"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Made Known to John" (Continued)
The Events of the End (Rev. 17:1-20:3)
With the completion of the Bowl Series, John now is finally ready to leave the end-time period. As was suggested earlier, it likely is because he knows that this is the time in which his readers actually must make their decisions and live out their Christian lives that he has given it so much space and attention. Certainly his treatment has been relevant to our problems regarding the relationship of Good and Evil, the nature of the church and the Christian life, the meaning of the time in which we live.
Recall how that Bowl Series concluded--with a picture of the collapse of Evil's kingdom and a note that this also is the time of Christ's parousia ("See, I am coming like a thief!"). The parousia itself, however, was not described. Now John will back up once more--although not very far. He will describe the collapse in greater detail than before, proceed into an account of the parousia, and then keep on going. The book is a straight shot, a direct sequence, from here on out (or almost so).
Rev. 17:1-6, The Great Whore: Babylon
1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk." 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: "Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth's abominations." 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
That it is one of the bowl-angels that introduces this scene is a way of tying it to the one that just concluded. That scene closed with a reference to Babylon and her fall; now we are to get a closer look at the event.
The phrase in verse 1 reads "seated on many waters" and seems to be a direct reference to Jer. 51:13, "You who live by mighty waters." In Jeremiah, the city being characterized is Babylon and the "great waters" are those of the Euphrates River upon which the city was located. But when the older translations are made to read "ocean," the interpreters have tended to land on Rome. And this is a crucial point. Almost all commentators on Revelation assume that when John talks about "Babylon" he means "Rome." In other words, they take for granted that John intended a calendarizing of this symbol: "Babylon" is a symbolic name that is to be understood as a reference to the actual city of Rome. We are going to challenge this customary interpretation and not allow a "Rome" reading until there is compelling evidence for doing so. And this present phrase is not to be allowed among that evidence; it is all "Babylon."
The explanation usually given as to why John says "Babylon" when he means "Rome" is that he wants to hide his true meaning from the eyes of Roman police so that he will not be accused of subversion. But if every would-be scholar who has read the book can decide in an instant that "Babylon" means "Rome "even when he is as far as we are from the first-century situation--then surely the Roman police would have been able to see the truth as well.
We already have more than enough evidence to indicate that John uses symbols as a means of communicating his message, not obfuscating it. Now if someone were to have asked John which city of his day was most Babylon-like, the chances are that he would have answered, "Rome!" But this is not at all the same thing as suggesting that he wrote his book as a prediction that, at the end of history, the fate of the world would be determined there. Rather, as a de-calendarized (de-mapped) symbol, "Babylon" is the perfect choice. Historically, in John's own Old Testament tradition, Babylon did represent everything he attributes to her. But at the time John wrote (and ever since) there was no Babylon; that city was long gone. And thus was the symbol freed from calendarizing implications.
So make "Babylon" Babylon; John's picture is accurate--it fell! Make "Babylon" Rome; right again--it fell! Make "Babylon" New York or Washington or Las Vegas or Hollywood (or a combination of all of them); still right--they will fall, you can depend upon it! And in the end, worldliness will fall finally and completely. Where? In "Babylon," of course; but how and when and where John doesn't presume to tell us--that is in God's hands, where it belongs!
But this Babylon is a great whore--and with that, John intends to say a great deal. (And recall that she is to be seen in contrast to the woman clothed with the sun.) She seduces people into promiscuity, into giving their love and attention to things other than Jesus Christ. And who is first in line among her customers? The kings of the earth, again. Undoubtedly what they love in her is power, authority, and glory; they are continually drunk on the stuff.
(In Rev. 17:3, John tells us that he was taken "into a wilderness" to see this woman--a reference that is entirely appropriate for Babylon but not at all for Rome. The beast she rides, it later will be made plain, is therion, the Antichrist.)
Her garb speaks of wealth, luxury, glamour, sophistication, and culture. She also seduces men with and to these values. She is a sex-hungry drunkard; pleasure, sensuality, and wantonness are other of her attractions.
Finally, the wine she drinks is made from the blood of God's people. The whore is an opponent, subverter, and persecutor of the church, hating what the church stands for.
An important implication follows from what we have found here. Certainly, in her dalliance with the kings, it is suggested that the symbol of the whore includes something of that which we commonly associate with government, or the state. But just as certainly, it would be much too narrow to take the whore as signifying merely the state-and least of all, merely the state of first-century Rome. If the whore is given the full significance John implies, it is not nearly as easy to dissociate oneself from her and stand over against her, as some contemporary leftist movements would propose. Those groups frequently have latched onto these passages of Revelation as their rationale. However, although their exegesis obviously has considerable truth in it, it is too narrow and oversimplified to do justice to John's concept. John's is a more complex picture and thus calls for a much more radical response--not merely mounting worldly opposition to the state and forming a counterculture but building the only truly counter-whore community, which is the church of Jesus Christ.
Rev. 17:7-8 &18, The Whore and Beast Explained
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, "Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth."
