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 not 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 it.’
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 own weight. 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 rout, 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?