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What a Waste

Revelation 18:9-20
February 28, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 19:50 in the audio file.

Or, When the Establishment Goes Up in Smoke
Series: Just Conquer Part 48


The great antidote to materialism is not becoming a monk or a missionary. Ironically many monks and missionaries still define themselves in relation to money and stuff, but in terms of living in austerity rather than luxury. It still signals a man’s spirituality according to his possessions, it still defines spirituality in earthly terms.

The great antidote to materialism is not Marxism (socialism or communism); materialism isn’t overcome by identifying and overthrowing structures of human power, or redistributing materials among many. The great antidote is recognizing one’s identity as an image-bearer of God. The remedy for humanism (man—and his stuff—at the center of life) is worship (God at the center of life). The way to deal with the love of money is to love God and to give thanks when He blesses. The problem is not in good bread and wine or in comfortable homes and iPhones, the problem is when we’re consumed with those goods and forget God.

God’s blessing on image-bearers gave them purpose and strength to multiply and work and take dominion on earth. We reflect God in our relationships and in our responsibilities. Genesis 1:28 anticipated a network of coordinated ingenuity and industry. Genesis 9:1-7 reaffirmed this vision after the fall and after the flood.

In the next chapter, the men in Babel, as it came to be known later, had a great civic project. The proposed tower would provide work as well as a cultural symbol. It would require working together in relationships and working diligently in particular responsibilities. This could have been a great image-bearing symbol, but instead it was a symbol of man’s hideous strength (a line from a 1555 poem by Sir David Lyndsay about the tower of Babel). The men intended this tower to reach to heaven so that they could mitigate any more “natural” disasters like a flood. The project was more than an impressive artifact, it was an artifact of how impressed they were with themselves. “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 10:4). They didn’t need God, or at least that was the theological blueprint they started with.

More generations of Christians have been bad at this than have been good at it. We see the temptations of possessions and prosperity, we see men trying to build towers for the wrong reasons, and so we don’t try to build anything. By God’s grace there have been generations of Christians who built together for the Lord’s sake rather than their own, but it’s not an easy balance. Then there are others who are bad at building who get envious, or self-righteous, and argue that they are the really spiritual ones because they aren’t even trying to be successful in worldly ways.

It makes sense that Paul wrote to the Philippians about learning how both to be abased and to abound (Philippians 4:12-13).

I have introduced today’s passage this way because it would be easy to preach it wrongly divided (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). It would be easy, and wrong, to preach it moralistically, though it is based on moral standards. When we consider what this revelation means and how we’re to respond, we should be clear that the sin is not in the stuff nor in being a salesman nor a sailor. The sin is in the establishment of a system that tries to do it all without God. In the end that sort of humanistic and materialistic establishment will go up in smoke.

Revelation 17-18 describe the economic establishment of the end times as a prostitute with whom the kings and nations spend their wealth. The political and religious and financial leaders are all in bed together, and it’s for pleasure and power and self-promotion, until it crashes, and it will crash hard.

In Revelation 18:9-20 we hear weeping from three groups, three sets of woes.

Woes from the Monarchs (verses 9-10)

At the start of the chapter an angel with great authority announced that Babylon, a prophetic nickname for a renewed Rome, will become desolate and a haunting place of demons. Another voice from heaven declared that “she will be burned up with fire” (verse 8), and those who pleasured themselves from her will get away from her. “They will stand far off” (verses 10, 15, and 17).

And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning (verse 9). The kings are said to be intimate with Babylon in a way that is not said of the merchants and sailors, perhaps because the business people are on the producing side of the network and the kings are just consumers. But they all weep and wail (verses 9, 15, 19). They mourn aloud, they cry out, because their wealth has sprouted wings and is flaming out (see Proverbs 23:4-5).

They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
“Alas! Alas! You great city,
you mighty city, Babylon!
For in a single hour your judgment has come.”
(verse 10)

They don’t even want to get too close, they stand far off, so that they don’t get burned by the fire, in fear of her torment.

Following Tyndale and the KJV, the ESV translates the kings’ distress as “Alas! Alas!”. But the original word is onomatopoetic, meaning it sounds like what it is. The Greek word is ouai (Οὐαὶ), which could connect for us with why?! (or maybe waa, waa like a blubbering baby), but more is woe (and translated that way in the NASB). It is an “interjection denoting pain or displeasure, intense hardship or distress” (BAGD).

The kings call Babylon the great city, as do the merchants (verse 15) and the sailors (verses 18 and 19). It’s ironic, and this is part of their hideous strength. She is so great and mighty, but she can’t maintain her establishment against the mighty God (so called in verse 8). In a single hour, also verses 17 and 19, all of a sudden but not without warning, her judgment has come.

