Babylon is Fallen
June 26, 2022

Babylon is Fallen

Passage: Revelation 18
Service Type:

Fallen is Babylon
Revelation 18
by William Klock


Sometimes gospel—good news—isn’t what we expect.  The gospel is a multifaceted message, but the church in every age has a tendency to focus on one part of it, while deemphasising or even ignoring others.  John wrote his letter to the churches of Asia in part to get them straight on this kind of problem.  We do the same thing in our ways.  We modern, western Christians have a tendency to emphasise the personal aspects of the gospel over the corporate.  We tend to view the gospel as a primarily spiritual thing.  And we emphasise those parts of the gospel that are most likely to make people feel good, while down-playing or ignoring what might make them feel bad.  Some aspects of the gospel just confuse us—so we sort of pretend they aren’t there.  Such is our passage today, which continues—and more-or-less—concludes John’s vision of God’s judgement on Rome.


So what do we do with judgement in the Bible?  I don’t think we have a problem with judgement itself—maybe we don’t, but some do.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the Canadian prayer book, which butchered the Psalter, because its revisers back in the 1950s concluded that the imprecatory psalms have no place in Christian worship.  But it’s not just the Psalmist who pleads with the Lord for the judgement of the wicked and then praises their fall.  From the Israelites joyfully singing about the victory of God over Egypt while they watched the dead bodies of Pharoah’s army float on the waters to Isaiah singing “Fallen is Babylon and shattered are her gods!” to Mary’s song in which she praises the Lord for throwing down the mighty from their seats, Brothers and Sisters, God’s people have always and still ought to plead for his judgement on the wicked then praise his victories.  We plead for deliverance and we pray for an end to evil and for his justice to prevail.  When he answers our prayers, we shouldn’t be squeamish about singing joyfully in praise that he has defeated his enemies.  But for some reason we are.  I know Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in the States isn’t much consolation for Canadians.  I’m not inclined to get overly enthusiastic about what it means for the US.  It’s a return to Federalism on the issue of abortion and it remains to be seen what the States will do in light of it.  But it’s a victory, it’s a big one, it’s and answer to fifty years of prayer, even if only in part.  And Christians ought to rejoice and to praise God.  But if you’ve done that on social media in the last few days, there’s a good chance you got rebuked for it by other Christians.  Why?  Because we’re squeamish about judgement and about praising God when he defeats his enemies.  But the Lord defeating his enemies and the enemies of his people is good news, it’s gospel.  Back in Revelation 14 John wrote about the angel who came declaring gospel—good news—and that the good news was a proclamation of judgement and a summons to repentance: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7).  It’s an echo of the gospel St. Paul proclaimed to the men of Athens: “Turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).  Or, as we sing from Psalm 96 in Morning Prayer, “For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth; and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with his truth.”  So our passage today, Revelation 18, is timely.  Let’s look at verses 1-3.


After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory.  And he called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!

         She has become a dwelling place for demons,

a haunt for every unclean spirit,

         a haunt for every unclean bird,

         a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.

For all nations have drunk

         the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,

and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,

         and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”


The great prostitute John saw in Chapter 17, the woman deceptively clothed in fine garments and expensive jewelry, whose chalice of wine contained only filth and abominations—who invited the nations to join her in her fun—fun which consisted of rank idolatry, the murder of the Lord Jesus, and the persecution of his people—the great prostitute has fallen.


And John’s imagery, borrowed from the Old Testament prophets, gives us another lesson—some important insight into how biblical prophecy works and how we ought to read it.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time explaining that when John wrote of “Babylon”, he was writing about Rome.  But not everyone reads the text that way.  Others will tell you that “Babylon” was Jerusalem.  And there are others who will tell you that “Babylon” is Rome, but not historical Rome, but some Rome of the future—maybe the Roman Church or some future European empire.  I don’t know if it’s still a popular theory, but back in the 70s and 80s, a lot of people saw here the European Union—especially when it had only ten nations—ten horns and all of that.  Now, if we just read the text and if we read it with the big biblical narrative in mind, it’s really obvious—inescapable, I think—that John was speaking of Rome in his own day.  The problem for a lot of folks is that they don’t know how to read biblical prophecy and if John was talking about historic Rome, then it all looks like a failed prophecy.  Rome didn’t cease to exist.  It wasn’t demolished to leave a barren wasteland as the angel’s song describes.  Some interpreters then turn to Jerusalem.  That is, more or less, what did happen to Jerusalem—although not in a.d. 70.  John describes the fall of Jerusalem in terms of the events that were soon to unfold, and yet things settled down quickly after the war with Rome and Jewish life returned to a kind of normal in Jerusalem, albeit with the temple gone.  It wouldn’t be until after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, a little over fifty years later, that Jerusalem really would be wiped out and the Jewish people scattered.  That right there gives us a hint at how we ought to be reading things.  But, similarly, since these things didn’t literally happen to Rome, others respond by pushing it all into the far future.  They try to save John’s prophecy, but in doing that they undermine the clear teaching of Jesus and the apostles that judgement was soon to come.  It helps if we look at how John uses the Old Testament prophets.  Here he draws from the passage from Isaiah 21 that I read earlier:


“Fallen, fallen is Babylon;

and all the carved images of her gods

         he has shattered to the ground.”


Babylon, in the Old Testament, embodied opposition to the Lord.  It all went back to the Tower of Babel and only got worse from there.  And Babylon wasn’t satisfied to keep her idolatrous harlotries to herself.  For centuries she afflicted Israel, eventually conquering Jerusalem and taking God’s people into exile.  One of the keys for understanding Revelation is to remember that the prophets—like Isaiah—had warned Israel that her conquest by pagan armies was judgement for her own adulteries.  This the historical pattern given meaning by the prophets: Israel, the Lord’s bride, is rebellious and plays the harlot with foreign gods.  The Lord is patient, but she continues to be unfaithful.  So the Lord judges Israel by allowing her to be defeated by her pagan neighbours—in this case Babylon.  Judgement brings Israel to repentance—at least for a while—and the Lord vindicates her by then judging the pagan nations that had oppressed her.  That’s the pattern we see in Revelation.  First the Lord uses pagan Rome to bring judgement on rebellious Jerusalem.  Through it he spares and vindicates his people.  Then he comes in judgement on Rome herself.  This is why John uses Babylon as an image of Rome.  Isaiah writes that Babylon would be a haunt of jackals and hyenas—and demons, too, in the Greek OT (Isaiah 34:13-14).


Jeremiah writes:


Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’S hand,

         making all the earth drunken;

the nations drank of her wine;

         therefore the nations went mad.  (Jeremiah 51:7)


And the prophet Nahum wrote:


And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,

         graceful and of deadly charms,

who betrays nations with her whorings,

         and peoples with her charms.  (Nahum 3:4)


John also draws on Ezekiel’s oracle against the city of Tyre:


When your wares came from the seas,

         you satisfied many peoples;

with your abundant wealth and merchandise

         you enriched the kings of the earth.  (Ezekiel 27:33)


So, like Babylon (and like Tyre), Rome will fall because of her idolatry, because of her wickedness, and because she has spilled the blood of Jesus and the saints.  But did Babylon fall?  If we take Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets literally, we have the same problem we have with John.  John writes later, in verse 21, that Babylon (Rome) will “be thrown down with violence and will be found no more”—which certainly didn’t happen literally.  Rome has had its problems, it would even be defeated and the city sacked by enemies, but there’s a reason it’s called the “Eternal City”.  And despite Jeremiah writing that Babylon would be “a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert”, “her walls…thrown down”, “overthrown like Sodom and Gomorrah, no one will live there”, it was many centuries before the city of Babylon eventually declined.  Babylon was defeated, as the prophets said it would be, by the Medes, but they didn’t destroy the city.  They diverted the river and sneaked into the city while its people were having a holiday.  The Medes and the Persians made Babylon their capital and it flourished for centuries.  What this shows us is that prophetic language of judgement isn’t necessarily literal.  It’s dramatic and over-the-top.  It often speaks of judgement in terms of de-creation: the sun ceasing to shine, stars falling from the sky, the ground itself falling apart and opening up to swallow armies and cities.  The key point of the Old Testament prophets and of John in Revelation, is that the oppressors and persecutors of the Lord’s people will face his wrathful and righteous judgement in repayment for their deeds.  Nebuchadnezzar was defeated and his kingdom destroyed, leading to the restoration of Israel in Judea, even though Babylon remained under different management.  Similarly, Rome will be defeated in such a way that the Christians martyrs would be vindicated and the way paved for the triumph of the gospel over this once pagan empire.  The gods of Rome will be shattered and Caesar’s claims of divinity will be exposed in the light of the gospel, which proclaims Jesus as the true son of God.  Caesar will be defeated and Jesus will reign—and the world would see the birth of “Christendom” as we called it for centuries.  Why does is it work this way?  Because even though God did not create man to govern man, but to live under his kingship, he has ordained earthly kings and governments to curb the chaos of the fall.  As St. Paul writes, governing authorities are established by God to reward those who do good and to be a terror to those who do evil.  But when that gets reversed, particularly when those authorities persecute God’s people, he will bring his justice and take them down.  Nebuchadnezzar was taken down and the Medes took his place and Cyrus return the Israelites to Judea.  Good rules—or less bad ones, at any rate, will replace the wicked.  And just so with Nero and his ilk.


