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The first of these commands, perhaps more than any other in the entire book of Revelation, sums up the book's message: John wants his readers to make a clean break with the Roman Empire and everything it represents. He echoes the sentiments of the Jewish prophets about ancient Babylon (Jer 50:8; 51:6, 9, 45; compare Is 48:20; 52:11) and those of the apostle Paul about Graeco-Roman religion generally: "`Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'" (2 Cor 6:17-18).
What is surprising about the oracle as a whole is that most of it is unlike the beginning and the ending. It has more to do with the lost splendor of Babylon than with the obligations of the people of God. To be sure, there are four more imperatives addressed to Christian believers, all amounting to much the same thing: Give back to her [Babylon] as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup (v. 6). Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself (v. 7). These commands are rhetorical and are not to be taken literally. They refer to what God will do to ungodly Rome, not to what Christians must do. When taken literally, they violate the unambiguous teaching of Jesus: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Lk 6:27-28); of Peter: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing" (1 Pet 3:9); and of Paul: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" (Rom 12:14) and "Do not repay anyone evil for evil" (Rom 12:17).
In what sense can a voice from heaven in the book of Revelation command Christians to fly in the face of such teaching by taking double vengeance against fallen Babylon? The only possible answer is Paul's answer: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath. . . . On the contrary; `If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:19-21; compare Prov 25:21-22).
In Revelation Christians "heap burning coals" on Babylon's head or pay her back double for what she has done precisely by nonretaliation, in obedience to the commands of Jesus, Peter and Paul, leaving room for God's wrath to accomplish its terrible purpose. For God's people, the oracle of 13:10 is still in effect: "If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints." The paradox here is that the saints are able to participate in the judgment against Rome precisely by not taking up the sword against her. Like the slain Lamb (5:6), they are victors only because, and only to the extent that, they are victims.
Yet the oracle is not primarily about the people of God or their responsibilities, even though it is addressed to them. Its more conspicuous purpose is to mourn (and ironically celebrate) Rome's impending downfall, setting forth in great detail the glory from which she will soon fall. This purpose is carried out in high rhetorical style, putting words into the mouth of Babylon herself (v. 7) and into the moutes of the kings of the earth (vv. 9-10), the merchants of the earth (vv. 11-17) and every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea (vv. 17-19).
As for Babylon, her judgment is in proportion to her own pretentiousness and self-sufficiency. Her words, spoken in her heart, are the only words attributed to her in all of John's visions: I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn (v. 7). Babylon is like the Christian congregation at Laodicea that said, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing" (3:17). But God hates pretense, Christian or secular, above all else. The Laodiceans were pronounced "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked," while "Queen" Babylon's plagues will overtake her in a single day—death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her (v. 8). With this death sentence, the voice from heaven reinforces the prophecy that the ten horns and the beast would humiliate the prostitute and destroy her with fire. This judgment would be the sovereign work of God (see 17:16-17).