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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December 4: Revelation 18:9-20

Revelation 18:9-20

Verses 9-20 continue the prophetic announcement of the fall of “Babylon”, by the heavenly voice in vv. 4-8 (cf. the previous note). Here are depicted three groups of people who cry and lament the great city’s demise: (1) “kings of the earth” (vv. 9-10), (2) “merchants of the earth” (vv. 11-17a), and (3) those who travel and “work on the sea” (vv. 17b-19). In addition to the Old Testament oracles against the actual city of Babylon (and its empire)—Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47; Jeremiah 50-51—the lament in vv. 9-20 draws upon the oracles against the city-state of Tyre (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28, esp. chapter 27), due to its prominence as a sea-faring commercial power.

Revelation 18:9-10

“And they shall cry (aloud) and beat (themselves) about her, (shall) the kings of the earth, the (one)s (hav)ing engaged in prostitution with her and experiencing (her) rough (pleasures), (now) standing from far off through the(ir) fear of her (painful) testing, (and) saying: ‘Oh, oh, (for) the Great City! Babilim the strong city! (for it is) that in a single hour your judgment came!'”

The language in these verses reflects that used earlier in chapters 17-18. It had already been mentioned several times how the “kings of the earth” had engaged in ‘prostitution’ with the Great City (as a prostitute), sharing in her lavish and reckless wickedness (17:2ff; 18:3; cf. also 14:8). The verb strhnia/w, along with the related noun strh=no$, was used in vv. 3, 7; it connotes “roughness”, living/acting roughly, i.e. in a reckless manner that violates standards of decency and morality. The expression “kings of the earth” is comprehensive, referring to the rulers and governments of the nations, especially those which were part of the Roman Empire—including the local rulers and officials in Asia Minor who participated in, and cooperated with, the imperial administration. It was, of course, the situation in the Asian province(s) which was most relevant to the author and audience of the book of Revelation. The scene alludes to Jeremiah 51:7-8, while the reaction by onlookers may also echo Jer 50:13 (cf. 18:16); the fear and horror expressed by the kings is also part of the oracle against Tyre (Ezek 26:15-17; 27:35). In verse 8, the suddenness of the judgment against the Great City (and its destruction) is said to take place in a single (mi/a) day; here it is described even more dramatically as occurring in a single (mi/a) hour. This alludes back to 17:12 and the “horns” (or vassal-kings) who will bring about the city’s destruction.

Revelation 18:11-17a

“And the (merchant)s making passage in (the lands) of the earth shall (also) cry (aloud) and feel sorrow upon her, (in) that [i.e. because] no one goes to the market-place (to purchase) the full load of their (merchandise)—not any longer!—(their) full load of: gold and silver and valuable stones, and pearls, and (fine) linen and purple (cloth), and silk and crimson (cloth), and (wood from) every fragrant tree and every vessel of elephant (tusk) [i.e. ivory], and every vessel (made out) of valuable tree(s) and copper and iron and marble, and (also) cinnamon and amomon and (other) fragrant (spice)s, and myrrh-ointment and libanos (incense), and wine and oil, and semidalis (flour) and grain, and (animal)s (for one’s) possession, and (flock)s of sheep, and horses and the four-wheeled (carriages they draw), and (even human) bodies and the souls of men!” (vv. 11-13)

The reference to merchants in verse 3b, alongside the “kings of the earth”, introduced the aspect of the commercial activity that took place throughout the empire of the great city “Babylon” (i.e. the Roman Empire). The specific expression is “e&mporoi of the earth”, parallel with “kings of the earth”. The plural noun e&mporoi essentially means those who make passage (or make their way) in a region—that is, in order to sell or trade their goods. Their lament for the Great City’s destruction is that they no longer have any place to sell their goods. It is a vivid and colorful way of referring to the economic collapse in society that goes along with the collapse of “Babylon’s” empire. Indeed, the Roman Empire supported a vast network of commercial activity, all through its enormous geographical territory. The wealth of the empire was indicated, especially, by the extensive trade in luxury items—these are generally the items mentioned in the list of vv. 12-13. The list itself is clearly inspired by the oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 27, and essentially summarizes (in a shorthand form) the goods and transactions narrated in vv. 12-25 of the oracle.

The list climaxes with “(human) bodies and souls of men” —that is to say, slaves. The wealth of the Roman Empire, like that of nearly every powerful kingdom or state, was built upon slave labor. This is true even today, among the wealthy nations, though globalization and other factors have made the network of slave labor more complex, and less immediately apparent to the average citizen. A fitting symbol from Roman times would be the thermal bath-systems of the great cities; the slaves who labored below, stoking the fires, etc, were completely unseen by those enjoying the luxury of the baths above. The book of Revelation says very little regarding social justice, in the modern sense of the term; however, Christians at the time were not unaware of the inequities in society. Such fundamental injustice was a general part of the portrait of wickedness in the Roman Empire (and other nations) that would be punished in the great Judgment. The harshness and violence (including slave labor) that accompanied the City’s luxury is doubtless connoted in the use of the verb strhnia/w for the rough and reckless living of the Prostitute (cf. above).

The sense of loss is well expressed by the judgment-pronouncement in verse 14:

“‘And (so) the fruit of the hour [o)pw/ra], of (which) the impulse of your soul (was set) upon, (has) gone away from you; the sumptuous (thing)s and the radiant (thing)s were (all) lost from you, and not any longer—no, not (at all)—shall they (ever) find them (again)!'”

This poetic (or prosodic) verse has rather awkward syntax. The noun o)pw/ra is difficult to translate in English; literally it means something like “juice of the hour”, referring to the time or moment when the fruit is ripe. The first part of the verse, in the second person, is perhaps best understood in terms of the opportunity (for “Babylon”) to gain still greater wealth and power. Not only has that opportunity gone away, but the splendor which the City already possessed is also lost. The focus in the second part of the verse is on those others (kings, merchants, etc) who obtained wealth—symbolized by the luxury items in vv. 12-13—because of the Great City, by participating in its political and commercial networks of power. This is clear enough from the lament in vv. 15-17a:

“The (one)s making passage in (her to sell) these (thing)s, the (one)s (hav)ing been made rich from her, they will stand from far off through the(ir) fear of her (painful) testing, crying (aloud) and feeling sorrow, (and) saying: ‘Oh, oh (for) the Great City! the (one) having cast herself about with (fine) linen and purple and crimson, and having been golden-clad, [in] gold and valuable stone and pearl—(for it is) that in a single hour such rich(es have) been made desolate!'”

This is parallel to the lament of the kings in verse 10 (cf. above). The merchants similarly stand far off (makro/qen) out of fear for the judgment that has been unleashed on the City. Both in v. 10 and here the noun is basanismo/$, which fundamentally refers to testing, esp. the testing of metal in fire; it is often used in the negative sense of failing the test (i.e. the metal found to be false), in which case the fire (of testing) results in painful punishment, even destruction. This motif of testing by fire is, of course, most suitable for the destruction and burning of a city. In many English translations the decidedly negative connotation of basanismo/$ is made clear by rendering it as “torment”, “torture”, or something similar.

Kings and merchants both cry and grieve at the sight of the fallen City, expressing their sorrow in a similar form (beginning “Oh, oh for the Great City!”). Here the fine garments and gold jewelry are fitting for the lament of merchants, since the need for luxury items, and opportunity to sell/purchase them, has now come to an end. It also echoes the motif of the stripping and humiliation of the prostitute, leaving her (i.e. the City) desolate and naked (17:16; 18:7-8).

Revelation 18:17b-19

“And every (ship-)director and every (one) sailing upon (the sea to different) place(s), and boat-men and as many as work the sea, (they also) stood from far off and cried (aloud), looking at the smoke of her (burn)ing by fire, (and) saying: ‘Who is like the Great City?’ And they threw dust upon their heads and they shouted, crying (aloud) and feeling sorrow, saying: ‘Oh, oh, (for) the Great City! in whom all the (one)s holding the sailing-boats in the sea were made rich out of her valuable (wealth)—(for it is) that in a single hour she was made desolate!'”

Now everyone specifically involved in the seafaring side of the commercial activity joins the “kings of the earth” and “merchants of the earth” in making a similar lament (cf. above). A few extra details are added, such as throwing dust upon their heads, as a traditional sign of mourning. Also an additional (and climactic) question is given: “Who is like the Great City?” This echoes Ezek 27:32-33 in the oracle against Tyre. Both merchants and seamen are part of the commercial aspect here that is derived, primarily, from the Tyre-oracle in Ezek 27; the interest of the merchants is expressed in vv. 12-24, that of the seamen in vv. 26-32 (with the joining together in v. 25). However, given the special symbolism of the Sea (qa/lassa) in the book of Revelation, the emphasis on seafaring and “working (on) the sea” takes on particular significance. It alludes again, however subtly, to the wickedness of the Great City, and the Woman who sits upon the Sea-Creature and the “many waters”. Here the seamen lament their own loss, the personal (and selfish) interest of “the ones holding the sailing-boats”.

The rising smoke of the burning city (cf. verse 8, 17:16) was depicted in an earlier vision (14:8-11), and foreshadows the coming declaration in 19:3; it also serves as a symbol of the eternal punishment (i.e. the Judgment in its heavenly aspect) which awaits the wicked (14:11; cf. also 20:10, 14).

Revelation 18:20

The heavenly announcement of the Great City’s fall concludes with a note of rejoicing in verse 20:

“You shall be of a good mind upon her, O heaven, and (you) the holy (one)s and the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles] and the foretellers [i.e. prophets], (in) that [i.e. because] God (has) judged out of her the judgment (on) your (behalf)!”

The directive to be happy (vb eu)frai/w, “be of a good mind”) is addressed to the People of God (i.e. believers) in a three-fold aspect: (1) believers generally (“holy ones”), (2) apostles (“ones sent forth”), and (3) prophets (“foretellers”). Because God’s people (believers) suffered—being persecuted and put to death—during the end-time, all the more intensely as the period comes to a close, part of the Judgment against the wicked involves the working out of justice for believers (“your judgment”, i.e. judgment on your behalf). It is also possible that the Greek syntax here reflects the idea of the Great City being paid back in kind for what was done to believers (v. 6, cf. 17:6, etc). In that case, the wording would have to be translated something like: “God has judged out of her the judgment (given) [i.e. that she gave] for you”. This interpretation does not seem correct to me, since throughout the book of Revelation God is always the one judging or making judgment (vb kri/nw, noun kri/si$), not the wicked.

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December 2: Revelation 18:4-8

Revelation 18:1-8, continued

Revelation 18:4-5

“And I heard another voice out of heaven saying: ‘Come out, my people, (come) out of her, (so) that you should not have (anything) in common with her sins, and (so) that you should not (also) receive (any) out of the (thing)s striking her; (for it is) that her sins (have) stuck (one on top of the other), (reaching) as far as heaven, and God (has) remembered her injustices!'”

The voice coming from heaven indicates that the announcement is not so much coming through the intermediary of a specific Messenger (Angel), as it is a message coming from God Himself. This adds to the drama and climactic nature of the scene. In 10:4 the heavenly voice is associated with the sound of thunder, a traditional idiom for the voice of God (loq in Hebrew meaning both “voice” and “thunder”). A similar voice sounding in 16:1 directs the start of the great Judgment in the bowl-vision cycle.

The first part of the message in vv. 4-5 is directed at the people of God, which may seem strange since, within the visionary narrative, this moment occurs at the end (or climax) of the great Judgment, presumably after the faithful ones (believers) have already been rescued. This is to miss the main point of the visions, which are aimed at the people living in the Roman Empire (Asia Minor) at the time of the writing, before the great Judgment strikes. This part of the message is aimed at those believers—and, we may say, all believers—as a warning not to become enmeshed in the wicked worldly power of the “great city”. Those who leave “Babylon” are the faithful ones who will escape the coming Judgment.

The actual wording in vv. 4-5 echoes that of the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, specifically 51:45 (also 50:8; 51:6, 9); a similar message occurs in Isa 52:11, which is taken and applied (in a more general sense) for believers as part of the catena (Scripture chain) in 2 Cor 6:16-18. To “leave” Babylon (or the Roman Empire and its imperial government) is not meant in the literal sense of changing geographic location; rather, it means not participating in the sinfulness of its worldly power and wickedness—including, but not limited to, its pagan ‘idolatry’.

The motif of Babylon’s sins being “stuck together” (vb kolla/w), i.e. so that they are stacked one on top of the other, likely is an allusion to the ancient Babel narrative in Genesis, with its image of a ziggurat-tower that reaches high up into the sky, practically up to heaven (Gen 11:4). Here it is the city’s sins that pile up, figuratively, like a great tower. The imagery also reflects the idea of the pride and arrogance of the nations (and their rulers), with their worldly ambition to ‘reach up to heaven’ and rule like God on earth (Isa 14:13-14; Ezek 28:2; 31:3, 10, etc). This is central to the judgment against the nations in the Prophetic nation-oracles, and plays a key role in traditional Jewish eschatology and Messianism, and throughout the apocalyptic literature.

To say that God “remembers” injustice means specifically that he acts in judgment to punish it—Psalm 109:14; Jer 14:10; cf. Koester, pp. 699-700.

Revelation 18:6-7a

“You must give away to her even as she gave away, and make (it) two-fold for her—the two-fold (punishment)s according to her works!—(and) in the drinking-cup in which she mixed (the wine) you shall mix (it) for her two-fold; as much as she esteemed her(self) and (liv)ed roughly (for pleasure), give this much to her (in the pain of) testing and (its) sorrow!”

Justice requires that the punishment fit the crime and be proportionate to it. This is the ancient principle of lex talionis, and the irony for the wicked is that they will end up experiencing the same sorts of things that they did to others. However, the crimes of the “great city” are such that in the Judgment they will receive double the measure back in the form of punishment. Having done violence to others (esp. believers), “Babylon” will suffer the same kind of violence herself (Jer 50:15, 29; Psalm 137:8); on the motif of double-payment, cf. Isa 40:2; Jer 16:18 (Koester, p. 700).

It is not immediately clear just who the heavenly voice is addressing with the imperatives in verses 6-7. The address in vv. 4-5 was aimed at believers, but it is unlikely that this is the sense here. Heavenly Messengers (Angels) are usually depicted as delivering the Judgment, especially when it involved natural disaster or death. However, according to 17:16, it is clear that the “horns” of the Sea-creature—best understood as vassal kings of the Empire—are the ones who will bring destruction and desolation on the “great city”. While prompted by their own wicked impulses, they act according to the will of God, who ultimately controls the events, using the kings as a means to bring about judgment (v. 17). Frequently in the Prophetic nation-oracles, judgment comes by way of invasion and military attack (by human armies), and so it is here as well.

The measure of “Babylon’s” judgment is also based upon the extent to which this “woman” (prostitute) honored herself. Here I have rendered the verb doca/zw in the more literal sense of “esteem” (i.e., treat or regard with esteem), since it has to do with how the prostitute thinks of herself (cf. below). This self-pride leads to wanton and reckless behavior, as indicated by the verb strhnia/w (related to the noun strh=no$ in v. 3), which basically means “acting rough”, perhaps an allusion to the violence that accompanies her lavishly wicked lifestyle. While the Woman/Babylon may imagine that she is great and esteemed by all the world, the Judgment will result in a harsh and painful testing (basanismo/$) that will reveal her wicked and wretched true nature, and lead to great sorrow (pe/nqo$). This echoes the earlier idea that she will be left desolate and naked (17:16), stripped of all her fine clothing and jewels.

Revelation 18:7b-8

“(For it is) that in her heart she reckons that ‘I sit as a queen! I am not (one) lacking (a husband), and I shall (certainly) not see sorrow!’ Through this (then), in a single day the (thing)s striking her will come—death and sorrow and hunger, and in fire she will be burned down—(for it is) that strong (is) the Lord God, the (One hav)ing judged her!”

Here we see vividly what the woman thinks of herself, how she esteems herself—as a great ruler (queen, basi/lissa). Moreover, as one who has sexual intercourse (figuratively speaking) with many mates—all the “kings of the earth” —she certainly will never be “lacking” a husband. The noun xh/ra properly refers to someone lacking (that is, lacking a husband), often in the specific sense of a widow. The language here echoes that in Isa 47:8-9, a variation on the boast of kings and cities in the nation-oracles (cf. above). Rome was occasionally depicted as a queen or mistress of the world; for the personification of Rome as a woman seated (ruling) on seven hills, as in the chap. 17 vision, cf. the earlier note on 17:9. For similar wording (as in v. 7) applied to Rome as a woman, cf. Sibylline Oracles 5.173 (Koester, p. 701).

Verse 8 is parallel to verse 6, announcing that the punishment meted out to “Babylon” will be even greater and more intense than one might otherwise expect. In verse 6, this was expressed as a two-fold (i.e. double) punishment; here, the idea is that the judgment will come all at once, in a single (mi/a) moment. The use of the adjective mi/a (“one, single”) creates a wordplay allusion to the references in 17:12-13, 17, which also deal with the coming judgment on the city. The things that are to strike (plhgai/, ‘plagues’) are those very things associated with the siege and destruction of a city (cf. the previous note on 17:15-18). The “testing” (basanismo/$) mentioned in verse 7, generally refers to the testing of metal, etc, by fire; here, the woman/city is proven false and wicked in the judgment, and, as a result, is destroyed (burned to the ground) in fire.

The final phrase, declaring the strength of of God and His judgment, may be inspired by Jer 50:34, part of that earlier oracle on the fall of Babylon (the actual city). Here the emphasis is again on the fact that, even if the destruction of the “great city” will come through military attack (by the “horn”-kings), it is God Himself who brings this about—the kings and the armies act through His strength, not their own.

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December 1: Revelation 18:1-3

Revelation 18:1-8

After the vision and interpretation of the Woman (Prostitute) on the Sea-Creature (chap. 17), a second and related visionary scene occurs in chapter 18. It is not an extended vision, but a manifestation of heavenly Messengers to the seer (John). In the first announcement (vv. 1-3), a Messenger is seen descending from heaven; in the second (vv. 4ff) a great voice makes the announcement from out of heaven.

Revelation 18:1-3

“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s I saw another Messenger stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven, holding great e)cousi/a, and the earth was (fill)ed with light out of his splendor.” (v. 1)

The Messenger in chapter 17 was identified as one of the group of seven that poured out the Judgment in the bowl-visions, continuing the narrative theme of that vision-cycle. This is a different Messenger, marking a climax to that visionary narrative, announcing the fall of the great city “Babylon” in the most solemn terms. The detail of the earth being filled with light (passive of vb fwti/zw) serves two purposes: (1) it indicates that the great Judgment on earth is coming to a close, and (2) it enhances the dramatic setting for the announcement of the City’s fall. The e)cousi/a (“authority, power, ability”) the Messenger holds is given to him by God, much as the kings of the earth, etc, hold e)cousi/a from the Sea-Creature (who, in turn, holds it from the Dragon).

“And he cried out in a strong voice, saying: ‘Fallen, fallen (is) Babilim (the) great! She even came to be a house put down for daimons, and a guard for every unclean spirit, and a guard for every unclean bird, [and a guard for every unclean wild animal], even (those) having been (full of) hate!'” (v. 2)

This same announcement of Babylon’s fall appeared earlier in 14:8—the same Judgment setting, but in a different vision. The wording resembles that of Isaiah 21:9, while the announcements in chapter 18 as a whole also reflect the oracles against Babylon in Isa 13-14 and Jer 50-51. Throughout the book of Revelation “Babylon” is referred to as “the great (city)”, and symbolizes earthly/worldly power, i.e. as held and exercised by the nations and their kings. At the time of the first destruction of Jerusalem, the pre-eminent Near Eastern Empire was centered at Babylon; at the time of the second destruction, it was the Empire of Rome. For the author and audience of the book of Revelation, at the end of the first century A.D., Rome represented the pinnacle of earthly power, and also its wickedness. As most commentators recognize, the city of Rome (and her empire) is the primary point of reference for the symbol of “Babylon”. For more on this, cf. the prior notes on chapter 17 and 14:8.

Two (related) statements are made about the fallen city:

    • it has become the dwelling-place (“house [set/put] down”) of daimons
    • (it has become) the “guard” (fulakh/) of unclean (and hateful) creatures

This reflects traditional imagery related to any city that has been abandoned or destroyed, leaving it a desolate wasteland. It is typical of the Old Testament nation-oracles (e.g., Isa 34:11-15; Zeph 2:13-14; Jer 9:10-11); however, the language here is specifically drawn from the Old Testament oracles against Babylon (Isa 13:21-22; Jer 50:39; 51:37). The first-century destruction of Jerusalem, as predicted by Jesus, was similarly referred to as her “desolation” (Lk 20:21 [cp. Mk 13:14 par]; Matt 23:38, cf. also Lk 19:41-44), just as it was of “Babylon” earlier in 17:6.

Demons and evil spirits were thought especially to inhabit desolate places (cf. the ±¦z¹°z¢l  Day of Atonement ritual in Lev 16:8ff). This may seem rather superstitious to our thinking today, but it was a very real part of the worldview for many ancient peoples. As far as “unclean birds”, this is very much a natural phenomenon, referring to birds of prey and scavengers who use a desolate city as their haunt; the idea of scavenging off the bodies of the dead is probably alluded to as well. This also applies to “unclean wild animals”, such as jackals, hyenas, etc. There is some textual uncertainty about the phrase referring to “wild animals”, but it is likely original; the repetitious nature of the phrasing would have led copyists, even accidentally, to delete one of the phrases.

“‘(For it is) that out of the wine of the impulse of her prostitution all the nations have drunk, and the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution with her, and the (one)s making passage in (the lands) of the earth (as merchants) became rich out of the power of her rough (pleasure)s.'” (v. 3)

This concludes the Messenger’s announcement, emphasizing again the motif of the prostitution, central to the vision in 17:1-6ff, and also part of the earlier vision in 14:8ff. The related motif of drunkenness, as associated specifically with Babylon, goes back to Jeremiah 51:7. It is natural enough, the association between drunkenness and wickedness. The expression “wine of the impulse (qu/mo$) of her prostitution” repeats the idiom of 14:8; 17:2, and is parallel to the wine of God’s anger—his impulse to punish wickedness (14:10, 18ff; 16:19). The use of wine as a metaphor for blood also alludes in these visions to the persecution and death of believers at the hands of the wicked (16:6; 17:6).

To the imagery of 17:2, 12ff—that of kings engaged in prostitution with “Babylon” —is added the participation of merchants, etc, in her wicked ways. This represents the commercial aspects of imperial power (du/nami$), as people grow rich (vb ploute/w) in connection with the sinful luxury of the Great City. The noun strh=no$ (occurring only here in the New Testament) basically means “roughness”, and I have translated the plural here as “rough (pleasure)s”, connoting passionate and excessive behavior, which runs “roughshot” over accepted standards of morality and decency. Inclusion of merchants/traders in this imagery likely derives from a separate tradition, the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 27:9-25; it will be developed further in the announcement of 18:4ff.

The second heavenly announcement parallels the first, but is much more extensive, spanning much of the remainder of the chapter (vv. 4-20). The primary message comes in verses 4-8, which will be discussed in the next daily note.

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November 25: Revelation 17:15-18

Revelation 17:7-18, concluded

Verses 15-18 provide a separate, parallel interpretation of the vision by the heavenly Messenger, alongside that of vv. 7-14.

Verse 15

“And he says to me: ‘The waters which you saw, on which the prostitute sits, are peoples and throngs (of people), nations and tongues.'”

In my earlier note on verse 1, I interpreted the “many waters” in relation to the overall symbol of the Sea (from which the Sea-creature emerges). The “Sea” represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil in the world, while the “waters” their manifestation and influence in the inhabited world of humankind. In the third bowl-vision (16:4ff), these waters were identified specifically as being on the earth—rivers and springs—in close proximity to human civilization, and upon which such communities depend. Thus the “waters” may be said to represent the presence and influence of the “Sea” over humankind (i.e. the nations). The Angel’s interpretation here in verse 15, similarly, but more explicitly, identifies the waters as the nations and peoples over whom the Sea-creature (and the Woman) exercise control.

Verse 16

“‘And the ten horns that you saw, and the wild animal (itself), these will hate the prostitute and will make her (as one) having become desolate and naked, and they will eat her flesh and burn her down in fire.'”

Here we have the extraordinary climax to the vision, as the Sea-creature with its horns turns against the Woman (the “prostitute”), stripping her of all her fine clothing and jewelry and destroying her in the most savage way. The imagery is that of a military siege and destruction of a city, according to the standards of warfare in the ancient world. The tendency to personify cities in feminine terms leads to the motif of stripping and humiliating a woman. Such imagery can be found in the nation-oracles of the Prophets, referring to the judgment against powerful cities (including Jerusalem)—cf. Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 3:5; Isa 47:3; Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; 23:10; 26-29; Koester, p. 680). Sculpted scenes of Roman conquests are often depicted in terms of violence and cruelty against a woman, images that are rightly disturbing to us today. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 A.D.), according to the Lukan version of the Eschatological Discourse, is similarly described as her “desolation” (e)rh/mwsi$, 21:20; cp. Mk 13:14 par, and cf. Lk 19:43-44).

The imagery of “eating flesh” and “burning in fire” more properly describes the result of siege warfare. A goal of such military tactics was to cut off the food supply and shut the population within the walls of the city, until the unbearable suffering forced them to capitulate. Siege warfare often brought famine and disease in its wake (similarly portrayed, it would seem, in the first four seal-visions, 6:1-8). A successful siege would likely end in the destruction and burning of the city, a fate met by Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., as also by countless other cities in ancient times. The eating of the woman’s flesh may also be an allusion to the end met by Jezebel (according to 2 Kings 9:30-37). This wicked queen, notorious as representing religious unfaithfulness (by promoting religious syncretism) among the people of Israel, was used as a figure-type for wickedness earlier in 2:20ff. Having one’s flesh ‘consumed’ also serves as a general image for a person being exploited by another (Psalm 27:2; Mic 3:3; Koester, p. 680).

Verse 17

“‘For God gave (it) into their hearts to do (according to) His (way of) knowing, and (so) to do (according to) one [mi/a] (way of) knowing, and to give their kingdom to the wild animal until the accounts of God should be completed.'”

God’s sovereignty over the end-time affairs, specifically as it relates to the enactment of the Judgment, is clearly expressed here. In verses 12-13, it was said of the horns—i.e. (vassal) kings—of the Sea-creature, that they ruled together with the creature for a single (mi/a) hour, and held a single (mi/a) mind. This unity of purpose is here declared to be according to God’s own purpose. The word translated “mind” is gnw/mh, also used here in v. 17, and more properly refers to a way of knowing or thinking about something, as I have rendered literally above. In more conventional theological terms, we might say that they act according to the will of God, in the sense that God allows (and directs) their wickedness to accomplish His own purpose. Throughout Israelite and Old Testament tradition, the execution of YHWH’s judgment against a people or nation was often seen as coming about through the concrete military action of an invading human army. So it is here in the vision as well.

The ten kings “give” their kingdom(s) to the Sea-creature, meaning that they recognize his authority, just as the elders of the heavenly People do for God in 4:10. This alliance lasts until the lo/goi of God are completed. Here the plural lo/goi may be understood several ways:

    • In the more literal sense of lo/go$ as an account, or accounting, meaning that the proper judgment is meted out, according to the wickedness of the nations, etc.
    • The conventional sense of lo/go$ as written account, specifically the words of the Prophets as recorded in Scripture. Future events, including the fate of various nations and cities, were made known in these texts. Oracles against Babylon are found in Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47, and Jeremiah 50-51, and these may be in view here; certainly the poem of “Babylon’s” fall in chapter 18 (to be discussed in the next note) was influenced by Jer 50-51, along with other portions of the nation-oracles.
    • The word lo/go$ can also be used in the specific sense of a revelation of the will of God, especially to apostles, Christian prophets, and other believers in Christ. This may take the form of a specific message or pattern of communication (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel), and thus an “account”. As discussed throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, the inspired authors and speakers in the New Testament writings make various pronouncements regarding the coming end-time Judgment.
Verse 18

“‘And the woman which you saw is the Great City, the (one) holding rule as king upon [i.e. over] the kings of the earth.'”

