Revelation 18

I think that the case of Babylon illustrates strikingly how a judgment which is said to be God’s may, at the same time, be executed by men. In Rev. 17 we saw that God will make use of the ten horns or kings, into whose dominions the Roman earth, at the close of this dispensation, will be divided, and will give especial prominence to what is called “the beast,” that is, the power that gives a bond to those otherwise broken parts. The great imperial chief, and the various separate but no longer independent powers, his vassals, will be the instruments that God will employ for inflicting His judgment upon Babylon.

Now in Revelation 18 not a word of this occurs; and the difference is so obvious and great at first sight, that some have laid it down with decision that the judgment in Revelation 17 is previous to that in chapter 18; that the destruction of Babylon in the former is merely a human one; that her doom in the latter is subsequent and directly from God. But I would not dogmatize as to this explanation, conceiving, on the contrary, that in the same judgment you may have God’s and man’s side of the matter, God dealing providentially, and men as His hand in striking the blow. If there be a real distinction, the “fall” precedes the final destruction; a total degradation of her state ensues upon the assault of the civil powers, followed by an urgent call to God’s people to come out; and then her utter everlasting destruction on the part of God.

If we look at Babylon in the Old Testament, justly did the prophets speak of its destruction as the day of the Lord upon it. “This is the work of Jehovah of Hosts in the land of the Chaldeans.” (Jer. 1.) At the same time it is quite certain that the medium through which God brought about the ruin of Babylon was the celebrated Cyrus, the leader of the Medo-Persian army. In the same way, in Rev. 17, we see the actual human instruments. The influence of Babylon extended much beyond, but the ten horns of the Roman earth were those powers that radiated as it were from her very centre. And therefore it may be that God mentions in that chapter that these powers which seemed to be so linked with Babylon as her abject slaves (the imperial power itself having been but a beast of burden to her) are to turn round at a certain time appointed by God, and to wreak their vengeance, scorn, and hatred upon her. They have human objects, no doubt, but they are accomplishing this work of God’s righteous retribution. God will have put it into their hearts to agree, and give their kingdom to the beast, until His words be consummated.

But in Rev. 18 human instruments disappear, and when this other angel comes down from heaven, he says not a word of those that God had employed as the means of the fall of Babylon; they are left out, and the Lord God it is that judges her. God could just as easily have destroyed Babylon without the ten kings as with them. They were in no way necessary. But it is a part of His government of the earth, if she had reigned over kings and committed fornication with them before, to employ the ten horns to humble her at the end. They might be bad men with bad objects. It is therefore necessary to show the saints distinctly that God is against Babylon. Let us now consider a little this new point of view, in which we have only two parties presented in the scene. There is Babylon upon earth and there is God in heaven; and the Lord God is against the proud queenly city that had been the constant enemy of God and of His people — that had been the instrument of Satan to entice and draw away her victims into an evil alliance and into idolatry. Such is the way Babylon is looked at here. And yet this Babylon is the one that arrogated to herself the place and function of making God known. For the great city is no longer a heathen power: not like Babylon of old, a stranger outside, and used of God as a means of inflicting chastisement on His people Israel. I conceive that the Babylon of Revelation is most clearly a reference to Old Testament Babylon, but applied to New Testament subjects. In the Old Testament, the great thought of God was His people and land: and there was also a city on which His eye rested with special affection. For He not only loved the people, but was interested in what He gave the people. But that has entirely passed away since the rejected Christ was crucified. From that moment till now there has been no one place more holy than another. That which had been the holy city was now as it were Aceldama, the field stained with the blood of the Lord Jesus. But God’s eye saw that in process of time the great city of the earth would profess Christ’s name, and would take advantage of His own revelation, and out of the corrupted and fallen state of Christianity would make a system of its own — borrowing all that it could take from Judaism, and mingling it with its own Gentile evil, so as thus to work out a system most hateful to God, and seducing to man.

