Sometimes people will argue that the Bible was often used historically as a justification for slavery. Sadly, that is true. Regrettably, slave traders and slave owners sometimes did use passages from the Bible to justify slavery. But actually, they almost always misused and abused the Bible. If you read through the whole Bible, you will find that the Bible’s ethical comments on slavery change over time. Early on, the Bible is silent on slavery, other than to acknowledge that it happened. Later, God gives laws that restrict and regulate the practice of slavery. And towards the end of the Bible, slavery is increasingly frowned upon. Paul’s epistle to the slave owner Philemon is especially notable in this regard. And finally, in the last book of the Bible (that is, the Book of Revelation), the practice of slavery is indicted as one reason for severe divine judgment.
Curiously, you will find that final indictment of slavery at the end of a commodities list. It reads a bit like a grocery list. Except this is a grocery list for a fabulously wealthy civilization.
At the end of a list of more than twenty commercially traded luxury items, Revelation 18:13 indicates that the wicked, irredeemable Harlot City Babylon also happened to trade slaves. The verse is mostly just an informative list. If you were to summarize it in context, you might say, “So they traded gold, silver, jewels, pearls, linen, silk, ivory, wood, bronze, iron, marble, spices, yada, yada; and, oh yeah — almost forgot — they also traded slaves…”
And yet two telling Greek words of indictment are added at the very end to that list: ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων, or, in English, human souls. The implicit condemnation of slavery in those two words may be oh-so-subtle and easy to miss. But the condemnation is there nonetheless, because those two words are otherwise simply unnecessary. The list could have just ended with the word slaves, but it goes on with those two words to expound on the what slavery actually entails. These are human beings, or human souls that are being traded and treated as if they were merely commodities. Human trafficking was happening in Babylon.
And perhaps that’s why the Harlot City Babylon is especially wicked and, in the end, entirely irredeemable: because of slavery and human trafficking, because in the City of Babylon human beings have become mere commerical commodities.
“Okay, but Babylon was just ancient Babylon; right? How is any of that relevant to me?”
On the contrary, it might be very relevant to us. In the Book of Revelation Babylon actually isn’t ancient Babylon at all. Instead, Babylon symbolizes another city or civilization (or two). In the Book of Revelation, Babylon serves as a cipher for the City of Rome and for the entire Roman Empire. Significantly, at the very same time, Babylon also seems to represent a final, future city or civilization — a future metropolis that meets an abrupt and fiery end.
My fellow Americans might claim, “Well, the passage definitely cannot apply to us, because we don’t practice slavery here in America anymore. The Civil War took care of that, once and for all. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery ended well over 150 years ago. We are entirely free from the institution of slavery now. Some of our ancestors may have been guilty of that dehumanizing practice; but we are innocent.”
Okay, good for us. But what about the less overt forms of slavery that do occur here in the United States and around the world? Various forms of human trafficking do occur here and now. Modern-Day Babylon might be closer to home than we want to acknowledge.
Some will say that Milady Babylon’s days are long past, that yes, certainly, her days were once numbered; but those days have long since expired. They would contend that Milady Babylon is already deceased and that she has already passed from the historical scene. Milady Babylon’s days have already come and gone, they would argue. But… they would be wrong. Milady Babylon exists yet, for a while longer, at least.
Now, to call Milady Babylon “milady” might be perceived as somewhat scandalous. After all, Milady Babylon is a woman of compromised virtue, to put things politely and mildly. Older English translations of the Bible use quite strong and rather corse language in reference to Milady Babylon and her preferred occupation. Milady Babylon, you see, debases and sells herself in exchange for money and gifts. If nothing else, Milady Babylon is a material girl.
