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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Revelation 18

Verses 1-24



Revelation 18:1-24.

BABYLON has fallen. We have now the Divine proclamation of her fate, and the lamentation of the world over the doom to which she has been consigned: -

"After these things I saw another angel coming down out of heaven, having great authority; and the earth was lightened with his glory. And he cried with a mighty voice, saying, Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, and is become a habitation of devils, and a hold of every unclean spirit, and a hold of every unclean and hateful bird. For by the wine of the wrath of her fornication all the nations are fallen and the kings of the earth committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth waxed rich by the power of her wantonness (Revelation 18:1-3)."

At Revelation 17:1, we read of one of the angels that had the seven Bowls. The angel now introduced is another, or a second. We shall find as we proceed that we have entered upon a new series of seven parts, similar to that in chap. 14, where six angels and their actions, three on either side, are grouped around One higher than angels, and forming the central figure of the movement.* The series is a long one, extending from chap. 17:1 to chap. 22:5, the central figure meeting us at Revelation 19:11; and again, as before, the fact ought to be carefully noticed, for it has a bearing on the interpretation of some of the most difficult sections of this book. Meanwhile we have to do with the second angel, whose action extends to Revelation 18:20 of the present chapter. (*Kliefoth seems to have been the first to point this out.)

The description given of this angel is proportioned to the importance of his message. He has great authority; the earth is lightened with his glory; the voice with which he cries is mighty. It could hardly be otherwise than that, with such joyful tidings as he bears to men, the "glory of the Lord should shine round about him, and a light from heaven above the brightness of the sun."1 The tidings themselves follow, taken from the Old Testament accounts of the desolation that was to come upon Babylon: "And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans pride, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall shepherds make their flocks to lie down there. But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and ostriches shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And wolves shall cry in their castles, and jackals in the pleasant palaces."2 In words such as these, though combined throughout both the present and following descriptions with expressions taken from the ruin of other famous and guilty cities of the Old Testament, we have the source whence the powerful and pathetic words of this chapter are drawn. The most terrible disasters of bygone times are but types of that wreck of all the grandeur of earth which we are now invited to behold, while Babylon s sinfulness is referred to that her fate may appear to be no more than her appropriate punishment. (1 Luke 2:9; Acts 26:13; 2 Isaiah 13:19-22)

At this point we are met by one of those sudden transitions, common in the Apocalypse, which so completely negative the idea of chronological arrangement. A cry is heard which seems to imply that Babylon has not yet fallen: -

"And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come forth, My people, out of her, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached even unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities. Render unto her even as she rendered, and double unto her the double according to her works: in the cup which she hath mingled mingle unto her double. How much soever she glorified herself, and waxed wanton, so much give her of torment and mourning: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall in no wise see mourning. Therefore in one day shall, her plagues come, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God which judged her (Revelation 18:4-8)."

The first words of this voice from heaven deserve peculiar attention: Come forth, My people, out of her; that is, out of Babylon, the degenerate Church. We are at once reminded of the striking teaching of our Lord in chap. 10 of the fourth Gospel, where He compares Himself to the "door" of the fold, not the door by which the sheep enter into, but by which they come out of, the fold.l We are also reminded of the blind man of chap. 9 of the same Gospel, whom our Lord "found" only after he had been "cast out" of the synagogue.2 In the midst of the blinded theocracy of Israel in the days of Jesus there was a faithful, though small, remnant. It had been betrayed by the religious guides of the people, who had become "thieves and robbers," whom the true sheep did not know, and to whom they ought not to listen. Jesus came to call it out of the theocracy to Himself. Such was the spectacle which St. John had witnessed when his Master was in the world, and that experience is now repeated. The Church as a whole degenerates. Called to prepare men for the Second Coming of the Lord, and to teach them to live, not for the present, but the future, she becomes herself the victim of the present She forgets that, in the absence of the Bridegroom, her days are days of fasting. She fails to realize the fact that until her Lord comes again her state is one of widowhood. And, instead of mourning, she sits as a queen, at ease and satisfied, proud of her pomp and jewellery. What is all this but a recurrence of the old events of history? The Apostle sees the future mirrored in the past; and he can only follow in his Master’s footsteps, and call His Christian remnant out of Babylon. (1 ; John 10:7; 2 John 9:35)

The words are in the highest degree important for the interpretation and understanding of the Apocalypse. We have already found in more than one passage distinct traces of this double Church, of the true Church within the false, of the few living ones within the Body which had a name to live, but was dead. Here the distinction meets us in all its sharpness, and fresh light is cast upon passages that may have formerly seemed dark. "Many are called," "many" constituting the outward Church; but "few are chosen," "few" constituting the real Church, the Church which consists of the poor, and meek, and lowly. The two parts may keep together for a time, but the union cannot last; and the day comes when, as Christ called His sheep out of the Jewish, so He will again call His sheep out of the Christian "fold," that they may hear His voice, and follow Him.

