The merchants of the earth were made rich by doing business with Jerusalem. About a week before he was crucified, Jesus drew an analogy of the Kingdom of God by speaking of tax collectors doing business for their master (Luke 19:11-27). When Jesus delivered his Parable of the Pounds, he had been a guest at Zacchaeus’ home in Jericho (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and I believe Jesus’ parable was modeled after Zacchaeus’ business of collecting taxes, fees, exchanging currency and loaning money. It was something the people could readily see and understand. This was important, if they were to understand Jesus’ point about his Kingdom.
Zacchaeus would have had to travel to Rome (the far country in the parable) in order to formally receive the local territory he acquired through bidding. He would have governed that land and collected taxes from its inhabitants for Rome. Being the chief tax collector, he would have had several publicans (tax collectors) working for him. They would have been stationed at Jericho’s city gates, and at ferry crossings at the Jordan River, and the like, i.e. at places where the public and the traveler couldn’t easily avoid them. They would collect taxes, rite of passage fees, make currency exchanges for travelers wanting to do business in Judea and the reverse for those leaving Judea for the east. He also offered business and private loans as part of his service. This made people like Zacchaeus very rich, and Jesus’ “Occupy until I come” meant his servants were to put Jesus’ money to good use and for his benefit to be received by him at his return.
In the context of Revelation 18:11-15, the merchants of the earth did the business of Jerusalem in Judea and Galilee, as well as in the Diaspora. What business was that? For one thing it was collecting the Temple tax (cp. Matthew 17:24). This tax was paid by every Jew in the world. All males in the Diaspora, 20 years and above had to pay this annual tax, if he was to remain a Jew in good standing. It was collected by Jerusalem’s agents, both local and abroad, and brought to the Temple every year. Moreover, Jerusalem’s agents would challenge any new doctrine that might be perceived as opposing Jerusalem’s worldview (cp. Mark 3:22; 7:1-5; 11:27-28), concerning which so much profit could be derived by its leaders (see also Acts 13:44-45, 50; 14:4-5, 19-20; 17:5-9). These, who had the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:17), i.e. shared in Jerusalem’s worldview, challenged Jesus’ disciples in an effort to prevent them from doing the business of the Kingdom of God in competition with the business of the great harlot (Jerusalem). Only those agents (religious leaders, rabbis, evangelists, prophets etc.) who were approved by Jerusalem could make their living off the Lord’s people.
With the Temple destroyed, however, the merchants of the earth lost their living. Those who did the business of the Temple lived off the Temple, so with the means of their living gone, they mourned, saying of Jerusalem’s destruction: “Alas, alas, that great city… is come to nought” (Revelation 18:15-19).
I take the ships to be synagogues around the world, and the shipmaster would be the rulers of the synagogues, and the sailors would be the people, or those by whose means kept the ship afloat (Revelation 18:17). Proverbs 31 speaks about the virtuous woman, who may be the literal wife of a husband, or she may be the congregation of a pastoral leader (see Ephesians 5:22-25, 32). In fact, Proverbs 31:14 describes her as a merchant’s ship that brings her goods from afar. If we are going to understand the pictures we see in the Apocalypse, we must consider the mysteries to be metaphors of something spiritual. They are not literally true. They represent something in mystery (cp. Revelation 17:5). In other words the physical is a metaphor for something in the heavenly realm. Speaking to Timothy about believers who had abandoned their faith, Paul described them as having made shipwreck (1Timothy 1:19). In this context, then we need to understand Revelation 18:17-19. The maritime phrases are metaphors for the groups of Jews who gathered themselves together in areas around the world in the name of the God of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Therefore, when these folks saw (or perceived from afar; e.g. the Diaspora, Galilee, etc.) the destruction (the smoke) of Jerusalem, they mourned, saying: “What city is like unto this great city! Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea…” (Revelation 18:18-19). In one hour, in such a short time Jerusalem was completely destroyed, and Judaism, as everyone knew it at that time, ended. Judaism without a Temple had to be redefined later, some conclude in Jamnia, a city near the Mediterranean, just east of Jerusalem!