Woes from the Merchants (verses 11-17a)

This section is the longest of the three laments probably because the merchants are the ones most affected. And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore (verse 11), and in a detailed but still not exhaustive manifest the cargo is listed:

cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (verses 12–13)

A few things stand out about this inventory. It is very similar to a list given in Ezekiel 27 about the prosperity of Tyre and the prophecy of Tyre’s downfall. No amount of assets can cover your arrogance. Men who think they are hot snot on a gold platter soon learn how much easier it is to wipe snot off the platter. Cold boogers have better staying power.

The list can be categorized into jewelry, fabrics/clothing, building materials, spices, foods, and means of production. That showy, outward appearance comes first isn’t a surprise, and that the materials for buildings and furniture are the more costly kind show that the economy had been working well. That economy was based on agricultural and manufacturing labor, especially since cattle weren’t used as much for meat as for milk and farming.

The list demonstrates the global reach of this network, as Africa (scented wood, marble), Egypt (wheat), India, Arabia, and China (silk), as well as more nearby countries like Greece (iron) and Spain (gold and silver, wine), would all be represented (Osborne). It is extensive and meant to impress (“this and this and this…,” in Greek there are 28 uses of “and,” Thomas).

When men get power and money they typically start to treat other men poorly. The list of “cargo” ends with slaves, that is, human souls. Some men treated other men not as men, but like merchandise, like property, whether gained as prisoners of war, or in punishment for criminals, or by stealing them (Osborne). Humanism is dehumanizing. This is always wicked, and the merchants are feeling sorry for themselves, not sorry for what they’ve done.

Verse 14 is a prophetic and poetic interruption of the merchants’ lament.

“The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your delicacies and your splendors
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”
(verse 14)

The fruit of the lust of your souls has fled away. The ripe harvest has gone. The poetic and alliterative splendor mocks their material splendor. Kai panta ta lipara kai ta lampra apoleto apo sou, and all your luxury and splendor are lost from you, your “dainty” and high priced goods (Tyndale) are ruined. The final line is as emphatic as it can be in Greek: “no longer not not will find them.”

The merchants are named again and now we hear their actual dirge.

The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (verses 15–17a)

Woe! Woe! The great city that looked so sensuous and swanky and stately (shown in Revelation 17:4) has been made “desolate and naked” (17:18). In just moments all this wealth has been laid waste. What a waste.

Woes from the Mariners (verses 17b-20)

Four different sea-going groups are next in the lament over their source of incoming going up in smoke.

And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?” (verses 17b–18)

The shipmasters are probably the captains, seafaring men could be passengers, the sailors are actually working on the ships, and all whose trade is on the sea could include the guys down at the docks, or maybe fishermen. Many of them, no doubt, were in the shipping business transporting cargo for the merchants. Perhaps they are standing on their ships, watching the establishment go up in smoke. What establishment was like that great establishment? What city had more glitter, and more customers? Even more than the kings and merchants they embodied their depression.

And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in a single hour she has been laid waste.
(verse 19)

More woe. They woke up one morning not realizing that everything they had worked for, everything they had depended on, would be sunk. It’s because they had started with a bankrupt system. It’s not just a black swan event, it is the black swan eschaton.

A new voice speaks in verse 21, so verse 20 belongs with this section, but it has a different tone.

Rejoice over her, O heaven,
and you saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her!”
(verse 20)

Heaven is where God’s will is known and done. The saints and apostles and prophets seem to be the ones who have conquered even with their blood, enduring the treatment of those who thought they were on the right side of history. The last line indicates the connection, “she” (as in Babylon) has judged you and now God is giving her the judgment back.


For what it’s worth, Revelation 18 is not describing the collapse of a free market due to godless and greedy capitalists. There is a lot of money in the system, but the establishment is regulated to the gills by the beast. None can buy or sell without his mark (Revelation 13:17).

Even the sight of the establishment going up in smoke is not significant enough to open spiritual eyes to their own need to repent. They had received good things, and like the rich man with Lazarus, that was the entirety of their reward. Their glory is like that of the pasture – smoke off of a pile of hot dung (see Psalm 37:20).

Christians ought to know that their labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), and that we do not set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches, yet we can be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, “thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may be able to take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). That life will be no waste at all.


Solomon once wrote that “to the sinner God has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). That is vanity in every sense. In contrast, “to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.” The process for the two of them may look similar, from the outside and for a while, but, Christian, you are serving the Lord Christ. Your work is part of the spiritual battle. From Him you get strength and from Him you will receive the inheritance.


The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:20, ESV)