By Daniel Harrell
Revelation 17? The Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth? Nice passage there, Reverend! What can I say? It’s in the Bible and we here at the Park Street Church are committed to preaching the entire word of God for the people of God. Of course it may help to know that this morning’s sermon is not totally random, but part of an ongoing Revelation series I’ve been preaching since 2006 during my turns in the morning rotation. Revelation is a book everybody says they want to study until they actually get into it. You’re attracted to its vivid imagery, symbolism and predictions: Those crazy creatures that look like nothing found in nature, mysterious numbers that don’t quite add up and funny looking angels with scrolls and horns and bowls that do battle against evil mythical enemies with bizarre names like Gog and Magog who all end up cooked up into a final grim soup of burning flesh. As those who’ve been following along since 2006 know, it can get pretty gruesome. But mostly it’s just confusing. So much so that in the end, nearly everybody is happy to put Revelation back on the shelf. Martin Luther thought that it shouldn’t even be in the Bible.
Revelation’s language belongs to that Biblical genre known as apocalyptic where fantastical images and events are employed sort of like special effects at the movies. The graphic descriptions get your attention; they are literary devices used to drive home literal truth. Tradition holds that Revelation was recorded by an exiled John towards the close of the first century AD. He wrote just as the Roman emperor Domitian was commencing his persecution of the church. Like the Caesars before him, Emperor Domitian decreed that his subjects worship him as lord and god. Christians who refused to go along got themselves targeted as traitors and sentenced to death. Revelation gave these Christians courage to bear witness to Christ as the only true Lord and God, even as they were being executed. Apocalyptic assurances of ultimate victory emboldened them and gave them hope as the God who rules in sublime majesty would avenge their blood in perfect justice. And in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the God who rules in sublime majesty would suffer their injustice with them.
Still, Revelation can be gruesome. Chapter 17 picks up from where chapter 16 left off. Last time we were accosted by malignant boils covering the skin, oceans and rivers turned to blood, demonic frogs, hundred-pound hailstones pounding down on people’s heads, darkness and thunder and cosmic war. This third and last set of judgments in Revelation were announced as “the third woe” back in chapter 11. The third woe commenced with the terrifying appearance of a dragon—Satan the ancient serpent himself—along with the fabled beast and false prophet: an unholy trinity of deception and destruction. Standing up to their menace was Jesus the Lamb, slain and risen, along with those saved by his sacrifice. An angel flew air support overhead, warning all who remained on the fence that time was up, “the hour of God’s judgment has come.” In the angel’s wake rode a “son of man” 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; those who remain unashamed of the gospel from those who succumbed to the serpent.
Yet more than merely determining the fate of humanity, God’s final judgment dealt doom to evil too, meting out his righteous vengeance against all wickedness and injustice. No act of oppression would get overlooked. In verse 19 of chapter 16, we read that “God remembered Babylon the Great.” And not fondly, mind you. Recalling her tyranny and brutality, God makes her “drain the cup of the fury of his wrath.” Babylon, located in modern day Iraq, was that ancient empire under King Nebuchadnezzar that ransacked Israel and deported the chosen people out of their promised land. How could the Lord allow a pagan nation to kick his own people off their God-given property? Because of their persistent idolatry and refusal to act as his chosen people, the Lord removed his protective cover from them, effectively letting them have what they wanted. He let them have it by unleashing idol-loving Babylon on them. King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies served as an instrument of God’s justice. However in doing so they also overreached, presuming that their power to conquer was permission to coerce and exploit. Because justice accomplished unjustly is not justice; the prophet Daniel (from whom Revelation borrows much of its imagery) predicted Babylon’s own doom.
God remembered Babylon alright. Who could forget someone who looks like she does here in chapter 17? In chapter 16, God thundered from heaven that his judgments were done, yet details remain. Because John wants to paint the whole picture, he circles back in chapter 17, a common tactic throughout Revelation. Seven bowls circle back to reiterate the seven trumpets that reiterate the seven seals—all as a way of underscoring the final outcome: victory for God. New Testament theologian NT Wright describes this victory as the return of God to his people, their real return to him out of exile and the final defeat of evil—all accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ. (I should remind you that NT Wright will be preaching for us in November 16 as a preseason kick-off to our Sharing the Journey bicentennial celebration. Mark your calendar and invite a friend.). His mention of “the real return from exile” adds understanding to the mention of Babylon here in Revelation. Just as Israel’s original return from exile foreshadows the real return; so Israel’s original captivity to Babylon foreshadows further captivity to come.
Israel did return from its Babylonian exile—rescued by God. But things between Israel and God never returned to normal. God sent more prophets—Zechariah among them—but as Gordon preached last Sunday, the people refused to heed. They went through the motions of piety, putting away their pagan idols and statues, but behind this façade of obedience they went on treating each other as contemptuously as they had back when prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah tried knocking some sense into them. God’s people refused to administer true justice or show mercy and compassion to the widow, the fatherless, the alien or the poor as Zechariah commanded. Therefore once again God removed his protection and in time the Romans rolled in and rolled over Israel, making them captives within their own country. And thus in Revelation, Babylon stands for Rome, evident in the allusion to seven hills in verse 9 (Latin poets such as Virgil and Cicero had long described Rome as being built on seven hills). Furthermore, in verse 18, Babylon is named “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” Like Babylon, Rome also overreached, oppressing its subjects with vicious cruelty, inciting afresh the wrath of God’s justice.
Yet John calls for wisdom in verse 9; he invites the reader to see beyond the obvious. John is not engaging merely in a polemic against ancient Rome; instead, Rome is but the current and best example of mythic Babylon and her evil. God’s justice would in time topple Rome too, but there would rise up more sinister Babylonian manifestations in its place. Every powerful government, including our own, has been a candidate for inclusion in the Babylonian parade of evil. Theologians have suggested numerous other entities throughout history as well. For some this Harlot of Babylon was apostate Jerusalem. During the Protestant Reformation she was the Catholic Church and the Pope. During the Catholic Counter Reformation she was the Protestants. For one of my Facebook friends, who noted my status this week as “wondering about the identity of the harlot of Babylon,” she is Paris Hilton. For commentator Gregory Beale, formerly of Gordon-Conwell seminary, the harlot represents “worldly economic forces in collusion with the state”—which if your 401K looks anything like mine these days, would make the Harlot of Babylon Wall Street.
She is a seductress who has succeeded in seducing us all. From the lowliest house-flipper to the highest-flying hedge fund manager, we all put our common sense in a box and buried it for her. Columnist Timothy Egan observed how, thanks to the deregulatory demons released by Republicans and embraced by lobbyist-greased Democrats, Wall Street was green-lighted again to act like a casino. Banks in the heartland passed on subprime mortgages to Wall Street, where they were sliced and diced in hundreds of largely incomprehensible ways. Assets were financed with a growing volume of credit and with ever higher leverage. The word “credit” derives from the Latin crederi, which means to believe. And everybody believed. While few people understand how those investment giants made money, this much is clear: it was a killing. In 2006 alone, Wall Street firms paid out $62 billion in bonuses as naïve homebuyers took on 100% mortgages and the treatment of credit as assets exposed taxpayers to the inevitable losses. Babylon overreached again. And as always when Babylon overreaches, judgment comes. It is no surprise that the current financial doom is being described by almost every news outlet as “global economic apocalypse.”
Now I am not trying to suggest that our current financial crisis is the fulfillment of Revelation 17. I am not one of those Biblical prophecy bloodhounds who scrutinize every geopolitical development, technological advancement and social crisis for clues as to the exact time of Christ’s return. Jesus said not even he knew that. But I am one who’s willing to view world events through a Biblical prism; which means I’m willing to see the forces that led to this extraordinary economic calamity as another example of mythic Babylon and her evil.
In verse 2 we read that with the harlot of Babylon: “the kings of the earth committed adultery and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her adulteries.” “Adultery” in common parlance is cheating on your spouse, but in apocalyptic parlance it’s cheating on God. In the Old Testament, Israel’s relationship to God gets compared to a marriage in which God is the husband and Israel the bride. In the New Testament this same imagery applies with the church described as the bride of Christ. In the Old Testament, unfaithful Israel committed adultery whenever they practiced idolatry; whenever they worshipped other gods. By the time we get to the New Testament, God’s people had rid themselves of their idols, but not their idolatry. Their adultery continued, but took a subtle, more familiar form. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus said. Though given the marriage analogy he could just as well have said “no woman can have 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.”
On a recent episode of the PBS show Religion and Ethics News Weekly (which I mention in part because this same show is filming here this morning as part of a feature on the Living Leviticus experiment I led here at Park Street last winter), the topic was the morality of the market. Dr. Rebecca Blank, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was asked to what extent greed was responsible for the current financial crisis. Dr. Blank replied, “Greed is clearly responsible for where we are right now. However, greed is good to most economists. It’s greed that makes people work harder, be more productive, and helps the economy grow. Greed has economic advantages.”
