After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: “ ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.”Revelation 18:1-2 NIV
Babylon is first mentioned as a center of Nimrod’s kingdom in Genesis, but Babylon’s first building comes in a story where a group of people want to build a city with a tower in the plains of Shinar. Abraham was born in the land that became the Babylonian empire and later the people of Judah were exiled into Babylon. Eventually, the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the combined might of the Medes and Persians. The book of Daniel mentions the capture of the city of Babylon, a city that everyone at the time thought was impenetrable. While the city stood for centuries after it’s capture, it has become ruins as it fell into steady decay. The location of Babylon is thought to be near modern day Baghdad in Iraq.
When John wrote Revelation, Babylon was irrelevant, so why does John mention Babylon in his writing? It is because of what Babylon represents to the readers of his book who understood Jewish history and tradition. It’s kind of like this: when I was in high school, I played basketball all the time, I collected the cards, I watched the games on tv. When someone was explaining to me about soccer and who Diego Maradona was, they told me that Maradona was the Michael Jordan of soccer. Then I understood what Maradona meant to soccer.
In it’s glory, Babylon was the greatest city on earth of the greatest empire of it’s day. It’s structures rose high above it all and Babylon dominated the thoughts and works of all people that it governed. No matter what town you lived in, you knew about Babylon. If you lived in Babylon, you barely cared about other cities or towns. Was Babylon an evil city? For the Israelites who were taken into exile, they, for the most part, hated Babylon and what it represented. Not everything was bad. In fact, God calls Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, his servant (Jeremiah 25:9). And while Nebuchadnezzar was a proud king, he had moments where he was humbled and he accepted his humbling, a story you can read in the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar’s children, unlike Nebuchadnezzar, were very arrogant and unrepentant and eventually Babylon’s enemies rise up and put an end to the Babylonian empire. God’s judgments against Babylon’s arrogance, selfishness and cruelty are fulfilled.
In John’s day, there is city that has become like Babylon and it was Rome. John’s readers would understand clearly what John is saying: Rome is magnificent and powerful and looks unbeatable, but so was Babylon and look at what happened to Babylon.
Today, we will take a deeper look into what Babylon would represent to the readers of the book of Revelation that John was writing to.
A tower to heaven
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.Genesis 11:1-9 NIV
There is a lot that happens in the story of the tower of Babel and there is a lot that isn’t explained to us when we read it. When we read the story, we are left to wonder: what’s wrong with building a city with a tower in it? Why would God want to put a stop to this? The story doesn’t tell us the answer immediately but we learn part of the answer in the next chapter when God calls Abraham which gives us a clue as to what is wrong.
What about the tower? In ancient times, mountains were considered holy places because of their proximity to the heavens, the domain of God, or for these people, the gods. The Israelites would also believe that mountains are holy places. It is why God meets the Israelites on mount Sinai. It’s why the temple in Jerusalem is built on a mountain. The tower to the heavens, in this story, represents a human made mountain, a man made way to the gods. This is a clue that something is not right. The Garden of Eden was the place where humans met with God, but that way is blocked because of humanity’s rebellion, now these people are making their own way. Yet, the story doesn’t tell us that this is wrong.
Another problem is in their desire to not be scattered. God had blessed Noah’s descendants to fill the earth and now these people weren’t doing that anymore, they didn’t want to scatter. So God confuses their language and they stop building the tower and end up doing what God wanted them to do: spread out and fill the earth. Still, the story doesn’t tell us that gathering in one place is either good or bad, it just states what happened and we are left to wonder why scattering might be better than building a city.
We do get clarity and this clarity comes later in the story of Abraham and his descendants and we, as the reader, are given the task to make the connections, see the patterns and understand what is going on in God’s heart.
One such pattern is when this story mentions brick and mortar. For the Israelites who read this story after the Exodus from Egypt, they would all be wondering how these people of Babel made so many bricks for such a monumental task as building a tower to the heavens. The story doesn’t tell us, but most readers would guess that the work would be done by slaves since the Israelites just came out of slavery in Egypt where they were tasked with making bricks for all the Egyptian building projects.
God mentions that as one people speaking one language nothing will be impossible for these people and it sounds like this is not good, but it doesn’t say why? Is God against humans doing the impossible? Maybe a little. We need to remember that this story comes soon after the flood where humanity demonstrated the incredible ability to do evil to each other. And when you look at society today, we have achieved the impossible like space travel, but also impossible evil like nuclear weapons with enough in the world that could instantly kill hundreds of millions and devastate God’s creation. We all know that the US has already used such weapons on Japan.
And so, we have some clues to begin to get an idea about what Babylon represents.
Abraham’s great name
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”Genesis 12:1-3 NIV
God makes a promise to make Abraham’s name great and this is in contrast to the people at Babel who say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves”.
