The fall of Babylon the Great

Revelation chapter 18. The fulfilment of prophecies concerning ancient Babylon, Jerusalem and Tyre gives grounds for believing that the days of modern civilisation are also numbered.

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illumined from his glory. And he cried with a loud voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, and a haunt for every unclean spirit, and a haunt for every unclean and hated bird. For all the nations have drunk from the wine of her raging fornication, and the kings of the earth have fornicated with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” echoes Isaiah’s pronouncement on ancient Babylon (Isa 21:9). That demons and unclean birds (Lev 11) live in her seems to be her condition after rather than before judgement, as it was with ancient Edom and Babylonia (Isa 34:10ff, Jer 51:43). Unclean birds are chiefly birds of prey and carrion-feeders such as ravens and vultures. The picture of them picking amongst the ruins emphasises the devastation.

Isaiah’s prophecies date to the second half of the 8th century BC, when, apart from eleven years of independence under Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-idinna, 721-710 BC), Babylonia was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. His prediction that Judah and its royal family would one day be judged by deportation to Babylon (Isa 39:6f, 47:6) and that God thereafter would bring up the Medes to avenge himself on the city could not have been based on contemporary observation. Isaiah predicted Babylon’s fall on three separate occasions: in chapters 13 and 14, in chapter 21 and in chapters 46 and 47. God expressly emphasises that only he has the power to foresee such things (46:9-11):
For I am God, and there is no other;
     I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
     and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
     and I will do all my pleasure,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
     the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, I will bring it to pass.

The ‘bird of prey from the east’ was Cyrus (mentioned by name in Isa 44:28), commander of the Median army that conquered Babylon.

The prophecies are frequently stamped with the declaration that they issue from him who created heaven and earth (Isa 40:28, 42:5, 44:24, 45:12, 45:18, 48:13, 51:13, Jer 10:12, 32:17, 51:15, Zech 12:1). God knows the end of history from the beginning, and the prediction of the fall of Babylon more than 150 years before it happened is given as proof of this. It was recorded as much for our sakes as for Judah’s, in order that we might be sure that the fall of Babylon the Great will certainly happen.

Some of the things predicted lay in the then near future, some much nearer our time. In his first prophecy concerning Babylon, Isaiah dovetails the fall of the ancient city with that of its modern-day counterpart, so that it is not straightforward discerning which parts of the prophecy refer to the former (Isa 13:1-8, 14-22, 14:3-23) and which to the latter (13:9-13). Although John’s prophecy refers to the modern, it draws almost entirely on the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s judgement of the ancient world, as if to emphasise the point that the spiritual logic is much the same. History will repeat itself. The people of God will accommodate themselves to an alien culture and choose to ignore the fact that it stands condemned. They must dissociate themselves or suffer the same fate.

The centre of ancient Babylon, with the Ishtar Gate foreground left and the ziggurat in the distance

This is not to say that the cases are identical. Ancient Babylon was guilty primarily because of her demonic and idolatrous religion, epitomised by her ziggurat. As in other Mesopotamian cities, the ziggurat was a terraced brick-built mountain with a stairway, at the top of which a temple represented the celestial dwelling of the city’s god, in this instance Bel/Marduk. The terrace half-way up represented the earth, and down from that level subsidiary stairways led to the underworld. With the aid of invocations and magic the king hoped that at the summit he would gain access to the powers of heaven, so that he might rule the people with power on Marduk’s behalf (Isa 14:12-14, Jer 51:53). The wine that Babylon made the nations drink (Jer 51:7) was the wine of idolatry, of angel and demon worship (Jer 50:38).

By contrast, the charge against Babylon the Great is that she is sexually promiscuous and a lover of fine living, and she has persuaded the rest of the world to adopt the same materialist world-view. Her affluence exerts great power. The world’s business tycoons grow rich by it. And like ancient Babylon, she has blood on her hands.

It is perhaps significant that Europe is by far the world’s greatest producer, exporter and consumer of wine. Wine serves as a metaphor for both her passionate lust and God’s passionate anger. Having drunk her fill from her own cup, Europe will drink from his, as will all worshippers of the beast (14:10). The same doom came upon the ancient world. After drinking from the stupefying wine of Babylon’s idolatry (Jer 51:7), the nations had to drink to stupefaction the wine of God’s wrath; even Babylon herself had to (Jer 25:15-26). ‘All the kingdoms of the earth on the face of the ground’ in that context were the kingdoms of the Middle East.