But if you are at all inclined to think that Milady Babylon might be an actual person, I should quickly correct that. Milady Babylon has the surname Babylon because Babylon was once the seat of a glorious, spectacular empire. Historically, Babylon was a wealthy, beautiful city that oversaw a much wider empire. In the Book of Revelation Milady Babylon serves as a prototype, a pseudonym, and a cipher for another, similar city that was the capital of a much wider empire. That city was Rome. And of course Rome stood as both a city and a vast empire at the time the Book of Revelation was written. Incidentally, the Romans referred to Rome as Roma; and Roma was frequently depicted as a robust, fierce lady.
But that’s not all. Somehow Milady Babylon features quite prominently in the very section of Revelation wherein the Beast of the Abyss rises to power and prominence (i.e., chapters 16-19). This coincidence must not be missed.
So who is this Beast from the Abyss? The Beast from the Abyss is one and the same as the Antichrist, although admittedly the Book of Revelation does not use that particular title. The Antichrist has various monikers in the New Testament, including the Beast, the Antichrist, and the Man of Lawlessness. But whatever his title, this individual (probably a totalitarian dictator) appears right before Jesus Christ’s triumphant final physical return to Earth. I should perhaps repeat that for emphasis. The Antichrist is on the scene when Jesus comes back. And somehow Milady Babylon persists (or perhaps reappears) long enough to see the Beast from the Abyss rise to power. If you doubt me here, please see Revelation 17:16, which says that “the Beast will hate the prostitute … and burn her with fire.”
So then, who or what is Milady Babylon? Revelation 18:21 clearly says that she is a city. Okay, if she is a city, which is she? Well, perhaps we need to recall that Babylon itself was a city and more than a city. It was an empire. Likewise, Rome was a city and more than a city. It was an empire. If a latter-day Babylon reappears at the end of history, can we thus expect it to be an empire or even a civilization?
Maybe, just maybe Milady Babylon represents a decadent, materialistic society or civilization.
If so, brace yourself, because Revelation 18:8 and 18:17 reveal that Milady Babylon goes up in flames “in a single hour.” Nuclear war, perhaps? I admit that I am inclined to see it that way.
Now, you can console yourself with the thought that maybe this is referring to Rome’s demise when it was sacked by the Visigoths many, many centuries ago. Or alternatively, you can read Revelation chapters 16-19 as a coherent sequential narrative, which would imply that Milady Babylon is an empire or a civilization that will meet its sudden fiery demise shortly before the final physical return of Jesus Christ to Earth. Either way, the Book of Revelation reveals that Milady Babylon’s decadent days are definitely numbered.
Finally, this ugly scenario is one reason I personally hope the rapture occurs beforehand, regardless of how out-of-vogue the notion of the rapture may currently be.
Opus Alienum Dei translates from Latin as the “alien works of God” or the “strange works of God.” Here I use the phrase in an interpretive sense, where and when it is applied to five pivotal historcial events which, at first glance, hardly seem like God’s own doing, but mysteriously are claimed by God. Since these events were altogether horrifying, they qualify precisely as Opus Alienum Dei. If the Bible were to be set aside or left out of consideration, these five horrifying historical events might not be obviously attributable to God. However, the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible, God unexpectedly assumes at least some degree of responsibility for these terrible events Himself. And that comes as something of a surprise.
The five events to which I refer include 1) the recurring conflict between two neighboring nations that descended from twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, 2) the Assyrian invasion and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Israel, 3) the Babylonian invasion and decimation of Kingdom of Judah, 4) the perpetually unheeded pleas and warnings of genuine prophets, and 5) the brutal and total destruction of the temple complex in Jerusalem by the Romans. Although this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I have a thesis regarding these five historical events: These five events constitute five of the Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation.
Two of the Seven Seals are non-horrifying exceptions, maybe, probably. The two Seals that might not qualify as Opus Alienum Dei, as strange works of God, are the First Seal and the last, the Seventh Seal, because they are not altogether horrifying in character. They are awe-inspiring, certainly, but not horrifying. So let’s consider all of the Seven Seals in order, except for the last one, which deserves its own (future) post.
