(A sermon based on Revelation 17-19 for Sunday, September 6, 2009)
The vision of chapter 17 focuses on a woman, described as a harlot, seated on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The harlot has a name: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations” (v. 5). In Revelation the name Babylon is a symbolic synonym for Rome. That identification is made clear by 17:18: “The woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.” Two questions beg for an answer here.
First, why was Babylon appropriate for this role? The Babylonian Empire was one of the great empires of the ancient world. In the biblical mindset its name came to sum up all of what was evil about arrogant, oppressive, God-denying empires. It was therefore a proper code name for the Rome of John’s day.
Second, why was Rome pictured by John as a harlot? Whenever Israel came to serve other, false gods, God viewed them as having committed adultery against him. They had played the harlot with other gods. Rome had led other nations to commit spiritual adultery by demanding ultimate loyalty, by promoting the religion of materialism, and by fostering emperor worship. That is the kind of harlotry of which Rome was guilty.
A further and extremely serious sin of the woman was that she was “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). During the reign of Domitian a persecution was undertaken against the church and many people gave their lives for the sake of the gospel. John anticipated that this situation would worsen but that Rome would be judged for her murderous actions.
When John sees the harlot she is seated upon “a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns” (17:3). This beast is best identified with the Roman Empire as it was personified in the person of the Emperor. There are several reasons for this identification.
First, “it was full of blasphemous names.” One of the main reasons that the Empire was persecuting the church was that Christians would not acknowledge that Domitian was “Lord and God” as he claimed to be. The best way to view these “blasphemous names” is as such claims to divinity by the Emperor.
Second, the angel explains to John that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains on which the woman is seated” (17:9). The city of Rome was built on seven hills. The seven hills were literally foundational to the city of Rome; the far-flung Empire was foundational to the status of that city.
Third, the seven heads are also said by the angel to be “seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while” (17:10). The seven kings represent the Roman emperors in their totality. John anticipated still more persecution from the emperors, for he said that there was an emperor yet to come to whom he refers as “an eighth” (v. 11). This language, as well as that in v. 8 (“the beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition”) makes use of a rumor, current in John’s time, that the dead Emperor Nero would somehow return to wreak havoc on Rome.
Fourth, this beast on which the woman sits “is to ascend from the bottomless pit” (17:8). We are reminded of the first of the two beasts in chapter 13 that rose from the sea. In biblical symbolism the sea is virtually synonymous with the abyss; so we are safe in identifying these two beasts with each other. We have already seen that the beast from the sea in chapter 13 is best seen as representing the Roman Empire. For this and the other three reasons we can see that the beast of chapter 17 represents the Empire.
The ten horns of the beast are identified as “ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast” (17:12). The most likely view of who these ten kings are is that they represent the leaders of provinces under the influence of the Empire who join in the persecution of the church. They would be conquered by Christ and would join with the beast and turn on the harlot. This is a marvelously pictorial way of saying that the city of Rome would finally be conquered by forces from without and from within.
Chapter 18 consists of an announcement by an angel that Babylon (Rome) had fallen (vv. 1-3) a call from heaven for faithful people to escape from the coming deserved destruction of the city (vv. 4-8), words of sorrow and lamentation from the kings of the earth, the merchants of the earth, and the sailors over the destruction of Rome (vv. 9-20), and a symbolic action by a “mighty angel” depicting the complete overthrow of Rome (vv. 21-24).
John’s message communicates that Babylon-like powers must be overthrown. In John’s immediate context that meant Rome. But how do we think about “Babylon” in our context? We immediately think of those nations and rulers that are dictatorial and oppressive. We remember President Reagan’s characterization of the old Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and we think that it may have been a modern Babylon. In recent years we might have been thinking of Saddam Hussein in those terms (that would be easy, given that modern Iraq is the location of ancient Babylon). Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Hirohito’s Japan, Amin’s Uganda…we could go on and on.
But as we ponder what Revelation teaches about the fall of Babylon might we need to think some about ourselves? After all, historical Babylon of the sixth century B.C. was the mightiest power of its day. Rome of the first century A.D., John’s metaphorical Babylon, was the mightiest power of its day. Notice also that John depicts those who had profited from the economic power of Rome as being the ones who mourned the most over its fall. Where is the locus of economic power in our world today?
We are so blessed. The United States is the greatest country in the world. God has blessed this nation beyond measure. Legitimate Christian faith has a greater chance to flourish in this free and pluralistic society than it does anywhere else. There are so many ways in which we are not like ancient Rome. Yet I fear for us and I believe that we should ponder the dangers. We are the world’s only remaining superpower. Recent setbacks notwithstanding, we are the cornerstone of the world’s economy. We are the leader of the world.
We are not Babylon but we need to work and pray that we not become Babylon. How would it happen? It would happen if we come to trust in the power of the state more than we trust in the power of God. It would happen if we come to seek economic prosperity even at the cost of basic human dignity. And it could happen.
Babylon, you see, is worldly economic and political and military power that trusts in itself rather than in God and that leads others to do the same. Babylon is the pride and arrogance that thinks it can leave God out of the equation. Let us pray and work that our beloved nation will not fall prey to the temptation to be like Babylon. And let us pray and grow that in our individual lives we not put ourselves in the place of God. And let us pray that we Christians will also be the anti-Babylon in the midst of the greater population, that we will be those who insist that because we are Christians and because we are the Church our trust in God and our following of Christ mean that we will give our ultimate loyalty only to God that our loyalty will show itself in the ways we treat people—in particular that we not put selfish economic interests ahead of the needs of those who are hurting.
Because, and make no mistake about it Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall—but Christ and his kingdom has stood, is standing, and will stand!