And I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
      lest you participate in her sins
      and in her plagues you share;
for her sins are heaped up to heaven,
      and God has remembered her iniquities.
Pay her back as she herself has paid back
      and render double for her deeds;
      in the cup she has mixed mix double for her.
As she glorified herself and lived in luxury,
      in like measure give her torment and mourning,
since in her heart she says,
      ‘I sit as queen, no widow am I,
      and mourning I shall never see.’
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
      death and mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire,
      for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”

The prophecy takes a step back, to before the city’s downfall. The call to come out of her echoes that in Isaiah (II Cor 6:17) and, specifically regarding ancient Babylon, in Jeremiah (51:45). The midst of the city was where the temple, ziggurat and royal palace were and where the Medes would concentrate their attack (51:28, 47). Her judgement has reached up to heaven, and God will repay (51:9, 24, 56). Through Isaiah he declares, “I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 46:9). She, on the other hand, thinks to herself, “I am, and there is no one else. I shall not sit a widow or know the loss of children” (47:8).

History records who was right. After a long and frustrating siege, in 539 BC Cyrus dried up the river that ran through the city (Herodotus I, 191, cf. Isa 44:27) and thereby enabled his soldiers to enter it while its leaders were drunk. Supposedly impregnable Babylon was captured with ease (Herodotus I, 191, cf. Jer 51:39, Dan 5:4ff).

God appeals to his beloved Church to come out of the modern equivalent of Babylon. How many even know that this prophecy is in the Bible? How many accept that God has the power as well as the will to bring this comfortable world to an end? How many understand that his analysis of Jerusalem’s apostasy in the book of Jeremiah applies equally to today’s Church, that he still demands faithfulness of his people?

Babylon the Great is to be paid back ‘as she herself has paid back’ (the command is issued to the angels with the seven bowls, not to the Church obviously). For when she has retaliated, she has done so disproportionately, as Lamech boasted he had done (Gen 4:23f). The havoc wreaked on Iraq in response to the attack on the World Trade Center would be one example. To whom much has been given, of them much will be required. When David sinned by fornicating with another man’s wife, God said to him, “I will take your wives from before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel.” In his judgement God took into account David’s circumstances and how much he already knew of God and repaid him double. So it will be in the final judgement.

Disaster comes ‘in one day’. ‘Death’ may mean ‘pestilence’, as in 6:8. The plagues do not necessarily occur in one day but are consequences of the disaster.

And the kings of the earth, who fornicated and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far back for fear of her torment, saying, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon the mighty city! For in a single hour your judgment has come.”
And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore: cargo of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and every scented wood, and every article of ivory, and every article of costly wood and bronze and iron and marble, their cinnamon, and cardamom, and incense, and myrrh, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep, cargo of horses, and carriages, and bodies and souls of men.
And the fruits which your soul desired have gone from you, and all the sumptuousness and the splendour have perished from you, and will be found no more.
The merchants who got rich from her will stand far back for fear of her torment, weeping and mourning, saying, “Alas, alas, the great city that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold, and jewels, and pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”
And all shipmasters and seafarers and mariners and all who traded on the sea stood far back and, seeing the smoke of her burning, cried out, “What compared with the great city?”
And they threw dust on their heads and, weeping and mourning, cried out, “Alas, alas, the great city, in which all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in a single hour she has been laid waste.” Rejoice over her, O heaven, and saints, and apostles, and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!

The future tense becomes past as the pronouncement is fulfilled. ‘Kings of the earth’ – first mentioned at 1:5 – is a frequent term in the Old Testament, when kingdoms consisted of city as well as nation states. In this section the term is one of the many echoes of Ezekiel’s prophetic lament over Tyre (Ezek 26-28). Tyre was the principal city-state of Phoenicia and a thriving centre of commerce. By its maritime trade it had made itself and other kingdoms rich (27:33), saying to itself, “I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas.” Its main city was a fortified island off the coast of Lebanon, linked to a sister city, Old Tyre, located on the mainland a few kilometres to the south. Nebuchadrezzar conquered Old Tyre soon after his conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC but failed to capture its offshore stronghold, despite a 13-year siege (a failure referred to in Ezek 29:18). That part of Tyre was not captured until Alexander the Great used rubble from the old city to reach the island with a causeway. His army constituted the final wave of the ‘many nations’ that were to hurl themselves against the island.

Immediately before his end-time apocalypse, Isaiah too foretells the destruction of Tyre. She is ‘the merchant of the nations’, a prostitute situated ‘on many waters’ (Isa 23:3, 15f). She is ‘the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honoured of the earth’. Nonetheless, the Babylonians – subjects of Assyria at the time of the prophecy – will strip her palaces bare and make her a ruin.