At this point a second angel joins the first.  Look at verses 4-8.


Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,

         lest you take part in her sins,

lest you share in her plagues;

for her sins are heaped high as heaven,

         and God has remembered her iniquities.

Pay her back as she herself has paid back others,

         and repay her double for her deeds;

         mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.

As she glorified herself and lived in luxury,

         so give her a like measure of torment and mourning,

since in her heart she says,

         ‘I sit as a queen,

I am no widow,

         and mourning I shall never see.’

For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,

         death and mourning and famine,

and she will be burned up with fire;

         for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”


In light of the coming judgement, the angel warns Jesus’ people to get out—not necessarily literally, but not to have anything to do with the wickedness and the idolatry of the pagans.  This echoes the warnings to the churches at the beginning of Revelation.  The great prostitute is, again, deceptively attractive.  Her wine looks appealing and everyone else is drunk on it.  Rome and all the nations submitted to her have the appearance of wealth and security.  In contrast, those little groups of Christians were facing opposition—and it was soon to get worse—and all because they proclaimed Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar.  They were the ones willing to openly say that the emperor had no clothes—or that the harlot’s chalice was full of filth—but that’s not what anyone wanted to hear.  Compromise was so enticing and so easy.  A pinch of incense offered to Caesar, a meal in the temple of Aphrodite—never mind the orgy going on—and everyone would accept you.  But Israel had tried that, offering sacrifices to the Lord in his temple, but also erecting altars to Baal and Asherah.  It never works.  You cannot serve two masters.  Either Jesus is Lord or he isn’t.  And Babylon is a graphic testament to what happens to those who worship false gods—and soon Rome will be, too.  So, “Come out of her my people, lest you take part in her sins,” calls the angel.


Her sins are heaped high.  In other words, her judgment is overdue and coming soon.  She will be paid back.  In fact, she’ll be paid back double for her deeds.  The angel echoes Jeremiah’s prophecy against Babylon:


Repay her according to her deeds; do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. (Jeremiah 50:29)


Now, the long middle section of the chapter shows us the response of the nations as they stand watching Rome’s fall.  They were once drunk on the prostitute’s wine, but the Lord’s judgement sobers them up quickly—as the one in whom they had invested everything now falls.  Look at verse 9 and following:


  And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. 


John echoes Ezekiel’s prophecy of Babylon’s fall:


The merchants among the peoples hiss at you;

         you have come to a dreadful end

         and shall be no more forever.’” (Ezekiel 27:36)


One of the thing that stands out here is that this isn’t the end of the world.  This is a judgment that happens in history as the nations watch.  Continuing…


They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas! Alas! You great city,

         you mighty city, Babylon!

For in a single hour your judgment has come.”

  And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.


Slavery is what made the ancient world turn, and especially Rome and it was the sanctifying influence of the gospel that eventually brought it to an end, as with so many other things: human sacrifice, gladiatorial games, and abortion and infanticide.  Jesus spoke about being salt and light and that’s just what those first Christians were and by the gospel they taught the pagans mercy and the value of life.  But in the meantime, the nations mourn.  The prostitute and her chalice are gone.  The party is over.  And the angel’s imagery draws very closely on Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre’s destruction:


At the sound of the cry of your pilots

         the countryside shakes,

and down from their ships

         come all who handle the oar.

The mariners and all the pilots of the sea

         stand on the land

and shout aloud over you

         and cry out bitterly.

They cast dust on their heads

         and wallow in ashes;  (Ezekiel 27:28-30)


This is key, because the reason Ezekiel says that Tyre was judged was because it’s king had boasted: “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods” (Ezekiel 28:1).  Now it’s Caesar’s turn to be brought low for his blasphemies.  In the meantime the nations continue to mourn:


“The fruit for which your soul longed

         has gone from you,

and all your delicacies and your splendors

         are lost to you,

         never to be found again!”

