Revelation Chapter 17
In chapter seventeen, the camera moves in as we turn from a more general picture of the judgements to the judgement of the ‘great prostitute’ and the punishment that awaits the beast.
In the Old Testament, when Israel wandered from God they were sometimes spoken of as a harlot. For example, Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem as a faithful city that had been full of justice and righteousness yet was now full of murderers. She was then typified as a harlot and was suffering the consequences (Isaiah 1:22). Elsewhere we read of other cities such as Nineveh, once the capital of a powerful empire, being spoken of as a prostitute (Nahum 3:4-6) exerting power over the weak and vulnerable. From this we see that the picture of faithlessness is not just applied to Israel. In a real sense, all who are outside of God’s covenant are faithless in looking elsewhere for security and sustenance at any cost, including the oppression of other people groups.
“The word “prostitute” or “harlot” (porne) comes from the verb “to sell” (pernemi). The prostitute is one who sells himself of herself for money, becoming an object in the hands of a subject who has power to buy him or her….Rome is the harlot, but the kings of the earth are also prostitutes and prostitute themselves with Rome.”
Pablo Richard in, ‘Apocalypse – A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation’ page 129.
In Revelation, the heart of Rome is likened to a prostitute who entices others with no concern as to who people are or how they are affected. Whilst there were many good things within the Empire, the politics and egoistic ways of the emperors stained everything as they ruled at whatever cost, using military might and religious belief to their own ends.
Many of the rulers of nations and states that were subservient to Rome were puppet-kings like Herod the Great (37 B.C. - 4 AD.) He was a particularly evil man who, even on his deathbed, called prominent Jewish men to meet with him and then shut them in the hippodrome and surrounded it with soldiers. The soldiers were ordered to kill these men as soon as Herod died, yet the order was never carried out.
The extent of the prostitute’s influence is seen in that she sits on many waters (Rev 17:1) later identified as people, multitudes, nations and languages (Rev 17:15). In Scripture, water is often seen as a means of power and prosperity, with examples of this being Egypt and the Nile, Babylon and the Euphrates, and Rome and the Tiber. Before continuing we pause to comment on these ‘rivers of power and prosperity’.
The river Nile was the source of much of Egypt’s wealth, with floodwaters leaving dark rich silt on the soil each year and with part of the Egyptian taxation system being based on the flooding of the Nile. For example, if flood levels were good (nourishing the soil) then tax levels would be raised. The Egyptian male-god, Hapti, was regarded as the god of the Nile and supposedly controlled the alluvial deposits. Ultimately, God stepped in and destroyed all that Egypt relied upon. This was not done in an instant, but in a way through which Egypt clearly understood what was going on (Exodus 8:19) and thereby had the opportunity to repent, as did the Ninevites many centuries later.
At one time in history, the river Euphrates was straddled by the mega-city of Babylon which formed an exact square and had channels and canals surrounding the city, which aided the economy and was part of the city defences. Jeremiah prophesied the end of historical Babylon with the words:
“Lift up a banner against the walls of Babylon! Reinforce the guard, station the watchmen; prepare an ambush! The Lord will carry out his purpose, his decree against the people of Babylon. You who live by many waters and are rich in treasures, your end has come, the time for you to be cut off.”
Finally we come to Rome, which was founded in 753BC and situated less than fifteen miles from where the Tiber River flowed into the Mediterranean. Romans regarded their Emperors as gods with the city of Rome being known as the goddess Roma. Specially built roads radiated out from the capital which was seen as the centre of all things, hence the phrase: “All roads lead to Rome”. These particular roads were built so that the Emperors could travel to and from the capital which some referred to as the stomach of the empire, indicating the amount of goods that went into the city (Rev 18:11-13).
In the graphic picture of the great prostitute, we have a symbol of prosperity and success, and a covering of costly robes which mask her true identity. Expensive trappings were usually worn by the wealthy and royalty, yet the real cost does not come from the prostitute’s own coffers but the oppression and the suffering of millions across the empire. Rome had all its splendour, as do many superpowers, but what is the real cost and who bears that cost? For example in the Middle East today, oil rich families parade their wealth whilst others continue to suffer and starve. Elsewhere in North Korea, the military might of a tyrant is paraded through the streets of Pyongyang, whilst elsewhere in the country thousands starve to death or languish in prison for being caught with a Bible in their hands.
The prostitute is intoxicated with the wine of adultery and leads people from truth into error. In allowing prestige, position and power to dominate all else, she is the total opposite of the all that is good, true and just.
“In chapter twelve we met the Messianic mother, the giver of life. Here we are confronted with the mother of whores, the very personification of the evil she is associated with. She does not understand or give life. This woman is the mother of death, who does not nurture or protect but destroys. The Messianic mother brings forth a child who promises life to the world. The mother of death is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (17:6)”
A. Boesak in, ‘Comfort and Protest.’ Page 111.
The vision continues.
John is then carried in the Spirit into a desert where he sees this woman sitting on a scarlet beast, covered by blasphemous names and with seven heads and ten horns (Rev 17:3). The beast refers to the first beast that came out of the sea (Rev 13:1) and could also be associated with the she-wolf of Roman legend, in turn associated with the goddess Roma.
Rome relied heavily on sea trading routes across the Mediterranean and Black Sea, building large harbours to cope with the huge tonnage of goods brought in. All of this helped secure her position, power and continuing worship that was due to God alone; hence the blasphemous names on the beast. The horns and heads of the beast speak of power and a source of evil - an evil that ultimately seeks to conquer and destroy all that stands in its path.
