Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
From Genesis to Revelation
History is full of examples of the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). The Titanic was declared indestructible by its proud makers, but it sank on its maiden voyage. The word “Babylon” occurs in about 270 verses of the Bible, where it is associated with humanism, materialism, pride and wealth. But we will see that this atheistic way of life is doomed to destruction.
Is “Babel” the same as “Babylon”?
The Hebrew word that’s translated “Babylon” (Babel, Strongs #894) can also be translated “Babel”. The reason for this is that the written Hebrew text only uses consonants and not vowels. The word “Babel” means confusion, because that’s where God caused different languages to arise and cause confusion between the different groups of people (Gen. 11:9). It’s not a Hebrew word, but is a word from one of the Semitic languages of the Shinar region. “Babel” was most likely what the place of the Tower was called by the Semitic people who lived in Shinar at the time of the final editing of the Old Testament (about 450 BC). The Greek name “Babylon” comes from the Assyrian word Bab-ilani, which means “gate of the gods”. The first occurrence of this Hebrew word (Babel, Strongs #894) in the Bible is in Genesis 10:10 where a city in the kingdom of Nimrod (Noah’s great-grandson) is said to be: “Babel” (ESV, NET) or “Babylon” (HCSB, NIV, NLT). And the NET says “or Babylon”, and the Septuagint (written about 3rd to 1st century BC) says “Babylon”. So the ESV is the only one of these five modern translations that doesn’t specifically equate Babel with Babylon. So the consensus is that the words Babel and Babylon refer to the same geographic location.
Nimrod was a mighty warrior and a great hunter. Babel (Babylon) was one of the cities in his kingdom and he built the city of Nineveh, which became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nimrod rebelled against God and the tower of Babel was probably one of his projects. His personal emblems were the dragon and the snake. “Ancient gods and their associated legends arose from the deification of dead human heroes” (Merrill, 2005). This happened to Nimrod and his wife Semiramis.
After the flood, God told Noah’s descendants to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1NIV). But they embarked on a project to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves (a reputation that would be honoured after death) and thereby avoid being “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11:4). The tower was to keep people together, so they wouldn’t spread out across the earth. Maybe it was to be a place to sacrifice to God. In fact, ziggurats and pyramids have been used all over the world for religious events. It seems as though this disobedience against God’s command to fill the earth may have occurred at Babylon (Babel). However, God responded by confusing their languages, which resulted in them being scattered “over all the earth” after all (Gen. 11:9).
So, in about 2200 BC, Nimrod and the people of Babel (Babylon) rebelled against God. They were anti-God. God’s plan was that people spread out across the earth and form nations (Gen. 10 – The table of nations), whereas they congregated in the same area, glorified humanity, and took pride in their achievements.
A powerful and wicked nation
The ancient city of Babylon was located on the Euphrates river, about 80km (50 miles) south of the modern city of Baghdad (in Iraq). Abraham travelled through it on his way from Ur to Haran and then Palestine (Gen. 11:31). About 1,500 years later this city became the head of the Babylonian Empire.
After conquering Assyria in 612 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC (2 Ki. 24:7). The Babylon Empire ruled the Middle East for about 70 years (612 – 539 BC).
Babylon was a great city with an area of about 200 square miles (513 square km). It was protected by a double brick wall with towers and a moat (Jer. 51:53, 58). Access was via eight gates, the best known being the Ishtar Gate with images of dragons and bulls. There were many temples to gods and goddesses, including Marduk (also called Bel, Jer. 50:2). The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Babylon was likened to a queen and a jewel (Isa. 13:19; 47:5). It was a city of merchants and traders, and manufacture of clothing (Josh. 7:21; Ezek. 17:4). King Nebuchadnezzar called it “The great Babylon” and he was proud of his achievements (Dan. 4:30). Babylon was wealthy (Jer. 50:37; 51:13) and had great military and naval power (Isa. 43:14; Jer. 5:16; 50:23). The Babylonians thought they were invincible.
But the Babylonians were cruel and arrogant (Isa. 14:13-14, 17; 47:6-10; Jer. 50:31-32; 51:25; Hab. 1:6-7). They trusted in sorcery and astrology (Isa. 47:9, 12-13; Dan.2:1-2) and followed idols (Jer. 50:38; Dan. 34:18). Jeremiah said that “it is a land of idols” (Jer. 50:38). Babylonians were also irreverent and wicked (Isa. 47:10; Dan. 5:1-3) and oppressive (Isa. 14:4).
Babylon and Judah
God made a covenant with the nation of Israel (Ex. 24:1-8). The conditions of the covenant were given in the law of Moses and they were summarized in the Ten Commandments. There were rewards for keeping the covenant and punishments for disobedience (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). The punishments included being invaded, taken captive and being scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:27-35; Dt. 28:36-37, 47-57). Once Israel accepted the covenant, they were bound to the promises made to God.
