A Thought on Christian Scripture
Properly understood and interpreted, the Scriptures have the capacity to mediate the transforming power, grace, and love of God. Anthony Robinson, What’s Theology Got To Do With It? (47-48)
Revelation 17:1-18: When the seventh bowl was poured out by the angel, the fall of Babylon was announced. Babylon is remembered in the Scriptures and in the history of the Jewish people of the time as the imperial power that overtook Judea in 586 BCE, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took many Israelites into captivity. Babylon is used here to represent another imperial power, the one which had sent John into exile on Patmos, Rome.
Babylon/Rome is called “the great whore” and this is not a compliment! Again, it is no wonder the author was using metaphoric, symbolic and poetic language. To name Rome as a great whore would have invited even greater wrath and the author had experienced to date. Fornication and drunkenness are metaphors here, referring to the acquiescence of peoples and rulers to the rule of Rome. Of course, many of the people were victims of Rome’s brand of injustice, and the imagery here suggests both human culpability and human victimization. More often than not, these are not mutually exclusive. We often participate in systems that have destructive consequences. We are now asking ourselves if our economic systems, dependent as they are upon energy sources like coal and oil have not led us some place we would rather not go.
Babylon’s judgment is announced again, and the scene shifts as the author is taken into the wilderness to see the great whore Babylon adorned with jewels but filled with abominations. Among Babylon’s abominations was that she was drunk with the blood of witnesses to Jesus.
The woman rides on a beast with seven heads and ten horns (see chapter 13). This is probably a reference to Roman imperial history. The author also sees this beast as a parody of the true God. This beast was and is not and is to come. This language echoes the myth that Nero would return to power. Rather than predicting some distant future, the writer is reflecting in theological and metaphoric terms on Rome and its consequences, and its final downfall.
“This calls for a mind that has wisdom.” This section is more like typical Jewish apocalyptic in that there is a detailed interpretation of the vision given by an interpreting angel. This is the only section of Revelation of which this is true, and may be an indication that John is here reinterpreting older material. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Rome is the city on seven hills, and John is making it clearer that the woman, Babylon, the great whore, is indeed Rome – seated on seven hills/mountains. John also uses the numbers to discuss Roman emperors. Seven is not literal but is used symbolically to refer to the complete number of emperors. John wants the imagery to convey to his readers that the series of Roman emperors, though it appears to be “eternal,” is coming to an end, that “Nero” shall appear as the leader of a final great persecution, but the kingdom of God will replace the Roman power. Domitian was only the leading edge of the great persecution to follow immediately, for when the beast appeared again, though appearing to be powerful, it would last only a little while, since it was already destined to go to perdition. All this John wanted to disclose in his evocative revelation of how things ultimately are, to Christians who had to decide how to evaluate the rival claims to ultimate allegiance made by the god represented in Rome and the God represented in Jesus Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
There is power in the beast – ten kings yield their power to the beast, if only for a short time. They will make war on the Lamb, but “the Lamb will conquer them.” This is startling imagery, and it continues. “He is Lord of lords and King of kings.” This is in direct contradiction to the Roman ideology where the emperor was king of kings and lord of lords. Those who follow the Lamb, John’s audience, are “called, chosen and faithful” – again terms that might be used for a ruling class but here used of a small and sometimes persecuted minority.
Verses 15-18 are a little confusing chronologically. Just prior, the beast, having gained authority from the ten kings, makes war on the Lamb. Here we backtrack – the beast and the kings make war on the whore. This is wonderfully symbolic political intrigue. History is littered with political upheaval. Powerful regimes make alliances and are betrayed by those alliances. Unjust power often breeds great discontent and given the opportunity, those who have been oppressed will oppress. Behind all the wild imagery, John knows something of the structure of empires and of political machinations. His basic message remains the same, the Lamb endures and the Lamb’s followers are those who are called, chosen, and faithful.
The Lamb is an amazing and yet wonderfully disarming vision. In the face of Rome’s ideology of Victory, the victorious Lamb of Revelation looks almost incongruous. In place of overwhelming military strength, we are given the image of the Lamb’s nonviolent power. In place of Rome’s image of inflicting slaughter on the world, Revelation tells the story of the Lamb who has been slaughtered – and who still bears the scars of the slaughter. This reversal of images must have come as a big surprise to first-century Christians accustomed as they were to Rome’s images of power and victory. Revelation undertakes to reveal what true power and true victory is: At the heart of the power of the universe stands Jesus, God’s slain Lamb. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 109-110)
Revelation 18:1-24: We have had one rendering of the fall of Babylon the great, poetic language in prose form. Here we will have the pure poetry version sung by angels.