In John’s vision of the prostitute and beast, the desert is a symbol of desolation, a building on sand (Mat 7:26) and a place of failure and rebellion. It is the total opposite of how the desert came to be viewed by Israel (on occasion). We now turn to look at this before moving on as a way of underlining the stark contrast between the way of the prostitute and the beast, and the way of God.
To Israel, the desert became known as the place of hearing; a place where everything that man relied upon was taken away and where he was taught that “man does not live by bread alone…” (Deut 8:3; Mat 4:4). To Israel, the desert could also be a place of safety because God was present with his people (Rev 12:14) and helped them turn from self-sufficiency to trusting more fully in Him. In the wilderness of the world, we are secure on the rock that is Christ Jesus from whom living water flows out of our lives by the Spirit (John 7:38).
The wilderness also became known as a place of covenant in that God graciously provided for his people in their place of nothingness (Prov 3:34, Jonah 2:8). He supplies them with bread, meat and water (Ex 16:35, Ex 16:13, Ex 17:6) and leads them by a pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire at night (Ex 13:21). During their forty years in the in the desert, the clothes and sandals of the Israelites did not wear out (Deut 8:4; 29:5), this symbolising the truth that man is to be clothed in the protection of the Lord. In this, we are reminded that God is a gracious and merciful giver and that we are always to be the thankful receivers. All that God provides ultimately points to his greatest provision to us through Jesus Christ.
“The wilderness is the Old Testament metaphor for a covenantal social order. The Exodus narrative tells the story about Israel’s leaving Pharaoh’s Egypt. The Israelites went into the wilderness, a place where there were no viable life support systems. Its only virtue was that it was beyond the reach of Pharaoh. What they discovered, according to the narrative, is that when they went into this desolate place, it turned out to have the life supports of bread as manna, water from rock, and meat from quail. It turned out that the wilderness was presided over by the gift-and-life-giving God.”
‘An Other Kingdom' by P.Block, W. Brueggemann and J. McNight, page 15.
Back to Revelation chapter seventeen.
Next we find John informing us that on the prostitute’s forehead was written the title, ‘Mystery Babylon the Great the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth.’
Biblically speaking, a mystery speaks of that which can only be revealed by God (e.g. 1 Cor 15:51) and here we have evil exposed in all its glory. In the Ancient Near East (and some countries today), married women cover their hair, yet here the harlot’s forehead is exposed with her name written on it.
“John was probably also drawing on the practice of Roman harlots of wearing a headband with their name on it. The word musterion (mystery) combined with the idea of a name means a secret, or better say, a symbolic name, the symbolic name being Babylon.”
Ben Witherington 3rd in ‘Revelation’ page 219.
The woman is drunk with the blood of saints, revealing a total lack of concern for life and an increasing appetite to destroy all that opposed the ruling class. Throughout Egypt, Babylon, Rome and subsequent kingdoms, life-blood has been drawn from oppressed and persecuted people in order to sustain the lifestyle of the so-called ‘elite’, with this often being done in the name of religion.
“It is ironic that our postmodern world, with its emphasis on pluralism and dialogue, has witnessed growing prejudice, intolerance, torture and killings. Religion is used to support ethnic and nationalistic aspirations and members of one faith persecute and murder those of another.”
R. J. Mckelvey in ‘The Millenium and the Book of Revelation.’ P 76.
In contrast to what so often goes on around us, we see the power of the gospel continuing to shine even amidst the darkness and horror that can sometimes engulf a community. For example, take the following incident.
Baroness Caroline Cox, (one time deputy speaker in the House of Lords), worked extensively in the field of human rights. On one occasion she spoke of entering a Dinka village shortly after the Sudanese Liberation Army had departed. In the village there were over one hundred dead and many villagers had been carried off into slavery. Crops had been destroyed, huts burnt down and all that was left were a few women, many of whom had been raped. It was the worst incident that she had ever come across. Yet a few minutes later, she witnessed something that surprised her and gave her hope.
Some of the Dinka women were Christians and they started to make crosses and place them in the ground. The women stated that the crosses were not memorials to the lost but a statement saying that they still followed Jesus. The promise was that evil would not triumph over good.
“Once was, now is not and will come” (Rev 17:8).
The beast is the one who ‘once was, now is not and who will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction’ and in this language, we see a contrast between the beast and the eternal One. The eternal One is the “I will never leave you nor forsake you One” and the kingdom of God is an everlasting kingdom. In contrast to this, all those who claim divinity outside of Christ (such as Roman emperors and their city goddess ‘Roma’) will die.
“The application of the threefold formula for divine eternity to the beast is intended to ridicule the beast’s vain efforts to defeat the true eternal being and his forces. The application also suggests that the beast’s existence extends from the beginning of history to its end, but the close of the formula shows a clear contrast with God’s existence: the beast’s apparently sovereign existence throughout history will cease.”
Prof G.K. Beale in, ‘The Book of Revelation’ page 864
Although Satan is defeated, evil appears successful (as in many situations) in the first century as trading and commerce and the exploitation of individuals, communities and nations continues across the Empire. Yet the apparent success of evil is short-lived and there will be a definite end to all that directly opposes God or subtly seeks to stand in His place. In this, we see one of the reasons why chapter seventeen develops as it does; eternity is always and ever in the hands of God, whilst evil is that which is transient, defeated and passing. It will increase in that God will use it as one means of judgement but it has already been dealt a death blow at Calvary.
“(Jesus) will demonstrate the reality of his spiritual victory at the cross by achieving physical victory over Satan’s forces at the end of time.”
