by Daniel Harrell
Lots of snow back in New England this week—another half foot today they say. Three-feet of the fluff fell in parts of Massachusetts as Nantucket went dark for days. Still, billed as Blizzageddon and the Snowpocalypse (what most folks here in Minnesota would describe as weather) the storm, while strong, didn’t completely measure up to the sensationalist, Super Bowl-sounding hype spun by the National Weather Service. Forecasts pegged the nor’easter as both “historic” and “crippling,” its central pressure doomed to “explosively deepen at a rate twice that of a ‘bomb’ cyclone.” It made for riveting TV television as long as you didn’t lose power. As one New York writer put it, “We all like Armageddon until it’s here.”
The same can be said about Revelation. Everybody wants to read it until they actually do. We’ve made it to chapter 17, having plowed through deep drifts of bizarre and gruesome scenery: freakish creatures resembling nothing in nature, confounding numbers that don’t quite compute, strange angels with scrolls and horns and bowls waging war against mythical dragons and multi-headed beasts spewing fire and demonic frogs. There’s a lot of savagery and vengeance and copious blood—problems for Christians with any kind of conscience. What’s this book doing in my Bible? Martin Luther thought it should be expunged. Then again, none of what we read here ever happens. There are no literal dragons or beasts or censor bomb-dropping angels. The language of Revelation is figurative. Its a genre known as ancient Jewish apocalyptic, and you find it everywhere. Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah, Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus all use it. It works like special effects at the movies or in video games. Trumpets and bowls, oceans of blood and dragons and multi-headed monsters; there are all literary devices. You won’t find Armageddon on any map because it’s symbolic for a war God has already won.
On the other hand, to say Revelation’s language is figurative does not mean it’s false. Jesus’ parables of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan were figurative too, yet their truths confirm countlessly throughout human experience. Parables and apocalypse function the same way: they are literary devices to drive home literal truth. Figurative language, whether written in Revelation or spoken by Jesus in the gospels, gets your attention and makes you take your grace seriously; not so to catch you doing wrong, but to keep you doing right.
Chapter 17 picks up from where chapter 16 dumped us off. Last time we got accosted by malignant boils covering the skin, oceans and rivers turned to blood, those demonic frogs, hundred-pound hailstones pile-driving people into the dirt, darkness and thunder and cosmic war. These “judgments” comprised “the third woe” announced back in chapter 11. The third woe commenced with the terrifying appearance of a dragon—the ancient serpent, Satan himself—along with the fabled 666 beast and false prophet: an unholy trinity of deception and destruction. Against their vile menace stood Jesus the Lamb, slain yet risen, along with those saved by his sacrifice. An angel flew air support overhead, warning all who remained on the fence that their time was up, that “the hour of God’s judgment has come.” In the angel’s wake rode a “son of man” straight out of Daniel’s prophecy, seated on clouds and crowned with gold—Jesus again—only this time wielding a sharp sickle with which to separate the wheat from the chaff, the ripe from the rotten; those who remain unashamed of the gospel from those who gladly succumbed to the serpent.
The Lord lowers the boom on every manner of wickedness. No evil ultimately eludes the drop of his gavel. Divine justice is not blind. God’s eyes are wide open to perceive even the dark motives of the heart. Good news for the oppressed and the innocent, bad news for the oppressor and the abuser.
In chapter 16, we read that “God remembered great Babylon.” Hard to forget anybody looking like Revelation 17 describes. Recalling her tyranny and brutality, God makes Babylon drain “the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” Located in modern day Iraq, Babylon was that ancient empire under King Nebuchadnezzar that ransacked Israel and deported God’s chosen people out of their promised land. The Lord allowed it on account of Israel’s persistent idolatry; but Babylon overreached by abusing the Israelites in its captivity. The prophet Daniel narrates these crimes, and goes on to forecast Babylon’s fall using imagery Revelation borrow for its own forecasts of doom.
Israel emerged from its Babylonian captivity, but things between the Lord and his people never completely reconciled. They went through the motions of penance and piety, putting away their pagan idols and statues, but behind this façade of obedience festered a continued contempt and mistreatment for which we humans have long been infamous. Wars and crime and terrorism are obvious examples, as are petty jealousies and betrayals and dismissals, part and parcel of everyday human sin. But there are other kinds of contempt. Apocalypse in the movies, long the purview of sci-fi, has taken on a decidedly cli-fi mood these days—the cli standing for climate. Threats of nuclear annihilation have given way to the realities of the quiet, toxic death humanity will suffer to the proliferation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The blizzard that ravaged New England was ironically fueled by a warming ocean. Believe it or not, study after study shows how humans have restructured the planet to their own detriment in an amazingly short period of evolutionary time. To borrow Revelation’s parlance—there’s a serious difference between sipping a bottle of wine in a week and downing it all in one gulp. With our intemperance, environmental and otherwise, we create the conditions for our own extinction.
As for God’s people, their Babylonian captivity gave way to Roman captivity on account of their own intemperance. Their exile this time happened inside their own borders. Babylon stands for Rome in Revelation, evident in the allusion to seven hills here (Latin poets such as Virgil and Cicero had long described Rome as being built on seven hills, Roman coinage and festivals celebrated the same). Furthermore, Babylon is named “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” Rome’s officials kept its citizenry happy with free grain and public amusements, the latter including much bloodshed in the arena. Criminals and slaves, Patriots and Seahawks, were special candidates for satiating the public appetite for violent entertainment. Once Christians were considered criminals, their large numbers would supply an inordinate proportion of victims. Like Babylon, Rome overreached, and incited afresh the wrath of God’s justice.
