The fall of Babylon the Great

Revelation 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 these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illumined by his glory. And he cried with a powerful voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become the abode of demons, and a prison for every unclean spirit, and a prison 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 got rich by the power of her luxury.”
As at Rev 10:1, the angel must be Jesus Christ himself, for only his glory, the glory of Yahweh, is destined to illumine all the earth (Ezek 43:2). Only he fulfils what is written in Isaiah (40:4f):
The uneven ground shall become level,
     and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
     and all flesh shall see it together.
The great city is brought down by a convulsion that flattens mountains. The planet lights up, and everyone on the ground sees the brightness, from one horizon to the other (Matt 24:27).
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
     God shines forth.
Our God will come, and not keep silent.
     Fire will devour before him,
     and all around him a raging storm. (Ps 50:2f)

Thick darkness will be followed by blazing light, as when the sun stood still, and large stones fell from heaven, and the nation took vengeance on their enemies (Jos 10:13). The moon will be as the sun, and the sun’s light will be sevenfold (Isa 30:26, Zech 14:7). All who serve images will be put to shame (Ps 97:6f).

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” echoes Isaiah’s pronouncement on ancient Babylon (Isa 21:9). The city is the antitype of the abode of God, for as with ancient Edom and Babylonia (Isa 34:10ff, Jer 51:43), demons and unclean birds (Lev 11) inhabit the place. Incantations from Babylonia speak of demons flitting around like birds, which may be the metaphor here, though the explanatory ‘for’ suggests that the birds may be immigrant nations (Dan 4:14) that have introduced unclean religions into the city. Demons have returned to the house that had been swept clean and brought with them other spirits, still more evil (Matt 12:43-45).

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), Babylon was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. In what could hardly have been an extrapolation of the contemporary situation, Isaiah predicted that Judah would one day be deported to Babylon (Isa 39:6f, 47:6), after which God would bring up the Medes to avenge himself on the city. He predicted the city’s fall three times: in chapter 13, chapter 21 and chapter 47. In the second prophecy, Elam – which was part of the Babylonian empire in Belshazzar’s third year c. 541 BC (Dan 8:2) – was pictured laying siege alongside Media (Isa 21:2).

Part of Isaiah’s message was that only God had the power to foresee such things (46:10f):
declaring the end from the beginning
     and from of old things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
     and all my pleasure I will do,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
     the man of my counsel from a distant land.

Some of the events lay in the then near future, some lay further off. In the first prophecy the fall of the Chaldaean city (the Babylon renovated by Nebuchadrezzar) is interleaved with that of its modern-day counterpart, so that Isaiah 13:9-13 remains to be fulfilled, as do elements of Isaiah 14-19. The second prophecy appears to relate solely to the Chaldaean city. The first part of the third prophecy (47:1-7) relates explicitly to the Chaldaean city, whereas the second part (47:8-15), from which John quotes extensively, relates solely to the unfulfilled future. (Such conflation of the near and distant future is common: compare the mixed prophecies of Isa 9, 31, Joel 2, Mic 1, Zeph 1.)

Ancient Babylon was guilty primarily on account of her idolatry (Jer 50:38). As in other Mesopotamian cities, a terraced ziggurat stood in the centre, on the same site as the original tower. It was called the E-temen-an-ki, ‘House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.’ At the summit stood a temple, representing the heavenly dwelling of Marduk, ‘king of heaven and the underworld.’ A stairway descended to a terrace half-way down the mountain, representing the earth at ground level, while subsidiary stairways led up to the terrace from the underworld, the earth’s ‘foundation’. The ziggurat also supported shrines for other gods in the pantheon. Opposite was a second building, the E-sag-ila, where Marduk resided as king in the midst of the city. The human king was merely the vicegerent.

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

Some 180 years after Isaiah, history confirmed the predictions. The ‘bird of prey from the east’ was Cyrus, commander of the Medes and Persians, and joined by Elam, which had recently changed sides (Waters 2008). Isaiah had even named him (Isa 44:28). As we know from his crossing the river Diyala on the way (Herodotus I, 191), he approached Babylon from the north (Jer 50:3). A successful battle outside the walls was followed by a long and frustrating siege, but in 539 BC the invaders conceived the idea of diverting the river that ran through the city into a nearby lake, enabling them to walk along the shallowed channel and enter while its complacent leaders were feasting, literally stupefied with wine (Herodotus I, 191, cf. Isa 21:5, 44:27, Jer 51:39, Dan 5:4ff). Supposedly impregnable Babylon was captured with ease.

For millennia, Babylon had made the nations drink the stupefying wine of her idolatry. Eventually the nations were made to drink the stupefying wine of God’s wrath, as his agent Nebuchadrezzar II conquered city after city. In this context ‘all the kingdoms of the earth on the face of the ground’ were the kingdoms of the Middle East. A few decades later Babylon herself was made to drink (Jer 25:15-26).

