Revelation 18 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Revelation 18
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

THE FALL OF BABYLON.—In the commencement of the last chapter the angel (one of the vial-bearing angels) had promised to show the seer the judgment of the harlot (Revelation 18:1); he was accordingly shown first the vision of the scarlet-clad woman seated on the wild beast. The seer was filled with wonder, and the angel entered into explanation of the mystery of the woman, touching on her relation to the beast, and her ultimate doom, and revealing to him who she was. But though the angel has proclaimed her overthrow in his explanatory statement, the judgment of the harlot has not been seen in the vision; we must, in fact, regard the portion of the last chapter, from Revelation 18:7 to the end, as a kind of parenthesis, a pause in the drama of vision, the action of which is resumed in Revelation 18. Yet though the dramatic action is taken up, we are not shown in vision her actual overthrow; but we gather it from the four agencies which are put forward—the angel which proclaims her moral fall (Revelation 18:1-3); the voice from the heaven which gives the vivid description of her sudden overthrow, and of the marvellous sensation it occasioned (Revelation 18:4-20); the angel which tells the irremediable character of her overthrow (Revelation 18:21-24); and finally, the chorus of the heavenly multitude rejoicing over her fall (Revelation 19:1-4).

And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory.
(1) And after these things . . .—Or, better, After these things (omit “and”) I saw another angel coming down, having great power (or, authority—entrusted to him for the work against Babylon); and the earth was illumined by (literally, out of) his glory. The light which shines from the heavenly messenger shines like day upon the tawdry splendour of Babylon, and shows that what was admired was but worthless and corrupt. In his brief, but rousing call, he proclaims it to be so.

And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.
(2) And he cried . . .—We must omit “mightily,” and render, And he cried in a mighty voice, saying, Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, and is become an habitation of demons, and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hated bird. Those who walk in darkness, and whose eyes the god of this world hath blinded through their lusts, look only on the material side, upon prosperous times, large revenues, rapidly developing resources. The great city of the world looks fair and glorious in their eyes, and even the godly are dazzled by her beauty; but when the light of heaven shines, her fall is seen to be inevitable, for she is seen to be hateful; her palaces are seen to be prisons, her highest wisdom little more than low cunning, her most exalted intelligence base-born, her sweetest songs discordant cries; the evil spirit, welcomed back, has come in seven-fold power; for the dry places afford no rest to those who still love sin and the pleasures of sin. The description in this verse is drawn largely from Isaiah 13:21-22; it is a picture of desolation and degradation, but it has its moral counterpart.

For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies.
(3) For all nations have drunk . . .—Better, Because by the wrath of her fornication (comp. Revelation 14:8, and Note there) all the nations have drunk (or, according to another reading, have fallen; the readings are akin: the drinking of it leads to their degradation and fall), and the kings of the earth committed (not “have committed”) fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth waxed rich out of the strength of her luxury. She has been an enemy to mankind viewed in three great aspects: nations, kings, and merchants. She has brought delirium upon nations; she has reduced kings; she has bribed merchants: her sins are strong sins; with both hands earnestly has she sinned.

And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.
(4-20) The voice out of heaven warns the faithful to leave her, and describes her fall.

(4) Voice from heaven . . .—Read, Voice out of heaven, saying, Come forth out of her, my people, that ye partake not in her sins, and that of her plagues ye receive not. The voice is not said to be that of another angel. It is not necessary to say whose voice it is; that it is a voice of divine love giving warning is enough. The coming forth is not to be understood of a bodily exodus from Rome. It is rather the warning which is so needful in every corrupt state of society, to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness; to practise that separation from the spirit of the world which is essential lest we should be entangled in the meshes of its sinful habits. This duty of separation may sometimes lead to a literal exodus, and even under the pressure of overwhelming necessity to secession from a world-corrupted church; but the jeopardy lies in attachment to the world-spirit (1 John 2:15). The parallel warnings in Jeremiah 51:6; Jeremiah 51:45, and Zechariah 2:6-7, should be read; but the story of Lot in Sodom best illustrates the spirit of the passage (Genesis 19), for it is participation in sin which is to be primarily guarded against.

