For the third time in John’s visions, a mighty angel comes on the scene. The other angels so designated (5:2; 10:1) had something to do with a “scroll” or “little scroll” of destiny. The message of the scroll for John had been, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings” (10:11). Now John has done this, and Babylon’s destiny is revealed. Again there is a mighty angel, but the angel plays a somewhat different role. Before, the contrast between the immensity of the angel and the smallness of the little scroll was almost comic. This angel carries a prop more suitable to his size and strength, a boulder the size of a large millstone (v. 21). He throws it into the sea, recalling Jeremiah’s instructions to Seraiah the quartermaster regarding Babylon:
Jeremiah had written on a scroll about all the disasters that would come upon Babylon–all that had been recorded concerning Babylon. He said to Seraiah, “When you get to Babylon, see that you read all these words aloud. . . . When you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it and throw it into the Euphrates. Then say, `So will Babylon sink to rise no more, because of the disaster I will bring upon her. And her people will fall.'” (Jer 51:60-61, 63-64)
The curse on Babylon in Jeremiah’s day is echoed in the words of the mighty angel: With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again (v. 21). The parallel is striking because Jeremiah had written of Babylon’s judgment on a scroll, and a scroll was used to introduce all the judgments in the book of Revelation. Yet Jeremiah’s stone was not like a millstone; it did not take a mighty angel to lift it, and it was thrown into the Euphrates, not the sea. Here the angel takes on the role of prophet and, like the ancient prophets of Israel, prophesies by actions as well as words. It is a new prophetic action, however, not just a reminder of Jeremiah and Seraiah in the time of the exile.
The image of the millstone has yet another source, closer to John’s time than the prophecies of Jeremiah. Jesus said to his disciples that if anyone “shall offend” (KJV) or “put a stumbling block” (NRSV) before one of Jesus’ “little ones,” it would be better for that person “to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck” (Mk 9:42). Rome has not exactly “put a stumbling block” before Jesus’ disciples or “caused them to sin” (see Mk 9:42 NIV). She has deceived the rest of the world instead. But to them she has done something far worse, for in her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth (v. 24). The prostitute in John’s vision was guilty of many crimes and boundless self-indulgence, but what condemns her above all is that she “was drunk with the blood of the saints” and “those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). Because she offended the “little ones” who belong to Jesus, she is thrown into the sea, to sink like a stone and never be seen again.
Like the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem that could say only the one sad word, “nevermore,” the mighty angel echoes and reechoes (six times in all) the grim refrain that the great city Babylon will disappear, never to be found again (Greek ou me . . . eti). The music of harps and flutes and trumpets will never be heard in you again; no skilled crafts will ever be found in you again; industry, represented by the millstone itself, will never be heard in you again; even lamplight will never shine in you again, and the happy voices of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again (vv. 21-23). With this, the mighty angel reinforces and drives home the earlier lament of the merchants of the earth to Babylon that “all your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered” (v. 14).
Finally the angel speaks of these merchants explicitly, calling them your merchants andthe world’s great men, and implicitly linking them to Rome’s magic spell (Greekpharmakeia) by which all the nations were led astray (v. 23). This mention of magic, or sorcery (compare 9:21, 21:8, 22:15), recalls ancient prophetic denunciations of Babylon (Is 47:9) and Nineveh (Nahum 3:4), the latter linked explicitly to the deception of nations (“the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft”). Magic here, like drunkenness elsewhere (14:8; 17:2; 18:3), is simply an image for the notion that Rome has deceived and corrupted the nations of the world.
Here as throughout the latter half of the book, John is answering the question of the psalmist, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” (Ps 2:1). Rome’s crimes are, first, that she has deceived the nations that trade with her (v. 23) and, second, that she has killed Christian prophets and saints (v. 24). These were also the twin crimes of the dragon (12:9-10, 17) and the beast (13:3, 6-7, 12-15), but to John the more serious of the two is the second. Babylon falls like a millstone into the sea because she has shed the blood of God’s people, and (almost as an afterthought) of all who have been killed on the earth (v. 24). The effect of verses 21-24 is to reinforce the conclusion that God has judged her for the way she treated you (v. 20).