Revelation Week 9
By Rob Wall
Seattle Pacific University Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Revelation 15:5
Revelation’s bad press, especially now, often discusses its vivid images of divine judgment. God seems ticked off all the time and the results are typically catastrophic for all people and every place. A third of the planet gets wiped out, and another quarter of what remains gets obliterated besides. What’s up with that?! Who wants to worship a mean-spirited God? I’ve already explained that John’s various visions of God’s payback form a symbol system that underscores in vivid, memorable ways a core belief of our gospel: God has already yelled a resounding “No way!” to sin and evil on the cross and has already proclaimed victory over death in Christ’s empty tomb. But I want to begin this Lectio on a passage that envisions God’s fury in full form with another explanation of why Revelation’s language of destruction is important to a Christian’s way of thinking about the future.
Many years ago Carla and I decided that we needed a new kitchen to help raise our industrial-grade family. We hired a contractor to do the work. The first advice he gave us was to move our kitchen and dining room to temporary digs because demolition was about to begin. We did as we were told, and a very messy, loud, unsettling demolition project began the next day. When the dust settled, the back half of our home was on its way to the dump, and all that remained was its stick shell. But then construction began the next day, and in a month or so our industrial-grade family was running in and out of a wonderfully functional, newly remodeled kitchen that has served us very well.
Destruction Precedes Reconstruction
Dem·o·li·tion, n. The act or process of wrecking or destroying. Think of God’s terrifying judgment of planet earth as a kind of demolition project — an act of clearing and cleansing all the effects of past sin in every nook and cranny of the present to prepare the ground for construction of a new creation. John’s theological tradition interprets Christ’s death as an act that judges and purifies the world of sin. More critically, however, the purifying effect of the Lamb’s blood is to prepare the world for its future remodel freed from death and the devastating effects of evil: a remodeled creation.
By now readers have probably grown weary of John’s visions of God’s anger. Thankfully we are told that the prophet’s sighting of seven angels, each responsible for a devastating plague, signals an end to God’s anger (15:1–4). The vision of God’s “bowl judgments” (15:5–16:21) testifies a final time to God’s decisive victory over God’s enemies, sin and death, which results from the Lamb’s death and exaltation. Gospel, people, gospel!
John once again observes that the heavenly temple is open for viewing, and he is able to observe from a distance the commissioning service of the angels who are appointed to pour out “the anger of the God who lives forever and always” (15:7), which they carry in their bowls. According to Jewish mythology, followed here by John, God appoints angels as guardians of the created order. These angels are commissioned with the sacred task of executing the Creator’s judgment of earth, polluted because of sin.
Earlier John notes that he had set his eyes on the chest (or ark) of the covenant (11:19) and now adds that the temple is “the tent of witness” (15:5), two phrases from the biblical story of Israel’s wilderness sojourn that reference the meeting place where God conducted business with Moses about Israel’s future (Exodus 25–26). No one is able to enter the temple to meet with God about creation’s future until this final act of purification is complete. Creation is not fully prepared for its remodel until the demolition project is completed.
Four Bowls to Cleanse the Earth
The repetition of John’s sighting of the heavenly temple (11:19 and 15:5) has the effect of connecting the prior work of the seven angels whose trumpet fanfares announced a new round of divine judgment (8:1–11:18) with this final septet of bowl judgments. In comparing these two visions of sevenfold judgments, clearly the intensity of God’s anger has increased as the end approaches. The movement that plots an apocalyptic narrative (think Marvel Comics) is that things go from bad to incredibly bad before help arrives from above to save the world.
The first four bowls follow the sequence of the first four trumpet fanfares; each plague is poured out on a particular part of nature: earth (16:2; cf. Exodus 9:8–12), sea (16:3; cf. Exodus 7:17–21), rivers and fresh water springs (16:4–7; cf. Exodus 7:14–25), and sun (16:8; cf. Exodus 10:21–29). As before in the biblical story of the Exodus, the Creator uses creatures to plague and purify the land of its deadly evils. The results are complete and completely horrific: the entire natural order becomes a corpse. The angel’s commentary on God’s destruction of earth’s water supply (16:5–7) is grounded in a sense of divine justice (theodicy): those who bloody God’s faithful people receive a bloody punishment for their sins. Hard words to swallow, especially for the powerful elites in charge of Babylon: there will be payday someday.
More devastating than God’s judgment, however, is the people’s heartbreaking response to it: as before (9:20–21), God’s full metal jacket judgment of every evil, executed on the cross, has no redemptive result. Like the Pharaoh of old, the enemies of God refuse to repent or to turn to God in worship and praise (16:9).