And yet we read, “this calls for a mind that has wisdom.” We need to see beyond the obvious. Revelation is more than a polemic against ancient empires. Rome was only the current and best example of mythic Babylon and her evil. Rome fell, but in its place arose ever more sinister manifestations of Babylonian whoredom. Every president, pope or prime minister, every dictator or despot, every overreach of power throughout history has been a worthy candidate.
Checking my files, the last time I preached from Revelation 17 was in 2008. Many scholars have identified the harlot as those “economic forces in collusion with the state.” This made the Harlot of Babylon Wall Street in 2008, a seductress who seduced the lowliest house-flipper all the way up to the highest-flying hedge fund manager. I was thinking about this again as I watched Hank, a documentary featuring Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary and former Goldman-Sachs CEO who walked the country out of the crisis. The movie reminded how lenders knowingly wrote bad mortgages, investment bankers sliced up loans and resold them as mockingly-labeled “securities,” and corporations and banks recklessly heaped questionable investments onto their books. Whenever Babylon overreaches, judgment soon follows. The media predictably labeled the meltdown back then a “global economic apocalypse.” Since then, amidst the flotsam of government bailout is the hard reality of income inequity acknowledged by both political parties and experienced by millions. The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home the same share of wage income as the bottom 50 percent—one reason we need buses to carry fresh food to poor neighborhoods.
The harlot of Babylonian alluringly wears purple and scarlet, adorning herself with gold and jewels and pearls; she looks like the paradise we’ve always longed for. Her siren song tantalizes rich and poor alike, all of whom, we read “have become drunk on the wine of her fornication.” Fornication derives from the Greek word for porn; the American word for wanting what you can never have. Fornication can also involve infidelity; here in Revelation its all about cheating on God. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel’s relationship to God gets compared to a marriage between the Lord and Israel his bride. In the New Testament, the analogy shifts to wedlock between Christ and the church. In the Old Testament, Israel committed adultery whenever they practiced idolatry; whenever they chased after and served other gods. By the time we get to the New Testament, the carved idols are gone, but not the idolatry. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus warned, though he just as easily could have made that a bride and two husbands. “Either she will hate the one and adore the other, or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot love both God and Money.”
To underscore the stupidity of infidelity, to grossly get our attention, Revelation sits the Babylonian harlot like a wanton cowgirl astride that nefarious seven-headed demonic beast everyone recalls as having arisen out of the chaotic sea, apocalyptic code for the abode of evil. She sits in the desert wilderness everybody knew to be code for temptation. And just in case we’re too dense to miss these clues, the beast is scrawled with blatant and blasphemous graffiti, with the the harlot herself flashing a repulsive tattoo on her forehead: YO! I’M BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF WHORES AND ALL EARTHLY ABOMINATIONS. And just in case this is not repulsive enough, the harlot shows up drunk on the blood of saints and martyrs, the blood of your own Christian brothers and sisters murdered for their faith. John, Revelation’s writer, stares at her and says, “I was greatly amazed,” the verb being one that does not means revulsion or surprise, but awe and admiration. In the King James Version, John says, “I marveled with great admiration.” The whore turned him on.
“Watch out,” Jesus warned. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. ……It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up treasures in heaven!” Likewise, John’s angelic escort smacks him upside his head. “Snap out of it! Why do you marvel? Why are you so amazed? Let me tell you who this sexy chick really is!”
Babylon represents “the dead end street of humanity’s attempt to build life apart from God; it is a city set against the New Jerusalem, its gold and jewels a parody of heaven itself. Evil, you’ll remember, is the ultimate parody—a parasite that derives it power from the goodness it perverts. Babylon is nothing but a perverted New Jerusalem, the Harlot a perverted Bride of Christ, Satan a perverted angel of light, the beast a perversion of Jesus, human greed and lust both perversions of love.
Recall that the beast had been thrown down and destroyed a few chapters back. That it rises again is but a mock resurrection, another parody sufficient to garner amazement and wonder. Somehow the multitudes had already forgotten all the catastrophe the beast had caused. Memories are short. A letter to the editor back in 2008 bemoaned the housing meltdown and stock market crash that so many are still crawling out from under. The writer asked: “Did anyone really believe that real estate could continue to sell at the crazy prices of recent years? … Yet as bad as it all is, the crash may bring us back to our senses. Perhaps we’ll start over and find our way to a healthier, stronger, and sane economy.” Interestingly, the date of this letter was not 2008, but 1987.
Memories are short. The angel identifies the Harlot of Babylon as Rome to demonstrate how those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The angel does so in outrageous fashion to persuade first century readers to resist being seduced by power and wealth; to persuade them to not cheat on God by compromising their loyalties to Christ and his church. If you can be persuaded that what appears impressive is really ridiculous, that what seems glamorous is actually garish, that what looks desirous is in fact ludicrous, you will be more able to defy it—more able to resist running up debt because you want more than you can afford or need, more able to resist the way our culture puts a price on everything thereby reducing everything to a commodity to be bought, possessed, spent used and ultimately ruined.
“Snap out of it!” says the angel. “Guard against all greed,” Jesus warned. Every evil creates the condition for its own extinction. “The ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” The Lamb of God will conquer, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” We conquer by way of sacrifice and love and generosity toward God and our neighbor, thereby storing up our treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal, where demons and dragons cannot mar, where debts do not consume and greed does not entice. To borrow Revelation’s parlance—there’s a serious difference between sipping a bottle of wine in a week and downing it all in one gulp; a serious difference between the the wine of self-indulgence and the blood of Christ. Wherever your treasure is, Jesus said, that’s where your heart is too.