In the Old Testament Babylon was a city; in the New Testament Babylon is a spirit.
In the Old Testament the city of Babylon gave birth to an empire that ruled the known world and imposed a worldview upon all of the peoples that she conquered. She could be brutal; she could be proud and she thought she would reign forever.
The story of Babylon is woven throughout the entirety of the Old Testament narrative. She is introduced to us in Genesis as “Babel”, the city were human beings decided to make a name for themselves in defiance of the word of God. Later she becomes the empire that destroys Jerusalem, burns the temple and takes the people of God into exile. She is the beast that almost swallowed the bride; but in the end, she is judged, despoiled and thrown down.
Her destruction is announced in Isaiah 47. In response to her wickedness, arrogance, self-indulgence and brutality towards the people of God the Lord pronounces a message of sudden doom:
But evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, for which you will not be able to atone; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing. (Isaiah 47:11 ESV)
And so it was.
History tells us that the Babylonian Empire fell very suddenly and very unpleasantly to the Persians under Cyrus The Great in 539 BC. Later when Darius was King the Babylonians revolted unsuccessfully and as a consequence they experienced many of the same brutalities they had previously inflicted upon the Jews. The Babylonians themselves strangled many of their wives and children to keep them from starving to death during the siege or being taken as slaves by the Persians. After the city was defeated Herodotus says that the city gates were pulled down and 3000 of the leading citizens were impaled upon the walls. The once great city – the Queen of the world! – was defeated, devastated and despoiled.
Just like God said.
Fast forward 630 years.
The city of Babylon is now little more than a village surrounded by a sea of sand. It is nothing and nowhere but it begins to reappear in the New Testament as a symbol of the world at war with God. The Apostle Peter even uses it as a sort of secret code. He ends his epistle to the churches of Pontus and Bithynia by saying:
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.14 Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ. (1 Peter 5:13–14 ESV)
She who is at Babylon.
Peter was nowhere near Babylon when he wrote that letter.
Peter was in Rome.
Peter used the word “Babylon” as a symbolic way of referring to the new world culture at war with the people of God. Peter was saying: Rome is the new Babylon. Rome is the new mistress who would seduce people away from their worship of God.
The city had become a spirit.
Fast forward to Revelation 17.
In Revelation 17 the reference to Babylon is obviously symbolic. John is carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness where he saw:
“a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” (Revelation 17:3–6 ESV)
If you have been listening to the Into The Word podcast then you have heard me say now several times:
“The Book of Revelation is like an art gallery filled with pictures painted in colours borrowed from Old Testament canvases.”
So it is here!
By reading the Old Testament background we are well positioned to interpret this imagery. The Whore of Babylon is the spirit of seductive culture, actively engaged in the deception and destruction of God’s people. That she rides upon the beast means that she is propped up by the forces of anti-Christian government.
Just like the beast, who was, and is not and is about to rise, the “Whore” keeps on rising from the dead! A particular brand of her seductive charm may fall into the dust and be buried by the sands of time, but just wait! Before you know it, she will rise again in another place, known by another name but waging the same destructive war against God’s people. Once she was named “Babylon”, then she was named “Rome”, but in the future she will be called something else. Like a grotesque parody of the God-head, she was and is and is to come; but she is destined for destruction!
As it was in the past, so shall it be in the future.
While scholars may debate the precise interpretation of a few aspects of this vision, the main points of application seem abundantly clear:
1. Culture is not neutral.
2. The devil attacks God’s people via the front door through governmental persecution.
3. The devil attacks God’s people via the backdoor through seductive, idolatrous culture.
4. No enemy of God’s people will finally stand. The Lord has a day and that day is coming.
Thanks be to God!
By way of postscript, this entire reflection was inspired by the particular arrangement of readings in today’s RMM Bible Reading Plan.
I’ve been reading the full 1 year plan for my own devotions and podcasting on the 2 year plan over at Into The Word. Yesterday in our readings we were studying both Isaiah 47 in the Old Testament and Revelation 17 in the New. In both of our readings we were studying Mistress Babylon! We saw the Old and New Testament canvases side by side in canonical context and it was equal parts encouraging and helpful!
I closed my Bible yesterday further convinced that God is large and in charge. He is Sovereign, he is wise and he is good. He knows the future and he knows our frame. He acted justly and savingly in the past, and he can be trusted to do it again in the future.
Today in our readings we learn more about the fall of Babylon as we work through Revelation 18. If you’d like to follow along you can find the two year RMM Bible Reading Plan by visiting our website at www.intotheword.ca and you can find the daily podcasts right here at http://canada.thegospelcoalition.org.
I’d love for you to join us.
Pastor Paul Carter