For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.
(5) For her sins have reached . . .—Better, For her sins have reached as far as heaven. The idea is of a great heap firmly fastened, and towering, like another Babel, as far as heaven. (Comp. 2 Chronicles 28:9, and Ezra 9:6.) The idea is more than that of the cry of sin reaching heaven, as in the case of Sodom (Genesis 18:20-21); the sins themselves, many and imperial, have touched the face of heaven. God hath remembered her. (Comp. Revelation 16:19). Sometimes the oppressed have thought that God had forgotten the voice of the enemy (Psalm 74:10-23); but the long-suffering of the Lord is salvation (2 Peter 3:8-18.

Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double.
(6) Reward her even as she rewarded . . .—The same voice which bids the people of God come forth, summons the agents of vengeance. Revelation 17:16 tells whence these may arise. Read, Give back to her, as she herself also gave back (the word “you” should be omitted; it is not the saints, or those who have suffered from her, that are called to repay her), and double (the) double according to her works; in the cup in which she mingled, mingle for her double. Many Old Testament parallels will suggest themselves (Jeremiah 51:18; Psalm 79:12; Psalm 137:8; and Isaiah 40:2). The “double” must not be taken to mean double her sins; her sins are themselves called double, and her judgment is according to her sins. She is double-stained in wickedness, and “the law of retribution fiercely works “in her. The cup of her luxuriousness becomes the cup of vengeance. (Comp. Revelation 14:8; Revelation 17:4; and Revelation 18:3.) The flowery path “has led to the broad gate and the great fire.”

How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.
(7) The thought of retribution is carried on in this verse. It should not read, “How much . . .,” but, In as many things as she glorified herself and luxuriated, so much give to her torment and grief; because in her heart she saith (comp. Psalm 49:11; Luke 14:30), I sit a queen, and am not a widow, and shall never see sorrow. The words are echoes of prophecies against old Babylon (Isaiah 47:7-9) and Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2).

Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her.
(8) Therefore shall her plagues come . . .—Read, For this cause in one day shall come her plagues, death and mourning . . . and with fire shall she be burnt, for strong is the Lord God who judged her. God, the mighty God, has passed sentence. She thought herself strong; she forgot the strength of the Almighty. Her plagues are four-fold, as though from every quarter her trouble came: “death for her scorn of the prospect of widowhood; mourning, for her inordinate revelling; famine, for her abundance;” and fire, the punishment of her fornication (Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9). (Comp. the series of contrasts in Isaiah 3:24-26.)

THE LAMENT OF THE KINGS (Revelation 18:9-10).—(Their words of lament are given in Revelation 18:10.)

And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning,
(9) And the kings of the earth. . . .—Read, And there shall weep and mourn over her the kings of the earth, who with her committed fornication and luxuriated, when they see the smoke of her burning, standing afar off because of the fear of her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon the strong city; because in one hour is come thy judgment. Kings, merchants (Revelation 18:11-17), shippers (Revelation 18:17-19) join in lamenting the overthrow of the great city; all stand afar off, as though fearing to be involved in her ruin; all cry, “Woe” (or, Alas!) at the beginning of their lament; and at the close the words, “in one hour,” telling the suddenness of the great city’s overthrow, recur (Revelation 18:10; Revelation 18:17; Revelation 18:19) with the monotony of a passing bell heard at intervals amid the strains of sad music. The parallel passages in Ezekiel 26:15-16; Ezekiel 27:35, should be compared. The grief described is the result of fear mingled with selfishness; the mourners remember with a regret, only tempered with terror, the voluptuous life, the quick-growing profits, and the varied commercial advantages which they have lost in her overthrow.

THE LAMENT OF THE MERCHANTS (Revelation 18:11-17).—The lament proper, that is, the actual words put in the mouths of the merchants, is contained in Revelation 18:16-17. The immediately preceding verses describe the various kinds of merchandise which were dealt in.

Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.
And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more:
(11-13) And the merchants of the earth . . .—Better, The merchants of the earth weep and mourn (not “shall weep;” the vividness of the description is intensified by the use of the present tense) over her; because their cargo no one buyeth any longer—the cargo of gold, &c. The list of the cargoes and merchandise is not without arrangement. The various goods are placed in groups. The treasures come first—gold, silver, precious stones, and pearls. The soft goods used for raiment are placed next—fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet; in the description of Dives, clothed in purple and fine linen (Byssus, the same word as here), we have a suggestive resemblance. Materials used in giving splendour to the furnishing of houses come next. Thyine wood, and every article (vessel, as in the English version, is hardly wide enough in meaning) of ivory, costly wood, brass, iron, and marble. The thyine wood was derived probably from a kind of citron-tree of African growth; the wood was sweet-scented, and was a favourite wood for doors, panels, and ceilings; its rich brown hue was often relieved by inlaid ivory. To articles used in furniture aromatics succeed. Cinnamon, amomum (this is omitted in the English version, but authority is in favour of its insertion), odours, ointments, and frankincense. Cinnamon, on its use, comp. Exodus 30:2-3; it was one of the perfumes employed to enhance the delight of the voluptuary (Proverbs 7:17). It is doubtful whether it is the same as our modern cinnamon. Amomum, a kind of sweet-scented shrub, yielding an ointment much used for the hair. Odours, employed in incense. Next come articles of food—wine, oil, fine meal, wheat, cattle, and sheep. Then come the equipages—horses and chariots. The chariot (rheda) was a vehicle much used in Rome by the wealthy classes. Lastly, the traffic in human beings closes the list. Slaves (literally, bodies, and souls of men. There is perhaps an allusion specially to those slaves who were attached to the chariots or litters used by the rich. The traffic in slaves (“persons of men”) is mentioned as part of the commerce of Tyre (Ezekiel 27:13). The number of slaves in Rome was enormous. “Souls of men.” The climax of wicked worldliness is reached in this last; it gives the finishing touch to the picture of society wholly engrossed in pleasure and indolence and selfishness, which lays every market under tribute to add to its luxuriousness, and sacrifices not only the happiness, but the lives and liberties of their fellow-creatures, to their own enjoyment. It has been said that the general description here does not suit Rome, as Rome never was, and never could be, a commercial centre; but the picture is designed to show the corrupt luxury and voluptuousness of society in great Babylon, not necessarily the accumulated merchandize of a great commercial city. The various wares are “for her use and consumption,” not for her to sell. All the avenues from every distant spot of the earth found their focus in Rome; her existence, her political supremacy, and her luxuriousness of living, created and sustained all the commercial activity here described; with her fall, the hope of their gains passed from the merchants of the earth. Compare the language of Gibbon:—“The most remote countries of the ancient world were ransacked to supply the pomp and delicacy of Rome. The forests of Scythia afforded some valuable furs; amber was brought from the shores of the Baltic and the Danube; and the barbarians were astonished at the price which they received for so useless a commodity. There was a considerable demand for Babylonian carpets and other manufactures of the East; but the most important and unpopular branch of foreign trade was carried on with Arabia and India. Every year, about the time of the summer solstice, a fleet of an hundred and twenty vessels sailed from Myos-hormos, a port of Egypt on the Red Sea. The coast of Malabar or the island of Ceylon was the usual term of their navigation, and it was in those markets that the merchants from the more remote countries of Asia expected their arrival. The return of the fleet was fixed to the months of December or January; and as soon as their rich cargo had been transported on the backs of camels, from the Red Sea to the Nile, and had descended that river as far as Alexandria, it was poured without delay into the capital of the Empire. The objects of Oriental traffic were splendid and trifling: silk, a pound of which was esteemed in value not inferior to a pound of gold; precious stones also, among which the pearl claimed the first rank after the diamond, and a variety of aromatics that were consumed in religious worship and the pomp of funerals. The labour and risk of the voyage was rewarded with almost incredible profits; but the profits were made upon Roman subjects, and a few individuals were enriched at the expense of the public” (Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, vol. i., Rev. ii.).

