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The chapter before us is occupied with the fall of Babylon, and it naturally divides itself into three parts. The first contains the announcement of the city’s fall (Revelation 18:1-66.18.3); the second is a powerful description of amazement and lamentation over her fate, proceeding from all who had been dependent upon her (Revelation 18:4-66.18.20); the third points out the completeness and irremediableness of her ruin (Revelation 18:21-66.18.24).
Revelation 18:1. Another angel appears having great authority; and the earth was lightened with his glory. These last words are in all probability taken from Ezekiel 43:2, ‘and the earth shined with his glory.’ They illustrate the greatness of his mission, and the manner in which the whole ‘earth’ shall be struck with its glorious accomplishment. As in chap. Revelation 7:2 this angel has a closer than ordinary connection with the Lord Himself.
Revelation 18:2. He cried with a mighty voice. This is the only passage in the book in which a voice is spoken of as ‘mighty,’ the usual appellation being ‘great.’ In chap. Revelation 19:6 we read of ‘mighty thunders’ and it is impossible to doubt, therefore, that this voice is described in a similar way, not because all men are to hear it, but because it is to strike all with awe and terror (comp. Revelation 18:8).
Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen. These words have already met us at chap. Revelation 14:8 (comp. Isaiah 21:9), but the description is now enlarged, Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 13:21, Jeremiah 51:37, supplying the particulars.
Everything about the city is chanced into a wild and hateful desert. The unclean beasts and birds themselves that are driven into her ruins regard them as a prison.
Revelation 18:3. The cause of the city’s fall is again stated in the words of this verse.
Revelation 18:4. A new stage in the drama opens. Another voice out of heaven is heard, saying, Come forth out of her, my people, that ye may have no communion with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. The voice is that of an angel although, as coming out of heaven, we are to hear in it the voice of God or of Christ; and hence the use of the word ‘My’ before ‘people.’ It is a summons to God’s people to depart out of Babylon, and there are many parallels both in the Old and in the New Testament, Genesis 19:15-1.19.22; Numbers 16:23-4.16.26; Isaiah 48:20; Isaiah 52:11; Jeremiah 51:6; Jeremiah 51:45; Matthew 24:16. Two reasons are assigned for this departure; first, that God’s people may have no communion with the sins of Babylon, and secondly, that they may escape participation in her punishment. As to the former, it does not seem necessary to think that they were in danger of being betrayed into sin; were they not all sealed ones? But it was well for them to be delivered even from the very presence of sin, and from the judgments that follow it (comp. 2 Peter 2:7-61.2.9).
Revelation 18:5. So multiplied were her sins that they were heaped together as a mass reaching even unto heaven. The figure is taken from Jeremiah 51:9 (comp. Genesis 18:20).
Revelation 18:6. Render unto her even as she rendered, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she filled fill to her double. The same voice is continued, but is now addressed to the ministers of judgment, the kings and the beast who have turned round upon the harlot (chap. Revelation 17:16). Judgment is administered according to the lex talionis; and the doubling seems to be founded on the law of Exodus 22:4; Exodus 22:7; Exodus 22:9, and on the threatening of Jeremiah 16:18. Her sins have been so great that there has been a double mention of them (Revelation 18:5), and the punishment shall be proportioned to the sin (comp. also Isaiah 40:2; Jeremiah 17:18).
Revelation 18:7. In this verse the lex talionis is still administered both in extent and in severity. The humiliation of Babylon shall be the counterpart of her glorying. For she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am not a widow, and shall in no wise see mourning. The spirit of her glorying is expressed in three clauses, of which the second is peculiarly worthy of our notice. Commentators who see in Babylon the world-city are compelled to think of the beast and of the kings associated with it as the husband by the loss of whom Babylon had been reduced to widowhood. Such an interpretation is impossible. That husband had not been lost; the kings were not dead, they had only turned against her; while the words imply that she really is a widow although she does not feel it. If so, her boast can only be that she does not need the Lord for her husband. She has found another husband and many lovers. That she says these things ‘in her heart’ can hardly be intended to exclude the idea of loud boastings. The words rather lead us to think of the deep-seated nature of that spirit of glorying by which she is possessed (comp. Isaiah 47:7-23.47.8).
