Revelation 18:9-20 contains a series of three “woes” against the great city, Babylon. As with the Great Prostitute in Revelation 17, this city is the Roman Empire. Chapter 18 focuses on the economic allure of the Empire.
What is a woe? The word translated woe (“alas” in the ESV) is οὐαί, a transliteration of the Hebrew הוֹי, אוֹי. The word is an “interjection denoting pain or displeasure…hardship or distress” (BDAG) and it is used on the Old Testament frequently to introduce impending judgment (Zeph 3:1; Nahum 3:1). The repeated phrase “woe, woe, the great city” may evoke Revelation 11:8; the two witnesses lie dead in “the street of the great city.” In that context, the “great city” is Jerusalem (where their Lord was crucified), which is also called Sodom and Egypt. But the great city in chapter 18 is Babylon, a cipher for Rome and the Roman empire.
Revelation 18:9-20 can be divided by the phrase “Woe, woe” and a statement about Babylon, or by the three sets of mourners (kings vv. 9-10; merchants, vv. 11-17a; and seafarers, vv 17b-19; Fanning, Revelation, 456). The difference between a merchant and a sea merchant is less clear in Greek than in English. The word translated merchant (ἔμπορος) is often used for “one who travels by ship for business reasons” (BDAG) and is sometimes used for a passenger on a ship (BrillDAG). Think of this term as a wholesaler who imports goods from distant lands (by sea).
In the first woe, the kings of the earth weep and moan when the see the prostitute (Babylon/Rome) in flames (18:9-14). This whole section uses common language associated with a funeral. Weeping (v. 9, 15, 19, using synonyms κλαίω and πενθέω) is commonly associated with death. To moan (κόπτω) refers to beating one’s chest in response to a tragic event, such as a death (Gen 23:2, Abraham mourns when Sarah died). In verse 19 the sea merchants throw dust on their heads, another common sign of mourning.
Is it possible Revelation 18 describes the great prostitute as “burned alive”? Babylon is descried several times as tortured and the reaction of the kings and merchants is terror at her torture (18:15). The great prostitute of Babylon is now described as a corpse, consumed by a funeral pyre, and her partners in adultery stand at a distance, horrified by her shocking death.
Fiery judgment is standard prophetic language in the OT, for example, Jeremiah 34:21 anticipates the burning of Jerusalem; Isaiah 34:10 describes a fire that will never be quenched. Other apocalyptic literature anticipates the fiery end of the city of Rome (Sib. Or. 2.15-19; 3.52-54; 5.158-161).
Sib. Or. 2.15–19 Then indeed the tenth generation of men will also appear after these things, when the earth-shaking lightning-giver will break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled Rome. Great wealth will perish, burned in a great fire by the flame of Hephaestus.
Sib. Or. 3.52–54 Three will destroy Rome with piteous fate. All men will perish in their own dwellings when the fiery cataract flows from heaven.
Sib. Or. 5.158–161 …a great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished.
It is possible the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the background here, although it may be the case Genesis 18 is the prototype for all fiery judgments in the Old Testament and literature of the Second Temple period. In Genesis18:28 Abraham observes the dense smoke of the fiery destruction of the two cities “like smoke from a furnace.” Although there is no reference in Genesis to Abraham mourning over the destruction of the cities, he did intercede on their behalf earlier in the story.
All three categories, kings, merchants and sea farers “stand far off” (v. 10, 15, 17). The kings and merchants are “in fear of her torment (βασανισμός).” This specific word was used in Revelation 9:5b (the locust tormented people for five months) and several times in Revelation 18.
The merchants of the earth mourn because of the loss of income (18:10-13). The merchants have become wealthy from their economic relationship with Babylon/Rome. For John, this is sharing in the wages of the prostitute. In verse 15 the merchants are terrified by the prostitute’s torture, here their mourning is motivated by their loss of income. When Babylon/Rome falls, there is no one left to buy their cargo.
This list of trade goods is limited to luxury items, some of which come from as far away as Arabia (frankincense), Egypt (fine flour). East Africa (cinnamon) and India (ivory; spices). This cargo list may allude to Ezekiel 27:12-25. This is a taunt-song against the king of Tyre. That chapter describes the far-flung trade of Tyre and the dreadful end of their trading empire. Like Babylon in Isaiah 14, the prince of Tyre is described in Ezekiel 28 as utterly arrogant, thinking of himself as god because of his widespread trade.
Based on the letters to the seven churches, it appears that some early Christians in Asia Minor adapted themselves to the imperial cult or to participation in banquets at local temples. Revelation compares any compromise with the imperial cult with being intoxicated and committing adultery with the mother of all prostitutes. Some early Christian readers of Revelation separated the economic prosperity they enjoyed as a result of Rome’s widespread trade from participation in the imperial cult. But here in Revelation 17-18, everyone who thrived from Rome’s economic power will weep and mourn in the empire is finally judged.