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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Revelation 18

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-24

Chapter 18

THE DOOM OF ROME (Revelation 18:1-3)

18:1-3 After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority and the earth was lit up by his glory. He cried with a loud voice saying: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. She has become a dwelling-place of demons, and a stronghold of every unclean spirit, and a stronghold of every unclean and hated bird, because the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness."

In this chapter we have a form of prophetic literature common in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is what is called "A Doom Song," the doom song of the city of Rome.

We quote certain Old Testament parallels. In Isaiah 13:19-22 we have the doom song of ancient Babylon:

And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendour and pride of

the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God

overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or dwelt in for all

generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherds will

make their flocks lie down there. But wild beasts will lie down

there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there

ostriches will dwell, and there satyrs will dance. Hyenas will

cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time

is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged.

In Isaiah 34:11-15 we have the doom song of Edom:

But the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the

raven shall dwell in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion

over it, and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.... Thorns

shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its

fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for

ostriches. And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, the satyr

shall cry to his fellow; yea, there shall the night hag alight,

and find for herself a resting place. There shall the owl nest

and lay and hatch and gather her young in her shadow; yea, there

shall the kites be gathered, each one with her mate.

Jeremiah 50:39 and Jeremiah 51:37 are part of doom songs of Babylon:

Therefore wild beasts shall dwell with hyenas in Babylon, and

ostriches shall dwell in her; she shall be peopled no more for

ever, nor inhabited for all generations. And Babylon shall become

a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing

without inhabitant.

In Zephaniah 2:13-15 we have the doom song of Nineveh:

And he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the

desert. Herds shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts

of the field; the vulture and the hedgehog shall lodge in her

capitals; the owl shall hoot in the window, the raven croak on

the threshold; for her cedar work will be laid bare. This is the

exultant city that dwelt secure, that said to herself, "I am and

there is none else." What a desolation she has become, a lair for

wild beasts! Every one who passes by her hisses and shakes his

fist.

In spite of their grim foretelling of ruin these passages are all great poetry of passion. It may be that here we are far from the Christian doctrine of forgiveness; but we are very close to the beating of the human heart.

In our passage the angel charged with the message of doom comes with the very light of God upon him. No doubt John was thinking of Ezekiel 43:1-2 : "He brought me to the gate, the gate facing east; and behold the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory." H. B. Swete writes of this angel: "So recently he has come from the Presence that in passing he brings a broad belt of light across the dark earth."

So certain is John of the doom of Rome, that he speaks of it as if it had already happened.

We note one other point. Surely the most dramatic part of the picture is the demons haunting the ruins. The pagan gods banished from their reign disconsolately haunt the ruins of the temples where once their power had been supreme.

COME YE OUT! (Revelation 18:4-5)

18:4-5 I heard another voice from heaven saying: "Come out, my people, from her, lest you become partners in her sins, and lest you share in her plagues, because her sins are piled as high as heaven, and God has remembered her unrighteous deeds."

The Christians are bidden come out of Rome before the day of destruction comes, lest, sharing in her sins, they also share in her doom. H. B. Swete says that this call to come out rings through Hebrew history. God is always calling upon his people to cut their connection with sin and to stand with him and for him.

It was the call which came to Abraham: "Now the Lord said to Abraham, Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father's house, to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). It was the call that came to Lot, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: "Up, get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city" (Genesis 19:12-14). It was the call that came to Moses in the days of the wickedness of Korah, Dathan and Abiram: "Get away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.... Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men" (Numbers 16:23-26). "Go forth from Babylon," said Isaiah, "flee from Chaldea" (Isaiah 48:20). "Flee from the midst of Babylon," said Jeremiah, "and go out of the land of the Chaldeans" (Jeremiah 50:8). "Flee from the midst of Babylon, let every man save his life" (Jeremiah 51:6). "Go out of the midst of her people. Let every man save his life from the fierce anger of the Lord" (Jeremiah 51:45). It is a cry which finds its echo in the New Testament. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). "Do not participate in another man's sins; keep yourself pure" (1 Timothy 5:22).

