Shipmaster, seafarer, sailor – Revelation 18:17b-20

Previously: Merchants’ lament – Revelation 18:11-17


The scripture

Rev. 1:17b –And every shipmaster, seafarer, the sailors, and all who do business by sea, stood far off  18 as they watched the smoke from her burning and kept crying out: “Who is like the great city?” 19 They threw dust on their heads and kept crying out, weeping, and mourning: Woe, woe, the great city, where all those who have ships on the sea became rich from her wealth, for in a single hour she was destroyed. 20 Rejoice over her, heaven, and you saints, apostles, and prophets, because God has executed your judgment on her!” (HCSB)

Shipmaster, seafarer, sailor

Shipmasters and other seamen who have grown rich by transporting the world’s treasures to satisfy Babylon’s appetite for luxury now add their lament to that of the kings and merchants. John records that all who do business by sea stand far off as they watch the smoke from Babylon’s burning and continuously cry out, “Who is like the great city?” This cry is similar to the one in Rev. 13:4 as the earth’s inhabitants worship the beast and say, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to wage war against him?”

These cries acknowledge more than allegiance; they reveal dependence upon the beast and upon the great city for security and privilege. Now that the city has been destroyed, the seafarers do not know where to turn for their business transactions. When the beast is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation 19, his followers will have nowhere to turn for their salvation. As Satan’s kingdom disintegrates and Christ takes His rightful place as the earth’s king, unbelievers will realize their folly in trusting their souls to sinful men and worldly institutions. An interesting side note: One day the seafarers will find that even the sea is gone (Rev. 21:1).

Weeping and mourning

The seafarers throw dust on their heads and do not cease to weep and mourn. Throwing dust on the head is an ancient act of mourning. It may have its roots in the curse. The Lord tells Adam and Eve, “For you are dust, and you will return to dust” (Gen. 3:19b). So dust, or the dirt of the ground, is connected with human mortality and the final resting place of the body. By some accounts ancient people conducting funerals stripped to their waists, carried baskets of dust on their heads and then poured the dust over the corpses to create burial mounds. In time, the concept of throwing dust on the head illustrated personal grief, but it also could demonstrate humility before God.

After the defeat of the Israelites at Ai, Joshua tears his clothes, falls before the ark of the Lord with his face to the ground, and puts dust on his head (Josh. 7:6). The act of throwing dust on the head sometimes is a sympathetic gesture. When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar travel to visit Job, they see their emaciated friend from a distance, weep loudly, tear their clothes, and throw dust in the air and on Job’s head. Finally, flinging dust into the air may be an expression of rage. In Acts 22:23, as Paul speaks to the Jewish people about his conversion, they respond angrily with shouting, and they throw off their cloaks and fling dust in the air.

In the passage in question, the seafarers no doubt are expressing personal grief. They lament the fall of Babylon not because of the city itself but because of the wealth the city provided for them through commerce. Now where will they turn to ply their trades and sell their merchandise? Judgment often has this effect on people. Rather than fall to their knees in grief over their sin, they lament the loss of personal sovereignty. Not once does the rich man in Luke 19 express remorse over sin; instead, he appeals to Abraham as a Jewish brother to provide him with mercy and to ease his suffering. The seafarers, as they watch Babylon burning, are looking for similar relief from their torment. In so doing, they refuse to see the hand of God falling in judgment on the world system opposed to His rule.

The seafarers cry out: “Woe, woe, the great city, where all those who have ships on the sea became rich from her wealth, for in a single hour she was destroyed” (v. 19b). In a moment their riches are gone. There is no slow or even predictable fashion in which the source of their wealth dries up. There is no time to take another course of action, to transfer funds, to establish new markets. Suddenly, swiftly, completely, they go from princes to paupers. The people who invest their whole lives in the cares of this world, with no regard for the kingdom of God, will find themselves at the end of time flinging dust into the air and crying, “Woe, woe.”