Three Bowls of Judgment Against the Beast
The final three bowls target a different enemy: the beast. First the beast’s kingdom and its citizens take a direct hit but with the same result: no repentance (16:10–11). The plague of darkness that shrouds the evil kingdom creates a petri dish for all kinds of nasty bugs (cf. Exodus 10:21–29). More critically, “darkness” symbolizes the people’s ignorance of God so that they blame God for their “pains and sores” (16:11) rather than recognizing that their awful lot is self-inflicted, the consequence of their sin, which should prompt their turn to God for healing grace.
God’s final word is never “No, not you.” In Scripture, if there is punishment exacted, it is just and always meted out as a call for conversion and healing. Yet God’s judgment, which intends a people’s salvation, continues to fail in turning the beast’s people toward grace. Judgment is not so much the instrument of salvation according to Revelation but of purification and preparation of a land for a new day soon to dawn (cf. 16:14).
The sixth bowl pours out an odd judgment since its purpose is to gather the forces of evil for their final battle at a place called Armageddon (i.e., “the mountain at Megiddo,”16:16; see 19:19). [Author’s Note 1] The troops muster as before on the dried riverbed of the Euphrates (cf. 9:14). Unclean (or demonic) spirits, like the unclean frogs (cf. Leviticus 11:42) that plague Egypt (cf. Exodus 8:1–15), are released from the unholy trinity to empower the generals of these troops to wage a last ditch effort to subvert the redemptive plans of God, the Almighty One. However, from the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ encounters with unclean spirits we already know how this turns out!
What is most remarkable about John’s vision of the sixth bowl is that Jesus speaks boldly and abruptly into it (Revelation 16:15). Similar to the last time Jesus speaks to the seven congregations (chapters 2–3), he alerts believers that his return to complete his messianic mission will be as sudden and surprising as a thief’s snatching of goods (cf. 3:2–4, 18). That is, believers are to remain steadfastly faithful to the Lord so as not to be taken by surprise when he returns to wage God’s final battle against the unholy trinity (see 19:11–21). If you are not firmly for the victorious Lamb then you have taken sides with a beaten beast and will share in its destiny! Again, there is no grey scale in Revelation’s all-or-nothing prophetic word!
When the angel pours out the final bowl into the air, a loud voice declares, “It is done!” (16:17). The light and sound show that accompanies heaven’s pronouncement (cf. 16:18) helps us locate its divine origins: “from the temple, from the throne” — that is, the places where God hangs out. An earthquake destroys Babylon (16:18–19), greater than the earlier earthquake that hit “the great city […] called Sodom and Egypt” (11:8; 11:13). Earthquakes and huge hailstones (cf. Exodus 9:22–26) are nature’s signs of the Creator’s displeasure in a creation gone from bad to worse. But even then, in the rubble of Babylon the Great, Babylon’s broken citizens curse God rather than turn to God for forgiveness. There is hardly a more heartbreaking image in all Scripture than of these people populating John’s visionary world who are battered on every side by the long-term effects of humanity’s evil but who steadfastly refuse to embrace God as their only way out.
Evil is Evil — in Babylon or in Seattle
The triad of heavenly signs is revealed, and the brutal conflict between the woman (12:1) and the evil dragon (12:3) is effectively over on earth as in heaven with the pouring out of seven plagues (15:1) upon a fallen creation ruled by the dragon’s unholy trinity. “The hour of [God’s] judgment has come” and gone (14:7). Among the most important literary features of this book is the cyclic way it returns time and again to the core beliefs of the Lamb’s gospel. John has already envisioned the fall of Babylon the Great, the apocalyptic city-state that symbolizes institutionalized, urbanized evil (14:8; 16:19).
Hostility to the purposes of God not only shows up in our hearts and relationships; it not only is evident in the pollution of the natural order — the extinction of species, the warming of our atmosphere, the careless destruction of waterways and woodlands. But the very ways we organize our public lives — socially, politically, economically, religiously — all indicate that God’s way of life is not often followed.
John probably had ancient Rome in mind when writing down the vision of Babylon’s fall. After all, the city he sees is like Rome, built on seven hills (17:9) and near “deep waters” (17:1); but so is Seattle! My point is to sound a warning that today’s reader of Revelation should resist the tendency to locate the Babylon of Revelation 17–18 on some map of the distant past. The Spirit inspires John to envision a great city that is recognizable by every reader as their city, in their time zone and age, where their neighbors gather together to live and work in ways subversive of God’s reign. Ancient Rome and today’s Seattle exist as a single piece, not only because each is built on seven hills but because the “adulteries” of each city bear a striking family resemblance and share a common destiny.
The prophet’s initial conversation with one of the angels regards the coming judgment of “the great prostitute” (17:1), who symbolizes the greatness of Babylon and the political power of its ruling elites (17:18). Her bling (17:3–4) comes at the expense of her clients (17:2) who have exploited Babylon’s citizens (see Revelation 18). John is “completely stunned” (17:6) by what he sees — not so much because of the great evil that produces the wealth, but by the great beauty of the urban center itself. Most modern cities, like Seattle, are places full of wonderful art and superb architecture; they are great places to visit. We walk their streets and are “completely stunned” by what we see. John’s hard point is that the wealth that finances urban bling is typically produced by “the kings” who prostitute themselves to gain their city’s power and wealth (17:2).
“The Wages of Sin is Death”
John is transported by angel express to a desert place where he receives his third “Spirit-inspired trance” (17:3; see 1:10; 4:2; cf. 21:10). The repetition of this important phrase, better translated as “in the Spirit” [Author’s Note 2], cues the reader to an unfolding vision that conveys a crucial but often overlooked belief of the gospel message. John envisions Babylon’s destruction, which is as stunning as the evils spent to make it great. The angel explains why, and his interpretation of Babylon’s demise centers upon the beast, not the prostitute who rides it (17:7–18).
By its own admission, the angel’s explanation relates a “mystery” (17:7) that requires “an understanding mind” (17:9; cf. 13:18); and the history of interpreting this complex passage, which has produced as many interpretations as interpreters, confirms both its mysterious quality and the need for an understanding mind! But for this Lectio, let’s cut to the chase scene (17:16–17). From his desert viewing area, readers expect John to observe “in the Spirit” what is first promised him: “the judgment upon the great prostitute” (17:1). And if this great prostitute is Revelation’s stand-in for the great city, then the three angels’ prior prediction would lead us to think that it will be God who executes this final destruction of Babylon (read 14:6–20). But, aha, we would be wrong! The “understanding mind” is led by the Spirit to get the gospel message that evil and its various practices, whether personal or societal, are acts of rebellion against the Creator’s very good way of ordering life and are therefore inherently self-destructive.
In a word, evil ultimately will turn in on itself. Revelation’s surprising snapshot reveals the mystery that it is the evil beast who hates the evil prostitute, and it will be this beast and its company of allies, already throttled by the Lamb (17:12–14), who will have their way with the prostitute and destroy her (17:16–17). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, NIV). This is the word of the Lord.
One angel’s surprising interpretation of the prostitute’s mysterious demise gives way to another angel’s radiant taunt of Babylon’s failure and fall (18:1–3). The angel’s announcement, loudly spoken to attract attention, gathers together bits and pieces of Old Testament prophecies in which God indicts Babylon (Isaiah 13–14; 21; 47; Jeremiah 25:12–38; 50–51) and Tyre (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26–28) and promises their destruction. Both were large urban centers of great power and wealth, notorious for their hostile takeovers of God’s people. In continuity with Israel’s hope, then, the angel’s taunt declares the fulfillment of God’s promise to destroy them. Again, in Revelation “Babylon” is a literary trope for all those places ruled by a politics of functional atheism (18:2) that tolerates “the kings […] and the merchants of the earth” who become rich by prostituting themselves in exchange for extravagant wages and lifestyle at the expense of others they exploit (18:3). Sound familiar?
The Sinful Grieve Their Demise
What follows the angel’s taunt is an extended dirge (18:9–20) by Babylon’s grieving powerbrokers whose offenses “have piled up as high as heaven” to bring their great city’s ruin (18:5) — a faint echo of God’s rejoinder to Babel’s arrogance in building its temple tower (cf. Genesis 11:1–9). John’s shift back into the present tense suggests earth’s lamentation is actually a commentary on current political and economic practices that have left Babylon bankrupt spiritually and doomed for destruction.
But first another heavenly voice directs its exhortation at “my people” to “come out of [Babylon]” (18:4). Many scholars argue that this verse nicely summarizes John’s pastoral message to Revelation’s readers: make a clean break from all sin, both personal and institutional, to live as God’s holy people. A catalogue of four commands (18:6–8) maps an exit strategy for a sanctified people that, in effect, mirrors what God plans to do in exacting a fair punishment that fits Babylon’s crime, which boils down to self-deification (see 18:7; cf. Isaiah 47:7–8). It is a people’s holy life that cooperates with God’s indictment of evil (cf. Romans 12:9–21; 2 Corinthians 6:17–18).
Kings (Revelation 18:9–10), merchants (18:11–17a), and ship captains (18:17b–20) take turns mourning the sudden loss of their power “in a single hour” (18:10, 17a, 19). In particular “the merchants of earth,” (18:11) whose dirge is longest, grieve the loss of their marketplace and cargo (including a slave trade; see 18:13!) — a market economy that will never again return them to the niceties of middle-class prosperity. What strikes the reader is that they mourn Babylon’s fall not for its toll on human life but for the loss of material goods. Revelation’s dirge sounds the target of God’s wrath: an arrogant, extravagant materialism addicted to consumption, which is brokered by a powerful elite that values things over human lives. Folks, this way of life is already (but not yet) toast!
To make John’s critique of power demonstrably clear, another powerful angel picks up and tosses a huge boulder into the sea, drowning Babylon with the force of a violent tsunami (18:21; cf. Jeremiah 51:60–64). But rather than dwelling on those responsible for Babylon’s demise, the angel’s lyrics turn from taunt to haunt, since the destruction of the city brings with it the death of beauty and of innocent life. Such is the tragedy of evil: its exercise always has collateral damage. Gone with the city are not only its evil tycoons but also its artists, musicians, skilled craftspeople, productive laborers, and married life. Babylon’s crime wave is indiscriminate; it has destroyed the human production of beautiful art and music, and it has killed innocent people. Even the saints and prophets are buried with her (cf. 13:6–7, 10–15).
The Lamb Invites Us Out of Babylon
Payday, someday. Word. (Pause: find a CD of Handel’s Messiah and turn to its “Hallelujah Chorus.” Play it, sing it. Then read aloud Revelation 19:1–8). Following the taunts and dirges of chapter 18, chapter 19 begins with song: heaven’s full chorus once again breaks into doxological refrain to sing its own Hallelujah Chorus in praise of God (19:1–8; cf. 18:20). The reign of God and the salvation it guarantees are grounded in the character of God’s choices, whether to punish or to save. And the fear inspired by God’s glory and power that prompts worship of Him from “both small and great” (19:5) exists because God’s “judgments are true and just” (19:2). The moral case for God’s sovereignty and our confidence that God will win out resides in this single lyric of heaven’s praise: God makes decisions about people and places based upon faithful (“just”) consideration of all relevant evidence (“true”). The result is the victory of God’s reign and the salvation of creation from its enemies (19:6). Praise the Lord!
This final shout of “Hallelujah!” from heaven’s vast throng is the invocation that begins the wedding liturgy of the Lamb and his bride (19:7–9). To come out of Babylon (18:4) is to receive an invitation to the banquet of the Lamb’s wedding (19:9) as his bride (19:8). In this case John interprets the white linen worn by the Lamb’s bride as “the saints’ acts of justice” (19:8) rather than as cleansed in the Lamb’s blood (so 7:14). The word for “justice” comes from the same root that characterizes God’s decisions as “just”; that is, God’s people, the Lamb’s bride, are marked out from the rest of Babylon by the God-like choices they make.
The white of the linen dress worn by the Lamb’s bride symbolizes the purity of God’s people that results from the covenant-keeping cooperation of a God who graciously forgives sin and a people who obediently follows the Lamb wherever he goes (cf. 14:4–5). The angel’s gentle rebuke of John, who had thrown himself at the angel’s feet in worship (19:10), secures this point. God’s people form a Spirit-filled community of prophets who hold firmly to the apostolic witness about Jesus, the “word of God” (1:2, 9; cf. 20:4; cf. 1 John 1:1–2). [Author’s Note 3]
The banquet hall is now open; the feast has already been prepared on the cross. The risen Lamb awaits his bride, whose bridal dress has been cleansed by his blood and ironed by her acts of justice. Babylon is destroyed, but a final battle, already won but not yet waged, must be engaged to purify the earth and ready it for the wedding celebration to begin. Then heaven breaks open and John sees the most astonishing, arresting vision of Christ’s return ever experienced. Stay tuned for the next Lectio.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Neither capitalism nor democracy is apparently able to order society in ways that meet God’s criteria for justice. How then can one be Christian within Babylon’s self-destructive system?
- Think of three concrete ways that we can unstick ourselves from the gluey materialism that adheres to all areas of our lives.
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