Lex Talionis is a fancy way of saying ‘an eye for an eye’, or ‘what
goes around comes around.’ There’s loads of that here in 16.1-9. For
example, those who took the mark of the beast are now inflicted with
painful sores—what began as a mark of fealty to the dragon has now
become the proof that such fealty brings only death. It would be the
cultural equivalent of everyone who loves Nike or Apple suddenly
becoming inflicted with skin cancer in the shape of a swoosh or a
bitten-macintosh. Then there’s the sea of coagulated blood. That’s
another kind of comeuppance. All those who spilled the blood of the
prophets are now required to swim in a sea of rot. It’s almost like the
angels are saying. ‘You want blood? Here’s plenty. Go ahead and choke on
NT Wright refers to judgment of this sort as ‘evil collapsing under
its own weight.’ I love that phrase. It’s so fitting. On a geo-political
scale we remember the fall of Communism, the end of the Third Reich,
and the dissolution of Apartheid as regimes that collapsed under their
Communism failed to deliver even a modicum of the equality
it promised, providing instead an even greater disparity between the
government and the people. Fascism proved so obscenely inhumane that
even those in political support of streamlined governmental systems
could no longer ignore the moral implications of finding ‘final
solutions’ for socioeconomic problems. It was the church in South Africa
that spoke up loudest, albeit latest, against the evils of Apartheid,
finally removing the barriers of self-righteous justification for a
beastly division of people based upon pigment and gentility.
But it’s not just geo-political evil that collapses under its own
weight. Interpersonal evil, sexual sin, dishonest business practices and
a host of other sins ultimately carry within the sin itself the seeds
of destruction. I counseled a friend who was involved in an
extra-marital affair to stop (though I admit, I said it a little more
harshly). I told him that that kind of behavior would cost him his
marriage, his family, his community standing, and possibly his
friendship with me. He didn’t take my advice, and he lost more than I’d
foreseen at great personal cost. The only thing he didn’t lose was my
friendship, and that was pale comfort given the scale of his calamity.
Judgment is less about God’s punishment and more about the natural
consequences of deviation from God’s design for human flourishing.
What goes around comes around.
You’ll get yours and, if you’re not careful, you just might choke on it.
Of course the point of John’s vision—and of our writing here—is to
help contextualize judgment as a call for repentance. Every judgment is
designed with an escape route; every sentence passed from the throne of
God is avoidable. The question is: will we ever take God’s judgments
seriously before we have to?