We are going to suggest that the intervening material was not part of the original version of Revelation. Please try not to make any evaluation of that proposition until we have had opportunity to examine it in detail. The only thing to note now is how logical and well constructed the passage is without Rev. 17:9-17. In Rev. 17:7, the angel indicates that he will explain the secret "the beast ... that carries her." In verse 8, he gives a brief explanation of "the beast you saw." In verse 18, he gives a brief explanation of "the woman you saw." As easy as that!
In verse 8, the occurrences of the word "alive" that appear at the beginning of the verse and at the end in some translations should not be there; there is nothing in the Greek to correspond to them. The more accurate reading in the early instance is "he who once was, and is no longer, but has yet to ascend out of the abyss" and in the later, "he once was, and is not, and will be present." John may have "death" in mind; but we need to be careful not to read in more than he actually says.
The issue involved is that this wording can be read as a reference to the Nero Myth (which we will discuss presently). Our concern is to show that it does not necessarily betray any knowledge of that myth and probably does not refer to it; it makes perfectly good sense on its own.
Recall John's penchant for symmetric counterpart and that it is Antichrist who is here being portrayed. Christ, of course, has a death-and-resurrection as a prominent aspect of his being. The Antichrist already has been noted as bearing the mark of having had a head cut off, a parallel to the Lamb's mark of slaughter. Now John apparently wants to comment upon the beast's equivalent of death-and-resurrection. It cannot be precisely equivalent, of course, for "resurrection" (graduation into second-order LIFE) is one of John's most precious terms and one he could in no way grant to the beast. (As we noted, John does not use the word "life" or "alive" in this passage.) The beast's, then, is fake resurrection that takes the form of disappearance and reappearance. But note carefully that it is the men of the world who are "astonished" at the beast's reappearance and explicitly not the Christians, who are ready for it. This is the opposite of what we would expect, seeing that the men of the world are the beast's own people. Also, as we will learn, the Nero Myth was a product of the world rather than the church. If this myth, then, was what John had in mind, it should not be the world that is surprised at the beast's reappearance.
I take John to be saying that there have been and will be times when things seem to be running quite smoothly and men of the world are able to convince themselves that they have engineered the "beastliness" out of history. "Yes, there were a lot of bad things in the past; but we have outgrown all that; this is a new generation, a new and much more humane and civilized breed!" Christians, however, from the many warnings in their New Testament, know that the world does not change its fundamental character. Any disappearance of the beast is only an illusion; he can be back in full fury in no time at all. And how often has it happened that--with the beginning of a war, an economic recession, a drought or plague, the disclosure of scandal, or whatever--a society’s veneer of civilization suddenly has dropped away. The world always is surprised to discover such beastliness in itself; the Christian has known that it was lurking there beneath the surface all along. It does not require recourse to a Nero Myth to explain John’s "explanation of the beast."
The woman, on the other hand, we are told in Rev. 17:18, is not a symbol for the city of worldliness. The passage, Rev. 17:9-17, is not essential to the structure of the scene as a whole.
This seems the place to comment on the relationship between the whore and the beast. John, obviously, sees them as very closely related; the whore rides the beast. But does he see any distinction between them? Perhaps they are two symbols for the same thing. Not precisely, I would suggest. I see the Babylon-whore as representing more the outward, empirical manifestations of worldliness. She actually is visible; one can see her (or at least her footprints) in our cities, our activities, our newspapers, our movies, anywhere. The beast, on the other hand, I see as representing more the spiritual power that lies behind worldliness. Our analysis is too shallow if we think of worldliness consisting only in the sum total of all the worldly things people do. No, "the world" also denotes a particular philosophy or faith, a demonic spirit. Worldliness has the function of a religion and is indwelt by a power, a motive, a tendency, and a directive of its own. Men not only do worldly things; their loyalty is captured by "the prince of this world." This, I think, is whom John is calling "Antichrist." And we, for our part, are headed for trouble if we try to deal with the world simply as "whore" and fail to recognize the reality of the "beast" she rides.
Rev. 13:18 and Rev. 17:9-17, The Nero Ciphers
13:18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
17:9 "This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful."
15 And he said to me, "The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.
We have come to a most crucial point in our treatment; I invite you to give me a very open mind and very close attention. Two different passages are quoted above. The one, which we skipped over at the time, is from the scene of the beast's people being sealed and given control of the commerce of the world. The second comes from within the explanation of the beast and the whore just examined. The two passages belong with each other and together represent a sort of material much different from anything else in Revelation. They are riddles, ciphers, code puzzles, whatever they might be called, which the reader is challenged to unravel and solve. They can represent nothing other than sheer calendarizing--an effort to hook the Revelation account to localized events involving historically known personages at a predictable time.
The greater number of scholars decipher the passages as referring to the Roman Emperor Nero, even though getting to that solution by somewhat different routes. The interpretation here owes most to Mathias Rissi, although Rissi himself also makes use of earlier scholarship. Our final conclusion will be that these passages are not by John and were not part of the original edition of Revelation. Rather, they were inserted some years later by an unknown person whom we will call "the Interpolator." He, clearly, was a person of calendarizing mentality who read Revelation as being crystal-ball type prediction and sincerely felt he could improve the book by making it point specifically to the date he was confident would bring the end of the age. However, before examining the evidence regarding this interpolator, we need to work on the ciphers themselves.
