Pay her back – Revelation 18:6-8

Previously: Come out of her, My people – Revelation 18:4-5

The scripture

Rev. 18:6 – Pay her back the way she also paid, and double it according to her works. In the cup in which she mixed, mix a double portion for her. 7 As much as she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, give her that much torment and grief, for she says in her heart, “I sit as a queen; I am not a widow, and I will never see grief.” 8 For this reason her plagues will come in one day – death and grief and famine. She will be burned up with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is mighty. (HCSB)

Pay her back

JudgmentThe voice from heaven calls, “Pay her back the way she also paid, and double it according to her works. In the cup in which she mixed, mix a double portion for her” (v. 6). To whom is the Lord speaking? Perhaps His angels, who execute judgment, or perhaps the earth’s wicked who unwittingly carry out God’s justice, thinking they are conquering a vanquished foe.

Twice there is a reference to double payback. We have seen this before in scripture. The Lord speaks through Isaiah that Judah will be comforted after she has received from the Lord’s hand “double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:2). This is a way of saying that Judah’s sentence is fully satisfied before God. In a similar manner, the Israelites are promised in Isa. 61:7, “Because your shame was double, and they cried out, ‘Disgrace is their portion,’ therefore, they will possess double in their land, and eternal joy will be theirs.”

The hand of God

There is perhaps a reminder here as well that no human hand reaches higher, strikes harder, or blesses more than the hand of God. All goodness flows from His almighty arm. His blessings are beyond anything we deserve or may imagine, incomparable in their sweetness and perfection, unmatched by the best that even the most righteous human servant may produce. By the same token, when His grace and mercy are rejected, when the measure of man’s sin is full, when people and their worldly systems pile up their sins to the threshold of heaven, the Lord strikes with sudden, fierce, and complete judgment.

In this way, the same cup Babylon uses to mix her vile brew becomes the cup of condemnation the Mother of Prostitutes must drink. It is utter devastation, complete destruction. The cup is an Old Testament metaphor for the judgment of God. No first-century Jew could avoid the symbolic weight of this passage.

But Babylon does not see this coming. As she glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, she boasts to herself, “I sit as a queen; I am not a widow, and I will never see grief” (v. 7). Ancient Babylon expresses the same self-sufficiency. Isaiah records this defiant attitude: “You said, ‘I will be the mistress forever.’ You did not take these things to heart or think about their outcome. So now hear this, lover of luxury, who sits securely, who says to herself, ‘I exist, and there is no one else. I will never be a widow or know the loss of children.’ These two things will happen to you suddenly, in one day: loss of children and widowhood. They will happen to you in their entirety, in spite of your many sorceries and the potency of your spells” (Isa. 47:7-9).

Just as ancient Babylon is destroyed suddenly, the world system in opposition to God will crumble like a sand castle beneath the mighty hand of God. “For this reason [Babylon’s arrogance] her plagues will come in one day – death and grief and famine. She will be burned up with fire, because the Lord God who judges her is mighty” (v. 8). Self-sufficiency and pride lead to Satan’s downfall, and then to man’s in the garden, and ultimately to the destruction of the Mother of Prostitutes.

Before Christians become too gleeful in the knowledge of God’s future judgment of the wicked, it’s good for us to know that the Lord detests arrogance in His Bride. The church at Laodicea boasted, “I’m rich, I have become wealthy and need nothing” but didn’t realize it was “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Individually, we are warned that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives (2 Cor. 5:10). As our Christian stewardship is called into account, some of us will leave the dais like a man escaping a burning fire, with nothing to show and no rewards (1 Cor. 3:15). The apostle John even warned that some Christians will be ashamed at the coming of the Lord (1 John 2:28).

Yes, there is a day of reckoning for the wicked, but rather than gloat about it, we should examine ourselves and cast aside the weight of sin that so easily snares us (Heb. 12:1).

Four major views

So, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation see this passage?

Preterists – who see most of Revelation fulfilled in the early centuries of the church age – view the fall of Babylon either as the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Proponents of the latter view-point to Jerusalem as the fulfillment of verse 2 as the defeated city is known to be overrun by demons as Christ predicted (Matt. 12:38-45) and as a haunt for desert creatures considered unclean in the Jews’ religion. No such literal fulfillment can be matched to Rome. At the same time, Old Testament prophets charged Jerusalem with committing fornication with the kings of the earth (Ezek. 16:14-15, 26, 28-30; 23:12-21), leading some commentators to remark that John is borrowing that language and applying it to his own nation’s capital city. However, the statement that the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of Babylon’s luxury seems to fit better with Rome than with Jerusalem.

Some historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the use of past-tense language, not literally, but in a prophetic sense to indicate that the actual destruction of Babylon is imminent, or that the city has fallen in some other way — morally, for example. Many argue that John sees the future destruction of Papal Rome, which will be reduced to a state of destruction resembling that of real Babylon in Old Testament times. The statement that Babylon has become the dwelling place of demons and the haunt of unclean and hated birds is an allusion to Isa. 13:21-22, which speaks of the fall of Babylon, while the mention that all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication reminds us of Jer. 51:7 and the literal Babylon. In any case, historicists see the fulfillment of this prophecy in the fall of the papacy.

Some futurists – who argue that the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – contend that the angel’s message, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen,” refers to a dual fall – first of the system of false religion, and second of the city itself. Charles Ryrie writes that the emphasis on chapter 17 is on the religious and political aspects of Babylon, while chapter 18 addresses the city’s commerce. He also notes that the beast and his allies destroy the harlot in chapter 17 while God destroys commercial Babylon in chapter 18. (Revelation: Four Views, p. 425). Futurists tend to agree that this fall comes just prior to the return of Christ.

Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to view this as a description of fallen Rome. H.B. Swete writes, “The evil spirits, watching over fallen Rome like night-birds or harpies that wait for their prey, build their eyries in the broken towers which rise from the ashes of the city” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 425).

Next: The kings of the earth – Revelation 18:9-10