The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble,
And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.
And the fruits that thy soul lusted after are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee, and thou shalt find them no more at all.
(14) Directly addressed to Babylon herself.

And the fruits that thy soul . . .—Rather, And the fruits (or, the harvest) of the desire of thy soul (that, namely, which thy soul lusteth after) departed (not “are departed:” the word expresses the thought that these things “departed once for all) from thee, and all things that are rich and that are glorious perish from thee, and thou shalt not find them any more. The descriptive passage is interrupted by this verse, in which Babylon herself is addressed. It is in harmony with the fervour of the whole chapter that the descriptive tone should for a moment give place to this apostrophe. The fruits to which the eye of desire had looked so longingly as to a harvest of delight departed. The desire of the wicked has perished.

The merchants of these things, which were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and wailing,
(15-17) The merchants of these things . . .—The description is resumed. The merchants stand like the kings (see Revelation 18:10) afar off, because of the fear of her torment, saying, “Woe! woe! (or, alas! alas!) the great city, because in one hour so great wealth was desolated.” The words of this lamentation are parallel to the lament of the kings, the only difference is characteristic—they bewail the sudden decay of the wealth. On the fine linen and purple, comp. Revelation 18:12, and Luke 16:19.

And saying, Alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!
For in one hour so great riches is come to nought. And every shipmaster, and all the company in ships, and sailors, and as many as trade by sea, stood afar off,
THE LAMENT OF THE SHIPMASTERS (Revelation 18:17-19).—On the whole passage read Ezekiel 27:32, &c.

(17, 18) And every shipmaster. . . .—Or, better, And every shipmaster, and every one who sails for a place, and sailors, and all who work the sea, stood afar off, and cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, Who is like the great city? With this expression compare the similar one applied to the beast (Revelation 13:4). It is the outcry of those who call to mind, with pain, a glory that was great, but now is gone. It is not to be taken as meaning “what city has suffered as she has?” but rather is it the recollection of her former splendour—“how great she was.” This lingering of the mind over delights now vanished is one subtle element of misery. So the hapless Francesca thought—

“There is no greater woe,

Than to remember days of happiness

Amid affliction.” Inf. v. 121-3.

And cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city!
And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate.
(19) And they cast dust . . .—Comp. Ezekiel 27:30. The casting of dust or earth on the head is a token of sorrow and humiliation; it bears relation to the sitting in the dust. The one upon whom the sorrow had fallen sat in the dust or ashes. The attitude expressed that he had been brought very low, even to the ground. The mourning friends who came round him cast dust on their heads to express that they shared his sorrow. Thus it is related of Job: Job sat in the ashes (Job 2:8); the friends who came to comfort him sprinkled dust upon their heads towards heaven (Revelation 18:12). So in this place, Babylon has been brought low (comp. Isaiah 47:1); the mourners, whose gains sink with her fall, throw dust upon their heads.

(19) Alas! alas! that great city . . .—The lament is parallel with the laments of the kings and the merchants; the difference is the appropriate reference to the destruction of the shipping interests. Woe! woe! (or, Alas! alas!) the great city, in which all who had their vessels on the sea grew rich out of her costliness. By her “costliness” we are to understand her extravagances of living, and the splendour of her palaces which drew materials from all ports of the world. The lament ends with the repeated cry, “in one hour.” Because in one hour she was desolated.

Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her.

(20) Rejoice over her. . . .—Better, Rejoice over her, O heaven, and the saints, and the apostles, and the prophets, because God has judged your judgment on (or, out of) her. The second portion of the chapter closes with this invitation to the saints to rejoice: they are summoned to rejoice because the law of retribution has worked on her. Your judgment (it is said to the saints) is judged on her. This does not mean a judgment which the saints have decreed, but the judgment which Babylon wrought on the holy is now exacted from her (comp. Revelation 18:6, and Revelation 6:10; Revelation 13:10). Heaven, and every class of those whose citizenship has been in heaven, are bidden by the heavenly voice to rejoice The covetous and the worldly mourn; their minds were set upon a material glory, which has slipped away from their grasp. All saintly souls, whose affections have been towards righteousness and the righteous King, can rejoice; for the wealth of holiness is imperishable. and the fall of Babylon is the removal of one vast hindrance to holiness. It has been argued that the verse represents the Apostles to be in heaven, and from this it has been inferred that the twelve must have all died before the Apocalypse was written, and, if so, St. John was not the writer. The verse, however, has no reference whatever to the question: it is not meant to state who have passed into heaven and who have not: it is simply a summons to all who have fought on the side of their Lord to rejoice at the removal of one of the great obstacles to the manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. Thus do all holy men, whether on earth or heaven, joy when any giant evil is swept away.

