Revelation 18. Fulfilled prophecies concerning ancient Babylon, Jerusalem and Tyre give grounds for believing that the days of modern civilisation are also numbered.
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together.
God shines forth.
Our God will come, and not keep silent.
Fire will devour before him,
and around him storms will rage. (Ps 50:2f)
Thick darkness will be followed by blazing light, as when the sun stood still and large stones fell from heaven and the nation took vengeance on its enemies (Jos 10:13). The moon will be as the sun, and the sun’s light sevenfold (Isa 30:26, Zech 14:7). All who serve images will be put to shame (Ps 97:6f).
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” echoes Isaiah’s pronouncement on ancient Babylon (Isa 21:9). The city is the antitype of the abode of God, and as with ancient Edom and Babylonia (Isa 34:10ff, Jer 51:43), demons and unclean birds (Lev 11) inhabit the place. Incantations from Babylonia speak of demons flitting around like birds, which may be the metaphor here, but the explanatory ‘for’ suggests that the birds are nations (Dan 4:14) and they have introduced unclean religions into the city. The largest mosque in the western world by land area is the Mosque of Rome. Strasbourg’s is not far behind. Demons have returned to the house that was swept clean and brought with them spirits more evil than themselves. The sense is not that they are captives; rather they hold the city captive.
Isaiah’s prophecies date to the second half of the 8th century BC, when, apart from eleven years of independence under Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-idinna, 721-710 BC), Babylon was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. In what could hardly have been an extrapolation of the contemporary situation, Isaiah predicted that one day Judah would be deported to Babylon (Isa 39:6f, 47:6), after which God would bring up the Medes to avenge himself on the city and Judah would return. He predicted its fall three times: in chapter 13, chapter 21 and chapter 47. In the second prophecy, Elam – which in Belshazzar’s third year was part of the Babylonian empire (Dan 8:2) – was pictured laying siege alongside Media.
and from of old things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and all my pleasure I will do,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a distant land.
Some of the events lay in the near future, some further off. In the first prophecy the fall of the Chaldaean city (the Babylon renovated by Nebuchadrezzar) was interleaved with that of its modern-day counterpart, so that Isaiah 13:9-13), at a minimum, remains to be fulfilled. The second prophecy appears to relate solely to the Chaldaean city. The first part of the third prophecy (47:1-7) relates to the Chaldaean city, the second part (47:8-15) solely to the unfulfilled future. John quotes extensively from this second part. (Such conflation of the near and distant future was common, the judgements being foretastes of the final Day: compare the mixed prophecies of Joel 2 and Zeph 1.)
Ancient Babylon was guilty primarily on account of her idolatry (Jer 50:38). As in other Mesopotamian cities, a terraced ziggurat stood in the centre, on the same site as the original tower. It was called in Sumerian the E-temen-an-ki, ‘House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.’ At the summit stood a temple representing the heavenly dwelling of Marduk, ‘king of heaven and the underworld.’ From there a stairway descended to a terrace half-way down, representing the earth at ground level, while subsidiary stairways led up to the terrace from the underworld, the earth’s ‘foundation’. The ziggurat also supported shrines for the land’s other deities. Opposite was a second building, the E-sag-ila, where Marduk resided as Babylon’s king. As throughout the ancient world, the human king was the god’s viceroy.
Some 180 years after Isaiah, the predictions referring to the Chaldaean city came to pass. The ‘bird of prey from the east’ was Cyrus, commander of the Medes and Persians and later the Elamites, who had changed sides (Waters 2008). Isaiah even predicted his name (Isa 44:28). Persia lay to the east, but as we know from his crossing the river Diyala on the way, he approached Babylon from the north (Jer 50:3). A successful battle outside the walls was followed by a long and frustrating siege, until the invaders hit on the idea of diverting the river that flowed through the city. Once the channel was drained, they were able to walk into the capital by night while the unsuspecting leaders were feasting, drunk with wine (Herodotus I, 191, cf. Isa 21:5, 44:27, Jer 51:39, Dan 5). Supposedly impregnable Babylon was captured with ease, on October 18th, 539.
