Revelation 17–18. Act III. Scene I. Babylon the Great.
Key Notes: Babylon through history. Christians and their cities.
17:1–6 John sees a vision of a queen-like woman named "Babylon the Great, Mother of Harlots and the Earth's abominations". She is seated on many waters, sitting on a scarlet beast with ten horns and seven heads, with a cup full of wickedness in her hand. She is the persecutor of the Church.
17:7–18 The passage explains the symbolic references. The waters are the peoples of the earth. (So when we read of a beast coming out of the sea, we understand it to be out of the chaos of human society.) The scarlet Beast is probably the same Beast as in 13:2, with one head seeming to have a mortal wound. These seven heads stand for seven kings that appear to be contemporary with John. Five had already fallen; one was contemporary, and the other was yet to come. The seven horns are also seven mountains on which the woman is seated. This makes Rome the almost inevitable choice for this city-state --"the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth". (17:18). The first five Roman emperors were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. After the death of Nero there were two years of chaos with three short-lived emperors, then Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. William Barclay believes that Vespasian is the one referred to: "One is" and guesses that Domitian is "the other has not come yet."Many interpreters believe all these kings are yet in the future. There may be a double fulfillment.
The ten horns are future kings (17:12) who will give their authority to the beast and make war on the Lamb--and lose. They will also turn against their great city-state--Babylon--and destroy her with fire.
18:1–3 The doom of Babylon is sounded.
18:4–8 A hymn of judgment on Babylon, with a warning for believers to leave Babylon in order not to participate in her crimes and share in her plagues. For her part, Babylon believes that she is invulnerable.
18:9 The kings of the earth lament the destruction of this great city.
18:11–13 The merchants mourn their loss of business. They catalog the goods of her commerce in order of importance: jewelry, fabrics, lavish structural materials, spices and fragrances, luxury foods, animals, and human beings (slaves).
18:17 The mariners cry over their loss of shipping business. "All this wealth laid waste."
18:20 Heaven, however, rejoices.
18:21 A mighty angel symbolizes Babylon's destruction by throwing a millstone into the sea (Jer.51:64) and declares the end also of her cultural life--music, craft-work, milling, home-making, marriage rituals, sorcery, murder and persecution of the saints. It is a mixture of the good and the evil.
In summary, Rome of John's day, the world power and a center of great wealth, is a model of an end-of-the-age world power that will be supported by the international community (many waters) and the Beast (also known as the Antichrist), and a consortium of ten kings. It is a monopoly of politics, commerce and culture. The Beast and these ten kings will eventually turn on this world-power and destroy it and then will be destroyed themselves by Christ.
Babylon has many dimensions in Revelation.
The harlot for ten kings. 17:2
A tavern hostess plying people with drinks. 17:2
A queen, not a widow in mourning, alone and supreme. 17:7–8
A great city that dominates the kings of the earth. 17:18
A commercial empire. 18:9–19
A cultural center. 18:21–23
Persecutor of the saints. 18:24
Ultimately a chicken coop for dirty birds. 18:2
Why is this world-power called Babylon instead of Rome? (Cf.1Pet.5:13).
Perhaps because Babylon has been in opposition to God from the beginning of human civilization.
After the Flood "Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before (against) the Lord....The beginning of his kingdom was Babel...." Gen.10:8–10)
A mighty hunter against the Lord describes his reputation.
Gen.11:1–9. The tower of Babel was a concerted attempt to develop what we understand to be the essence of the City: a tower to the heavens, a reputation, and a concentration of power. God intervened by scrambling their communication. The name Babel means "Gate of God", and a play on words makes it "confusion".
Isa.13 pronounces God's judgment on the city of Babylon before she attacked Israel and prophesies her replacement by the Medes, and her final destruction. "It will never be inhabited or dwelt in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, ...but wild beasts will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there satyrs will dance." (Isa.13:20–21). Rev.18:2 is similar.
Isa.14 describes the king of Babylon as the Day Star who intended to make himself like The Most High. The text suggests a person so exalted that many interpret the description to be that of Satan.
Isa.46 also denounces Babylon, this time for her idolatry. Isa.47 speaks in terms much like Rev.18. "...you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, 'I am and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children.'" (Isa.47:8)
Jer.50–51 is a prophecy against Babylon by the prophet who suffered with Judah through Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem. "First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones." (Jer.50:17). Jeremiah's advice for Judah is "Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as he-goats before the flock." (50:8). That is, lead the way out into exile.
