“They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate.’” Revelation 18:19
When my wife and I drive through the countryside, we like to play a game that involves choosing our favorite houses and dreaming of what it would be like to live in them. I especially like the log cabin look far from the road surrounded by trees on the west and north to protect the occupants from Iowa’s cold winter winds. My imagination makes changes to the appearance of the house and its location. The biggest change I want to make is the owner. It should be me!
Perhaps your dream is not some house. When it comes to luxuries, we have all kinds of options for channeling our envy. Yours might be a swimming pool in the backyard, exquisite furnishings in your living room, a powerful V-8 with four on the floor, an expensive antique, a mountain cabin, a trip to Paris, the latest electronic device, or a flawless gem. The list of potential luxuries is without end. When it comes to possessing the luxurious, our imaginations have no limits. 1
God never directly forbids luxuries. The apostle Paul said he had learned “to live in prosperity… being filled and… of having abundance” (Philippians 4:12 NASB). By themselves, prosperity, fullness, and luxury are not sinful. It is when these things begin to possess us that we find ourselves guilty of Babylon’s allurement. Like the farmer in Luke 12:16-21 who thought “life” was found in his possessions instead of in his relationship with God. Jesus said that man was a fool because he was rich toward the things of the world but poor in his relationship with the Lord. This man looked to his material wealth for peace and security. He focused on the gift instead of the Giver. 2 And we can be prone to do the same. Instead of focusing on what is temporary, we need to focus on what is eternal. This is the primary lesson God wants us to learn from Revelation 18.
Last time, we learned several reasons why the worldwide false religious and economic system called “Babylon,” the code name for Rome (Revelation 14:8; 16:19-21; 17:1, 9, 18; cf. I Peter 5:13), would be swiftly destroyed by the ten kings and beast (17:16-17) during the last half of the Tribulation period (18:1-9). God hates the shameless pride and self-reliance that led Rome to reject God’s ways. Hence, the Lord will severely and swiftly judge this city for her decadent influence upon the nations and leaders of the world.
Following the message from heaven (18:1-9), John now focuses on a new message from the earth which included three groups that grieved the destruction of Rome (18:10-19). The first group is world leaders. “9 The kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning, 10 standing at a distance for fear of her torment, saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.’” (Revelation 18:9-10). As mentioned last time, Vacendak suggests that Rome’s destruction“will be by means of a nuclear warhead… Kings, merchants, and shipmasters will all stand ‘at a distance’ when they see ‘the smoke of her burning.’ The desire to keep a certain distance between themselves and the mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up to heaven may indicate their fear of the nuclear radiation that now envelops the city.” 2
World government leaders (“the kings of the earth”) will grieve when they see the destruction of Rome whose sensuality and wealth had sustained them and enabled them to live luxuriously. They were in shock that such a “great… mighty city” could be destroyed in such a short amount of time (“in one hour”)! This city was great and mighty, but its Judge was greater and mightier!
The second group mourning Rome’s destruction is merchants. “11 And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: 12 merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; 13 and cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men.” (Revelation 18:11-13). The word “merchants” (emporoi) refers to “one who travels by ship for business reasons.” 3 These businessmen grieve over the loss of customers and profits that Rome’s destruction causes.
The wailing of these merchants is greater than that of the kings (18:9-10) and ocean travelers (18:17b-19) because their loss is greater. The variety of goods that are listed here suggests how extensive the trade will be at this time in history (18:12-13). Most of the things listed by John were luxuries in his day. Constable identifies “eight categories into which these twenty-nine items fall.
