always lead to uplift because after Jesus was uplifted on the cross for our sins, he was also uplifted from the grave to everlasting life. And Jesus wants to do the same for us. He wants to uplift us.

 

But sometimes, before we get to the uplifting stage, we have to go through a stage of death.

 

III.       The Death of Babylon (18:21-24)

 

That leads us to the final section of this chapter: all about the death of Rome. Note: this chapter is not about the end of the world. And in a sense, it is not even about the end of Rome per se. But it is about the end of the Roman empire.

 

Now, I know that this whole chapter can sound very callous toward the citizens of Rome. It can sound like John is urging his fellow Jesus-followers to be gleeful over the death of Rome. And we need to be careful at this point. It is true, as William Barclay says, that the real Christian attitude toward enmity is to seek to destroy it, not by force, but by the power of love.

 

The story is told of how Abraham Lincoln was criticized for being too forgiving of his opponents. His answer was, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” I believe that is certainly the attitude every Christian ought to have.

 

But sometimes, when an individual, or a group of people, or even a nation is unrepentant, it may be our duty to fight against it, as we did during World War II. Rejoicing at the downfall of the Nazi regime was not wrong. Neither was it wrong for Christians to rejoice at the thought of the downfall of the Roman Empire and all the evil it stood for.

 

There is a delicate balance here that needs to be struck in the life of every Christian. I remember my youth pastor telling a story of his years growing up during WWII. One day his mother overheard him playing outside and saying, “I hate Hitler!” His mother quickly corrected him and said, “You don’t hate Hitler. You hate the things he does.” That’s the balance we need to achieve in our lives: the balance between hating the sin while still loving the sinner, even when that sinner is us.

 

Once again, Bruce Metzger has a great summary of this whole chapter. He writes…

 

It is remarkable that when John wrote these immensely moving chapters about the fall of Rome, Rome was still very much alive, still enjoying undisputed sovereignty and undimmed prestige. So great, however, is John’s faith in the sovereignty of God and so great is his confidence that the justice of God must eventually punish evil, that he writes as though Rome had already fallen. As with so many judgments of God, the fulfillment actually came slowly, but at last suddenly. For centuries Rome decayed and degenerated, moral poison infecting her whole life. Then during a fateful week in August of the year A.D. 410, Alaric, with his northern hordes of Goths, pillaged Rome and laid it waste.

 

What do we learn from this part of the book of Revelation? Certainly John wrote in order to stimulate faithfulness on the part of persecuted Christians living in the first century. He assures them of the ultimate victory of Christ. But Revelation also has a warning for believers down through the years. Babylon is allegorical of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator. In these chapters we have an up-to-date portrait of what may occur when we idolize the gross national product, worship growth, and become so preoccupied with quantity that we ignore quality. The message of the book of Revelation concerns the character and timeliness of God’s judgment not only of persons, but also of nations and, in fact, of all principalities and powers—which is to say, all authorities, corporations, institutions, structures, bureaucracies, and the like. And, to the extent that ecclesiastical denominations and sects have succumbed to the lure of power and prestige, the words of John are applicable also to present-day church structures.


Wow! Does that speak to us in our time or what?

St. Augustine wrote what some consider to be his greatest work after Alaric took Rome in 410. The title of Augustine’s book was The City of God. Over the course of some 800 pages, Augustine urges his readers to make one simple choice. Decide who and what you are going to live for. In the end, the choice comes down to living for The City of God or The City of Man. Which will it be for you?


[1] Robert McCan, A Vision of Victory, Charleston, SC: Flying Swan Publications, 2013, pp. 143-144.

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