Having summoned the true disciples of Jesus out of Babylon, the voice from heaven again proclaims in a double form, as sins and as iniquities, the guilt of the doomed city, and invites the ministers of judgment, according to the lex talionis, to render unto her double. The command may also be founded upon the law of the theocracy by which thieves and violent aggressors of the poor were required to make a double repayment to those whom they had injured,1 or it may rest upon the remembrance of such threatenings as those by the prophet Jeremiah, "I will recompense their iniquity and their sin double."2 (1 Exodus 22:4; Exodus 22:7; Exodus 22:9; 2 Jeremiah 16:18)

Judgment is next supposed to have been executed upon Babylon; and the Seer proceeds to describe in language of unexampled eloquence the lamentation of the world over the city’s fall: -

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived wantonly with her, shall weep and wail over her, when they look upon the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city Babylon, the strong city! for in one hour is thy judgment come. And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stone, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and every vessel of ivory, and every vessel made of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, and cinnamon, and spice, and incense, and ointment, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep, and merchandise of horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men. And the fruits which thy soul lusted after are gone from thee, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous are perished from thee, and men shall find them no more at all. The merchants of these thing’s, who were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, she that was arrayed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stone, and pearl! for in one hour so great riches is made desolate. And every shipmaster, and every one that saileth anywhither, and mariners, and as many as gain their living by sea, stood afar off, and cried out as they looked upon the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like the great city? And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, wherein were made rich all that had their ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate. Rejoice with her, thou heaven, and ye saints, and ye apostles, and ye prophets; for God hath judged your judgment on her (Revelation 18:9-20)."

Three classes of persons are introduced to us: Kings, Merchants, and Sailors. All are of the earth; and each class, in its own strain, swells the voice of lamentation. The words are largely taken from the Old Testament, and more particularly from the description of the overthrow of Tyre in Ezekiel (chaps. 26 and 27). There is even a peculiar propriety in this latter reference, for Tyre was known by the prophets as another Babylon. In describing the "Burden of Tyre," Isaiah uses in one part of his description the words, "The city of confusion" (the meaning of the word Babylon) "is broken down."* (* ; Isaiah 24:10)

It is unnecessary to enter into any examination clause by clause of the passage before us. We shall better catch its spirit and be made sensible of its effect by attending to a few general observations upon the description as a whole.

1. Not without interest may we mark that the classes selected to mourn over the burning of the city are three in number. We have thus another illustration of the manner in which that number penetrates the structure of all the writings of St. John.

2. Emphasis is laid upon the fact that the city is burned. Her destruction by fire has indeed been more than once alluded to. Of the beast and the ten horns it had been said that "they shall burn her utterly with fire;"1 and, again, it had been proclaimed by the voice from heaven that "she shall be utterly burned with fire."2 We shall not venture to say with any measure of positiveness that the type of this "burning" is taken from the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans. It may have been taken from the burning of other cities by victorious enemies. But this much at least is obvious: that, in conjunction with the fact that Babylon is a harlot, destruction by fire leads us directly to the thought of the spiritual, and not simply the civil, or political, or commercial, character of the city. According to the law of Moses, burning appears to have been the punishment of fornication only in the case of a priest s daughter: "And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the harlot, she shall be burnt with fire."3 (1 Revelation 17:16; 2 Revelation 18:8; 3 Leviticus 21:9)

3. Whether there is any other allusion to spiritual traffic in the lamentations before us it is not easy to say. Of one at least which may be quoted in this connection the interpretation is uncertain. When the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over the loss of that merchandise which they now miss, they extend it, not only to articles of commerce bought and sold in an ordinary market, but to souls of men. It may be that, as often suggested, slavery alone is thought of. Yet it is highly improbable that such is the case. Rather may it be supposed to refer to that spiritual life which is destroyed by too much occupation .with, and too engrossing interest in, the world. "The characteristic of this fornication is the selling themselves for gold, as the Greek word signifies. Therefore with such wonderful force and emphasis of accumulation is every species of this merchandise mentioned, running up all into one head: the souls of men. Like that in the prophet: ‘Their land is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land also is full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots; their land also is full of idols’ And it must be observed that all these things which are so minutely particularized as expressive of the meshes of that net by which men’s souls are taken have also their place in the new Jerusalem, where every jewel is specified by name, and the gold of its streets, and the fine linen, and the incense, and the wine, and the oil, its white horses also. In both alike must they stand for spiritual merchandise of good and evil, the false riches and the true."* (*Isaac Williams, The Apocalypse, with Notes, etc., p. 360)

The conclusion to be drawn is that Babylon is a spiritual city. That, as such, she is Jerusalem is further confirmed by the fact that, at the close of the chapter, it is said, And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that have been slain upon the earth. Similar words met us in Revelation 17:6; and here, as there, they unmistakably remind us of the words already quoted in which our Lord describes the great city of the Jews.* (* Matthew 28:35)

4. From all that has been said, it must be obvious that nothing is here spoken of Babylon inapplicable to Jerusalem when we think of this latter city in the light in which the Seer specially regards it. Jerusalem was indeed neither a commercial nor a maritime city, but Rome also was no city on the sea. A large part, therefore, of the details of St. John’s description is not less destitute of force when applied, if applied literally, to the latter than to the former. On the other hand, these details are more applicable to Jerusalem than to Rome, if we remember that Jerusalem supplies, in a way impossible to Rome, the groundwork for a delineation of those religious forces which are far more wide-spreading in their reach, and far more crushing in their power, than the legions of the imperial metropolis.