With the opening of the First Seal in Revelation 6:2 comes a Conquering Archer on a White Stallion, otherwise and more simply known as the Rider on the White Horse. Whereas once I thought that the Rider on the White Horse might be any of the many false messiahs — yet another political pretender — now I think that the Rider on the White Horse must be the pre-incarnate, occasionally-appearing, Old Testament Divine Warrior. However, I only came to that conclusion in retrospect, by considering the Seven Seals in a mostly-reversed order, from the penultimate Sixth Seal backwards to the first.
On what exact basis did I come to flip my previously held conclusion? On basis of subtle scriptural allusions, and short, yet specifically-worded biblical references, that’s how. In nearly every single one of its verses, the Book of Revelation drops interpretive hints in the form of scriptural allusions, and/or brief inter-textual references, and/or partial quotes. The Book of Revelation itself provides hints as how to interpret it.
As for the relevant allusions and references to the Rider on the White Horse, I counterintuitively start towards the end of the Old Testament, in the short, obscure Prophecy of Habakkuk. There you will find a retrospective historical poem or sonnet in the third chapter, in Habakkuk 3:3-15. Verses 8, 9, and 11 are especially telling and relevant. This passage recalls God as an equestrian, a horse rider — an archer armed with a bow and with arrows of light — who battles the wicked on behalf of God’s people. In verse 3, Habakkuk’s Sonnet specifically recalls the time of Israel’s Exodus sojourn. That matters because if, as I claim, the Seven Seals do indeed recount the entire biblical history of the ancient Nation of Israel, then the First Seal would necessarily occur about the time when Israel was first constituted as One Nation Under Yahweh. This inaugural constitutional event is otherwise sometimes known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai, which coincided with the Revelation of the Law/Torah. Habakkuk’s Divine Archer-Rider is thus situated on the biblical timeline exactly where my interpretation would anticipate — near the begining, at the founding of the ancient Nation of Israel.
With its archer imagery, this passage in Habakkuk also points directly back to the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, which is a Second Song of Moses (or, perhaps, the Swan Song of Moses, since it occurs immediately before his death). In this final Song of Moses, God is portrayed as an invincible, avenging warrior with a flashing, devouring sword, and, notably, with arrows. Where we see arrows, we might think archer. For those inclined to double-check my reading here, the citation is the entirety of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, but especially verse 23, and verses 39-43.
As far as my suggested interpretation of the Seven Seals is concerned, this close connection to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy carries an immense amount of weight and importance, since Deuteronomy speaks of all the curses that will come upon the fledgling Nation of Israel if it fails to keep the Covenant made at Mount Sinai. I am arguing that the ensuing five Seals are a symbolic portrayal of the historical outworking of Deuteronomy’s Threatened Curses. That is worth rephrasing and repeating: Five of the Seven Seals of Revelation are a symbolic portrayal of the historical fulfillment and outworking of Deuteronomy’s horrifying, contingent curses.
The two Old Testament passages cited above are enough to establish that God was depicted as an archer at the time of Deuteronomy. In addition, and for what it is worth, God is also depicted as shooting arrows of lightning in a Psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 22:15 and Psalm 18:14 (incidentally, another Swan Song, as it occurs immediately before King David’s death). Thus the Divine Archer motif is known and established within the historical, Holy Writ of Israel.
As for Revelation 6:3-4 and the Second Seal, the Swordsman on a Red Horse, I am proposing that the Crimson Swordsman represents the neighboring nation of Edom. As the story of Esau and the red stew in Genesis 25:30 establishes, the name Edom means red; and Edom was a name thereafter applied to both Esau and his descendants, the nation of Edom. The fact that Esau’s descendants became the nation of Edom is repeatedly and emphatically stated in Genesis Chapter 36.
