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This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 17: Rome Gets It…Again.
The Roman Empire is so intensely hated by the ancient Jewish Christians that her downfall must be marked with an epic celebration. Rome was depicted as dying yet again in our last chapter when the saucy prostitute who personified her was mauled to death by the freaky Spotty Domitian beast. Now that her body has been ripped apart, eaten, and the leftovers have been burned up, it’s time to party. How do you party as an ancient Jew? You start singing songs of course–lots of them. In this chapter, we’ll go through seven songs that are sung about Rome, whose codename in this book is Babylon. The purpose of these songs is to poetically reflect on Rome’s influence on the world. Some of the songs are happy, some are mocking, and some are sad. We can find many more songs like these in the Old Testament, for God often wove songs into His prophetic messages about various nations.
In the Old Testament, when He was predicting the future fall of some nation or empire, Yahweh did what we find Him doing here in Revelation. He would predict the same fall over and over again using a lot of imaginative metaphors. Then He’d throw in some mourning songs that were really meant to serve as mockery. To understand this let’s use a modern day analogy.
Suppose there are two women named Amy and Heather. Amy thinks Heather is her best friend until the day she finds out that Heather is having an affair with Amy’s husband. Amy reacts to this whole situation very immaturely: she flips out and makes up her mind that she’s going to kill Heather. She’s going to kill her in the cruelest way she can think of, because she really wants Heather to suffer terribly. But before she actually kills Heather, Amy goes over to Heather’s house and tells her, “One day I’m going to kill you, Heather. And when I do, it’s going to be horrible for you.” You see, Amy is so consumed with hate that she no longer has any fear of being caught. She is in such a rush to see Heather upset, that she flaunts her future plans to murder Heather, not even worrying about the possibility that Heather might try to get help. Now let’s say that after Amy freaks Heather out with her murderous plans, Amy then launches into a long mocking speech about how other people will react to Heather’s death. Amy says stuff like:
“On the day you die, when your mom finds out, she’s going to be like, ‘Oh no! Not my baby girl! Not my precious daughter!’ But it will be too bad for her, won’t it? Because you’ll be dead and there’s nothing anyone will be able to do about it! And when my adulterous husband finds out, he’ll be like, ‘Oh no, not Heather! You mean I dumped my wife for nothing? Gee, maybe I should have thought before cheating on the woman that I vowed to be faithful to!'”
As Amy mockingly puts words in other people’s mouths, she’s talking like Yahweh often talks in His prophecies against other nations. For example, when He was predicting His destruction of the ancient coastal city of Tyre, Yahweh described the reaction of various groups of people who heard about Tyre’s fall. Tyre was a port city that did a lot of trading through ships. Since she was so well known by sailors, Yahweh described sailors as being shocked by the news of her destruction.
The sailors and all the captains of the sea stand on the shore. They raise their voices over you and cry out bitterly. They throw dust on their heads; they roll in ashes. They shave their heads because of you and wrap themselves in sackcloth. They weep over you with deep anguish and bitter mourning. In their wailing they lament for you, mourning over you: “Who was like Tyre, silenced in the middle of the sea?” (Eze. 27:29-32)
Now in real life, did sailors and captains really do and say these exact things? Probably not. Yahweh is being theatrical, just as Amy was being theatrical when she anticipated how Heather’s mother and lover would react to the news of her death. Here in Revelation 18, the whole chapter is this same kind of dramatic material. We’ll hear seven different songs being sung about Rome from the perspective of different groups and individuals. These don’t look like song lyrics the way we’ve written them, but if you look in your Bible, you’ll see that the sentences have been broken up into short, stacked phrases that look like something out of the book of Psalms. Whenever you see sentences broken up like this in your Bible, it indicates that the original writer was being poetic. Remember that there are many kinds of poetry, and not all of them rhyme.
The ancient Jews were a very theatrical people and they loved to burst into spontaneous singing whenever some significant event happened. With revenge being one of their favorite subjects, it’s no wonder that many of their songs and psalms were filled with a taunting, “Ha-ha, sucker, I love to see you getting ground into the dirt,” kind of lyrics. It’s a rather acrid attitude for a people who have been saved by grace, but this is how the Jews operated. Since God is working with them where they are at, we find Him mimicking their cultural traditions in both Old and New Testament prophetic books.
