The Wicked City
In the previous chapter we learnt a new name for the wicked city - Babylon the Great (16:19). She is the "great city" and when she falls so will all the others. To a first century mind this would obviously be a reference to Rome, the city which dominated a large part of the known world. So why doesn't John simply call the city by her name?
Some people think he was playing safe. They suggest that if he was so condemning of Rome directly the authorities might have redoubled their persecution of christians. This theory has some sense in it but assumes that the Romans were rather thick-headed people who would not see an allegory if it hit them in the face. Rulers who are sensitive to criticism often see it where there is none at all so it is almost certain that they would be able to see that the "eternal city" of Rome is under fire here.
There is a better reason for John to tag the great city as Babylon. He is dealing with something greater than just one city. We have already seen that the two beasts have many forms and incarnations; now we will learn that every luxurious, exploiting city culture is an extension of Babylon. Imperial Rome has passed on but her spirit lives still and haunts other places.
Babylon represents man's godless attempt to build a city apart from God. After Cain was thrust out from God's presence he began to build a city (Genesis 4:16,17). The story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 is a summary of man's efforts to build a city to his glory and exclude the glory of God.
Cities are not evil in themselves. The ultimate destiny of mankind is a city, Jerusalem, the bride of Christ. What makes our cities guilty and evil things is their godless devotion to the glory of men and this makes even their religion an insult to God. Are the mighty edifices of Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame or the Great Mosque of Mecca really to the glory of their God's? Are they not rather to the glory of the "worshippers" who erected them? The godlessness of our cities means that instead of being havens of security they become, time and again, centres of oppression and exploitation.
In the next chapter we find one of the (very few) direct commands to us found in this book. The command is simple - "come out of Babylon". The reason is equally simple - she is the wicked city, under God's wrath, which He will destroy.
What Is Babylon?
We have already seen that Babylon is not a place but a society. We should see her as a culture characterised by certain things which have recurred several times through the centuries. Dominant and wealthy city cultures have characteristic sins. In this sense, she has always been with us but towards the end Babylon will be fully ripe, full of her characteristic sins and full of guilt before God.
Her characteristics are adultery, luxury, oppression and attractiveness.
When societies are accused of adultery in the bible the primary meaning is idolatry and sorcery. Going after other "Gods" is spiritual adultery. Such debased religion is often associated with sexual sin as well but the primary meaning is a love of false spirituality.
Man's city should be the wife of God. We are made for fellowship with Him and without that relationship our development is perverted. Christianity is not in favour of primitivism over development and it is simply not true that we are nearer to God in a garden rather than a town. In the early centuries christianity was an urban phenomenon to such an extent that the word "pagan" (countryman) came to mean an unbeliever. Man will fulfil his destiny of filling and subduing the earth by developing an urban culture and the church cannot avoid getting involved with urban people.
But there is a deep tragedy in all this. Development has become "sophistication" (i.e. it is corrupt) and although we have "come of age" in so many ways we have divorced ourselves from God. Babylon is an adulteress, a whore.
Although the city is faithless she is not without her religious, spiritual side. In fact Babylon is very "broad-minded" and willing to pick and mix a religion to suit her. Superstition and alternative spiritualities often flourish in cities whereas country folk tend to stick to the tradition of their fathers (whether good or bad). When a city runs after other gods (as Jerusalem did) or becomes a centre for superstition and idolatry she reveals her nature as a whore. Britain today is full of such unfaithfulness to Christ.
An idle and sensuous lifestyle seems to characterise Babylon. She is decked with the marks of wealth and privilege (17:4). She seems gorgeous and lovely - until we look closer and see the golden cup is filled with filth. How many societies are like this, including our own!
Capital cities in particular tend to suck in the wealth of a nation. Imperial cities like Rome become open mouths to consume the produce of whole continents, accumulate their treasures and attract their skilled talent.
Technology creates cities. As agriculture becomes more efficient it releases men and women to drift to the cities and develop the service industries which pander to the desires of the urban elite. Since the industrial revolution that privileged elite has increased in number. In the ancient world only Rome (and, later, Constantinople) could afford to support an idle "mob" of unemployed city dwellers but now there are millions. In a real sense, the whole world is now urbanised. In many ways, man is the poorer for this development but we also have mass entertainments and pleasures which make the "bread and circuses" of Rome seem rather tame. Modern man is usually an urban creature living for whatever pleasures he can gain.