Today, we don’t have ziggurats, we have skyscrapers, which are also monuments to what we worship. The fall of the World Trade Center in 2001 at the hands of Al-Qaeda, a forerunner of the ten horns that will hate the prostitute, was a sign.
Collapse of the World Trade CenterFor the Lord of hosts has a day
      against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up,
      and it shall be brought low …
against all the lofty mountains
      and against all the uplifted hills,
against every high tower
      and against every fortified wall. …
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
      and the holes of the ground,
from before the fear of the Lord
      and from the splendour of his majesty,
      when he rises to make the earth tremble.
In that day men will cast away
      the idols of their silver and their gold,
which they made for themselves to worship.

Because countries are now interdependent, we speak of ‘the global economy’. Modern economies depend on continually stimulating consumers to covet more and buy more, storing or throwing away what they bought the year before. If an economy is not growing, if consumption is not increasing year on year, the state borrows more and urges its citizens to borrow more in order to stimulate growth. But a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Covetousness is a form of idolatry, and along with fornication, impurity and evil desire, is the reason why wrath is coming upon the world (Col 3:5f). Idols have no life in them. We are to find our value in God, not in things.

The city’s ‘torment’ refers to the physical and mental anguish precipitated by the destruction; it has nothing to do with ‘hell’. The list of goods, mostly luxury items, is an abbreviation of Ezekiel’s list, which also specifies the many countries that supplied them. The list ends with the bodies and souls of human beings: slaves are trafficked as well as animals. By implication, all the wealth so represented is at the expense of human suffering and exploitation. We might well consider whether we too measure ourselves in terms of how much wealth we have, what we call our ‘standard of living’; it is not how God measures us, and he does not overlook the exploitation involved. Over 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea. Much of the affluence we enjoy is on the backs of forced labour, out of sight beyond our shores.

At the moment it seems inconceivable that this present world should meet a sudden end. Although as individuals we are mortal, we think that our way of life will continue forever, and inasmuch as we identify with the species, we take some comfort from the thought. Our civilisation encompasses the whole earth; even China is part of it. The merchants of the earth have grown rich by its trade. They invest in the real estate of London, New York and Berlin, they buy up football clubs, they educate their children in the West’s schools and universities.

The Church was founded by the twelve apostles, and validated by the prophets. As Peter told the Jews (Acts 3:24f), “All the prophets, from Samuel onward, also proclaimed these days when they spoke.” However, most references to ‘apostles and prophets’ seem to refer to a larger number of apostles than just the twelve and to prophets who were their contemporaries (I Cor 12:28, Eph 2:20, 3:5, 4:11f). Paul discusses the gift of prophecy at some length (I Cor 14), and prophets are mentioned several times in Acts (11:27, 13:1, 15:32, 21:10). Their role was to encourage the fledgling Church, especially when persecuted, and to confirm the witness of the apostles at a time when the New Testament Scriptures had either not been written or were not yet widely in circulation. Jesus said that the Jews would kill some of the apostles and prophets sent to them (Luke 11:49). Itinerant apostles and prophets are also mentioned in The Didache, a work of the 1st or early 2nd century. While the gift has since passed away, the gospel of the kingdom of God is itself a prophetic message. A prophet is anyone who enunciates and applies that message, and inasmuch as he is ‘sent’ (Gk: apostellein, Latin: mittere), he is also an apostle, a missionary.

In contrast to 12:12 (q.v.), ‘heaven’ in 18:20 is singular. The ESV interprets the invitation to rejoice as spoken by the mourners (punctuation not being part of the original text), but it is better understood as spoken by the voice from heaven (18:4). The apostles and prophets are the 144,000 (cf. 11:18), counterparts of those sent to Jerusalem before its destruction in AD 70. They are with the angels in heaven, as are all the saints, and they rejoice because their prayers (6:9-11) have been answered. The time foreseen by Moses has come (Deut 32:43, Isa 59:16-20):
Rejoice with him, O heavens;
      bow down to him, all you gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
      and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him
      and atones for his people and land.
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “Thus with violence will Babylon the great city be thrown down and be found no more, and the sound of lyre-players and singers and pipers and trumpeters will be heard in you no more, and craftsmen, of whatever craft, will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more. For your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all the slaughtered on the earth.”
The dirge is adapted from Jeremiah’s pronouncement of doom upon Judah and surrounding nations (Jer 7:34, 25:8-10). If one wishes to update the cultural references, the prophecy is speaking of guitars and orchestras, of manufacturers, of flour mills and electric lights. The people of Judah said to themselves, “He will not do anything. Disaster will not come upon us; we shall not see sword and famine.” But they did see them, and just as Jerusalem fell, so will the civilisation built on Christian foundations. “They were eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the cataclysm came and destroyed them all.”