More pertinently, though, the nation of Edom stood against the nation of Israel on multiple occasions, with the first and defining time in Numbers Chapter 20. Notice that in Numbers 20:18 the Edomites specifically threaten to come against the People of Israel with… what? With, and I quote the hostile people of Edom themselves here: with “the sword.” Therefore, the words the sword have an explicit textual connection in Edom’s first and defining confrontation with Israel. I believe that the Book of Revelation deliberately references and uses this initial, defining neighboring-nation confrontation.
Edom is mentioned another very significant time in 1 Kings 11:14, when God is affirmed to have raised up Hadad the Edomite against wayward, apostate King Solomon. Solomon had failed to keep the monotheistic covenant and had drifted into idolatry. Thus the curses of Deuteronomy began to befall the Kingdom of Israel, which would soon split in two. Do not miss that God Himself is said to have raised up Hadad the Edomite as an adversary to Solomon. God used the nation of Edom as an instrument to judge Solomon and Israel. This Second Seal, then, is a first obvious instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. Here God uses Israel’s historical adversaries as His means of judgment. The curses of Deuteronomy are beginning to occur through hard historical events.
If we were to super fast-forward through time, we would find that the nation of Edom eventually reappears as adversary to the beleaguered Jewish people much later in their history, in the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. In Psalm 137:7 the Edomites are said to have enthusiastically encouraged (and perhaps, even assisted) the invading Babylonians in their demolition of the City of Jerusalem. However, this fratricide met with God’s definite disapproval. In response to their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophecy of Obadiah foretold certain doom upon the Edomites for their unneighborly, unbrotherly treatment of their cousins, the descendants of Jacob.
As for Revelation 6:5-6 and the Third Seal, the Scale-Holding Rider on the Black Horse, I suggest that Sir Skewed Scales represents the imbalanced, oppressive economic situation immediately before the Assyrian invasion of Israel. I make that inference and connection through study of the scriptural occurrences of the word scales, a word which “happens” to often appear alongside the altogether-tellingadjectives deceptive and wicked, as in deceptive and wicked scales. Some key occurrences of the word scales appear in three of the minor prophets: Amos, Micah, and Hosea. In particular, see Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11, and Hosea 12:7. These three “minor” prophets were active in denouncing the economic imbalances and oppression present in both Israel and Judah, while they were still allied neighboring nations, and before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by the fearsome Assyrians.
The most important and pertinent passage, in my judgment, is Micah Chapter Six, where God foretells of the impending devastation and desolation of Israel. And that is indeed what happened historically. It happened when Assyria invaded, besieged, looted, tortured, and systematically depopulated most of the immediate geographic region. According to the Prophets Micah, Amos, and Hosea this invasion was God’s doing, a judgment against the increase of idolatry and the rampant economic pilfering practiced throughout Israel and Judah. This Third Seal, Sir Skewed Scales, is thus a second instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the merciless, brutal Assyrians to judge both lapsed covenant kingdoms — both Judah and Israel, but especially Israel, which met its end.
As for Revelation 6:7-8 and the Fourth Seal, the Ghastly, Ghostly Tandem Riders on the Pale Horse, I believe that Grim Duo of Death and Hades symbolize catastrophic judgment in the form of the impending invasion of the Babylonians, who did in fact bring death, mass deportation, and nearly total destruction upon the remaining “Covenant Kingdom” of Judah, and its capital city, Jerusalem. I see a clear scriptural connection here to Isaiah Chapter 28, where God says that he will cancel Jerusalem’s corrupt covenant with… death, and overturn their perverse pact with… Sheol. Sheol is otherwise known in Greek as Hades, and in English as Hell. In other words, God asserts that He alone controls the arrival of death and the entrance to hell, regardless of Judah’s attempted confederations, preparations, and arrangements. God insisted that, try though they may, the idolatrous people of Jerusalem cannot “make a deal with the devil” that will protect them and prolong their lives. This Fourth Seal, the Ghostly, Ghastly Duo, is a third instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used Babylonia to judge unfaithful Judah.
