PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE
This is an article in the series on the identity of the Harlot of Revelation:
“On her forehead a name was written, a mystery, ‘Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots’” (17:5).
A common interpretation of “Babylon the Great” among literal interpreters is that it refers to ancient Babylon that will be rebuilt on the literal Euphrates River, to become the literal political and commercial capital of the world. The current article discusses various arguments for and against this proposal. To do this, we have to ask, why is she called “Babylon?” What is the significance of that name?
BABEL – CONFUSION
“Babel” was one of the cities in Nimrod’s kingdom (Genesis 10). God commanded the people, “Fill the earth,” but the people refused. They said, “Let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven … otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” To force people away from the city, God gave them different languages. Because of the confusion which this caused, the city was called Babel, which means confusion.
ANCIENT BABYLON – JERUSALEM’S ENEMY
Babel later became Babylon, located on the banks of the Euphrates River in current Iraq. Babylon invaded Judea, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, deported Judah’s king and took the people hostage. Babylon took the land away that God gave to His people. Because it is the main enemy of God’s people in the Old Testament, Babylon is mentioned 260 times in the Scriptures; second only to Jerusalem.
REVELATION USES OLD TESTAMENT LANGUAGE.
Revelation uses Old Testament language to describe end-time Babylon. For example, in both the Old Testament and in Revelation:
Babylon sits on “many waters.”
The destruction of ancient Babylon is predicted to be sudden, complete, and with fire.
Due to the similarity of the language, literal interpreters argue that end-time Babylon will be a literal city. However, for the following reasons, the use of Old Testament language to describe end-time Babylon does not prove that it will be a literal city:
1. Revelation also uses language from another mighty Old Testament city (Tyre) to describe end-time Babylon.
2. Revelation changes the meaning of the language it borrows from the Old Testament. For example, the “many waters” on which ancient Babylon sat was the Euphrates. But the “many waters” on which end-time Babylon sits are explicitly defined as the peoples of the world (17:15).
3. Since the Babylon of the Old Testament was built on the banks of the Euphrates, and since the Euphrates becomes a symbol in Revelation, it follows that Babylon must also become a symbol.
4. If the Babylon of Revelation is a literal city, then the Jerusalem of Revelation should also be a literal city, but the New Jerusalem is a symbol of God’s people.
5. Babylon is “the great city,” but “the great city” is also called Sodom and Egypt (11:18). The name “Egypt” identifies it as the enemy of God’s people. The name “Sodom” signifies its morally “fallen” condition.
In other words, PLACE NAMES COMMUNICATES QUALITIES. Revelation borrows the name and description of Jerusalem’s great Old Testament enemy but uses it as symbols for the enemy of God’s people all over the world and for all time.
A further justification for a literal end-time city is that many Old Testament prophecies of the destruction of Babylon have not been fulfilled.
This is true. Ancient Babylon ‘fell’ numerous times at the hands of different invaders, but it never suffered anything like the predicted complete destruction. The land around her did not become desolate but continued to be populated and fertile. There was no disturbance in the sun or moon, nor did universal peace follow.
That, however, is consistent with the dual nature of Old Testament prophecies. They combine end-time events with major events in the near future of the prophet. Only in hindsight are we able to distinguish between these events. The Old Testament prophecies of the fall of Babylon, therefore, apply both to the historical fall of ancient Babylon and the end-time destruction of the age-old and world-wide enemy of God’s people.
This fact confirms that literal Babylon will NOT be rebuilt, for it means that the city has already been destroyed as predicted, and those same predictions teach that it will never be rebuilt.
A SYMBOL EXPLAINING A SYMBOL.
Revelation 17:18 explains the harlot as the “great city.” Literal interpreters argue that the “great city” must be understood literally; otherwise we should have the anomaly of a symbol explaining another symbol. However, Revelation frequently explains symbols with other symbols. For example:
- The seven heads are seven mountains (17:9),
- The beast is an eight head or mountain (17:11) and
- Jesus is both a lion and a lamb (5:5, 6).
Revelation, therefore, often use more than one symbol for the same reality. In the same way, in 17:18, the harlot and the “great city” are two symbols for the world-wide resistance to the truth of God.
ANCIENT BABYLON IS TOO YOUNG.
The Babylon of Revelation exists throughout history (e.g. 17:5; 18:24). It follows that the literal Babylon of the Old Testament is too young to be the Babylon of Revelation.
– END OF SUMMARY –
BABEL – CITY OF CONFUSION
Babylon is found first in Genesis 10. When Moses traces the descendants of Ham, he wrote:
“Nimrod … became a mighty one on the earth … the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and … in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 10:8-10).
