Your merchants were the great men of the earth (Revelation 18:23).

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

BABYLON, THE GREAT HARLOT

This is an article in the series on the identity of the Harlot of Revelation. Revelation describes her as a woman with different relationships with different categories of people:

Kings – She sits on the beast (17:3). This is explained as that she “reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:18). On the other hand, “the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality” with her (17:2).

People of the world – She also “sits on many waters” (17:1). The “many waters” is a symbol of the people of the world (17:15). That she sits on them means that “those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality” (17:2). 

God’s people – She kills God’s people. “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (18:24). In the Old Testament, literal Babylon was the main enemy of God’s people. For that reason, Revelation uses Babylon as a symbol for this great enemy of God’s people.

Merchants – Babylon sits on the kings and the peoples of the world (17:3, 15). In other words, the kings and the peoples are separate from her. The merchants, on the other hand, are described as: “Your merchants were the great men of the earth” (18:23).  The word “your” means that they are hers. They belong to her. They are part of her and work for her. They are “the great men of the earth” (18:23).

The purpose of the current article is to explain who these merchants are.

SUMMARY

WHO IS BABYLON?

Because the merchants are part of Babylon (18:23), we need to understand who she is before we will be able to tell who the merchants are.

Some have proposed that Babylon symbolizes the power of money. This does fit many of Babylon’s features, such as that she always exists and that she is world-wide. But this explanation does not fit some of her other attributes.

This article series proposes that Babylon is a symbol of false religion. In brief, some of her identifying marks, that are also true for false religion, are as follows:

      • Babylon always exists and is worldwide.
      • Since she is a woman, she is a religious entity.
      • She intoxicates the people of the world. False religion intoxicates people with false ideas about God.
      • She specifically opposes God’s people. Only false religion is able to identify and persecute God’s true people, for they are the people who rebel against false religion.
      • When the beast receives a fatal wound, she goes through a period of incapacity. Depending on the level of religious freedom, religion is not always able to exterminate its opposition.
      • God will destroy Babylon through the end-time confederacy of kings.
      • Her relationship with the political authorities is immoral because true religion cannot be used for political gain.

ACTS OF IMMORALITY

The “acts of immorality ” which the kings of the earth commit with her (18:3) symbolize unity of state and religion, which strengthens both the state and the religion. People are more willing to accept a religion that is supported by the strong arm of the state and to obey a government that is validated by religion. Unity of state and religion is immoral because true religion has a relationship with God only. True religion does not allow itself to be used for political gain.

WHO ARE THE MERCHANTS?

One possible approach is to say that this is simply highly figurative language with no specific meaning. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some propose that these are literal merchants. However, Babylon is not a literal city.  Rather, Revelation uses literal objects and literal events from the Old Testament as symbols of spiritual realities.

This article proposes that the merchants are the false prophets of false religion, argued as follows:

Babylon is a symbol of false religion and the merchants are part of Babylon and work for her.

Revelation uses buying and selling to symbolize preaching a gospel. In 3:18, Jesus is the Merchant.  Preaching the true gospel, he said, “buy from Me gold refined by fire” (3:18). Elsewhere, People have been “purchased for God” (14:3-4; 5:9). 

The letters to the seven churches use the concepts of poverty and wealth as symbols of spiritual condition. Smyrna is literally poor but spiritually rich (2:9). Laodicea thinks it is “rich,” but it is “poor and blind and naked” (3:17). In other words, to be rich is to be justified (right with God). To be poor is to be lost; to be far from God. 

The merchants become great through Babylon’s deception (18:23). They sell a false justification (a false means of being reconciled to God.)

BABYLON’S SENSUALITY

Continuing the symbolism of an immoral sexual relationship, 18:3 says that “the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.” 

Now that we have identified Babylon and her merchants, we are also able to define “her sensuality,” which is what the kings desire in her. The attraction of false religion is the power it has over the minds of people. “Kings” (political authorities) desire this power to strengthen their own control over people. This same power also assures the merchants of many followers.

– END OF SUMMARY –

WHO IS BABYLON?

Because the merchants are closely related to Babylon (18:23), we need to understand who she is before we will be able to tell who the merchants are.