In the first cipher we are told that the number 666 can be made to produce a man's name. The most obvious way to go at this is by a mode of calculation that was very familiar to the ancient world. The letters of the alphabet are given numerical values--the first letter being a 1, the second letter a 2, and so on through 10; the eleventh letter is then a 20, and so on through 100; the twentieth letter is then 200, etc. By this method, the name "Nero Caesar," if written in Hebrew (not Greek or Latin), will add up to 666. Of course, Revelation itself is in Greek and the cipher has absolutely no Old Testament connections that would point the decipherer to Hebrew; so the solution seems somewhat fantastic. And of course, many other names--including Hitler's--can be made to produce 666; the trick must lie in making the solution to this cipher fit the second cipher as well.
However, there is a totally different approach to the problem that produces what strikes me as a much more likely solution. It uses another mathematical game familiar to the ancients, that of triangular numbers. The diagram shows how it works.
According to this method of calculation, any number of dots that forms a perfect triangle is a triangular number; and in a triangular number, the total number of dots and the number of the rank are taken as equivalents. Now if the diagram were extended until it comprised a total of 666 dots, this would be discovered to be a triangular number of the rank 36; so 666 => 36. However, 36 dots also form a triangle--this to the rank 8; so 36 => 8. And things that correspond to the same thing correspond to each other; so 666 => 8. And the second cipher makes it entirely clear that Antichrist is an eighth; 8 is the secret number that identifies him. The first cipher is meant to point us directly to the second.
Thus far the scholars have taken us; but I now intend to show you that I can do a thing or two on my own, too. What follows is "scholarship"--and I did it by my very own self. If you make a triangle to the total of 8 dots, it comes out at the rank 3 ˝--how about that? Seriously, I don't think partial triangles are allowed by the rules; and it probably is just an accident that things work out that way; but I couldn't let the opportunity pass.
The second cipher is more complicated than the first but produces a much more assured solution; it will confirm the first, rather than the other way around. But before we even look at it, we need to be aware of what we have been calling "the Nero Myth," the Roman tradition regarding Nero redivivus (come back to life). Be clear that this is a story of Roman, not Christian, origin; first-century Christians would have become aware of it, of course, but it did not start with them.
All our historical information indicates that the Emperor Nero--whom the chart below shows as having reigned AD 54-68--was decidedly out of the ordinary. A real maniac, who murdered both his mother and his wife, he was deeply feared and hated by his own people, let alone the Christians on whom he loosed persecution. So despicable was he that the memory lived on after him. Following his death, the folk myth arose that, in time to come, he would come back from the underworld, raise an army among the hated Parthian kingdoms of the east, and move to sack and destroy Rome. It seems clear that our cipher is built over this myth.
Verse 9, in mentioning that the whore sits on "seven hills," immediately tells us that the cipher has to do with Rome; for centuries already before this time, Rome was known as "the City of Seven Hills." Yet note that it is only here in the cipher that "Babylon" is tied specifically to Rome. In the lament over Babylon in the next chapter, John will have sea-captains and sailors watching the fall of the city and bemoaning it--a detail that does not accord very well with historical Babylon. However, in the passage it is evident that John is depending very heavily upon Ezekiel 27, which is a description of the fall of Tyre. Only in the cipher is "Babylon" calendarized directly and inevitably as Rome.
When the very same symbol that signifies the seven hills of Rome also is specified as representing "seven kings," there is little place else to look but to the sequence of Roman emperors. And when contemporary calendarizers start with these "kings" and stretch the reading to mean "kingdoms" and then stretch "kingdoms" to include modern nation-states with no monarchial tradition at all and then build an arbitrary chronology of world history divided into a neat sequence of "kingdoms"--when they do this, they are playing games with the very scripture for which they profess such great reverence.
CHRONOLOGY OF THE ROMAN EMPERORS
|1||27 BC - AD 14||Augustus|
|2||AD 14 - 37||Tiberius|
|3||AD 34 - 41||Caligula|
|4||AD 41 - 54||Claudius|
|5||AD 54 - 68||Nero||PERSECUTION|
|AD 68 - 69||Galba L|
|6||AD 69 - 79||Vespasian||Date of|
|7||AD 79 - 81||Titus|
|8||AD 81 - 96||Domitian||PERSECUTION|
|Date of the|
The accompanying chart gives us the chronology of Roman emperors and the means for reading the cipher.
Although there had been many Roman rulers before the time of Augustus, he was the first upon whom the Senate conferred the title "Emperor"; and secular history, right down to the present day, identifies him as the founder of "the Roman Empire" as such. From a Christian point of view, the additional fact that he was the ruler under whom Jesus was born also would mark him as No.1. There would seem little grounds for doubting that the Interpolator intends that his sequence begin with Augustus.