G.K. Beale, ‘The Book of Revelation’ page 866
The inhabitants of the world who are not saved (Rev 17:8: the book of life being a metaphor for believers) continued to be caught up in the ways of the one who was and is not and is to come (Rev 17:8). In the language, “Who was and is not and is to come” we have an attempt to emulate the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Evil comes and goes and comes again in various forms, yet all evil will ultimately will be destroyed.
Seven heads equalling seven hills/mountains.
In John’s day, there were bronze coins in circulation that had been minted by Domitian’s father, Vespasian, which depict Rome sitting on seven hills.
Across the empire, Rome was known as the ‘city of seven hills’ and each year there was an annual festival called Septimontium held by the residents of the seven communities associated with the hills. From this we see that John’s readers would easily make the connection between the seven heads/hills of Rev 17:9. Yet John’s description goes beyond this geographical reference, since the word ‘hill’ can also mean ‘mountain’, at this time, an image conveying strength and power (note for example Zech 4:7).
What about all those kings?
In the number seven and the hills/mountains, we have a clear allusion to the strength and power of Rome. But what about the seven kings, five of whom had fallen, the one who is and the one is to come are then followed by an eighth king?
Whilst there have been many theories as to the eight kings (depicted as seven heads which are seven hills/mountains of power: Rev 17:9-10), we need to remind ourselves that Revelation is a book which conveys theological truth through its imagery.
Whilst the imagery of the kings may, in one way, relate to certain points in history (e.g. “one king is”), there is no logical way of fitting the kings into any historical framework. After all, how would you go about working out where they belong and who do you include? For example, do you include the four kings from the year of the four emperors and, apart from this, which king would you start with in history and who do you finish with? In order to look at what is actually being said, we need to remember how seven often speaks of completeness. C. Koester in his commentary, ‘Revelation and the End of All Things’ picks up on this when he writes:
“Elsewhere in Revelation, the number seven indicates completeness, so that when John writes to seven churches in Asia, he presents a message to the whole church. When he says that the seventh seal is broken (8:1), the seventh trumpet is sounded (11:15), or the seventh bowl is emptied (16:17), he indicates that a vison cycle is complete. Accordingly, identifying the seven heads with seven kings seems to point to the totality of the beast’s power. Picturing the eighth king as a return of one of the seven seems to play on legends that Nero would return…”
C. Koester in, ‘Revelation and the End of All Things.’ page 161.
In light of what we have been saying, the five kings that have already fallen speak of the greater part of the enemies’ power having been defeated through a death blow. Therefore, the five represent the one that was and now is not; the power of Satan over man has been broken. However there are other kings.
Although evil is defeated, it is still present (Rev 17:10) as seen in a life-sapping empire that sought to control and receive worship that was due to God alone.
John mentions another king as being present, speaking of the presence of evil and of the seventh king (seven being completeness) as a means of pointing out the totality of evil which has always sought to dominate life. This can be seen across history, with many Emperors and world tyrants demanding absolute allegiance from those they rule over in adherence to their particular ideology or belief system. But where does the eighth king fit into all of this?
The beast is spoken of as an eighth king who belongs to the seven kings, this referring to being the same in nature and character and the continuing desire to exert power and present itself as a false messiah.
As has been previously mentioned, in some circles there was the belief that Nero, or one like Nero, would one day return. There were also many others who believed that the Roman Empire would continue forever. In the eighth king appearing from among the seven, we see the one expected to herald a new day. If we think about it all across the centuries, there have been individuals, nations and all manner of religious beliefs that have sought to provide the answer to man’s ongoing struggles. In the eighth king we have this false messiahship depicted and a mimicking of the true Messiah who brings eternal life to all who bow the knee. In speaking in the way that he does, John shows us very clearly that the future belongs to God and that all things are in His control (Rev 17:14).
“The cult of military power contains its own contradiction: the city which lived by military conquest will fall by military conquest. But beyond that, military power which aims only as its own absolute supremacy must prove a false messiah. It overreaches itself because it is the merely human grasping for what is truly only divine. It is only the Parousia of Christ that can establish an eternal kingdom, because it is truly the coming of the eternal God who alone can be trusted with absolute supremacy.”
R. Bacukham in, ‘The Climax of Prophecy’ page 452
Christ’s kingdom is the everlasting kingdom ruled by agape love, whilst evil tries to act as if it too were eternal. Yet in contrast to God’s kingdom, all that the enemy does leads to destruction.
God is aware of the thinking of John’s day and ‘speaks’ through these visions that reveal truth in a way that people could understand if they applied their minds. The inevitable failure of the beast is clearly stated, as the one who was, is not and the one to come who has already been defeated by the eternal kingdom of God. Evil continues as a means of partial punishment (you are reaping what you sow) yet in a way whereby people still have the opportunity to repent. After John hears about the demise of the eighth king (military and political false-messiahship), he is then told about ten horns being ten kings yet to receive a kingdom (Rev 17:12).
The Ten Horns.
The number ten also expresses totality and can relate to human governments (such as the ten kings of Daniel 7:24) and the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (1 Kings 11:31-35). It can also refer to law (note for example the Ten Commandments on the tablets of Law: Ex 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21). In light of this, we see that the number ten points to governmental power and rule. We can then factor into this the vassal kingdoms which swore allegiance to Rome (gave their power: Rev 17:13). God decrees that this will happen (Rev 17:17), allowing the enemy to expose its hand and do its worst. However, the beast’s power only lasts for an hour (the shortest unit of time recorded by the ancients). Again we note that all across history, nations have come together and in doing so, have sometimes compromised their own laws in order to become part of a supposedly stronger collective.
God’s kingdom is the only eternal kingdom and from this kingdom, He will allow man to reap what he sows, thus revealing the true nature of darkness. In allowing evil to have some authority, we have the “taste and see the fruit of evil”, so that man may realise his sinfulness and come to bow the knee in repentance to the One true God. Note that the speed of judgement is also spoken of in Revelation 18:10 where we read, “Babylon’s doom comes in a single hour.”
“Every empire in history, from the Assyrians to the Soviet Union, has collapsed, usually strangled by its own internal contradictions before being finished off by invaders. We need fear no empire and no repression; because history guarantees that every mere human or demonic empire will fall. God’s saints suffer for now, but God’s purposes in history will prevail. This truth encourages believers to stand firm, for the future lies with God, not with the mightiest empires on today’s horizon.”
C. Keener in ‘Revelation’ page 418.
Judaism always recognised that the power of the enemy was limited and therefore had a beginning and an end. They were also aware that God could use evil to chastise His people or destroy the enemy. For example, note how Cyrus was used to chastise Babylon who had in turn been allowed to have victory over Israel who had forgotten that ‘man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Deut 8:3). God can and does use evil to destroy evil (e.g. Isaiah 10).
Rome eventually imploded from within and the surrounding powers took advantage of this, which eventually led to the destruction of what had been an incredibly powerful super-power. Yet Rome only ruled because God was in overall control and, at times, allows our world to reap what it sows as a means of pointing out that in our own strength we eventually fail; yet grace is still available for all who turn to God. An example of this transformation that can take place is seen in the life of one-time terrorist Bob Mathieson.
Bob Mathieson was part of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that fought the IRA in the violent troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Bob was involved in murder, shootings and robberies and was eventually caught and sentenced to life imprisonment where he served fourteen years. He said that on being sentenced he felt no remorse whatsoever because, in his eyes, he was defending Ulster. He began serving his sentence in the Maze Prison in Belfast and soon started suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts concerning his life of crime. During that time he accessed drugs yet also started going to a church service simply because it was a meeting place. Bob was convinced that people could see the evil in his life and ended up in a psychiatric ward in hospital after a failed suicide attempt.
Two Christian women used to write to him and gave him some hope; he started praying to God. After leaving prison he eventually got married and set up his own business but in 2008 his suicidal thoughts started to return. He also thought his wife and children hated him because he had been such a horrible person in the past. With the help of a local church minister he finally fell on his knees and called out to God, apologising for not accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour and for all the things he had done wrong. He now shares his testimony in schools, churches and coffee shops. In his own strength and convictions he eventually failed so badly that he sought to take his own life; in the strength and power of the Lord Bob found forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance and a Spirit-empowered life.
Chosen in Him (Rev 17:14).
In the book of Revelation we see that God allows us all a certain amount of power, yet all power is ultimately His. Eventually evil unites to make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb is going to overcome because He is the Lord of Lord’s and King of Kings and His chosen and faithful followers will be with Him (Rev 17:14).
Christ is the One chosen from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20) and He opens the door to salvation; in making a decision to turn to Him in repentance and faith, we become His. In the chosen One, we are the chosen ones. If you find this hard to grasp then think of it this way:
Imagine a man doing trials for a football team called ‘The Chosen Ones’. He gets into the team and is now called a Chosen One. Now imagine him going for football trials and a top footballer offers to take the trial for him and give him the position in the Chosen One team. In this, we get a very pale illustration of how it is that we are called chosen and faithful followers as those who have met with the God in eternity in the realm of space and time.
“(Jesus) constantly referred to eternal life as a present reality. Eternal life is the life of God in time in us. Heaven comes to us before we go to heaven. So the fact that heaven has begun means the claim to enter heaven later is not the first giant claim,. The prior claim is just as big, even more basic. That claim is as startling, as special, and as strong as the other.”
John Gilmore in, ‘Probing Heaven’ p 212.
Evil turns on evil.
Rome turns on Rome through all manner of infighting with individuals and groups wrestling for power and her enemies seize the opportunity and attack. She is then left naked with her flesh being eaten and everything burnt with fire; this being a picture of desolation. The language that is used in this part of Revelation seventeen is reminiscent of Ezekiel 23:25-27 where we read of judgement falling on a wayward Jerusalem which had turned to idolatry.
In the Ancient Near East, victors would sometimes disfigure their captives as a means of showing the total destruction of a person, with this punishment sometimes being encapsulated in law. For example, in Assyrian law a husband could cut off his wife’s nose and turn her lover into a eunuch if she was found to be an adulteress. In using some of the language of his day, Ezekiel graphically conveyed a truth: judgement would fall on Israel as she reaped what she sowed and in Revelation seventeen, we have a similar picture being painted. The nation that relied on power and success through trade, commerce and military might implodes at the hands of those who outwardly work together but inwardly want to control. The political and military side of Rome had put increasing pressure on the economic and religious side and Rome became a divided house that fell. As I write these words, it has just come out in the national news that Isis has executed a large number of its own leaders, fearing that they are spies.
Jesus points out that any kingdom divided will fall (Mark 3:23). Ultimately, evil is self-destructive and placing one’s trust in the world and worldly success is like leaning on a spider’s web (Job 8:13-15); it is not going to support you for very long.
In and through war, nations are left exposed (naked) and defenceless. Within them there are those who then seize the opportunity to settle old scores and feed off the lives of others, even to the extent of enslavement or death (eat her flesh). The vanquished are ‘burnt with fire’, this being the fruit of sin which in one sense carries the picture of fire destroying a person’s life. Sin and rebellion know no friends and ruin comes to all who build on sand and not rock. Rome will fall at the hand of Rome, but ultimately it will fall because the hand of God has taken victory over both the supernatural and worldly powers of darkness. His is the only true eternal kingdom and ultimately, no kingdom will stand against God.
