May 23, 2012

Apocalypse Prophecy LVIII: A Babylonian Car Wreck

The Fall & Lament of Babylon - Revelation 18

The members of the community of faith who do not compromise with the idolatrous world are to rejoice over the judgment of Babylon because it validates the integrity of their faith and God’s love of justice which all eventually leads to God’s consummate reign which realizes that God will be with us (Immanuel).

The angel promised in 17:1 that he would show the seer “the judgment of the great harlot sitting on many waters.” This judgment was portrayed in only one verse in chapter 17 but the angel’s promise is fulfilled in detail throughout chapter 18. The beast and his allies first had to be portrayed in chapter 17, since the woman’s importance and influence could not be fully understood except in her relationship to the beast. Chapter 17 focuses on what precipitates the woman’s fall in ch18.

Therefore Revelation 18:1–19:6 then portrays Babylon’s demise itself, as a continuation of the vision begun in Chapter 17. The judgment of Babylon was narrated briefly in 17:16, and now in ch18 is shown an enlarged picture of the results of that judgment.

The events depicted in ch18 are not in chronological order but may be outlined in the following way:
1.      The fall of Babylon is predicted (verses 1–3).
2.      God’s people are exhorted to separate from Babylon before her judgment, lest they suffer with her (verses 4–8).
3.      Those cooperating with Babylon will lament after her judgment (verses 9–19).
4.      The faithful will rejoice over her judgment once it is accomplished (verses 20–24).

The narrative logic of the segment moves progressively in that the declaration of Babylon’s coming punishment is the basis successively for exhorting saints to escape Babylon or they will be judged with her (18:1–8), for Babylon’s allies to lament because they perceive their own demise (vv 9– 19), for the saints’ rejoicing (vv 20–24), and for the climactic glorifying God as just (19:1–6).

The appearance of the descending angel may be a Christophany comparable to appearances of “the angel of the LORD” in the OT (refer to 10:1), since Ezekiel had spoke of God’s glory. The portrayal is similar to that of the luminous angelic appearance in 10:1, which is likely a Christophany. The fact that this is Christ is confirmed by the fact that every ascription of “glory” to a heavenly figure in the Apocalypse refers to either God or Christ. This angel is more glorious than Babylon (v 1) and is an authority more compelling than Babylon. His glorious appearance and loud voice are meant to get the attention of any who are in danger of falling under the spell of Babylon. The repeated announcement of Babylon’s fall accentuates the certainty of her judgment. The certainty of the judgment is underlined further by the narration of those results in the past tense “fallen”, as if it has already happened (with the sense of the Hebrew prophetic perfect).

The assurance of worldwide Babylon’s fall in the future is rooted in the fact that the fall of old Babylon was predicted in the same way, and the fulfillment came to pass; John believes that God will continue to act in the future as he had acted in the past. Verse 2 explains Babylon’s desolate condition resulting from her judgment. Isaiah 21:9 may be in mind since the full text of that verse is “fallen, fallen is Babylon, and all her images and idols have been crushed.” God’s judgment here in the Apocalypse reveals Babylon’s demonic nature, which she has been able to mask behind idolatry in order to attract and deceive her acolytes throughout the ages. Babylon’s identification with the devil, the beast, and the false prophet is made clear, since both they and she possess “unclean spirits” and “demons”. These judgments are viewed as typological anticipations of universal Babylon’s judgment at the end of history. The final stripping away of Babylon’s luxurious facade (17:4; 18:16) reveals her skeleton, within which sit only demonic birdlike creatures. A Jewish interpretation of the creatures in Isaiah 13:21 and 34:11, 14 understood them to be demonic. This final revelation shows that the demonic realm has been Babylon’s guiding force which was stated before in this series.

The nations’ “drinking the wine of her immoral passion” and the kings’ readiness to “fornicate with her” is not literal immorality but a figurative depiction of acceptance of Babylon’s religious and idolatrous demands. The nations’ and kings’ cooperation with Babylon ensures their material security. Therefore they are implicated in her guilt and will be under the same judgment.

The verb “drank” refers to the willingness of culture and society to commit itself to idolatry in order to maintain economic security. Once one imbibes, the intoxicating influence removes all desire to resist Babylon’s destructive influence, blinds one to Babylon’s own ultimate insecurity and to God as the source of real security, and numbs one against any fear of coming judgment (for these metaphorical meanings of “drink” refer to Revelation 14:8).

The “Kings of the earth” are probably best understood not only as those in political power but also as the ruling classes who benefited from cooperation with the political power. Sexual lust as a metaphor for immoral financial gain together with wine as a picture of influence toward sinful living occurs also within the Old Testament.

The report of Babylon’s coming judgment in the preceding verses is the basis for exhorting wavering believer(s) not to participate in the idolatrous system and to encourage those not compromising in this way to maintain their faithful course…hence earlier exhortations. Besides, the revelation of Babylon’s sin and punishment should cause the genuine Christian not to be seduced by her and to refuse to cooperate with her evil ways. The purpose for the call of separating is not only “not to partake of her sins,” parallels the separation in Isaiah and Jeremiah and that of Abraham and Lot in Genesis involved both physical and moral escape, that in Rev. 18:4 involves only the latter.

