Come out of Babylon, my people!
Joyce WL Sun
Assistant Professor (Biblical Studies)
Hong Kong has been ranked the world’s freest economy for many times because of its highly efficient and unrestricted capital flows, quick and convenient imports and exports. Its government claims to uphold a favourable business environment, safeguard competition and maintain low tax rates, in order to enhance the city’s investment attractiveness. However, in this free market where the government’s positive non-intervention is emphasized, its Gini coefficient keeps rising to record high, and property prices are beyond what the common people can afford. Severe work overtime and young people lacking advancement opportunity are also undeniable facts.
When the grassroots can even lose their chance to earn a living by scavenging waste papers overnight, and when living in subdivided flats and partitioned rooms or cargo containers would be considered a gift, where is the honor and pride in Hong Kong being the world’s freest economy, a cosmopolitan and a financial center?
The Book of Revelation Chapters 17 and 18 condemn Babylon and points out that it is a sin and evil in God’s eye when greed is uncontrolled, social resources are squandered by a small group of people, and marketplace participants seek only their own benefits without regard to the oppressed or underprivileged. These are what God will remember and ultimately judge. No matter how the superficial prosperities and economic achievements has demonstrated opportunities and fascinations everywhere, and no matter how participating therein is considered a matter of course, Revelation has only this message for Christians, “Come out of [Babylon], my people, lest you share in her sins” (Rev 18:4).
The sins of Babylon
In Revelation, Babylon as a deceitful whore represents Rome, the world’s then great and foremost metropolitical city (Rev 17:18), and demonstrates the Roman Empire’s economic system. This opulent-looking Babylon was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls (v4), symbolizing the enormous riches and economic power possessed by Rome and the people within. Furthermore, she was sitting on a beast (v3), implying that Rome was making use of the military forces of the Empire for self-gain, expanding its own economic influence, attracting people worldwide to sell their merchandise and luxuries there, thus aggravating the inequality of resource distribution, making the rich richer.
Babylon was not holding an ordinary cup, but a golden cup (Rev 17:4) that lured people worldwide to trade with her, delivering to her more possessions and indulgences. In fact, the golden cup was full of ‘abominations’ including greed, pride and blasphemy.
Babylon made all people drunk with her dazzling riches and seemingly unlimited business opportunities (Rev 17:2 and 18:3; see also Rev 14:8). Local rulers (Rev 18:9), merchants (v 11-16) and even people who were dependent on economic activities (v 17- 19) were drawn into her network of global exploitation, being fooled into believing that it is natural for them to grasp the opportunities and protecting their livelihoods. They fail to discern market overindulgence by allowing selfish greed to control them, and overlooking the injustice of unequal resource distributions. Revelation says that participation in such economic system is just the same as participating prostitution acts (Rev 17:2; 18:3 and 9), 1 people looked only to financial gains regardless of ethics and morality.
The list of merchandise sent to Babylon (Rev 18:12-13) is a criticism of the collapse of humanity through exploiting others for selfgain in the urban free market. This list includes not only luxuries (such as gold, silver, precious stones and pearls) but also necessities (such as oil, fine flour and wheat). To a wealthy metropolis like Rome, these were mere icing on the cake, but to the poor and isolated peasants the items meant their livelihood. Oppression and exploitation reaches its climax in the last item on the list: “bodies” (i.e. slaves). John stressed that these were ‘real human souls’ (Rev 18:13): 2 lying beneath the economic achievements and ample material supply were bodies that were dehumanized. Many souls were traded for wealth for a few prodigals, but they never partook of the joy of those achievements. Instead, they cried with frustration and helplessness (see Rev 19:2).
The LORD shall judge
The victims’ cries shall reach the LORD’s ears (see Rev 18:20). He will not forget how the city harassed the weak and oppressed the poor. In His time, the LORD will intervene in human history and pronounce judgment, straightening the world’s crookedness. Since Babylon had made the people of the earth drunk with the wine of her fornication (Rev 14:8, 17:2 and 18:3), the LORD will also give Babylon the cup of the wine of His wrath (Rev 16:19), and ultimately Babylon “is fallen, is fallen” (Rev 14:8, 18:2).
Babylon’s judgment was quick and sudden (Rev 18:8, 10, 17 and 19). While people thought that they were making profits and succeeding in life, holding the future in their hand, the economic system they relied on vanished like a great millstone being thrown into the sea (Rev 18:21 and 17:16). A large part of Revelation 18 is a lament for Babylon (v 9-19) by noble and powerful ones that teamed up with her (v 9-10), and merchants and people who made gains through participating in her economic activities (v 11-19). They were made drunk by Babylon and were involved with her fornication. Their weep and mourn did not come from their feelings for Babylon, but out of their shattered dream of gains and profits (v 9-11, 15 and 19).
The LORD judged not only Babylon who had monopolized, exploited and distorted human dignity, but also those involved in the trading business who had disregarded ethics and morality because of self-gain!
Come out, my people!
Therefore, as the eschatological people of God, let us heed the voice from heaven (Rev 18:4), “Come out of her (Babylon), my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” Even though the text may not ask for Christians’ complete withdrawal from the marketplace, Christians are called to be watchful and to discern the Babylonian market behaviors, to be separated from them, and to refuse to be deceived by the so-called ‘laws of the marketplace’ (Rev 18:23). Such deceit claims that economic growth and market expansion is paramount and selfish profit maximization legitimate, making it appear that one can spend one’s wealth as one wishes without feeling guilty or being responsible for those exploited under fierce marketplace competitions.
To those Christians who are competitive and are reaping fruits in the free market, or who are seeing a bright future or merely earning their living therein, the demand of Revelation may seem unimaginable and hard to follow. As an apocalyptic literature, Revelation challenges Christians to adopt the heavenly perspective and to identify the authentic truth behind the seeming ‘natural’ reality. The truth is that the ‘gains’ and ‘losses’ as we see it are not the end nor are they life’s conclusion. Instead, the LORD is watching and remembering. Ultimately, He will judge, “For true and righteous are His judgments” (Rev 19:2).
1. The Greek text of Rev 17:1, 5, 15 and 16 calls Babylon “πόρνη”, meaning harlot.
2. NIV says “human beings sold as slaves”, the Greek text is “σωμάτων, καὶ ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων”, meaning ‘bodies, that is, souls of men’.