VIII. The Fall of Babylon (Revelation 17:1–19:21)


VIII. The Fall of Babylon (17:1–19:21)

17:1-5 The identity of the notorious prostitute who is seated on many waters (17:1) is revealed in 17:5, when John calls her Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and of the detestable things of the earth. The term prostitute is used as a metaphor for people who are unfaithful to God. What John calls the mother, or origin, of such unfaithfulness is the city of Babylon, introduced in Genesis 11:1-9. Led by a man named Nimrod (Gen 10:8-12), the people of Babylon rejected God’s rule and put humankind at the center of their civilization. God dispersed that city in judgment by confusing its languages.

Throughout subsequent history, though, it spawned other civilizations in which man attempted to elevate himself to the role of deity—such as in the later kingdom of Babylon led by Nebuchadnezzar. After that, the Roman Empire embodied the values of ancient Babylon. Eventually, the term Babylon came to be used for any worldly system that attempted to replace God. Today, secularism and worldliness are children of this great mother of prostitutes.

The image of this prostitute seated on many waters (17:1) depicts worldliness and secularism dispersed among the many people groups and nations of the world (cf. 17:15) who have become drunk, so to speak, on immorality (17:2). The prostitute is riding on a scarlet beast (17:3), which is the Antichrist, because the Antichrist will carry godlessness across his dominion. The materialism associated with worldly systems is depicted as the woman’s clothing of purple and scarlet as well as her adornment of gold, jewels, and pearls. Perversion is depicted as the detestable content of a golden cup (17:4).

17:6 In the Antichrist’s kingdom in particular, ungodliness will extend beyond mere secularism and worldliness to active persecution of Christians. Thus, the personification of worldliness, the woman, is said to be drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. The persecution and immorality are so overwhelming that John is left astonished.

17:7-8 The angel who has been guiding John begins to explain . . . the mystery of the woman and of the beast (17:7). The description of the beast is similar to his description in 13:1, and the statement that he was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss refers to the reality described in 13:3: the Antichrist will receive a fatal wound only to rise from the dead and increase his following. This passage, however, adds a detail absent from chapter 13—that is, the Antichrist’s ultimate end is destruction. Nonetheless, nonbelievers will be astonished temporarily at his apparent resurrection (17:8).

17:9-11 Key to understanding this scene is John’s description of the beast’s seven heads as seven mountains on which the woman is seated. Historically, the Roman Empire has been described as a nation built on seven hills or seven mountains. Accordingly, John seems to be saying the Antichrist will lead a renewed Roman Empire. Worldliness and rebellion against God will spread across it, personified by the unfaithful woman seated on it.

The seven heads also represent seven kings (17:9) or world leaders. The presence of five kings who have fallen (17:10) indicates the Antichrist will depose some world leaders in order to increase his power. Nevertheless, he will leave some leaders in power and allow still others to rise to power. The Antichrist will govern alongside his political contemporaries, although eventually, as John repeats, he is going to destruction (17:11).

17:12-14 The ten horns represent ten kings, or world leaders, who will receive authority (17:12) for a short time and for one purpose: to give their power and authority to the Antichrist (17:13). There will be ten nations in the renewed Roman Empire that form an alliance under the Antichrist and make war against the Lamb at the battle of Armageddon. But the Lamb will conquer them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings (17:14).

17:15-17 The waters, as has been noted, symbolize the peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages (17:15) of the world, the majority of which embrace self-centeredness and ungodliness. The image of ten nations devouring the prostitute and burning her up with fire (17:16) serves as a reminder that the worldly system, which promises pleasure, will soon pass away. Those who embrace that system seek self-glorification and thrills. But in the end, their long-sought gratification will amount to nothing, and they will be given to the beast as his pawns (17:17).

17:18 Despite the fact that worldly systems and schemes ultimately leave their adherents empty handed, worldliness will exert power over the kings of the earth for a time, especially during the tribulation.