Unfortunately, the message of the prophets and the history of Israel show that Israel did not keep the demands of the covenant. They broke the covenant and worship idols like Baal by offering sacrifices to them, and trusting them for fertility, healing and deliverance from enemies (Jer. 19:4-5). Because they were unfaithful to God, God divorced the kingdom of Israel and allowed them to be invaded by Assyria (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:1-13). But Judah took no notice of this and continued to be unfaithful! God said that they were guilty of spiritual adultery. They were like an unfaithful wife (Jer. 3:20; 9:2; Ezek. 6:9) and like a prostitute (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1-5; Ezek. 16:15-34). The prophets used these metaphors repeatedly. And because Judah continued to be unfaithful to God (like an adulterer or prostitute), God’s judgement was that they would be destroyed by the nations they idolised (Ezek. 16:35-43).
When Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon sent envoys to king Hezekiah of Judah (who ruled 715 – 686 BC), they were shown the kingdom’s wealth. After Isaiah questioned Hezekiah, he prophesied that all of Judah’s wealth “will be carried off to Babylon” and some of the people would be deported as well (2 Ki. 20:12-18; 2 Chron. 32:31; Is. 39:1-4). This prophecy happened over 100 years before the Babylonian exile and before the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians.
Because Judah was a “rebellious people”, the prophets predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Isa. 22:1-25; Jer. 21:3-14; Ezek. 12:1-3). Ezekiel said, “Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25:8-11).
Fall of Jerusalem
King Nebuchnezzar lead three campaigns against Judah: 605 BC, 580 BC and 586 BC. In the final campaign he conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and deported part of its population to Babylonia (2 Ki. 24:1 – 25:21; 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Ezra 5:2; Jer. 39:1-10; 52:12-30). So Babylon was God’s instrument to punish Judah (Ezek. 21:1-27).
Psalm 137 records the feelings of a Jew who was captive in Babylon. The first three verses say:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem).
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
They missed their homeland and didn’t want to sing Jewish songs to their captors. Daniel was deported in 605 BC and he tells us what it was like living in Babylon in his book of the Old Testament (Dan. Ch. 1-6).
Even the remnant of Jews who escaped to Egypt would be largely destroyed because they burnt incense to “the Queen of Heaven”, who was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (derived from Semirami, the wife of Nimrod).
End of empire
Although Babylon was God’s agent for the punishment of Judah, the Old Testament prophets predicted that God would also punish Babylon (Isa. 13-14; 21:1-10; 47; Jer. 25:12-14; 50-51). Babylon was to receive what she had done to others (Jer. 50:15, 29; 51:24,35,49). They said that it would become uninhabited (Isa. 13:19-22) and a heap of ruins (Jer. 51:37). Babylon’s judgement was inevitable (Isa. 47:1-15).
“Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19).
“Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals (dragons, dinosaurs) an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives” (Jer. 51:37).
Fall of Babylon
In 539 BC, Babylon surrendered without a battle to Cyrus king of the Persians. This enabled groups of Jews to return to help restore the city of Jerusalem in 538 BC (Zerubbabel), 458 BC (Ezra) and 444 BC (Nehemiah). Their efforts are described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Babylon fell into disrepair after the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC and after this it declined in importance and it is now only a mound of rubble (a tell). The kingdoms that followed Babylon were the Medes and Persians, the Greek, and the Roman. Like the Babylonian Empire, these were all anti-God (they had different gods).
After Jesus was born, Magi (Magos; Strongs #3097) came from the east to worship Him (Mt. 2:1, 7, 16). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, a magus is the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, prophets, sorcerers etc. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the Magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians who lived to the east of Palestine. The magi were skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words “magic” and “magician” are derived.
The magi were a powerful group of advisors in the Babylonian empire. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; which none of the other court seers was able to do; Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (Dan. 2:48).
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, the magi would have learned much from that prophet about the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times. So the Magi who visited Jesus probably travelled from somewhere near Babylon (in their day Parthia) and followed a similar route to Palestine as Abraham did many years before.
Symbol of Rome?
“Babylon” is also mentioned in the New Testament. Peter’s greetings at the end of his first letter include: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Pt. 5:13). “She” could refer to an individual woman or to a church with whom Peter is staying. According to the NET, “Most scholars understand Babylon here to be a figurative reference to Rome. Although in the Old Testament the city of Babylon in Mesopotamia was the seat of tremendous power (2 Ki. 24-25; Isa. 39; Jer. 25), by the time of the New Testament what was left was an insignificant town, and there is no tradition in Christian history that Peter ever visited there. On the other hand, Christian tradition connects Peter with the church in Rome, and many interpreters think other references to Babylon in Revelation refer to Rome as well (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). Thus it is likely Peter was referring to Rome here”. Also, Peter was in Rome in the final years of his life.
