Over the last two weeks in Revelation, we’ve seen how the beast (the Roman Emperor) set itself up as a rival god to the one, true God – and forced the people of the empire to worship it. Chapter 13 was all about presenting the emperor as he really was, rather than how Rome’s PR department would have you see him. Chapters 14-15 then gave motivation for resisting the mark of the beast (worshipping the emperor), contrasting the future that awaits Team Beast with that which awaits Team Jesus. Today, we briefly look at the fate of Rome and her emperor (chapters 17-19), as Revelation moves from its readers’ present into its readers’ near future.
Chapter 17 starts off with a by-now-routine announcement from an explanatory angel:
Revelation 17:1 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters.”
Who’s the great prostitute? One who sits by many waters – that could describe a few cities. Babylon (with the Tigris and Euphrates) and Rome (the Tiber), for example. Let’s read on.
Revelation 17:2 “With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”
In the Old Testament, adultery is usually a metaphor for idolatry. Again, it could describe an ancient city like Babylon and Rome.
Revelation 17:3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.
In the ancient world, cities were sometimes personified as women: the embodiment of Rome was Roma Aeterna – the goddess of the Eternal City. As we’ll see in our Christmas special next week (Rev 12), Revelation takes the Queen of Heaven imagery that was used in the empire for “Mother Rome,” and instead appropriates it for “Mother Zion,” the birthplace of the true saviour of the world. Here in chapter 17, the city of Rome is portrayed in contrasting fashion: not as a glittering goddess, but a cheap, drunk whore who rides the beastly empire (the source of her power). It’s the beast that’s procured all her gaudy bling and booze:
Revelation 17:4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
Purple may be royalty, but scarlet is the colour of prostitutes (remember Rahab’s scarlet cord?) Rome tries to look respectable, but she’s only become this “great city” by exploiting the rest of the empire, and indulging in immorality and idolatry.
Revelation 17:5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth.
That’s a seriously big forehead. Or a seriously tiny font. (Or, you may recall from previous episodes, forehead-marks in Revelation tend to be non-literal.) But it identifies the city as… Babylon? Didn’t we just say it was Rome?
Well, yes. But again, it’s imagery. Portraying one thing (Rome) in terms of another (Babylon) to draw out the similarities. A bit like how we in Australia call Brisbane, “Bris Vegas.” Or like referring to New York by its DC Comics alter ego, “Gotham,” with its connotations of crime and corruption. Like Rome, Babylon was also a spectacularly beautiful ancient city which ruthlessly exploited other nations to build an empire, set up idols and rulers as things to be worshipped (remember Nebuchadnezzar?), and mistreated God’s people. And, as it turned out, got too big for its boots and was destroyed by God. So by calling Rome, “Babylon,” Revelation is sending a not-too-subtle message about how God thinks of Rome, and what will happen to her.
Revelation 17:6a I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
Here, Rome is identified as a persecutor of Christians.
A little later in the chapter, the angel gives us more clues about the identity of the prostitute:
Revelation 17:9-11 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.”
The seven hills are the clearest link with Rome, which was famously built on seven hills. The kings probably refer to its emperors, although scholars disagree with which seven it refers to – where do you start counting (Julius Caesar? Augustus? Nero?), and do you count the ones who held the job for five minutes after Nero got assassinated? At any rate, numbers are primarily symbolic in Revelation, so we shouldn’t get too carried away with making the scheme work. My guess is that the eighth king represents Domitian (Nero 2.0) who was the looming threat at the time Revelation was written. The important thing is that the beast – the emperor – is headed for destruction. The next few verses are all about the triumph of Team Jesus over Team Beast:
Revelation 17:12-14 “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. 13 They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
(Or they’re about the European Union, because that’s so relevant to Revelation’s first readers.)
Revelation 17:15-18 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. 16 The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
This predicts the eventual destruction of Rome at the hands of the peoples around her. (Or BREXIT. You choose.)
The next chapter is simply a series of woes, lamenting the dreadful fate that has overtaken the once-great empire:
Revelation 18:1-3 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. 2 With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal. 3 For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Her destruction will be sudden:
Revelation 18:8 Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.
Those who profited from her exploitation will mourn:
Revelation 18:9 “When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her.”
Revelation 18:11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore.”
Revelation 18:18-19 “When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ 19 They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out: ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’”
By contrast, those on Team Jesus – who had been persecuted by Rome – will rejoice:
Revelation 18:20 “Rejoice over her, you heavens! Rejoice, you people of God! Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her with the judgment she imposed on you.”
Revelation 19:1-3 After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, 2 for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 3 And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
The Eternal City is no more. The only thing about her that’s eternal is the smoke of her destruction! And God’s persecuted people are – finally – vindicated.
In reflecting on Babylon/Rome in Revelation, Ben Witherington talks about how others see Western civilisation today:
Seeing ourselves as others see us is a necessary, though difficult, task. It has been recently asked why the terrorists would target New York and Washington for their attacks in the fall of 2001. The reason is actually theological in part. To many such people, these large cities are the great symbols of the Evil Empire. It is no accident that Osama bin Laden said in one of his press releases after 11 September that what happened in those cities was a judgment of God on the wickedness of American culture. It appears that he saw these cities much the same as John saw Rome in his own day—as purveyors of idolatry and immorality. It is in some measure understandable why a person would view things this way. The major visual exports of America to other parts of the world are films and television programs that glorify sexual immorality, greed, violence, and the like. There is the news media, which major in tales of woe and violence and seem, to foreigners, to always put a pro-American spin on their reporting. There is American business and industry, which is seen as self-serving and where benefits are doled out, it is perceived, to help only the rich few and to exploit the poor many. The recent scandals over Nike’s use of Asian workers to make its shoes comes tom mind. In other words, while nothing can justify the actions of the terrorists in September 2001, there is some justice in their critique of American culture, as it is exported to the world. … Whatever else one might say about comparisons between Rome/Babylon and New York/Gotham, we do indeed need to do a better job of seeing ourselves as others see us. As Keener remarks, “The sins hardest to see are those where our culture shares the same blind spots we have.” (Ben Witherington III, Revelation, 235.)