Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for May 27, 2023.
Editor’s note: To accompany the Sabbath school lesson’s focus this quarter on the three angels’ messages, Spectrum is publishing “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages,” a serialized in-depth focus on Revelation by Sigve Tonstad.
We are now in a position to conclude that although the message of the second angel is the shortest of the three angels’ messages (Rev. 14:8), Revelation’s exposé of Babylon is diffused throughout the book to make this message the longest by far. We can also conclude that Babylon encompasses (1) a religious-political entity that combines “faith” and “state” as instruments of the dragon (17:1-6); (2) an economic-political entity that is oppressive, predatory, and unsustainable (18:7-23); and (3) a cosmic reality centered on the Brilliant Star that primordially set his mind on becoming like the Most High (Isa. 14:12-15).
Two features of the economic and cosmic Babylon cannot be left out. On the side of economic predation, John says that
the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives (Rev. 18:11-13).
This part of the indictment is cast in stark economic terms, an economy of far-flung trade favoring the One Percent and abounding in luxury items, “commodities that all want, few have, and none need.” Allen Dwight Callahan calls the indictment a “critique in an apocalyptic idiom of the political economy of imperial Rome.” Craig R. Koester, likewise, reads it as a description of “economic life under imperial Roman rule.” These are legitimate readings, but the indictment neither begins nor ends with imperial Rome and it will not be confined to simplistic labels. Bauckham, who believes that Rome is the primary referent for Babylon, accepts that there could be another and more sinister horizon, the seduction of Christianity. “It is one of the deepest ironies of Christian history that, when the Roman Empire became nominally Christian under the power of the Christian emperors, Christianity came to function not so very differently from the state religion which Revelation portrays as Rome’s idolatrous self-deification.” “One of the deepest ironies,” yes, and much more, perhaps—a view of reality that anticipated the subversion and made it, not Rome, the main target of concern.
Just as Isaiah’s poem about the fall of the Brilliant Star informs Revelation’s understanding of the cosmic conflict and its view of Babylon, the post-mortem view of Babylon’s demise draws heavily on Ezekiel’s poem about “the prince of Tyre” (Ezek. 28:12-19). When we are told that Babylon’s cargo includes “slaves—and human lives” (Rev. 18:13), it must follow that any power trading in “slaves and human lives” is included in the indictment. Indeed, the force of the indictment will be proportional to the privileges and profession of the one hearing it. Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, will by this criterion be essential reading for anyone who takes Revelation’s economic critique of Babylon and its trade in “human lives” seriously.
This is also the natural home for the Sabbath vision in the second angel’s message. God, who finds Babylon spiritually, politically, and economically defunct—with trade in slaves and human lives as proof of its fallen state—has a message to those living under Babylon’s domain, “Come out of her, my people!” (Rev. 18:4; cf. Isa. 48:20; Jer. 50:4) A cry like it has been heard before in Scripture, a word to an enslaved and oppressed people living under the iron heel of empire.
The Deuteronomist aptly names Egypt “the Iron Furnace” (Deut. 4:20), for it is the biblical archetype of the industrial society: burning, ceaseless in its demand for slave labor (the cheapest fuel of the ancient industrial machines), consuming until it is itself consumed in the confrontation between divinized Pharaoh and the God of the Burning Bush. Egypt consumes itself, as the royal courtiers acknowledge when, after the seventh plague, they pose the incredulous question to their hard-hearted master: “Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exod. 10:7).
God took note of the enslaved people. We read in Exodus that “the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exod. 2:23-25; cf. 3:7-10). Then comes the deliverance when Moses tells Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness!’” (Exod. 5:1; cf. 4:23; 6:11; 9:1, 13). Once in the wilderness, at Mount Sinai, God proclaims the Ten Commandments to the liberated people, including the strange commandment to rest on the seventh day, a stipulation of mercy that never occurred to Pharaoh (Exod. 20:1-17).