Swete well points out that this cry and challenge do not involve a coming out at a definite moment. They imply a certain "aloofness of spirit maintained in the very heart of the world's traffic." They describe the essential apartness of the Christian from the world. The commonest word for the Christian in the New Testament is the Greek hagios (Greek #40), whose basic meaning is different. The Christian is not conformed to the world but transformed from the world (Romans 12:2). It is not a question of retiring from the world; it is a question of living differently within the world.

THE DOOM OF PRIDE (Revelation 18:6-8)

18:6-8 Repay her in the coin with which she paid others; and repay her double for her deeds. Mix her a double draught in the cup in which she mixed her draughts. In proportion to her boasting and her wantonness give her torture and grief, for she says in her heart: "I sit a queen: I am not a widow; grief is something that I will never see." Because of this her plagues will come upon her in one day--pestilence and grief and famine and she will be burned with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is strong.

This passage speaks in terms of punishment. But the instruction to exact vengeance on Rome is not an instruction to men; it is an instruction to the angel, the divine instrument of justice. Vengeance belongs to God, and to God alone. We have here two truths which we must remember.

(i) There is in life a law by which a man sows that which he reaps. Even in the Sermon on the Mount we find an expression of that law: "The measure you give will be the measure you get" (Matthew 7:2). The double punishment and the double reward come from the fact that frequently in Jewish law anyone responsible for loss or damage had to repay it twice over (Exodus 22:4; Exodus 22:7; Exodus 22:9). "O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!" says the Psalmist, "happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us" (Psalms 137:8). "Requite her according to her deeds," says Jeremiah of Babylon, "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). There is no getting away from the fact that punishment follows sin, especially if that sin has involved the cruel treatment of fellowmen.

(ii) We meet here the stern truth that all pride will one day be humiliated. Rome's supreme sin has been pride. It is in Old Testament terms that John speaks. He reproduces the ancient judgment on Babylon:

You said, "I shall be mistress for ever," so that you did not lay

these things to heart or remember their end. Now therefore hear

this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your

heart, "I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit

as a widow or know the loss of children": These two things

shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children

and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of

your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments.

Nothing rouses such condemnation as pride, Isaiah speaks grimly: "Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet the Lord will smite with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion" (Isaiah 3:16-17). Tyre is condemned because she has said: "I am perfect in beauty" (Ezekiel 27:3).

There is a sin which the Greek called hubris (Greek #5196), which is that arrogance, that comes to feel that it has no need of God. The punishment for that sin is ultimate humiliation.

THE LAMENT OF THE KINGS (Revelation 18:9-10)

18:9-10 The kings of the earth, who committed fornication with her and who shared in her wantonness, will weep and lament over her, when they will see the smoke of her burning, while they stand afar off because of the fear of her torture, while they say: "Alas! Alas! for the city that seemed so strong, for Babylon the strong city! for in one hour your judgment is come."

In the rest of this chapter we have the dirges for Rome; the dirge sung by the kings (Revelation 18:9-10), the dirge sung by the merchants (Revelation 18:11-16), the dirge sung by the shipmasters and the sailors (Revelation 18:17-19). Again and again we hear of the greatness, the wealth and the wanton luxury of Rome.

We may well ask whether John's indictment is justified or whether he is merely a fanatic shouting doom without any real justification. If we wish to find an account of the luxury and the wantonness of Rome we will find it in such books as Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, by Samuel Dill, Roman Life and Manners, by Ludwig Friedlander, and especially in the Satires of Juvenal, the Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, and the works of Tacitus, themselves Romans and themselves appalled by the things about which they wrote. These books show that nothing John could say of Rome could be an exaggeration.

There is a saying in the Talmud that ten measures of wealth came down into the world and that Rome received nine and all the rest of the world only one. One famous scholar said that in modern times we are babes in the matter of enjoyment compared with the ancient world; and another remarked that our most extravagant luxury is poverty compared with the prodigal magnificence of ancient Rome.

In that ancient world there was a kind of desperate competition in ostentation. It was said of Caligula that "he strove, most of all to realize what men deemed impossible," and it was said that "the desire of the incredible" was the great characteristic of Nero. Dill says: "The senator who paid too low a rent, or rode along the Appian or Flaminian Way with too scanty a train, became a marked man and immediately lost caste."