I have no doubt, therefore, that in this chapter it is Rome that is the peculiar object of God’s judgment. Not that Rome is all that is meant by Babylon, but that Rome is the centre of it; because it is of all others the most guilty in God’s sight. Not Rome in the pagan form; not merely Rome in our own days, bad as it is, and becoming increasingly wicked. But I think that the Babylon of the Apocalypse is not merely that system which is now opposed to Christianity, but Babylon when it will have opposed the last testimony that God will send — this testimony of the Son of man’s kingdom that is about to be set up over His beloved people. For God never gives up His purpose. It is part of the character of God never to repent of His gifts and calling. Where it is not a purpose of mercy but a threat, God may and loves to bend. That He does so we know from the case of Nineveh; though the blow was then struck and will be again at some future time. He will allow men to say that He has changed his mind when it is a question of delaying a punishment for sin; but whenever, on the other side, it is God’s purpose to bless a people, He never gives up that. This is worthy of God. He is full of mercy. He will allow His prophecy against Nineveh sent through His servant Jonah to appear to be set aside; He does not mind what men say about that. He is quite willing for them to think that He has in mercy changed His mind, and that the sentence of destruction has been set aside, where there has been humbling and repentance before God. But the blessed thing we find is this, that though man’s failure, the church’s failure, and the like may seem to have jeoparded the blessed purpose that God has in store for His people, and for His own glory, all that is of God comes out only the brighter another day.

Let us look at Babylon in its past history, and consider how that name was suited to express the special evil that was to grow up out of the corruption of Christianity. In Genesis 10 we have the first mention of Babel. And there we have it connected with a wilful man, who had first shown his cunning with regard to brute beasts, and who soon began to turn against his fellows all the craft and experience he had acquired in a lower sphere. Nimrod is the first person with whom you have Babel associated. It is man concentrating power in. himself But in the next chapter (Gen. 11) we have another idea. It is not only one man exalting himself and others subjected to him by fraud or force, but a grand effort of men gathering themselves together to build something permanent and strong and high — a tower that would reach toward heaven, and gain them a name upon earth. Here, then, we have the two thoughts that are always more or less connected with Babylon. It may take the form of an individual who exalts himself, or of men combining for some notable enterprise or it may be a mixture of both principles.

Now this you have further and still more plainly developed, when you come down to the history of the Jewish nation. God called them out as a people, and gave them special privileges and blessings. They fell into idolatry, the sin which sprang from Babylon as its great and primitive source; and Babylon becomes the chief means of judgment for the people of God, and the scene of Judah’s captivity. There again we behold Nebuchadnezzar, the golden head of the image, answering to Nimrod, and the great city that he built, which answers to the tower of Babel — the two ideas being united, as indeed they soon became at first; for Babel was the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom. The natural heart covets present exaltation for man on the earth, and this too clothed with a religious sanction, but with an idolatrous intent.

Now the Holy Ghost in the New Testament takes up the term “Babylon” and applies it to the corruption that was to issue in professing Christendom. When God saves souls, He does not allow them to choose their own path in the world; still less can He own their choosing their own path in the church. He who understands his place as belonging to God has his will broken. He is privileged to treat his nature as a dead and evil thing; not on the ground of a slave working for something and because he must, but in the liberty of a son of God — of one who has been blessed by God, and who has the interests of his Father at heart. But it is not his Father’s will that at the present time he should meddle with the world, or have a place in it. According to God’s mind the world is not good enough for the Christian, because it is practically under the power of the enemy. There is a time coming when the world will be put under the children of God, when they will judge the world. But this can never be until Satan is set aside, and Christ publicly exalted over the earth as well as in heaven. Meanwhile the saints have to wait in faith and patience. And this is the argument which the apostle urges in 1 Cor. 6 why brethren in Christ should have nothing to do with the world’s judgments now. It was beneath their dignity as children of God to carry their differences there; it was vain to try to reform the world. Such a thought never entered the apostle’s mind. For faith, while it delights in the deliverance of poor sinners, looks at the world with God as already judged, and only waiting for the execution of the sentence at Christ’s coming.

But while the apostle exhorts to subjection to the powers that be, he never says, You brethren, that have posts of honour in the earth, you are to continue there. This would have been to defeat the object of God, whose children are not of the world, even as Christ is not of the world. For God is not now undertaking to govern the world, save in His secret providence of course. When the kingdom of this world as a fact becomes His, He begins by judging the corrupters of the earth, and more particularly every iniquity done under the name of Christ. This is not what God does now: He is rather testing the souls of His people in a place of temptation, where everything is contrary to His name. If they are faithful, they will suffer persecution; if unfaithful, they may be made much of by the world. They may have its ease and honour, but they assuredly will be used by Satan to keep all quiet; for nothing furnishes such a sanction to evil as a good man who joins the world and gives it countenance. Remember Lot He was in the gate of Sodom, the place where justice was administered. His position there was as dishonouring to God as it was miserable to himself. He had to be forced out of it at last; but even before he was taken out of Sodom, the well-watered plains had lost their value in, his eyes. Remember also Lot’s wife.

His righteous soul was vexed with their unlawful deeds, he himself was the object of their taunts. “This one fellow,” said they, “came into sojourn, and he will needs be a judge.” They saw the incongruity of his position, as worldly men generally are quick to perceive the failures of the believer. Alas! it is easy to understand how a man may be godly in the main, and yet found in circumstances where a Christian ought not to be, and that so far he is not a true witness for God. Whether I look at the individual Christian or at the church, I see that God’s object is to have a testimony to His own glory in the world; to have those who are for Him, not in the way of putting down the world, much less of seeking to get the honour and riches of the world; but willing for Christ’s sake to abandon what they liked best, because they look not at the things which are seen, but at the unseen and eternal. This is grace’s triumph, and so far as it is true of us, we are real witnesses for God. On the other hand, if we are seeking to gain or retain the world along with Christ, the principle of Babylon is begun.

No doubt, Rev. 17, 18 go much farther than this, and show that a vast religiously corrupting system is meant. This is made very plain by comparing Rev. 17:1, 2, 3, with Rev. 21:9, 10, 11. In Rev. 17:1, it is said, “There came one of the seven angels,. . . . and talked with me, saying, Come hither; I will show thee the judgment [or sentence] of the great whore, that sitteth by the many waters.” But again, in Rev. 21:9, we have another scene. “There came unto me one of the seven angels, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” Now it is evident that the Holy Ghost uses the same kind of introduction for these two women, for the purpose, I think, of our connecting them together. The same guide, one of the seven-vial angels, takes John, and shows him in the wilderness this earthly and corrupt woman; afterwards, in the closing scene, he takes him to an exceedingly high mountain, and shows him a heavenly one. As the heavenly woman is the symbol of the heavenly church, so is Babylon of a corrupt religious body. It is that which takes the place of the church, and of being the witness for God upon earth, while it carries on every wicked commerce with those who are exalted here below. There is first, as usual, the carnal and earthly, then the spiritual and heavenly. After the false system of men and Satan disappears, the true is displayed in the glory of God.

Now, though we may look for a future development of Babylon, as opposing God’s final testimony of the kingdom to all nations before the end come, yet I think that, even at the present moment, there need be no difficulty in judging where the features of Babylon are found most fully. It is a religious system that governs a number of kings, not an establishment that is at the mercy of the secular government. This is sin, but it is not the wickedness spoken of here. Babylon is an incomparably darker, deeper, and more wide-spread system of religious corruption — arrogating to itself the name of the church of God exclusively, setting itself above kings, intriguing with them, but at the same time maintaining its supremacy above them all; stupefying the masses with the poison of her exciting falsehoods: arrayed in all the meretricious splendour of the world; the fountain-head of the worst idolatry under the sun; and finally manifesting a spirit of blood-thirsty persecution against the true saints and witnesses of Jesus, under the usurped pretence of His will and authority. There is one that does claim this place — one that takes it as given by God — one whose seat and centre are found in the very heart of what was once the Roman empire — a religious system that affects universal dominion, and that, in order to accomplish it, either wins by every enticing art, or extinguishes all opposition in the blood of heretics so-called, her victims. “By thy sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth” (verses 23, 24). For any unprejudiced person who reads this description of Babylon calmly, and asks himself, What is that professing Christian body so abounding in idols, so authoritative over the kings of the earth, so indulgent to the wicked, and so cruel to the righteous? it is impossible not to see the answer.106

As to the Greek and Oriental churches, as to the English, Scotch, and other reformed national establishments, they are more or less notoriously subservient to the government which has to do with each of them. This may be, and I believe is evil. But there are two ways in which a religious system may act contrary to Christ: either by a guilty subjection to the world, or by a still more guilty supremacy over it — in short, by being the world’s slave or the world’s mistress. At the present time there is only one religious system which pretends to have kings at its feet; and this is the system of Rome, which therefore answers to Babylon. It is a great mistake to suppose that we have done with it, or that its day is over. Rome may yet have a short-lived triumph. Its emissaries are actively abroad all over the world, and the foundations of Protestantism are being undermined everywhere. Those who are looking for Christianity, as things are, to overthrow all its adversaries on earth, are in my opinion in great danger of being deceived, through the unscriptural hope of getting a church as great or greater in good than that of Rome is in evil. For there will come a fearful struggle yet, and Rome, as I conceive, will seem to acquire vast influence, and to put down every contrary voice, except the feeble whisper of the few witnesses spoken of here, who either die by her or come out of her. God will hear them, but as far as all open or public testimony for Him is concerned, it will be swamped by Babylon. And as to putting Babylon down, it is not by the gospel, or by the force of truth that it will be done, but by the will and wrath of men. Wherever Romanism gains the day, infidelity is the necessary consequence; and, therefore, Babylon always prepares the way for the last effort of the beast against the Lamb. But before the close, the beast gets thoroughly the upper hand, and Babylon becomes food for him and the ten horns.