The five kings who "have already fallen," then, would take us through Nero. Notice the three names that appear on the chart at that point; they are claimants who tried for the throne but who--as their dates would indicate--got themselves killed off as fast as they could get there. It seems clear that the tradition--even of that day--would not have considered these men as true emperors but rather explain the situation as an "interregnum," an interval of confusion between reigns. Vespasian, then, would be No.6, "who is now reigning." Be clear as to what this implies. The Interpolator is writing some time after Revelation was composed, but he wants his insertion to be taken as part of the original; thus "now reigning" should apply to the time of John's original composition of the book. Our theory would suggest, then, that the Interpolator had knowledge that the book originally had come out during the reign of Vespasian; and this is our best evidence for dating Revelation--some time between AD 69 and 79.
No. 7, Titus, then is to come and "to last only for a little while" three years, as the chart indicates. But remember that, although the Interpolator writes as though it were John making a prediction, the Interpolator himself actually is looking back on the reign of Titus, knowing exactly how long it had been.
These, then, are the "seven kings"; but the point of it all is that the beast himself, Antichrist, will appear as "an eighth" (666 => 8, 8 being his special code number). John already has told us that the beast disappears and reappears, although without giving any evidence that he had the Nero Myth in mind. But the Interpolator now picks up that detail and uses it to suggest that, wonder of wonders, this eighth king is also one of the earlier seven. Who but Nero redivivus?
Yes, as per the Nero Myth, he will amass an army out of other kingdoms. By the way, although John regularly has had "the kings of the earth" associated with the beast, it is only here in the cipher that they are calendarized into a particular group of "ten kings"; the Interpolator has tried to make specific what John used simply as a general symbol. And yes, verse 16 indicates, as per the Nero Myth, that No.8 with his kingly following will attack and devastate Babylon-Rome. The Nero Myth would seem the only possible key for making sense out of this cipher.
According to the chart, Emperor No.8 turns out to be Domitian (AD 81-96). We know that Domitian was a "bad" emperor with traces of insanity about him, that he exacted "emperor worship" in a stricter way than ever before, and that, consequently, widespread and severe persecution came upon the church during his reign. At the onset of these troubles, then, the Interpolator would have had at least as good grounds for thinking that Domitian was the beast and the last days were at hand as contemporary calendarizers have in thinking that they are at hand now. Both probably act out of sincere motives, the desire to make Revelation speak directly, urgently, and helpfully to the readers of their own day. The only difference between them (and I don't mean to minimize it) is that, whereas the moderns add to Revelation a great deal of calendarizing interpretation to support their time prediction, the Interpolator was willing to add a bit of text to support his.
This has been our attempt to break and solve the two ciphers; now let's look at evidence indicating that neither were they written by John nor were they part of the original version of Revelation.
- We have seen that neither of the ciphers is essential to or integral with the scenes in which they appear; they display a parenthetical character.
- They demand a calendarizing type of interpretation that is not indulged--and is, in fact, resisted--in the remainder of the book.
- The ciphers are introduced with sentences that are most unlike John; they sound like formulas. In the first case, Rev. 13:18 reads literally: "This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate...." In the second case, Rev. 17:9 reads literally, "This calls for the mind that has wisdom...." Now we know that in the course of time there grew up a version of Christianity which saw the faith as centering in a secret knowledge of the things of God, which secrets were made known only to initiates, the "insiders" who had been granted special powers of esoteric understanding. These formula-sentences would be most congenial to this sort of "gnostic" mentality; but there is no evidence that John was such a person or thought in such terms. He does not use this sort of phraseology anywhere else.
- Looking at the second cipher in particular, the device in verse 9 of giving one symbol two different referents is something John nowhere does.
- In Rev. 17:14, the cipher says, "They will make war upon the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them." We have not yet come to John's last word on this subject (in Chapter 19); but we have seen that he studiously avoids saying the very thing that is said here. To suggest that it is necessary for the Lamb to defeat the beast again inevitably is to imply that the victory he won the first time--in his death-and-resurrection, booting the dragon out of heaven--was not adequate for the job. It is hard to envision John writing this line.
- Rev. 17:16, with its description of the beast and his kings turning against the whore to attack and destroy her, fits the Nero Myth very well but runs counter to everything we find outside the cipher. Indeed, just ten verses beyond this point we find the statement: "And the kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her, when they see the smoke of her burning." That hardly jibes with what the cipher says.
We have looked at the evidence and at the theory that attempts to account for it; what are our options in making a final decision?
- What we have called the "ciphers" clearly are riddles we explicitly are invited to solve. I have never seen any proposal other than one using the Nero Myth that even begins to provide a convincing explanation of the clues contained in the ciphers.
- If we both accept the Nero Myth solution to the ciphers and maintain that John is the author of them, we've got ourselves big problems. The entire view of Revelation we have been presenting goes down the tube; it becomes clear that John is a calendarizer and his purpose is to tell us the when, how, and who of the end--and we should try to read him that way throughout. But what is worse, he is a mistaken calendarizer. He said that the Emperor Domitian was to be the beast who would destroy Rome and signal the end of history. That, of course, turned out not to be true; Domitian was only another bad Roman emperor. Yet, if John wrote Revelation primarily to predict matters of last things, and if his predictions were manifestly wrong, then there is no good reason for us to give attention or weight to Revelation at all. If the book is wrong regarding its fundamental purpose, it hardly can be rated as Scripture on other counts.
- Many people, as a matter of principle, cannot even entertain the idea of an interpolator;
they can't believe that God would allow anyone to add material to the original text of a book
of the Bible (although, in our theory, the Interpolator would have done his adding
before Revelation had come to be considered a biblical book). I don't know
how these people envision God as preventing this--whether by instantly striking
dead anyone who threatens to take a pen to the sacred script or by giving subsequent readers
the power immediately to recognize the added passages as false. But never mind; I do respect
Many such people, then, will insist that John must have written the ciphers along with the
remainder of the book--but for the rest, they simply deny that they have any idea as to what
the cipher passages may mean. And this is a solution I can buy! "No, John was not a
mistaken calendarizer; he was not speaking of Nero and Domitian. Beyond that,
I don't know what he was talking about. I don't know that he was calendarizing; I simply
don't know what he was doing. I certainly am not going to try to use these cipher-passages
to make predictions of my own. I am not going to use them to draw any conclusions
about either John or Revelation; I simply don't know what they mean."
The position is an honest one. In effect, it brackets out the cipher passages as being sheer mystery; yet it lets the rest of Revelation stand as it is, leaves the interpretation open for the sort of non-calendarizing, perpetual-expectancy approach the New Testament itself calls for.
- Personally, the suggestion of an interpolator makes good sense to me and does not threaten my view of the Bible's being the inspired word of God. In addition, it has the advantage of explaining some things which, I guess, I simply cannot be content to leave as sheer mystery. My hope, however, is that those who cannot conscientiously accept the interpolator theory will nevertheless understand that those who do accept it are motivated, not by any desire to destroy Scripture, but precisely by the desire to preserve it and allow it to speak most meaningfully and truly. And that is the most important consideration--whether one takes the "mystery" route or the "interpolator" route for getting there!
Rev. 18:1-8, The Fall of Babylon
1 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2 He called out with a mighty voice,
"Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul and hateful bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
3 For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury."
4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
"Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
6 Render to her as she herself has rendered,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
7 As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,
so give her a like measure of torment and grief.
Since in her heart she says,
I rule as a queen; I am no widow
and I will nev'er see grief,'
8 therefore her plagues will come in a single day--
pestilence and mourning and famine--
and she will be burned with fire;
for mighty Is the Lord God who judges her."
From the complicated contortions of the ciphers we come into some of the best of John's writing; a welcome relief. Not so much from a theological point of view, but from a literary standpoint, this description of the fall of Babylon--and particularly the lament that follows--marks a climax. John's graphic realism and poetic force come through in a great way; this chapter really calls for a dramatic actor to read it aloud.
The theme of the whole is powerfully expressed in the opening proclamation: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has be come a dwelling for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, for every foul and loathsome bird." Plainly, one aspect of Babylon's fall is nothing more than the stripping away of her glamour so that she can be seen for what she truly is; her outward state now reflects what her inner being always has been, a haunt for every foul and loathsome bird.
In Rev. 18:3, "the kings of the earth" are mentioned again--but, along with them, "merchants the earth." Part of Babylon's evil centers in "the state," in its making of war and its pretension of power. But just as much it centers in "commerce" and everything that involves. Indeed, the latter gets the major attention throughout this scene. There is, of course, no point in trying to separate and proportion these different aspects of worldliness; but we do need to keep in mind that all are involved. Certainly, one of the purposes behind John's description is to help us spot and contemplate our own involvement in worldliness. (Notice, again, that neither here nor elsewhere is there evidence indicating that mandatory Caesar-worship was a major concern at the time of John's writing.)
Rev. 18:4 presents the command that, in itself, states the primary lesson of the scene: "Come out of her, my people!" There is nothing to suggest that John was recommending either to his original readers or to us that Christians should pack up, move away from the cities of this world, and go out somewhere to form monasteries, communes, or holy communities of our own. Even so, we need to keep alert to the possibility that historical situations might arise or the time of the end may be such that God will call his people to do the very thing of separating themselves physically from the world. Nevertheless, the major thrust of the command is that Christians take care not to become involved in the sin of the world, not to drift into an acceptance of its values and ends. The warning carries real weight: if you "take part in her sins" you are bound to "share in her plagues."
In Rev. 18:4, the angelic voice clearly is speaking to God's people; but by verse 6 it would seem that this is no longer so. There probably is not intended any suggestion that the Christians are being invited to take matters into their own hands and pay Babylon back in her own coin. Rather, the lines likely should be understood more in the nature of a prayer: "May she be repaid!" Certainly the thrust of John's thought has been to leave the work of punishment in the hands of God. As soon as human beings take it upon themselves to act as God's agents of wrath, they are sure to bungle the matter. To apply punishment in a truly just and helpful way is a very delicate operation at best; and we human beings are ourselves too sinful and too emotionally involved to do it right. This must be God's work.
Also, here where the language of retribution is getting pretty strong, we need to be reminded that the subject of it all is "worldliness." Now John, of course, would not try to deny that "people" are involved and do get hurt in the fall of Babylon--that is inevitable. Nevertheless, read carefully and it becomes plain that his account is focused, not upon the hurting of people, but upon the destroying of evil--a somewhat different thing. Of course, it is not possible to make a neat and clear separation between evil and the people who give themselves to it; yet for John to call down all sorts of retribution upon the whore Babylon is not at all the same thing as his asking God to torment other human beings. And as his book proceeds, we will see that John (and God) takes a much different stance toward even wicked people from what he does toward the powers of Evil itself.
