Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 18:15–17

Revelation 18:15–17
The merchants who sold these things, who got rich from her, will stand a long way off because they are afraid of her torment. They will weep and mourn, 16 saying, “Woe, woe, O great city– dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet clothing, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls– 17 because in a single hour such great wealth has been destroyed!”
(NET Bible)

Babylon/Rome’s future loss of . . . everything!

Every time a ship or airliner sets out to cross the ocean, it eventually reaches the point of no return. At that halfway point in the journey, the path onward to the destination is shorter than turning around to go back.

Each of us has advanced in a journey toward being fully conformed to the social, material and sexual values of Babylon. Have we passed the point of no return? Can we still turn toward being conformed to the image of Christ?

In yesterday’s lesson we had the first funeral dirge from the kings of the earth (18:9–10) for Babylon the great. Today we have two more dirges. Grant Osborne says: “The three funeral dirges are sung by three groups who profited most greatly from the largesse of Babylon/Rome: the kings who grew rich from her, the merchants who shared her expanding markets, and the shipping people who carried her cargo all over the world.” [1]

Craig Keener gives insight into Roman commercial practices, which affected John’s first readers, when he says: “Pagan symbols were prominent at major Mediterranean ports, and activities of the shipping lines and merchant guilds involved aspects of the [Roman] imperial cult [i.e. worship of the emperor].”[2] Anyone who wanted in on the flow of wealth had to play the game of idolatrous patriotism. Christians unwilling to worship the emperor might be cut out altogether.

The extensive cargo list of Revelation 18:11–14 demonstrates the comprehensive scope of economic interests during the Roman Empire. Keener[3] explains how Rome’s new rich flaunted their gold from Spain, pearls from India, silk from China, citron wood from Morocco, ivory from Syria and Africa, bronze from Corinth and marble from Africa and Greece. They enjoyed cinnamon from Zanzibar, frankincense from South Arabia, and fine wine from Spain. Deny yourself nothing!

Keener adds: “Africa and Egypt supplied most of Rome’s ‘wheat’ via the imperial grain fleet, which consisted of thousands of ships run by merchants but supervised by the state. Much of this wheat came from taxes on the provinces [often paid in wheat], but it was distributed free to Rome’s inhabitants.”[4] This is just one example of how the whole system took from the common citizen of the Empire to give to the Roman elite.

The final item in the list (“bodies and human lives” NET, or “slaves, that is, human souls” ESV) is likely a reference to slaves (18:13). NT scholar Ben Witherington says, “Estimates vary, but most scholars believe that one-third to one-half of the population of the Empire were slaves. . . . Indeed, one could say that the Roman Empire as it was would have been impossible without slavery.”[5] Slaves — human beings — were just another luxury.

The indictment of 18:23b is ominous. The tycoons — so NET says, but better “important people” with the NIV 2011 — were merely instruments of Satan (ultimately), and their culture of luxury, sexuality and power were the figurative magic spells that deceived the nations. Carried to the extreme, under the beast, these values led to the slaughter of the saints and many others (18:24).

In contrast to this depraved situation, 18:20 commands heaven, the saints, the apostles, and the prophets to rejoice over the destruction of Babylon. It will fall and never rise again!

Who, then, are we?

It cannot be comforting to read what God says about Babylon, because we have drunk water from the same well. Keener says it pointedly: “Today, as in John’s day, profit margins matter more to some people than justice. God has promised to set those matters straight.”[6] We need to bring that idea down to a personal level.

Jesus plainly said to us, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). We individually and as a nation have been given much, and we will answer to Jesus for it all.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 644.

[2] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 427.

[3] Keener, Revelation, 428-429.

[4] Keener, Revelation 429.

[5] Ben Witherington III, Revelation, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press) 229.

[6] Keener, Revelation, 446.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!