The fifth cycle begins the third vision. This vision, like the ones before, is marked with the phrase “in the Spirit” (Rev 17:3). This time the vision is in the wilderness. The vision is of the judgment of the great prostitute Babylon. She is dressed like royalty and she is drunk on the blood of the saints — those who witnessed to Jesus (the martyrs). Here again the theme of witnessing to Jesus is front and center for the church. By contrast, the prostitute is seducing the kings of the earth and their subjects — this sexual immorality stands for the unfaithfulness of the people to God. These are themes that have been prominent from the beginning of the book and especially in the seven letters where she reminds us of Jezebel and Balaam. The connection with Jezebel is especially intentional when you compare Rev 2:21-22 with Rev 17:2. This introduction twice includes the visionary formula “and I saw” (Rev 17:3, 6), both times refering to the same sight.
Babylon is a theme running throughout Scripture. The first explicit reference is Genesis 10:10 where it discusses the giant Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the presence of the LORD. In the aftermath of the Tower of Babel scene, that is recounted after the table of seventy nations mentioning this, Nimrod took advantage of the confusion to conquer Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar (that is Babylon) and continued his conquest to also include Assyria and build Ninevah. This accents the theme of conquest — this means that they will be the typical bad guys of Scripture (for example, the king of Shinar is one of those who takes Lot captive (Gen 14:1ff), a band of Chaldeans — another word for Babylonians — made a raid on Job’s camels and killed his servants (Job 1:17). But chronologically before Nimrod’s conquests the city was called Babel because that is where the languages of the earth were confused. It was the point from which the nations were scattered. Babel represented defiance against God — attempting to find its own way into the heavenly places by building the tower (the opposite of the ladder that came down from heaven) and to make a name for themselves rather than to let God make a name for them. It represented the first attempt at world government and promoted the false religion of the state — the belief that the state will save you. Later in Genesis, it is no accident that Abraham is called out of Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:31). Later in the history of Israel, the Assyrians would take the northern kingdom into captivity and then the Babylonians would take the southern kingdom into captivity. The Babylonians were again working toward world domination with much the same status that Rome had when Jesus walked on the earth. It is important to remember that the Babylonians would later undergo the judgment of God for what they had done to the people of God. Thus the symbolism of Babylon is appropriate if for no other reason than to allude to the latter prophets and the Book of Daniel. Especially Daniel is concerned to explain how to live within the city of man and not become tainted by it.
The structure of the fifth cycle after the introduction is three angelic messages of judgment, followed by three laments by the members of the prostitute, the command from heaven to rejoice and then the final and permanent judgment declaring the fall of the great city of man, which is then followed by the fulfillment of the command to rejoice.
The first angelic message is Rev 17:7-18. This message explains the vision just described. Babylon is identified as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18). This would first refer to Rome, but more generally refers to what Rome represents. In fact, Poythress notes that she sounds like Jerusalem before the exile in Old Testament texts but that the main reference is to Rome as it was the modern Babylon and Tyre (citing Jeremiah 50-51 and Ezekiel 27). We could also add that what happens to the city sounds like what happened to Jerusalem in AD 70. But Jerusalem was a vassal of Rome and the bigger picture is what Rome represents. It represents the state encouraging us to compromise on the Lordship of Jesus. The waters she is seated on are explained as “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev 17:15). This way of putting it is an allusion back to the Tower of Babel (early Babylon) narrative. This allusion is worth exploring in your thoughts about this text. The book of Revelation as always explains what the vision means. Sometimes it does so by intertextuality — by allusions to Old Testament texts and even to other texts in the same book. Even the way the beast is described, for example, means to allude to the first beast introduced in the previous cycle.
One interesting phrase that draws attention to itself through repetition is “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” and later as “it was and is not and is to come” (Rev 17:8). This reminds us that the beast is a counterfeit of God. God is “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4, 8, 4:8). Thus also the prostitute is called “the woman” (Rev 17:7) reminding us that the prostitute is the counterfeit of the woman in the previous cycle representing the church. It is not just the external pressures of the beast (the state) but also the pressures in the church of the prophetess Jezebel — animated by the false prophet. It was people in the church who were calling upon Christians to compromise with the culture by participating in the idolatrous feasts and sexual immorality in order to do business. But in the end the ten horns and the beast turn on the prostitute — the false church.
The second angelic message is Rev 18:1-3. Poythress notes that again allusions about to Jeremiah 50-51 (fall of Babylon) and Ezekiel 27 (fall of Tyre). The angel reflects the glory of God. And with a mighty voice the angel declares the fall of Babylon. She is no longer fit for righteous inhabitants but only demons, unclean spirits, unclean birds, and unclean and detestable animals. This alludes to the way Babylon was prophesied to be uninhabitable (i.e. Jer 50:3, 39-40, 51:29, 37, 43, 62) except for hyenas and ostriches and such. The next verse is three-fold: the nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality (Jer 51:7), the kings of the earth committed adultery with her (alluding back to Rev 17:2 and thus also as above to Jezebel in the letter to Thyatira), and the merchants grown rich from the power of her luxurious living (Ezekiel 27:33).
The third angelic message is Rev 18:4-8. It is a voice from heaven. It warns the people to come out of Babylon much the same way that Jesus warned the people they would have to flee Jerusalem (Matt 24). The language reminds us that sins build up and up and up until they reach a climax when God sends judgment like with the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah and the land of Canaan. Their sins building up to heaven alludes also to the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:4) and to the prophesied fall of Babylon (Jer 51:9). Sodom is particularly helpful in thinking about these things since Lot is a prototype of the person living in the gate of the city of man and having to flee when judgment comes (cf 2 Peter 2:7-8). The reason for fleeing is to avoid taking part in her sins — being complicit in her sins — and to avoid sharing in her plagues. The plagues mentioned are death, mourning, famine, and fire. These are plagues mentioned earlier in Revelation.
The kings of the earth pronounce their lament in Rev 18:9-10. They mourn over the passing of the city because they frequented her to commit sexual immorality and enjoy luxurious living from their sales (see above).
The second lament is from the merchants in Rev 18:11-17a. It is interesting to note that the slave trade is condemned by associating it with the merchants (Rev 18:13). In any case, the merchants were participants in the economy that demanded submission to worship the state.
The third lament is from the seafaring men in Rev 18:17b-19. It follows the same pattern of the previous laments. Each group stood far off as the city suffered the judgment. Each one ends with “Alas, alas…[and the text of a lamentation noting this took place in a single day (Rev 18:8), in a single hour (Rev 18:17), and in a single hour (Rev 18:19).]” They all look back with longing at her past prosperity, just as Lot’s wife looked back and turned to a pillar of salt, rather than repent.
The promise for the saints is Rev 18:20. It says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!”
The seventh message of judgment is Rev 18:21-24. The message tells us that the city will never be rebuilt (cf. Ezekiel 26:14) or reinhabited (these activities are an allusion to Jer 25:10 foretelling the Babylonian captivity).
This is followed by ten verses of sevenfold joy in heaven (Rev 19:1-10). These verses describe the worship and wedding feast of the marriage of the true church to Jesus Christ. Part of this is rejoicing over the just judgment of Babylon. This worship of the saints and angels resembles the sound of God (Rev 19:6) and repeatedly says Hallelujah. Indeed, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9).