“These categories are: (1) precious metals and gems (“gold and silver, precious stones and pearls”), (2) clothing (“fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet”), (3) furnishings (“citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble”), (4) spices (“cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense”), (5) food (“wine and oil, fine flour and wheat”), (6) animals (“cattle and sheep, horses”), (7) implements (“chariots”), (8) people (“bodies and souls of men”).” 4
“Persons are ‘bought and sold’ (and even traded!) by athletic teams; and our great corporations more and more seek to control the lives of their officers and workers. As people become more enslaved to luxury, with more bills to pay, they find themselves unable to break loose from the ‘system.’” 5
These merchants had become wealthy by selling Rome’s religious paraphernalia and by engaging in slave trade for the “bodies and souls of men” (18:12-13). 6 Now their source of wealth and luxury was all gone. “The fruit that your soul longed for has gone from you, and all the things which are rich and splendid have been lost to you, and you shall find them no more at all.” (Revelation 18:14). The “fruit” these merchants “longed for” was no longer available to them. The words “rich” (liparos) and “splendid” (lampros) refer to food and clothing respectively. 7 The extravagant lifestyle Rome once provided was no longer possible for these businessmen. The phrase “shall find them no more at all” contains two doubt negatives in the Greek text (outketi ou mē), emphasizing that these luxurious things these merchants craved will never ever return. 8
God’s destruction of wealth in this case should not be taken to mean God condemns wealth in general. There are many wealthy people in the Bible who walked with God – Abraham, Job, Joseph, and Solomon to mention a few. In the case of Solomon, the Bible clearly says that great wealth is a gift and reward from God (2 Chronicles 1:11-12). What the Bible condemns is the love of money or being controlled by it (I Timothy 6:10). The more God blesses us, the more grateful and worshipful we should be toward Him. But in the case of Babylon (Rome), wealth led to self-centeredness and a rejection of God. 9
That Rome’s wealth controlled the merchants of the world during the Tribulation is evident in their response to the destruction of Rome’s luxurious possessions. “15 The merchants of these things, who became rich by her, will stand at a distance for fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, 16 and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls! 17 For in one hour such great riches came to nothing.’” (Revelation 18:15-17a). These merchants are not mourning the loss of human life or the swift removal of other people’s income, but that “in one hour such great riches came to nothing.” 10 Possessions were far more important to them than people.
A third group that grieves Rome’s destruction is the ocean travelers. “17b Every shipmaster, all who travel by ship, sailors, and as many as trade on the sea, stood at a distance 18 and cried out when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like this great city?’” (Revelation 18:17b-18). There are four groups of ocean travelers represented by: “shipmaster” (ship captains and other ship crew officers), “all who travel by ship” (passengers), “sailors” (ship crewmen under the crew officers), and “as many as trade on the sea,” such as fishermen and divers for pearls. 11 These ocean travelers are of special interest here because they represent sea merchants and shipping companies, being the shippers and distributors of Rome’s luxurious possessions. 12 Like the merchants of the earth (18:10, 15), they too are all standing “at a distance” from Rome due to the fear of nuclear radiation enveloping the city from the nuclear warhead explosion (18:17b).
These ocean travelers grieve deeply because of the collapse of this great economic empire which they thought was invincible as their question (“What is like this great city?”) implies (18:18).
“They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate.’” (Revelation 18:19). In the Old Testament, throwing dust on one’s head represented great grief (Joshua 7:6; I Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 1:2; 13:19; 15:32; Job 2:12; Lamentations 2:10). 13 The ocean travelers and tradesmen express the same laments as the kings (18:10) and merchants (18:15-17).
Just in case anyone might think this swift economic destruction is mere happenstance, John makes its source clear: 14 “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!” (Revelation 18:20). The angel instructs God’s people in “heaven,” including “saints” (all believers), “apostles” (who were martyred), “and prophets” (those who received and proclaimed divine revelation),to “rejoice over” Rome’s destruction because “God has avenged” them. The greed of nonbelievers to accumulate wealth for themselves resulted in countless opposition to the gospel and God’s servants throughout history. 15 God was now repaying the greedy oppressors of His people through the destruction of the city of Rome – the source of their income and luxury.