While we normally think of Abraham’s calling as a turning point event in scripture it is also a contrast event, specifically with the tower of Babel. For example God isn’t against fame because he says that he’s going to make Abraham famous which is the same thing that the people of Babel want for themselves (to have a name). The contrast is in how they become famous.
When we compare what the people of Babel want and what God wants we see that the people of Babel intend to bless only themselves. This is implied by how God blesses Abraham where God says that all peoples on earth will be blessed through Abraham.
How God will bless the whole earth through Abraham isn’t stated here, but as we continue to read scripture, we will discover how God will make Abraham’s name great and how this will contrast with Babylon’s greatness.
Missed sabbaths and the fall of Israel
Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. … 17 You [might] say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”Deuteronomy 8:11,17 NIV
Through Moses, God began to fulfill his promise to Abraham to make him into a great nation. The covenant law given through Moses describes a lot of what God sees as greatness and this is in contrast to what made Babylon a great city. For example, the tower of Babel was a way to heaven, but in the law, God showed the Israelites how to approach him in worship, by building a simple tent.
In Deuteronomy 8, Moses warns the people not to become arrogant about their wealth when God blesses them. The line “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” is beginning to sound like tower of Babel talk (making a name for themselves). It is this self centered and selfish attitude toward God and others that is the foundation of Babylon which the Israelites were supposed to avoid.
One of the central features of the Law of Moses is in the sabbath practice. There are 3 kinds of sabbath. There is the weekly sabbath day when people rested from work which started on Friday after sunset and ended on Saturday sunset. Then there is the 7th year sabbath rest where people did not farm their fields, they canceled debts and they set slaves free and then there is the 50th year, the year of jubilee which would, if I understand correctly, extend the 49th year sabbath into a second year of no planting and people would also return property to their original owners. If you purchased a neighbors fields in the 48th year, you returned it to their original owner 2 years later.
Most of us are taught that sabbath was set aside to worship God, and that is true, but one of the main features of the sabbath rest was to create trust in God’s provision. Every week, there is one day you don’t strive to work and get things done to make a living and you just trust that God will take care of you. The sabbath day is the easier sabbath rest to observe. The real challenge was trusting God for a whole sabbath year.
Every 7 years, you rely on what your fields volunteer, trusting that what you produced in the previous 6 years will hold you over to the 8th year. Also, the people could not acquire land and slaves endlessly. Every 7 years they would let slaves go free and they would cancel debts. Every 50 years, the year of jubilee everyone would get their original piece of land back. With all these sabbath rules, it would become very difficult for any individual to make a name for themselves. Not only that, but the poor would most likely never remain poor for more than a season of life or for more than a generation. God’s plan for Israel was to be very different from Babylon the great.
The sabbath years, the year of jubilee, the canceling of debts and letting slaves go free made it very difficult for people to make themselves very wealthy. Their greatness would depend on God’s blessing, just as God promised Abraham. It is suspected that the sabbath year was rarely practiced or the year of jubilee.
The people did become wealthy, they did become arrogant, they ignored the Law of Moses especially in the sabbath year practice. Just as Moses predicted, God allowed the nation of Israel to be destroyed and sent into exile into the great city of Babylon.
He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.2 Chronicles 36:20-21 NIV
The author of Chronicles makes sure to note that sabbath years had been missed and that the land would receive it’s deserved sabbath rest. Rest is a part of God’s plan for greatness.
The fall of Babylon the great
“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth…. 44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”Daniel 2:31-35,44-45
King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and Daniel interprets it. The statue, human made, is big, dazzling and awesome. The gold portion represents the Babylonian empire and it’s greatness. The other parts represent nations that come after: Persians, Greeks, Romans.
What a contrast: a rock cut from a mountain vs a dazzling statue. A regular rock except that it’s not cut by human hands. All of the statue’s dazzling beauty and awesome appearance fall to pieces because of the rock and this rock, grows to fill the whole earth and become a mountain. A rock, cut out from a mountain but not by human hands, which itself becomes a mountain that fills the earth.
What does Babylon represent? Babylon the great represents human greatness in our structures, institutions, our cities and our nations which rise to the top and look unbeatable and which become the objects of worship. It’s a greatness that is built at the expense of human life. This self centered worship creates endlessly consuming systems for the rich to live lavish lifestyles that are at the same time cruel to the poor and weak. Any city or nation that becomes like Babylon the great will also experience the same end as Babylon the great, dust.
Heavenly Father, we praise you for your wisdom and we thank you for sending Jesus, the rock of our salvation, to free us from the power of the nations so that we are not caught up in false worship. We are citizens of the kingdom that will never be destroyed, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus.
We pray for the US, the nation that we live in. We pray that our leaders will be humble and repentant. We pray that our institutions will not be selfish and endlessly consuming. We pray that the people of the US will learn to live humbly and to bless their neighbor instead of living lavish lifestyles at the expense of the poor. We pray that the US will learn to bless the whole earth.
We pray for the church in the US to remain loyal to Jesus’ rule in our lives. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.