Babylon Unmasked (Revelation 17:1-18:24)

THE BOOK of Revelation has earlier contained an image of the church as a woman clothed in splendour (12:1) but also hidden in the wilderness (12:13-14) to preserve her from Satan’s assaults which are symbolized by a river flooding from the dragon’s mouth (12:15-16). Now John sees the power of Satan displayed through a woman – who is seated on “many waters” (17:1) – though she is also in a wilderness (17:3) and therefore seems to represent an ‘Anti-church’?. The waters are explained as the nations of the whole world (17:15), who are under the woman’s spell, wielded through her seductive influence (17:4). But in his vision John sees her true character, “Babylon the great, mother of harlot’s and earth’s abominations” (17:5) and he can also see that her golden cup holds the blood of the saints and those who have borne testimony to Jesus (17:6).

This woman is seated on a scarlet beast (17:3) similar to the dragon (12:3), showing that her power derives ultimately from Satan. No wonder that John marvels (17:6) when he sees how much power Satan is allowed in the world. Many people throughout history have also marvelled that God allows the world to be the way it is. But John is reminded that the power of the Devil is only for a season (17:8). Ultimately he will go to his destruction – apoleia – which is surely a play on his name, Apollyon (9:11). The destroyer will finally be destroyed. Yet the power of Satan is actually limited at the moment – the beast “was, and is not, and is to ascend from the pit” (17:8). This may seem even more astonishing to us, yet it fits the agenda of the Apostolic teaching shown, for example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8. Indeed, this latter passage casts a good deal of light on the chronology of Revelation (cf 17:13-14; 19:15).

In John’s vision, therefore, the worst is yet to come, and although they are hard to follow (indeed John himself says “this calls for a mind with wisdom”), verses 9-14 give us some idea of the future agenda. Various suggestions have been made as to what might be intended here, though it is perhaps too simplistic to equate the “seven mountains” (17:9) with Imperial Rome, as John says the seven heads are “also seven kings” (17:10). We should probably be guided by the normal use of numbers in Revelation as symbolic, and recognize that the resemblance to Rome is coincidental (though perhaps in John’s day fortuitous).

The identity of “Babylon” is more intelligibly revealed in chapter 18. Above all, she is a place where God has simply been forgotten, so that her ‘great ones’ are the money-makers (18:23). Thus her destruction is mourned by the kings of the earth who shared her power (18:9-10), the merchants (18:11-17a) even though their trade included a few unpleasant elements like “human souls” (18:13), and the seafarers who were the entrepreneurs (18:17b-19). Yet Babylon was a place of culture and craft, of domesticity, civilization and family life (18:22-23). The spell she cast on the world (18:23) was of seducing people into her lifestyle where only the saints of God were truly not at home (18:20; 24).

Where, then, do we look for a culture whose influence is global and which is forgetful of God and intent only on increasing its wealth and power, a culture where people still go about their daily civilized pursuits and where the only unwelcome intrusion is true godliness? The answer is plain – we live in it! The most subtle way in which Satan oppresses the church is neither through oppressive regimes (the beast), nor through false religions and ideologies (the prophet). Rather, it is through making people comfortable with life and forgetful of God. This is what we must truly fight against. The voice from heaven says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (18:4). This is surely what Jesus meant when he called us to give up our lives and follow him. But it is hard to do when everyone else is going the other way!

John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped