When St. John wrote the book of Revelation, he was trying to help the first century Christians understand how to be people of God while living in what was the oppressive Roman Empire. Whenever those early Christians spoke about the empire, they referred to it as Babylon. Babylon was the code word for the Empire; the dominant society in which they were living.
Every societal system should be regarded as Babylon, given its usage in the book of Revelation. For people living in Japan, their Babylon is the Japanese socio-economic system and culture. For the German people, Babylon is the German socio-economic system. But because we live in the United States of American, our Babylon is the American societal system.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. I believe it’s the best Babylon on the face of the earth; but it is still Babylon. It is not the City of God! To treat it as such is, according to the book of Revelation, idolatry (see, Rev. Chap. 17).
Our Babylon invites us to embrace wealth, whereas the lifestyle of those who live out Jesus’ radical lifestyle requires that we sacrifice our wealth to help the poor (Mark 10:17-27).The American Babylon affirms capital punishment and legitimates war, whereas the ethics of Christ’s Kingdom ask that we show mercy and be peace makers. On the one hand, our dominant culture invites us to glorify ourselves and assert ourselves above others while the Jesus we read about in scripture teaches us just the opposite (Matt. 5:5 and Phil. 2:4-11).
While Babylon glorifies popularity and fame, Jesus tells us to beware when everyone speaks well of us, and to see ourselves blessed when the people of Babylon reject us and say ugly things about us (Luke 6:22-23). It is no wonder that there are those who regard Christians who live according the values and lifestyle prescribed by Jesus as living an “upside down” existence in contrast with those who have been seduced by Babylon.
The dominant society also fosters idolatry. Indeed, so many of us in the Church could be accused of worshiping Babylon rather than Jesus, and thus could be called idolaters in that we are compromised Christians who adore and seek after the glories of Babylon, rather than seeking to glorify God by living in accord with the values and requisites of God’s Kingdom (Matt. 6:33). Many of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus are not ready to commit ourselves to following the Christ who calls us out of Babylon (Rev. 18:4) and challenges us to resist being conformed to what Babylon wants us to be (Rom. 12:1-2). You cannot read the New Testament without becoming aware that being a follower of Jesus is to be counter-cultural to all that Babylon is trying to sell us and lure us into becoming.
As we read the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, we learn that sooner or later Babylon will fall. Every Babylon eventually falls, and the American Babylon is no exception. Only that Kingdom wherein Jesus is King has no end. We affirm this on Easter Sunday when we join the church choir in singing the Hallelujah chorus that declares that, “He shall reign forever and ever.” There is one other Easter hymn that lets it be known that “Kings and Kingdoms shall all pass away,” but that Jesus shall reign over his kingdom forever.
As we consider this present age we might conclude that one reason that our Babylon will fall is because our consumeristic lifestyles requires the exhausting of the resources, both natural and human, that have made the luxurious existence we have come to take for granted possible (Rev. 18:12-13). There will come a time, the scripture tells us, when the rest of the people of the world will no longer buy the merchandise that our Babylon is selling (Rev. 18:11) and that is another reason Babylon will collapse. Our economic domination of other nations will be no more and the commerce that has made America rich, at times at the expense of others, will have come to an end.
Ours has been an empire built on the sufferings of many innocent people. As I read Revelation 15:5-6, which makes clear that there will come an end to such an empire, I could not help but think, in historical perspective, how our American prosperity has been built on the sweat and blood of people we have victimized and from whom our ancestors have stolen. I am thinking of people like Native Americans and African slaves. The book of Revelation lets us know that a day of reckoning is coming.
The Bible says that the fall of Babylon will come quickly (Rev. 18:10). There will be, according to scriptures, two reactions to this overnight collapse. First will be the reaction of “the merchants,” who will weep and wail because they had been totally invested in Babylon. They will weep because all that was precious to them will be no more. They will agonize because the “markets” into which they had poured their lives will have disappeared because, “No man buyeth their merchandise anymore” (Rev. 18:11). We Americans should have known this was coming in that we were given foretastes of such a collapse during the economic downturn in 2008, and then again have witnessed the effects on the economy following the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020. During those days we should have sensed the precarious nature of the affluent way of life we had learned to enjoy (Rev. 18:14).
Not only will the merchants on Wall Street weep and wail upon the fall of Babylon, but so will many of the rest of us whose lives have been so greatly invested in its materialistic system. We people who have become comfortable in the ways of Babylon will weep and wail but, as the scripture tell us, so will those in other nations whose lives had been inexorably tied in with our Babylon (Rev. 18:3). Those other peoples of the world who had lived the “good life” derived from Babylon’s efficient and productive societal system also will share in this suffering. The collapse of Babylon will pull them down as well.
In contrast to all the bad news about Babylon, there is some good news. There also will be a great celebration in reaction to the fall of Babylon. The nineteenth chapter of Revelation declares that those people of God who had not been seduced by Babylon, but rather, had poured themselves and all that they had, into the ministries of the Kingdom of God that are marked by love and justice, will join the heavenly hosts and shout “Hallelujah!” as Babylon falls. These will be those who had invested themselves in works of evangelism and social justice. Their good works were treasure laid up in Heaven “where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal” (Matt. 6:19-20).
Here is the question that every one of us must one day answer: “On that awesome day when Babylon collapses, with whom will you stand?” Will you be with the merchants, and all those identified with them, and weep and wail because you and all you had lived for had been invested in the empire? Or will you be able to stand with the angels and the people of God and shout, “Hallelujah!” because you have been invested in the works of God? How you answer that question will have eternal consequences. I, myself, struggle to answer that question and I must admit that I am uneasy whenever I think about it. My only comfort is the good news that my salvation is a gift of God, given by grace because of Christ’s faithfulness to his Father in His death and resurrection. And so I ask again, “On which side will each of us stand on that great and awesome day?”