Thus Babylon the Great is likened to three archetypal cities: Babylon, on account of her idolatry, Tyre, on account of her pride, and Jerusalem, on account of her adultery. She is the unnamed city or cities of Isaiah’s vision of a devastated earth. Although some commentators have identified her with the Roman Empire, or the Roman Church, neither of these has the characteristics of all three cities.

The whole planet is depopulate and desolate (Isa 24:7-13, 26:21f). Its few remaining inhabitants are scorched; all merry-making has ceased.
For thus will it be in the midst of the earth
      among the nations,
as when an olive tree is beaten,
      as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is done. …
Come, my people, enter your chambers,
      and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
      until the fury has passed by.
For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
      to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
      and will no more cover its slain.
Murder is the undoing of God’s purpose in bringing a human soul into being. After the murder of Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” By the time of Noah, the earth was filled with violence. At the end of the present age, vengeance, deferred up to now, will be exacted for all the righteous blood shed on earth since the beginning, not only in the last generation; as when Jerusalem, having killed the apostles and prophets sent by the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:49), was torn down by the Romans (Matt 23:35). ‘For blood pollutes the land’ (Num 35:33).

The blood of prophets and saints includes that of the early Church from Nero to Diocletian, the blood of the saints who gave up their lives in the conversion of Europe, the blood of murdered Waldensians, the blood of Protestant reformers such as Jan Hus and William Tyndale, the blood of the Huguenots, the blood of Jews massacred in 1648–1656 and 1919 in the Ukraine, the blood of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Second World War, in Poland, the Baltic States, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Croatia, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Romania, France, Bulgaria, Italy and Russia. Only God has a full account.

‘All the slaughtered of the earth’ includes the millions of Greek, Assyrian and Armenian civilians massacred by the Ottomans during and after the First World War, the more than 15 million killed by Communists in the Soviet Union, the more than three hundred thousand Serb civilians tortured or otherwise killed by the Ustashe in Croatia during the Second World War and the untold millions killed by Communists in China and Cambodia, to say nothing of armed conflicts between countries. Founded by Karl Marx and buttressed by the ideas of Charles Darwin, Communism was an ideology generated in western Europe. Islam emanated from Saudi Arabia, Europe’s bed-fellow.

The slaughtered also include innocents killed in the womb. Fornication gives rise to babies, and the babies are not always wanted. As in pre-Christian societies, in such circumstances modern society claims the right to kill, long after the first trimester in which most miscarriages occur. (Because of miscarriages, abortion is not a black-and-white issue, and cf. Eccl 11:5.) One in five pregnancies worldwide and almost one in three in Europe end in abortion, amounting to more than 40 million deaths every year (Sedgh et al. 2008). Hospitals cremate or simply incinerate the bodies. One of the gravest charges brought against Jerusalem was that “you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me [God], and these you sacrificed to be eaten. Was your whoring so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and gave them to the fire for them [for the idols]?” (Ezek 16:20f) Psalm 106 says that in doing so they sacrificed to demons.

After this I heard what seemed like the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Alleluyah! The salvation and glory and power of our God! For his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and avenged on her the blood of his servants.” And a second time they cried, “Alleluyah! And the smoke from her goes up forever and forever.”
And the twenty-four elders and the four animals fell down and worshipped God who is seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Alleluyah!” And from the throne came a voice, saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, and you who fear him, small and great.”

‘Alleluyah’ occurs nowhere else in the NT. It is straight Hebrew, and as such evokes the psalms’ exhortations to praise Yah (the shortened form of Yahweh): the psalms climax with that cry. The rejoicing is a response to the call in 18:20 and a reprise of the song at 15:3f, rounding off the revelation of the seven last plagues. Those who fear him among the small and great should also rejoice. As at 11:18 and 14:7, fear of God is commended, and in praising him they have nothing to fear.

‘Corrupt’ is the verb phtherein, meaning ‘corrupt morally’. It has a less comprehensive sense than diaphtherein, the word in 11:18. The chief reason for the judgement on Babylon is twofold: she corrupted the earth and its inhabitants by her sexual promiscuity, and she brought about the deaths of God’s apostles and prophets.