It’s appropriate to pause here and note an important application: These events could occur very soon indeed. Jesus said no one knows the “day or hour” of his coming (Mark 13:32), and we make no attempt to predict the precise timing of that glorious return. At the same time, we see chaos in the Middle East and what seems an increasing marginalization of God. The stage appears set for the Antichrist to arise out of chaos. Christians, then, must remain alert and devote their full energy, while there is still time, to God’s agenda for themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities. Unbelievers would be wise to confess Jesus as their Savior immediately before it is too late.

18:1 The presence of another angel with great authority coming down from heaven underscores the importance of angels in Revelation. They are present and active in the church age as well, and indeed some followers of Christ “have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it” (Heb 13:2). But after the church is removed from the earth, angels will assume a more visible role to fill the spiritual void.

18:2-3 The angel proclaims that man-centered society has fallen (18:2) because all the nations became unfaithful to God, which is depicted metaphorically as society’s drinking the wine of Babylon’s sexual immorality. As a result of this wicked activity, the merchants of the earth are said to have grown wealthy (18:3). This passage, then, illustrates that all wealth does not come as a blessing from God. Satan can give wealth too, as is evident from his promise to give Jesus worldly kingdoms in exchange for worship (see Matt 4:9). It would be a mistake to assume that the presence of wealth in a particular life indicates God’s blessing and his approval of that person’s actions.

18:4-5 God’s people are called to withdraw from worldly living in order to avoid the judgment to come upon godless society. In delivering that warning, a voice from heaven (18:4) refers to Babylon’s sins as being piled up and triggering God’s remembrance. God will delay judgment at times for the sins of the wicked. But when judgment comes, no sin will be passed over. All will receive their just recompense.

18:6-8 The members of the secular, godless society within the Antichrist’s kingdom are sentenced to a double portion of judgment for their sins (18:6). The reason for such severe judgment is the arrogance and self-centeredness of those under the beast’s rule. The society metaphorically called Babylon glorified herself and indulged her sensual and excessive ways, proclaiming, I sit as a queen; I am not a widow, and I will never see grief (18:7). God hates such brazen rejection of his ways and an accompanying view of oneself as indestructible. Therefore, he will send death and grief and famine and burning with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is mighty (18:8).

18:9-14 Judgment of the Antichrist’s realm will be swift. Leading up to the moment of divine recompense, there will be many warnings and much display of God’s patience. Yet when judgment finally falls, the kings of the earth who have . . . shared her sensual and excessive ways will weep and mourn (18:9) and say in amazement, in a single hour, your judgment has come (18:10). God’s judgment will involve economic disruption. The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn . . . because no one buys their cargo any longer (18:11), including precious metals, cloth, spices, livestock, and produce (18:12-14).

Divine destruction of wealth in this instance should not be taken to indicate divine condemnation of wealth per se. There are many wealthy people in the Bible who walked with God—Abraham, Joseph, and Solomon to name a few. In Solomon’s case, Scripture says explicitly that great wealth was a gift and reward from God (see 2 Chr 1:12). What the Lord condemns is a person being controlled by wealth. The more blessed you are, the more grateful and worshipful you should be. Yet in the case of Babylon, wealth led to self-centeredness and denial of God.

18:15-20 That wealth controlled the inhabitants of the Antichrist’s kingdom is evident from the torment, weeping and mourning of the merchants upon the destruction of their material goods (18:15). They lament not the loss of life or swift removal of other people’s livelihood, but that in a single hour such fabulous wealth was destroyed. The judgment’s swiftness is underscored by the second and third repetitions of the phrase a single hour (18:17, 19; cf. 18:10 and “just one day” in 18:8). The severity of the economic disruption is emphasized by the threefold repetition of a double woe by the residents of Babylon (18:10, 16, 19). Lest anyone mistakenly think this economic destruction is mere happenstance, John makes its source clear: Rejoice over her, heaven, and you saints, apostles, and prophets, because God has pronounced on her the judgment she passed on you (18:20).

