The Sins of Babylon (18.9–19)

Revelation 18.9–19 contains the laments of three distinct groups of people who interacted with Babylon: “the kings of the earth,” “the merchants of the earth,” and “all shipmasters and seafaring men.” At first reading, this might seem like a strange combination of people groups to mourn Babylon’s downfall, but if we remember that Babylon is simply a codeword for Rome, then the combination begins to make sense.
The Romans, you see, were a very practical people. As they extended their empire throughout the then-known world, they imposed order on the nations they conquered. Rather than oppressing the conquered groups, however, the Romans invited them to share in the empire’s growing prosperity by means of interlocking matrices of religion, politics, and trade. Rome included in its pantheon the gods of the conquered groups, and they in turn offered sacrifices to the genius of Caesar. Various notable families vied to become the client kings of the empire. And as Rome expanded, it built roads and established safe sea-lanes so that foodstuffs and other products could be profitably traded across long distances.
Now, from a purely materialistic point of view, Rome’s wealth seemed to be quite a good thing, at least to those on the right of the social spectrum. But John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw the sinister spiritual side of the Pax Romana: idolatry and luxury. The empire was not interested in the truth about God. It was concerned with religion only to the extent that religion helped advance its political, social, and economic agenda. That is why it could afford to be so religiously pluralistic. When it comes to making a buck, just about any god (or combination of gods) will do—as long as everyone is happy. And Rome’s luxury was neither equitably distributed nor justly gained. In Rome, the rich got richer—or at least those who were politically well connected. And whatever wealth Rome had was built on the backs of slaves. In verses 11–13, John lists the wares the merchants traded throughout the empire. At the very bottom of the list is “slaves.” But John, good Christ-follower that he is, sees slaves not as merchandise but for what they really are, namely, “human souls” that have been oppressed.
So, Rome’s truth-indifferent religion and slave-oppressing economy invited divine judgment. The laments of the kings, merchants, and sailors share four things in common: (1) As they uttered their laments, each group stood far off to observe the destruction of Rome. They had profited from her in good times, but they avoided her in bad. They were fair-weather friends. (2) Each group wept and wailed as they watched Rome’s fall. Why? Because they were sad to see their source of wealth dry up. (3) Each uttered a double woe for the great city: “Alas, alas.” And (4) each noted the suddenness of Rome’s judgment: “in a single hour.”
How do these three laments apply to us today? By forcing us to ask three challenging questions about ourselves. First, am I a pragmatist when it comes to religion, or am I an honest seeker of the truth? Rome was the former, using whatever set of religious beliefs that best served its economic interests. Christians, needless to say, should be the latter.
Second, is my wealth justly gained and charitably used? Christians should earn their wealth through hard work at an honest trade, and should be generous toward those in need.
And finally, am I investing my time, talents, and treasure in eternally worthy causes or in investments that can be destroyed “in a single hour”? It is, of course, both right and good to make a good living and to live well in this life. But it is far better always to keep eternity in our line of sight and use our best energies for the advancement of God’s kingdom.

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