“Their assault on the truth, however, in no way alters the truth; their warfare against the Lamb is no threat to his reality and his survival. It is not they who will overcome him, but he who will overcome them and the simple reason for this is that he is Lord of lords and King of Kings; his lordship is absolute and his sovereignty invincible and their doom is inescapable.”
Dr.P.E. Hughes in ‘The Book of Revelation’ page 186
The fist of the created continues to be raised against the creator, yet the Lamb who was slain is the Lord of Lords and King of kings – the greatest that there has ever been, is, or will be. His work is perfect and all His ways are just (Deut 32:4), all life is ultimately in His hands and one day every knee will bow and acknowledge that in “the Lord alone are righteousness and strength” (Isaiah 45:23-25).
REVELATION CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.
The darker side of evil?
The Telegraph Newspaper (4th July 2016) recently carried an article by Josephine McKenna concerning the plight of some migrants who could not pay for their journey. The article clearly reveals what we could loosely term the darker side of evil. In her report Mckenna writes,
“Migrants unable to pay for their journeys across the Mediterranean are being sold to organ traffickers”, an Eritrean smuggler has told Italian authorities.
Nuredim Wehabrebi Atta, who was arrested by Italian police in 2014 is the first foreigner given witness protection by Italian authorities, after revealing details that have led to the arrest of dozens of alleged members of an elaborate criminal network trafficking drugs, arms and migrants from Africa to Europe.
Those who were unable to pay for their voyages “were sold for 15,000 euros to groups, particularly Egyptians, who were involved in removing and selling organs”, Mr Atta claimed. The group included 25 Eritreans, 12 Ethiopians and an Italian who police said belongs to an organisation that had smuggled thousands of migrates into Europe from Africa.
What sort of image is conjured up in our minds when we think of the word ‘evil’? Perhaps we think of sex trafficking or drug dealers, murderers and the horrors that are continually being brought to light by Human Rights Organisations around our world. Then again we might think of serial killers or the crimes committed in the concentration camps belonging to the Nazi war machine, or call to mind white supremacists that until recently had a website stating Hitler was a hero and the holocaust did not really happen.
All of these things are evil, but if this is the only way we define evil then we are going to end up in trouble very quickly. But why you may ask? Because this caricature of evil can, by default, paint you and me in a favourable light whilst at the same time blinding us to many of the things that go on in our world. It can make us the ‘I’m not as bad as them’ people, the ‘go along with the crowd’ ones who don’t always see, or refuse to see, what is going on right under their noses. Evil is an interloper in the world, a squatter who demands the rights of a king. Evil is so often unrecognised for what it is (outside covenant living) and it is never static. It also has many colours and flavours and, at times, appears to camouflage itself so easily, underlying the truth that sometimes the best way for an enemy to be present is in a way whereby no one knows it is actually there.
“…. Nations that are dying are plagued by lawlessness and economic insolvency...Governments begin to prey on the citizens through increased taxation and bureaucratic regulations…Education fails, historic cultural foundations are weakened and important traditions are discarded. Then, along with a rise in materialism and self-centredness, there is a rapid increase in immorality and a general loss of respect for human life.”
J. Nelson Black in, ‘When Nations Die’, p 230.
We live in a world where the ugly duckling never seems to become a swan and Pinocchio never becomes a real boy. We live in a world where the cowardly lion never gets his courage and the scarecrow never gets a brain. We live in a world where Humpty Dumpty never gets put back together again and Cinderella remains a ridiculed and abused sister under the tyranny of a step-mother. Yet the real danger for us in all this is that we have become so desensitised to what life should be that we think this is all normal. In reality it is a living death, a death that is not the end of biological existence but bang-up-to-date outside-covenant living.
Death is the prodigal son (Luke 15:24) in the pig-pen dominated by past decisions and present surroundings. This living death is the ever-present outside covenant existence, the here and now slow-growing harvest destroying the very life so many people think they are protecting.
Finally the death of death is the ultimate consequence of living our own way outside of Christ: judgement and eternal separation from God, the consequence of having self rather that God as our criterion of value; God will not be mocked.
As the camera swings round we move into the first part of chapter eighteen which could be loosely viewed as a courtroom setting, the courtroom setting of the one who’s hand wrote ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin’, on the dream-wall of an ancient Babylonian king. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin were nouns for weights used to balance scales and part of a language often used to speak of judgement in the Ancient Near East. Throughout history judgement has fallen to varying degrees on that which initially seems so secure, yet now the one true judge reveals that the whole world as we know it will have a final calling to account, a final day of reckoning.
“Chapter eighteen presents us with a real trial scene: we have the Judge (God), the defendant (Rome), the accusers (the prophets, the holy ones and all those slain by Rome), the accusation (murder caused by idolatry and the accumulation of wealth), evidence (blood found in the city), the sentence (Rome found guilty), the execution of the sentence (Rome cast down never to be found again), the effects of the judgement on Rome (on kings, merchants and sailors), the joy that erupts when those for who justice has been done hear the sentence (v20), and the post-trial celebration by those who were oppressed by Rome (19:1-10).”
P Richard in, ‘Apocalypse, A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation’ page 134.
The subtle enthronement of self.
At the end of the Second World War many German businesses were dismantled by the Allies with owners being imprisoned for supplying the Nazi’s war machine. Very few of those who were imprisoned were genuine Nazis and had instead simply enjoyed what they saw as a return to German pride and nationalism. Without wanting to sound too general, many companies continued to do business and took money without really bothering to think about the consequences of being part of a Nazi supply chain and therein part of the Nazi war machine, although many denied this.
