'Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great'
In no time at all, the world has changed. Plague has brought the global economy crashing down. Trade and industry has ground to a standstill, except for essentials. That ubiquitous first-world leisure activity – shopping – is a thing of the past. Stores are closed and long-established household brands are going bust. It used to be you could sample a different world cuisine for every night of the month, but now all the restaurants lie empty. The musicals on Broadway and the West End are cancelled, Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall lie silent. Weddings are out of the question.
What is especially remarkable about all this is the speed with which it has happened. It’s as if it all took place in a single hour. It seems like no time at all since we were enjoying life as normal, and now the whole world is united in a great collective lament for the loss of that normality. It’s the only topic of conversation on people’s lips, the only subject in the news reports.
It might sound like I’m describing the present worldwide covid crisis, but actually I’m summarizing Revelation 18, where John sees the end of the world. ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!’ (Rev 18.2). In the Bible generally, and in Revelation in particular, Babylon represents the world against God – fallen, sinful humankind. So the fall of Babylon is a symbolic way of describing the end of the world.
Revelation 18 almost reads like a news report of the breakdown of civilisation. Listen to some of the dispatches:
- From Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange: And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. "The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!" The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, "Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! (vv11-16)
- From Hong Kong and New York and other key port cities of the world: And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, "What city was like the great city?" And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out, "Alas, alas, for the great city where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in a single hour she has been laid waste. (vv17-19)
- From Broadway and the West End: …the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth… (vv22-23)
- The speed and suddenness of Babylon’s fall is emphasized by the repetition (with some variation) of the same phrase: ‘in a single hour your judgment has come.’ (vv8,10,17,19).
- John’s readers are not left to guess at the cause of Babylon’s demise: ‘her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.’ (vv5-6, cf. vv3,7-8).
- The end result is described in v8: For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.
It’s hard to miss the parallels between present crisis and the end of the world as it’s described by John in this chapter. Now I’m not saying that this present pandemic is going to bring about the end of the world (though I’m not saying that it couldn’t either). But I am pointing out that what we are seeing at the moment ought to remind us of the End. It’s like a preview of the End. What we are living through right now in a small measure is a scaled down version of the judgments God will pour out at the End. Things are difficult in many respects at the moment – at the End they will be terrible in every respect.
This fits into a pattern that unfolds throughout the book of Revelation. There are several series of seven judgments unleashed from heaven upon the earth – seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls. Each series of judgments affects an increasingly greater proportion of the world. The seals afflict a quarter of the earth (Rev 6), the trumpets a third (Rev 8-9); a cancelled series of judgments – the seven thunders – is mentioned in Rev 10.3-4, which presumably would have affected half of the earth; then in Rev 16 the seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out upon the whole earth.
In other words there is a ratcheting up of judgment as we approach the End. God judges the world continually (Ps 7.11; Rom 1.18), but we should expect that judgment to increase as we get closer to the return of Christ. The Lord made this point using the picture of birth pains. As a birth approaches the contractions are closer together, more intense, more painful. As we draw closer to the Lord’s return, his judgments, like birth pains, become more frequent, more intense, more painful.
The message of this current crisis is clear. There will be an End. Human history is not going round in circles. Whether it comes sooner or later, it will inevitably come. This global catastrophe is the starkest foreshadowing of that Day most of us have ever experienced of this in our lifetime, and it is a merciful warning from God calling the people of the world to repent and trust Christ to save them while they still can.