What ‘Babylon’ stands for in Scripture

20 May 2021 1:03 PM | Josh Hunt (Administrator)

She is a city whose name resounds throughout Scripture. In fact, out of the sixty-six books in the Bible, Babylon is mentioned in no less than twenty of them—plus one more, Lamentations, which is all about what Babylon does but somehow manages not to mention her name. Babylon runs like a thread through the entire biblical narrative; she is found in every major division of the Bible and she loomed large all through Israel’s story. Almost from the very beginning, she has been present as the beating heart of godless rebellion. The first mention of her is in Genesis 10:10, but her story really begins in Genesis 11 with the Tower of Babel (Babylon). The scheme of humanity is to build a tower that will reach up to heaven and be on a level with the gods, in the hope of making a name for themselves that will stand for ever. God looks down; he sees the terrible potential of godless mankind, and he passes judgement. The languages are divided and the people are scattered, and the half-built tower remains as their memorial.

After that not much is heard of Babylon for quite a while. But then during the monarchy Babylon emerges again, first as a distant threat and then as an imminent menace. In Judah, King Hezekiah hears of the new power that is rising in the east. Foolishly, he entertains visitors from there and shows them round, and Isaiah tells him that the time is coming when all the wealth of Jerusalem will be carried off to Babylon, along with his own descendants, and God’s people will be exiled. And so it happens. They are led off across the desert and marched in through the great Ishtar Gate, which is covered with pictures of Babylon’s gods, into the city that is dominated by the temple of Marduk, the city whose very name recalls the first time when it shook its fist in the face of God.

There in exile, God’s people have to learn what it means to live for him in Babylon. A man named Daniel leads the way and shows that it is possible to serve God within the godless city, to rise to become a leader in Babylon while retaining his integrity.1 It is Daniel who is there when God declares his judgement on the city at King Belshazzar’s feast, where a mysterious hand appears, writing on the wall words that spell Babylon’s doom. Daniel has the doubtful privilege of telling the king what the words mean. That very night, in one hour, the doom has arrived.

Back in Judah, even before the exile, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah are proclaiming that the godless city will be judged. You can read what they say in Isaiah 21:9 and Jeremiah 51:6–9. The words should sound familiar if you have read Revelation 18. These are prophecies of Babylon’s destruction, written at a time when the city is still alive and well. There are countless other references in the prophets to Babylon’s overthrow, and many of them, like these two, are echoed powerfully in Revelation 18. Jeremiah calls for a great escape, and in the end the escape comes. A remnant returns from exile and the nation is rebuilt.

But the restored Jewish nation retains such a powerful sense of what Babylon means that when Peter writes his first letter, 600 years later, he can write, ‘She who is in Babylon … sends you her greetings’ (1 Peter 5:13), without any need to explain that he is referring to the church in Rome, the Babylon of his own day. The heart of godless rebellion has shifted from the city that stood on the River Euphrates to the one that stands on the Tiber, where the evil emperors Nero and Domitian have their throne.

This city in Revelation 18 is not the literal, earthly city of Babylon. That should be obvious. How could it be, when the earthly city had long been destroyed and all that was left was ruins and a poor village? That literal Babylon had stood hundreds of miles inland, so it would have been tricky, to say the least, for the ships and the sailors we read about here to trade directly with her! Nor is this Babylon just a code-word for Rome, as some have suggested—that doesn’t fit either. Yes, the Rome of John’s day is here, and so is the Babylon that Daniel knew. And she is also Sodom and Egypt, as chapter 11 told us. And in a sense she is also twenty-first century London or New York, for this Babylon is no one earthly city. She is every city and town that has stood in rebellion against our God. She is the real Babylon, of which the one whose ruins you can see today near Baghdad was no more than a pale copy. She is the Babylon who sits on the back of the beast, the realm of Satan. She is the world we have to live in.

This chapter is where her long story is finally brought to a conclusion. In this chapter we hear from three angels. The first one declares Babylon’s doom (18:1–3). The second one describes the reactions to her downfall (18:4–20). The third gives us a dramatic demonstration of what her fall will mean (18:21–24).

Steve Wilmshurst, The Final Word: The Book of Revelation Simply Explained, Welwyn Commentary Series (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2008), 219–222.

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