The Fall of Babylon the Great
In the late 1970’s the group Boney M produced a popular song based on the first few words of Psalm 137, called “By the Rivers of Babylon.” It had a catchy reggae beat that made it feel like Babylon was a kind of cool place to be. (Hey, the song, was a favourite of mine at the time, too.) The reality (at least at first) for ancient Israel was slavery in forced labour under a people with a superior attitude who continually taunted them about how superior their ways and gods were over those of the Israelites. Eventually that haughtiness leads the victor into overreaching by an excess of oppression.
Psalm 137 expresses the anguish of the oppressed and the desire for God to avenge them. This is probably the sentiment expressed in “Happy shall he be who repays you as you have served us” in verse 8. Isaiah predicted the Babylonian captivity almost a century before it happened, yet warns them of their own judgment in turn in Isaiah 47. Jeremiah, who lived to see Judah taken into Babylonian captivity, expresses similar sentiments in Jeremiah 50 and 51 concerning Babylon.
John is doing some very similar things in Revelation 18, but with the Roman system of Emperor/Empire-worship. Much of the language of this chapter even comes from these sections of Isaiah and Jeremiah. John is applying these prophetic sections of scripture to the then-greatest nation on earth: Rome, and its seemingly almighty Emperor. The Eternal City makes claims like “I shall be a lady forever” (Is. 47:7 compare with Rev. 18:7). Yet she is destroyed suddenly, and all the merchants in the world stand back helplessly, without assisting (Is 47:15 compare with Rev. 18:15-19).
Amidst the prophetic weight arrayed against Rome, however, is a stern warning to Christians: “Come out of her my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (18:4). This cry echoes a similar statement made not once, but three times in Jeremiah 50-51 (50:8; 51:6 & 45). It is clear in Jeremiah’s context that Messiah will liberate them from Babylon’s chains, yet they are somehow supposed to leave Babylon, too – presumably before their physical liberation. How?
John leaves us with the same paradox. The answer seems to be that God expects His followers to leave behind their unquestioning obedience to the system of the Evil Empire (no matter what its current configuration, name, or geographic location) and obey Jesus Christ in faith instead. This will create conflict between the Christian and “the system.” But it is far better to be on Jesus’ side (the one that wins!) than on the Evil Empire’s side. As Jesus teaches, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and mammon. Given the description of Babylon the Great, who do we think she serves? Exactly.
Yet does it not seem extreme to people with 21st Century sensibilities to pray for the absolute destruction of an empire that brings stability to the world? Perhaps the kind of suffering that this would entail would seem unthinkable and cruel.
Actually, from God’s perspective – not so much. Even the most benign empire begins and ends in bloodshed. It establishes the right to tax the work of others by force. It employs brute-force leadership tactics that make an example of those who defy government orders by imprisoning, torturing and/or killing them. Jesus points out the main characteristic of governments when He says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them” (Matt 20:25). Human government without God is a highly inefficient machine that is lubricated by the blood of the peoples that it crushes – including servants of God who dare question its motives and claims to having God’s permission to lord it over others. “In her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on the earth.” Notice that this system of unrestrained lust and greed by those in power is said to be responsible of the blood of “all who were slain on the earth.” Instead of avenging the blood of murdered people (Gen. 9:5-6) the empire does the murdering and promotes the murderers!
When the time comes for judgment, all the riches in the world will not protect any such system from God. The world’s rich may mourn its fall, but the people of God rejoice that the Evil Empire is finished – and will rise to destroy no more! In vs. 21 John uses the analogy of the great rock that was thrown into the sea. When the water settles, you cannot tell the rock was even there. What most do not recognize is that Jeremiah, at the end of his proclamation against Babylon, is instructed to write all of the words of that proclamation on a scroll and tie it around a rock. He was to go to the Euphrates river, the very heartland of Babylon’s power, and throw the rock into the river. He was then to say, “Thus Babylon shall sink and not rise from the catastrophe that I will bring upon her. And they shall be weary” (Jer. 51:64). Once again, John has very skilfully applied this very same prophetic concept to Rome – Babylon’s “daughter” in his day.
Can the same prophecy be applied to any other would-be “Babylon the Great” at any other time in history? I suspect that the answer is “yes.”
And yet, sooner or later, there is bound to be one final attempt to dominate the world that is foiled by the return of Jesus Christ. Christians definitely should be praying for the final shutting down of the Game of Empire. In the meantime, they should diligently figure out what it means to “get out of her, my people.”