Christians are not being called to withdraw from economic life but they may be ostracized from the sphere of economic dealings because of their refusal to compromise. They are to remain in the world to witness, to suffer for their testimony but they are not to be of the world (Romans 12). An absolute physical removal would contradict the essence of the Christian calling to witness to the world.

Babylon will be punished to the same degree that she sinned in obtaining glory and luxury. Her sin is pride and self-sufficiency, which inevitably must lead to her fall (2 Samuel 22:28; Proverbs 16:18). Self-glorification is sinful (idolatry), since glory can be given only to God. The language of 18:6–7 points not merely to punishment that is appropriate for the crime committed), but also to punishment as God’s sovereign response to sin, which is part of the principle imbedded in the Old Testament’s lex talionis. This therefore shows the continuity and perfect nature of God. He has not changed between the Old and New Testament but rather has practiced more patience, grace and mercy towards man of late but when He uncorks His wrath…all bets are off.

Such confidence is self-idolatry must be judged. The church must beware of trusting in economic security or its members be judged along with the world. This is especially the case in Laodicea, whose church said, “I am rich and have become wealthy, and I have need of nothing” Revelation 3:17. Those who have cooperated with the Babylonian system will lament her judgment because it means their own demise. It will solely become a matter of rats scurrying off a sinking ship. It’s not that they really cared about Babylon, it just is a forewarning of their own utter annihilation. The main point of the entire segment is the despair over economic loss expressed in the beginning and concluding sections. The earthly rulers express despair in response to the destruction of Babylon, echoing Jeremiah 51:8: “suddenly Babylon has fallen … wail over her,” because they have lost their lover. The close connection between idolatry and economic prosperity was a fact of life in Asia Minor of John’s time, where allegiance to both Caesar and the patron gods of the trade guilds was essential for people to maintain good standing in their trades. It is not surprising that none of this would change in the end days as humanity is by nature unrighteous and wicked. It may be possible that they mourn only over their own economic demise and do not perceive even at this final point in history that their loss involves much more than loss of material security.

Their eventual fear may arise because the destruction they have witnessed was gruesome even to see. But more likely they are afraid because Babylon’s loss of economic prowess means their own imminent loss and they are afraid of sharing in her suffering. The awe expressed is not merely due to the severity of the judgment itself but to the suddenness with which it has occurred “in one hour”.

Verse 19 speaks of those who separated from Babylon should rejoice over her judgment because it means the vindication of their faith and of God’s just character. Those in “heaven” and “the saints, apostles, and prophets” are exhorted to “rejoice” “because” God will judge Babylon. The speaker of the exhortation presumably is still the angel introduced in 18:1. The addressees of the exhortation are in both heaven and earth, which represents all believers, though angelic beings are probably included. The focus is not on delight in Babylon’s suffering but on the successful outcome of God’s execution of justice, which demonstrates the integrity of Christians’ faith and of God’s just character.

This “eye for eye” judgment is apparent from the fact that those commanded to rejoice over Babylon’s judgment are the very same ones who suffered from her persecution. This principle of justice is a fitting conclusion to a chapter that was introduced by the pronouncement of the same judicial principle based in the Old Testament. Passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel 26 continue to be pieced together to depict this judicial principle. Babylon’s economic system persecuted Christian communities by ostracizing from the various trade guilds those who did not conform. This usually resulted in loss of economic standing and poverty for those ostracized. In a real sense, this meant the removal of Christian artisans from the marketplace and a removal of the common pleasures of life enjoyed in normal economic times. Babylon, who removed the joys of life from the saints, will have her own pleasures taken away. Passages from Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah emphasize the judgment of the luxurious societies of, respectively, Israel, Tyre, and the world system (the last at the end of time are viewed as indirectly foreshadowing the
fall of the world complex, which Isaiah 24 directly prophesies

Behind “the great ones” of Rev. 18:23 are “the glorious princes” of Isaiah 23, which implies that the merchants and the system supporting them are to be judged because they gave glory to themselves and not to God.

In the end possession of wealth is not the reason for God’s judgment of Babylon. The cause of  judgment lies in “the arrogant use of it” and trust in the security that wealth and prosperity brings, which is tantamount to idolatry. Health and wealth prosperity preachers had better take note here. Throughout ch18, as well as in chs16–17, we see hints and descriptions of Old Testament cities and peoples that we utter annihilated: Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon, Tyre, Nineveh, Edom, and Jerusalem have been applied to the ungodly system that trusts only in itself. So it has been in the past, so it will be in the end. The Old Testament prophet’s oracles, especially those concerning Babylon and Tyre, are now applied again in the end of history. This shows two things, man is incorrigible and God is ever patient and merciful but eventually, His grace and mercy will be exhausted.

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