18:21 Not only will the destruction of godless, secular society be severe, but it will also be final. A mighty angel graphically illustrates that point when he picks up a stone like a large millstone, throws it into the sea, and declares: In this way, Babylon the great city will be thrown down violently and never be found again.

18:22-23 Commercial and social activity that is not in itself evil will be destroyed because secular society perverts it in service of a man-centered agenda. Thus, the sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters will be silenced, and skilled labor, industrial production, and weddings will cease. This will happen because people have been deceived by the lie that material wealth is all-satisfying in itself. God, in his infinite wisdom, will redirect human society to a better path.

18:24 Not surprisingly, worship of the wrong object (wealth) is accompanied by wrath misdirected at an improper target (Christians). In the Antichrist’s kingdom, as with other godless societies throughout history, the blood of prophets and saints testifies to the slaughter of those who stand for God’s values in opposition to the religion of materialism.

19:1 The scene shifts from earth to heaven as something like the loud voice of a vast multitude praises God with cries of Hallelujah! This Greek word is the transliteration of a Hebrew compound: “hallal” (praise) and “Yah” (an abbreviated form of Yahweh). Thus, the word means “praise Yahweh.” Praise is the declaration of the glory, greatness, power, and majesty of God, and there is no such thing as silent praise. Unlike worship, which can occur quietly within a believer’s heart, praise in Scripture often is tied to our lips (e.g., Pss 34:1; 51:15; 119:171). God is not untoward in demanding praise because he is worthy of it. Hundreds of thousands of people attend parades to celebrate championship sports teams, yet God is infinitely more worthy of celebration than any athlete. That’s why the multitude in Scripture is found crying out, Salvation, glory, and power belong to our God.

19:2 The reasons for praising God are manifold, but here the praise comes specifically because his judgments are true and righteous. At Christ’s second coming, he will judge those who are unfaithful to their Creator, and doing so will be entirely appropriate. During the tribulation, such people will corrupt the earth with . . . sexual immorality and inflict violence on the Lord’s servants.

19:3-4 A second cry of hallelujah comes because smoke ascends from godless society forever and ever following God’s judgment (19:3). Like God, his people are not to delight in the destruction of the wicked (see Ezek 33:11); however, worship is an entirely appropriate response to God’s righteous judgments and his establishment of justice where there once was injustice. That is precisely why the twenty-four elders, who represent the church, and the four living creatures, who are angelic beings, worship God, who is seated on the throne, saying, Amen! Hallelujah! (19:4)—the third repetition of the latter term in four verses.

19:5-6 A voice . . . from the throne in heaven affirms the rightness of praise as a response to God’s judgment. All believers—both small and great—are to render such praise (19:5). A hallelujah sounds for the fourth time, and with intense volume, when a vast multitude, like the sound of cascading waters, and like the rumbling of loud thunder, worships God because he reigns (19:6). There are two ways in which God can reign: in blessing and in judgment. Either way, it is an awesome thing when the Lord manifests his presence and establishes his rule in an open and visible way. Here he is reigning in judgment.

19:7-9 The marriage of the Lamb (19:7) and the ensuing marriage feast of the Lamb (19:9) will occur on earth after Jesus returns. The feast will last for a thousand years during the millennial kingdom (cf. 20:1-6). This wedding imagery draws from the tradition of an ancient wedding, in which a formal betrothal was followed by a wedding ceremony that involved the bridegroom taking the bride to his father’s house. Then, at a wedding party, guests celebrated the marriage.

In the church’s spiritual marriage to Christ, the betrothal period is the church age, when Christians are pledged to Christ. The wedding will occur when Jesus returns to take his bride to his heavenly Father’s house. The celebration will occur during the millennium, after the church has prepared herself (19:7) by adorning herself with righteous acts (19:8).

