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.
So, John simply reports on human experience in history. John does not predict a future spiral of three sets of plagues in three moments in time that just get worse and worse. Rather, the movement from one-quarter to complete is rhetorical. It’s a way to make a point about how serious John wants his readers take these problems that plague humanity. He increases the stakes each time in order to grab his readers’ attention.
Why John writes
Let’s remember why John writes. He wants his readers, the seven congregations addressed in chapters two and three, to be aware of what kind of world they live in—and what kind of response God wants from them. Many of John’s readers are comfortable and relatively secure. They find ways to prosper, in their world. But to do so, they must embrace the spirituality of empire and give loyalty to Caesar.
John thinks this embrace is tragic. Few of his readers perceive the oppression and destructiveness of the Roman Empire. They themselves do fine; they don’t notice the backs upon which the empire is built and rests—the slaves, the oppressed and exploited, the empire’s enemies, souls that the empire destroys for its own gain. Even worse, they fail to be agents of healing. John shares these visions of the terrible reality of actual life in the world (exaggerated, to be sure) in order to challenge his readers to respond to their calling: no to empire, yes to transformative compassion.
God’s healing agenda
Our keys to understanding what is going in with these bowl plagues come at the very beginning and in the third bowl plague.
First, we must notice the opening picture to these visions—the people of God, those who have conquered the beast, stand by the sea (15:1). Revelation tells us earlier how they conquer: “By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony [when] they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). Remember the key image back in chapter five of the Lamb, “standing as if slain.” These who stand next to the sea here sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. The song praises the justice and truth of God that results in this: “All nations will come and worship before you” (15:4). In whatever follows, the purposes of God are this worship—joy, healing, solidarity, celebration.
Of course, what follows with the plagues hardly seems joyful and celebrative. But we should read what follows carefully. What’s going on is the working out of God’s “wrath.” The idea of “wrath” in Revelation is that God’s providential care allows for consequences and the outworking of human freedom, even when that freedom finds expression in hurtful ways. God’s wrath is not the direct finger of God. In fact, the powers of evil (the dragon, beast, false prophet) are the ones directly responsible for the plagues. But they do not thwart God’s purposes in the long run.
“Drinking the saints blood”
The method of the working out of God’s purpose is persevering love. We see this in the third plague in chapter 16: “The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. I heard the angel of the waters say, ‘You are just, O Holy One; you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’ And I heard the altar respond, ‘Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!’”
There is something here that may seem pretty surprising, though not if we know how to read Revelation. Notice what happens to the ones who “shed the blood of saints and prophets.” What should happen to them? You would expect that their own blood would be shed—they killed by the sword, it would seem “just” for them to die by the sword.
But that is not what happens. Instead, “they are given [the] blood [of the saints and prophets] to drink.” What a strange punishment! But let’s remember how the metaphor of “blood” works in Revelation. All the people in our day who dismiss Revelation as bloody and violent have never noticed the way “blood” actually is used in the book. The only blood that is ever shed in Revelation is the blood of the Lamb sheds or the blood of his followers. Blood is not an image used of punishment. Blood is an image used of persevering love. Blood is not an image used of God’s retaliation. Blood is an image used of the non-retaliation of the Lamb and his followers.
So, in the third bowl plague, saints and prophets are those who witness to life like Jesus did. They suffer consequences. They have their blood shed—the very blood that the Powers “drink.” And it defeats the powers. The prophets and saints conquer by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
We will learn more in Revelation 17 and 18 about what happens when “they” drink the blood of the saints and prophets. For now though, the key point is simply to remember that 15:4 tells us that God’s purpose is the healing and worship of the nations. Knowing this purpose should govern our reading of everything in Revelation.