Revelation 18:8. With suddenness and fearfulness her plagues shall come upon her. In one day her glory shall be turned to shame. In the midst of her feasting an unseen hand shall write upon the wall of her banqueting-room that she is weighed in the balances and is found wanting, and ‘that night’ she shall perish (comp. Isaiah 47:9), for mighty is the Lord God who judged her.
At this point three classes of persons are introduced to us, uttering their lamentations over the fall of Babylon kings (Revelation 18:9-66.18.10), merchants (Revelation 18:11-66.18.16), sailors (Revelation 18:17-66.18.19). At Revelation 18:20 there follows a general call to rejoice over what has happened to her. The whole is moulded upon the lamentation over Tyre in Ezekiel 26, 27, and is of unequalled pathos.
Revelation 18:9-66.18.10. In these verses we have the lamentation of the kings of the earth over the disaster which they have been instrumental in accomplishing. The deeds of the wicked, even when effecting the purposes of God, bring no joy to themselves. It is the righteous only who rejoice (Revelation 18:20). Notice the threefold naming of the city, ‘the great city,’ ‘Babylon,’ ‘the mighty city.’
Revelation 18:20. The judgment of God upon the guilty city is supposed to have taken place. While it is a source of lamentation to the wicked, it is a joy to the righteous, and they are now summoned to experience that joy.
For God hath judged your judgment upon her. The meaning is that that judgment on the wicked which the righteous have passed is regarded as executed for them by God Himself.
Revelation 18:21. And a mighty angel took up a stone as a great millstone and cast it into the sea. A symbolic representation of the destruction of Babylon is to be given; and for this new vision a third angel appears, the first having appeared at chap. Revelation 17:1, the second at chap. Revelation 18:1. He is a ‘mighty’ angel, the third of this kind in the Apocalypse, the other two meeting us at chaps. Revelation 5:2 and Revelation 10:1. This angel acts after the manner described in Jeremiah 51:63-24.51.64, only that here, in order to bring out more impressively the nature of the judgment, the stone is heavy as ‘a great millstone.’ The destruction is sudden and complete. The city disappears like a stone cast into the sea (comp. Jeremiah 51:63-24.51.64).
Revelation 18:22-66.18.24. The destruction spoken of is enlarged on in strains of touching eloquence, but it is unnecessary to dwell on the particulars. They include everything belonging either to the business or to the joy of life. It may only be observed that following the word for in Revelation 18:23 we have a threefold description of the sins by which judgment had been brought upon the city.
The words of Revelation 18:24, And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slaughtered upon the earth, are important as confirming the interpretation that we have been dealing all along, not with a single city, but with the representation of some universal ungodliness and opposition to Christ. Nor does any parallel lie so near as that contained in the words of our Lord addressed to the degenerate Jews, ‘that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous unto the blood of Zachariah the son of Barachiah, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation’ (Matthew 23:35). The ‘slaughtering’ spoken of suggests the idea that like the slaughtered Lamb the children of God had been slain in sacrifice.
Before passing from this chapter we have to turn to the important inquiry, What does this woman, this Babylon, represent? Different answers have been given to the question, the most widely accepted of which are, that she is either pagan Rome, or a great world-city of the last days (the metropolis of the world-power symbolized by the beast upon which she rides), or the Romish Church. That there is not a little in the description (more especially in chap. Revelation 17:9; Revelation 17:15; Revelation 17:18) to favour the idea of pagan Rome may be at once admitted. But the arguments against such an interpretation are decidedly preponderant. It supposes that the beast in its final form is controlled by the metropolis of the Roman Empire (chap. Revelation 17:3). This is so far from being the case that the Roman Empire is ‘fallen’ before the woman comes upon the stage. It has disappeared as completely as the other world-powers which had ruled before it. No doubt, the woman is mentioned at chap. Revelation 17:1, while it is only at Revelation 18:10 that we read, of the fall of the Roman power. But the beast upon which the woman sits at Revelation 18:3 is the world-power in its last and highest manifestation, and is therefore subsequent to any of its earlier forms afterwards alluded to when the Seer carries his thoughts backward in order to trace its history. Again, pagan Rome was never turned round upon (in the manner rendered necessary by chap. Revelation 17:16), and hated, and made desolate, and burned by any world-powers that preceded her Christian condition. Once more, various individual expressions employed in these chapters are unsuitable to pagan Rome chap. Revelation 16:19, because Babylon is to be in existence at the time when the last plagues are poured out; chap. Revelation 17:2, because no relations of the kind here spoken of existed between pagan Rome and those kings of the earth over whom, in the language of Alford, she rather ‘reigned with undisputed and crushing sway;’ chap, Revelation 18:2, because pagan Rome fell without having been reduced to the condition there described; chap. Revelation 18:11; Revelation 18:19, because pagan Rome never was a great commercial city, or, (if it be said that only her purchasing is referred to), because she did not cease to purchase even after her pagan condition came to an end. On the other hand, the words of chap. Revelation 18:24, obviously founded on Matthew 23:35, cannot be applied to pagan Rome.