In this first century the world was pouring its riches into the lap of Rome. As Dill has it: "The long peace, the safety of the seas, and the freedom of trade, had made Rome the entrepot for the peculiar products and delicacies of every land from the British Channel to the Ganges." Pliny talks of a meal in which in one dish India was laid under contribution, in another Egypt, Cyrene, Crete and so forth. Juvenal speaks of the seas peopled with great keels and of greed luring ships on expeditions to every land. Aristides has a purple passage on the way in which things flowed into Rome. "Merchandise is brought from every land and sea, everything that every season begets, and every country produces, the products of rivers and lakes, the arts of the Greeks and the barbarians, so that, if anyone were to wish to see all these things, he would either have to visit the whole inhabited world to see them--or to visit Rome; so many great ships arrive from all over the world at every hour, at every season, that Rome is like some common factory of the world, for you may see such great cargoes from the Indies, or, if you wish, from the blessed Arabias, that you might well conjecture that the trees there have been stripped naked; clothing from Babylon, ornaments from the barbarian lands, everything flows to Rome; merchandise, cargoes, the products of the land, the emptying of the mines, the product of every art that is and has been, everything that is begotten and everything that grows. If there is anything you cannot see at Rome, then it is a thing which does not exist and which never existed."

The money possessed and the money spent was colossal. One of Nero's freedman could regard a man with a fortune of 652,000 British pounds as a pauper. Apicius squandered a fortune of 1,000,000 British pounds in refined debauchery, and committed suicide when he had only 100,000 British pounds left because he could not live on such a pittance. In one day Caligula squandered the revenues of three provinces amounting to 100,000 British pounds and in a single year scattered broadcast in prodigal profusion 20,000,000 British pounds. Nero declared that the only use of money was to squander it, and in a very few years he squandered 18,000,000 British pounds. At one banquet of his the Egyptian roses alone cost 35,000 British pounds.

Let the Roman historian Suetonius describe his emperors, and remember that this is not a Christian preacher but a pagan historian. Of Caligula he writes: "In reckless extravagance he outdid the prodigals of all times in ingenuity, inventing a new sort of baths and unnatural varieties of food and feasts; for he would bathe in hot or cold perfumed oils, drink pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold." He even built galleys whose sterns were studded with pearls. Of Nero Suetonius tells us that he compelled people to set before him banquets costing 20,000 British pounds. "He never wore the same garment twice. He played at dice for 2,000 British pounds per point. He fished with a golden net drawn by cords woven of purple and scarlet threads. It is said that he never made a journey with less than a thousand carriages, with his mules shod with silver."

Drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar was a common ostentation. Cleopatra is said to have dissolved and drunk a pearl worth 80,000 British pounds. Valerius Maximus at a feast set a pearl to drink before every guest, and he himself, Horace tells, swallowed the pearl from Metalla's ear-ring dissolved in wine that he might be able to say that he had swallowed a million sesterces at a gulp.

It was an age of extraordinary gluttony. Dishes of peacocks' brains and nightingales' tongues were set before the guests at banquets. Vitellius, who was emperor for less than a year, succeeded in spending 7,000,000 British pounds mainly on food. Suetonius tells of his favourite dish: "In this he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes, and the milk of lampreys, brought by his captains and triremes from the whole empire from Parthia to the Spanish strait." Petronius describes the scenes at Trimalchio's banquet: "One course represented the twelve signs of the zodiac.... Another dish was a large boar, with baskets of sweetmeats hanging from its tusks. A huge bearded hunter pierced its side with a hunting knife, and forthwith from the wound there issued a flight of thrushes which were dexterously captured in nets as they flew about the room. Towards the end of the meal the guests were startled by strange sounds in the ceiling and a quaking of the whole apartment. As they raised their eyes the ceiling suddenly opened, and a great circular tray descended, with a figure of Priapus, bearing all sorts of fruit and bon-bons."

In the time when John was writing a kind of insanity of wanton extravagance, to which it is very difficult to find any parallel in history, had invaded Rome.

