The Bible’s ‘apocalyptic literature’ is no easy read.
Composed in periods of deepest affliction, ‘apocalyptic’ gives vent to the assurance that the Lord has not lost control of history and will finally vindicate those suffering human beings who have maintained their loyalty to him at great cost. It is black-and-white in its moral clarity, a dualism that manifests itself in clear definitions of who is on the Lord’s side and who is not.
Our age has little taste for apocalyptic, although a patient and self-critical evaluation of our besetting myopias ought to caution us against dismissing it on the grounds of aesthetic trend-lines and personal preference.
The book of Revelation is perhaps the most well-known example of this strain of biblical expression. Sadly, its character has been much warped in the public eye by popular treatments that border on the paranoid.
Babylon figures as a kind of great world system that in its arrogance defies the Creator and claims the blood of his servants. The reader who identifies with faithful, afflicted suffers is assured that Babylon’s downfall will come suddenly:
When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: ‘Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power!
In one hour your doom has come!’ (Revelation 18:9–10 NIV)
With dark, smokey imagery the book of Revelation describes the collapse of Empire Babylon and the grief and wonder that fall upon those who have been complicit in her rapacious economy. When Babylon falls, the whole world staggers under the weight of her loss.
When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:
‘Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’ (Revelation 18:18–19 NIV)
Yet Babylon’s downfall is, within the conceptual frame of apocalyptic literature, good news for those little ones who have been tormented by her.
Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.
Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. The light of a lamp will never shine in you again.
The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.’
In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth. (Revelation 18:20–24 NIV)
Ease and privilege with almost predictable effectiveness dull our ears to biblical apocalyptic.
We find it impossible to believe in a World Empire that enriches those who control its levers at the cost of those who will not pledge the allegiance it demands. We consider ourselves too sophisticated for such simplistic, conspiratorial reductions of complex reality.
We do not find the blood of prophets and saints to be worth so much fuss.
We hold tight to our membership cards, with their precise, regularly updated data. Without remembering exactly when we did so, we have chosen sides. We rather like our Babylon.