Greed is good. This is the seductive tune of the harlot’s siren song, her tantalizing cup of lies. Verse 2: “The people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her adulteries.” Does this mean that the people who are not of this world but who love God and belong to Christ are immune to her allure? We should be. But just in case we’re not, Revelation lampoons the harlot—portraying her as gaudily clad in outrageous clothing and ostentatious jewelry, riding the notorious and nefarious seven-headed demonic beast that everyone recalls as having arisen out of the stormy sea, apocalyptic code for the dominion of chaos. And she’s in the desert too, Biblical code for temptation. And if that’s not a sufficient turn-off, the beast is scrawled with blasphemous graffiti, and the harlot herself has a flashing billboard 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, Revelation has her showing up drunk on the blood of saints and martyrs, your own Christian brothers and sisters murdered for their faith. John stares at her and says, “I was greatly astonished.” The Revised Standard Version has him saying, “I marveled greatly.” The verb is one commonly used to mean, not revulsion or surprise, but awe and admiration. In the King James Version, John says, “I marveled with great admiration.” The harlot had John under her spell.
“Watch out,” Jesus cautioned. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. …Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up treasures in heaven. …You cannot serve both God and money. …It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Of the 500 plus references to evil in the Bible, none explicitly mention its origin save one. 1 Timothy 6:10: “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Hard words. So hard that many Bibles attempt to lessen the sting by rendering the word for all as all kinds of evil. Though I’m not sure that helps. Another attempt was made in 2002 by Calvin College professor John Schneider in a book I’ve cited before entitled The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth, a follow-up to his book Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money and Possessions. Schneider writes that because modern capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon, much of the Bible’s admonition against wealth doesn’t apply anymore. Moreover, according to his study of Scripture, the poor didn’t have it so bad in Biblical times. “The peasantry was always on the losing end of things,” he explains. “Manipulated inflation (price fixing) by the rich actually created better prices for poorer landowners simply by artificially raising prices for their commodities.” Sounds like a conversation you’d imagine at Lehman Brothers. Professor Schneider goes on to point out how by spending time with tax-collectors and publicans, Jesus in effect validated their money-making schemes (though a similar argument is not ventured in regard to prostitutes). You can get this book on Amazon. It’s currently selling for .94 cents.
“Watch out,” Jesus cautioned. In verse 7, John’s angelic escort smacks him upside his head. “Snap out of it! Why do you marvel? Let me tell you who this evil woman really is!” The angel then proceeds to describe the beast she rides as the one who had come out of the Abyss, who “once was, now is not, and yet will come,” a parody of the same phrase used to describe God. Evil is a parody—a parasite that gets its energy from the good it perverts. Satan is a perverted angel, the beast is a perversion of Jesus, greed is perverted love. Chapter 13 had the beast looking “as if it had been slain,” which is the exact same expression used to describe Christ the crucified Lamb in chapter 5. People who thought the beast dead marvel at his mock resurrection, forgetting the catastrophes he’d wrought before. Their memories are short.
I ran across a letter to the editor last week where the writer bemoaned the stock market and housing meltdown. He wrote: “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.” The date of this letter? November 8, 1987.
Memories are short. The angel identifies the Harlot of Babylon as Rome to demonstrate that 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 Rome’s power and wealth; to persuade them to not cheat on God by compromising their loyalties to Christ and the Christian community. If you can be persuaded that what appears impressive is really ridiculous, that what seems glamorous is actually garish, and that what look desirous is in fact ludicrous, you will be more able to defy it—more able to resist running up credit card debt because you want more than you can afford or need, more able to resist taking out an irresponsible mortgage or maxing out a student loan or chasing the latest stock or fund craze; more able to resist the way our culture puts a price on everything thereby reducing everything to a commodity to be bought, possessed and spent.
“Snap out of it!” says the angel. “Guard against all greed,” Jesus warned; if for no other reason than greed, like every evil, self-destructs. Verse 16: “The beast and the ten horns will hate the harlot. They will turn on her, bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” What if Wall Street is an example of mythic Babylon and our government an example of the beast? Verse 16’s description would fit. Bailout is just a fancy word for burn up. This past week the FBI initiated criminal investigations into Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers and AIG. 24 cases are underway, targeting lenders who knowingly wrote bad mortgages, investment bankers who sliced up loans and resold them as mockingly-labeled “securities” without disclosing risks, and executives who recklessly heaped questionable investments onto their books. Wall Street is being stripped naked. And it is all God’s doing. Verse 17: “God put it into their hearts to perform his purpose.” God executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous; through both Israel and Babylon; through both the church and the world.
And what is God’s will? God’s will is victory: his return to his people, their real return to him out of exile, the final defeat of evil—all in the person of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain for greed and all sin—the greatest captivity. Thinking such a wounded lamb weak, the mighty beast and his horns constantly try to take him down, waging war in verse 14. “But the Lamb will overcome because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and those with him are called, chosen and faithful.” And so it is with all who are called, chosen and faithful—who trust in the Lamb and not lucre—who being generous toward God and your neighbor, store up their treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal, where debts do not consume and greed does not entice. For where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is too.