Beyond the Lectionary Text: Revelation 19:1-10
by Heidi De Jonge
There are a couple of big questions that haunt my reading of Revelation 19:1-10 (especially when I read it against the backdrop of Revelation 18). What/Where/Who is Babylon? And how do I react to the fall of Babylon?
When I first read Rev. 19:1-10 in preparation for writing this sermon starter, I knew I was going to have to spend some time reading chapter 18. Who was this great prostitute and what were her adulteries (v. 3)? The NIV Study Bible’s comments on Revelation 14:8 (where Babylon the Great is referenced: “According to some, [Babylon the Great] is used in Revelation for Rome as the center of opposition to God and his people. According to others, it represents the whole political and religious system of the world in general. According to still others, it is to be understood as literal Babylon—rebuilt and restored.” As with many prophesies, there are multiple antecedents to the one image. Babylon could certainly be the literal ancient Babylon, the literal Babylon-like Rome, and all the subsequent Babylon-ish nations and systems.
And what is it about Babylon that causes her to fall? Her excessive luxuries (18:3, 7, 9, 14, 19) which oppress humanity (18:13, 20, 24) and her pride (18:7) are the sins that cause her to fall.
John’s vision is an evocation of the consequences of a narcissistic social order, in which everything revolves around the needs of a demanding upper class that makes itself the center of the universe and preserves that position by force, ideology, and demands for conformity. The beauty, sophistication, and splendor of its culture, arts, social life, and technology may be great, but it is in a condition of death. (Christopher Rowland, New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews to Revelation, p. 696).
The commentaries I read on this text appropriately pressed the reader toward the recognition that God’s desire for the world is broad and deep. The scope of God’s creation, the scope of its brokenness, and the scope of its redemption includes institutions, societies, and nations. The individuals that make up these broader, communal realities, have vested interest in their rising or falling.
In chapter 18, the kings of the earth (18:9-10), the merchants (18:11-17), and the sea captains and sailors (18:18) all mourn at the fall of Babylon the Great. They throw ashes on themselves and they weep at the tumbling of such greatness. The apostles and the prophets, on the other hand, are called to rejoice at the fall of the empire, “for God has judged her with the judgment she had imposed on you” (18:20).
And they do rejoice. The great multitude in heaven, the 24 elders, and the 4 living creatures rejoice at the fall of Babylon the Great. They rejoice in God’s just and true judgments (19:2). They rejoice at the eternal smoke that rises from her destruction (19:3).
This smoke ‘of torment’ is in direct contrast to the ‘smoke of incense,’ the prayers of the saints (8:4), and the ‘smoke from the glory of God’ that filled the temple (15:8). Also, the ‘eternal torment’ of the unbelievers is in direct contrast to the God ‘who lives forever and ever’ (1:18, 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7) and ‘reigns forever and ever’ (11:15) and especially to the eternal reward awaiting the righteous (22:5). (Grant R. Osborne, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 4).
We have a vested interest in the future of the institutions, societies, and nations of which we are a part. Do we weep and mourn with the kings and merchants at the fall of Babylon? Or do we rejoice and shout Hallelujah with the apostles and prophets and the great multitude in heaven? I don’t think the answer is very easy.
To the extent that we are a part of oppressive systems – to the extent that we are complicit in the generational and corporate sins of those in power, we stand a bit closer to the kings and the sea captains than we’d like to admit. So, too, those to whom John was writing: “Not all John’s audience is persecuted by the beast at this point; some of them in Laodicea and Sardis, in fact, are prospering as part of the same system that elsewhere is killing the saints. The summons to “come out” (18:4) may thus include withdrawal from the economic arenas that required compromise with emperor worship or other forms of idolatry” (Craig S. Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, pp. 420-461).
To the extent that we do not “come out” – to the extent that we stay in Babylon – to the extent that the magic spell (18:23) of Babylon stays in us, we stand in solidarity with those who weep. “If we identify with the sorrow of the merchants at the end of civilization, we shall, as Allan Boesak has put it, share ‘the viewpoint which is so typically the one of those who do not know what it is like to stand at the bottom of the list’” (Rowland, p. 697).
So, then, do we rejoice at the fall of Babylon? Do we rejoice at God’s judgment? Do we rejoice that God would “give her as much torment and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself” (18:7)? It seems to me that an unequivocal and triumphant Hallelujah doesn’t seem quite right—not if that triumphant Hallelujah is only rejoicing in triumph over our foes, and forgetting that the foe lies within.
Perhaps Psalm 139 could be helpful to us here. At one point the psalmist sounds like he stands with the multitude in heaven, rejoicing at the fall of the wicked (Ps. 139:19-22):
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
But, then the psalmist switches the focus (139:23-24):
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Until that time when we are completely made new, our Hallelujah is a broken Hallelujah – a Hallelujah that recognizes that we are complicit – that Babylon is in us and that we will finally come out of her and she out of us – only because and through of the work of God in our lives.
A couple of Leonard Cohen’s verses seem to fit (Hallelujah, 1984):
Baby, I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…
Though our Hallelujahs may be broken now, we look forward to a time when they are healed and whole. The wedding supper of the lamb will come, and the bride – which stands in direct contradiction to the prostitute – will have made herself ready (19:7). The cleansing and preparation and dressing for that feast is certainly something that is done to us (“fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear” [19:8]), but it is also something we engage in. In his commentary, Grant Osborne notes that it is here alone in Revelation that the saints are described in this way – as preparing themselves. They do so by remaining faithful, by maintaining their testimony for Jesus, by enduring hardship, and by being obedient.
One could certainly refer back to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables about the great banquet (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:7-14). Those invited to the wedding supper of the lamb are great and small (19:5), bad and good (Matthew 22:10).
All who hold to the testimony of Jesus are fellow servants with the visionary angel. The angel in 19:9-10 is the angel who, in 18:1, came to earth with great authority, illuminating the world with splendor. Even so, this angel is only a fellow witness to the greatness of Jesus – who is the Lamb, the bridegroom, and the first testifier – the on upon whom all our testimonies are built. Hallelujah, Salvation, and Glory and Power belong to Him.
Craig Keener includes a brief reference to the story of Jim Bakker in his commentary. “Former televangelist Jim Bakker, transformed through his reading of Scripture in prison, suggests that Revelation’s prostitute “is materialism. [Some] … used to teach that the harlot was the Catholic church. That was escapist — we wanted to blame somebody else and never look at ourselves” (from The Re-Education of Jim Bakker, Christianity Today, December 7, 1998, p. 62, as quoted by Keener). This, in addition to mentioning the title of Bakker’s book, I Was Wrong, is a powerful pivotal story that helps to lead the congregation from seeing Babylon as ‘out there’ to seeing Babylon as ‘in here’.
Sing Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory – Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal: Number 491
Keener, Craig, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, Zondervan, 1999.
Osborne, Grant R., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Revelation, Baker Books, 2002.
Rowland, Christopher, New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews to Revelation, v. 12, Abbingdon Press, 1998.