Emotionally there is no greater commentary on this passage than the famous Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, yet the only word this piece has in common with the passage is "hallelujah," the ancient Hebrew expression for "praise the Lord" (see, for example, Ps 104:35; 106:48; Tob 13:17). The destruction of Rome is still in view, and the passage is best understood as a response to the command of 18:20: "Rejoice over her, O heaven!" The rejoicing comes first from the roar of a great multitude in heaven (vv. 1-2), from the great multitude again (v. 3), then from the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures (v. 4). The first two exclamations are introduced by Hallelujah! (vv. 1, 3) and the third one with Amen, Hallelujah! (v. 4). All these voices are from heaven in keeping with the command addressed to heaven to rejoice. The fourth voice is also from heaven, from the throne, but it is addressed to the people of God on earth: Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great! (v. 5).
The fifth voice is the earth's response, like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder (v. 6). The rejoicing spreads from heaven to earth, in keeping with the movement in 18:20 from "heaven" to "you saints and apostles and prophets" on earth. The earth's hallelujah (v. 6) answers to the multiple "hallelujahs" in heaven. The announcement that our Lord God Almighty reigns is no news to heaven, but on earth it is an announcement of eschatological victory: the Lord God Almighty has taken direct control of the earth and has begun to reign anew. This is the visible realization of what was announced seven chapters earlier in connection with the seventh trumpet: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (11:15).
The visible signs are now in place. If the time has come "for destroying those who destroy the earth," it is also the time "for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great" (11:18). Babylon and her doom have gradually faded from the vision of rejoicing John sees in this chapter. She is never mentioned after verse 3. Rejoicing over Babylon gives way to rejoicing over the establishment of God's rule, and specifically over the wedding of the Lamb (v. 7). Suddenly a very different "woman" is in the picture—the Lamb's bride, or wife. In contrast to Babylon, who was "dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet," with "gold, precious stones and pearls" (18:16), she is dressed only in fine linen that is bright and clean (v. 8).
At this point an interpretation is given: (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) This identifies not only the fine linen but also the woman who wears it. If the bride's fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints, then the bride herself represents the saints, the people of God whose blood has been avenged (18:24; 19:2) and who have joined in the chorus of rejoicing (18:20; 19:5). But who is giving the interpretation? It seems we are momentarily back in the world of chapter 17, in which "one of the angels who had the seven bowls" (17:1) interpreted, detail for detail, the vision of the evil woman on the scarlet beast.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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