Revelation 18 opens with a clear description of Jerusalem in the first century AD, which corresponds with scripture from the Prophets and Jesus. There is debate about whether this “Babylon” described in Rev 18 was Jerusalem or Rome, or even some future state, or maybe a more general description of the global, human condition. However, as a first century text, the church’s main concern, still then a mainly Jewish Messianic sect, would have been things closer to home, such as the coming judgement Jesus spoke of in that generation.
As mentioned before, the statement that Babylon had become the dwelling of every foul spirit, matches exactly the description of the Prophets, who said Jerusalem had grown worse than the nations around her. Jesus used the parable of Isaiah 5, about the vineyard that was nourished by God, but brought forth thorns. In Luke 11, Jesus likened Jerusalem to a person who was cleansed, but was then inhabited by seven other demons, stronger than the first.
These statements concur exactly with the prophetic tradition (Isaiah 5, Ezekiel 16) Jesus was speaking from. John was following this same tradition in Revelation.
The point of all this, of course, is that we too can become like this.
In fact, many times the church has become like this. If we do not take up our cross and serve others but seek to use the political and military powers of our day for our own interests, then we have exchanged the cross for Rome. Given all God has done to save and nurture us, we are to remain faithful to that, by sharing the same care with others, even with our enemies, rather than seeking to use power to dominate them. We are to bring forth this good fruit of peace and self-giving, reflecting God’s true care for others.
“The merchants had grown rich by her luxurious living.” Josephus described Jerusalem the same way, as did Jesus in his last days.
Jesus’ parables of the wicked kings of Israel (the Wedding Feast) and wicked businessmen (Talents and Pounds), when Zacchaeus repented of this very corruption, describe very well the cosy and oppressive relationship between Jerusalem and Rome. This all lines up with Revelation’s description of “Babylon,” the harlot.
The next statement, “come out of her my people and do not partake in her sins, lest you share in her plagues,” resembles Jesus’ warning for the believers to flee Jerusalem when they see the armies surrounding the city. This was happening when John wrote.
It is very difficult to imagine that something of such importance to the Jewish believers in that day, wouldn’t have been paramount in John’s mind as he received the Revelation. When we seek to interpret Revelation, distancing ourselves from that time, we misunderstand the text. It’s as if we wrest the text from its context, highjack it from the Jews of that time, gentilise its message, Hellenise its meaning.
To “come out of Babylon,” wouldn’t just be a reference to fleeing Jerusalem, but also to not partaking in her sins of compromise with Rome. This resembles the repentance of Zacchaeus, who profited greatly, as other “rich young rulers” of the land. To come out of the world doesn’t mean we aren’t in the world, serving the world, as Jesus served. It doesn’t mean we don’t love the world, in the sense of having compassion on others and seeking to help. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to preserve the creation, as a gift of God. It means we come out from her sins. We don’t “love the world,” in the sense of the corrupt culture that sustains oppression and the defacement of creation.
“Give here double…” This seems to be a description of the reason for such a severe judgement. Paul discussed this in Romans, saying that if God didn’t judge Israel, how will he judge the world? If God judged Egypt, to free his people from them in the Exodus, he also must judge his people if they become worse than Egypt. And this judgement must be severe, as it says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Israel received more privilege than the other nations, so God can’t show favouritism to them, but must be just, according to what they had received.
The judgement of God isn’t him paying back, but as said earlier, it is the removing of his restraining grace, as Paul claimed in Thessalonians (“that which restrains is taken away”), allowing the hardness of the heart to have its fullest natural consequence. This judgement is portrayed in scripture in apocalyptic terms, such as by Paul in Thessalonians, “Christ coming in fiery vengeance,” and in Hebrews, “God is a consuming fire.” But the fire was brought about by the corruption within mankind, both that in Israel and that in Rome.
But does this mean that God requires such judgement himself? Is God teaching us that this is what justice is, meting out recompense, for harm done to us? Does he teach us that we can’t be satisfied unless those who wronged us are likewise punished? Is this justice?
No. God teaches us that he requires mercy, not judgement. And he requires us to follow him in this way, who didn’t punish his enemies, but died for them and forgave them fully.
