Babylon the Great
June 19, 2022

Babylon the Great

Passage: Revelation 17
Service Type:

Babylon the Great
Revelation 17
by William Klock


You’ve all seen Pinocchio, haven’t you?  It wasn’t by any means my favourite kids’ movie.  I think I must have been about seven years old the one and only time I saw it.  I don’t remember much about it beyond the general idea of the puppet who wanted to be a real boy.  But that was because one scene terrorised me and has stuck with me all these years.  Do you remember “Pleasure Island”?  An evil character called the Coachman rounded up bad little boys with a promise of fun and took them to an amusement park on Pleasure Island.  There they could eat and drink and smoke and indulge themselves in all the things that bad boys like to do but usually get in trouble for doing.  It was the ultimate good time.  But there was a catch, as there always is with that sort of “fun”.  Once they boys spent enough time on Pleasure Island, they’d start growing ears and tails, they’d lose the ability to talk, and they’d eventually turn into donkeys.  Then the Coachman would sell them to work as slaves, hauling carts in the saltmines.  The moral of the story was simple: act like a jackass and you become a jackass!  The book of Proverbs says something very similar—but Proverbs never gave me nightmares!  Der Struwwelpeter, the famous German moralising storybook for kids, wasn’t half so terrifying.  At least in Der Struwwelpeter the bad kids died.  That wasn’t nearly as bad as being turned into a donkey for life.


As I began last week to think about today’s text, I couldn’t help but think of Pinocchio, having a good time and suddenly horrified to discover he’d grown donkey ears and a tail.  When Carlo Collodi wrote the story, he had an age-old lesson in mind.  It’s one that goes back to Proverbs—and to Jesus and to St. Paul and to St. John.  Sin is enticing because it is so often deceptively attractive, but in the end it will eat us alive and spit us out.  It brings us inevitably to judgement—and we see this in Revelation 17 and 18 as the Lord’s judgement falls on Rome.  It’s yet another warning against the deceptive attractions of sin and of worldliness.  But it’s also, along with the rest of the book, an exhortation to the Church.  Keep the themes of Revelation in mind: tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom.  Jesus’ people will find themselves opposed—even to the point of martyrdom—by the wicked of the world, by its corrupted values and its sinful systems.  And the situation may look hopeless.  Back in Chapter 13 the nations marvelled at the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”  Those silly Christians?  What did they think they were doing?  What do they think they’d accomplish standing up the beast?  And yet Revelation was the promise to those people—even as they were fed to the lions—that Jesus is Lord, that he has and he will defeat the beast, and that his people will be vindicated.  It’s, as St. Paul wrote, foolishness to the gentiles.  But if you’d heard and believed the good news that Jesus was crucified and rose again, conquering death itself, it all makes sense.  We just need to be reminded now and again to keep this gospel, this cross-centred, this Easter perspective.


And so John goes on at length about the judgement about to fall on the enemies of Jesus and his people.  It begins with Jerusalem, but when Jerusalem has been judged, the Lord’s justice then confronts the Greco-Roman world.  It goes hand in hand with the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  God’s judgement pave the way and goes before the powerful proclamation of the gospel.  In Chapter 15 John saw the beast’s judgement prepared as heaven sang God’s praises—just as Israel had sung his praises at the fall of Pharaoh, his false gods, and the Egyptian army.  In Chapter 16 we saw the bowls of judgement poured out on beast.  This language of the “beast” is drawn from Daniel, where four ferocious beasts represent various empires, so we know the beast here represents the current great empire of John’s day.  The beast is, on the one hand backed by the power and authority of the dragon—of Satan—and himself backs the second beast who causes the nations to worship him.  John, in his symbolic language, made it clear that this beast is Rome, headed by its Emperor who claims divinity and has an entire cult devoted to spreading his false gospel.  John has already given us a sense of why judgement had to fall on Rome, but now he goes into detail.  Look at Chapter 17.


Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”  And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.  The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.  And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.”  And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.


Pleasure Island was an age-appropriate—well, almost—story for kids about the deceptive attractiveness of sin.  John writes to adults—and adults who lived in a world as of yet untempered by the gospel.  He writes far more graphically.  The debauchery of the ancient world is, I think, hard for us to imagine.  Today’s decadent, debauched, and obscene celebrations of “pride” begin to come close to daily life in the pre-gospel world.  The Romans were the moralistic prudes of the Mediterranean world, but even in Rome prostitution and sodomy, sexual abuse of children and slaves, infanticide, and even sometimes human sacrifice were the rule of the day.  As much as we grieve the moral sewer that our culture has become, the ancient world was far worse.


