Thursday, November 10, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Fall of Babylon (Chs. 17-18)

The next two chapters of Revelation are a continuation of the great battle sequence that began in chapter twelve, but their tone is decidedly different. Much in the same way the first chapter of Genesis tells the broad story of creation and chapter two zeros in to tell a more specific part of the story, the pronouncement of the fall of Babylon appears to be a snapshot taken from some point in the earlier narrative. An earlier angel has already declared that Babylon is fallen--part of the eternal gospel of God--and with the pouring out of the seventh bowl of God's wrath, the heavenly host declares "It is done." What this passage does, therefore, is take a closer look at what the collapse of Babylon looks like, and it does so with a poetic flair for the macabre reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets.

Many of the same themes that have persisted thus far are revisited in this passage: the terrible and wonderful nature of God, the consequences of human actions, the contrast between right and wrong worship, and, of course, the inevitability of God's victory over evil. There are, however, new insights which can be gained from looking at this passage independently. It tells us something about the nature of evil in the world. Over the course of the narrative there are numerous distinct groups of "villains," all of whom interact with one another and all of whose interplay has something to teach. There is, figuring prominently, the woman variously referred to as the prostitute or as Babylon and the beast on which she rides. There are the kings of the earth and the nations who have debauched with the prostitute, the merchants of the sea who are dealers in human souls, and the ship builders whose avarice was satisfied by the trade in the ports of Babylon.

The first and most noticeable fact when reading through the poetic tribute to the destruction of the woman is how neatly interwoven all of these evil forces are. They all stand back and wonder at her fate and suffer, either directly or implicitly, from the plagues that are brought upon her. It is clear that evil is a complex enough entity that it is self-sustaining. The sexual licentiousness of the woman satisfies the lechery of the kings of the nations, and the subservience of the nations satisfies the woman's lust for power. The gluttony of Babylon feeds the avarice of the merchants and ship builders, and, of course, greed is always willing to subsidize consumption. Evil is a self-perpetuating cancer in the world. It delights in itself and feeds itself until it grows beyond any individual sin into a web of related villainy.

Yet, even as we watch Babylon suffer with all her sinful subsidiaries suffering vicariously through her, it is interesting to note at the outset precisely what vehicle God uses to prompt the destruction of Babylon. The angel interpreting the vision for John explains, "And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire." It is not a heavenly army or even God (directly) that will instigate the fall of Babylon. It will be the very beast and the ten kings--the ones who will "will make war on the Lamb"--who will turn on the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and they will devour her flesh. It is interesting that the saints, rather than being called on to participate in God's righteous judgment of Babylon are called out of the city before it self-destructs. And there is no better description of what evil does here. It turns on itself. It implodes. Evil is, at its core, self-defeating. In practical terms, how often do we see one evil dictator overthrown not by righteous forces promoting peace and justice but by another, more powerful, evil dictator? It is the nature of evil to take on all comers, including other forces of evil.

The result is the classic image of eternity as a snake eating its own tail. Evil, as depicted here, is a reality which is always simultaneously feeding itself and devouring itself. It makes for an interesting contrast to the goodness of God which is infinitely sustaining without ever consuming. In chapters to come, the promise of God will be depicted in these kinds of inexhaustible terms with a city that never crumbles, a sun which never sets, a garden which never withers, and a life which never ends. With evil, in contrast, we may take comfort in the fact that its very attempts to sustain itself inevitably result in moves to destroy itself. Divine providence is such that it allows evil to persist because, in persisting, it destroys itself. Babylon is fallen, and only she is to blame.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

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