Genesis 11:3-4 records the rebellion of the people of Shinar against God’s plan. God commanded the people to populate the whole world. He said to them:
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1).
But Shinar defied this command. They said:
“Let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven … otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4).
This was the first recorded attempt to unite the world against God. At the end of time, the kings of the world will again unite at Armageddon (16:16) “for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 16:14).
In the time of Nimrod, to scatter the people around the world, God confused their languages. He gave them different languages so that they would not be able to communicate with one another. That caused great confusion. Therefore the city was called Babel, which means confusion.
ANCIENT BABYLON – JERUSALEM’S ENEMY.
Babel later became Babylon, located in current Iraq, about 50 miles south of Baghdad on the Euphrates River.
Babylon’s greatest glory was during the time of the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar; 600 years before Christ.
To the Jews, Babylon was where they were exiled to under Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 29:1), who invaded their land, destroyed their city Jerusalem and its temple, and deported Judah’s king. After this point in history, there has not been a king from the line of David on the throne of David in Jerusalem. So, historically, we see that Babylon begins as the place of man’s rebellion against God. But eventually, it took the land away that God promised to His people; the Israelites.
Babylon is mentioned 260 times in Scripture; second only to Jerusalem. These two cities are always seen in opposition to each other. Babel has become Babylon; the main enemy of God’s people Israel in the Old Testament.
TO DESCRIBE BABYLON,
REVELATION USES OLD TESTAMENT LANGUAGE.
One argument, which literal interpreters use to support the proposal that end-time Babylon will be a literal city, is that Revelation uses Old Testament language to describe Babylon.
EXAMPLES OF OLD TESTAMENT LANGUAGE
Revelation 17 and 18 frequently use terminology from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 50-51 and Isaiah 47) to describe end-time Babylon. In both the OT and in Revelation, Babylon:
- Dwells on “many waters” (Jer. 51:13; Rev. 17:1, see also Ps. 137:1);
- Boasts that she sits “as queen and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (Rev. 18:7; Isa. 47:7-9);
- Commits much sorcery and spells (Rev 18:23; Isa 47:7-9);
- Has something in a gold cup that makes the people of the world drunk (Jer. 51:7; Rev. 17:3-4; 18:6); and
- Is suddenly destroyed, on a single day (Jer. 51:8; Rev. 18:8; Jer. 51:30; Isa 47:7-9) by fire (Jer. 51:30; Rev. 17:16; 18:8), finally (Jer. 50:39; Rev. 18:21), and deservedly (Jer. 51:63-64; Rev. 18:21).
As another example of the use of Old Testament language to describe Babylon, an angel takes up a stone and throws it into the sea, saying,
“Thus with violence the great city Babylon shall be thrown down, and shall not be found anymore” (Rev. 18:21).
This is an intentional allusion to something which Jeremiah instructed his assistant to do, namely to read the book, that predicts the destruction of literal Babylon, before all the people and then:
“You shall tie a stone to it and throw it out into the Euphrates. Then you shall say, ‘Thus Babylon shall sink and not rise from the catastrophe that I will bring upon her” (Jer. 51:59-64).
DESTRUCTIONS ARE SIMILAR
Literal interpreters also point out that the Old Testament predictions of the destruction of literal Babylon are similar to Revelation’s description of the destruction of end-time Babylon:
- Sudden (“in one day” [18:8, 17]);
- Complete (18:21) and
- With fire (Rev. 18:18; 16:17‑21).
They, therefore, argue that the same destruction-event is in view in both the Old Testament and in Revelation.
END-TIME BABYLON WILL NOT BE A LITERAL CITY.
However, the use of Old Testament language to describe end-time Babylon does not prove that it will be a literal city on the banks of the Euphrates, for the following reasons:
TYRE ALSO BECOMES A SYMBOL FOR BABYLON.
Firstly, Revelation also uses language from another mighty Old Testament city—Tyre—to describe end-time Babylon.
For examples, both Tyre and Revelation’s Babylon:
- Are women with daughters (Ezekiel 26:6; Rev. 17:5);
- Are wealthy (Ezek. 27:12, 18; Rev. 18:12, 13);
- Support trade via ships (Ezek. 27:9; Rev 18:19); and
- Enrich others by their wealth (Ezek. 27:33; Rev 18:19).
And both Tyre and Revelation’s Babylon will:
- Have their music silenced (Ezekiel 26:13; Rev 18:22).
- Cease to be forever (Ezek. 27:36; Rev 18:21).
- Be lamented by the princes of the sea (Ezekiel 26:16; Rev 18:17-19), who will cast dust on their heads (Ezek. 27:30; Rev 18:19) and say, “who is like” this city (Ezek. 27:32; Rev 18:18).
