Revelation 18: Babylon's burning
As a teenager I had the wonderful job of being contracted to burn the stubble in farmers' fields after the grain had been cut. This cleansed the land ready for replanting. But as we all know, fire can be incredibly destructive. I can recall hundreds of us watching in horror as the grand old building that was my children's school, Morgan Academy, was almost burned to the ground. This June in the UK we have been horrified as we witnessed the terrible death of at least 80 people in the flames of the Grenfell Tower in London.
Our Revelation passage this week (chapter 18) speaks of the fall of Babylon and in particular of it being destroyed through fire: 'She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her' (verse 8).
Babylon (the Roman empire then at the height of its power) seemed to be all-conquering and the Church seemed pathetically weak. The last Apostle, the elderly John, was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. Jesus had not returned. Rome seemed to have conquered all. Christ and his people seemed defeated. But the angel tells a different story. He announces 'Babylon has fallen!' He cites Isaiah 21:9:
Look, here comes a man in a chariot
with a team of horses.
And he gives back the answer:
'Babylon has fallen, has fallen!
All the images of its gods
lie shattered on the ground!'
Why is Babylon being destroyed? Because she has become a dwelling place for demons; because she has caused the nations of the earth to commit adultery with her; because the merchants of the earth have grown rich with her excessive luxuries; and because the blood of the prophets and of God's holy people was shed within her – the slaughtered of the earth. In other words Babylon was a place of violence, injustice, inequality and oppression. Rome's brothels were filled with sex slaves; infanticide and abortion were common and thousands were killed for entertainment in the blood-filled amphitheatres.
It is not just that Rome is corrupt – it is that she has taught others to do the same. The foundation of modern morality seems to be that we are free to do whatever we want as long as it does not harm others. The trouble is that when we do evil, it does inevitably involve and harm others, not least by teaching them to do the same thing.
What are God's people in Babylon to do? – Come out.
Flee from Babylon!
Run for your lives!
Do not be destroyed because of her sins.
It is time for the LORD'S vengeance;
he will repay her what she deserves (Jeremiah 51:6).
This does not mean leaving the world or going to live in the desert. It doesn't mean that Christians should flee London, New York and Paris and head for the hills with stocks of baked beans and guns. What it does mean is that we are not to give into the temptation to compromise with the world and to follow its values. The Church has often been tempted to seek political or economic power, and given into that temptation. Revelation 18 warns us not to – because Babylon will burn. Why should we waste our time and effort on that which will be consumed?
Who mourns the fall of Babylon? It is the kings of the earth and the merchants who lament. John is using Ezekiel's prophecy against Tyre by stressing the merchants and the traders (Ezekiel 26 and 27).
All who live in the coastlands
are appalled at you;
their kings shudder with horror
and their faces are distorted with fear.
The merchants among the nations scoff at you;
you have come to a horrible end
and will be no more (Ezekiel 27:35).
That was the trouble with having all the wealth in the world tied up in one city and one system. Perhaps again there are lessons for today's world. Is it a healthy system in the United Kingdom when it seems as though everything is centred on and through the city of London? It is interesting that in the arguments about the European Union and Brexit it is economics that dominates the whole discussion. 'Oh no,' say the doom merchants. 'How can we trade if we are out of the Single Market?' Nothing else seems to matter. I'm not saying that the EU is Babylon (even though it includes Rome), but one of the lessons from Revelation is that we should not put all our eggs in one basket, and there are things more important to society than money. The market is not all that matters.
The merchants mourn because of their loss of income – not because of the loss of life. They may not have been the soldiers doing the killing, but they funded it. Rome was famous for its excess. The greed of the wealthy was demonstrated by the emperor Vitellius, who managed to spend £7,000,000 in one year on food alone. The trouble with being in a consumer society which focuses on conspicuous consumption is that it itself will be consumed.
Christians today need to take lessons from this. We too can easily fall into the trap of 'excessive luxuries' without asking too many questions. There are areas of my city where if you want a car radio you can go into a local pub and get one for £10. No questions asked. You know that of course it has been stolen, but you don't ask the questions and so you think you bear no responsibility for the anguish of the car owner over the smashed window and the trashed interior.
When we purchase our cheaper clothes, food and other manufactured goods do we still have the 'ask no questions' attitude? Would you buy a cheaper watch even if you knew that it was made by women in the Philippines staying in dormitories and being paid £1 per hour? God will judge us for our unthinking greed. Christians of all people should be intelligent and discerning consumers. In a society run on, for and by, money we should be discriminating in how we use whatever money the Lord gives us. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream – even/especially in our shopping.
The results of the fall of Babylon are devastating. In a society built on consumption and consumed with entertainment, suddenly there is no more music – no harpists, musicians, pipers and trumpeters. There are no builders and architects. It is the destruction of creativity. And of marriage. There are no weddings. Again the irony is that when we focus on the fruits rather than the roots, we lose both.
What is the response of God's people?
There is rejoicing because justice has been done. The arm of the wicked has been broken. The power of the devil is defeated and the injustice which we all claim to hate so much is dealt with. I find it interesting that some of the protests that followed the Grenfell tower demanded 'justice for Grenfell'. It's a sentiment we can all empathise and agree with, but what does it mean? Does it mean that those responsible for looking after the tower should be punished? Does it mean that the Prime Minister should be offered as a sacrifice in order to appease 'the anger of the people? Who dispenses justice? Who is the ultimate lawgiver? No society can survive for long without the rule of law. But who makes the law. The mob? The media? The merchants? The powerful? If we remove the Law of God as our foundation and basis of justice, we also remove the possibility of justice for all – and leave it only in the hands of the powerful.
In all of this the message for Christians is the message of James – 'You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near' (James 5:8). We live in a broken world, which we cannot fix and which will not be fixed by any simplistic political, economic or religious solutions. But we do not despair because there is the promise of justice, regeneration and renewal. His kingdom will come, his will shall be done.
David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea