Destruction of Babylon

SYNOPSIS – The destruction of Babylon is God’s response to her persecution of the followers of the Lamb – Revelation 18:9-24.

Harbor - Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash
Maksym Kaharlytskyi - Unsplash

The book of Revelation now provides a detailed description of and justification for the destruction of Babylon, the “great city.” Her downfall is the product of the hatred of the “ten horns” or “kings” allied with the Beast in their God-driven campaign to desolate and “burn her utterly with fire” (Revelation 17:16).

The stress falls on two misdeeds of the “Great Harlot” - Her involvement in world commerce, and her “sorcery.” The latter became manifest in her efforts to destroy the saints.

The description of the judgment of “Mystery Babylon” draws on passages from the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel from judicial pronouncements on the ancient cities of Babylon and Tyre, respectively. Both of them depended heavily on maritime trade for their prosperity (Jeremiah 50-51, Ezekiel 26-27).

Passages that referred originally to enemies of ancient Israel are now applied to the foes of the first-century churches. This should caution readers against strictly literal interpretations of the images described in this chapter. Further, prophecies originally made against two separate city-states, Babylon and Tyre, are now applied to the single “great city, Babylon,” which “spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also Jesus was crucified.” Jesus was not killed in Sodom or Egypt and died outside the walls of Jerusalem on a Roman cross.

Babylon” is the world-city in which Jesus was executed, a city set on “seven mountains” that reigned over the “kings of the earth” and the “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues,” a world-power involved in seafaring commerce around the known world. John’s first-century audience could only have interpreted “Babylon” with the Roman Empire in mind.

  • (Revelation 18:9-24) – “And they shall weep and wail over her —shall the kings of the earth who, with her, committed lewdness and waxed wanton, — as soon as they see the smoke of her burning, — afar off, standing, because of their fear of her torment, saying — Alas! alas! the great city! Babylon, the mighty city! That, in one hour, hath come thy judgment.  And, the merchants of the earth, weep and grieve over her, because their cargo no one buyeth any more: cargo of gold, and silver, and precious stone, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and every article of ivory, and every article of wood most precious, and of copper, and of iron, and of marble, and cinnamon, and spice, and incense, and unguent, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep, and [cargo] of horses, and of chariots, and of bodies, and lives of men. And the fruit of the coveting of thy soul hath departed from thee, and all things rich and bright have perished from thee; and, no more, in anywise, for them shall they seek. The merchants of these things, who were enriched by her, afar off shall stand, because of their fear of her torment, weeping and grieving, as they say — Alas! alas! the great city! She that was arrayed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stone, and pearl, — That, in one hour, hath been laid waste, such great wealth as this! And every pilot, and every passenger, and mariners, and as many as by the sea carry on traffic, afar off did stand, and they cried out, seeing the smoke of her burning, saying — What city is like unto the great city? And they cast dust upon their heads, and cried out, weeping and grieving, saying — Alas! alas! the great city! Whereby were made rich all that had ships in the sea, by reason of her costliness, — that, in one hour, she hath been laid waste! Be glad over her, thou heaven! And ye saints, and ye apostles, and ye prophets! For that God hath exacted your vindication from her. And one mighty messenger lifted a stone, as it were a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying — Thus, with main force, shall be cast down Babylon the great city, — and in nowise be found any more; And sound of harp-singers, and musicians, and flute-players, and trumpeters, — in nowise be heard in thee anymore; and any artisan [of any art], — in nowise be found in thee anymore; and sound of millstone, — in nowise be found in thee anymore; And light of lamp, — in nowise shine in thee anymore; and voice of bridegroom and bride, — in nowise be heard in thee anymore; because thy merchants were the great ones of the earth, because with thy sorcery were all the nations deceived: And in her blood of prophets and saints was found, — and of all who had been slain upon the earth.” [Source:  The Emphasized Bible].

Dollar Sign - Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The primary allies of the “Great Harlot” are the “kings of the earth,” a group over which Babylon “reigns.” They have been seduced into thralldom by “fornicating” with her (In Revelation, “fornication” especially has idolatry in view. Elsewhere, the “kings of the earth” are allied with the Beast-from-the-sea in its war against the Lamb (Revelation 6:15, 16:14, 17:18, 19:19).

The “kings of the earth” mourn when they see the “smoke of her burning” and withdraw from her so as not to be consumed along with her. In the preceding chapter, John was informed that the “ten horns” or “kings” would hate the woman, “eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.” God put this into their hearts to fulfill His will (Revelation 17:16-17).

The “smoke of her burning” is conceptually parallel to the “smoke of the torment” due to the punishment of men who rendered homage to the Beast (Revelation 14:11 – “The smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever”).

Alas, the great city, Babylon.” This is the same “great city” that rejoiced over the killing of the two witnesses by the “Beast from the Abyss,” the city called spiritually “Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” It is the same “city” where the winepress of God’s wrath was “trodden” without its walls. She is the “great city that reigns over the kings of the earth,” the city that sits on “seven mountains” (Revelation 11:7-13, 14:8-20, 17:9, 17:18).