Dan.4:30 At the height of his power, Nebuchadnezzar said "Is this not great Babylon which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" At once he became insane. But the destruction of Babylon awaited Darius the Mede, who invaded and killed Beltashazzar, his son. Dan.5:30.
In summary, Babylon / Rome is a typical wicked city-state. God tells His people to leave Babylon. How should we react to our city?
Babylon (OT) was not the only great city which God condemned.
*Ninevah was prophesied to by Jonah and later condemned by Nahum.
*Tyre had a king so exalted as to be equated with Satan. "You were on the holy mountain of God, in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till iniquity was found in you." Ezek.28:14–15) He too was prophesied to come to a dreadful end.
Time would fail us to list the indictments against the many city-states around Israel: Assyria , Egypt, Medo-Persia, Damascus, Gaza, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Philistia, Ethiopia, Arabia, Libya (Isa.14–23; Amos 1–2, Obadiah, Nahum, Zeph.2, are cited for examples). At the time of Israel's destruction, God prophesied destruction for virtually all the city-states in the Middle East. Further back, Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.19), and all the cities of the Canaanites (Deut.7:23–26) came under God's judgment.
Why are all the city-states condemned? The intentions of most city people appear good. The city has a huge amount of support and positive input: city planners, architects, engineers, social workers, police, schools, governing bodies. ( The Meaning of the City. J.Ellul; Eerdmans,’70; p.60–61). But the tentacles of the city reach out and strangle the little towns around it.
The city glorifies human beings, seduces them and ultimately controls them. Wealth and power are concentrated. Corruption follows. Greed becomes normal. How did Rome end up? Opulence beyond description. Slavery in the extreme. Every form of debauchery and excess--drunkenness, prostitution, homosexuality. It appears to be an innate law: More! Bigger! Faster! Better! Then Extremes! Scandal! Debauchery! and Downfall.
What are the prospects for a Babylon today?
Where is wealth and power concentrated? How many megalopolises are there in the world? There are at least 14 cities with >10 million people.
What is the attitude of nation-states toward Christ today? (This would be one simple basis for condemnation.)
What countries are openly hostile to Christians:
Muslim states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Iraq,
Hindu/Buddhist states: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma (Miranmar)
Communist states: China, North Korea, Vietnam
Unofficially hostile Muslim states: Indonesia, Nigeria, Chad, Morocco, Tunisia,
Not hostile: USA, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, Mexico and Latin America, Africa S. of Sahara, Australia and New Zealand.
What are" the world's abominations"?
Pride and godlessness
Murder, assault, robbery, cheating, bribery
What are Christians to do? We can't do much about the city. We live in the city. We obey the rules of the city. We adopt the life-style of the city--cars, cable, computers, carry-outs, couch-potatoes, credit cards, double-incomes, soccer-moms, IPhones, Prozac. It would be nice to walk to the grocery store two miles away, but no one else does. How else can we coexist?
The Amish are a group that is conspicuous for its renunciation of the City: rural, agricultural, non-motorized, with voluntary restraint on income, plain in dress and speech, with minimal entertainment or media. It is possible to live outside the City. Should we?
We have four kinds of advice in Scripture about our relationship to the City.
•Stay in the city.
Jer.29:4–10 Build; live; plant; eat; marry; multiply. Pray for the welfare of the city "for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (--even if it is your oppressor.)
Rom.13:1–7 pay the taxes.
IPet.2:13–17 Honor the emperor.
•Leave the city when it is threatened with judgment (6 examples).
Gen.19:12–14 Lot and his family called out of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Num.16:23–26 Leave the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram
Isa.48:20 Leave Chaldea (Babylon).
Jer.50:8 Flee from the midst of Babylon. Jer.51:45
Matt.24:15 Let those in Judea flee to the mountains when the Abomination of Desolation is in the Holy Place.
Rev.18:4 Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.
•Protect the city. We are its salt and light. Matt.5:1–14
Gen.18:32 God would not destroy Sodom for 10 righteous people.
•Preaching may save the city.
Jonah saved Ninevah from the early judgment of God.
Jesus sent the disciples to preach in the population centers--town and villages. Matt.10:11
Paul did his missionary work in the cities: Antioch, Derbe,Lystra, Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, Colosse, Rome, Jerusalem, Philippi, Athens, Thessalonica, Beroea, and Caesarea.
Modern missions is reorienting itself to reach the cities. it is less glamorous than traditional pith-helmet pioneering missions, but more strategic. Sutton's Law: you go to the banks because that's where the money is. You go to the cities because that is where the people are.
Pray for your city.