Accounts of what followed are sparse and confused, but the city was not, as the prophets implied, immediately reduced to a perpetual wasteland, and indeed immediate destruction would not have helped the Jews living there. In 521 BC, Babylon rebelled against Persian rule but was recaptured after a seventeen-month siege. Another unsuccessful revolt took place in 484 BC, following which its defences and some of its temples were destroyed. Decay was gradual. The ziggurat was not demolished until 331 BC, under Alexander the Great.

The charge against modern Babylon is that she is subservient to demons, sexually promiscuous and a lover of fine living, and she has persuaded the rest of the world to adopt the same materialist view of life. Her carnality and affluence exert great power. The world’s business tycoons grow rich by her. Also, she has blood on her hands. John testifies that on a larger scale history will repeat itself. Just as the fall of the ancient city was prophesied and came to pass – recorded for our sakes as much as Judah’s – so will the fall of the final megalopolis come to pass.

Europe produces, exports and consumes more wine per head than any other region. Wine serves as a metaphor for her passionate lust and God’s passionate anger. Having drunk to satiety from her own cup, Europe will drink from his. So will all worshippers of the beast (14:10).

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 have been joined as far as 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, mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire,
      for mighty is the Lord God who judged her.”

The prophecy takes a step back, to before the city’s downfall. The warning to come out of her repeats that given by Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isa 52:11, Jer 51:45): the people of God must dissociate themselves from a culture that stands condemned, or they will suffer the same fate. Babylon’s sins are joined together like bricks joined with bitumen (Gen 11:3f); her judgement has reached up to heaven (Jer 51:9). He declares, “I am God, and there is no one else” (Isa 46:9). She thinks to herself, “I am, and there is no one else. I shall not sit a widow or know the loss of children” (Isa 47:8).

God appeals to the Church. Insofar as Babylon controls her and tells her what to say and think, she must break free, sanctify herself and hold fast to what he says in his Word. How many even know that this appeal 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 indictment of apostate Jerusalem in the book of Jeremiah applies equally to us, that he still demands faithfulness of his people?

The angels with the seven bowls are told to pay back ‘as she herself has paid back’. When she retaliated, she did so disproportionately, as Lamech boasted he had done (Gen 4:23f). Perhaps the most flagrant example was the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. President Truman boasted, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. … The basic power of the universe, the force from which the sun draws its power, has been loosed.” Another example was the havoc wreaked on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the attack on the World Trade Center (Crawford 2018, 2019).

Much will be required of those to whom much has been given. 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 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. Justice required that the punishment be greater than the suffering caused, for otherwise the innocent party would have suffered no less than the guilty. So it will be in the final judgement. Europe and America cannot say that they did not know about God and his righteousness.

Disaster comes suddenly, in one day: by quake and by fire (Rev 16:17-18), by the power of the earth and by the power of the sun.

And the kings of the earth, who fornicated and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her, seeing the smoke of her burning. They will stand far back for fear of her torment, saying, “Woe, woe, 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, because 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; nor their cinnamon, and cardamom, and incense, and myrrh, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and mules, 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 they 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, “Woe, woe, the great city that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and gilded 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, “Woe, woe, 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 the saints, and the apostles, and the prophets, for God has exacted on her your judgment!

The future tense becomes past as the pronouncement is fulfilled. ‘Clothed in … purple and scarlet, and gilded with gold, and jewels, and pearls’ echoes the description of the personified city (17:4). Her ‘torment’ refers to the pain and anguish precipitated by the destruction, equivalent to the torment soon to be experienced in Gehenna. ‘Woe’ (ouai) has the sense of ‘alas’ (contrast 9:12). Those who have profited by her watch from afar, implying that there are places which will escape the destruction, though this is contradicted elsewhere (Rev 6:15, Isaiah 2:12ff). ‘Kings of the earth’ is a frequent term in the Old Testament, reflecting a world where kingdoms consisted of cities as well as nations. It is one of the many echoes of Ezekiel’s prophetic lament over Tyre (Ezek 26-28), principal city-state of Phoenicia. Tyre was a fortified island off the coast of Lebanon, linked to a sister city, Old Tyre, on the mainland a little to the south. By its maritime trade it had enriched both itself and other kingdoms. It had applied its wisdom and understanding to making money, saying to itself, “I am God; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas.” But its self-assurance was a delusion, and the true God would bring it down. Nebuchadrezzar conquered Old Tyre soon after his conquest of Jerusalem. Although he failed to capture its offshore stronghold despite a 13-year siege, two and a half centuries later Alexander the Great built a causeway to the island with rubble from the old city and captured it in that manner. This must have been what Ezekiel was referring to when he spoke of men purposefully laying Tyre’s stones, trees and soil in the midst of the waters. The Macedonians under Alexander were the final wave of the ‘many nations’ that hurled themselves against the city. Supposedly impregnable Tyre was ruined, 2000 of its men were crucified and the remaining population enslaved. As with Babylon’s destruction, fulfilment of the vision tarried, but eventually came to pass.

Today, we don’t have ziggurats; we have skyscrapers, symbolising what we worship in the absence of gods. 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 will 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 will 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
      their idols of silver and idols of gold.