Is this what is introduced to us here? Man is left out; the ten horns are not once alluded to in Revelation 18, though the kings of the earth are. The difference is this. “In the kings of the earth,” I apprehend, are embraced all those rulers of Christendom with whom she had been on terms of bad intimacy, or who had had evil connection with her. The ten horns are the chiefs of the final divided state of the empire and the active instruments of her devastation, as we are told in Revelation 17. The kings of the earth are her mourners, not her burners Here in chapter 18 her hour is come, and it is the Lord God that hath judged her.

You will observe the voice from heaven here: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (verse 4). The receiving of her plagues is not the divine motive for separation. Men would be anxious enough about that. But the great thing that God looks for from His people is this — that they should not be partakers of her sins. I would put it to every Christian, how far is he in sympathy with God’s mind touching Babylon and its sins? How far does he feel the evil of it, and judge it?

Babylon does not seek heaven, but the earth — not the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow, but to sit as a queen and to see no sorrow. Babylon is content with worldly exaltation. If you steer clear of this, Babylon has no attractions for you; and the present danger of every soul from Babylon is the gradual caring for and allowance in Christians of what man values on the earth. Of late years there has been no little change in the thoughts of Christians as to the present enjoyment of prosperity and pleasure in this world. But there is amazing danger in it. For what is the great thought of it all? Man rising, progressing, exalting himself — man showing what he can do, and how improve; and this is sought to be connected with the name and sanction of Christ! Alas! it is Babylon the great (verses 9-19). In her we see the end of the heart’s desire, along with Christ, to enjoy all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. I do not wonder at an unconverted man seeking to make the world pleasant: Cain did it, and there is such a thing now as going in the way of Cain. These are the people that handle all sorts of musical instruments, and the artificers in brass and iron. It is true that these things sprang up in a very early hour of the world, but still the Spirit of God does not tell us for nothing that they were in the family of Cain, not in the family of Seth.

Every child of man stands responsible to God, whether converted or not, to own his outcast state as a sinner: he has no right to drown his conscience in the pleasures and glory of the world. But bad as this may be, the thing that God most hates, and that He will judge in an awful and public manner, even in this world, is the tacking on the name of Christ to the indulgence of worldly lusts. Is it not the desire, even of many Christians, to have the grandeur and riches of the world at their back? I do not doubt that they heartily wish to have people converted, but they would like them to bring their earthly influence along with them. This is the spirit of Babylon. What the Lord looks for from us is doing the will of God, suffering for it, and taking it patiently. Any of these things which the heart covets will be found to involve the will of man. There is not a single position of distinction or of glory in the world but what requires a man to give up a good conscience towards God. In other words, you cannot be a member of the world and act faithfully as a member of Christ. If you value and wish to follow the world, you will make all sorts of excuses, and argue for a compromise; but this only shows how far the leaven of Babylon has affected your soul.

God gathers souls round Jesus — that is, Jesus rejected, and gone up to heaven. Therefore the Church is based on these two fundamental truths. She has got the cross, and she is united to Christ in heavenly glory by the Holy Ghost sent down. And the cross and heavenly glory will not mingle with the world. This is the very thing that puts my heart to the test. If Christ is my object, I shall not want the world; I shall be looking up it may be feebly, but still looking up to heaven; and there will be the one object that God uses to strengthen me by, giving me willingness to suffer in the consciousness of having Christ in the glory. Whenever the church craves after something else, as the esteem and honour of the world, or even social improvement, she denies her proper glory.

