Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said:
“With such violence
the great city of Babylon will be thrown down,
never to be found again.”
Revelations 18:21 (NIV)
This past weekend, Wendy and I were honored to be part of a friend’s wedding. I officiated and Wendy coordinated the rehearsal and the ceremony, so we were there with the family, friends, and loved ones for the entire shebang. We knew relatively few members of the wedding party and the families, so I spent a lot of time simply observing those involved and their celebration. There really is nothing quite like a wedding to celebrate life, love, family, and community in both the moment as well as its perpetuation.
In ancient literature, writers often contrasted weddings with the lamentation of funerals. Talk about a powerful contrast: the joyous perpetuation of life and the harsh reality of inevitable death. Revelations chapters 18 and 19 are an example of this contrast on an apocalyptic scale.
Today’s chapter, Revelations 18, heralds the final execution of judgment on “Babylon the Great.” Babylon first appears in the Great Story in Genesis 10. The Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrews into exile around 600 BC. The ancient kingdom of Babylon became a metaphor for evil human empires in the prophetic and apocalyptic literature throughout the Great Story.
In John’s day, those reading his Revelations understood “Babylon the Great” to be the Roman Empire. It was Rome who had persecuted Jesus’ followers with cruel and unusual punishments. The Romans were known for their creatively tortuous execution methods, including the tying of a giant millstone to the neck of a victim and tossing the millstone and victim into the sea or a deep river to drown. As people who had seen the luxurious excesses, human cruelty, and unjust persecutions that the Romans flaunted, John’s readers would have read today’s chapter as God’s promise to judge Rome, raze it to the ground, and “pay her back double for what she has done” (vs. 6).
It’s hard not to read Revelations and try to connect the apocalyptic characters to specific people or nations. Throughout my entire spiritual journey, I have heard and read speakers and authors hawking their interpretations to the masses. In the quiet this morning, I read the chapter and thought about the way the global economy works. It is more interconnected than ever before and the economic troubles we are currently experiencing around the globe seem eerily familiar in the text. Merchants lament that they suddenly have no customers to export their goods. Sailors cry out because there are no open ports for their cargo.
As I pondered this, it made me wonder if “Babylon the Great” is less about one specific nation and more about an entire world order that oppresses the poor and vulnerable in order to traffic everything from gold to humans in order to amass wealth for the insatiably rich and powerful kings and kingdoms of this world.
Ultimately, I believe that today’s chapter is about the execution of divine judgment and the funeral pyre of human injustice on earth, complete with the catastrophic ripple effect that comes with the demise of such a system.
In the quiet this morning, my mind can’t help but turn back to current events. The last two years have been an object lesson in just how intertwined our economies and supply chains have become. A global pandemic has led to diverse and widespread social, political, and economic instabilities. As I ponder this, I’m struck by two, make it three, thoughts. The first is just how easily a small group of power-brokers might manipulate and control economics on a global scale. The second is how quickly such a system might fall apart should catastrophe strike, leading to a descent into global chaos.
The third is that John’s Revelations envision both scenarios.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.