Alive to the force of such considerations, or others of a similar kind, the tendency of later expositors has been to abandon the idea of pagan Rome, and to resort to that of another city which they term the world-city of the last days; some indeed seeing such a city in all the great cities that have at any time directed persecution against the people of God, others confining it more strictly to a city yet to arise. The difficulties attending this interpretation are even greater than in the case of the former. The tone of the passage as a whole is unfavourable to the thought of any metropolis whether of the past, the present, or the future. It is not the manner of the Apocalypse to symbolize by its emblems such material objects as a city, however huge its site, splendid its palaces, or wide its rule. The Writer deals with spiritual truths; and to think that he would introduce this woman as the symbol of a city even far vaster than London or Paris or New York is to lose tight of the spirit in which he writes. If it be urged that it is the dominion, not the stone and lime, of the city that he has in view, the extent of this dominion is fatal to the explanation. No such rule has belonged to any city either of ancient or modern times. Or, if the reply again be that the city is not yet come, it is unnecessary to say more than that the existence of so great a city is as yet at least inconceivable, and that thus one of the most solemn and weighty parts of the Apocalypse has been for eighteen centuries without a meaning. In addition, the use of the word ‘mystery’ in chap. Revelation 17:5 is at variance with the supposition. That word points at once to something spiritual (comp. on chap. Revelation 17:5), and cannot be applied to what is merely of the earth earthly. This interpretation, like the former, must be set aside.
The idea that we have before us in the woman papal Rome, either the Romish Church, or the papal spirit within that church, is of a different kind, and its fundamental principle may be accepted with little hesitation. The emblem employed leads directly to the idea of something connected with the Church. The woman is a ‘harlot;’ and, with almost unvarying uniformity, that appellation and the sin of whoredom are ascribed in the Old Testament not to heathen nations which had never enjoyed a special revelation of the Almighty’s will, but only to those whom He had espoused to Himself, and who had proved faithless to their covenant relation to Him (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:1, etc.). No more than two passages can be adduced to which this observation seems at first sight inapplicable (Isaiah 23:15-23.23.17; Nahum 3:4), and these exceptions may be more apparent than real. The mention of whoredom in what was obviously a symbolical sense immediately suggested to Jewish ears the sin of defection from a state of former privilege in God.
Again, the harlot here is so distinctly contrasted with the ‘woman’ of chap. 12 and with the ‘bride the Lamb’s wife’ of chap. 21, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to resist the conviction that there must be a much closer resemblance between them than exists between a woman and a city. Compared with the former she is a woman; she is in a wilderness (chaps. Revelation 12:14, Revelation 17:3); she is a mother (chaps. Revelation 12:5, Revelation 17:5). Compared with the latter she is introduced to us in almost precisely the same language (Revelation 17:1, Revelation 21:9); her garments suggest ideas which, however specifically different, belong to the same region of thought (chaps. Revelation 17:4, Revelation 19:8); she has the name of a city, ‘Babylon,’ while the bride is named ‘New Jerusalem’ (chaps. Revelation 17:5, Revelation 21:2): she persecutes, while the saints are persecuted (chaps. Revelation 12:13, Revelation 17:6); she makes all the nations to drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, while the faithful are nourished by their Lord (chaps. Revelation 14:8, Revelation 12:14); she has a name of guilt upon her forehead, while the 144,000 have their Father’s name written there (chaps. Revelation 17:5, Revelation 14:1). When we call to mind the large part played in the Apocalypse by the principle of contrasts, it is hardly possible to resist the conviction that the conditions associated with ‘Babylon’ are best fulfilled if we behold in her a spiritual system opposed to and contrasted with the true Church of God.
