The Three Laments over Babylon (18:9-19)

The kings, merchants and seafarers of the earth mourn Babylon's demise with three variations, or stanzas, of the same song (18:10, 16-17, 19). Each group of mourners stands far from the city watching it burn, fearful for their own safety (vv. 9-10, 15, 17-18). The elements common to all three laments are identifiable in the dirge sung by the kings: Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come (v. 10).

The merchants and the seafarers elaborate the basic stanza in keeping with their respective interests. To the merchants, "the great city" had been dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls (v. 16). To the seafarers, it was where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth (v. 19). All share the common opening line, Woe! Woe, O great city, and a concluding line introduced by the words in one hour (compare 17:12, "who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast").

The merchants' dirge is the longest. They preface their formal lament with a long list of Rome's imports (18:11-13). These include not only the fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth, the gold, silver, precious stones and pearls to be singled out in the lament proper (v. 16), but much more, starting with those luxury items and moving on to other luxuries as well as necessities—from silk, different kinds of wood, ivory, bronze, iron, marble, cinnamon and other spices, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour and wheat, to cattle and sheep, horses, chariots, and finally slaves (that is, bodies and souls).

Despite the emphasis on slaves at the end of the list, with its moving reminder of their humanity, the list's primary purpose is not to highlight the evils of Roman slavery. More important is the light it sheds on John's first glimpse of "Babylon" at the beginning of his vision, where she was "dressed in purple and scarlet," and "glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls" (17:4). These are the items from the list singled out for special mention in the merchants' subsequent lament (v. 16). Now it is clear, if it was not before, that the prostitute's magnificent apparel is all imported. John himself would have recognized the purple and scarlet dyes that linked the seven cities of Asia economically to imperial Rome (see, for example, Ramsay 1904; Court 1979). To him, Rome and the provinces are interdependent, and implicated in the same crimes (remember the "cities of the nations" that fell when great Babylon fell according to 16:19). When the merchants have finished mourning the loss of their profitable trade (vv. 11-13), they shed some tears for Rome herself. If they have lost their profits, Rome has lost all the luxuries world commerce brought her: The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered (v. 14). Worse, she has lost her life. The great city is no more (vv. 16-17).

In keeping with the judgments of the trumpets and the bowls, which affected earth and sea alike, the merchants of the sea take up the lament of the kings and merchants of the earth (vv. 17-19). Was there ever a city like this great city? they ask. Their motives, like those of the merchants of the earth, are economic: the place where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth is gone in a single hour (v. 19). Their profits have withered and dried up. The seafarers do not know it yet, but before long the sea itself will be gone (21:1).