Babylon then is fallen, and that with a sudden and swift destruction, a destruction indeed so sudden and so swift that each of the three companies that lament takes particular notice of the fact that in one hour did her judgment come.* (* Revelation 18:10; Revelation 18:17; Revelation 18:19)

More, however, so important is the subject, has to be said; and we are introduced to the action of the third angel of the first group: -

"And a strong angel took up a stone, as it were a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with a mighty fall shall Babylon, the great city, be cast down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers, and minstrels, and flute-players, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft, shall be found any more at all in thee; and the voice of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for with thy sorcery were all the nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that have been slain upon the earth (Revelation 18:21-24)."

Yet once again, it would seem, must we think of Babylon as to be destroyed rather than as destroyed already. So great is her guiltiness that the Seer again and again approaches it, and dwells, though from different points of view, upon the thought of her disastrous fate. In the present case it is less the method than the effect of her destruction that is before his eye, and nothing can be more touching than the light in which he presents it. At one moment we behold the city in her brightness, her gaiety, her rich and varied life. We hear the voice of her harpers, and minstrels, and flute-players, and trumpeters, all that can delight the ear accompanying all that can please the eye. Her craftsmen of every craft are busy at their work; and each shop in the great city resounds with the noise of the hammer, or the shuttle, or the other instruments of prosperous industry. The cheering sound of the millstone tells that there is food in her humbler dwellings. Her merchants, too, are the princes of the earth; innumerable lamps glitter in their halls and gardens; and the voice of the bride groom and the bride is the pledge of her well-being and joy. The next moment the proud city is cast like a millstone into the sea; and all is silence, desolation, and ruin. The resources of language appear as if they had been exhausted to supply the description of so great a fall.

We have now reached the close of the longest and most important section of the Apocalypse, beginning, as has been already pointed out, with chap. 6. It is the fourth in that series of seven of which the book is composed; and the main purpose of St. John in writing finds expression in it. As the writer of the fourth Gospel describes in the fourth section of that book, extending from chap. 5 to chap. 12, the conflict between the Son of God and "the Jews," so he describes in the corresponding section of the Apocalypse the conflict between the glorified Son of man as He lives and reigns in His Church and the evil of the world. Throughout the conflict we are not once permitted to forget that, although Christ and the true members of His Body may be the objects of attack, and may even have to retire for security from the field, God is on their side, and will never suffer His faithfulness to fail or forget His promises. In a threefold series of judgments the guilty world and the guilty Church are visited with the terrors of His wrath. These three series of judgments, too, go on in an ascending line. The climactic character of their contents has already been pointed out, and nothing more need be said of it. But it may be worthwhile to notice that the element of climax appears not less in the nature of the instruments employed. Comparing the Trumpets with the Seals, the simple fact that they are Trumpets indicates a higher, more exciting, more terrible unfolding of wrath. The Trumpet is peculiarly the warlike instrument, summoning the hosts to battle: "Thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war;" "That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities."* That the Bowls, again, are still more potent than the Trumpets, appears from the language in which they are described, from their mode of introduction, and from the vessels made use of for the plagues. They are "the last " plagues; in them is "finished" the wrath of God; they are called for by a "great voice out of the sanctuary;" and they proceed. not from a secular instrument, however warlike, but from a sacred vessel, not from one which must be sounded for a length of time before it produces its effect, but from one which, inverted in a moment, pours out with a sudden gush its terrors upon men. Similar though they thus are, the three series of judgments lose what might otherwise be their sameness; and the mind is invited to rest upon that most instructive lesson of the providence of God, that in proportion to privilege misused is the severity with which sin is punished. Throughout all these judgments the righteous are kept safe. (* Jeremiah 4:19; Zephaniah 1:15-16)

It will thus be observed that there is no strict chronological succession in the visions of this book. There is succession of a certain kind, succession in intensity of punishment. But we cannot assign one series of judgments to one period in the history of the Church or limit another to another. All the three series may continually fulfill themselves wherever persons are found of the character and disposition to which they severally apply.

But while these three series constitute the chief substance of the fourth, or leading, section of the seven into which the Apocalypse is divided, they do not exhaust the subject. The last series, in particular - that of the Bowls has proceeded upon a supposition the most startling and pathetic by which the history of the Church is marked, - that "they are not all Israel which are of Israel," that tares have mingled With the wheat, and that the spirit of Babylon has found its way into the heart of the city of God. A phenomenon so unexpected and so melancholy stands in need of particular examination, and that examination is given in the description of the character and fate of Babylon. The remarks already made upon this point need not be repeated. It may be enough to remind the reader that in no part of his whole book is the Seer more deeply moved, and that in none does he rise to strains of more powerful and touching eloquence. Yet what is chiefly required of us is to open our minds to the full impression of the fact that Babylon does fall, deep in ruin as in guilt, and that with her fail the conflict ends.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Revelation 18". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".