Lesson 6: The Judgment of Rome in Revelation 17, 18, and 19

The whore of RevelationAnyone who studies the development of Revelation as if it were a scholarly work or, for that matter, an unfolding or prediction of future events has to be pulling out their hair as they exclaim, “Oh no, here we go again.” The opening of the 7 seals brought us to the moment when Jesus should return on clouds to bring the peaceable kingdom.  But no, instead there is silence. Then John reports the heralding of 7 trumpets that repeat much of what we already heard. Again, right when the Last Judgment should occur, there is silence. John then tells us about a dragon and two beasts who will be defeated when angels pour out 7 bowls. We are on the edge of our seats as he describes just about every conceivable biblical vision of the blessed future poised to start as soon as the final bowl is poured. As it takes place, a voice declares, “it is done,” but once again, rather than hearing about the long anticipated marriage of Jesus and his chaste bride, we are treated to a description of a great whore.

Anyone who has heard a modern prophet go into her trance and spew forth her poetry, or heard a good extemporaneous preacher proclaim the word, realizes we are listening to a master creating tension as he prepares his listeners for his main point. John has been offering all sorts of clues, each of them more and more obvious, that he has been promising the fall of the Roman Empire. Now he leaves no doubt.

The prophet speaks of an intoxicated prostitute with whom the kings of the world have fornicated. Bejeweled and lavishly clothed, she brags that she will never come to grief. She will be a queen forever, never a widow without her lovers. At the same time, her paramours are preparing to abandon, strip, eat, and burn the harlot for using them.

Although John calls the disgusting whore Babylon the Great, he makes sure we know he is depicting Rome. She sits on 7 hills. Nero, whom we have observed was described as “he who was and is not and will be” is one of her horns.

It soon becomes evident that the prophet is ridiculing the promises of the Pax Romana that supposedly guaranteed eternal and universal peace. He chose to attack its most prominent boast, that Rome provided safety on the seas and roads so that trade could flourish and the economy prosper. It is true there was more sea trade between 200 BC and 200 AD than the world would see for the next 1000 years. It is also true that this had to be sustained, because the population of the eternal city was a million people, more than would be gathered in an urban area until 18th century London.

As we heard in the seals, John claims things have already begun to fall apart. He alluded there to Domitian’s failure to lower the outlandish price of wheat during a famine. His appeal for the wine producers in the provinces to begin growing wheat was rejected, because the landowners could still make more profit from grapes.

This example alone deftly reveals the problem. Other social critics, such as Seneca, complained that the extravagant and luxurious living had provoked greed and corruption. Tacitus wrote that it was a “peace with bloodshed,” an economy that depended on a war machine violently subduing revolt on the frontiers and repressing dissent in the homelands. John is just as devastating when he describes vast fleets of ships traveling to Rome with cargoes of “dainties to gratify the insatiable beast,” cargoes made possible by raping the provinces. His cargo manifest makes us tremble as it ends with “slaves or human souls.” Everything is for sale, even people.

John has demonstrated the empire is truly like a prostitute who sells her body and soul for money. And, he wants us to see that all who remain in a relationship with her share her guilt. The kings and nations that get drunk with her should be aware that they drink the blood of the saints.

At this point we hear the climatic call of his letter, “Come out of her, my people, so you do not take part in her sin.” There is urgency in the summons, because John believes the provinces have already begun to revolt. Very soon, the so-called glories of Rome will be “no more.”

Let’s stop here by noting two important points. As the hallelujah chorus descends from heaven and the whole world gives thanks, we realize we have been hearing a Last Judgment, the first of two in Revelation. Second, it is depicted as a civil war in which an extremely greedy and violent society is destroyed when her lovers turn on her. God’s wrath is portrayed as the natural consequences of self-destructive actions rather than God’s direct punishment. Well, let me offer a third more troublesome insight worth pondering. When I first taught Revelation, the classes inevitably compared Rome to the colonial powers in the 20th century. Now, they see similarities with the US Empire.

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