The expression “the Great City” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) occurs numerous times in the book of Revelation; it is synonymous with “Babylon” in chapters 13ff (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:10, 16, 18-19, 21), but was also used earlier in 11:8 where it was identified with Jerusalem (but also called “Egypt” and “Sodom”). As most commentators would agree, in the New Testament (in Revelation and also 1 Pet 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome. The parallels, especially in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem, are obvious: Babylon and Rome were the capital cities of the conquering Empires of the time. In various recent notes, we have discussed how the symbolism of the visions would relate to the Roman Empire as the ruling power—and pinnacle of wicked, worldly power—for Christians at the end of the first century. While this does not exhaust the symbolism, in many instances it seems clear that the primary point of reference is Rome and the Roman Imperial government. From that standpoint, the symbolism here in chapter 17 may be summarized as follows:

    • The Sea and its Waters—The “Sea” represents the dark and turbulent forces of evil at work in the world; the “waters” refer to the presence of the Sea in the inhabited world, i.e. among human beings with their communities and nations.
    • The Sea Creature—This fabulous and hybrid “wild animal” comes up out of the Sea, and resembles the “Dragon”; thus its character is fundamentally wicked, characterized and influenced by the forces of evil. Like the creatures of the Daniel 7 vision, it represents a great kingdom and conquering empire. At the time of the book of Revelation, this is the Roman Empire.
    • The Woman—She is called a prostitute, signifying her blatant wickedness, immorality, and promiscuity, with an ability to seduce and influence people on earth. She is also identified as a city: the “great city” and “Babylon”. She sits upon the Sea-Creature, and the waters of the Sea, demonstrating her close connection with the Creature. If the Sea-Creature represents the Roman Empire, then the Woman, the City, is Rome; she sits upon “seven mountains”, best understood in terms of the traditional “seven hills” of Rome.

Based on this essential framework, other details in the vision (and its exposition) may be interpreted as follows:

    • The Seven Heads of the Sea-Creature—these “kings” almost certainly refer to Roman Emperors of the first-century, though it is probably no longer possible (if it ever were) to identify them precisely with a sequence of seven emperors. The author and his audience were living during the reign of the sixth emperor, and another was yet to come (for more on this, cf. below).
    • The Ten Horns of the Creature—these “kings” are best understood as vassal kingdoms (and their rulers), who reign as subordinates under Roman Imperial authority; presumably their reigns correspond to the current/future rule of the sixth and seventh (and eighth) emperors. They, like the seventh emperor, will rule for only a short time (“one hour”).

To the extent that the visionary narrative in chapter 17 is meant to describe a sequence of actual historical events, it may outlined as follows:

    • The author and his audience are (presumably) living during the reign of the “sixth” king (emperor); this would likely correspond to an approximate date of 69 or 90-95 A.D., depending on just when the book of Revelation was composed. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter date.
    • The brief reign of the “seventh” king (emperor) would soon follow; this could conceivably refer to a short period of time rather the specific reign of a single emperor. In any case, it is likely that only a few years would be involved, probably less than a decade, unless the visionary details are more broadly symbolic.
    • After this, an “eighth” king (emperor) will reign; this will be a truly evil, demonic incarnation of the wicked Sea-creature itself, and not an ‘ordinary’ human emperor at all (cp. 2 Thess 2:3-12). The specific wording in verse 8 (cf. also 13:3, 12, 14) raises the possibility that this demonic figure may resemble an earlier emperor who had previously died. This is all the more likely if the Nero redivivus (return of Nero) legend is in view here, as most critical commentators would hold.
    • At the time of this demonic emperor, there will be an alliance of vassal kingdoms (the “ten horns”); the alliance is temporary and short-lived, but it probably should be seen as beginning after the reign of the “sixth” emperor.
    • At some point, these vassal kings will turn on the city Rome and lay siege to it, destroying it and burning it with fire. This is probably to be understood as occurring prior to the great final battle (19:11-21, cp. 16:12-16ff).

It must be admitted that nothing quite like this ever took place, and certainly not within the time-frame suggested here in the vision. Rome was, in fact, sacked and destroyed (at least partially) by the invading armies of ‘vassal’ kingdoms, i.e. the migrating Germanic peoples with whom Rome was forced to form alliances, etc. The first such sacking took place in 390 B.C. (by the Senone Gauls), but the others occurred in the centuries after the book of Revelation was written; note the following events, with the associated people and ruler (in parentheses):

    • 410 A.D., by the Visigoths (Alaric I)
    • 455 A.D., by the Vandals (Genseric)
    • 546 A.D. (and again in 549-550) by the Ostrogoths (Totila)

As we approach the conclusion of this series of notes, we will explore various attempts to interpret the first-century eschatology of Revelation from the vantage point (and time-frame) of later generations, including our own today. To avoid unnecessary complication, these interpretive approaches have been studiously avoided, so that the viewpoint of the author and his audience can be allowed to speak for itself, as far as that is possible.

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November 17: Revelation 17:7-8

Revelation 17:7-18

Following the introduction to the vision and the vision itself (vv. 1-6, see the previous notes), an interpretation is provided in verses 7-18. This is rare in the book of Revelation, as most of the visions are given without any interpretation/explanation in the book itself. The closest parallel is with the vision of 1:9-20, where it too is referred to as a “secret” (musth/rion) that the heavenly figure/messenger explains to the seer (v. 20). A narrative transition to the interpretation is provided in verse 6 when the author/seer states “I wondered (with) great wonder” at the vision of the woman. This serves as the basis for the Messenger’s response.

Verse 7

“And the Messenger said to me, ‘Through what [i.e. why] did you wonder? I will utter to you the secret of the woman and the wild animal carrying her, the (one) holding the seven heads and the ten horns.'”

On the significance of the term musth/rion (“secret”), cf. the previous note and my earlier word study series. As noted above, the same word is used in the interpretation of the vision in 1:9-20 (v. 20). The only other occurrence in the book of Revelation is at 10:7, with the sounding of the seventh trumpet (i.e. the conclusion of the great Judgment, par. with the seventh bowl-vision). The expression “the secret of God”, also used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:1; 4:1, and Col 2:2 (cf. also Eph 1:9; 3:3-4ff), generally refers to God’s plan for the Ages, the plan of salvation (through Jesus Christ) which effectively marks the beginning of a New Age (and the end of the current Age). The eschatological significance of the word musth/rion is clear enough in Paul’s letters (see esp. Rom 16:25), even as it is in the book of Revelation.

The Angel’s response to the seer’s wonderment is similar in some respects to Jesus’ response to his disciples at the beginning of the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:2 par). In both instances, what is most significant is the way that the Messenger (the Angel/Jesus) places the eschatological message in the context of the current life-setting of his audience. In the case of Jesus and the Eschatological Discourse, end-time events center around the destruction of the Temple; and the Temple was indeed destroyed, generally within the lifetime of his audience (70 A.D.), though how the other events are to be associated with it remain a matter of considerable debate (cf. my 4-part article on the Discourse). In the book of Revelation, the “secrets” of the visions in 1:9-20 and 17:1-6, are also set in reference to the immediate life-experience of its readers. This is done in the initial vision by identifying the “seven lamp(stand)s” with the Christians of the seven cities addressed in chapters 2-3. It establishes at the outset of the book that the visions relate specifically to the audience of the book—i.e., believers living in Asia Minor toward the end of the first-century A.D. Much the same occurs here in chapter 17. The Sea-creature (with the woman) represents the forces of evil as they are manifest in the centers of earthly power (i.e. kingdoms and their rulers), but with the interpretation of the creature (esp. its heads) this wicked earthly power is set firmly in relation to the readers’ own time and place. This is parallel to the earlier (veiled) interpretation of the name of the Sea-creature in 13:18. The author expected his readers at the time to recognize the reference, meaning that it had to be a name that would have been known to them (however obscure and elusive it may be to us now).

Verse 8

“‘The wild animal that you saw was, and is not, and is about to step up out of the (pit that is) without depth [i.e. bottomless], and (then) lead under [i.e. go away] into ruin—and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth will wonder, those whose name has not been written upon the paper-roll of life from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, in their looking at the wild animal that was, and is not, and will be along.'”