(1) THE LAMENT OF THE MERCHANTS (Revelation 18:11-16)

18:11-16 And the merchants of the earth will weep and lament over her, for no one buys their cargo any more, the cargo of gold and of silver and of precious stones and of pearls, of fine linen and of purple and of silk and of scarlet, all kinds of thyine wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, and of bronze and of iron and of marble, and cinnamon and perfume and incense, and myrrh, and frankincense and wine and oil, and fine flour, and wheat and cattle and sheep, horses and chariots and slaves, the souls of men.

The ripe fruit your soul desired has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendours have perished, never again to be found. The merchants who dealt in these wares, who grew wealthy from their trade with her, shall stand afar off because of the fear of her torture, weeping and grieving. "Alas! Alas!" they shall say, "for the great city, for the city which was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, the city which was decked with gold and with precious stones and with pearls, for in one hour so much wealth is desolated!"

The lament of the kings and the merchants should be read along with the lament over Tyre in Ezekiel 26:1-21; Ezekiel 27:1-36 for they have many features in common.

The lament of the merchants is purely selfish. All their sorrow is that the market from which they drew so much wealth is gone. It is significant that both the kings and the merchants stand afar off and watch. They stretch out no hand to help Rome in her last agony; they were never bound to her in love; their only bond was the luxury she desired and the trade it brought to them.

We will learn still more of the luxury of Rome, if we look in detail at some of the items in the cargoes which came to Rome.

At the time during which John was writing there was in Rome a passion for silver dishes. Silver came mainly from Carthagena in Spain, where 40,000 men toiled in the silver mines. Dishes, bowls, jugs, fruitbaskets, statuettes, whole dinner services, were made of solid silver. Lucius Crassus had wrought silver dishes which had cost 50 British pounds for each pound of silver in them. Even a fighting general like Pompeius Paullinus carried with him on his campaigns wrought silver dishes which weighed 12,000 pounds, the greater part of which fell into the hands of the Germans, spoils of war. Pliny tells us that women would bathe only in silver baths, soldiers had swords with silver hilts and scabbards with silver chains, even poor women had silver anklets and the very slaves had silver mirrors. At the Saturnalia, the festival which fell at the same time as the Christian Christmas, and at which gifts were given, often the gifts were little silver spoons and the like, and the wealthier the giver the more ostentatious was the gift. Rome was a city of silver.

It was an age which passionately loved precious stones and pearls. It was largely through the conquests of Alexander the Great that precious stones came to the west. Pliny said that the fascination of a gem was that the majestic might of nature presented itself in a limited space.

The order of preference in stones set diamonds first, emeralds--mainly from Scythia--second, beryls and opals, which were used for women's ornaments, third, and the sardonyx, which was used for seal-rings, fourth.

One of the strangest of ancient beliefs was that precious stones had medicinal qualities. The amethyst was said to be a cure for drunkenness; it is wine-red in colour and the word amethyst was derived--so it was said--from a which means not and methuskein (Greek #3182) which means to make drunk. The jasper, or bloodstone, was held to be a cure for haemorrhage. The green jasper was said to bring fertility. The diamond was held to neutralise poison and to cure delirium, and amber worn on the neck was a cure for fever and for other troubles.

Of all stones the Romans loved pearls more than any other. As we have seen, they were drunk dissolved in wine. A certain Struma Nonius had a ring with an opal in it as big as a filbert worth 21,250 British pounds, but that pales into insignificance compared with the pearl which Julius Caesar gave Servilia and which cost 65,250 pounds. Pliny tells of seeing Lollia Paulina, one of Caligula's wives, at a betrothal feast, wearing an ornament of emeralds and pearls, covering head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, which was worth 425,000 British pounds.

(2) THE LAMENT OF THE MERCHANTS (Revelation 18:11-16 continued)

Fine linen came mainly from Egypt. It was the clothing of priests and kings. It was very expensive; a priest's robe, for instance, would cost between 40 and 50 British pounds.

Purple came mainly from Phoenicia. The very word Phoenicia is probably derived from phoinos, which means blood-red, and the Phoenicians may have been known as "the purple men," because they dealt in purple. Ancient purple was much redder than modern purple. It was the royal colour and the garment of wealth. The purple dye came from a shellfish called murex. Only one drop came from each animal; and the shell had to be opened as soon as the shellfish died, for the purple came from a little vein which dried up almost immediately after death. A pound of double-dyed purple wool cost almost 50 British pounds, and a short purple coat more than 100 pounds. Pliny tells us that at this time there was in Rome "a frantic passion for purple."