“Let my people go!” (Exod. 5:1; 4:23; 6:11; 9:1, 13)
“Come out of her, my people!” (Rev. 18:4)
The distance between the call in Exodus and the call in Revelation may be vast in time, but it is short in theological terms. The call comes easy to God and is at the heart of Revelation’s melody. It is not an accident that the redeemed in Revelation’s story, constituted as “one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of Israel” (7:4), are Israel. It is not by chance that the destination at journey’s end is Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1; cf. Psa. 50:2; 132:8-16; Isa. 40:9; 51:11). It is not a coincidence that the song sung at the end is called “the Song of Moses, the servant of God” and that John points out that this “is also the song sung by the Lamb” (Rev. 15:2-4).
The last verse in Revelation’s longest-running exposé of Babylon (Rev. 17:1-18:24) takes the reader back to ultimate things, to the beginning, and to the one who instigated the turmoil roiling heaven and earth.
And in you was found
the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been killed
on the earth. (Rev. 18:24)
Ezekiel’s poem about the Covering Cherub echoes in this verse. As though in direct speech with God as the speaker, the poem mourns the cherub’s downfall. “You were the measure of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty . . . You were the anointed cherub who covers . . . You were on the holy mountain of God . . . You walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones” (Ezek. 28:12-14).
You were without fault
in your ways
from the day you were created,
till iniquity was found in you.
By the abundance
of your trading in slander,
you became filled with violence,
and you lost the way. (Ezek. 28:15–16)
“Till iniquity was found in you,” Ezekiel says (Ezek. 28:15). He, too, seems to have envisioned the forensic investigation that Revelation makes more explicit and specific. “And in you was found,” John writes before specifying it: “In you was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been killed with violence on the earth” (Rev. 18:24). The attribution in the text assumes an agent, an ideology, and an entity greater than ancient Babylon, greater than imperial Rome, greater than the wayward Christianity that became violent and oppressive whether in Roman or Protestant iterations, and greater than all other proposed referents and yet including all of them. And this finding, the blood of another human being shed violently, this more than anything else, is what seals Babylon’s doom.
Notes & References:
 Babylon and its ambition to “mark” the inhabitants of the earth unerlies the intermission between the sixth and the seventh seal (7:1-17); the OT poem describing Babylon as a fallen star is assumed in the trumpet sequence, especially in the fifth and sixth trumpet (9:1-21); it is constituted but not yet named in the coming together of the dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast (12:17-13:18); it is implied the messages of the three angels although explicit only in the second message (14:8); it is a theme in the seven bowls, especially the sixth and seventh bowl (16:12-21); it is described in explicit, horrific, and outraged detail in the vision in the wilderness and its sequel (17:1-18:24); it appears again as the antagonist of the Rider on the white horse (19:11-21); and it is glimpsed one last time after the battle taking place after the thousand years (20:10).
 Richard Woods, “Seven Bowls of Wrath: The Ecological Relevance of Revelation,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 38 (2008), 64-75.
 Allen Dwight Callahan, “Apocalypse as Critique of Political Economy: Some Notes on Revelation 18,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 21 (1999), 46.
 Craig R. Koester, “Roman Slave Trade and the Critique of Babylon in Revelation 18,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008), 766.
 Bauckham, Revelation, 44.
 Tonstad, Revelation, 254-265.
 Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 68.
 Tonstad, Revelation, 256.
Previously in this series:
The Second Angel’s Message: Part 1 (May 17, 2023).
The First Angel’s Message: Part 3 (May 10, 2023).
The First Angel’s Message: Part 2 (April 26, 2023).
The First Angel’s Message: Part 1 (April 20, 2023).
The Second Rule of Revelation: Pay Attention to Old Testament Usage (April 12, 2023).
The First Rule of Revelation: Be a Re-Reader (April 5, 2023).
Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1 (March 29, 2023).
Sigve Tonstad is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion at Loma Lind University. Born and raised in Norway, he completed a BA in theology at Middle East College in Lebanon and Andrews University (1974), his MD from Loma Linda University (1979), an MA in biblical studies at LLU (1990), and a PhD in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews (2005).
Title image: Part of the Apocalypse Tapestry at Château d’Angers (Loire valley) commissioned around 1375 by Louis I, Duke of Anjou.
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