As for Revelation 6:9-11 and the Fifth Seal, the Sacrificed Souls Under the Altar, I would say that they represent all the true prophets throughout the entire Old Testament. I get this notion from the account of the stoning death of Zechariah, the priestly prophet, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in combination with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. The Old Testament prophets were always rejected and were sometimes killed for telling the people the truth. The Death of Zechariah the Priest stands as a particularly graphic instance of the kind of violent rejection that met the prophets. Another Zechariah, Zechariah the Prophet, was also one of the last, if not the last of Old Testament prophets. He also may have died as a martyr. Thus, given what Luke 11:49-51 says, and on the assumption that the same passage is alluded to in Revelation 6:9-11, the Fifth Seal encompasses all the (rejected) prophets and their writings throughout the Old Testament. This Fifth Seal is thus a fourth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Prophets to bring judgment upon the People of the Promised Land.
Finally, as for Revelation 6:12-17 and the Sixth Seal, it speaks both literally and metaphorically of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and its utter destruction. The passage that makes this very clear is Luke 23:26-31, which is when a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem to mourn not for him but instead for themselves and their own children. He foretells them that they will call on the mountains to fall on them and plea for the hills to cover (or hide) them. Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation of his death by crucifixion. And so it happened. Revelation 6:16 very clearly echoes Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy. This Sixth Seal is thus a fifth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Roman Legions to climatically judge the unresponsive, unbelieving People of Judæa.
So there you have it, then: a list of (almost) all the supporting, Revelation-referenced scriptural passages I have found (thus far) to establish my interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. I hope you find it altogether convincing and entirely worthwhile. Look for a future post on how I understand the Seventh Seal.
The Book of Revelation matters. It matters more than most people realize. The Book of Revelation matters more than most people realize because some of the key events which it describes are current events. Revelation symbolically describes events that you are likely to watch on television today, or read about on your digital device today. Significant portions of the Book of Revelation are not locked in the distant past nor safely set in the distant future, but are instead happening as you read this.
Yep, to make that claim might make me a propeller-beanie wacko. Or it might make me someone with genuine interpretive insight. Take your pick. Actually, don’t take your pick quite yet, because if you decide too quickly you are likely to come to the wrong conclusion. Hear me out instead, please.
Revelation depicts a lewd prostitute that it calls Babylon, otherwise known as the Great Whore of Babylon. That wealth-obsessed prostitute was actually symbolic of the economically exploitive Roman Empire, back when the Book of Revelation was first written. But that same prostitute is also symbolic of an exploitive economic system that continues to this day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then Babylon is in the news every day, and may be soliciting you in your mailbox or inbox.
Revelation also depicts an overreaching autocrat that it calls the Beast from the Sea, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as Antichrist. At the time the Book of Revelation was first written that autocrat was personified in the Roman Emperor Domitian. But the Beast from the Sea is also “reincarnated” or reoccurring (figuratively, not literally) as the various self-aggrandizing dictators who have popped up again and again throughout history, including recent history, right up until the present day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast of the Sea is in the news (and potentially eavesdropping on his/her citizens) every single day. The Book of Revelation refers to the ultimate Beast from the Sea as the Beast from the Abyss, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as the Man of Lawlessness.
Revelation also depicts a quasi-religious entity that it calls the Beast from the Earth, otherwise known as the False Prophet. Back when the Book of Revelation was first written, that False Prophet was especially manifest in the Roman Emperor Cult. But that same False Prophet has been “reincarnated” (figuratively, not literally) as the various quasi-religious institutions and individuals intent on making the populace bow in homage and submission to the Supreme Leader — whichever Supreme Leader, wherever, whenever. If this is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast from the Earth works especially in academia and the news media. It can be found throughout the cultural milieu every single day.
In other words, the Book of Revelation symbolically portrays the world we live in, and is thus much, much more relevant than you might initially realize.
Does New York City have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?