Silk may now be a commonplace, but in the Rome of the Revelation it was almost beyond price, for it had to be imported from far-off China. So costly was it that a pound of silk was sold for a pound weight of gold. Under Tiberius a law was passed against the use of solid gold vessels for the serving of meals and "against men disgracing themselves with silken garments" (Tacitus: Annals 2: 23).

Scarlet, like purple, was a much sought after dye. When we are thinking of these fabrics we may note that another of Rome's ostentatious furnishings was Babylonian coverlets for banqueting couches. Such coverlets often cost as much as 7,000 British pounds, and Nero possessed coverlets for his couches which had cost more than 43,000 British pounds each.

The most interesting of the woods mentioned in this passage is thyine. In Latin it was called citrus wood; its botanical name is thuia articulate. Coming from North Africa, from the Atlas region, it was sweet-smelling and beautifully grained. It was used especially for table tops. But, since the citrus tree is seldom very large, trees large enough to provide table tops were very scarce. Tables made of thyine wood could cost anything from 4,000 to 15,000 British pounds. Seneca, Nero's prime minister, was said to have three hundred of such thyine tables with marble legs.

Ivory was much used for decorative purposes, especially by those who wished to make an ostentatious display. It was used in sculpture, for statues, for swordhilts, for inlaying furniture, for ceremonial chairs, for doors, and even for household furniture. Juvenal talks of the wealthy man: "Nowadays a rich man takes no pleasure in his dinner--his turbot and his venison have no taste, his unguents and his roses seem to smell rotten--unless the broad slabs of his dinner table rest upon a ramping, gaping leopard of solid ivory."

Statuettes of Corinthian brass or bronze were world famous and fabulously expensive. Iron came from the Black Sea and from Spain. For long marble had been used in Babylon for building, but not in Rome. Augustus, however, could boast he had found Rome of brick and left it of marble. In the end there was actually an office called the ratio marmorum whose task was to search the world for fine marbles with which to decorate the buildings of Rome.

Cinnamon was a luxury article coming from India and from near Zanzibar, and in Rome it commanded a price of about 65 British pounds per pound (of weight).

Spice is here misleading. The Greek is amomon (Greek #299); Wycliff translated simply "amome". Amomon was a sweet-smelling balsam, particularly used as a dressing for the hair and as an oil for funeral rites.

In the Old Testament incense had altogether a religious use as an accompaniment of sacrifice in the Temple. According to Exodus 30:34-38 the Temple incense was made of stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense, which are all perfumed gums or balsams. According to the Talmud seven further ingredients were added--myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, mace and cinnamon. In Rome incense was used as a perfume with which to greet guests and to scent the room after meals.

In the ancient world wine was universally drunk, but drunkenness was regarded as a grave disgrace. Wine was usually highly diluted, in the proportion of two parts of wine to five parts of water. The grapes were pressed and the juice extracted. Some of it was used just as it was as an unfermented drink. Some of it was boiled to a jelly, and the jelly used to give body and flavour to poor wines. The rest was poured into great jars, which were left to ferment for nine days, then closed, and opened monthly to check the progress of the wine. Even slaves had abundant wine as part of their daily ration, since it was no more than 2 1/2 pence per gallon.

Myrrh was the gum resin of a shrub which grew mainly in Yemen and in North Africa. It was medically used as an astringent, a stimulant, and an antiseptic. It was also used as a perfume and as an anodyne by women in the time of their purification, and for the embalming of bodies.

Frankincense was a gum resin produced by a tree of the genus Boswellia. An incision was made in the tree and a strip of bark removed from below it. The resin then exuded from the tree like milk. In about ten or twelve weeks it coagulated into lumps in which it was sold. It was used for perfume for the body, for the sweetening and flavouring of wine, for oil for lamps and for sacrificial incense.

The chariots here mentioned--the word is rede--were not racing or military chariots. They were four-wheeled private chariots, and the aristocrats of Roman wealth often had them silver-plated.

The list closes with the mention of slaves and the souls of men. The word used for slave is soma (Greek #4983), which literally means a body. The slave market was called the somatemporos, literally the place where bodies are sold. The idea is that the slave was sold body and soul into the possession of his master.

