What does the book of Revelation say? (part 14)

Ted Grimsrud

14. Confessions of a Birthright Imperialist—Revelation 18:1-24

[This is the fourteenth 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.]

Revelation, chapter 18, focuses on a critique of the great city, called here Babylon—probably with Rome in mind, but also most other imperial capital cities ever since. John challenges his first readers with how they think about the empire they are part of. As such, I think Revelation, chapter 18 works as a good challenge for us today to think about how we feel about our empire.

What’s wrong with Babylon?

What does Revelation 18 say is wrong with Babylon/Rome? Well, Babylon may seem all powerful, full of greatness and things to inspire awe and respect. But the vision in Revelation states that Babylon is home for demons, every foul spirit, bird, and hateful beast. Now, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Rome was disgusting and foul. This is not an objective statement of clear sociological fact. It’s more a kind of moral or theological interpretation that said, in effect, that Babylon/Rome in actuality, beneath the smoke and mirrors of imperial power and splendor, was corrupt—and corrupting. It was not a place of genuine life-enhancing beauty, but the opposite, the haunt of death.

Babylon/Rome did like all imperial centers did and do—it demanded and, by and large received, loyalty. People believed in it, trusted in it, gave it their consent to dominate. Babylon gives wine to the nations that makes them drunk. And it “commits fornication” with the “kings of the earth.” And it makes the “merchants of the earth” rich. The problem is not literally alcohol and sex. The problem is that by trusting in Babylon, the nations, the kings, and the merchants join in Babylon’s injustice.

Revelation 18 twice details in subtle but powerful ways the dynamics of empire that Babylon follows. First, the chapter portrays the economic dynamics of empire. The merchants of the earth grow wealthy almost beyond measure due to their collaboration with Babylon. They profit from trade of all sorts of things, according to a long list: 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. At the end of all the cargo comes this, stated as just one more item: “slaves—and human lives.” This is what’s wrong with Babylon. The commerce may benefit many people, but the great wealth it generates for the merchants and Babylon ultimately comes off the backs of the poor, the vulnerable, the defenseless—and makes their lives worse. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 14)”