This lamentation borrows much of the language and imagery of Old Testament lamentations that both protest and lament the sins of Israel and Jerusalem, protest and lament their destruction, combined with prophetic judgments that celebrate the fall of Assyria and Babylon…. John’s lamentation is thus double-pronged. On the one hand, he celebrates the final demise of the oppressive world power that had lived in luxury at the expense of the suffering of others. On the other hand, he mourns the passing away of the great city that had facilitated vitality and the joy of life. John’s application of biblical language used against Israel and Jerusalem to Babylon/Rome shows that he is not against civilization itself, but its perversion. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
In light of all that is wrong with Babylon/Rome, God’s people are cautioned about participating in her iniquities. The language in verses 6-8 are characteristic biblical language for evoking God’s judgment and should not be seen as personal vindictiveness. That such words have been used to justify vindictiveness should lead us to use them cautiously. The harsh judgment against riches and power and luxury should make those of us who live in prosperous countries in the world a little uneasy. Living well is not the issue, the nature of wealth and its distribution are. Verses 11-19 are a rather haunting picture of the collapse of an economic system – but note the subtle remark that among things bought and sold were “human lives.” An economy is collapsing, but one based on selling human beings, and selling them out. John paints a realistic picture of the integrated imperial economy, but sees it tumbling.
John’s perspective, while somewhat more complex in that he recognizes some of the achievements of Rome, is basically apocalyptic - - - “the general apocalyptic dualism of Revelation, in which all decisions are either/or; all people are worshippers either of the beast or of the one true God” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In verse 20 God’s people rejoice over the fall of an oppressive power, one that accomplished much, but whose accomplishments were overshadowed by injustice in John’s mind. In Rome/Babylon “was found the blood of the prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”
Revelation 19:1-10: Solo angels sang of the demise of the great Babylon, now a heavenly chorus sings out a song of praise and gratitude to God. Sometimes the tone is disturbingly vindictive. The basic point is that those who remain true to God and to the Lamb will be blessed, will be invited to a banquet. The readers are encouraged to stay true to the God who is worthy of worship and to the Jesus whose witness is the spirit of prophecy.
Each of the three major divisions of Revelation begins with a transcendent scene of the glory of God and/or Christ, from which proceeds a sevenfold vision. Revelation comes to its climactic conclusion with seven scenes of the final victory of God…. Though literary presentation requires that they be presented one after the other, they are not a strict chronology, but seven different pictures of the meaning of the triumph of God at the end of history. Each picture is intended to say something about the character of the end as such, not merely describe one part of the final drama. Here is no chronological calendar of the events of the end time, but a tour through an eschatological art gallery in which the theme of God’s victory at the end of history is treated in seven different pictures each complete in itself. (People’s New Testament Commentary) This is a wonderfully helpful way to view these final chapters of Revelation, and such a literary device is not unknown. It was used in the recent film Vantage Point where an event is portrayed from different perspectives, each adding something to the whole picture. Perhaps this is what John is doing – different pictures each adding something to our sense of what it means for the God of Jesus Christ to be the love that prevails in the universe. Some of John’s language and imagery will be unloving, but his basic point throughout has been the temporality of the evil Roman empire, the final triumph of God and God’s purposes in the world, and the need for God’s people to hold on to the true faith and to genuine values, even when they seem like a losing proposition. In that way, Revelation speaks volumes to our day and time.
Revelation 19:11-16: Picture one is a picture of a returning Jesus, riding a horse, leading an army. Images are borrowed from many places in the Bible to paint this picture. The figure is the returning Jesus, but he appears to be very different from the Jesus of the Gospels, who rides humbly on a donkey rather than a warhorse and who dies for others rather than killing them. Thus some have interpreted the “first coming” of Jesus as his advent in love, but the “second coming” as his advent in violent power. This is a fundamental mistake. The good news of the Christian faith is that at our own death or the end of history we do not meet someone different from the One we have already met in Jesus of Nazareth. Here as elsewhere, John adopts the traditional imagery of the conquering Messiah, but reverses its valences in the light of Jesus the crucified one. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
Revelation 19:17-21: The violence of this image is stomach-turning. The great feast of God is ironically turned into a feast for carrions. John takes the pervasive reality of evil seriously and offers a grisly vision of its ending. Thankfully this is but one vision of the victory of God and God’s purposes. Note that in 21:24 the nations and kings of the earth bring their glory into the heavenly city. Also note that it is only the beast and the false prophet that are thrown into the lake of fire burning with sulfur.