No, it is the sinful world that requires justice in this way, and it is the world that brings such punishment on others from a legal perspective. This is what happened to Israel when they put themselves in the hands of Rome, not in the hands of God. “Falling in to the hands of the living God,” as Hebrews puts it, means he gives us into the hands of men. Even the Old Testament prophets said this, when Babylon then destroyed Jerusalem. This was human justice, not divine justice. God’s warns us of this.
The justice that God is seeking to fill the earth isn’t one of vengeance. This is the justice that has been among us since Cain and Lamech. The justice God is seeking, is one where we forgive and restore the fallen, to pay back good for evil. When this kind of justice renews our heart, as it is in God’s heart, then our nations will be new. Revelation isn’t teaching us to seek a righteous vengeance upon our enemies, to take “righteousness” as an excuse to punish others, but it is showing us the unmerciful vengeance of the world, that Israel played the harlot with, and was burnt by.
“Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” The literal sense of this verse is, “God has judged them as they judged you.” We saw back in an earlier section of Revelation, that when the people of Jerusalem killed the two witnesses (and we know that was in Jerusalem), then they called for a party and invited their friends to rejoice in the demise of their enemies, giving each other gifts.
So, Rev 18:20 isn’t calling us to rejoice over the fall of others, it is showing that what we do to others will come back upon ourselves.
They rejoiced in the destruction of others, and destruction came to them. So, rather than calling us to gloat, the text is doing the opposite. It is calling us not to behave like those of Jerusalem did towards their enemies. It is showing us that violence creates a cycle of destruction that consumes us all.
Just as we mentioned earlier, in regard to the Song of Moses, and the apparent glory in vindication, we must learn something quite the opposite. If we glory in vindication, saying we are the children of God, just as Jerusalem did, the same fall will come to us. God delivered Israel from Egypt when they were the least among the world, and in Revelation he was delivering the poor, the weak, the slaves, the most rejected people, who became one new family in Christ, from the hands of symbolic Egypt.
So, the narrative isn’t calling us to rejoice in the fall of our enemies, but rather to make sure that we don’t become like them. It is not a call for us to gloat over our enemies, to say they have their just deserts, as Jerusalem said to the sinners and martyrs, but to reach out to them and serve them. What we see happening here, is God’s promise to Hannah and Mary, “He has brought down the mighty from their throne and lifted up the poor from their dunghill.” Revelation is a call to join this God, not the vindictive god in pagan mythology.
And though some of the scriptures, including some of Revelation, were written echoing pagan mythology, as a communicative device of that time, its purpose is to transform paganism with a new ethic.
So, Jesus, in describing his ascension to his throne, and the way his kingdom shall progress in the world, says it is through feeding the hungry, bringing in the outcast, and dressing the naked. In apocalyptic terms, he said, that the nation that wouldn’t do this, would bring disaster upon itself, which he termed symbolically, as being “thrown into fire.” The first people to suffer this, during Christ’s world renewing reign, was Jerusalem.
Jesus told his disciples that when they saw the armies encircle Jerusalem, then “look up, for your redemption draws near.” This wasn’t the rapture of the church to heaven, but the end of the persecution of the Jewish and Roman beasts against the early church, the defeat of satan’s first attempt to prevent the gospel being established in the world. We know this, because Jesus said that this would happen in that generation, which, linguistically, was the generation in which Jesus spoke.
The tenor of the last passage of Rev 18 shows that it was a lament, like the laments of Jeremiah. But even Jeremiah, in places, called for the destruction of his enemies. This was a common element in the Prophet’s conversations with God, being honest with their feelings. It doesn’t mean that such sentiments were the conclusion of the matter. The lament was overwhelming, and it pointed to God, coming in the flesh, and suffering for his people. It was the love of God that was the final character that shone through the darkness, suffering and disappointment.
The last passage of Rev 18 was about the light of the lamp shining no more, and the voice of the bridegroom and bride not being heard anymore. These were direct quotes from the Prophets, which were specifically about the fall of Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem was a progressive fall, in the days of ancient Assyria and Babylon, to its final fall brought about by Rome.
Isaiah 66 described the people in the days of Jesus, from which Jesus quoted. It speaks of the fall of the temple: “The sound of an uproar from the city! A sound from the temple! The sound of the Lord; rendering recompense to his enemies!” The rest of the passage speaks of the birth of the church to renew the nations. The passage ends with the burning of Jerusalem and the residents being thrown into Gehenna: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”