The marriage feast of the Lamb destroys the common caricature of heaven as a place where each believer simply sits on a cloud playing a harp. During this thousand-year party, believers’ rewards and responsibilities will be determined by their levels of faithfulness to Christ on earth. Jesus will ensure the complete absence of disorder and discord.

19:10 The he in this verse and in 19:9 refers to the angel who began guiding John in 18:1. The glorious sight of the feast and reign of God leads John to fall at the angel’s feet to worship him. But he corrects John: Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers and sisters who hold firmly to the testimony of Jesus. Worship Jesus.

19:11-12 Verse 11 takes the reader back in time to the second coming of Jesus, which will occur before the millennium. The public nature of the coming is depicted by heaven’s visible opening. Jesus rides a white horse, the Roman symbol of victory. Christ’s main task upon returning to earth is making war against the enemies of God (19:11). His eyes are pictured as glorious and intense, and he wears many crowns as a symbol of his vast authority. Even at the open manifestation of Christ in his glory, aspects of his person will remain beyond human comprehension. That reality is symbolized by a name written on him that no one knows except himself (19:12).

19:13-14 The meekness and mildness of Jesus at his first coming contrast with his disposition at his second coming. On that day, he will establish his reign on earth by force. Thus, he is pictured wearing a robe dipped in blood (19:13) and accompanied by the armies that were in heaven, who follow him on white horses, wearing pure white linen (19:14). Those armies are followers of Jesus from the church age and the tribulation who will rule on earth with him for a thousand years.

19:15-16 At his second coming, Jesus’s weapon of choice will be his Word, pictured here as a sharp sword that came from his mouth, so that he might strike the nations with it (19:15). Because he is King of kings and Lord of lords (19:16), conquering every enemy on earth will be a matter of relative ease. It will be a matter of speaking.

This is nothing new, though. From Genesis to Revelation, Jesus is pictured as possessing an authoritative Word. John 1:1 says of Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” At creation Jesus spoke the words, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3), and by his Word light came about. It was by that same authoritative Word that Jesus caused the devil to flee in the wilderness (see Matt 4:1-11) and sent a legion of demons out of a demon-possessed man and into a herd of pigs (see Mark 5:1-13). In each of these instances, the way he brought about powerful results was by speaking his Word. And so shall it be at the end of time.

Likewise, for followers of Jesus, we must not simply know God’s Word or study it, but also verbally quote it. So, when was the last time you actually quoted God to another person or even to the devil in order to handle a specific situation? If you have truly received authority from God—which all believers have—and you quote the Word accurately to people or forces of Satan, it carries intrinsic authority to accomplish God’s purposes. In some cases, it draws a person to salvation. In others, it causes a hardened sinner to be without excuse for his or her conduct. In no situation, however, will a child of God verbally quote and obey the Word of God and have that Word return empty (see Isa 55:11).

19:17-18 Vultures are summoned to gather together for the great supper of God so that they may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of military commanders, the flesh of horses and of their riders, and the flesh of everyone, both free and slave, small and great. The context of this summons is that Satan, the Antichrist, and their allies will seek to destroy Jesus when he returns at the battle of Armageddon (16:12-16). Nevertheless, Jesus will utterly defeat them and leave their bodies to be eaten by birds of prey, a reality mentioned in Matthew 24:27-28 as well.

19:19 The active opposition of the Antichrist and his allies to Christ is made explicit here. Jesus will not return to bring capricious judgment against unsuspecting innocent parties. He will strike down the wicked who are gathered to wage war against him.

19:20 The beast, or Antichrist, and the false prophet are taken prisoner and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. This makes it clear that there is no annihilation in store for those who reject Christ. Some have wrongly taught that the wicked are punished in hell for a time before simply ceasing to exist. It is clear from this verse (and others), however, that punishment is unending.

19:21 In addition to receiving eternal judgment in hell, which will be described further in 20:13-15, those who stand against Jesus at the battle of Armageddon will face a temporal judgment on earth: They will be killed with the sword that [comes] from the mouth of Jesus—his Word (see 19:15).