Some assume that the merchants are literal merchants accumulating literal wealth. For that reason, and since the merchants are part of Babylon, some propose that Babylon symbolizes the power of money.

This article series proposes that Babylon is a symbol of false religion. The current article, therefore, assumes that identity. In brief, some of the considerations are as follows:

Babylon’s attributes POWER OF MONEY FALSE RELIGION
Always exists, for she sits on all seven heads (17:9). YES YES
Worldwide, for she is responsible for ALL persecution of God’s people (18:24). YES YES
Religious entity – Revelation symbolizes God’s people as a woman (12:1).  Babylon is also a woman. This implies that she claims to Christ’s bride (19:7). NO – The Power of Money does not make that claim. YES – particularly Christianity – Another article shows that the beast in Revelation is the mainstream church of Christendom.
Intoxicates the people of the world (18:3). YES YES – with false concepts about God and reality.
Specifically opposes God’s people. She caused the death of ALL the prophets and saints that were ever “slain on the earth” (18:24).  NO – If the Power of Money persecutes, it is unable to distinguish between true and false believers.   YES – Only false religion is able to identify and persecute God’s true people, for they are the people who rebel against false religion.  
The Beast dies but again comes to life (13:3). This implies a period of incapacity. Since Babylon sits on the Beast (17:3), she goes through the same period.  NO – The Power of Money always remains strong and even becomes stronger when the economy weakens. YES – During the Middle Ages, the Church killed thousands (millions?) of God’s people. Since the advent of religious freedom, she is unable to kill.
The end-time confederacy of kings will destroy Babylon (17:16). NO – Why would the evil kings of the world agree to join forces to destroy the power of money? And how could that be done?  YES – God will use the kings for this purpose: “God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose” (17:17).
Babylon commits “acts of immorality” with the kings of the world (17:2; 18:3). NO – Why would a partnership between the Power of Money and the kings of the world be immoral? YES – True religion cannot be used for political gain. (See below.)

Therefore, the Power of Money does not fit many of Babylon’s other attributes, but false religion fits her attributes well.

ACTS OF IMMORALITY ARE UNITY OF CHURCH AND STATE.

The kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her” (18:3). This symbolizes unity of state and religion. Such unity strengthens both the state and the religion for people are more willing to accept:

      • A religion that is supported by the strong arm of the state.
      • A government that is justified by religion.

Unity of state and religion is immoral because true religion has a relationship with God only. True religion does not allow itself to be used for political gain.

WHO ARE THE MERCHANTS?

Who are these merchants of Babylon?

NO SPECIFIC MEANING – HIGHLY FIGURATIVE

One possible approach is to throw your hands in the air and say that that it is simply highly figurative language with no specific meaning.  Such an argument may be based on the fact that much of the merchant language in Revelation 18 comes from Ezekiel 27 and 28, which predict the downfall of Tyre.  Both Babylon and Tyre are described as very wealthy and as the source of the wealth of her people (Ezek. 27:9, 33). 

However, a specific meaning is proposed below. 

LITERAL MERCHANTS

On the other end of the spectrum, some propose that these are literal merchants. However, as explained elsewhere, Babylon is not a literal city.  Rather, Revelation uses literal objects and literal events from the Old Testament as symbols of spiritual realities. This implies that the merchants cannot be literal. 

Furthermore, the merchants are “the great men of the earth” (18:23).  The only other place in Revelation where the term “great men” (18:23) appears in the NASB, is 6:15, which makes a distinction between the “great men” and “the rich.”  The merchants (the “great men”), therefore, are not the literally wealthy peoples of the world.

FALSE PROPHETS

This article proposes that the merchants are the prophets of false religion, argued as follows:

PART OF FALSE RELIGION

Firstly, Babylon is a symbol of false religion and the merchants are part of Babylon and work for her. They became rich from Babylon:

The merchants of these things,
who became rich from her
” (18:15).

TRADING IS A SYMBOL FOR PREACHING.

Secondly, these are symbolic merchants. If one tries to find the meaning of this symbol from Revelation, one finds that, to buy and sell, symbolize preaching. In 3:18, Jesus is the Merchant:

I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself.”

