What does the book of Revelation say? (part 12)

Ted Grimsrud

12. Transforming Babylon—Revelation 15:1–16:21

[This is the twelfth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

At the very beginning of World War II, British poet W. H. Auden wrote what became a famous poem called “September 1, 1939”—the day that Germany invaded Poland and that Britain and France declared war on Germany. Auden realized this was a world-changing moment. He laments: “I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” He struggles with the outworking of this spiral of evil, then concludes with the poem’s most famous line: “We must love one another or die.”

Now, as it turned out, Auden repudiated this poem and especially this line. He rarely allowed the poem to be reprinted and when he did once, he left that line out. I suppose he thought that it showed him to be too sentimental and weak. After all, what was necessary to stop the Nazis was brute force, not love. But still, did the Nazi spirit truly lose that war? Was Auden’s plea for the need for love refuted? I tend to think not.

In fact, were we to summarize the life work of Martin Luther King in just a few words, this phrase, “we must love one another or die” would work pretty well. But we live in a world not all that friendly to love, it would seem—look at what happened to King himself, shot to death at the age of 39.

The “real world”

Revelation 15–16 actually can be helpful for us as we think about love and the “real world.” What we have here is the third of three terribly destructive sets of seven plagues. Each set gets worse—first, we read of terrible destruction that brings death to one-quarter of the earth; then, the destruction comes to one-third of the earth. And now, here, in chapter 16, “every living thing in the sea died.”

What’s going on with these visions? Well, they are not meant to be read with precise literalism. We have these visions of death and right afterward the story goes on with people and things still living. The tales of destruction should be read symbolically. They symbolize—not particular moments of extraordinary, even unbelievable death and destruction—but the on-going reality of human life.

The numbers, one-quarter, one-third, total, do not tell how many are going to be destroyed. Rather, they simply convey terrible destruction. People die in wars and famine, empires and nation-states wreak havoc, the earth itself is exploited and polluted and poisoned. Such destructiveness ebbs and flows throughout human history. But the brokenness, the alienation, the attempts at domination and control, the conflicts, the corruptions, wars rumors of war, all stretch back over most of the past 2,000 years. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 12)”