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.
At the end of the chapter we have another list, even more poignant. Babylon will be judged, Babylon will go down. The merchants mourn the loss of their wealth. And there is more mourning, which is really at the loss of the humane-ness, the day to day living, that characterized this city. The grief is that these humane activities will not be found in Babylon any more: harpists and minstrels, flutists and trumpeters, artisans and millers, the light of a lamp, and the voices of bride and groom. But this is why they won’t be found, because of what was found in Babylon: “The blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”
John’s main concern
Babylon the great—all-powerful, it may seem; beacon of peace and order, it may seem. But actually the home of every foul and hateful beast, trafficker in slaves, killer of prophets and saints. But Rome was not only beastly. It is precisely the reality that Rome was not only beastly that makes John feel like he must make his points so dramatically. He writes to people in his churches who find Rome attractive—too attractive.
But what is John’s agenda? He actually has a positive agenda. He’s not mainly about criticism and condemnation. He’s not mainly about pointing fingers. In fact, he’s not mainly about worrying about what empires, including Babylon/Rome, do. He is mainly about encouraging encouraging redemption. So what is redemptive in this vision in Revelation 18?
First, we remember that John points ahead to the New Jerusalem. Notice that in chapter 18, we have two different kinds of people. The kings, merchants, and shipmasters on the one hand. They are the ones complicit with Babylon’s exploitive ways. They are the ones who get riches and power from the ways the global economy work. They weep and mourn. “Alas, alas, for this great city that will be no more.” The other kind of people are those who welcome Babylon’s fall. “Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints, you apostles, you prophets!” These are the ones who in the very next vision celebrate the wedding supper of the Lamb and will welcome and be at home in the New Jerusalem.
God’s answer to the cry for vengeance
Let’s think about this contrast between these two kinds of people. The fact that the kings and merchants and shipmasters mourn Babylon’s fall tells us what about their relationship with Babylon? Well, they are linked closely enough to grieve, bitterly. But, we are told, they all “stood far off.” They don’t go down with Babylon themselves. In 18:20, the call to rejoice at Babylon’s fall, states, “God has given judgment for you [saints and prophets] against her.” Judgment because Babylon is where the blood of saints and prophets is found. These images link back to chapter 6 when the witnesses under the altar (surely the same as chapter 18’s saints and prophets) cry out for vengeance. That cry is now being answered.
But there is a subtle yet crucial difference between what the witnesses ask for in chapter 6 and what they are given in chapter 18. In chapter 6, they ask for vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth” (that is, against the kings and merchants and shipmasters). But in chapter 18, they are told that God’s judgment is against Babylon. Babylon goes down like a large millstone being thrown into the sea—but the human allies of Babylon stand far off and watch.
In the end, God’s justice works differently than simple punitive vengeance focused on the inhabitants of the earth. What Revelation portrays is destruction of the systems of evil. It is the human city insofar as it is organized for injustice that goes down. But with what consequence for the human kings of the earth? They are healed and welcomed into the New Jerusalem—as, too, is the glory of the nations, the glory of the human city (insofar as the human city is humane).
John wants his readers to know two things: both of which will give us hope and courage, both of which will strengthen us to give our allegiance to the New Jerusalem and not to Babylon. The one is this—be confident that the celebration of the New Jerusalem is real. It is the deepest truth of creation. It is the truth of the maker of the universe. And the second is this—be confident that our own acts of compassion, our own acts of resistance, our own acts of solidarity—all of these play a role, a crucial role, in the entry of the New Jerusalem. All of these play a role, a crucial role, in God’s healing work.
Link to index for “What does Revelation say?” blog posts