This supports the view that the descriptions should be interpreted symbolically.
REVELATION CHANGES THE MEANING.
Secondly, Revelation changes the meaning of the language it borrows from the Old Testament. For example:
1. In the Old Testament, literal Babylon “dwell by many waters” (Jer. 51:13) for it was built on the banks of the literal Euphrates River. In Revelation, Babylon also “sits on many waters” (17:1), but now the “many waters” are used as a symbol for the peoples of the world (17:15).
2. In the Old Testament, “sitting” simply meant that Babylon was built on the banks of the river, which supported life in the city. In contrast, in Revelation, “sitting on” signifies Babylon’s influence over the people, namely, “Those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality” (17:2; cf. 14:8; 18:3).
3. When the Old Testament said that Babylon “is fallen,” it meant that it will surely physically fall. Revelation uses the same phrase to indicate that Babylon has already fallen spiritually because it “has become” a prison of evil spirits (18:2).
4. In Jeremiah 51, Babylon is a gold cup in God’s hands. Revelation changes this symbol to a gold cup in Babylon’s hands, “full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality” (17:4).
Since the language borrowed from the OT changes in meaning, it must be interpreted symbolically. Revelation borrows the name and description of Jerusalem’s Old Testament enemy but uses it as symbols for the enemy of God’s people all over the world and for all time.
JERUSALEM BECOMES A SYMBOL.
Thirdly, if the Babylon of Revelation is a literal city on the banks of the literal Euphrates River because it has that meaning in the OT, then the Jerusalem of Revelation should also be the literal Jerusalem in Judea, for these two cities are the two great enemies; both in the Old Testament and in Revelation. But the New Jerusalem in Revelation includes all of God’s people; from both the Old and New Testaments (21:9, 10, 12, 14).
PLACE NAMES COMMUNICATE QUALITIES.
Another justification proposed for the view of end-time Babylon will be a literal city is that the names of places have their literal significance in the letters to the seven churches (1:9; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14) and the writer of Revelation is very clear to point it out when he intends a figurative meaning, for example, as in 11:8:
“The great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt.”
“The great city,” elsewhere, always refers to Babylon (17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21, and 16:19). Revelation 11:18, therefore, refers to Babylon as Sodom and Egypt:
“Egypt” was not a city, but a nation. Babylon and Egypt were Jerusalem’s two great enemies in the Old Testament. It is for that reason that Revelation uses these names for the enemy of God’s people for all times and places: “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (18:24).
“Sodom” was a city of ill repute. This name emphasizes the morally “fallen” condition of this enemy of God: “All the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her” (18:3).
Names in Revelation, therefore, communicate certain qualities. We should not interpret these names literally as referring to a literal end-time city on the site of ancient Babylon.
THE EUPHRATES BECOMES A SYMBOL.
Literal interpreters also assume that the mention of the Euphrates River, in conjunction with Babylon, means that a physical city is in view.
However, it actually proves that Babylon must be understood symbolically, for Revelation explicitly redefines the Euphrates as the peoples of the world (17:15). The Euphrates is Babylon’s river. It is not possible to separate Babylon from the Euphrates because the Babylon of the Old Testament was built on the banks of the Euphrates. Since the Euphrates becomes a symbol in Revelation, then it follows that Babylon must also be a symbol.
A further justification for the view that end-time Babylon will be a literal city, is that many prophecies of the destruction of ancient Babylon in the Old Testament have not been fulfilled.
PROPHECIES OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BABYLON
In these prophecies, Babylon will be destroyed physically, suddenly, violently, literally, completely, and permanently through catastrophes, as was the case in Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 13:1, 19‑22; 14, 47; Jer. 50:35, 39‑40 51:8, 24‑26). It would become an uninhabitable wasteland. Her walls will be completely destroyed and her gates burned with fire. There will be nothing left of her, no person shall ever reside there, “nor will the Arabian pitch tents there, nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there” (Is. 13:19-20). It “shall be wholly desolate” (Jer. 50:13). “The wild desert beasts shall dwell there with the jackals” (Jer. 50:39-40). This destruction will come in the “Day of the Lord” (Is. 13:6‑11; 13:1; 14:1‑3; Jer. 50:1‑6). Then there will be a disturbance in the sun and moon (Isa. 13:10). There-after, “the whole earth is at rest and is quiet; They break forth into shouts of joy” (Is. 14:7).
CYRUS CONQUERED THE CITY IN 539 BC.