Rev. 18:9-24, Lament over Babylon
9 And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
"Alas, alas, the great city,
Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come."
11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of 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, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves--and human lives.
14 "The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your dainties and your splendor
are lost to you
never to be found again!"
15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
16 "Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! 17 For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!"
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
"What city was like the great city?"
19 And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,
"Alas, alas, the great city,
where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!
For in one hour she has been laid waste.
20 Rejoice over her, 0 heaven,
you saints and apostles and prophets!
For God has given judgment for you against her."
21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
"With such violence Babylon the great city
will be thrown down,
and will be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flutists and trumpeters
will be heard in you no more;
and an artisan of any trade
will be found in you no more;
and the sound of the millstone
will be heard in you no more;
23 and the light of a lamp
will shine in you no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
will be heard in you no more;
and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
24 And in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slaughtered on earth."
As was mentioned earlier the basic pattern for this segment of John's work is taken from the lament over Tyre in Ezek. 26-27; but John far outstrips his predecessor. This passage is one of the masterpieces of world literature in its evocation of pathos and poignancy.
And from a theological standpoint, also, we can be grateful for this passage. The emphasis and mood of John's treatment of evil thus far has been one of condemnation and the cry that justice be done; he has anticipated the fall of evil and exulted in that expectation. All that is quite proper, of course; but now comes a new note: in spite of the propriety of evil's collapse, the event itself nevertheless carries overtones of tragedy. It is not that anything good goes down in the fall of Babylon; for John, "Babylon" is itself the symbol of that which is sheer and unrelieved evil. It will yet become apparent that one of John's ground principles is that God redeems whatever is redeemable; he does not destroy anything of good. So the tragedy of Babylon is not that anything good is lost but rather the dissipation of all that might have been good, the human investment, the energy and resources that had been poured into Babylon. Not "How sad to see Babylon go!" but "How sad to realize now how much Babylon has wasted and ruined!" The consequence of this pathos is not sympathy for Babylon nor will it prove any inhibition to the celebration of her demise; but it does contribute an important insight into John's mind and an important aspect of the Christian relationship to the world.
The listing of "cargoes" in verses Rev. 18:12-13 is very effective. More than any accusation could do, it manifests the opulence, display, luxury, comfort, and pride of ownership that lie at the heart of the world's standard of values. And you can be sure it is not accidental on John's part that "slaves and the lives of men" come at the bottom of the list, following "sheep and cattle, horses, chariots." This is accurate; the world does not value persons, it uses them; it consumes, exploits, and manipulates people for the sake of the "higher values" of gold and silver, jewels and pearls. The splendor of the world customarily is bought at the expense of the people of the world. How right and just and necessary, then, that "all the glitter and the glamour be lost, never to be yours again!"--how right and yet how sad!
How sad! And yet Rev. 18:20 is correct, too! How can the mood be anything other than exultation when wrong is being made right, when falsehood is being revealed, its power and threat being taken from it, when the truth is being justified?
But then, back on the other side, the "no more" passage returns to pathos-perhaps the most moving segment of the entire scene. Yet, again, in response comes the conclusion of verse 24: in truth, the judgment is altogether just, for both the most accurate and most damning thing that can be said about Babylon is that she eats people--that is the wrong that cannot be allowed to stand; it must be countered and put to an end.
Rev. 19:1-10, Exultation and the Promise of the Wedding Supper
1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2 for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants."
Once more they said,
"Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever."
4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
5 And from the throne came a voice saying,
"Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great."
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure"--
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are true words of God." 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."
The direct counter-scene to the lament sung by the whore's lovers on earth is the hymn of victory sung by the hosts of heaven. They exult in God's just judgment of the whore; there is no suggestion here of some people exulting over the calamity come upon other people. The theme-word of this scene is "Hallelujah!" The word--a transliteration of the Hebrew for "Praise God!"--although familiar from the Psalms of the Old Testament, is found only in this passage within the whole of the New Testament.
Rev. 19:7 introduces the idea of the wedding of the Lamb and the great supper that attends it. John picks up for neither of these events more than passing reference; but there is no mystery about what they represent. The "bride of Christ," it will be made explicit, is the church—and by that token could be taken as "the woman clothed with the sun," although John does not himself draw the connection. However, he does seem to intend a deliberate counter-comparison between, on the one hand, therion and his whorish lover-rider who wind up together in the ditch and, on the other, arnion and his virgin bride who proceed to the glory of wedding and feast. In his reference to "the wedding-supper," John may very well have in mind the Lord's supper of the church's practice, which the New Testament Christians understood as itself being a preview and sign of the great eschatological banquet that marks the final reunion of God with his people. Verse 9 makes it clear that the real purpose behind the passage is to encourage readers to make themselves part of the scene; you are invited!
