What is the message of ‘luxurious living’ in Revelation 18? (10 Jun 2018)

One of the courses I took with BGST is Reading Revelation ethically: the last word on empire, economics, ecology by Quek Tze Ming.

In Revelation 18:3, the third line, ‘the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living’ introduces one of the major themes of the chapter, the sin of materialistic luxury (the merchants), which occurs 4 times in the book, Rev 18:3, 11, 15, 23. The merchants were wholesale dealers who travelled all over the Roman world selling merchandise in huge quantities. They have grown wealthy from all the trade. They engaged in ‘unrestrained debauchery’, meaning excess consumption of goods. The Romans also used their wealth for social control over their subjects. According to Oakman (‘The Ancient Economy and St John’s Apocalypse.’ Listening 28:203-9. 1993), there is the forced extraction of goods and taxes to support the imperial bureaucracy and the movement of goods out of the provinces to support the elite.

Next, we have the ‘cargo list’ or the luxury list (Rev 18:11-13), where the merchants of the world grow rich from their unrestrained lust. The list of the cargoes and merchandise is not without arrangement as the various goods are placed in groups, moving from the most to the valuable. For example, the treasures come first—gold, silver. The soft goods used for clothing are placed next —fine linen, silk. Materials used in giving splendour to the furnishing of houses come next, sweet-scented thyine wood, followed by articles of food—wine, oil, cattle. Due to space constraints, we will not go into the details of the list but will focus on the key points. In the lament, the merchants weep not because of sympathy for a city now brought low, but that because of its collapse, they have been deprived of their major source of financial gain. The exorbitant extravaganzas that characterise Roman nobility also applies to the merchants who supplied them.

At the end of the cargo list, the ‘slaves – human lives’ (least valuable) is stated. This is what is wrong with Babylon. The commerce may benefit many people, but the wealth it generates for the merchants and Babylon ultimately comes off the backs of the poor, the vulnerable, the helpless, and make their lives worse. John’s main concern is that though Babylon is all-powerful, a beacon of peace and order, it is actually the home of every foul and hateful beast, a trafficker in slaves, killer of prophets and saints. People are not able to live or have their basic needs met if they do not show their loyalty and allegiance to Rome. 

What is our response?

We can see parallels between the above and our current world situation: sin of materialistic luxury and consumerism, where goods are more important than human beings. What is our response? Perhaps, we can take a leaf from Rev 18:4 where we are commanded to ‘come out from her.’ It is to separate ourselves from the things of the world, to be holy. This requires a change in attitude and mindset, resulting in change in behaviour.


Deaconess Dr Vivien Ler