After all this I saw another angel come down from Heaven with great authority, and the earth grew bright with his splendor. With a mighty shout he said:
“Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen! She has become a home for demons. She is a hideout for every foul spirit, a hideout for every unclean vulture and every unclean and dreadful animal. All the nations have fallen because of the wine of her passionate immorality. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her. Because of her desires for extravagant luxury, the merchants of the world have grown rich.” (Rev. 18:1-3)
Song #1 is a “ha-ha, you’re sure looking pathetic now” taunt. The angel describes the ruins of Rome being a place where demons and unclean animals lurk. Unclean animals were those that were on Yahweh’s extensive list of forbidden foods. Once something was regarded as unclean, it could easily turn into a general symbol of negativity and repulsion. Unclean animals, objects, and people were a big deal under the Old Covenant, for physically touching unclean things could cause you to become unclean as well, and that meant you would then have to go through a cleansing ritual to get back into a clean state. Under the New Covenant, all of the dietary laws and the whole concept of clean vs. unclean has been thrown out, so we no longer have to worry about such matters today. But the reference to unclean animals here in Revelation reminds us that God’s Jewish audience is still very entrenched in the Old Covenant perspective.
Now in the Old Testament, Yahweh often described scavenger animals moving in to the ruins of cities He was destroying—animals like jackals, hyenas, and owls. He also got very exaggeratory in His general description of ravaged areas.
I will make Jerusalem a heap of rubble, a jackals’ den. I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, an uninhabited place. (Jer. 9:11)
Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her soil into sulfur; her land will become burning pitch. It will never go out—day or night. Its smoke will go up forever. It will be desolate, from generation to generation; no one will pass through it forever and ever.
The desert owl and the screech owl will possess it, and the great owl and the raven will dwell there. Yahweh will stretch out a measuring line and a plumb line over her for her destruction and chaos. (Isa. 34:9-11)
Notice the reference to burning sulfur, smoke that rises up forever, and animals taking over where people once dwelt. Yahweh has been using the same metaphors with the Jews for centuries.
Then I heard another Voice calling from Heaven:
“Come away from her, My people. Do not take part in her sins, or you will be punished with her. For her sins are piled as high as heaven, and Yahweh remembers her evil deeds. Do to her as she has done to others. Double her penalty for all her evil deeds. She brewed a cup of terror for others, so brew twice as much for her. She glorified herself and lived in luxury, so match it now with torment and sorrow. She boasted in her heart, ‘I am queen on my throne. I am no helpless widow, and I have no reason to mourn.’
Therefore, these plagues will overtake her in a single day— death and mourning and famine. She will be completely consumed by fire, for the Lord Yahweh who judges her is mighty.” (Rev. 18:4-8)
Song #2 is sung by Yahweh who warns His people not to partake in the sins of Rome. But wait—how do you participate in the actions of a city which has been obliterated? It’s only in these dramatic visions that Rome has fallen—in real life, she’s still going strong and some of these Christians are feeling tempted to give up and go along with her. How do we know this? Because Yahweh doesn’t urge us not to do things until He knows we’re already struggling. It’s like His famous “do not be afraid” greeting in the Old Testament. Every time you find God telling someone in the Bible not to be afraid, it’s because they already are. God doesn’t try to lead us into fear by bringing it up when we’re feeling fine. Instead, He leads us out of fear by reassuring our already troubled minds.
Now one minute Rome is in a heap of ruins and all the wild animals have moved in, then the next minute Yahweh is talking like her downfall hasn’t quite happened yet. This is the Revelation way: we just keep circling around the concept of Rome being destroyed—anticipating it, celebrating it, and then anticipating it again. For those of you who would like to know what actually happened to Rome in real life, here’s a quick summary.
THE REAL ROME
Right now we’re in the year 96 AD. In 285 AD, Emperor Diocletian will decide that his empire has grown too huge to manage, so he’ll split it into two halves: Eastern and Western. Over the next century, the empire will become reunited, then it will get split into three pieces, then it will be split into two again. The split in 395 AD will be the one that sticks. Rome will rule the Western Empire, while Constantinople will rule the Eastern Empire. Eventually the Eastern Empire will be renamed the Byzantine Empire, and it will keep going strong for another millennium. But we’re interested in the Western Empire, because that’s where Rome is.
Now as is often the case with these empires that grow so massive, an arrogant theory develops that their capital is invincible. It’s after such an attitude develops that God really likes to make His move. People thought that the Titanic was unsinkable—so much for that theory. Don’t try to tell God what He can’t do—that’s a lesson we keep missing. In 410 AD, God brought in a tribe of Germanic barbarians named the Visigoths to give Rome a thorough sacking. When historians refer to a city being “sacked”, they mean that severe damage was done. The Visigoths did to Rome what the ancient Babylonians did to Jerusalem: they invaded, looted, massacred, destroyed, and hauled off a bunch of people as their slaves. Their attack was the first time Rome had been sacked in 800 years—a pretty impressive track record.
The official end of the Western Empire came in 476 AD, when a Germanic fellow named Odoacer declared himself the king of Italy and made the last emperor of Rome—a man named Romulus Augustulus—surrender his crown. It was this official fall of Rome that plunged Europe into what is now called the Dark Ages. Though Rome is being painted in a purely evil light here in Revelation, in reality she was the source of government, education, and culture for many nations. When all of that stopped, it became every man for himself. For 500 years, Europe was in chaos. We see the same kind of situation happening in Israel during the book of Judges, where we find the Jews limping along with no sense of organized government, no judicial system, and no regard for God.
Of course Rome wasn’t all roses. As we’re learning here in Revelation, she promoted demonic values. She also had a huge slave trade, with slaves composing almost 20% of her population. She taxed people so heavily that there was mass starvation by the end.
Now leading up to the death of the empire were all the usual factors: increasingly corrupt leadership, infighting and civil wars within the empire’s borders, growing attacks from those pesky barbarian tribes, a weakened army, and an empire that was just too big to manage. It’s always our greed that kills us. Guys like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Hitler are never satisfied with what they have—they always have to have what everyone else has as well. God always turns our greed against us.
BACK TO REVELATION…
So now that we understand how things actually turned out for Rome, let’s return to this fantasy land in Revelation where Rome’s friends are going to start singing sad songs when they realize that all of the perks of doing business with Rome are over.
And the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains. They will stand at a distance, terrified by her great torment. They will cry out, “How terrible, how terrible for you, O Babylon, you great city! In a single moment Yahweh’s judgment came on you.” (Rev. 18:9-10)
It was the rulers of other nations who sang Song #3. Now the businessmen pipe up.
The merchants of the world will weep and mourn for her, for there is no one left to buy their goods. She bought great quantities of gold, silver, jewels, and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet cloth; things made of fragrant thyine wood, ivory goods, and objects made of expensive wood; and bronze, iron, and marble. She also bought cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses, wagons, and bodies—that is, human slaves.
“The fancy things you loved so much are gone,” they cry. “All your luxuries and splendor are gone forever, never to be yours again.”
The merchants who became wealthy by selling her these things will stand at a distance, terrified by her great torment. They will weep and cry out, “How terrible, how terrible for that great city! She was clothed in finest purple and scarlet linens, decked out with gold and precious stones and pearls! In a single moment all the wealth of the city is gone!” (Rev. 18:11-17)
How quickly great wealth can be turned into a useless pile of smoking rubble. This song reminds us of how futile it is to live for the things of this world instead of living for the God who can so easily take our toys away from us.
Song #5 is sung by sea travelers. Since she was located on the Tiber River, trading ships played a critical part in Rome’s economy.
And all the captains of the merchant ships and their passengers and sailors and crews will stand at a distance. They will cry out as they watch the smoke ascend, and they will say, “Where is there another city as great as this?” And they will weep and throw dust on their heads to show their grief. And they will cry out, “How terrible, how terrible for that great city! The ship owners became wealthy by transporting her great wealth on the seas. In a single hour such fabulous wealth was destroyed!” (Rev. 18:17-19)
Song #6 is one short stanza which is calling all Christians to rejoice.
Rejoice over her fate, O Heaven and people of Yahweh and apostles and prophets! For at last Yahweh has judged her for your sakes. (Rev. 18:20)
Notice how two particular groups are singled out: apostles and prophets. Why do these titles get extra mention? Because John is an apostle and he is now functioning as an official prophet—at least for the length of this vision. Based on the theology he puts out in 1 John, John is an extremely arrogant fellow who thinks he has conquered the sin problem. In that epistle, John divides the world into two extreme camps: perfect Christians and the vile children of Satan. As a member of the perfect Christian camp, and as a Jew with an ethnic superiority complex, John feels quite justified in looking down his nose at the icky Romans and anyone who falters in their devotion to Jesus.
John also likes to tell himself that Yahweh’s primary reason for spanking the Romans will be to make John and his fellow Christians happy. You know, because God revolves around us humans and only lives to satisfy our carnal thirst for revenge. Don’t miss the foul attitude that is on display here. God is talking to these Jews on their current low level, and it isn’t pretty. But it also isn’t anything new. Flip back through the Old Testament, and you’ll find centuries worth of prophecies in which Yahweh does the same thing: describing world events in terms of Israel and encouraging her in her egotistical delusion that she is the center of the universe.
Why does Yahweh do this? Well, suppose you were babysitting a child who uses the wrong names for everything. For example, she calls chairs “shoes” and she calls a fork a “lion.” This child is extremely stubborn by nature and her parents totally accommodate her backwards vocabulary. When you need to feed this child lunch, if you call her to come and sit in a chair at the table, she won’t budge. If you explain to her that what she’s calling a “shoe” is really a chair, she just sticks her tongue out at you and insists that her names for things are correct. But if you tell her to come sit on a “shoe”, she’ll come to the table and do what you want her to do. If she starts eating with her fingers, and you tell her to use her fork, she’ll look up at you blankly. But if you tell her to use her “lion”, she’ll pick up her fork because you’re talking to her in the way that she wants to be spoken to. Now clearly this child is a brat not to accept any instruction from you, but this is what you have to work with.
When it comes to God working with us, we are brats as well. We are like that twerpy kid who insists that the adults in her life adjust to her incorrect labeling system. We Christians are constantly demanding that God adjust to us. As long as His instructions to us stay within the bounds of our foolishness, we listen. But should He start trying to redefine the limits of our thinking by pointing out how He sometimes deceives us or how He is the ultimate source of both good and evil, well then we go into a screaming tantrum and refuse to listen. We claim to want to grow, but really we only want God to keep confirming our own delusions to us. We insist that God never contradicts Himself in the Word, even though there is glaring evidence to the contrary. Fine. Since we refuse to listen to truth, God encourages us to remain in our delusions. Is this because He’s a pushover? No, it’s because He’s got a fabulous system all worked out for Himself in which no one will get away with disrespecting Him.
A common source of frustration for Christians is God’s apparent lack of discipline of those who are defying Him. We’re not just talking about the unsaved here, but also the saved. While scores of Christians spit in God’s face, tune out His convictions, and refuse to grow up, God allows them to prosper in their rebel ways. When we see this, we conclude God must be a pushover. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a major flaw in our assessment of God’s behavior, and that is one of timeframe. Instead of looking at the whole picture, we want justice to be fully carried out in this world. Well, no, this world is like the preface of a book—it’s a brief introduction to the rest of our lives, which will be spent in eternity. It is in eternity that God will balance out the scales of justice and fully respond to how we treated Him here. So while we are in a rush to see Him dole out the discipline, He is not. God prefers to use methods of discipline that only become available after we leave this physical dimension. In short, this world is just too limited for Him to do what He really wants to do to us. But He will. In the end, no one gets away with mocking God. Meanwhile, when we refuse to listen to Him on earth, He simply stops teaching us certain lessons, and we are too stupid to realize the grave thing that is happening.
We think we’ve managed to dominate God when we get Him to drive out demons and heal at our verbal command. We’re so arrogant that we refuse to receive any other explanation for why God’s actions are coinciding so perfectly with our bossy directive. God isn’t taking orders from us—God never takes orders from us. We just tell ourselves that He does, and He encourages us in that delusion, just as He encourages stubborn Jews in the Bible to think that Heaven has been constructed especially for them. Today the world is filled with foolish people who have all decided that Heaven will be whatever they want it to be. “Of course my dog will be there—it wouldn’t be Heaven without him.” Maybe it wouldn’t be Heaven to you if Scruffy wasn’t there, but Heaven isn’t about you, it’s about God (see Honoring God with Our View of Heaven).