All too often it is the complacency of ordinary people combined with a quest for wealth and security that ultimately undoes the heart of society as much as the more obvious evils such as murder, rape and war. For example, in the West we have more disposable wealth than ever before – yet millions still starve across the world. Whilst there are undoubtedly many amazing organisations that do reach out to others, the silent majority continue to speak loudly by their lack of involvement. The internal strivings of a nation can crush as effectively and sometimes more effectively than the external attack of the enemy. As Jesus said, what makes a man unclean is that which comes out of the heart (Mat 15:19).
“Because Roman civilisation perished through barbarian invasions, we are perhaps too much inclined to think that that is the only way a civilisation can die...
If the lights that guide us ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord…We therefore should not console ourselves by thinking that the barbarians are still a long way off. Some people may let the torch be snatched from their hands, but others stamp it out themselves.”
Alexis de Tochqueville in, ‘Democracy in America’ (quoted in intro of ‘ When Nations Die’ by . J. Black).
It has been said that most atrocities and most of wars started in the boardrooms of well-dressed men and women, yet it is equally true that there have also been battalions of men and women who have used their companies to make money whatever the cost to those around them. For example, in recent months, many firms across the Middle East have been found to be involved in the supply chain providing materials used by Islamic State to develop their war machine.
We live in a world where the rich often indulge their every whim whilst their companies view employees as no more than cogs in their money-making machines. The majority of the worlds wealth is owned by 5% of the world’s population; many grow rich whilst thousands starve to death or are exploited in their poverty. All too often we seem to have an insatiable appetite for more; we constantly strive for more, yet never seem to have enough, little realising that satisfaction and well-being can never truly be found in the here and now alone.
“For all but the privileged few, the termination of our lives does not coincide with the termination of our labours or our longings. We die with tasks left undone, hopes unfulfilled, relationships unrealised, questions unanswered, debts unpaid, good deeds unrecognised, and less than good deeds unpunished.”
Prof. Oz Guiness in ‘Unspeakable, Facing up to the Challenge of Evil’, p 196.
As Jesus once said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mat 16:26). Our ultimate goal is not to be the acquisition of wealth or position in life so that others can say, “Didn’t he or she do well?” Our ultimate goal is knowing God as a father, this being relational and evidenced in our care and concern for others in a “This too will pass away” world where we seem to think everything will last forever.
A funeral dirge and an angel with great authority.
A few weeks ago I watched a television programme on challenging and helping teenagers in America who were heading towards violent crime, gang involvement and drugs. The teenagers were shown around a maximum security prison and taken into a prison morgue and showed the corpse of a man who had died from a drug overdose. Shock tactics worked with most of the teenagers but one continued in her slow downward lifestyle of destruction. She was then taken to a funeral parlour and not allowed to speak as her mother planned her funeral service as she was brought face to face with what was all too often the flawed fruit of her own choices. You can choose how to live your life but you cannot always choose the consequences. Imagine what it would be like to hear your own funeral service, seeing the pain of loss in loved ones and hearing about the life you lived and thought was invincible.
In Revelation eighteen we hear what could loosely be termed a funeral dirge. An angel with great authority has appeared and the earth is illuminated by his splendour as he cries out with a loud voice pronouncing the judgement: “Babylon is fallen.” In him we hear the voice of eternity, the voice of God who decrees what is, what will be and when it will be. A statement has been made and the camera is now focusing on judgement because time is being called on evil; there have been many ends yet there will be a final end and there will be a new beginning.
“When we consider how the description of the city and its fall combines elements pertaining to Tyre, Babylon, and Rome, we can better see that the great city in Revelation 17-18 represents something that is not confined to one time and/or place. The Christians in Asia Minor were called to resist social currents and institutions that were driven by the seduction of luxury, license, and power. Readers of later generations are called to do the same, wherever these appear.”
C. Koester in, ‘Revelation and the End of All Things’ page 167.
In a real sense the power and brightness of the angel is a stark contrast to the rubble that results from judgement. The elite who had often traded at the expense and misery of others are raised to the ground and the crime of Babylon and all ‘Babylons’ that ever will be is exposed. In her was found the blood of the prophets, the saints and all who have been killed on the earth.
The enemy’s power is now seen as gone and her empty citadels are a home for demons, a haunt for evil spirits and all that is unclean. Nothing can stand against God’s judgement and yet we should not stand and gloat as if the victory is ours for nothing is further from the truth. The victory belongs to God alone and we should weep as Jesus did over Jerusalem and strive to reach out to all people before time as we know it is called to a halt.
“A nation does not have to be overrun by a foreign enemy to be utterly destroyed. Sometimes the most dreadful aliens are those who dine at your own table. And a nation does not collapse only when it has been vanquished by barbarian hordes. Rome wasted away long before the barbarians ever arrived. The great pity for the Goths who claimed Caesar’s throne was that it was simply an empty chair. The glory had long since departed.”
J. Nelson Black in, ‘When Nations Die’, p 122
Man has been created to know God and the intimacy of fellowship that is possible is, in scripture, spoken of as a marriage relationship. However through engaging with that which is transient and passing as a means of well-being and security man has become the adulterer. He has lost his true identity and purpose in life and therefore submits to that which he thinks he controls as the subtlety of consumerism draws us away from God. We are called to be His; we are called to be holy.