These prophecies have never been fulfilled as they were stated. On the night that Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain and the city came under the control of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, there was no large-scale attack upon the city. In fact, many within the city were not even aware, for quite some time afterward, that the city had been taken. Cyrus diverted the waters of the Euphrates and by night entered the city through the dried-up channel. This allowed armed forces to wade under her defenses without much of a fight.
SLOW DECAY OVER MANY YEARS
After Babylon fell on October 12, 539 B.C. to Cyrus of Persia, the city slowly decayed due to competition and neglect. Xerxes plundered it. Even when Greece, the great leopard beast of Daniel’s night vision, came in the form of the empire of Alexander the Great, the city was not destroyed. Alexander marched to Babylon on Oct. 1, 331 BC, and the Persian garrison offered no opposition. After Alexander, the city was ruled by the Seleucid kingdom during which Babylon’s economy declined sharply due to competition with the new capital at Seleucia on the Tigris (274 B.C.). Although the city still stood when Roman emperor Trajan entered it in AD 115, by about AD 200 the site of the city was deserted. Babylon soon became a desert.
Ancient Babylon ‘fell’ numerous times at the hands of different invaders, but it never suffered anything like the predicted complete destruction. The land around her did not become desolate but continued to be populated and fertile. There was no disturbance in the sun or moon, nor did universal peace follow.
That, however, is consistent with the dual nature of Old Testament prophecies:
God, for example, through Joel, said, “I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind … The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes … When I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (2:28-3:1).
This prediction, therefore, promised both that Jerusalem would be restored and that the Holy Spirit would be poured out. Only in hindsight are we able to distinguish between these events.
Jesus, similarly, in Matthew 24, predicted both the fall of Rome and the end of the world. Again, it is only in hindsight that we are able to distinguish between the two events.
The Old Testament prophecies of the fall of Babylon, therefore, apply both to the historical fall of ancient Babylon and the end-time destruction of the age-old and world-wide enemy of God’s people.
In general, these prophecies combined end-time events with major events in the near future. This fact confirms that ancient Babylon will NOT be rebuilt, for it means that the city has already been destroyed as predicted, and those same predictions teach that it will never be rebuilt.
ONE SYMBOL EXPLAINS ANOTHER SYMBOL.
Still another argument which literal interpreters use for a literal end-time city is that Babylon is explained as “the great city” (17:18), and if that is not a literal city, then one symbol (great city) explains another (Babylon). However, Revelation frequently explains symbols with other symbols.
The seven heads are seven mountains (17:9).
The beast is an eight head or mountain (17:11).
The seven lamps are “the seven Spirits of God” (4:5). “Seven,” here, is not literal, because God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number “seven” means that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present.
The seven stars are “the angels of the seven churches” (1:20). These cannot be literal angels, for Jesus accuses them of sin, for example, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (3:1).
The seven lampstands are the seven churches (1:20), but these churches also represent all churches of history, as discussed elsewhere.
The innumerable multitude is the people that have washed their clothes in the blood of Jesus (7:14).
The two witnesses are “two olive trees and the two lampstands” (11:4) that kill their enemies with fire from “their mouth” (11:5).
The 144000 are those that did not defile themselves with women (false churches) (14:4).
Revelation, therefore, often use more than one symbol for the same reality. Jesus is both a lion and a lamb (5:5, 6) and the beast from the earth is also “the false prophet” (13:12-13; 19:20). In the same way, in 17:18, the harlot and the “great city” are two symbols for the world-wide resistance to the truth of God.
ANCIENT BABYLON IS TOO YOUNG.
Another article in this series shows that the Babylon of Revelation exists throughout history (e.g. 17:5; 18:24). It follows that the ancient Babylon of the Old Testament is too young to be the Babylon of Revelation.
Some literal interpreters defend this point by saying Babylon is actually the false system of worship which originated in Nimrod’s days. If that is the argument, then the name Babylon means the persisting influence that false religion on the kingdoms of the world. In that case, “Babylon” no longer means what it meant in the Old Testament, but has become a symbol for that false religion. If Babylon exists for all human history in the form of that religious influence, why does it have to be rebuilt? By the way, more recent research disputes the truth of the Semiramis and Tammuz religion.
The Babylon of the Book of Revelation is not a literal city.
Revelation uses names and events from the Old Testament to describe end-time events by means of symbols. In the process, the meaning of the names and events changes. Place names communicates qualities.
Revelation borrows the name and description of Jerusalem’s Old Testament enemy but uses it as symbols for the enemy of God’s people all over the world and for all time.
Many OT prophecies of the destruction of Babylon have not been fulfilled. This is due to the dual nature of Old Testament prophecies. They combine end-time events with major events in the near future of the prophet.
Revelation frequently explains symbols with other symbols.
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