Babylon rides the beast. In ch.13 we saw the beast as military might and political violence. Throughout history great civilisations have rested on the massive abuse of power.
The first city was founded by Cain the murderer. Babylon was built by the warrior, Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-10) and every great city has grown at the cost of human blood. "Civilisation" is often nothing other than a more discreet and hypocritical barbarism.
The privileged live in gilded luxury while the poor suffer under the heel of their agents. Babylon does not dirty her hands by direct violence, she rides the beast. This means she uses armies, unjust laws, and political and commercial power to maintain her lifestyle. John is amazed to see that Babylon is guilty of the blood of the martyrs and needs convincing. Perhaps we too need God to open our eyes?
Babylon is beloved by the world (v2). A great song of woe goes up from the earth when she is finally destroyed (18:9-20). Kings, merchants and traders will grieve at her death. The whore has some beauty and style. She is seen as the peak of human aspiration, the queen of the world. In the eyes of men and women the great city is so lovely and desirable.
We live in a time when a world-wide materialistic and sensual culture is growing up. There is a vast international entertainment industry which hardly existed a century ago and which now panders to the whims of a vast audience. Mass production produces inconceivable numbers of electronic gadgets designed to keep us all more or less permanently amused. The world is becoming not so much a "global village" as a networked mega-city united by its pleasures. Cultural differences are being flattened and trivialised as the consumer culture floods the world. How attractive it all seems.
Who Is Babylon?
If Babylon is marked by these characteristics then she has obviously taken many forms in history. The ancient cities of Babylon, Phoenicia, Egypt, Assyria (and even Samaria and Jerusalem) had these marks and the Hebrew prophets spoke words of doom upon them. Chapters seventeen to nineteen ring with echoes of older prophecy. There is a prophetic tradition of decrying wicked cities which reaches a climax here as the final godless urban culture is denounced.
Quite often those Old Testament prophecies have an exaggerated element which suggests that their authors were aware that the falling of those ancient places was a sign and symbol of the last and greatest Day of the Lord when God's wrath would fall on Babylon.
So Babylon has always been with us and always will be until Christ finally destroys sin. Every christian has had to resist the "love of the world" which tugs our heartstrings and would make hypocrites of us all.
But there is a development through the centuries. Babylon becomes more corrupt and more powerful until she dominates and rules the world. In the same way the beast becomes more impressive and powerful (compare his description here with ch.13). In all the apparent chaos of history there is some development and the fruits of both God's grace AND the evil of the world are ripening.
Where Is Babylon?
In John's day Babylon lived in Rome (the seven hills in v9 are an obvious reference to Rome but perhaps there is a hint in the number seven that Rome is also a universal symbol for all the great cities of the earth). On the other hand, vs. 10-11 speak of future developments. Babylon now is alive and well in Western Europe, the U.S.A., Moscow, Japan and in every smart suburb of every power centre of every country. Babylon is alive wherever money is loved and people and virtues are priced rather than valued. Babylon lives wherever conscience is dulled by drunkenness (or drugs), pleasure-seeking or the consolations of phoney faith.
Babylon is all around us! The reformers identified the corrupt Roman church as "Babylon the whore". There was so much truth in the allegation that it stuck. But the whore has more than one change of clothes! She is organised worldliness in all its forms.
Babylon’s fate and the Warning to leave
Faithful believers from Abraham onwards have been told to "leave" the city. Abraham's double exodus from Ur and Haran to live as a stranger and pilgrim is used in the New Testament as a picture of the christian in the world (Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16). An even more powerful argument in Hebrews 13:12-14 is that we leave the city to share Christ's rejection so that we inherit the city to come. It should therefore be no surprise that Revelation 18:4 tells us to come out of the city. The Beauty of Rome, London and New York is a fallen beauty.
How then can we leave her? A better summary than I could give is found in 1 John 2:15-17. Think deeply and broadly about that great command. We can only leave Babylon by getting the world out of our hearts! The important change is not a matter of location since a man could live at the North Pole and yet still be guilty of sharing in the sins of the worldly city.
