Over the past year or so I've been getting back into to the book of Revelation, after a long period of setting it aside and filling in the shape of my theology from the rest of the Scriptures. Needless to say, that "filled in" theology has greatly affected my perspective of John's vision as I return. Familiar passages seem entirely new again, as my reading of them has changed drastically. The following study represents some of that change, and the attentive reader will sense the implications it has for the rest of Revelation (not to mention other apocalyptic prophecy as well).
According to Revelation 16:17-21, the last of the seven bowls results in the fall of the great city called "Babylon". Its downfall is described through the picture of an earthquake of unprecedented proportions.
Now, if we are to take this description as a literal prediction—thereby assuming it means literally that every island will flee away and every mountain will disappear—we are confounded to find it contradicted by images of the downfall of Babylon in the next two chapters. In 17:16, Babylon, now portrayed as a prostitute, is stripped, devoured and burned by the beast and the ten kings. The traditional punishment of a harlot is superimposed on the image of a city sacked and laid waste by an army. Chapter 18 then goes on to extend the image of a city besieged and burned to the ground (cf. especially 18:8).
If we are to read both the description of destruction in 16:17-21 and that of ch. 17-18 in a flat literal way, we find that the images are quite inconsistent with each other. And they cannot (as is sometime postulated) be describing two different downfalls, for the vision of ch. 17-18 is introduced as being an explanation of the judgment just witnessed by the seer in 16:17-21 (17:1: "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters").
To the contrary, it appears that the two scenes of judgment are intended to be complimentary perspectives on the meaning of Babylon's fall. Or to say it another way, 16:17-21 describes the great city's downfall in cosmic and cataclysmic imagery that is afterward explained in political and sociological terms in ch. 17-18.
This is a common feature of apocalyptic literature. Take the famous vision of Daniel 7, for instance. The revelation is given to Daniel in fantastic imagery of seas and beasts and such in the first half of the chapter, and its meaning is then decoded in the second half as being about evil nations that war against God's people, the ultimate judgment of those nations and the vindication of the saints. This same pattern occurs in Revelation 16 (with the vision of Babylon's fall in cosmic imagery) and 17-18 (where the imagery is decoded into political terms).
But since I know the one example of Daniel 7 will by no means convince many who read this post, lets try another on for size. Psalm 18, a forerunner to the apocalyptic genre, has very similar language to the cosmic catastrophe seen in the seventh bowl of Revelation. According to the introduction, David wrote this psalm when all of his enemies, including Saul, were defeated. Of course, nowhere in the life of David do we see earthquakes or the heavens rumbling, however, and nor do we see God physically descending upon the clouds.
So what do we make of it then? Do we say that David's psalm is a proleptic prophecy that awaits a literal, physical fulfillment? Such an interpretation would be tenuous at best. Much more likely, and as the introduction to the psalm indicates, David is singing of his own vindication and using vivid imagery to invest that reality with its proper significance. In other words, he wants to express that it was God who delivered him from the hand of his enemies and not merely a chance victory on his own part. This is poetry, plain and simple.
Now let's try one final example, this time much closer to home: Isaiah 13-14. It will be helpful for us to read the relevant texts before commenting.
Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine… Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts and in the day of his fierce anger.
This appears in the midst of a prophecy against ancient Babylon (13:1, 19), a judgment that is to be carried out (and indeed was carried out) through the hands of the Medes (v. 17). Later on in the same passage Isaiah describes the downfall of the king of Babylon specifically in terms of a star being pulled down from the sky:
How you are fallen from heaven, O day star, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground… For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation, on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.
The imagery of a star ascending to the heights of heaven is here used metaphorically to describe the king’s unchecked pride as the oppressor of nations, and thus the declaration that he will be “cut down to the ground” speaks of his humbling demise. The fact that this obvious metaphor (star = king of Babylon) is used in the same passage as a description of so-called cosmic catastrophe, itself carrying images of stars etc, suggests strongly that the latter imagery be taken metaphorically as well.
Consider also the fantastic nature of the description itself: however severe it might be, and even if we understand this prophecy as transcending its initial historical fulfillment, surely no one would think that in His end-time judgment God would throw the earth out of orbit.
All considered, a common sense historical-grammatical reading of this passage strongly suggests that we take the cataclysmic descriptions therein as vivid metaphors used to invest time-space events, i.e. the destruction of nations, with their cosmic and theological significance. In other words, the point being made through the imagery, in a much more profound way than simply stating it in prose, is that Babylon’s downfall is the judgment of Israel’s God and not merely the result of jostling nations.
And that, I think, is the point also of Revelation 16:17-21.