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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