Rejoice over her

This section of scripture ends with an unexpected summons to rejoice over Babylon the Great’s destruction: “Rejoice over her, heaven, and you saints, apostles, and prophets, because God has executed your judgment on her!” (v. 20)

At the start of the second section of visions in Revelation there is a call to rejoice sounded in heaven, which accompanies the expulsion of the dragon from heaven (Rev. 12:12). But it is directed only at the creatures in heaven, while a cry of woe is sounded over the earth as the place where the dragon still wields power. But now with the fall of Babylon the Great, heaven and earth are invited to rejoice over what is taking place. Besides the “saints,” or members of the church, the apostles and prophets also are included, likely the witnesses of the first generation of Christians (see Eph. 2:20; 4:11). They belong to the witnesses who already have fallen asleep in Jesus, many slaughtered at the hands of the wicked, and they have awaited God’s vengeance, which now comes suddenly and certainly.

The phrase “God has executed your judgment on her” may be an application of the law of malicious witness found in Deut. 19:16-19, according to G.B. Caird. The law demands that if a man has been found to have borne false testimony against his brother, he must be punished with the very penalty that he intended his brother to suffer. However one may identify Babylon the Great – Rome, Jerusalem, or the worldly system in opposition to God – the Mother of Prostitutes has falsely accused Christians, exposing them to scorn, depriving them of freedom, and cutting short their lives. “The penalty for her perjury is now exacted upon her in the form of her own death” (Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views, p. 435).

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 – point to this passage to buoy their contention that either Rome or Jerusalem is Babylon the Great. They point to five principle features: 1) Babylon falls suddenly, more fitting to Jerusalem than Rome; 2) the fall of Babylon is permanent and irrevocable, with ancient, persecuting Rome or first-century anti-Christian Jerusalem in view; 3) Babylon is associated with luxury, similar to the abundance of Rome and Jerusalem; 4) the fall of Babylon, like that of Rome and Jerusalem, is an occasion for great mourning; and 5) the same event leads to rejoicing in heaven, as one would expect with the fall of cities openly opposed to Christ and His people. Jay Adams writes, “The passages in which these ideas occur are poetical – in fact are in the form of a funeral dirge. Allowance must be made for poetic language which was never intended to be taken precisely” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 436).

Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – note that most of the imagery in this chapter comes from Ezekiel 27-28, which describes the fall of Tyre, and they link the pride, wealth and luxurious lifestyle of this ancient city with Papal Rome. As one commentator notes, “It is estimated by some scholars that the Vatican owns one-third of Europe’s real estate” (Robert Caringola, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 432). The burning of Babylon the Great symbolizes the downfall of papal power, whether figurative or literal. Historicists also argue that in addition to great wealth, the Roman Catholic Church traffics in the souls of men through the sale of indulgences, dispensations, absolutions, etc. Finally, the scriptural reference to Babylon shedding the blood of the prophets, saints, and all those slaughtered in earth is seen as a description of the Church of Rome’s shedding innocent blood through various persecutions and atrocities over a long period of time.

Some futurists – who argue that the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – believe Babylon the Great is the city of ancient Babylon that will be rebuilt in Iraq in the last days, recovering its former splendor and becoming the commercial center of the world. Some teach that Rome will be the Antichrist’s political capital and Babylon the commercial capital. As for Babylon’s fall, the merchants mourn, not because they care about the city but because they care selfishly about the loss of business. “This will be a stock market crash on a worldwide scale, and in the face of it the thoughts of unsaved men will only turn to how their interests are affected,” writes Charles Ryrie (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 435). Offsetting the lament of kings, merchants and seafarers in the Antichrist’s kingdom is the rejoicing in heaven over the vindication of God’s justice.

Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – note that the dirge in this chapter is modeled after the lamentation over Tyre in Ezekiel 27 and likely points to ancient Rome, although some understand Babylon more universally as the seductive world system and its demise at the end of the world and the coming of Christ. Placing the souls of men at the end of the list of commodities suggests that the morals of mankind have sunk so low that human life has little value anymore. Some idealists, however, minimize the reference to Rome and argue that the connection is better suited in a general way to the world as the seducer of mankind.

Next: Salvation, glory, and power – Revelation 19:1-5