For millennia, the nations had drunk the stupefying wine of Babylon’s idolatry. Eventually God made them drink the stupefying wine of his wrath, as his agent Nebuchadrezzar conquered city after city. ‘All the kingdoms of the earth’ in this context were the kingdoms of the Middle East. A few decades later Babylon herself was made to drink (Jer 25:15-26).
The city was captured intact. While slaughter must have been widespread, it was not immediately reduced to a wasteland, and indeed immediate destruction would not have helped the Jewish exiles there. In 521, Babylon rebelled but was recaptured after a seventeen-month siege. Another unsuccessful revolt took place in 484, following which its defences and some of its temples were destroyed. Decay was gradual. In 331 Alexander the Great demolished the ziggurat, but the E-sag-ila was restored and remained in use for two centuries or more.
Sudden destruction is reserved for modern Babylon. The charge against her is that she is subservient to demons, promiscuous, and a lover of fine living, and she has persuaded the rest of the world to adopt the same materialist view of life. Her carnality and affluence exert great power. The world’s business tycoons grow rich by her – we might say, obscenely rich. In addition, she has blood on her hands. So the angel testifies that history will repeat itself, only on a larger scale. Just as the fall of the ancient city was prophesied and came to pass, recorded for our sakes as much as Judah’s, so will the fall of today’s megalopolis.
The metaphor describing the woman’s passionate lust and God’s passionate anger is apt, for Europe produces, exports and consumes more wine per head than any other region. Having drunk to satiety from her own cup, Europe will drink from his. So will all worshippers of the beast (14:10).
lest you participate in her sins
and in her plagues you share;
for her sins have been glued together as far as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Pay her back as she herself has paid back
and render double for her deeds;
in the cup she has mixed mix double for her.
As she glorified herself and lived in luxury,
in like measure give her torment and mourning,
since in her heart she says,
‘I sit a queen, no widow am I,
and mourning may I never see.’
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
death, mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire,
for mighty is the Lord God who judged her.”
The prophetic voice is God’s. His warning to come out of her repeats the warning of Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isa 52:11, Jer 51:45): the people of God must dissociate from a culture that stands condemned, or they will suffer the same fate. Babylon’s sins are glued together like bricks glued with tar (Gen 11:3f); her judgement has reached up to heaven higher than her towers. He declares, “I am God, and there is none other” (Isa 46:9). She thinks to herself, “I am, and there is none other. I shall not sit a widow or know the loss of children” (Isa 47:8).
God appeals to the Church. Insofar as Babylon controls her and tells her what to say and think, she must break free, sanctify herself and hold fast to what he says in his Word. How many even know of this appeal in the Bible? How many accept that God has the power as well as the will to bring this comfortable world to an end? How many understand that his indictment of apostate Jerusalem in the book of Jeremiah applies equally to us, that he still demands faithfulness of his people?
The angels with the seven bowls are told to pay back ‘as she herself paid back’. When she retaliated, she did so disproportionately, as Lamech boasted he had done (Gen 4:23f). Perhaps the most flagrant example was the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. President Truman boasted, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. … The basic power of the universe, the force from which the sun draws its power, has been loosed.” Another example was the havoc wreaked on Afghanistan and Iraq for the attack on the World Trade Center (Crawford 2018, 2019).
Much will be required of those to whom much has been given. When David lay with another man’s wife, God said to him, “I will take your wives from before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it secretly, but I will do this before all Israel.” In his judgement God took into account David’s circumstances and how much he already knew of God and repaid him double. Justice requires that the punishment be greater than the suffering caused, otherwise the guilty party suffers no more than the victim. So it will be in the final judgement. Europe, Russia and America cannot say that they did not know about God and his righteousness.
Disaster comes suddenly, by quake and by fire, by the power of the earth and the power of the sun.