The first audience to hear this vision was comprised of the seven churches of Asia. They lived under Roman rule, the overlord over the entire Mediterranean basin, southern Europe, and much of the Near East. The imperial government and Roman economy were dependent on maritime commerce. This does not mean ancient Rome exhausted the application of this vision; however, it certainly included it (“there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come”).

As previously, the book of Revelation adapts language from Jeremiah’s judicial pronouncement against ancient Babylon when it describes the downfall of Babylon:

  • (Jeremiah 51:8-9) – “Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed…We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go everyone into his own country: for her judgment reaches unto heaven.”

In one hour has been laid waste such great wealth.” The judgment period of “one hour” is repeated three times and corresponds to the “in one day” from the last chapter. The same clause is used elsewhere for the final “hour” of the Lamb’s arrival in judgment, the climax toward which the book moves inexorably and on multiple levels (compare - Revelation 6:12-17, 17:12, 18:10, 18:17, 18:19):

  • (Revelation 3:3) – “If you do not watch, I will come as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.”
  • (Revelation 3:10) – “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of trial that will come on the whole habitable earth.”
  • (Revelation 9:15) – “And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.”
  • (Revelation 11:13) – “And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell…
  • (Revelation 14:7) – “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come.”

The condemnation of the “merchants of the earth” and the listing of their merchandise borrows heavily from the pronouncement of Ezekiel against the old seafaring city-state of Tyre. Because of the exploitation of the kingdom of Judah, God pronounced the destruction of its commercial empire (“Thus saith Yahweh, Behold, I am against thee, O Tyre, and will cause many nations to come up against thee” – Ezekiel 26:3):

  • (Ezekiel 26:15-19) – “Thus saith the Lord Yahweh to Tyre: Shall not the isles shake at the sound of thy fall, when the wounded groan, when the slaughter is made in the midst of thee? Then all the princes of the sea shall come down from their thrones, and lay aside their robes, and strip off their broidered garments: they shall clothe themselves with trembling; they shall sit upon the ground, and shall tremble every moment, and be astonished at thee. And they shall take up a lamentation over thee, and say to thee, How art thou destroyed, that wast inhabited by seafaring men, the renowned city, that was strong in the sea, she and her inhabitants, that caused their terror to be on all that dwelt there! Now shall the isles tremble in the day of thy fall; yea, the isles that are in the sea shall be dismayed at thy departure. For thus saith the Lord Yahweh: When I shall make thee a desolate city, like the cities that are not inhabited; when I shall bring up the deep upon thee, and the great waters shall cover thee.”
  • (Ezekiel 27:1-25) – “Take up a lamentation over Tyre; O thou that dwellest at the entry of the sea, that art the merchant of the peoples unto many isles…Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kinds of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded for thy wares. Javan, Tubal, and Meshech, they were thy traffickers; they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass for thy merchandise. They of the house of Togarmah traded for thy wares with horses and war-horses and mules. The men of Dedan were thy traffickers; many isles were the mart of thy hand: they brought thee in exchange horns of ivory and ebony.  Syria was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of thy handiworks: they traded for thy wares with emeralds, purple, and broidered work, and fine linen, and coral, and rubies. Judah, and the land of Israel, they were thy traffickers: they traded for thy merchandise wheat of Minnith, and pannag, and honey, and oil, and balm…These were thy traffickers in choice wares, in wrappings of blue and broidered work, and in chests of rich apparel, bound with cords and made of cedar, among thy merchandise. The ships of Tarshish were thy caravans for thy merchandise: and thou wast replenished, and made very glorious in the heart of the seas.”

Ancient Babylon and Tyre suffered great loss long before John found himself on the Isle of Patmos. In its economic critique of the “great city,” the book of Revelation adapts the list of trade goods from the book of Ezekiel to correspond to the kind of commodities ships transported commonly to Rome from around the Empire.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

The merchants who were enriched by her stand afar off weeping.” This statement corresponds to Ezekiel 27:31 where the merchants of Tyre “make themselves utterly bald for thee, and gird them with sackcloth, and they shall weep for thee with bitterness of heart and bitter wailing.” They may mourn her (and their) loss, but the merchants and kings of the earth have no interest in partaking of Babylon’s plagues although, in the end, they, too, will taste destruction.

For in one hour so great riches are made desolate.” The same Greek verb rendered “desolate” in Revelation 17:16 is used here - The agent that desolates the commercial empire of Babylon is the group of “ten kings” (“The ten horns will hate the harlot and make her desolate”).

What city is like unto the great city?” The lamentations of the merchants and sailors echo the prophetic dirge of Ezekiel over Tyre, only now, applied to the contemporary “Babylon”:

  • And in their wailing, they shall take up a lamentation for thee, and lament over thee, saying, What city is like Tyre, like the destroyed in the midst of the sea?” (Ezekiel 27:32).

Be glad over her…you saints and apostles and prophets, for that God has exacted your vindication from her.” The collapse of this economic system is not just a punishment for its sins but, also, a vindication of the saints persecuted by it. The inclusion of “apostles and prophets” demonstrates that those who were persecuted by Babylon belonged to the church, not to national Israel. Though Old Testament language originally applied to the kingdom of Judah is used, it is applied to the saints of the Lamb, beginning with the seven churches of Asia.