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 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 generally, it is the reason why wrath is coming on the world (Col 3:5f). Idols have no life in them. We are to find our value in God, not in things. Only he is worthy of worship.

The list of goods, mostly luxury items, is a modification of Ezekiel’s list of Tyre’s imports, with the addition of carriages, marble and wooden articles, and omitting the 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 this wealth is at the expense of human suffering and exploitation. Do 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. The comparison with Tyre is apt, for over 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea. Much of what we enjoy is on the backs of forced labour, beyond our shores.

At the moment it seems inconceivable that this present world should meet a sudden end. Mortal though we are, we think that our way of life will continue forever, while its comforts inure us against the thought that it might not. Our civilisation encompasses the whole earth; even China has merged with it. The merchants of the earth have got 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 apostles and prophets. The first apostles were twelve in number but they soon increased (e.g. I Cor 15:5-7), and the prophets were their contemporaries (Eph 2:20, 3:5, 4:11f). Luke mentions prophets several times in Acts (11:27, 13:1, 15:32, 21:10). Many were martyred (I Thes 2:15). Their role was to encourage the fledgling Church, and confirm the witness of the twelve at a time when the New Testament had either not been written or was not widely known. Itinerant apostles feature alongside prophets in The Didache, a Christian work of the 1st or early 2nd century. Today, whether because the Scriptures are widely available or because there is little openness to the supernatural, prophecy in the sense of speaking under inspiration is rare, though not unknown. More importantly, the gospel of the kingdom of God is itself a prophetic message. Anyone who enunciates that message is a prophet, and anyone whom the Spirit ‘sends’ (Gk: apostellω) is an apostle.

The apostles and prophets addressed here are the 144,000 (cf. 11:18), counterparts of those sent to Jerusalem before her destruction in AD 70 (Luke 11:49). Like the other saints, they are with the angels in heaven, and they rejoice because their prayers at the altar of incense have been answered. The time foreseen by Moses has come (Deut 32:43, Isa 59:16-20):
Rejoice with him, you 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 will atone for his land and his people.
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 a 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, for all nations were deceived by your drug-taking. And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all the slaughtered on the earth.”
Jeremiah was told to tie a stone to the document recording his prophecy against Babylon and throw it into the Euphrates, as a sign that so Babylon would sink and never be rebuilt (Jer 51:63). Ezekiel was told that Tyre too would sink under the waves and never be rebuilt. Jesus said, “Stumbling-blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.” In the gospels ouai, woe, is an execration, not an expression of regret, and it is mostly Jesus who uses the word. The vision of the millstone is implicitly an indictment of how the great city corrupts even its children. Exposed to pornographic imagery in films, music videos, magazines and the internet, children are becoming sexually aware at an ever earlier age, with consequential depression, mental illness, sexual disease and sexual violence that the State then counters through the education system, teaching ‘values’ that only add to their premature awareness. Society is corrupt from top to bottom.

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 guitarists and orchestras, of manufacturers, of flour mills and electric lights, of everything that typifies normal life. 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 sword and famine, and just as Jerusalem fell, so will the civilisation built on the foundations of Christianity. “If the vision should tarry, wait for it,” said Habakkuk, “it will surely come.” “They were eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark and the cataclysm came and destroyed them all.”

The mention of drug-assisted witchcraft, pharmakeia, is shocking after the evocation of innocent normality. Ancient Babylon openly practised it (Isa 47:9). So did Israel (Isa 57:3-9). Modern civilisation is unknowingly given over to the occult (Rev 9:21).

Thus Babylon the Great is likened to three archetypal cities: Babylon, on account of her idolatry, Tyre, on account of her pride, Jerusalem, on account of her adultery. She is the unnamed city or cities in 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. She is the civilisation of the whole earth.

The whole planet is depopulate and desolate (Isa 24:6-13, 26:5, Mic 7:13). It is the lofty final city that is suddenly cast to the dust, reduced to a wasteland. Its few remaining inhabitants are scorched. 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 post
      to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose its blood
      and will no more conceal its slain. (Isa 26:20f)
Murder is the undoing of God’s purpose in bringing a soul into being. After Abel’s murder, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out 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 till now, will be exacted as if for all the righteous blood shed since Creation, not only in the last generation; just as it was when Jerusalem suffered retribution after she had killed the prophets sent to her (Matt 23:35).

The blood of prophets and saints includes that of Christians in the period 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 during the Black Death in 1348-50, in the Ukraine in 1648–1656 and 1919, 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, as well as the blood of the 144,000 who prophesied. 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, and the millions killed in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Angola, to say nothing of armed conflicts between countries. Previous centuries also have their roll calls.

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. 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. 2012), though most abortions are within the first trimester. The rate is higher in Europe because marriage and family are less valued. 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 them [the idols] to be eaten. Was your whoring so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and gave them to the fire for them?” (Ezek 16:20f) Psalm 106 says that in doing so they sacrificed to demons.