Rev 18:10 may indicate that John was aware of a tendency of some of his intended readers to indulge in angel-worship; he took the opportunity to combat it. In the concluding sentence, although it is not absolutely clear, the angel probably means to say, "I, the angel, like you, John, the prophet, have significance only in the testimony I bear to Jesus; so let's keep our attention on that martyria Jesu rather than upon the bearers of it!"
Rev. 19:11-20:3, The Parousia of the Rider
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, "King of kings and Lord of lords." 17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, "Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders--flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great." 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. 1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.
We are now come to one of the key scenes of the book, John's central treatment of the parousia of Christ. Let us recall the ways in which he has handled it earlier, with a particular view to establishing the relationship between it and the fall of Babylon.
- At the conclusion of the Freehand Sketch, in Chapter 14, an angel first announces that Babylon has fallen (though the event is not portrayed) and then the parousia is described under the image of Christ as harvester.
- At the conclusion of the Bowl Series, in Chapter 16, Bowl 6 shows the forces of Evil gathering for the battle at Armageddon. Christ does not appear in that scene, although the interlude specifies, "See, I am coming like a thief!" Bowl 7, then, recounts the fall of Babylon.
In the present case, of course, the fall of Babylon is described at length, and then we move to an event that is very like that of Armageddon except that Christ appears on the scene in his parousia.
It might seem as though we have a chronological problem, but I think that is not the case. John is not concerned with fine details of sequence; he wants to say that the fall of Babylon and the parousia of Christ are, in effect, simultaneous. The end consists in both events, and it would be fruitless to try to separate them, whether chronologically or in any other way. In particular, they are not arranged so as to make either one dependent upon the other. It does not take the parousia, an attack by Christ, to bring down Babylon; the momentum of his previous death-and-resurrection action is sufficient to do that. But neither, on the other hand, dare it be assumed that it is the course of world history that controls the time of Christ's return. No, the chronology of both these events and of the entire situation lies solely in the hands of God; it is not for us to try to calculate either of them or from one of them to the other.
It seems correct to assume that this scene is meant to take the same spot and play the same role as the earlier Armageddon scene, even though, in detail, the two are quite different. Because John does not mean to present a photographic, calendarized picture in either case, there is no difficulty (but indeed, considerable advantage) in using variant imageries and scenarios for making the same point. Only calendarizers will feel the need to argue about which way it actually is going to happen.
In the earlier instance the Evil Trinity took the initiative in mustering the kings of the earth and their armies at Armageddon, for an attack upon God. However, the entire effort collapsed without Christ or any opposing army even putting in an appearance. In the present instance, conversely, Christ and his armies come from heaven and take their stand on an undesignated battlefield. The Evil Trinity, with the kings of the earth, then muster their forces in response--and promptly collapse! "Take it either way," John seems to be saying, "it comes to the same thing"--although, as usual, John's repetitions add insight and depth to the earlier references.
John regularly has pictured Christ and referred to him as "the Lamb" "the Lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him"--and this image has been made very rich in theological content regarding his gracious, loving, longsuffering, self-giving character. Yet recall that, at the time John first introduced the Lamb, he was able also to describe him as "the Lion"--and without in any way compromising his lamblike character. Now, in the present scene, he pictures Christ as "the Rider," a warrior king. But if anything is certain, it is that, in doing so, John has no intention of deserting or betraying all his careful efforts in establishing Jesus as the Lamb. This Rider is the Lamb, just as the Lion was earlier; and just as the Lamb image took priority and controlled the Lion image there, so must the Lamb control the Rider image here. This scene can be interpreted in consistent "lamb" terms; and we have an obligation to do so.
Recall that, clear back with the opening of the first seal on the scroll of the hidden future, John introduced the period of the end-time with the appearance of a crowned rider on a white horse. Here, to introduce a new period, is another. In fact, the new Rider will now face down the first one--although, truth to tell, that first one does not present a very kingly picture in this scene. The two riders, clearly, are meant to show some parallels; but it is their contrasts that are telling. The first one carried a bow, this one carries (and uses) a sharp sword. The first one brought in his train War, Famine, and Death--and all the trauma of the end-time. This one brings justice, righteousness, and redemption. The first one actually was therion, the beast; this one actually is arnion, the Lamb. The first one has had his time; this one's time is yet to come. The first one we named "the Fancy Fake"; this one John names "Faithful and True."
"Faithful and True"; recall that, at the opening of his book, the very first title John gave to Jesus was "the faithful witness." And the name John gives him now is as important as anything that can be said concerning him. So much of the picture to this point has been dominated by falsehood, deceit, corruption, and seduction. But the parousia of Jesus marks also the parousia of truth. With him present, things become "trued" in a way that simply was not possible before his coming.
Rev. 18:12 indicates that he is wearing "a name known to none but himself." John has referred to this name several times previously, as a suggestion that, in our time, we cannot yet know Jesus fully, cannot know him for all he is and represents. But here, in the parousia, that name is written for all to see; here, in the climax and completion of his work, we can begin to comprehend him in his "fullness."