And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.

(21) And a mighty angel . . .—The taking up of the stone and casting it into the waters is a symbol drawn from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51). Jeremiah enjoined Seraiah to bind the prophetic roll to a great stone, and cast them together into the Euphrates. The meaning of the act was explained—“Thus shall Babylon sink and shall not rise,” &c. (Jeremiah 51:63-64). The great dead mass, sinking helplessly by the law of its own weight, signified a fall past recovery. So Pharaoh and his host sank like lead in the mighty waters. It is the doom Christ foreshadowed as awaiting those who caused His children to fall (Matthew 18:6). The mighty angel, strong to lift the ponderous stone, throws it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence (or, with a bound) shall Babylon, the great city, be thrown, and shall not be found any more. At one bound, without a single resting-stage in its downward career, without chance or power of recovery, the vast world-city would fall. She who sat as a queen upon many waters, sinks as a stone in the mighty waters. She will not be found any more. The words “any more,” or “no more,” are repeated in these verses no less than six times, like a funeral knell over the departed greatness which is described.

And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee;
(22, 23) And the voice of harpers . . .—Better, the sound, . . The sounds of mirth and triumph, &c., cease: the sound of harpers, and musicians, and flute-players, and trumpeters, shall not be heard in thee ANY MORE: the power of wealth has gone; her own right hand has forgotten her cunning: every craftsman of every craft shall not be found in thee ANY MORE: the sound of grinding the corn is at an end: the sound of millstone shall not be heard in thee ANY MORE: the cheerful lamps of home and feast are extinguished: light of lamp shall not shine in thee ANY MORE: the sounds of domestic joy are silenced: voice of bridegroom and of bride shall not be heard in thee ANY MORE. The words are an echo of earlier prophecy: “I destroy from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle.” It was thus Jeremiah warned Jerusalem of her coming doom (Jeremiah 25:10). Now the same judgments are pronounced against the foe of the true Jerusalem.

And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.
(23) For thy merchants were the great . . .—The judgment does not fall because the merchants were great: it is the sorcery of the next clause which is the true cause of her fall: the merchants are those who traded with her, as well as those who dwelt in her: by “her sorceries” we must understand her artful policy, her attractiveness, and the seductions by which she drew into the meshes of her worldliness and sin the nations around. “In thy sorcery were all the nations led astray” (Revelation 13:14).

And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.
(24) And in her was found . . .—It is not by seductiveness only that her guilt is measured: her hands are defiled with blood: the blood of prophets, who had witnessed against her: of saints, whose holy lives were a protest against her sins, and so hateful to her; and “of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Comp. Revelation 17:6, and Note there.) It is not meant that literally all the blood shed by violence had been shed by Rome, or any other single city of which Babylon is type: all that is meant is that Babylon, the world city, is founded on those principles, the logical outcome of which is violence, bloodshed, and hostility to the highest right: those who die by her hands, few or many, are the evidence that the whole tendency of her power is against holiness and truth. In the earthly view, we are guilty of the acts we do: in the heavenly view, we are guilty of all that the spirit and sin of our conduct tends to do. The spirit of transgression is seen in one act as well as in many, and as it is the attitude of the spirit that God looks upon, so in a single act may be gathered up the transgression of the whole law. (Comp. Revelation 17:6, and Note there; see also James 2:10). It is the fatal failure to perceive this which leads man to make light of sin, and to undervalue the Cross of Christ.

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