“Holiness is not simply a matter of avoiding certain kinds of activities, as some traditional churches have emphasized; holiness is separation from the world to God. Thus one can express holiness by immersing oneself in God’s Word rather than in the world’s values emphasized on television, or by turning down a better-paying job because someone felt God wanted him or her to work in a different place, perhaps among the poor”
C. Keener in, ‘Revelation’ page 436.
We are called to live as those who belong to God and one man who in many respects immersed himself in God’s ways rather than the world’s values was Nelson Mandela. His story has been written across the pages of history by many men and women, one of whom was Christo Brand.
Christo Brand was a former prison officer who spent many years working in Pollsmoor Prison on Robben Island guarding Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress, who stood against apartheid in South Africa. Christo was nineteen years old when he started work and Mandela was sixty, yet over the years they struck up a good friendship. In his book, ‘My Prisoner, My Friend’ Christo writes of how Mandela was always a gracious, thoughtful and caring man throughout his twenty-seven years in prison. Even when he went through operations for ill health, or had to deal with obnoxious people around him he remained the same gracious man and would always take time to read his Bible and seek the wisdom of God. On one occasion Christo wrote of the contrast between hardened criminals and Mandela saying…
“…Another time at Pollsmoor when I was helping with duties in the section where hardened criminals were kept, I had opened the cell door and found a severed head on the toilet bucket. Seven prisoners had carried out the murder, cutting up the body and flushing the mutilated parts away. By contrast, my prisoners, the men considered the most dangerous in the world – were reading encyclopaedias, studying for their exams and knocking a table-tennis ball about in the sunshine.”
C. Brand in ‘My Prisoner, My Friend’ pages 118-119.
Nelson Mandela, eventually became President of South Africa yet despite his high position, he never looked down on or gave up on those around him and remained in regular contact with Christo Brand throughout his life. When Christo’s oldest son Riaan was tragically killed in a car accident, President Mandela rang Christo whilst he was on the way to the mortuary to formerly identify his son’s body. He said “I heard about your boy. It is a terrible thing when a parent has to bury his child. I understand how it feels because I lost my own son in the same way. I wish I could give you some strength to bear this.” (Page 261) Mandela continued to speak to him for over twenty minutes – that was the sort of man he was.
Mourners focused on self: Kings, Merchants and Sea Captains.
As the imagery in chapter eighteen unfurls we read of the kings of the earth who willingly engaged with anything and everything on offer now standing at a distance and mourning (v19) as judgement falls. Yet what is being mourned is the ‘what was’ of life, the loss of their means of self-gratification and indulgence. Their riches are in rags and their security is now exposed as having been no more than leaning on the web of a spider (Job 8:14-15).
“…John’s description of the luxury imports and the wasteful lifestyle of Rome cannot but cause us to reflect upon aspects of our consumer society. An economy fostering the belief that human beings are defined by taste and style and what they wear and advertising which uses coercion and seduction to create needs should hear what John says about “Fornication”, i.e., shortcuts to personal gratification. We have to ask what the much-vaunted choice of the consumer age means in a society where people do not have the means to make choices. They are “outcasts for the consumer society’s banquet.”
R.J. Mckelvey in ‘The Millennium and the Book of Revelation’ p 76.
The kings, representing all rulers, stand at a distance and are shocked at how quickly Rome and any other superpower or despot regimes can fall. Many seek financial success and security yet ignore the call to share, support and uplift others. Warnings have been constantly given yet now judgement is going to fall.
“A society that insists on stressing self-expression over self –control generally gets exactly what it deserves. The sulking teenager who insists, “it’s not fair!” is not referring to a standard of equity and justice that any ethicist would recognise. He is, instead, giving a voice to the vaguely conceived but firmly held conviction that the world in general and his family in particular serve no legitimate function except to supply his immediate needs and desires. In a culture that celebrates self-absorption and instant gratification, however, this selfishness quickly becomes a dominant and persistent theme.”
C.J. Sykes in, ‘A Nation of Victims’ page 23.
The merchants of the earth.
The second group of mourners is then brought into focus – the merchants of the earth (v 11) who have now lost their income, yet were always more concerned with luxury goods than feeding the poor and taking care of the orphan and the widow. In our own country many mansions survive as mausoleums to wealth and worldly success. In reality their testimony is really to evil in that they were built on the proceeds of slavery, displaced people and non-existent wages.
In looking at John’s list of merchandise we note that luxury goods are at the top of the list with gold, silver and wood from North Africa and precious stones from India. Yet right down at the bottom of the list is the body and souls of men in a society that has reduced man to little more than a commodity whilst, paradoxically, treating other men as gods. Slaves were bred for more slaves and many slaves from conquered nations were used for entertainment as they stood in arenas and were killed as Rome acted out her victories.
In more recent history a man who wrote about the agonies and suffering of slavery, this time in the West, was W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) whose works greatly influenced Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
In his book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ Dubois recounts many of the problems that were faced by black people in the twentieth century and in one chapter speaks of the death of his small son at only eighteen months. In what he says we capture something of the agony of loss yet also the awareness that this small innocent life would not be stained by the colour prejudice of the day. As I read the chapter, I thought of the many young children of two to four years old who were sat down by loving parents to be told that others were not going to like them just because of their colour. Writing of his little son and speaking of this side of eternity as ‘within the Veil’ Dubois says….
“Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live, - a Negro and a Negro’s son. Holding his little head – ah bitterly! – the unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with the tiny dimpled hand – ah wearily! – to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful and seeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie.”