We are led to this conclusion also by the fact that both Jerusalem and Babylon have the same designation, that of ‘the great city,’ given them. This epithet is applied in chap. Revelation 11:8 to a city, which can be no other than Jerusalem (see note), and the same remark may be made of chap. Revelation 16:19 (see note). In six other passages the epithet is applied to Babylon (chaps. Revelation 14:8, Revelation 18:10; Revelation 18:16; Revelation 18:18-66.18.19; Revelation 18:21). The necessary inference is that there must be a sense in which Jerusalem is Babylon and Babylon Jerusalem. If it be not so we shall have to contend, in the interpretation of the Apocalypse, with difficulties of a kind altogether different from those that generally meet us. Interpretation indeed will become impossible, because the same word, occurring in different places of the book, will have to be applied to totally different objects. No doubt it may be urged that the two cities Jerusalem and Babylon have so little in common that it is unnatural to find in the latter a figure for the former. The objection is of little weight. In the first place, it may be observed that the description of the fall of Babylon in this chapter is in all probability taken as much from the prophecy of Hosea (chap. Revelation 2:1-66.2.12) as from anything said expressly of that city in the Old Testament; and, as that prophecy applies to ‘the house of Israel,’ we have a proof that in the mind of the Apocalyptic Seer there was a sense in which the Babylon of this chapter and a particular aspect of Israel (and therefore also Babylon and Jerusalem) were closely associated with each other. Nor does it seem unworthy of notice that, at the moment when Hosea utters his warnings, he has before him the thought of a change of name, ‘Then said God, Call his name Loammi; for ye are not My people, and I will not be your God’ (chap. Revelation 1:9). The change of name might easily be transferred from the people to the city representing them; and if so, no name would more naturally connect itself in the mind of St. John with the things spoken of in chap. 2 of Hosea than that of Babylon. In the second place, there is an aspect of Jerusalem which most closely resembles that aspect of Babylon for the sake of which the latter city is here peculiarly referred to. We cannot read the Fourth Gospel without seeing that in the view of the Evangelist there was a second Jerusalem to be added to the Jerusalem of old, that there was not only a Jerusalem ‘the city of God,’ the centre of a Divine Theocracy, but a Jerusalem representing a degenerate Theocracy, out of which Christ’s people must be called in order that they may form His faithful Israel, a part of His ‘one flock’ (see on John 10:1-43.10.10). At this point, then, it would seem that we are mainly to seek the ground of the comparison between Jerusalem and Babylon. In the latter city God’s people spent seventy years of captivity; and, at the end of that time, they were summoned out of it. Many of them obeyed the summons. They returned to their own land to settle under their vines and fig-trees, to rebuild their city and temple, and to enjoy the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises. All this was repeated in the days of Christ. The leaders of the old Theocracy had become ‘thieves and robbers;’ they had taken possession of the fold that they might ‘steal and kill and destroy;’ it was necessary that Christ’s sheep should listen to the Good Shepherd, and should leave the fold that they might find open pastures. Not only so. Repeated then, the same course of history shall be once more repeated. There shall again be a coming out of Christ’s sheep from the fold which has for a time preserved them; and that fold shall be handed over to destruction. The probability is that this thought is to be traced even at chap. Revelation 11:8, where Jerusalem is ‘spiritually’ called Sodom and Egypt. Not simply because of its sins did it receive these names, but because Sodom and Egypt afforded striking illustrations of the manner in which God summons His people out from among the wicked, Lot out of Sodom (Genesis 19:12; Genesis 19:16-1.19.17; Luke 17:28-42.17.32), Israel out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:15). Babylon, however, afforded the most striking illustration of such thoughts, and it thus became identified with the Jerusalem which we learn to know in the Fourth Gospel as the city of ‘the Jews.’ Out of that Jerusalem Christ’s disciples are by His own lips exhorted to flee (Matthew 24:15-40.24.20). The same command is given in the passage before us (chap. Revelation 18:4).