It is almost impossible for us to understand how much Roman civilization was based on slavery. There were some 60,000,000 slaves in the empire. It was no unusual thing for a man to have four hundred slaves. "Use your slaves like the limbs of your body," says a Roman writer, "each for its own end." There were, of course, slaves to do the menial work; and each particular service had its slave. We read of torch-bearers, lantern-bearers, sedan-chair carriers, street attendants, keepers of the outdoor garments. There were slaves who were secretaries, slaves to read aloud, and even slaves to do the necessary research for a man writing a book or a treatise. The slaves even did a man's thinking for him. There were slaves called nomenclatores whose duty it was to remind a man of the names of his clients and dependants! "We remember by means of others," says a Roman writer. There were even slaves to remind a man to eat and to go to bed! "Men were too weary even to know that they were hungry." There were slaves to go in front of their master and to return the greetings of friends, which the master was too tired or too disdainful to return himself. A certain ignorant man, unable to learn or remember anything, got himself a set of slaves. One memorized Homer, one Hesiod, others the lyric poets. Their duty was to stand behind him as he dined and to prompt him with suitable quotations. He paid 1,000 British pounds for each of them. Some slaves were beautiful youths, "the flower of Asia," who simply stood around the room at banquets to delight the eye. Some were cup-bearers. Some were Alexandrians, who were trained in pert and often obscene repartee. The guests often chose to wipe their soiled hands on the hair of the slaves. Such beautiful boy slaves cost at least 1,000 or 2,000 British pounds. Some slaves were freaks--dwarfs, giants, cretins, hermaphrodites. There was actually a market in freaks--"men without shanks, with short arms, with three eyes, with pointed heads." Sometimes dwarfs were artificially produced for sale.

It is a grim picture of men being used body and soul for the service and entertainment of others.

This was the world for which the merchants were grieving, the lost markets and the lost money which they were bewailing. This was the Rome whose end John was threatening. And he was right--for a society built on luxury, on wantonness, on pride, on callousness to human life and personality is necessarily doomed, even from the human point of view.

THE LAMENT OF THE SHIPMASTERS (Revelation 18:17-19)

18:17-19 And every shipmaster and everyone who sails the sea, and sailors who gain their living from the sea, stood afar off and cried, when they saw the smoke of her burning. "What city was like the great city!" they said, and they flung dust upon their heads, and cried weeping and lamenting: "Alas! Alas! for the great city, in which all who had ships on the sea grew rich from her wealth, because in one hour she has been desolated."

First, the kings uttered their lament over Rome; then, the merchants; and now, the shipmasters. John was taking his picture from Ezekiel's picture of the fall of Tyre, from which so much of this chapter comes. "At the sound of the cry of your pilots the countryside shakes, and down from their ships come all that handle the oar. The mariners and all the pilots of the sea stand on the shore and wail aloud over you, and cry bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes." (Ezekiel 27:28-30).

Rome, of course, was not upon the sea coast, but its port was Ostia, and, as we have seen, the merchandise of the world flowed into the port of Rome.

It is little wonder that the shipmasters and the sailors will lament, for all the trade which brought so much wealth will be gone.

There is something almost pathetic in these laments. In every case the lament is not for Rome but for themselves. It is one of the laws of life that, if a man places all his happiness in material things, he misses the greatest things of all--love and friendship with his fellowmen.

JOY AMIDST LAMENTING (Revelation 18:20)

18:20 Rejoice over her, O Heaven, and you dedicated ones of God, and you apostles, and you prophets, because God has given judgment for you against her.

Amidst all the lamenting comes the voice of joy, the voice of those who are glad to see the vengeance of God upon his enemies and their persecutors.

This is a note which we find more than once in Scripture. "Praise his people, O you nations; for he avenges the blood of his servants, and takes vengeance on his adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of his people" (Deuteronomy 32:43). Jeremiah says of the doom of ancient Babylon; "Then the heaven and the earth, and all that is in them, shall sing for joy over Babylon; for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 51:48).

We are here very far from praying for those who despitefully use us. But two things have to be remembered. However we may feel about this voice of vengeance, it is none the less the voice of faith. These men had utter confidence that no man on God's side could ultimately be on the losing side.