And Rome sat on top of it all.  One of the angels from the last chapter whisks John away to the wilderness to show him the subject of the judgement that has been poured out.  John sees a woman arrayed in fine clothes.  Purple and scarlet dyes were very expensive to produced and usually reserved for royalty and the very wealthy.  She is beautifully and extravagantly adorned in jewellery.  Everything about her has the look of success, of wealth, and most of all, desirability.  And she’s ready to party.  She holds a chalice and reels drunkenly.  But her chalice doesn’t hold wine.  Her wine, the wine with which she entices the nations, the wine with which she makes them drunk, John writes, is sexual immorality.  John says the cup is full of “abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality”.  Our English versions are somewhat restrained in their translations here.  “sexual immorality” is the Greek word porneia.  It’s the word for illicit sex and for prostitution.  The words for abominations and impurities refer to things and to acts that are deeply vile, disgusting in every way, that defile and degrade, and that not only merit, but cry out for judgement and condemnation.  Inside the cup the cup are filth, excrement, disease—to tip it would be to release a sewer, both literally and metaphorically.


The woman is stunningly beautiful to look upon, she is fabulously weathly, and she is full of promises.  But it’s all a lie.  She sits astride the beast—seven heads and ten horns, the servant of Satan, whom John earlier identified as the Emperor and his emprie—and, he writes, despite her appearance, she is really “Babylon, the mother of prostitutes and earth’s abominations”.  It’s imagery from the Old Testament.  Babylon was not only the place were the great tower was built in humanity’s attempt to reach heaven in our own power, but the city that would became the enemy and eventually the conqueror of Israel.  Babylon represents everything that stood opposed to the Lord and to his people.  And this new Babylon is even worse.  She sits astride the dragon, reeling, drunk on the blood of Jesus and his people.  Again, she is beautiful and sits there welcoming the nations with a promise of wealth and a good time, but it’s all built on wickedness.  The underlying reality—strip off the make-up, the jewellery, the expensive clothes, pour out the cup—and what you find is vile, disgusting, utterly stomach-churning.


There’s a reason John uses this imagery of a prostitute to depict the enemy of God’s people.  Revelation is about God and his people, whom we see at the end as the lamb and his bride.  The story culminates with the marriage of the lamb—husband and wife are joined and their relationship is characterized by faithfulness.  The prostituted represents the polar opposite.


This imagery goes back to the Old Testament and to Israel and the Lord.  Israel was his bride, but she was repeatedly unfaithful.  Think of the prophet Hosea, who used his own marriage to a prostitute, as a prophetic image of Israel’s rejection of the Lord as she ran after foreign gods and idols.  Babylon was the epitome of idolatry in the Old Testament, but now the Greco-Roman world has taken up that torch.  The nations worship false gods, whose idols and temples are beautiful and full of promises, but who cannot deliver.  And now, Caesar himself, claimed to be divine and with that claim, has gathered the peoples and tongues of the earth under his banner.  The devil had deceived the nations and now empires like Rome and kings like Caesar enticed the world away from God.  Babylon all over again.


And, of course, prostitution is a fitting metaphor for every form of statism.  Rome—not to mention our own contemporary nations—offer us security, well-being, and wealth—only submit, and it’s all yours.  And just as certainly as one is trapped by the false promises of prostitution and pornography, so Caesar traps, ensnares, and enslaves.  And the foolish would rather go along with the lies than walk away from what they’ve already lost.  I can’t think of a better real-life illustration than what the Finance Minister said this week with regard to more government spending on more programs in an attempt to save us from the results of the previous two years’ government spending and programs.  The only way out of our economic predicament is austerity, but the State has promised prosperity and prosperity she must deliver.  The cup is full and inviting, but inside is abomination and impurity—or, at least in this case, stagflation and all the misery that comes with it.


These systems, whether Babylon, or Rome, or Washington, or Ottawa derive their power from the beast.  John goes on in verses 7 and 8:


When I saw her, I marveled greatly.  But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel?  I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.  The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.


Again, John is reminded not to be deceived by the woman.  She is backed by the beast.  But then the beast itself.  John was clear before that the beast represents the Roman Emperor—that was currently Nero at John’s time of writing.  This bit about “was, is not, and is about to rise…and go to destruction” isn’t the easiest thing to parse out, but seems, I think, to be referring to the chaos into which the imperial throne was soon to fall with the suicide of Nero and the “Year of the Four Emperors” that followed.  However we work out the specifics, the angel’s point is that the Emperor stands under God’s judgement and he warns: Even as the empire descends into the chaos of this judgement, the people of the earth—at least those who do not belong to Jesus and whose names are not recorded in the book of life—instead of seeing what’s happening, repenting, and turning to the Lord, they will double-down on their commitment to the beast.  They would rather continue in their idolatry than admit that the Lord is God.  And Jesus’ people need to be prepared, because this is why the beast goes after the saints: They are the only ones who stand as witness to the falsity of his claims at divinity and the truth that Jesus is the risen Lord.  This is why the woman who sits astride him has made herself drunk on their blood.