The creature (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) is described with the triad of existential terms: “it was, and is not, and is about to…” (h@n kai\ ou)k e&stin kai\ me/llei). This parodies the language used of God in 1:4, 8 and 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5) as “the (one) being and the (one who) was and the (one) coming” —expressing God the Father’s comprehensive existence, which can also be applied to the exalted Jesus (with an emphasis on his coming). The main difference with the Sea-creature is that, instead of the being (w&n) of God, it embodies non-being (ou)k e&stin, “is not“). The Sea-creature’s life and existence, as such, is defined as something past: “it was, and (now) is not“. Its coming manifestation is thoroughly evil and demonic, like the living dead. It comes from the deepest place of the earth—the pit “without depth” (a&busso$), meaning without a bottom. This locative imagery was first used in the trumpet visions, depicting the plagues of the Judgment as monstrous creatures coming out of the deep pit (9:1-2, 11, cf. the earlier note). The fact that the creature can be depicted both as coming out of the Sea (13:1ff), and out of the Bottomless Pit (also in 11:7), demonstrates that the symbolism refers to a common idea of the creature as the embodiment of the forces of evil that are at work upon the earth. It steps up out of the Pit, and then will, after a short time, go back into the place of death and ruin. The brief, passing existence it will have on earth is indicated by the verb parei/mi (“be along”, cp. para/gw in 1 Cor 7:31; 1 Jn 2:8, 17, etc); this verb may also be intended as a parody of the end-time parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) of Jesus (cp. 2 Thess 2:8-9).

Verse 8b clearly refers back to the chapter 13 visions of the Sea-creature. The people living on earth who wonder at the creature, are so fascinated (and deceived by it) that they are willing to worship it and belong to it (by receiving its mark). This process is described in more detail in those earlier visions (cf. the notes on 13:1ff); here it is presented in summary fashion. It also helps to explain the Angel’s response in v. 7: the idea that the seer should not “wonder” (vb qauma/zw) reflects a warning to readers of the book not to be led astray themselves, “wondering” at the Sea-creature. To worship the creature and receive its mark demonstrates that a person is not, and could not have been, a true believer. Those who resist the creature’s influence are the true believers, whose names have been written in the roll of life since the beginning of Creation (cf. 13:8).

The Angel’s interpretation continues in vv. 9ff; because of the historical-critical issues related to the details of the interpretation, it will be necessary to break it up into several notes. Verses 9-11 will be discussed in the next daily note.

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November 13: Revelation 17:5-6

Revelation 17:1-6, continued

Verse 5

“and upon the (space) between her eyes a name having been written, a secret—Babilim the great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking things of the earth.”

The vision of the woman on the seven-headed creature (cf. the previous note on vv. 1-5), concludes with this description of the name on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes, me/twpon). The parallels with the engraved mark (xa/ragma) of name of the Sea-creature on the forehead of the wicked, and the name of God (and the Lamb) stamped/written on the forehead of believers, are clear enough and have been noted. More precisely, the “secret” of this name matches the hidden meaning (something requiring wisdom and understanding) of the name/number of the Sea-creature in 13:18 (cf. the earlier note). It is hardly coincidental that a veiled interpretation follows here in vv. 7ff, which, in both purpose and emphasis (for the original readers), is similar to the cryptic declaration in 13:18. Let us consider each component of the name presented in verse 5, in turn.

musth/rion (“secret”)—The name, as presented, is said to be a secret—yet, as the interpretation of vv. 7ff indicates, it is a secret that is being revealed, or made known (in part, at least), to readers of the book. The author/seer does much the same thing regarding the name of the Sea-creature at the close of the chapter 13 visions (v. 18). Since the woman here sits upon the Sea-creature, and is so closely identified with it, we may fairly assume that the names are closely connected as well.

In an earlier series of notes, I discussed the use of the word musth/rion in key passages of the New Testament. It often has an eschatological connotation, especially in the letters of Paul, tied to the essential early Christian belief that the revelation of Jesus Christ—through the proclamation of the Gospel and his presence through the Spirit—had ushered in a New Age for believers, even before the end of the current Age was fully realized (1 Cor 2:1ff; Rom 16:25, etc). This is made more explicit in the book of Revelation (10:7), where the coming of the great Judgment marks the moment when the “secret of God” (musth/rion tou= qeou=) is finally completed. More in keeping with the use of musth/rion here is its occurrence in the vision of 1:9-20, where a heavenly Messenger similarly interprets the details of the vision (v. 20).

A close parallel may also be found in the expression “secret of lawlessness” (musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. There, too, the “secret” relates to the manifestation of evil at the end-time, involving a wicked world power (and ruler/emperor). Paul makes known to his readers something of this “secret” and how it is unfolding, just as the Angelic interpreter does for the seer and readers of the book of Revelation. For more on this, cf. the article on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians (Part 3), as well as my earlier note on the passage.

Babulw/n (“Babilim”)Babulw/n is a transliteration in Greek of the ancient city name meaning “Gate of God” (Akkadian B¹b-Ilim), similarly transliterated in Hebrew as lb#B* (B¹»el); English Babylon derives from the Greek. The ancient Near Eastern city, located along the Euphrates river (cf. 16:12), has a long history extending back until at least the late-3rd millennium B.C. (Ur III period). It also features prominently in Israelite and Jewish tradition, including the famous “Tower of Babel” narrative (Gen 11:1-9), in which the city served as figure and symbol for worldly power which sought to challenge God’s authority and take His position, much as it does in the book of Revelation. More clearly rooted in documented history is the city-state that became a conquering empire in the reign of Hammurabi (18th century) and again in the Neo-Babylonian period of the 7th-6th centuries. This makes it a fitting parallel to Rome as the great empire ruling the Near East in the 1st century A.D. Just as Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem (587 B.C.), so Rome did again in 70 A.D. In the aftermath, Jewish authors clearly made the association (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159; Koester, p. 675).

Most commentators assume that in the New Testament (both in Revelation and also 1 Peter 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome and the Roman Empire, and this does seem to be correct. The earliest surviving Christian interpretation (outside of the book of Revelation itself) clearly makes such an identification (e.g., Tertullian, Hippolytus, Victorinus, etc), a point that will be discussed further in the upcoming notes (on verses 7ff).

h( mega/lh (“the great”)—In the book of Revelation, “Babylon” is always called “the great” (14:8; 16:19; 18:2, 21) and is also identified specifically with “the great city” (16:19; 18:21). The latter expression is used in 11:8, where it is more properly identified with Jerusalem, but is there also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”. This shows that we must be cautious about limiting “Babylon” and “the great city” to Rome. In my view, as I have already discussed in recent notes, the imagery is more widely encompassing, as a symbol of worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments and rulers, etc—as a manifestation of the forces of evil (the Sea-creature and Dragon) at work upon the earth. For readers of the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire and its Imperial administration (over Asia Minor, etc) would be the immediate point of reference. For a clear sense of the wider view of this symbolism, see especially the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21 and my note on the passage).

h( mh/thr (“the mother”)—This plays on the typical use of feminine language and imagery to describe cities and nations (here the woman, v. 1, 3), with the motif of “mother” signifying both parental authority and the dependence of children (i.e. the populace) on her for nurturing care. Rome at times was called ‘mother of (all) cities’ and Italy the ‘mother of all countries’ (cf. Pliny the Elder Natural History 3.39; Koester, p. 675). However, perhaps even more prominent in the vision is the idea that the woman on the creature gives birth to all kinds of evils in the world. This would play into the parallel with the Woman in the chapter 12 vision, who gives birth both to Jesus (her first son) and believers (her other children).

tw=n pornw=n (“of the prostitutes”)—This woman, identified as a prostitute (po/rnh), would naturally give birth to other prostitutes, who are just like her and follow her example. The kings of the earth are said to engage in prostitution with her and “drink” from her cup of wickedness—thus, these other cities and nations likewise become prostitutes.

kai\ tw=n bdelugma/twn (“and of the stinking things”)—This expression echoes the wording in verse 4; the immediate reference is to Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted by early Christians, in the eschatological sense of a wicked kingdom (and ruler) who will oppose God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (Mark 13:14; cp. 2 Thess 2:3-4ff; Revelation 13).

th=$ gh=$ (“of the earth”)—In these visions, the “Earth” (gh=) symbolizes the inhabited world (of humankind), specifically in relation to the dark forces of evil (the Sea) that exercise influence and control over it. The earthly nations and governments (“kings of the earth”) are primarily in view.

Verse 6

“And I saw the woman being intoxicated out of the blood of the holy (one)s and out of the blood of the witnesses of Yeshua, and seeing her I wondered (with) great wonder.”

Even as the woman in the vision intoxicates the nations and kings of earth with the wine of her wickedness, so she becomes intoxicated herself on the blood of believers. The pouring out of wine as a figure for the shedding of blood is a natural enough image, one which the Judgment-visions in Revelation play on at several points—14:17-20; 16:3-6. The drinking of blood (and becoming drunken with it) could also be used in a military setting—i.e. for the chaos and carnage of a battle (Isa 34:5; Jer 46:10; Ezek 39:18-19; Zech 9:15; Judith 6:4). For an application of the motif to a Roman Emperor, cf. Suetonius Tiberius 59.1. Here, it refers to the persecution and putting to death of believers in Christ (“holy ones”), especially insofar as they are “witnesses” of Jesus and the Gospel. For the special sense of ma/rtu$ / marturi/a (“witness”, vb marture/w) in the book of Revelation, in the context of the end-time persecution, cf. 1:2, 5, 9; 2:13; 3:14; 6:9; 11:3, 7; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4; 22:16-20. Cf. Koester, pp. 675-6.

At this point, we read that the seer (John) “wondered with great wonder” at the sight of this woman. This sets the stage for the interpretation that follows in verses 7ff (to be discussed in the next note). It also emphasizes the extraordinary (and climactic) nature of the vision. It most effectively serves as the conclusion to the entire sequence of visions beginning with chapter 12. The parallels with the initial vision of 12:1ff should be obvious, as each involves an extraordinary image of a woman. The first woman, symbolizing the People of God, is seen clothed in celestial splendor (indicating especially her heavenly aspect). The second woman, by contrast, represents wickedness and the wicked on earth, being clothed with luxurious earthly garments. The first woman is in conflict with the Dragon and Sea-creature, being pursued by them; the second woman, is the companion of the Sea-creature, united and identified with it—indeed, she gains support and power, etc, by being seated upon it. The motif of conflict/persecution in the earlier vision is picked up again in the present vision with the description here in verse 6.

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November 12: Revelation 17:1-5

Revelation 17-18

In chapter 17-18 there is presented a pair of visions which build upon the “Fall of Babylon” theme in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the note on 16:17-21), and announced previously in 14:8. Each of these chapters consists of an initial vision (17:1-6; 18:1-3), followed by a detailed exposition. In the first instance an interpretation of the vision is provided by the Messenger, in the second, the poetry of the vision is followed by a longer poem patterned after the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51.

Revelation 17:1-6

“And one out of the seven Messengers holding the seven offering-dishes came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Come here, (and) I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute th(at is) sitting upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution, and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] on the earth were intoxicated out of the wine of her prostitution!’ And he led me away from (there) into a desolate (place), in the Spirit, and I saw a woman sitting upon a crimson-colored wild animal full of names of insult (to God) (and) holding seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was (as one) having cast about (her) purple and crimson (garments), and having been made golden with gold and honorable [i.e. valuable] stone and pearls, holding a drinking-cup in her hand being full of stinking things and the unclean (thing)s of her prostitution; and upon the (space) between her eyes a name having been written, a secret: Babilim the great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking things of the earth!” (vv. 1-5)

The narrative introduction to this vision (v. 1) demonstrates its close connection to the bowl-cycle of chapters 15-16; in many ways, chapters 17-19 are part of this same cycle, representing a continuation of the sixth and seventh visions. The judgment of “Babylon” has already been depicted in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the previous note) and the earlier visions in chapter 14 (vv. 8ff), and here we have the same basic visionary event described in different terms (and in considerably more detail). Like all the bowl-visions, the symbolism represents the traditional eschatological idea of the Judgment of the Nations, with “Babylon”, the “great city”, representing the nations (and their rulers/governments) collectively. Nations and cities are typically referred to in feminine terms—a vestige of which survives even today in English—and may thus be personified and symbolized as a woman, with female imagery. The wickedness of the “great city” (Babylon) has already been emphasized, along with the use of wine imagery (i.e. the drinking-cup of wine) to represent it (14:8ff; 16:19). Though not occurring here in chapter 17, the word qumo/$ (“impulse”) is used to describe this intoxicating ‘wine’ (i.e. an impulse toward wickedness), even as it is for God’s own desire to punish it by pouring out the ‘wine’ of His anger (14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19).

This set of images naturally comes together here in the figure of a prostitute (po/rnh). The Greek pornei/a (vb porneu/w) properly refers to acts of prostitution (sexual intercourse for hire). However, like the similar root hnz in Hebrew, it can also be used more generally of sexual immorality (including adultery, etc), as well as figuratively, in the religious sense, for unfaithfulness to God (idolatry, false religious practices, etc). The wicked and idolatrous “nations” are occasionally referred to as prostitutes in the oracles of the Old Testament Prophets (Isa 23:16-17; Nah 3:4), as is God’s own people Israel when they fall away from him (Hos 4:12-13; 5:3; Jer 3:1-14; Ezek 16:15-22ff; 23:1-49; cf. also Hos 2:5; Jer 2:20; Koester, p. 671).

In the Greco-Roman world, the common prostitute was simply called po/rnh, while the wealthier courtesan, supported by a higher-class clientele, was known as a e(tai/ra (lit. female companion). The imagery here in chapter 17 draws from traditional descriptions of both upper- and lower-class prostitutes. Generally her wealth and prominence are emphasized (clothing and jewelry, etc), but the motif of drunkenness suggests a lower-class milieu. For relevant citations from Greco-Roman literature, see those given by Koester, pp. 671-2.

This prostitute is associated with the Sea, a symbol of the dark and turbulent domain of evil that goes back to the visions in chapter 12-13. This association is expressed two ways:

    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) “many waters” (v. 1), and
    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) a creature nearly identical to the one which came out of the Sea (v. 3, cp. 13:1ff)

In the third bowl-vision (16:4-7), the “waters” (rivers and fountains) effectively represent the presence of the Sea upon the earth—symbolizing, specifically, the presence and influence of the dark forces of evil over the kingdoms of the earth. At the same time, the expression “many waters” is also associated with the presence of God in heaven (1:15; 14:2; 19:6), and so here likely alludes to an attempt by the evil-forces on earth to deceive people by appearing and acting ‘like God’. This is rather clearly expressed in the chapter 13 visions; cf. also Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4ff.

That the “kings of the earth” both engage in prostitution with this “woman” and become intoxicated by her “wine” —the two images refer to the same thing—means that they are influenced by her and, in a real sense, are united with her (cf. Paul’s line of argument in 1 Cor 6:12-20). The motif of “drunkenness” suggests that the nations (and its leaders) no longer understand what they are doing, becoming completely under the influence and control of the prostitute’s wickedness. And, indeed, her influence is that of the waters and the sea-creature (i.e. forces of evil) upon which she sits, and whose ultimate power stems from the evil Dragon (the Satan/Devil). For the specific association of drunkenness with prostitution, cf. Ezekiel 23:40-42; Testament of Judah 13:5-6, and the references in Koester, p. 672.

The actual vision of the prostitute comes in verse 3, where the seer (“John”) is again taken “in the Spirit” (1:10; 4:2; 21:10; cf. Ezek 3:12; 8:3) to a new visionary location—into a desolate (i.e. desert) place. The desert was a traditional setting for the People of God encountering YHWH (or His Messenger); given the context here of the prostitute, etc, a specific allusion to Hosea 2:14-15 may be in mind. The description of the prostitute may be outlined as follows:

  1. Verse 3. She is sitting on a creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) nearly identical in appearance to the creature that came out of the Sea (13:1ff), who also happens to resemble the Dragon (12:3). The only difference here is the mention of its color as dark red (crimson/scarlet, ko/kkino$). The mention of the color is likely two-fold: (a) to show the close connection and affinity between the woman and the creature, and (b) as an allusion to the wine which she gives people to drink. There is no reason to think that this is anything other than the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, and, as such, its symbolism is also the same. By “sitting upon” the Sea-creature, even as she sits upon the dark/evil waters (v. 1), it is demonstrated that the prostitute receives her support (and power) from the evil Sea-creature.
  2. Verse 4a. Her attire—clothed in luxurious purple and crimson (ko/kkino$) garments, with gold ornaments and jewelry inset with precious stones and pearls. As noted above, this marks her as a high-class courtesan. Purple was especially associated with royalty, indicating her influence over the “kings of the earth”; while the crimson could also allude specifically to the shedding of blood (14:19-20; 16:6; 19:2), even as it does to the wine of her wickedness.
  3. Verse 4b. The drinking-cup of wine she holds—on this cup and the motif of wine, cf. above and the earlier note on 14:8ff. While previously, the wine-cup was identified generally with her impulse (qumo/$) to wickedness, here it is said to be filled specifically with the “stinking things” (bdelugma/ta) and “unclean (thing)s” (a)ka/qarta) of her actual prostitution. The motifs of drunkenness and dirtiness reveal the lower-class side of the prostitute. The most notable occurrence of the noun bde/lugma outside of the book of Revelation (also v. 5; 21:27) is in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), where it alludes to Daniel 9:27 (and 11:31; 12:11). Almost certainly it has the same sort of eschatological significance here—i.e. of a wicked ruling power that opposes God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (cf. again the visions in chapter 13).
  4. Verse 5. The name written on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes). This corresponds with the “mark” (xa/ragma) of the Sea-creature (its name) that the people on earth receive, marking them as belonging to the creature, and thus as wicked unbelievers (13:16; 14:9; 20:4). By contrast, true believers do not receive this mark; rather, they are marked/sealed by the name God and the Lamb (Jesus) in the same middle of the forehead (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4)—in 14:1, it is specifically said to be written (perfect participle gegramme/non, as here) on the forehead.

The name on the prostitute’s forehead is said to be “Babylon” (Babulw/n), and is described in verse 5b. This aspect of the woman—her identification with Babylon, in the overall context of the vision—will be discussed in detail in the next daily note.

References above (and throughout this series) marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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November 11: Revelation 16:17-21

Revelation 16:12-21, continued

The sixth vision (vv. 12-16) was examined in the previous note. We saw how that vision of the Judgment of the nations, presented after the pattern of nation-oracles in the Prophets (Joel 3, Zech 12, etc)—the “Day of YHWH” theme—was left unfulfilled. As in the prior Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles, there is a pause or interval after the sixth vision. Here the interval consists of the seventh vision itself, along with the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (17:1-19:3), before the scene in the sixth vision finally comes to a close.