The future tense becomes past as the pronouncement is fulfilled. ‘Clothed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, gilded with gold, jewels, and pearls’ echoes the previous description of the personified city (17:4). Her ‘torment’ refers to the torment inflicted by the demons of the fifth and sixth trumpets, climaxing with the pain and anguish of the destruction itself. ‘Woe’ (ouai) has the sense of ‘alas’. Those who have profited by her watch from afar, implying that some places will escape devastation. ‘Kings of the earth’, a frequent term in the Old Testament, could refer to kings of cities as well as nations. It is one of the many echoes of Ezekiel’s prophetic lament over Tyre, principal city-state of Phoenicia (Ezek 26-28). Tyre was a fortified island off the coast of Lebanon, linked to a sister city on the mainland, Old Tyre, a little to the south. By its maritime trade it had enriched both itself and other kingdoms. It had applied its wisdom and understanding to making money, saying to itself, “I am God; I sit where the gods dwell, in the heart of the seas.” But its self-assurance was a delusion, and God vowed to bring it down. Nebuchadrezzar conquered Old Tyre soon after conquering Jerusalem. Although he failed to capture its offshore stronghold, despite a 13-year siege, two and a half centuries later Alexander the Great captured it by building a causeway to the island with rubble from the old city. This must have been what Ezekiel was referring to when he spoke of men purposefully laying Tyre’s stones, trees and soil in the midst of the waters. Alexander’s army was the final wave of the ‘many nations’ that hurled themselves against the city. Supposedly impregnable Tyre was ruined, 2000 of its men were crucified, the remaining population made slaves. As with Babylon, fulfilment of the vision tarried but eventually came to pass.
At the moment it seems inconceivable that this present world should meet a sudden end. Mortal though we are, we think that our way of life will continue forever, while its comforts inure us against the thought that it might not. Our civilisation encompasses the whole earth; even China has merged with it. The merchants of the earth have got rich by its trade. They invest in the real estate of London, New York and Berlin, they buy up football clubs, they educate their children in the West’s schools and universities.
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up,
and it will be brought low …
against all the lofty mountains
and against all the uplifted hills,
against every high tower
and against every fortified wall. …
And people will enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
away from the terror of the LORD
and from the splendour of his majesty,
when he rises to make the earth tremble.
Because countries are now interdependent, we speak of ‘the global economy’. Modern economies depend on continually stimulating consumers to covet more and buy more, storing or throwing away what they bought the year before. If consumption is not increasing year on year, the state reduces taxes, loosens credit and itself borrows more in order to stimulate growth. But a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. When monotheism drove out polytheism, men ceased to worship idols. Scientific atheism having driven out monotheism, artefacts again dominate consciousness; the wonders of technology eclipse the wonders of created nature. Machines and gadgets endowed with artificial intelligence promise to liberate, but in fact enslave, so that men “worship at a new shrine” (Roberts 1980) and growing covetousness – idolatry in new guise – along with fornication, impurity and bad desire, becomes the reason wrath is coming on the world (Col 3:5f).
The list of goods, mostly luxury items, is a modification of Ezekiel’s list of Tyre’s imports, with the addition of carriages, marble and wooden articles, and omitting the countries that supplied them. The list ends with the bodies and souls of human beings: slaves are trafficked as well as animals. By implication, all this wealth is at the expense of human suffering and exploitation. Do we too measure ourselves in terms of how much wealth we have, what we call our ‘standard of living’? It is not how God measures us. The comparison with Tyre is apt, for over 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea. Much of what we enjoy is on the backs of forced labour beyond our shores.
The Church was founded by the apostles and prophets. The word ‘apostle’, from the verb apostellω, meaning to send, implied someone who had seen Jesus (I Cor 9:1) and had special authority to act as his witness and perform signs (II Cor 12:12). The first apostles were the twelve disciples, later joined by others (Acts 14:14, Gal 1:19), and the prophets were their contemporaries (Acts 11:27, 13:1, 15:32, 21:10, Eph 3:5, 4:11f). The prophets’ role was to encourage the fledgling Church and confirm the apostles’ witness at a time when the New Testament had either not been written or was not widely known. Many were martyred (I Thes 2:15). Today, speaking under inspiration is rare, though not unknown. More importantly, the gospel of the kingdom is itself a prophetic message.
bow down to him, all you gods,
for he will avenge the blood of his children
and take vengeance on his adversaries.