New York City was originally named New Amsterdam. Manhattan Island, now the iconic sky-scraping heart of the city, was largely an unpopulated forest when it was purchased on May 24th, 1626. It was bought with some bartered seventeenth-century trade goods. The buyers were Dutch traders; the seller was Seyseys, chief of the Canarsee Amerindian Tribe. At that time, the Dutch estimated the value of their trade deal to be about sixty guilders. In economic terms, it’s possible a lopsided deal was struck. A novice realtor, Seyseys might have miscalculated a bit. He slightly underestimated the value of the rocky, then-forested island. Like many traders after him, Seyseys misjudged the net worth of his Manhattan holdings, and may have gotten ripped off.
In retrospect, many historical commentators have expressed amazement at the economic exploitation inherent in that initial trade. The urbanization of Manhattan Island was made possible by a massively disproportional deal. In that initial transatlantic deal, one trading partner exploited the naïveté of the other, because, well, they could. It was an intercultural economic injustice.
In spite of their trading savvy, though, the Dutch were not able to keep control of Manhattan very long. Sovereignty over the island went back and forth between two imperial rivals, between Dutch and British authorities for several decades, until control was formally ceded to the British in November, 1674. All the while, construction projects on Manhattan Island and its surrounding environs proliferated as the European immigrant population grew. Geographically ideal as a port of trade, the British deemed the entire area a crucial imperial holding, and renamed it New York City. That name has stuck, in spite of another change of sovereignty and flag after the American revolution. As names go, though, another might fit the city even better — a much older name.
Nearly four hundred years have passed since the Dutch bartered their purchase of Manhattan. Over those four centuries, Manhattan caught and surpassed other world-class cities to claim the title of the world’s most important commercial center. That New York City both is in fact a global trade center and has a sky-scraping tower called the World Trade Center may matter much, by Revelation’s Reckoning. At the time the Book of Revelation was written and first heard, the de facto world trade center was indisputably the imperial capital city, that is, Rome. All roads led to Rome, by design. The wealth of the developed world was carried by soldiers, merchants, and slaves as tribute to Rome. Rome controlled the commerce of the entire Mediterranean World, and even beyond. Everywhere else was uncivilized hinterland, as far as the Romans were concerned. And if they could, they would take it someday, civilize it, and exploit it.
However, in spite of its prominence, the name that the Book of Revelation uses for Rome is not Rome. Instead, Revelation refers to Rome with a code name. In Revelation, the code name for Rome is Babylon. And why does Revelation refer to Rome as Babylon? Rome is called Babylon because of how similarly Rome and Babylon behaved. In its monuments, conquests, and exploits, the Roman Empire resembled the earlier Babylonian Empire. Rome also recapitulated the worst of Babylon, especially in sieging Jerusalem and destroying God’s temple that stood there.
Somehow though, Babylon reappears in the last days as a villainous vixen. While Babylon is repeatedly called “the Great City” in the Book of Revelation, it is also likened figuratively to a woman. The Romans depicted Roma as a female figure, resembling the Statue of Liberty. But in Revelation, Lady Babylon is always an exploitive seductress. She’s a woman of ill-repute, a harlot. And she lures the naïve until the end, until Christ’s appearance, the Parousia. Then Babylon is dealt her sudden and violent destruction.
Is New York City a latter-day Babylon? In some ways, New York City fits Revelation’s description. The final great city Babylon is portrayed as exceedingly wealthy, as a massive maritime metropolis. But Babylon is even bigger than the Big Apple. Babylon represents a corrupt economic system and an entire commercial network of cities — a money-worshiping, laborer-exploiting, violence-dependent syndicate. Her/their ruin is sudden and fearsome. See Revelation 18:1-24.
Do we need to be afraid? No and yes. It depends on your holdings. What is your source of security? In the end, the inhabitants of the whole world will experience unprecedented catastrophe and loss, not just those of one city. Money and assets won’t matter, at all. But God’s elect are assured that He is mighty to save, even while the foundations crumble. Cling to the security that only Christ can give. Everything else is destined to fall.