Smoke rising - a picture of destruction

"But the wicked will perish: Though the LORD's enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke." 
                                                                        - Psalm 37:20
Revelation gets much of its imagery and language about the Great Harlot from Jeremiah. There is a thread of commonality through Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Babylon, Edom and Assyria in the OT and the destruction of The Great City (Babylon the Great or the Great Harlot) in Revelation.

The main point I would like to stress is that rising smoke is a symbol for the destruction that occurred. The phrase “her smoke rises forever” simply means the destruction is permanent (you could say eternal).

Concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: “He [Abraham] looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.” (v. 28)

Sodom serves as an example of complete destruction: “The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur – nothing planted, nothing sprouting... it will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah...which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger.” (Deut. 29:23)

Sodom as the example of the destruction of Babylon: “Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.” (Is. 13:19)

“As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah...” declares the LORD, “so no one will live there; no man will dwell in it [Edom].” (Jer. 49:18)

“As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah...” declares the LORD, “so no one will live there; no man will dwell in it [this time Babylon].” (Jer. 50:40)

“At the sound of Babylon's capture the earth will tremble; its cry will resound among the nations.” (Jer. 50:46) – this is exactly the description of the fall of 'Babylon' in Revelation 18.

“Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins! It is time for the LORD's vengeance; He will pay her what she deserves.” Jer. 51:6 – this is clearly a foreshadow of the great judgment and wrath of God that will be poured out in the end of days. (See Rev. 18:4)

Babylon the great city; the Great Harlot – but not a person! A personified city or system of the world. “In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth.” (Rev. 18:24)

In Revelation 17, John recounts that one of the angels who had the seven bowls said, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot...and on her forehead was written, a mystery, “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.”

I think that pretty much sums up all the evil in the world – a system personified by this 'Great Harlot'. She is sitting on this 'beast' which is described in Revelation 17 as well. In the end, however, “the ten horns...and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose...”

“The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.” - Rev. 17:18 (Read about historical Babylon for insight into her judgment in Isaiah 47. “Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame.” v. 14)

Rev. 18 - “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird." (For the historical background for this description, see Is. 34:9-17)

"For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.

'Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any for her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remember her crimes. (see Jer. 51:45, Isaiah 48:20, and Rev. 18:4)

Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup.

Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she have herself... in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: “Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power!”

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls....and bodies and souls of men.”

“All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.... terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out: “Woe! Woe, O great city,...In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!”

“When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, “Was there ever a city like this great city?”

What is God's purpose concerning 'Babylon'? “God has judged her... Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder...and threw it into the sea, and said, 'With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” (Rev. 18:20-21)

Then, continuing in Rev. 19, we see celebration over this judgment in heaven, “Hallelujah! ...for true and just are His judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute... Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever. (1-3) We just saw how she had been burned up, 'never to be found again', so this smoke symbolizes her complete destruction.

So, if the smoke of her rises up forever, does this mean 'she' is still in existence, being tormented with fire – forever? If we make a parallel to what our doctrine teaches about 'people in hell' where they will be tormented forever and their smoke rises, then we would conclude 'yes'. But, obviously, as we look at the whole of Scripture, we know with certainty that the great harlot is destroyed and will 'never be found again'. The smoke rising is a symbol of her complete and permanent destruction (remember the image of smoke rising after the destruction of Sodom).

Also, her 'torment' is not a physical, personal torment because she is not actually a person, but a city – or a system – that will suffer a complete overthrow by God Himself.

Another nation that is completely destroyed by God is Edom. This earthly judgment also foreshadows final judgment. Notice the smoke rising 'forever' as a symbol of its permanent destruction:

“Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! [Sounds like Sodom's fate, doesn't it?] It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.” Is. 34:10

Do you think that Edom's smoke rising will literally continue 'forever' on the earth? No, we know with certainty that there will be a new heaven and new earth. (For an insight into the Hebrew language that we translate 'forever' please see “Letter to a friend: Eternity check”). We see the same language used in the verse below:

“And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” - Rev. 14:11

This verse is automatically turned into eternal conscious torment to fit the traditional hell doctrine. However, if we consider the root of the images that John is using, the meaning comes to light. Notice the repeating phrases, “day or night” and “smoke... will rise forever” - this is borrowed language from the OT so we can understand what is happening in these judgments. Namely, destruction.

We have seen what the wrath of God looks like concerning the great harlot, her torment, and the smoke rising. So, in the light of those realities, we can better understand that those who worship the beast and take the mark “will also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger... and...will be tormented with fire and brimstone... in the presence of the Lamb.

Since we know that ultimately those who do not inherit eternal life will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord (2 Thess. 1:9) this cannot be a picture of hell where the condemned spend eternity.

These opposing verses simply cannot both be true. If you understand the whole teaching of Scripture, where God will destroy His enemies, then the confusing and apparent contradictions disappear.