Revelation 16:17-21: Seventh Vision

“And the seventh (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sky, and a great voice came out of the shrine, from the ruling-seat, saying: ‘It has come to be‘.” (v. 17)

Each of the seven Messengers (Angels) pours the dish in a different location; while this is not presented systematically, the locations generally correspond to four regions (and elements) that comprise the world:

    • Earth (gh=), earth, the dry land and domain of human beings, i.e. the inhabited world—Vision 1 (v. 1)
    • Sea (qa/lassa), water, also symbolizing the dark, chaotic domain (of evil)—Vision 2 & 3 (vv. 3ff)
    • Sun (h%lio$), fire, i.e. the heavenly domain from which the fiery Judgment (fire from heaven) comes—Vision 5 (v. 8)
    • Sky (a)h/r), air, the atmosphere and expanse of the sky, where winds blow, etc, traditionally signifying power and authority—Vision 7 (v. 17)

The significance of the sky or “air” here in the seventh vision probably has to do with two factors: (1) the atmosphere as the space in between heaven and earth, and (2) as a symbol of power, authority, control, etc. The immediate context is the Judgment on the nations—that is, earthly kingdoms and centers of power—symbolized primarily by the “great city” (Babylon). As previously noted, ancient Near Eastern cities were located on hills and elevated sites, and so here drawing appropriately upon the mountain-image, i.e. a place located between heaven and earth—above the earth (and the general human population), but beneath heaven (and the heavenly beings).

All of the visions in chapters 15-16 involve messages (and messengers) coming from out of the sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”) in heaven. Gradually, we are taken further back into the sanctuary, so that we see these messages coming, first from the altar in the sanctuary, and now from the innermost shrine (‘holy of holies’). The allusion here is to the golden chest (‘ark of the covenant’) which effectively served as the throne (qro/no$, “ruling-seat”) of YHWH in the ancient Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple. It represents the dwelling place of God among His People, and the “great voice” coming from it must be that of God Himself (as also in verse 1). The message consists of a single word: ge/gonen, “it has come to be”, a solemn announcement that the great Judgment is about to be fulfilled.

“And there came to be (lightning) flashes and voices and thunders, and there came to be a great shaking, such as (has) not come to be from the (time at) which man came to be upon the earth, a (mighty) shaking of such size as this!” (v. 18)

By pouring the dish upon the sky (the atmosphere), the initial effect is to cause terrifying celestial phenomena. In Israelite tradition, God (El-YHWH) was often association with the storm, and described with ancient storm-theophany images—lightning, thunder, wind, etc. The use of the word “voices” here is based on the traditional motif of thunder as the “voice” (Hebrew loq) of God. These same phenomena were manifest at the end of the Trumpet-cycle (11:19), and, indeed, such supernatural phenomena and upheavals of the natural order were a well-established part of Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic—a way of describing God’s end-time Judgment (cf. Mark 13:24-26 par; Rev 6:12-17, and prophetic passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7). In particular, the “shaking” (seismo/$), usually understood as that of an earthquake, is emphasized, since it is what will topple the “great city”.

The repeated use of the verb gi/nomai (4 times, aorist middle “came to be, has come to be”) stems from God’s voice declaring “it has come to be” (perfect passive, ge/gonen). It illustrates how God’s word governs completely the execution of the Judgment; most translations, unfortunately, totally ignore this important bit of wordplay.

“And the great city came to be into three parts—and the cities of the nations fell! And (so) Babilim the great was remembered in the sight of God—to give her the drinking-cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger.” (v. 19)

These are not two events, but two ways of describing the same event. Moreover, it should be obvious (if there was any doubt) that “the great city” and “Babylon the great” (14:8; chaps. 17-18) do not refer to an actual geographical location, but symbolize earthly/worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments. Two images are brought together to depict this judgment: (1) an earthquake, natural enough for the destruction of a city, and (2) the wine-cup (14:9-11, 17-20, and the motif of the offering-dishes being poured out). A full (four-fold) descriptive chain is used here for the wine-cup—”the cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger”, adding to the solemn power of the moment.

There is again an echo of God’s word (ge/gonen, “it has come to be”) at the opening of this verse: “it came to be” (e)ge/neto).

“And (then) the islands fled and the mountains were not found, and great falling (hail) as a talent-weight (size) stepped [i.e. came] down out of heaven upon the men (of earth), and (yet) the men insulted God out of the striking of the falling (hail), (in) that [i.e. because] the great striking of it was most violent.” (vv. 20-21)

This is an interesting juxtaposition of images that illustrates the unique visionary logic of the book of Revelation. The upheaval of the islands and mountains, itself a traditional image (Judg 5:5; Job 9:5-6ff; Psalm 18:7; 46:2-3; 97:5; 104:7, 32; Isa 40:4; 42:15; 54:10; Nah 1:5; Ezek 38:20; Mark 11:23 par; Rev 6:14-16), is suddenly transformed into a scene of giant hailstones falling from the sky. Very likely the latter image is another echo of the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 9:24), though, in an agricultural society, hail was a natural enough symbol of disaster and divine judgment (Isa 30:30; Josh 10:11; Ezek 38:22; Sirach 39:29). Overall, the imagery suggests massive boulder-like objects thrown about; the breakup of the mountains, etc, on earth is a fitting symbol for the breakdown and end of the current Age (6:14ff).

Even more important is the specific symbolism of the islands and mountains—both represent the nations and their power on earth. The association of the nations with islands goes back to Old Testament tradition (Psalm 72:10; Zeph 2:11; cf. also Sirach 47:16; 1 Macc 11:38). An island, as a protected location with direct access to the sea, could serve as an effective center of power, even the basis for an empire (ancient Crete being a notable example). Rome’s power, too, largely depended upon its control of the sea. A mountain as a symbol of (earthly) power is perhaps even more obvious. As previously noted, many cities in the ancient Near East were situated on hill-tops or elevated mounds, which likewise gave the city (and its rulers) protection and the opportunity to extend control over the surrounding populations. The great city “Babylon” is associated with seven mountains (or hills), identified with the seven heads of the Sea-creature, in 17:9 (to be discussed). Thus, the fall of cities could quite properly, and appropriately, be described in terms of a falling/crumbling mountain.

As in the fourth and fifth visions (vv. 9, 11; cf. also 9:20-21), humankind, faced with the Judgment, insults God (vb blasfhme/w). This suggests that, even up to the very end, people have the opportunity to repent and turn to God, but apparently none do; rather, their reaction serves to confirm their wicked nature, and that they are deserving of punishment.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the complex set of visions, interpretations, and visionary poetry that makes up the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (in chapters 17-18). We will seek to keep in mind throughout the place of these chapters in the overall context of the vision-cycle we have been studying.

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November 3: Revelation 14:6-13

Revelation 14:6-13

This is the second of three visions in chapter 14 (on the first in vv. 1-5, see the previous note). In terms of the basic framework of early Christian eschatology, it marks the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) and announces the beginning of the great Judgment (kri/si$). It thus holds the same place as the half-hour of silence (at the opening of the seventh seal) in 8:1f; note the parallel structure:

  • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 5-6)
  • Vision of the 144,000, together with the Lamb (chapter 7)
  • Angels & the preparation for the Judgment (8:1-2)
  • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 8-9)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 12-13)
    • Vision of the 144,000 together with the Lamb (14:1-5)
    • Angels & the preparation/onset of the Judgment (14:6-13, 14-20)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 15-16)

While the 144,000 symbolize the People of God (believers) generally, there is also a specific reference to those who have faithfully endured the period of distress (7:14; 14:4-5), whether or not they were put to death for following Christ. Since the author/seer and the first readers of the book would have assumed that they were about to enter into this period (i.e. that it was imminent and about to begin), there is no real contradiction in this. Modern-futurist interpretation (in its various forms), of course, requires that the period of distress is yet to come, and so the 144,000 must symbolize future believers.
[The entire question of modern-futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation will be discussed at the end of this series]

The vision in 14:6-13 describes the appearance of three heavenly Messengers (Angels), each of whom delivers a different, but related, message regarding the coming Judgment.

Verses 6-7: First Messenger

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing in the middle of the heaven, holding (the) good message of the Ages to deliver (as) a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, upon every nation and offshoot (of the human race), and (every) tongue and people, declaring in a great voice: ‘You must fear God and give to him honor, (in) that [i.e. because] the hour of His Judgment (has) come, and you must kiss toward [i.e. worship] the (One) making the heaven and the earth and (the) sea and fountains of waters!'”

The image of the Messenger flying “in the middle of the heavens” echoes that of 8:13, confirming the Judgment-setting. There, however, it was a message of woe to the people on earth; here, along with the warning of the Judgment is a message of hope. The idea seems to be that God is giving humankind one final chance to repent and turn to Him, much as we saw in the earlier Trumpet-cycle depicting the Judgment—note the remnant motif (i.e., two-thirds survive) and the specific notice at the close of the cycle (9:20-21).

I have translated the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion literally (“good message of the Age[s]”). It is typically rendered “everlasting Gospel” or “eternal Gospel”; however, I feel it is especially important here to preserve the etymological meaning, since the “good message” relates to the consummation of the Ages, the end of the current Age. The Judgment marks the moment when God will eradicate evil and wickedness from the world, fully establishing His justice and rule over humankind. At the same time, no early Christian reader could hear the word eu)agge/lion without associating it with the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like many symbols in the book of Revelation, the great Judgment itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects—i.e. Judgment that takes place on earth, and that which takes place (subsequently) in Heaven. It would seem that the visions allow for the possibility of people turning to faith in God (and Christ?) during the earthly Judgment (cf. below).

For the expression “good news” (using the eu)aggel– word-group), its background and usage in connection with the Roman emperor and the imperial cult, see my earlier Christmas season note and the recent Word Study series on Gospel/eu)agge/lion.