Peter may have used “Babylon” as a symbol for the city of Rome in order to protect the Christians in Asia Minor from prosecution. Nero was the Roman Emperor when this letter was written in about AD 62. It’s interesting to note that John Mark was in Rome with Paul in about AD 60 (Col. 4:10), which is consistent with him being in Rome with Peter when this letter was written. So it seems that in this instance Peter probably used a metaphor to describe Rome as being like Babylon.
Just as ancient Babylon had oppressed the Jewish exiles, the Roman Empire was persecuting the Christians that lived in Rome. It also invaded Jerusalem in AD 70, burned the temple and dispersed the Jews from their homeland. So there are similarities between Babylon and the Roman Empire.
What about the references to “Babylon” written in about AD 95 in Revelation (14:8, 16:19; 17:5; 18:1, 2, 10, 21)? According to the Futuristic interpretation of Revelation, its structure is outlined in 1:19. “What will take place later” (after AD 95 and still future) is given in 4:1 – 22:5. This includes aspects of the tribulation (Rev. 6:1-18:24) between the rapture (when all Christians are taken to heaven) and the second coming of Christ (after which Christ rules on earth for 1,000 years). The events of the tribulation are designed to bring Israel back to God.
“Babylon” in Revelation
Babylon is mentioned in the judgement associated with the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-21). The context is the second coming of Christ at the end of the great tribulation. It doesn’t relate to the true church because all believers are taken to be with the Lord at the rapture. The fall of Babylon is also mentioned in Revelation 14:8 and more details are given in chapters 17-18. Chapter 17 is the religious fall of Babylon and chapter 18 the political fall of Babylon. Babylon stands for a global system of religion in chapter 17 and a global system of government and commerce in chapter 18.
Revelation 17-18 is apocalyptic literature. Ancient apocalyptic writings were filled with visions that revealed hidden truths in figurative language for the purpose of assuring persecuted people of the goodness of God’s ways. For example, Ezekiel 37-39 and Daniel 7-12 were messages to the Jews who were devastated after their defeat and exile by the Babylonians.
“Babylon” is symbolised as a prostitute riding upon a scarlet beast. Her name is “Babylon the great – the mother of prostitutes – and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5-6). She also commits spiritual adultery (Rev. 14:8). In the old Testament, “prostitution” and “adultery” were used symbolically to describe God’s people when they followed the idols of other nations instead of following the true God (Ezek. 16:26-32; 23:1-48). So Babylon the great is a spiritual adulterer and a prostitute; an apostate religion. Grant Richison calls her a “worldwide ecumenical religion”, a super-religion.
This apostate religion will be attractive and wealthy and comprised of unbelievers. It will blend different belief systems together. And she will cause the death of martyrs who will preach the gospel of the kingdom of God in the tribulation period (Rev. 11:1-10; 17:6; 18:24).
The woman rides a beast with seven heads that represent “seven hills on which the woman sits” (Rev. 17:7, 9). Some think that this refers to Rome, which has seven hills. But this passage is not dealing with a literal city or mountains but with kings (Rev. 17:10, 12).
The fall of Babylon is predicted as being God’s judgment. The global systems of religion, government and commerce think they are invincible. But they will receive what they have done to others (Rev. 18:5-6, 20). This is a principle that God uses in “the day of the Lord” (Obad. 1:15). Babylon is also guilty of pride, idolatry, and demon possession (Rev. 18:2, 7). And it’s clear that the global systems of religion, government and commerce are based on materialism and humanism.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Babylon stretches from about 4,200 years ago to the coming tribulation between the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Babylon is opposite to Zion. Babylon was a wicked place (where people rebelled against God), while Zion was a holy place (where God lived).
It reminds us that:
– God kept His promises to Israel. The law said that if they disobeyed God and followed idols, they would be expelled from Palestine (Dt. 4:25-28; 28:62-65; 30:1-3). And that’s what happened. Likewise, God will keep His promises given to us in the New Testament.
– God is sovereign over all the events in human history. He is powerful (source of different languages and different nations; and caused the rise and fall of nations). And He uses who He wills to achieve His purposes. He used a pagan nation to punish Judah.
– God judged the wickedness of Babylon. Likewise, in the future God will judge all evil and wickedness.
– Apostate religion is doomed. God wants us to separate from apostate religion.
– Materialism and humanism is doomed. God wants us to separate from materialism and humanism.
Steven Merrill (2005) “Nimrod. Darkness in the cradle of civilization”. Diakonoa Publishing. Greenboro, North Carolina, USA.
Grant Richison. Commentary on the book of Revelation.
Written, February 2017