What Jesus offers, in reality, is salvation. Revelation also elsewhere uses buying as a symbol for saving people:

No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been purchased from the earth.  … These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb.”  (14:3-4) 

They sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9).

To buy or sell, therefore, symbolizes preaching or trading in assurances about salvation; to assure people of temporal and/or eternal goodwill of God. 

In the end-time, “no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark” (13:15).  This would then mean that nobody will be allowed to preach, except the people with the mark of the beast.

WEALTH SYMBOLIZES TO BE RIGHT WITH GOD.

As confirmation that the “merchants” trade in salvation, the letters to the seven churches use the concepts of poverty and wealth as symbols of spiritual condition. Jesus said to Smyrna:

I know … your poverty (but you are rich)” (2:9).

Smyrna, in other words, is literally poor, but spiritually rich (2:9). Laodicea is the opposite. To this church, Jesus said:

You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (3:17).

When Laodiceans claim that they are rich, it means that they think of themselves as justified (right with God).  When Jesus responds and accuses them of poverty, it means they are far from God. Wealth is, therefore, a symbol of being right with God; to be assured of God’s goodwill.

THE MERCHANTS BECOME GREAT THROUGH DECEPTION.

The merchants become great through Babylon’s deception.

Your merchants were the great men of the earth, because all the nations were deceived by your sorcery” (18:23). 

The devil deceives (12:9; 20:3, 8, 10). The false prophet also deceives (13:14; 19:20). Since the merchants become great through deception, they are not neutral forces but part of Satan’s army.

They sell a false justification (a false means of being reconciled to God.) Based on what we read in the Bible, particularly in Paul’s letters, they teach that we need to do certain things to be saved, rather than simply to trust that God loves us. In the final analysis, they present a false picture of the character of God.

BABYLON’S SENSUALITY IS HER POWER OVER PEOPLE.

Continuing the symbolism of an immoral sexual relationship, 18:3 says that “the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality” (18:3). 

Now that we have identified Babylon and her merchants, we are also able to define “her sensuality.” Since Babylon is “the great harlot … with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality” (17:1-2), she has something that attracts the kings. That is her sensuality.

It is “the wealth of her sensuality,” not “the sensuality of her wealth.”  In other words, it is not her literal wealth that attracts kings; “her sensuality” symbolizes something else:

Since Babylon symbolizes false religion, her sensuality is the power that religion has over the minds of people. “Kings” (political authorities) desire this power to strengthen their own control over people.

Her “sensuality” is also the source of the merchants’ wealth (18:3). The success of literal merchants is measured by their literal wealth. But these are symbolic merchants. Since the merchants are her false prophets, their success or wealth is measured by how many followers they have. Babylon’s “sensuality” – the power that religion has over the minds of people – is the power that assures the merchants of many followers.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

Babylon is a symbol of false religion.

The “acts of immorality” which the kings of the earth commit with her (18:3) symbolize unity of state and religion.

The merchants are the false prophets of false religion.

Buying and selling to symbolize preaching a gospel.

Poverty and wealth are symbols of spiritual condition.

Her sensuality,” which is what attracts the kings to her, is the power which false religion has over the minds of people.

AVAILABLE ARTICLES ON REVELATION

INTRODUCTORY
   Why is the title of this website Revelation BY Jesus Christ?
   Are events described in chronological sequence? 
   Is a consistently literal interpretation appropriate?
   Does Revelation present Jesus as God?
   God’s throne – the center of the universe.
BABYLON
   Babylon; the mother of harlots
   Babylon’s merchants are her false prophets. CURRENT ARTICLE
   Babylon is not the reconstructed ancient city of Babylon.
   How does Babylon relate to the beast?
SEVEN-HEADED BEASTS
   The Seven-Headed Beasts of Revelation
   The three beasts are three of the seven heads.
   The Seven Heads Identified
REVELATION 13
   13:1-2 – The Beast relates to Daniel 7.
   13:3-4 – The fatal wound
   The identity of the beast
SEVEN SEALS
   Introduction to the Seven Seals – What book is this?
   Seven seals explained
   Does the seventh seal include the seven trumpets?
SEVEN PLAGUES
   The Plagues of Revelation – 16 articles

For further reading, Jon Paulien’s commentary is recommended. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

 

 

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