Look around this planet and you’ll notice that this place wasn’t constructed to accommodate us. It was constructed for God. So much of this earth we can’t even survive in: scorching deserts, deep oceans, freezing mountain peaks. In the Bible, God boasts of making flowers bloom in the desert where no human eyes will see them. Why does He bother? Because this world isn’t about us. It’s about Him. Everything that God creates is for His benefit. So when we thumb our noses at Him, tune Him out, redefine Him, boss Him about, and actually tell ourselves we’ve triumphed over Him because He isn’t instantly roaring back, we’re so blind. We’re such fools. He’s lured us so effectively into His trap that we didn’t even notice when we crossed the line of no return. It is so dangerous to try and dominate the Almighty Creator. To insist that He revolve around us as ancient Israel does all throughout the Bible—how insane we are to think God would ever really agree to such an agenda. Yahweh says over and over in the Old Testament that He will not share His glory with anyone. As we soak in His glory on a daily basis without seeing any lightning strike, we decide His warnings are nothing but air. But just wait. This world is far too limited to provide satisfying means of revenge for a God whose Name is Jealous. It simply doesn’t bother God to let us rebel our little hearts out while we’re here, because He’s got Hell waiting for us—a place with torments that we can’t even begin to fathom. It won’t be anything like these descriptions we find in the Bible—those are all earthly metaphors which are only meant to teach general concepts. The real place in eternity where God’s enemies will end up is going to be one of torments which our tiny minds can’t even conceive of. God solemnly warns us not to mess with Him or He will make us sorry. He warns us that we’ll pay for our defiance on the other side. He says that even if we end up in Heaven, there will be consequences to pay. We think He’s exaggerating. How wrong we are (see The Eternal Cost of Defying God: A Warning for Christians).
Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a huge millstone. He threw it into the ocean and shouted, “Just like this, the great city Babylon will be thrown down with violence and never found again! The sound of harps, singers, flutes, and trumpets will never be heard in you again. No craftsmen and no trades will ever be found in you again. The sound of the mill will never be heard in you again. The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The happy voices of brides and grooms will never be heard in you again. For your merchants were the greatest in the world, and you deceived the nations with your sorceries. In your streets flowed the blood of the prophets and of Yahweh’s holy people and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world.” (Rev. 18:21-24)
In Chapter 17, the prostitute who was a personification of Rome was literally torn to shreds by a seven headed beast. Now all of these songs are singing in the future tense—talking as if the fall of Rome is still to come. Well, now that we know what the real history of Rome’s fall is, we know that Yahweh isn’t going to be trashing her anytime soon. Just as He began spiking everyone’s hopes for a coming Messiah over 700 years in advance, He is getting these Jewish Christians excited about the fall of Rome centuries in advance. By going over and over the concept of Rome falling without ever giving clear specifics about when exactly that fall will take place, Yahweh keeps the Jews focused on the key principle that their troubles are only temporary. Well of course they are, because each man’s life is so brief. Regardless of what happens to Rome, these Jewish Christians will all be seeing God very soon from the eternal point of view.
It’s rather like Christians today who sit around pining for Jesus to return. There’s no need to pine—we could all die at any moment. Instead of acting like the Second Coming is the only train to Heaven and longing for it to arrive in our lifetimes, we need to realize that we could all be standing face to face with our Makers at any moment. We want to stay focused on pleasing Them in the present moment instead of waiting for an epic change in world circumstances to fix our lives. These Jewish Christians feel like their lives won’t improve until God destroys Rome. But in real life, if God did cause Rome to be sacked in their lifetime, they’d end up in a royal mess. Life on earth is complicated, and none of us get to live in some bubble of bliss where the troubles of others never affect us. These Jews need to be reminded of God’s sovereignty, assured that their hope of Heaven is real, and then they need to refocus on the present. Already God has called them to keep persevering several times in this book. He shows them that things will eventually work out, then He turns their focus back to the present and urges them to press on. The present is very important, for the choices we make today are shaping our future experience of eternity. We can’t just live for the day when we’re all whisked off into the clouds. We need to live for God right now.
Now that all of Rome’s earthly allies have sung about her, it’s time for the folks in Heaven to get in a few stanzas. After that, it will be time for Jesus to change out of His slaughtered Lamb costume and take on the form of a majestic Warrior.
UP NEXT: Applying Revelation 19: Warrior Jesus