In his first epistle, the apostle John writes, “15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.” (I John 2:15-16). When John speaks of “the world,” he is not talking about planet earth. He is referring to an organized system under the authority of Satan that desensitizes us to God and His Word (cf. John 14:30; Ephesians 2:2). If, as a believer in Jesus, you “love the world,” you lose intimate fellowship with God. We love the world when it controls our affections and guides our choices by getting us to exclude God from our lives. 16
What does the world promise us if we love it? First, it promises to satisfy legitimate desires in illegitimate ways (“the lust of the flesh”). For example, eating is a legitimate desire; but gluttony is worldly. Sex is a legitimate desire; but outside of marriage it is worldly. 17
Second, the world tempts our minds through what our eyes behold (“the lust of the eyes”). The Bible calls this covetousness which is desiring and pursuing that which is not legitimate for us to have 18 – such as our neighbor’s possessions, livestock, and spouse.
Third, there is “the pride of life” which involves living to impress others. 19 What those in love with the world forget is that “the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17). The world and its lusts are transient. The world makes the “now” more important than eternity.
As believers in Jesus, we are passing through, and the world is passing away. The cost of loving the world is the loss of personal intimacy with God (“he who does the will of God abides forever”). The term “abides” is a fellowship term in John’s writings (John 8:31; 15:4-7, 9-10; I John 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 14, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16; et. al). The believer in Jesus who loves the world will still be with God in heaven in the future, but he will not enjoy heaven nearly as much because he wasted his opportunities to love God while he was on earth. Instead, he invested his life in what is temporary instead of in what is eternal.
But the believer who is doing “the will of God” possesses a lifestyle that will not be interrupted by the passing away of this world. He experiences uninterrupted fellowship or intimacy with God. He will experience “boldness” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I John 2:28; 4:17) where the eternal worth of his earthly life will be evaluated (I Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). However, the believer who lives out of fellowship with the Lord does not “abide” forever in that his worldly lifestyle will be radically interrupted when he goes to heaven. His worldly lifestyle will not abide forever. It stops at heaven’s gates. But a dedicated lifestyle to Christ really has no ending.
How do we see the wealth and luxury of this world? Do we see it as it truly is? Can we use it without it controlling our lives? How would we feel if the luxuries in our lives which we have considered to be necessities suddenly went up in smoke? Would it deeply grieve our hearts to suddenly see the things of this world go up in smoke? Or is our heart focused on Christ in heaven? 20
Prayer: Father God, thank You for Your Word which brings us back to You. Satan has designed this world to draw us away from You. We can often become so focused on what is temporary that we lose sight of what is eternal. Thank You for reminding us that our lives here on earth are intended to prepare us for eternity with You. Please help us to focus on the Giver and not the gift. By Your Spirit working in and through us, we pray that each of us would establish an eternal identity that outlasts this present world system as we learn to do Your will. Use our time, talents, and treasures to advance Your gospel of grace around the world so more people can discover the abundant life that Christ came to give. In Jesus’ mighty name, we pray. Amen.
1. Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Insights on Revelation (Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary Book 15, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014 Kindle Edition), pg. 325.
2. Bob Vacendak; Robert Wilkin; J. Bond; Gary Derickson; Brad Doskocil; Zane Hodges; Dwight Hunt; Shawn Leach; The Grace New Testament Commentary: Revised Edition (Grace Evangelical Society, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 1568.
3. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: Third Edition (BDAG) revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 Kindle Edition), pg. 325.
4. Tom Constable, Notes on Revelation, 2017 Edition, pg. 198.
5. Ibid., cites Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton: Victor Books, Scripture Press, 1989), pg. 615.
6. Vacendak, pg. 1569.
7. Constable, pg. 199 cites Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John 2nd Ed., (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1907), pg. 235 and R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John Vol. 2, International Critical Commentary series (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), pg. 108.
8. Ibid., cites Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament Vol. 6 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), pg. 442.
9. Tony Evans, CSB Bibles by Holman, The Tony Evans Study Commentary (B & H Publishing Group, Kindle Edition 2019), pg. 2412.
11. Constable, pg. 199 cites Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), pg. 339.
13. Ibid., pg. 200.
14. Evans, pg. 2412.
15. Constable, pg. 200.
16. Evans, pg. 2337.
20. Constable, pg. 200 cites J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. 5 (Pasadena, CA: Thru The Bible Radio; and Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1983), pg. 1041.