To clarify further, let's return to Isaiah 34 and read more about the future judgment of all nations (“For the LORD has a day of vengeance” v. 8):

“Come near, you nations, and listen;
pay attention, you peoples!
Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
the world, and all that comes out of it!
The LORD is angry with all nations;
His wrath is upon all their armies.
He will totally destroy* them,
He will give them over to slaughter.” (1-2)

* The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them; also in verse 5: “My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed.”

Edom (or Esau), estranged brother of Israel, represents the godless (Heb.12:16). Throughout Isaiah, there are descriptions of judgment on God's foes, and blessings to His people. For the purpose of this study, I am highlighting verses that demonstrate specifically how God executes Judgment – in the past as well as what He will do in the future. However, there are too many to list so it is always a wise choice to go and read the context for yourself.

As you continue reading in Isaiah 34, there is death, destruction and desolation (“its smoke will rise forever” v. 10). Verse 3 is graphic: “Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.” This verse mirrors the very last verse in Isaiah, often quoted – most notably quoted by Jesus – but often misused by traditionalists to support eternal torment.

And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against Me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Is. 66:24) Notice that these are dead bodies. They are the enemies that God has slain and 'thrown out'. The worm is known for devouring dead flesh and the fires burn up refuse. The worm will not die as it consumes the dead bodies; likewise no one can put out the fire that burns up and destroys. It is a loathsome sight – disgusting to see, but a testament to what happens to those who rebelled.

Let's back up and examine some verses that will shed light on that final verse, Isaiah 66:24.

Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever...” (Is. 51:7-8)

My servants will sing out of the joy of their hearts, but you will cry out from anguish of heart and wail in brokenness of spirit... the Sovereign LORD will put you to death.” (Is, 65:14-15)

...the hand of the LORD will be made known to His servants, but His fury will be shown to His foes. See, the LORD is coming with fire... For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD.” (Is. 65:14-16)

With this Scriptural foundation, we can read Jesus' words in the gospel of Mark and not be confused by His teaching: “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. For everyone will be salted with fire.” (9:47-49)

God will execute His final judgment on his enemies by casting them into the lake of fire (Jesus called it Gehenna) where they will suffer eternal destruction. As Jesus states in Matt. 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

And, to come full circle, this complete and permanent destruction is represented in Revelation by smoke rising.

To recap:

First, we see Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed: “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven.” (Gen. 19:24) and the smoke rising afterwards (Gen. 19:28). This judgment is used as an example of 'eternal fire' in Jude 1:7 - “...Sodom and Gomorrah...serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”

Again: “He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter.” 2 Peter 2:6 (See also 2 Peter 3:7).

And again: “It was the same as happened in the days of Lot... it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17:28-30)

Isaiah's account of judgment on Edom (the people 'devoted to destruction') says, “It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever.... it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever.” (34:10) Keep in mind this is an earthly judgment. If you study the word that we translate 'forever', it becomes apparent that our English words fall short of the original meaning. Basically, the Hebrew word means “the end time is hidden” or you could say “it will last as long as it will”. (For a more thorough study on this, see “Letter to a friend: Eternity check”.) In any case, the earthly situation we understand does not last literally for ever, but a very long time.

Concerning God's enemies during tribulation: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image...” Rev. 14:11

Concerning the 'Great Harlot', which is not a person but a system: “And a second time they said, “Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER.” Rev. 19:3 (The caps tell us this verse is taken from the OT, specifically Isaiah 34:10) Also remember, she was described as being tormented, 18:6-7,15. She was 'burned up with fire' (18:8) and the kings of the earth weep and lament to see the 'smoke of her burning' (18:9,18). “So will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer.” (18:21) and yet the saints celebrate her smoke rises up forever. It is clearly an image of complete and utter destruction.

So, if this is all confusing and long-winded, just remember that Babylon, in the book of Revelation, represents all that stands against God (read also Zechariah 5:5-11)...

And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonian's pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” Isaiah 13:19

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1 comment:

  1. Edward Fudge states:

    "The lake of fire and brimstone, or lake that burns with fiery sulfur (NIV) is named for the agent of destruction that rained down from heaven on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving in its wake only rising smoke—clear evidence of a completed wipeout (Gen. 19). It is surely significant that John borrows language from the annihilation of Sodom to name and to describe the site of final punishment. Death and hades are also thrown into the lake (Rev. 20:14).

    Commentators and theologians from all major views of hell are agreed that this refers to the disappearance of death forever and to the everlasting cessation of hades. For these two abstractions, both incapable of sentient suffering, the lake of fire stands for their extinction and annihilation. In these closing chapters of Revelation, the word "torment" itself sometimes means a total destruction and death. The wicked city "Babylon," is pictured as a woman. In Chapter 18, her judgment is "torment and grief," which turns out to be death, mourning, and famine, and she is consumed by fire. It is not unthinkable, therefore, to understand "torment" of the devil, beast and false prophet as death and consumption by fire which is never reversed."


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