The term “apostles” occurs only two additional times in the book - For “false apostles” and the names of the “twelve apostles of the Lamb” engraved on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 2:2, 21:14).

The call for the saints of Jesus to “rejoice” echoes Jeremiah’s pronouncement against ancient Babylon for her persecution of the Jews:

  • (Jeremiah 51:47-48) – “Therefore, behold, the days come, that I will do judgment upon the graven images of Babylon: and her whole land shall be confounded, and all her slain shall fall in the midst of her. Then, the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, shall sing for Babylon.”

Next, an angel next casts a great stone into the sea while proclaiming, “Thus, with main force, shall be cast down Babylon the great city, and in nowise be found anymoreAnd sound of harp-singers, and musicians, and flute-players, and trumpeters, — in nowise be heard in thee anymore.” Once again, this extended passage alludes to Jeremiah’s pronouncement against Babylon and Ezekiel’s lament over Tyre, as follows:

  • (Jeremiah 51:63-64) – “And it shall be, when thou hast made an end of reading this book, that thou shalt bind a stone to it, and cast it into the midst of Euphrates: And thou shalt say, Thus shall Babylon sink and shall not rise from the evil that I will bring upon her.”
  • (Jeremiah 51:37) – “And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for serpents, an astonishment and a hissing, without an inhabitant.”
  • (Ezekiel 26:13) – “And I will cause the noise of thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard. And I will make thee a bare rock; thou shalt be a place for the spreading of nets; thou shalt be built no more: for I, Yahweh, have spoken it.”

Because your merchants were the great ones of the earth.” This identifies the “merchants” with the “great ones” who, along with the “kings of the earth,” attempted to hide from the “wrath of the Lamb” when the sixth seal was opened. This description is a further echo from the book of Ezekiel:

  • (Ezekiel 27:33) – “When thy wares went forth out of the seas, you filled many people; you enriched the kings of the earth with the multitude of your merchandise. In the time when you will be broken by the seas in the depths of the waters your merchandise and all your company in the midst of you will fall.

Because by your sorcery were all the nations deceived.” “Sorcery” translates the Greek noun pharmakeia. While it is true the modern English term ‘pharmacy’ is derived from this Greek word, it is a mistake to assume it had the same connotation of powerful mind-altering drugs in John’s day. Pharmakeia is from pharmakon or “sorcery,” a noun used elsewhere in the New Testament for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”:

  • (Revelation 9:21) – “And the rest of mankind, who were not killed with these plagues, repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood; which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk: and they repented not of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.”
  • (Galatians 5:20) – “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife…”

Pharmakon (the neuter case) could include the potions used by sorcerers that were employed in magical rituals and spells, whether to work good or ill. Closely related is the noun pharmakeus, a “sorcerer” who performs spells and prepares potions used in them (Revelation 21:8 – “But the fearful and unbelieving…and sorcerers will have their part in the lake which burns with fire”).

However, in this passage it is not sorcerers and witches in general that are condemned, but Babylon, the “great city,” for her “sorcery.” The term pharmakon in the masculine gender (pharmakos), as here, referred in ancient Greece to human victims sacrificed or expelled as scapegoats during times of societal crisis, most often, criminals and other undesirables. John may wish his readers to make this connection. The nations were deceived by Babylon’s “sorcery” to persecute the saints, for the blood of the “saints” and “all who had been slain upon the earth” was found in her.

The Greek term rendered “slain” refers to the “slaying” of sacrificial victims, not to killing in general.  The Greek verb sphazo was used specifically for killing animals in sacrificial rituals.  It is the same term applied previously to the “slain” Lamb and the souls who were “slain for the word of God” under the altar when the fifth seal was opened (Revelation 5:6-12, 6:9, 13:8).

If this connection is correct, the “sorcery” of Babylon refers to the offering of sacrificial victims to appease her gods and, thereby, preserve societal order and prosperity, not to the practice of witchcraft in general. Her sacrificial victims are the saints, apostles, and prophets slain on account of their testimony.

When the “Beast from the Abyss” killed the Two Witnesses, their corpses laid in the street of the “great city” where “their Lord was crucified.” The “inhabitants of the earth” rejoiced over their deaths because the Two Witnesses “tormented the inhabitants of the earth” by their prophetic testimony (Revelation 11:7-13).

  • (Revelation 1:5) – “Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.”
  • (Revelation 2:13) – “In the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwelleth.”
  • (Revelation 12:11) – “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
  • (Revelation 17:6) – “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
  • (Revelation 20:4) – “I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God.”

The judgment and destruction of Babylon is God’s response to her persecution of the church, as well as His vindication of their faithful “word of testimony” (Revelation 12:11). The conflict in the book of Revelation is between the Dragon and the Lamb, not between nations or conventional military forces. And this “war” plays out on the earth when the servants of the Dragon persecute the followers of the Lamb, the churches of Jesus Christ.

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