December 6: Revelation 18:21-24

Revelation 18:21-24

In the closing verses 21-24 we have a third heavenly announcement of Babylon’s fall in chapter 18. This time a Messenger uses a visual gesture to symbolize the message:

“And (then) one Messenger took up a strong stone, as a great grinding-stone, and threw it into the sea, saying: ‘So Babilim the Great City will be thrown (down) with violence, and shall (surely) not be found any longer!'” (v. 21)

This is a more dramatic version of the oracle against Babylon (the actual city) in Jeremiah 51:63-64, where a stone with a scroll tied to it was thrown into the Euphrates River, to visualize the message that “Babylon shall sink”. Similarly the stones of Tyre (cf. the previous note) would be thrown into the sea as part of her judgment and destruction (Ezekiel 26:12, 21). Jesus uses the same image of a millstone (mu/lo$, grinding-stone) thrown into the sea as a symbol of Judgment (Mark 9:42 par). The Prophets of Israel occasionally were directed (by God) to make use of concrete visual aids to illustrate the message of judgment, even as the Angel does here.

“‘And the voice of harpers and musicians and pipers and trumpeters shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer, and every (one) producing every (kind of) production shall (also surely) not be found in you any longer, and the voice of a grinding-stone shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer, and the light of a lamp shall (surely) not give light in you any longer, and bride-groom and bride shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer—(for it is) that your (merchant)s making passage in (the land) were the greatest (one)s of the earth, (and) that in your use of drugs all the nations were led astray! And (it is) in her (that the) blood of foretellers and holy (one)s was found, and (also) of all the (one)s having been slain upon the earth!'” (vv. 22-24)

The awkward syntax of the declaration in verses 22-24, both repetitive and with shifts in grammatical subject, reflects the harshness of the message itself, as the visions of chapters 17-18 build to a final climax. The list in vv. 22-23a is similar to the list of mercantile items in vv. 11-14; there it referred to the commercial activity that comes to an end with the fall of the Great City, here it is features of daily life (on the basic language and imagery, cf. Jeremiah 25:10). The millstone, used for grinding grain, is one of the items listed here, and its presence as the main visual symbol of the Angel’s action (v. 21) serves to indicate that daily life throughout the Great City is coming to an end. Both artists (i.e. musicians) and artisans (craftspeople and technicians) disappear; with the collapse of society, there is no need for these specialized workers. Even the basic act of grinding grain to produce food for the community, and the lamp-light by which such work is done, stops with the fall of the City. Family life ceases as well, as represented by marriage and wedding festivities (“bridegroom and bride”). The emptiness and desolation of the City is emphasized with the passive verbal references, repeated several times, that these activities of daily life “will no longer be found” and “will no longer be heard“. This sense of desolation was depicted differently in verse 2—the fallen City as the haunt of scavenging birds and wild animals.

The syntax and line of thought in vv. 23b-24 is difficult to discern. The list of daily activities that will cease is followed by two o%ti-clauses in v. 23:

    • “that [o%ti] your (merchant)s making passage in (the land) were the greatest (one)s of the earth”
    • “that [o%ti] in your use of drugs [farmakei/a] all the nations were led astray”

How do these relate to the prior list, and to each other? The first clause seems to express the reason why the things of daily life come to an end, i.e. “because your merchants…”. Perhaps this should be understood in the sense that the Judgment comes on the Great City because of its corruption, which means that its values are perverted. In Greco-Roman society, merchants and traders were often stereotyped as dishonest, coarse, and of the lower classes of society. To say that they were the “greatest ones” raises common commercial activity to the level of nobility; or, looking at it the opposite way, the nobles and “great ones” in society operate in a crass manner, addicted to the luxury and decadence supplied by merchants. The parallel between merchants and the use/supply of drugs, would confirm this basic idea that society is addicted to the material goods (esp. the luxury items) supplied by commercial dealers. This corruption and decadence marks the City’s downfall. The noun farmakei/a can also connote the practice of magic, i.e. use of potions and the like to alter the natural way of things, or one’s perception of it. In the earlier chapter 13 visions, the Earth-creature uses magical/miraculous means to lead astray the people on earth, so that they follow the Sea-creature and worship his image.

The syntax shifts again in verse 24, moving from second person address back to third person (“and in her…”). In English translations, this virtually requires that a new sentence begin, though in the original Greek vv. 22-24 are perhaps best viewed as a single sentence, despite the syntactical difficulties. It reinforces the sense that we are dealing with a genuine visionary experience; in the ordinary narrative of a planned written work, the author would generally take more grammatical care. Part of the problem throughout is that Old Testament allusions blend with visionary description, and this creates a certain tension within the narrative. Here, the statement in v. 24 alludes again to the Babylonian oracle of Jeremiah (51:49). The “blood” of believers—i.e. their being persecuted and put to death–is the pinnacle of the Great City’s crime, emphasized earlier in 16:6; 17:6, and elsewhere in the book (2:13; 6:9-11; 7:14; 11:7-10; 13:7, 10). Even as the activities of daily life are no longer found in the City, the blood of believers is still there, the stain of guilt for it remaining in her.

Yet, it is not just the blood of believers, but that of all those who have been slain. This is one of the only places in the book of Revelation where the more general aspect of the Great City’s injustice and violence is emphasized. Typically, the focus is on the suffering of believers, not humankind in general. However, early Christians were not unaware of the social injustices in the Roman Empire. With every conquest, each quelled revolt, etc, populations were put to death, impoverished and enslaved. Similar acts of violence and exploitation were part of the overall corruption of human society, in its wickedness. As such, it is very much to be included in the Judgment; the Great City’s crimes are not against Christians alone, but against all peoples and nations everywhere.

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