The dirge is adapted from Jeremiah’s pronouncement of doom upon Judah and surrounding nations (Jer 7:34, 25:8-10). If one wishes to update the cultural references, the prophecy is speaking of guitarists and orchestras, of manufacturers, of flour mills and electric lights, of everything that typifies normal life. The people of Judah said to themselves, “He will not do anything. Disaster will not come upon us; we shall not see sword and famine.” But they did see sword and famine, and just as Jerusalem fell, so will the civilisation built on the foundations of Christianity. “If the vision tarry, wait for it,” said Habakkuk, “it will surely come.” “They were eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark and the cataclysm came and destroyed them all.”
The mention of drug-dealing, pharmakeia, is shocking after the evocation of innocent normality. The word comes from Isaiah’s third prophecy concerning Babylon, where it means ‘sorcery’, but again we should note the two explanatory ‘for’s. The city falls because its merchants, its billionaire magnates, have become the ‘great ones of the earth’ (II Sam 7:9) and they became great through deceit. In the modern world pharmaceutical companies are among the greatest deceivers (Gøtzsche 2013). They are also among the most profitable: the fines incurred by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer alone since 2000 total $25 billion, a small fraction of their profits.
Babylon the Great is likened to three archetypal cities: Babylon, on account of her idolatry, Tyre, on account of her pride, Jerusalem, on account of her adultery. She is the unnamed city or cities in Isaiah’s vision of a devastated earth. Although some identify her with the Roman Empire, or the Roman Church, neither of these has the characteristics of all three cities. She is the civilisation of all the earth.
among the nations,
as when an olive tree is beaten,
as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is done. …
and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until the fury has passed by.
For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose its blood
and no more conceal its slain. (Isa 26:20f)
The blood of prophets and saints includes that of Christians in the period from Nero to Diocletian, the blood of the saints who gave up their lives in the conversion of Europe, the blood of murdered Waldensians, the blood of Protestant reformers such as Jan Hus and William Tyndale, the blood of the Huguenots, the blood of Jews massacred during the Black Death in 1348-50 and in the Ukraine in 1648–1656 and 1919, the blood of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Second World War in Poland, the Baltic States, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Croatia, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Romania, France, Bulgaria, Italy and Russia, as well as the blood of the 144,000 who prophesied. Only God has a full account.
‘All the slaughtered of the earth’ includes the millions of Greek, Assyrian and Armenian civilians massacred by the Ottomans during and after the First World War, the more than 15 million killed by Communists in the Soviet Union, the more than three hundred thousand Serb civilians tortured or otherwise killed by the Ustashe in Croatia during the Second World War, the 2 million or more Polish civilians killed by the Germans following their invasion, the untold millions killed by Communists in China and Cambodia, and the millions killed in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Angola, to say nothing of soldiers killed in war. Previous centuries also have their roll calls.
The slaughtered also include innocents killed in the womb. Fornication gives rise to babies, and the babies are not always wanted. As in pre-Christian societies, in such circumstances modern society claims the right to kill, long after the first trimester in which most miscarriages occur, with hospitals cremating or simply incinerating the bodies. One in four pregnancies worldwide and three in ten in Europe end in abortion, amounting to more than 56 million a year (Sedgh et al. 2016), though most abortions are within the first trimester. The rate is higher in Europe because marriage and family are less valued. One of the gravest charges brought against Jerusalem was that “you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me [God], and these you sacrificed to them [the idols] to be eaten. Was your fornication so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and gave them to the fire for them?” (Ezek 16:20f) Immolation was a convenient solution to the problem of babies born out of wedlock. Psalm 106 says that in so doing Israel sacrificed to demons.