Merchants’ lament – Revelation 18:11-17

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

The scripture

Rev. 18:11 – The merchants of the earth will also weep and mourn over her, because no one buys their merchandise any longer – 12 merchandise of gold, silver, precious stones, and pearls; fine fabrics of linen, purple, silk, and scarlet; all kinds of fragrant wood products; objects of ivory; objects of expensive wood, brass, iron, and marble; 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, and frankincense; wine, olive oil, fine wheat flour, and grain; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and slaves and human lives. 14 The fruit you craved has left you. All your splendid and glamorous things are gone; they will never find them again.

15 The merchants of these things, who became rich from her, will stand far off in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning, 16 saying, Woe, woe, the great city, dressed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls, 17 for in a single hour such fabulous wealth was destroyed! (HCSB)

The merchants’ lament

The merchants’ lament echoes that of the kings but focuses on the prostitute’s costly apparel and accessories. They mourn the fact that such wealth is laid waste in so short a time.

The Greek word translated “weep” in verses 9 and 11 means a loud lamentation as opposed to private grief. Those who built their empires with merchandise cannot buy a storehouse large enough to contain their anguish. Take note that the merchants do not sorrow over the fate of the prostitute but over the loss of their business with her. It is a most excruciating grief because it is completely self-absorbed.

Taking inventory

The inventory of more than two dozen items is similar to the list of goods in Ezekiel 27 transported by the Phoenician merchants of ancient Tyre, which arrogantly boasts of its wealth and beauty but ultimately is brought to utter destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great. “As Revelation’s beast incorporates every expression of corrupt government, so its prostitute includes every corrupt economic system. Even human souls are reduced to cargo, traded as slaves to drive the engines of production and prosperity.” (ESV Study Bible,, Rev. 18:12-13).

Take note of some of the extravagant goods. Mentioned first are expensive ornamental items, followed by fine fabrics and fragrant wood. Next there are luxury items made from ivory, other precious materials, seasonings, perfumes, delicacies, food staples, animals and carriages. Finally, there are “slaves and human lives.” Jurgen Roloff comments, “The slave trade is thereby suggested, which played a significant role in the ancient economy. The lavish lifestyle of the Roman kingdoms was essentially made possible by the fact that in their homes multitudes of slaves were available as cheap labor. It is no accident that the list of goods concludes with this reference to slave trade: The sin of a society that lives out its claim to power over the world in the unlimited desire to have all things at its disposal achieves its zenith when it also treats human beings as merchandise” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 206).

It has been estimated that one-third of Rome’s population is enslaved in John’s day. Further, it is not unusual for 10,000 persons to be auctioned off in a single day in the great slave markets of the empire. By some counts there are more than 60 million slaves in the empire and they are treated like pieces of furniture to be bought, sold, and abused. Even today, slavery thrives in some parts of the world. Some futurists believe the slave trade will enjoy a global resurgence in the last days.

The Devil’s trap

Human trafficking, particularly of children and young women, is a 21st century horror that in some respects makes Rome’s slave markets look like boutiques. Add to this the brutalization of 50 million children in their mother’s wombs since 1973, when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in this country. Consider the sexual revolution, which traded intimacy and procreation in the context of marriage for a limitless but unsuccessful pursuit of gratification. And then, think of those untold millions locked in the prison of addictive behavior. The unregenerate world makes slaves naturally and simply because it is enslaved by the evil one. He has blinded and bound non-believers, and caught them in what the apostle Paul calls “the Devil’s trap” where they have been “captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26).

But first-century Rome was not the only city enjoying all the creature comforts. In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim writes concerning Jerusalem, “In these streets and lanes everything might be purchased: the production of Palestine, or imported from foreign lands – nay, the rarest articles from the remotest parts. Exquisitely shaped, curiously designed and jeweled cups, rings, and other workmanship of precious metals; glass, silks, fine linen, woolen stuffs, purple, and costly hangings; essences, ointments, and perfumes, as precious as gold, articles of food and drink from foreign lands – in short, what India, Persia, Arabia, Media, Egypt, Italy, Greece, and even the far-off lands of the Gentiles yielded, might be had in these bazaars. Ancient Jewish writings enable us to identify no fewer than 118 different articles of import from foreign lands, covering more than even modern luxury has devised” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, pp. 437-38).

Whether this passage describes the decadence of ancient Rome, Jerusalem, some future city or the materialistic culture in which live, when Babylon perishes the economic chaos is complete. Everything the unbeliever has grasped and valued is ground to powder. The words of Jesus echo in our ears: “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your hear will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

The rich man’s bigger barns cannot not spare his life (Luke 12:15-21). And the merchants of Babylon cannot prevent their wealth from vanishing before their eyes.

Next: Shipmaster, seafarer, sailor – Revelation 18:18-19