As already said, Dubois’ son died at eighteen months, he writes of that time in this way…
“He died at eventide, when the sun lay like a brooding sorrow above the western hills, veiling its face; when the winds spoke not, and the trees, the great green trees he loved, stood motionless. I saw his breath beat quicker and quicker, pause, and then his little soul leapt like a star that travels in the night and left a world of darkness in its train. The day changed not; the same tall trees peered in at the windows, the same green grass glinted in the setting sun. Only in the chamber of death writhed the world’s most piteous thing – a childless mother.”
Later: “…He knew no colour-line poor dear, - and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkened half his sun. He loved the white matron, he loved his black nurse; and in his little world walked souls along, uncoloured and unclothed.”
W.E.B.Dubois in, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ pages 129-130
All across history we see many valiant people reaching out to uplift and support others yet also so many who appear to have a complete disregard for human life. This disregard for human life was seen in increasing measure during the latter days of the Roman Empire. For example, in the early days of the Empire infanticide was punishable by death, yet in the later days it became increasingly common with unwanted babies being left at certain points in the city to die of cold and starvation.
Today, as has been the case with so many generations before us, we still live in a world where countless millions are regarded as little more than a commodity to use or abuse at will, or brought up in a society where they end up taking drastic measures just to survive or support loved ones. I was recently reminded of this through reading Jang Jin-Sung’s book, ‘Dear Leader.’
Jang Jin-Sung was one of North Korea’s propagandists until his escape in 2004 from a society totally under the domination of General Kim Jong Il, having become disillusioned by the suffering and starvation of many of his fellow Koreans, who were treated as little more than slaves under an oppressive regime. On one occasion he speaks of an incident whilst walking through a district in Pyongyang where the most impoverished people lived. A throng of people had gathered in the marketplace where a woman and a young girl were standing. The young girl had a sign round her neck saying, “I sell my daughter for 100 won”. The crowd verbally abused the women who remained stoic, looking straight ahead and saying nothing. Many thought she must be deaf whilst another called out, “Whose going to buy a girl when no one can even feed themselves?” The child then shouted out, “Stop saying things about my mother! They say she’s only got a few more days to live! She’s going to die!” Eventually a man in a military uniform too k the child saying, “I receive military rations from the state,” explaining that he would take responsibility for the girl as he paid the woman 100 won.
Taken from, ‘Dear Leader’ by Jang Jin-Sung pages 232-237.
In his book Jang Jin-Sung also documents his escape into China in some detail and his shock at finding out that many of the young women who escaped North Korea were then picked up by sex-traffickers, thereby entering an even deeper cycle of abuse. Man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds and in many societies there seems to be the slow eroding of humanity in subtle ways whereby it is not noticed until it is too late. In his book ‘When Nations Die,’ Jim Nelson Black speaks of what we could term the dehumanisation of western society in this way-
“Today we have a generation of children growing up, “unbonded.” This is a relatively new form of disturbance, but it describes the phenomenon in which children grow up with no sense of relationship or responsibility to other people. They have no allegiance to parents, no loyalty to friends, no concept of right or wrong, and they become social misfits and ultimately a menace to society. Unbonded children have never had their share of love. They have never been the focus of affection and adulation with their mothers and fathers…They demonstrate their anger and aggression in school. They are the kids who are always in trouble. When teachers try to make them behave, they lash out in anger. They have no attention span, frequently no verbal skills, and no desire to communicate. They believe that life is about exploitation and abuse, and they quickly learn how to get what they want by intimidation.”
J.N. Black in, “When Nations Die,” pages 220-221.
The Sea Captains.
The camera continues to move through Revelation eighteen and as it does so focuses on other mourners who are standing far off and not wanting to be exposed. They are the sea captains (v15), who are devastated at seeing the city burning (more through their loss of income), being shocked at all that is lost in an hour.
Throughout history powerful empires and cities that looked as if they could last for ever, have fallen in a matter of days or even hours. Take for example Babylon (Dan 5:30), the Berlin wall (1989) and Ceausescu in the same year. Babylon’s have come and gone and will come and go and the Babylon of Rome is no exception to the rule. An empire that often looked after number one, so to speak, to the detriment of millions would be razed to the ground. The pride and ingenuity of man is no match for God.
“It’s really all about pride. Focusing on individual sins misses the unique biblical message that sin is essentially a cognitive schema, a “way of looking at the world” that is prideful or “full” with pride. Scratch the surface of individual sins and you will find beneath an aspiration to be like God (Gen 3:5), a rejection of dependence, and a refusal to take God at his word. The apostle Paul puts it this way, “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Romans 1:21-23.”
Prof G. Harrison in, ‘Ego Trip’ page 126.
As we move out of chapter eighteen God’s people are called to rejoice because justice has now been brought about through judgement. The word of God had been spoken across the empire and yet the response of the empire was seen in the blood of the saints. Yet God sees every half-formed thought, every whispered word and every action done in secret; nothing escapes His notice and judgement falls. The power and finality of judgement is depicted by an angel throwing a boulder the size of a millstone into the sea (v 21). Babylon, speaking of Rome and all empires that raise themselves against God, ignoring Him altogether or seeing Him as just one amongst many, will be removed forever. The finality of judgement and the irretrievability of its life is depicted as a millstone being thrown into the depths of the sea.
Babylon and the dehumanising system it spawns with low wages, class distinction, lack of morality, slave labour and all manner of tolerated abuse has come and gone throughout history, but now the final judgement of the heavenly court has been pronounced.
As we leave chapter eighteen let us be careful not to become complacent in our day and age or make the mistake of characterising evil as only theft, murder and rape. Let us also rejoice that God’s judgements are always just and fair. His plans will never be thwarted and we are part of His plan, we are known, loved and completely accepted by Him in and through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.