Popery mistook the true character of the church, followed the Jewish system, and thought that people ought to bring their gold and silver and precious stones and goodly things to honour the Lord with. (See verses 12-14.) But God was wiser than men, and shows that all this pretence of honouring God is a mere sham, and that what people really want is to honour themselves. They are seeking what attracts and makes them an object of attraction, whilst they cover up their real object under the plea of the name of Christ. This is what God will judge, and what infects the whole of Christendom increasingly before judgment comes. You may ask me how that can be possible, when there are so many societies growing up, and such an active energy, religious and moral, dealing with the various forms of public evil throughout the world. I am not telling you what I see, but what God’s word shows — the all but universal prevalence before the close of a corrupt system, which plainly has its centre in Rome, though taking a larger compass, so as to embrace every religious institution107 which, however opposed it may seem to Popery now, does not link a soul with heaven. There is no safety for any person who is building on the earth. The heavenly saints will be taken away before the judgment falls upon Babylon. They are not referred to in that word, “Come out of her, my people.” This is spoken of God’s earthly people108 by and by. But at the same time, its principle fully applies. For the essence of Babylon is the union of the world with the name of Christ. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.”

The Lord will not hold any man guiltless who has a conscience of what is due to Christ and does not follow it. To such I would say, this is what you will prove: you will go on for a time and be troubled with the truth, for it will condemn you; but ere long you will find that all taste for it is lost; you will tire of it and even turn against it, and then will become morally ripe for Babylon when it bids seriously for you. If I am guilty of the spirit of Babylon, this is what God looks at, as far as I am concerned. The person who travels in her path cannot but be a partaker of her sin. And who so oppose the truth, as those that corrupt it? Who so hate, as those that are condemned of themselves?

There is a great work, not only of dissolving and breaking up what is old, but uniting and amalgamating for various purposes, going on now; and as this was found in Babylon at the very beginning (Gen. 11), so, in the long run, it will be found to serve the purpose of that great city before the Lord God has for ever judged her.

There will be, I believe from various scriptures, an astonishing mixture of professing Christianity with Judaism: and the latter, as judged by the new and full revelation of Christ in the New Testament, is no better than heathenism. (Gal. 4.) We know how tender the Spirit was in bearing with the weakness, the scruples, the attachment to old religious habits in such of the Christians as had been Jews (Rom. 14); but it was a very different thing when teachers sought to impose Jewish ordinances on the Gentile converts. The same Spirit treated a ritual borrowed by Gentiles from Jews as the same thing in principle as old and open pagan idolatry. “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements of the world, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.” Popery is the most salient and hateful exhibition of this amalgam now; but greater abominations shall appear. Sacramentalism and rationalism, in these and other Protestant lands, are each provoking the other to excesses previously unexampled. When too was ever known such public indifference, which desires leisure for commerce abroad and social development at home? The result will appear in the last stages of Babylon and the beast.

In the scene before us we have had the lament of kings, merchants, and all who had to do with the unholy traffic of Babylon. Heaven, and especially the “saints” (for so it should be read) and the apostles and the prophets, are called to rejoice at God’s judgment: “God hath avenged you [or literally, judged your judgment] on her.” In the mighty angel’s solemn act and word, which closes the chapter (verses 21-24), not only are set forth the violence of her ruin and its totality, but the reason of it as regards the nations — deceiving them all by her sorceries. The last verse adds another and awful cause — Babylon’s inheritance of Jerusalem in blood-guiltiness. “And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.”

The Lord grant that, instead of merely looking without and occupying ourselves with condemning others, we may take good care that our own souls are preserved from the contaminations of Babylon. May our affections be kept true to Himself — the only real guard against the seductions of the enemy! We are espoused as a chaste virgin to Christ. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

106 The effort of the celebrated and subtle Bossuet to torn aside the application of Babylon in Rev. 17 and 18 from Christianised or Papal Rome is not only weak, but when duly sifted brings out the truth more evidently. His argument is that the church being married to Christ, the guilty church would be an adulteress rather than a harlot. The answer is, not merely that fornication is the generic term, is every one may see in both Old and New Testaments, but that. even applied with the utmost rigour, a harlot most correctly describes the present sin, because the church is now espoused to Christ, not married. The marriage, according to the Apocalypse, is only consummated after Babylon’s final judgment in Revelation 19.

107 Babylon is not only herself “the great harlot,” but “the mother of the harlots and the abominations of the earth.” There are more of kindred corruptions in religion, though Rome is pre-eminent, “the mother and mistress,” as she claims, of others.

108 Hence there is no need to adopt Vitringa’s odd notion, that verse 6 is addressed to the kings, nor to destroy the distinctive practical calling of the church by supposing that she is to be the avenger of Babylon’s wrongs. God’s retributive justice will send its more fitting appeal to His people the Jews, who are to be the witnesses of His righteous government here below.