  The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

“Alas, alas, for the great city

         that was clothed in fine linen,       

                  in purple and scarlet,

         adorned with gold,       

                  with jewels, and with pearls!

For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”

And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off

and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?”

  And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, for the great city

         where all who had ships at sea

         grew rich by her wealth!

For in a single hour she has been laid waste.

Rejoice over her, O heaven,

         and you saints and apostles and prophets,

for God has given judgment for you against her!” (Revelation 18:9-20)


The suitors of the harlot mourn, but notice that the angels calls out to God’s people: “Rejoice!”  Specifically, “Rejoice over her—over fallen Rome—because God has judged her.”  And not just that, notice the angel makes the point, “God has given judgement for you against her!”  This is the vindication of the saints.  God has judged the wicked on behalf of all those saints in those little churches in Asia Minor and across the empire—the saints who were mocked, maligned, and even martyred, the saints who watched as their brothers and sisters died in the arena or were crucified and lit on fire to light Nero’s garden parties.  For you God has judged the harlot.  Brothers and Sisters, the Lord hears the cries of his people.  He heard the Hebrews crying out from their bondage in Egypt.  He heard the Israelites crying out from their captivity in Babylon.  He heard his Church crying out from their persecution by Rome.  And for the Lord to hear is always for the Lord to answer.  And the natural response is for the song of praise sung by the redeemed to be even louder than the lament of those wailing over their judgement.  In Proverbs we read the truth that “when justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous” even as it is “terror to evildoers”.  Brothers and Sisters, rejoice and praise God for his triumph, even as the wicked wail and lament.


Finally, now, verses 21-24.  The joyful song of the saints is contrasted with the deathly silence of the judged city.


Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,

         and will be found no more;

and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters,

         will be heard in you no more,

and a craftsman of any craft

         will be found in you no more,

and the sound of the mill

         will be heard in you no more,

and the light of a lamp

         will shine in you no more,

and the voice of bridegroom and bride

         will be heard in you no more,

for your merchants were the great ones of the earth,

         and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.

And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,

         and of all who have been slain on earth.” (Revelation 18:21-24)


Jeremiah wrote:


When you finish reading this book, tie a stone to it and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disaster that I am bringing upon her, and they shall become exhausted.’”


The description of the musicians being silenced is straight from Ezekiel’s oracle against Tyre:


And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more.  (Ezekiel 26:13)


The bit about Rome deceiving the nations by her sorcery calls back to Nahum’s denouncement of Nineveh:


And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,

         graceful and of deadly [sorceries],

who betrays nations with her whorings,

         and peoples with her [sorceries].  (Nahum 3:4)


I don’t think anyone amongst John’s readers would have struggled to rejoice at these words of judgement, but the angel does drive home the point one more time in verse 20.  He reminds us that in her was the blood of the prophets and saints.  He even goes a step further, saying that the bloodguilt of all who have been slain lies with her.  Rome wasn’t guilty of every murder that ever happened, but remember that behind the prostitute and behind the beast lies the dragon, the Satan.  Rome was the current embodiment, the height of human wickedness, all fed by the lies of the devil.  The devil and all the world’s wickedness rose up to its full height at the cross when Jesus was put to death.  Evil, concentrated all in one place, did its worst and was dealt a death blow by God.  And, once again in Rome and with the persecution of Jesus’ people it rose up again, and yet again God would strike it down.  That’s the promise here.  Remember John’s three themes: tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom.  The saints are not walking anywhere that Jesus has not gone before them and the Lord will vindicate them just as he vindicated Jesus.  They would know mourning, but judgement was coming.  It was a sure thing.  And not too far in the future they would have reason to rejoice as the millstone that was Caesar and Rome was cast into the sea to make way for the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.


Brothers and Sisters, there’s a word here for us, too.  We will know new Romes and Babylons before the Lord returns.  We will know opposition and maybe even persecution, tribulation, and martyrdom.  Persevere.  Know that Jesus is Lord.  Do not be enticed by the harlot and her chalice.  Pray for her downfall, for her downfall, as it always has been, will open the way for our proclamation of the gospel.  When that day comes—and it always does—praise the Lord for his righteousness and his faithfulness, and go forth with the good news.  For Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.


Let’s pray: O Lord God, the unfailing helper and governor of those whom you bring up in your steadfast fear and love: Keep us, we pray, under the protection of your good providence and give us a continual reverence and love for your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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