The use of the aorist tense (h@lqen, “came”) in verse 7 is interesting, since it suggests that the Judgment is a past event, even though it is just now being announced by the Messengers. Most translations render this like a perfect (“has come”); it may be considered as an ingressive aorist, indicating the start of an action. The focus on God as Creator, may reflect a style of Gospel-preaching to (Gentile) non-believers (cp. Acts 14:15-18; 17:23-31), but may also refer back to the idolatry and false religion emphasized in the chap. 13 visions (cp. Wisdom 13:1-19; Rom 1:18-25; Koester, p. 612). The chain of terms in verse 7, summarizing all of the inhabited world, is a direct echo of 13:7.

Verse 8: Second Messenger

“And another Messenger, a second, followed declaring: ‘Babilim the great (has) fallen, fallen!—the (one) who has made all the nations drink out of the wine of the (evil) impulse of her prostitution!'”

This second Messenger continues the “good message”, concerning the end of the current (and wicked) Age, with an announcement regarding “Babel” (i.e. the city Babylon). Greek Babulw/n is a transliteration of the name, presumably deriving from Akkadian b¹b-ilim (“Gate of God”); Hebrew lb#B* (B¹»el) is a similar transliteration, while English Babylon comes from the Greek. The nation-state centered on the city of Babylon was the pre-eminent (imperial) power at the time of the Judean exile, thus making it a fitting symbol for the conquering imperial power (Rome) in the first-century A.D.—the time of the Judean distress (c. 40-70) as well as suffering/persecution of believers when the book of Revelation was written. Most commentators regard “Babylon” as a cypher for Rome, both here and in 1 Peter 5:13. On the whole this is correct, and the identification is made more clear and specific in chapter 17; however, I believe that the symbolism is actually somewhat broader in scope. The interpretive key lies in the vision(s) of 11:1-13, especially the reference to the “great city” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) in v. 8, which is there identified with Jerusalem (cf. also vv. 1-2), but also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”, names specifically indicating worldly power and wickedness. Here, too, Babylon is called “the great (city)” (h( mega/lh), and, I believe, the meaning is generally the same. Whether identified by the specific name “Sodom”, “Egypt”, “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Rome”, the symbol refers primarily to the center of earthly power and influence, which is fundamentally (at least in this current Age) wicked and opposed to God.

Again an aorist form (e&pesen, “fell”) is used to describe something which, from the standpoint of the overall narrative, has not yet taken place. The use of a past tense (whether aorist or perfect in Greek) is sometimes used in reference to future events, speaking of them as something already completed—i.e. proleptic aorist. The use of the prophetic (and precative) perfect in Hebrew does much the same thing, often used to assure readers that something will take place. The specific form of the message (regarding Babylon) derives from Old Testament tradition and the nation-oracles in Isaiah and Jeremiah—specifically Isa 21:9 and Jer 50-51 (50:2; 51:8). It will be greatly expanded in chapter 18.

As is frequently the case in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the noun pornei/a (lit. referring to acts of prostitution) is used figuratively for wickedness and faithlessness to God (i.e. ‘idolatry’ and false religion, etc).

Verses 9-11: Third Messenger

“And another Messenger, a third, followed them declaring in a great voice: ‘If any one kisses toward [i.e. worships] the wild animal and its image, and takes the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between his eyes or upon his hand, even (so) th(is person) he will drink of the impulse of God’s (anger) having been poured out (for him), without (being) mixed (with water), in the drinking-cup of His anger, and he will be tested severely (and proven false), in fire and sulphur, in the sight of (the) holy Messengers and in the sight of the Lamb!—and the smoke of their severe testing steps [i.e. goes] up into the Ages of Ages, and they hold no resting up (from this) day and night, the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] the wild animal and his image (and), indeed, if any one takes the engraved (mark) of its name!'”

I view the message in vv. 9-11 as comprised of a single long (elliptical) sentence, which I have sought to make more readable by punctuating with commas throughout. Its elliptical structure can be illustrated with a chiastic outline:

    • Any one who worships the creature…and takes its mark
      • he will drink from the cup of God’s anger (i.e. divine judgment)
        • they will be tested severely in fire (judged & punished)
          • in the sight of the holy Messengers and the Lamb
        • the smoke of their severe testing rises (judged & punished)
      • they have no rest from it day and night (i.e. eternal judgment)
    • ones who worships the creature…and take its mark

The description of the one who worships (lit. “kisses toward”, vb proskune/w, a common Greek idiom signifying worship/veneration) the “wild animal” (qhri/on, i.e. the Sea-creature) occurs both at the beginning and end of the message, a dual-emphasis that shows just how serious the matter is. It also confirms the context of the visions in chapter 14 as that of chap. 13, with its depiction of the wicked influence exerted by the Sea-creature over humankind. It is specifically stated that anyone who so venerates the Sea-creature (and its living ‘image’ on earth), and takes the engraved mark (xa/ragma) showing that he/she belongs to the creature, will face the full brunt of God’s anger (o)rgh/) in the Judgment. The immediate context of these verses makes clear that it is the heavenly aspect of the Judgment that is in view.

Drinking from a cup (poth/rion) is a traditional motif for the fate a person will experience, often in the negative sense of suffering and/or punishment. For the idiom in the Old Testament, cf. Psalm 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 49:12, etc. Jesus famously uses it in the garden scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par, cf. also 10:38-39 par). This cup is controlled by God, and given out to human beings (who meet their fate over the course of their lives). Here it is meant as a precise contrast with the wine that Babylon made the nations drink (v. 8; cf. Jer 51:7). In both instances the noun qumo/$ is used, which I regularly translate as “impulse” (for lack of a better option in English); it basically refers to a violent or passionate movement, as of air, breath, etc, sometimes internalized as a movement of the soul or mind. The wine Babylon gives is from her wicked impulse to “prostitution”, whereas the wine God makes people drink in the Judgment comes from His impulse to anger, to punish the wicked. This wine is said to be a&krato$, “without mixture”, that is, without being diluted by water—at its full strength.

The verb basani/zw (and related noun basanismo/$) is typically translated as “torment”, but more properly refers to an intense testing, as of metal that is tried by fire. That is the basic image here. The wicked, of course, are proven to be false in the fire of testing, which becomes a painful torture for them (a common denotation when basini/zw is used of human beings). The motifs of fire and sulphur, along with the rising smoke, allude to the destruction of cities (even a “great city”, cf. above), following the traditional imagery of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24, 28) which came to be used as a symbol of the end-time Judgment (Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. also Rev 11:8). Many Christians are naturally disturbed by the idea of the wicked being tormented endlessly; however, any ethical-religious issues we may have today are quite foreign to the text itself and its first-century setting. We should not try to soften or mitigate the imagery, nor should any attempt be made to view it as an absolute metaphysical description of the afterlife.

Verses 12-13: A Fourth Voice

“Here is the need for the holy (one)s to remain under [i.e. endure faithfully], the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and the trust of Yeshua. And I heard a voice out of the heaven saying, ‘Write (this): happy the (one)s th(at are) dying away in the Lord from now (on)’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘(so) that they will rest up out of [i.e. from] their beatings, for their works follow with them’.”

Verse 12 represents the author/seer’s own words to his readers. He stresses again the importance of remaining faithful to Christ during the end-time period of distress (which he and his audience are believed to be entering). The dangers for believers described in the chap. 13 visions—both in terms of being led astray and of being persecuted (and put to death) for remaining faithful—would have been realized already by the surrounding pagan culture and, especially, the imperial cult tied to Roman rule. What is envisioned in chapter 13 is a more extreme, intense, and wicked version of what Christians in Asia Minor, at the end of the 1st-century, were already facing. The description of believers in v. 12b echoes that of 12:17, there referring to believers as children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God on earth). See the prior note on that verse for a discussion of the plural noun e)ntolai/, usually translated “commandments”. In my view, the expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” is best understood and comparable to “the law [no/mo$] of God” in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21). It refers generally to the will of God, such as is expressed in the Old Testament law (Torah) and the teaching of Jesus, but should not be reduced to a specific set of commands or teachings. The pairing of expressions means that believers are people who generally live in a manner that corresponds to the will of God, and who also, specifically (and most importantly), have trust/faith in Jesus.

The final message is one of comfort for believers, given by a heavenly Messenger, and echoed by the Spirit. The main difficulty lies in the expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”); it can be understood three ways, moving from narrower to broader focus:

    • It refers to believers (or those who come to be believers) alive during the great Judgment on the earth. The message of the first Angel (cf. above) seems to allow for the possibility of people coming to faith during the Judgment, or just prior to its onset. Given the terrible events that will occur on earth at the Judgment (vividly described in the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles), death certainly would be a blessing.
    • It refers primarily to the period of distress that precedes the Judgment on earth; believers certainly will live through this (according to the visions of chaps. 12-13 and elsewhere in the book), and will suffer greatly. Here, too, death, even as a result of execution, would be a comfort.
    • It is meant more directly for the audience/readers of the book, who, it must be said, were expected to live into the (imminent) period of distress.

In my view, the last, and most inclusive interpretation best fits the context of both the vision and the book as a whole. In any case, the blessing (or happiness) of believers who die during this time is two-fold: (1) they receive rest from suffering and distress (referred to as “beatings” ko/poi, something with weakens or reduces strength), and (2) they are rewarded for their faithfulness (referred to here as “works”, e&rga).

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