He is robed in "a garment drenched with blood"-here is the key line of the entire scene (if not the entire book). This description usually is taken as just one more bloody detail out of the whole gruesome scene; but it deserves closer attention than that. Notice several things concerning it:
- The Rider's garment is bloodied as soon as he appears. The blood cannot come as a result of the present engagement; no enemy has arrived on the scene; he doesn't even get mustered until verse 19.
- At no earlier point in Revelation has there been described an engagement in which the Rider's robe could have been bloodied. In a previous account of the parousia, a crowned figure appeared in order to conduct the grain harvest, the gathering of the saints; but he very explicitly was dissociated from the grape harvest with its blood to the depth of a horse's bridle--perhaps John's deliberate move to preserve the symbolism of this scene. No, the one and only time John has put Jesus in direct contact with Evil or any representative of it was when the dragon stood by to snatch the child--an event that took place some time before John's own story opened.
- So let's look at that event. This Rider is the Lamb, remember. The Lamb is one with the marks of slaughter upon him. It might be expected that blood from the slaughter would be on his robe. John knows all of this about the Lamb; he does use symbolism just this carefully and skillfully; and there is every reason to believe this is the way he is using it here. The blood on the Rider's robe is that which he shed on Calvary. It is true, as John elsewhere has told us, that the saints wash their robes white in the blood of the Lamb; but that his own robe retains the stain is most vital to John's story; we shall see how in a moment.
In Rev. 18:14, the description of the Rider continues with details that, for the most part, already are familiar to us. There are the white robes of the saints. There is the sharp sword of judgment in his mouth. There is the Psalm 2 reference to ruling with an iron rod--with which we have wrestled several times already. There is "the wrath and retribution of God," concerning which we already have said all we know to say.
The Rider and his armies now have taken the field and been presented. Verses 17-18 form an interlude before the opposing armies are introduced. The content of the interlude is an invitation (or perhaps an anti-invitation) to another eschatological supper, a post-battle banquet that almost certainly is intended as a counter comparison to the wedding supper of the Lamb, for which invitations were extended just a few verses earlier. You have your choice; either you can go to the Lamb's supper as guests, friends of the bride (better, members of the bride), or you can go to this other supper as part of the menu, food for the vultures. I really believe John set it up that way as a means of urging people to accept the Lamb's invitation.
Now in this post-battle supper (which happens, then, in verse 21) it is plain that those who get eaten are not, in this case, the supernatural representatives of Evil, but "people." Specifically, it is those kings of the earth (who always turn up right where we have come to expect them), along with their militarist sidekicks and all such types--listed, by the way, in almost the identical fashion they were in Seal 6, when they wanted the mountains to hide them from the vengeance of the Lamb.
But—although being eaten by vultures is, I would guess, a somewhat discomposing experience (and is meant to be), as "the vengeance of the Lamb" it is very mild indeed. The picture is much more that of cleaning up litter than it is of torturing people. The kings and their cronies are not thrown into the lake of fire (at this point); neither does their being eaten take them out of the action; and the Lamb is not through with them yet--not by a long shot!
But talking about this supper has us ahead of the action; verse 19 is where we must pick it up again. The combatants are lined up in readiness; but by the time we get to verse 20, it's all over, the prisoners are being carted off, and the hungry crew of vultures already is at work. There just isn't any battle; and since we already have witnessed the Armageddon scene dissolve in almost the same way, it would seem that John is being anticlimactic on purpose.
But why no battle, when everything was all set for one? We have suggested the reason before: John is convinced that Jesus, in his death-and-resurrection, did all that needed to be done, won the only victory that needs to be won in order to take care of Evil once and for all. To portray Jesus in another battle necessarily would be to say that his first victory wasn't good enough; and this, of course, John will by no means say.
Yet, if there wasn't a battle, what did happen here? I think John means it something like this: Recall the memory problems of a dragon with its head cut off. He, the Deceiver, has deceived himself into thinking that his successes in the world indicate that he is ready to take on anybody. He's not afraid of any "armies of heaven." He leads his force onto the field ... and who should be the first person he lays eyes upon but a rider "robed in a garment drenched in blood." Memories begin to awaken--and his tail begins to throb in consequence. He'd seen that blood before! Oh, yes, that was the day and that the way in which he had gotten "thrown down to earth, and his angels with him." There is no sense in even trying it with that one again! "Forget it, troops; we're dead!"
And so they were--and had been all along; it is just that it took a parousia of the Truth to make the fact of the matter clear to them and everyone else! Christ's "victory" here is simply the revelation of the one sufficient victory he already has won over death, the world, and the devil.
Without any "fight" at all, then, the Evil Trinity is taken prisoner and their dead armies "go to supper." The beast (Antichrist) and the false prophet (the Unholy Spirit) are thrown into the lake of fire; and when any one of the supernatural representatives of Evil goes into the lake of fire it is the end of him--he will not be seen or heard from again. The dragon (Satan) is preserved from that fate--at least for the moment. This is not because the Lamb's power is not yet complete or because the dragon himself still has a chance of reversing his situation. No, as Rev. 20:3 indicates, he simply has been put into storage so he can appear in a particular role a bit later. But for all practical purposes, the parousia of Christ marks the end of the threat and power of Evil; from here on out, it's God all the way!
Copyright (c) 1974