Chapter eighteen is one long warning to us to make sure we are not sharing in the sins of such a society. An angel of glory publishes this warning to the world (v.1) and God Himself speaks (v.4) urging all His people to have no part in her.
This description of the fate of Babylon amplifies these warnings. God is saying "This is what I do to people who sin, so don't share in these sins."
Babylon is fallen
Before Judgement is executed it is first announced. Babylon will be thrown down (v21) because she has already "fallen" (v2). Just as the "prince of this world" was judged at the cross, so the worldly society which always tends to reject Christ was also judged then. The cities of this world live under a cloud of coming judgement.
As someone who lives in London and loves the energy, architecture and possibilities of his city I need to avoid being so infatuated with it that I fail to remember that it is fallen already. The announcement recognises that there is much that may be good and attractive but that the city is deeply corrupted and must be destroyed. What is good about urban culture will be cleansed and redeemed in the city to come. But Rome will never evolve into Jerusalem. She has become the home of foul demons and unclean birds (in Deuteronomy 14 that list is headed by the eagle – the sign of Rome).
The glorious angel who makes this announcement sounds very much like the angel of chapter ten who represented the word of God. Scripture does indeed warn us that human society is fallen and under judgement. Too often that witness is muffled by christians since it seems so negative.
We should remember that the Gospel is double edged: it pronounces forgiveness to those who turn from sin and pronounces judgement on those who remain in it. We do not really understand the Good News until we have understood the bad news.
A Word To The Christian In Two Minds
We believers are attracted to the worldly life. Christians still have hearts which can lead us astray or into compromise with the world. We can be like Lot who feared God but nevertheless dwelt too long in Sodom and nearly died with that city.
Christian worldliness is more dangerous than it seems. It can involve us in God's vengeance (v.4,5). So many "christians" seem half asleep to the dangers of self-indulgence and the normal life of seeking self-gratification which characterises Western affluent culture. Sexual mores have slackened amazingly in the last few decades in the churches of every theological stance and few of us know what Jesus meant when he spoke of "losing our lives" for the gospel's sake.
Such dozy members of the professing church may be heading for a nasty shock. Perhaps the doctrine of "eternal security" has made people feel secure when they should have heard the doctrine of Revelation 18:4 before claiming security through faith.
If we secretly adopt the loose sexual morals of our culture or live by exploitation (including LEGAL methods!) or just live for pleasure then we are dwelling in Babylon and we are unfaithful to Christ, our husband. Such a christian will one day discover what God means when He calls Himself a "jealous" God.
Our attitude to civilisation
"Civilisation" is supposed to be a “GOOD THING”. If someone says you are civilised it is meant to be a compliment. But christians should have a critical attitude to the cultural achievements of mankind. In particular, we should examine our own culture WITH GREAT CARE in the light of scripture.
The condemnation of Babylon is so sweeping, so thorough and so negative in its judgement that we should be surprised. Some people have such a hatred of their fellow man that they delight in debunking and condemning their own culture but no compassionate human being can fail to be surprised by the severity of God's judgement on our beloved city.
So much of what we see as civilisation is guilty, condemned and ripe for judgement. Will nothing be saved of this fruit of the centuries?
We cannot write off culture as all bad as some "Fundamentalists" seem to do. We will learn in Revelation 21:24 that many of the splendours of earthly culture WILL be saved for eternity and this suggests that we should appreciate and value all that is good wherever it is found (Phillipians 4:8). Yet we need to be aware that much of the "civilised life" is just like Babylon - lovely on the surface but corrupt in heart.
We need the filling of the Holy Spirit to make us thoughtful and wise in our knowledge of God so that we can discriminate and choose what is healthy and permissable. We also need His power to resist our own worldliness and then to do what we see is right.
"Seek ye first"
Our love of the world cannot be conquered by our feeble will-power. If we know ourselves - as christians should - then we will be aware that new motives of faith, hope and love infilling us by the Spirit are needed to move us out of Babylon and into the life which is free from her clutches.
There is also a powerful negative motive laid before us here. When we see the fate of Babylon in this chapter doesn't it inspire us to leave the normal and average sins of life in our society and seek the narrow path of the Kingdom of God and its righteousness?