Second, there is little personal bitterness here. The people to be destroyed are not so much personal enemies as the enemies of God.

At the same time this is not the more excellent way which Jesus taught. When Abraham Lincoln was told that he was too lenient with his opponents and that his duty was to destroy his enemies, he answered: "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" The real Christian attitude is to seek to destroy enmity, not by force, but by the power of that love which won the victory of the Cross.

THE FINAL DESOLATION (Revelation 18:21-24)

18:21-24 And a strong angel lifted a stone like a great mill-stone, and cast it into the sea. "Thus," he said, "with a rush Babylon the great city will be cast down, and will never again be found. The sound of harpers and minstrels and flute-players and trumpeters will never again be heard in you. No craftsman of any craft will ever again be found in you. No more will the sound of the mill be heard in you. No more will the light of the lamp shine in you. No more will the voice of the bridegroom and the bride be heard in you; for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and because all nations were lead astray by your sorcery, and because in her was found the blood of the prophets and of God's dedicated ones and of all who have been slain upon the earth."

The picture is of the final desolation of Rome.

It begins with a symbolic action. A strong angel takes a great millstone and hurls it into the sea which closes over it as if it had never been. So will Rome be obliterated. John was taking his picture from the destruction of ancient Babylon. The word of God came to Jeremiah: "When you finish reading this book, bind 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 evil that I am bringing upon her" (Jeremiah 51:63-64). In later days Strabo, the Greek geographer, was to say that ancient Babylon was so completely obliterated that no one would ever have dared to say that the desert where she stood was once a great city.

Never again will there be any sound of rejoicing. The doom of Ezekiel against Tyre reads: "And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more" (Ezekiel 26:13). The harpers and the minstrels played and sang on joyous occasions; the flute was used at festivals and at funerals; the trumpet sounded at the games and at the concerts; but now all music was to be silenced.

Never again will there be the sound of a craftsman plying his trade.

Never again will the sound of domestic activity be heard. Grinding was done by the women at home with two great circular stones one on the top of the other. The corn was put into a hole in the uppermost stone; it was ground between the two stones and emerged through the lower stone. The creak of stone on stone, which could be heard any day at any house door, will never again be heard.

Never again will there be light on the streets or in the houses.

Never again will there be any sound of wedding rejoicing for even love will die. Jeremiah uses the same pictures: "I will banish from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones, and the light of the lamp" (Jeremiah 25:10; compare Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 16:9).

Rome is to become a terrible silent desolation.

And this punishment will come for certain definite reasons.

It will come because she worshipped wealth and luxury and lived wantonly, and found no pleasure except in material things.

It will come because she led men astray with her sorceries. Nahum called Nineveh "graceful and of deadly charms" (Nahum 3:14). Rome flirted with the evil powers to make an evil world.

It will come because she was blood guilty. "Woe to the bloody city!" said Ezekiel of Tyre (Ezekiel 24:6). Within Rome the martyrs perished and persecution went out from her all over the earth.

Before we begin to study the last four chapters of the Revelation in detail, it will be well to set out their general programme of events.

They begin with a universal rejoicing at the destruction of Babylon, the power of Rome (Revelation 19:1-10). There follows a description of the emergence of a white horse and on it him who is Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11-18). Next comes the assembling of hostile powers against the conquering Christ (Revelation 19:19); then the defeat of the opposing forces, the casting of the beast and of the false prophet into the lake of fire, and the slaughter of the rest (Revelation 19:20-21).

Revelation 20:1-15 opens with the binding of the devil in the abyss for a period of a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3). There follows the resurrection of the martyrs to reign with Christ for a thousand years, although the rest of the dead are not yet resurrected (Revelation 20:4-6). At the end of the thousand years Satan is again loosed for a brief space; there is final conflict with the enemies of Christ who are destroyed with fire from heaven while Satan is cast for ever into the lake of fire and brimstone (Revelation 20:7-10). Then comes the general resurrection and the general judgment (Revelation 20:11-14); and finally the description of the new heaven and the new earth to take the place of the things which have passed away (Revelation 21:1-27 ; Revelation 22:1-5).

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


Copyright Statement
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 18:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-18.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 13th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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