Now, in verses 9-18 the angels explains all of this further.


This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.  As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.  And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast.  These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast.  They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”


The angel’s explanation probably seems more cryptic than helpful to us.  To John and his readers it would have been clear.  Not all of it is difficult for us, though.  That this woman is seated on seven mountains or hills would have been, to anyone in the First Century and still today, an unmistakable reference to the city of Rome.  The seven horns of the beast are relatively clear, too.  The angel says they represent seven kings—or seven different caesars.  At the time of writing there have been five.  That would be Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.  One is.  That’s Nero.  The seventh who must remain a short while could refer to Galba, who reigned a short seven months after Nero, but probably sums up the year of chaos in which there were four rival claimants to the throne, none of which lasted.  That would make the eighth, who is like the seven, Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian Dynasty that followed.  He was enough like the earlier emperors that he was just as deserving of destruction.  I think there’s something fairly obviously symbolic about these numbers as well.  The seven emperors give to the empire a false appearance of and the eighth, parodying Jesus who rose on the eighth day, will have appeared to have cleaned up the mess, dealt with the chaos, and led the empire into a new and better day, when the fact is that, just like his predecessors, he is leading the empire straight into the Lord’s judgement.  I think this is the real message those early believers needed to hear.  Again, they were mocked.  “There is none like the beast!  Who would be foolish enough to rise up against him?”  And here, again, John is reminded that even though the beast and his empire have the appearance of might and perfection, even though they appear impervious to defeat, it’s all going to come falling down under its own corrupt weight.  Look at verses 15-18:


And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.  And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute.  They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.  And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”


Again, the details here point unmistakably to the city of Rome as the prostitute.  She had dominion over the kings of the earth.  Nothing else fit that description in John’s day.  The ten kings represented by the beast’s ten horns seem to refer to kings or other rulers within the empire—rulers of the nations over which she has dominion.  But in the end, Rome will devour itself.  The great prostitute will be stripped naked, her flesh devoured, and finally burned with fire.  The rulers whom she robbed blind in exchange for false promises will turn on their mistress and destroy her.  That said, even as they bring justice to the prostitute, they are part of the same system represented by the beast.  They may be through with their mistress, but they are just as intent on making war on the Lamb—as John writes in verse 14—as the beast ever was.  If nothing else, John's vision here and the angel's explanation sounds an awful lot like Nero’s burning of Rome—setting fire to the city so that he could build his new palace on top of the devastation—and then blame the fire on Christians.


But verse 14 is, again, an exhortation to persevere in the midst of tribulation.  The Lamb will conquer, because he is, after all, “King of kings and Lord of lords” and those who are with him are called “chosen and faithful”.  Again, it all looked like so much foolishness to people invested in the beast’s system, but to those who knew the reality of the cross, it all made sense.  They just needed to be reminded.  Jesus has conquered by his blood and the Church—those whom Jesus called to take up our crosses and to follow him—will conquer through our own self-sacrifice, as we give our all—even sometimes our own blood—for the sake of the gospel.


Brothers and Sisters, that’s the heart of the lesson here.  The who’s who of the symbolism is important too and we need to get it right, because it’s important to our understanding of the story we tell and our place in it, but I think the really important, the critical truth for us here is much the same as it was for those Asian Christians in the First Century: Don’t fall prey to the lies of the prostitute.  The systems and philosophies of the world make us promises galore: promises of wealth, promises of security, promises of self-discovery and identity.  But those promises are empty snares and behind them all lies the dragon, the devil, who has been telling lies to humanity from the beginning.  He tempts us to give ourselves over to wealth.  He tempts us to submit ourselves body and soul to the State.  He temps us to find our worth in material goods.  He entices us to satisfy our appetites with gluttony and with illicit sex.  He tells us that we will find satisfaction in identity, whether that’s race or sex or sexual orientation.  He undermines marriage and the family and then holds out the State and sexual immorality as substitutes.  His agents in this world hold out a golden chalice, to all appearances filled with wine, but inside is abomination and filthiness.  Inside is idolatry that ensnares, entwines, corrupts—and ultimately leads us away from Jesus and straight to destruction.  Brothers and Sisters, stand firm and look to Jesus for your security and for your identity.  We will find ourselves caught up in the battle and when we do, John reminds us that this is no accident.  We are soldiers of the Lamb, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we will conquer by his blood and by the word of our testimony.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.


Let’s pray: Our Father, in the Collect we acknowledged that we are weak and that you are our source of strength.  Again, we ask for the help of your grace that we might stand firm in faith against the enemies of the Lamb, and as your Church advance the cause of the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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