Capital of the Neo-Babylon Empire of the mid-first millennium b.c. Babylon has both a historic role and a theological role in the Bible. Certain themes become associated with it. In the Book of Revelation, these themes culminate in the image of the whore of Babylon. As a result of this biblical imagery, Babylon has transcended its historical significance to become synonymous with sin and pride in Western art and literature.
Babylon first appears in the Bible under the guise of the tower of Babel ( Gen. 11 ). The Hebrew word for “confused” in verse 9 is babal, which sounds like babel (Babylon). The great evil of the tower builders is their sinful pride against the rule of God. This theme will reappear in the prophetic writings against the city.
During the reign of Hezekiah, envoys from Babylon came to Jerusalem ( 2 Ki 20:12-19 ). The prophet Isaiah chastised the king for showing off the treasures of Judah and predicted that Babylon would someday carry these riches off. This was a startling revelation, for Assyria was the great power of the day and seemingly unassailable. The visit was probably an attempt by Babylon to foment problems for Assyria in the west, thereby diverting attention from Babylon. The post-exilic reader would have seen the roots of the destruction of Jerusalem in the foolish pride of Hezekiah and in the greed of Babylon.
The prophets describe Babylon as a city of pride and idolatry. Yet the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon presents the prophets with a dilemma. If God is sovereign and makes use of Babylon to punish Judah, can Babylon as a tool in the hand of its Master be blamed for its behavior? Isaiah addresses this problem by portraying Babylon as a woman, the queen of kingdoms ( 47:5 ), who should be tender and delicate but is not. God gave his people over into her power, but rather than caring for them she has shown them no mercy. This is a result of her overweening pride, evidenced in her statement that “I am, and there is none besides me” (v. 8). Although the conquest of Jerusalem is in keeping with the will of God, the brutality and greed of the conquerors the fruit of Babylon’s idolatry, and failure to recognize the kingship of God are not. Because of Babylon’s pride, she will be destroyed. Psalm 137 personifies Babylon as a woman who is doomed to destruction and whose infant children will be savagely killed.
Jeremiah sees the future destruction of Babylon as a punishment because the Babylonians rejoiced at the destruction of Judah and ruthlessly plundered the people of God ( 50:11 ). Babylon herself will become a “heap of ruins” ( 51:37 ). Daniel reinforces the picture of Babylon as full of pride and defiance toward God. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is punished with madness because he denied God’s control over “Babylon the Great” ( 4:30 ).
Centuries after the destruction of the Neo-Babylonian state by Cyrus of Persia, Babylon reappears in a dramatic role in the Book of Revelation a role marked by numerous references to Old Testament imagery. Pride, idolatry, cruelty, and greed are associated with the city.
The dominant image of Babylon in Revelation is the city’s personification of a rich woman, the “mother of prostitutes” ( 17:5 ). Babylon is a great city that rules over the earth.
Babylon, the historic oppressor of God’s people, represents the new oppressor of Christ’s church. Like the Mesopotamian city, the “great city” (Rome) will be judged and will become a desolate wilderness. The metaphor extends beyond the physical Rome to the entire world, “intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” ( 17:2 ). The people of God, however, will be delivered from the grasp of prophetic Babylon just as Ezekiel foretold for the exiles held captive in historic Babylon.
Thomas W. Davis
Edited by Eddy Bob Jones
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