On these grounds it appears to us that there need be no hesitation in so far adopting the interpretation of those who understand by Babylon the Romish Church as to see in it what is fundamentally and essentially correct. The ‘great city’ is the emblem of a degenerate church. As in chap. 12 we have, under the guise of a woman, that true Church of Christ which is the embodiment of all good, so here, under the guise of a harlot, we have that false Church which has sacrificed its Lord for the sake of the honours, the riches, and the pleasures of the world. It is not necessary to think, with Auberlen, that the woman is changed into the harlot. Such an idea is opposed to the general teaching of the Apocalypse with regard to the Church of Christ; and the feeling that it is inconsistent with the promise of our Lord in Matthew 16:18 has led many to reject who would otherwise have welcomed the view we have defended. But no such idea of change is necessary. Babylon is simply a second aspect of the Church. Just as there were two aspects of Jerusalem in the days of Christ, under the one of which that city was the centre of attraction both to God and Israel, under the other the metropolis of a degenerate Judaism, so there are two aspects of the Church of Christ, under the one of which we think of those who within her are faithful to their Lord, under the other of the great body of merely nominal Christians who in words confess but in deeds deny Him. The Church in this latter aspect is before us under the term ‘Babylon;’ and it would appear to be the teaching of Scripture, as it is certainly that alike of Jewish and Christian history, that the longer the Church lasts as a great outward institution in the world the more does she tend to realize this picture. As her first love fails, she abandons the spirit for the letter, makes forms of one kind or another a substitute for love, allies herself with the world, and by adapting herself to it secures the ease and the wealth which the world will never bestow so heartily upon anything as upon a Church in which the Divine oracles are dumb. Beyond this point it is not possible to accompany those who understand by Babylon the Romish Church. Deeply that Church has sinned.
Not a few of the darkest traits of ‘Babylon’ apply to her with a closeness of application which may not unnaturally lead us to think that the picture of these chapters has been drawn from nothing so much as her. Her idolatries, her outward carnal splendour, her oppression of God’s saints, her merciless cruelties with torture the dungeon and the stake, the tears and agonies and blood with which she has filled so many centuries these and a thousand circumstances of a similar kind may well be our excuse if in ‘Babylon’ we read Christian Rome. Yet the interpretation is false. The harlot is wholly what she seems. Christian Rome has never been wholly what on one side of her character she was so largely. She has maintained the truth of Christ against idolatry and unchristian error, she has preferred poverty to splendour in a way that Protestantism has never done, she has nurtured the noblest types of devotion that the world has seen, and she has thrilled the waves of time as they passed over her with one constant litany of supplication and chant of praise. Above all, it has not been the chief characteristic of Rome to ally herself with kings. She has rather trampled kings beneath her feet; and, in the interests of the poor and the oppressed, has taught both proud barons and imperial tyrants to quail before her. For deeds like these her record is not with the beast but with the Lamb. Babylon cannot be Christian Rome; and nothing has been more injurious to the Protestant churches than the impression that she was so, and that they were free from participation in her guilt. Babylon embraces much more than Rome, and illustrations of what she is lie nearer our own door. Wherever professedly Christian men have thought the world’s favour better than its reproach; wherever they have esteemed its honours a more desirable possession than its shame; wherever they have courted ease rather than welcomed suffering, have loved self-indulgence rather than self-sacrifice, and have substituted covetousness in grasping for generosity in distributing what they had, there has been a part of the spirit of Babylon. In short, we have in the great harlot-city neither the Christian Church as a whole nor the Romish Church in particular, but all who anywhere within the Church profess to be Christ’s ‘little flock’ and are not, denying in their lives the main characteristic by which they ought to be distinguished, that they ‘follow’ Christ.
It may be well to remark, in conclusion, that the view now taken relieves us of any difficulty in accounting for the lamentation in chap. 18 of kings and merchants and shipmasters over the fall of Babylon, as if these persons had no interest in her fate. So far is this from being the case, that nothing has contributed more to deepen and strengthen the worldliness of the world than the faithlessness of those who ought to testify that the true inheritance of man is beyond the grave, and that the duty of all is to seek ‘a better country, even an heavenly.’ A mere worldly and utilitarian system of Ethics may be better trusted to correct the evils of a growing luxuriousness, than a system which teaches that we may serve both God and Mammon, and that it is possible to make the best of both worlds.
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 18". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany