Her name is Babylon, but she is not a literal end-time city.

PURPOSE

This is an article in the series on the identity of “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots” (Rev 17:5). Another article in this series identifies the entity symbolized by Babylon as false religion and, more specifically, in Christian context, as false Christianity. The literal interpretation of Babylon is that it refers to the ancient city Babylon that will be rebuilt on the banks of the literal Euphrates River, to become the literal political and commercial capital of the world. The current article analyzes the arguments for this proposal.

SUMMARY

OLD TESTAMENT LANGUAGE

To support the literal interpretation of Babylon, interpreters point out that Revelation draws both the name and imagery of ancient Babylon from the Old Testament. For example, in both the OT and in Revelation, Babylon dwells on ”many waters” (Jer 51:13; Rev 17:1), is suddenly destroyed – on a single day (Jer 51:8, 30; Rev 18:8, 17) – by fire (Jer 51:30; Rev 17:16; 18:8), completely (Jer 50:39; Rev. 18:21), and deservedly (Jer 51:63-64; Rev 18:21).

Literal interpreters argue that Revelation repeats the Old Testament predictions of the destruction of ancient Babylon because the destruction of Babylon, which the Old Testament predicted, literally still lies in our future. However, for the following reasons, this argument is not accepted:

TIRE LANGUAGE

Firstly, Revelation describes Babylon by also drawing language from the destruction of another mighty Old Testament city (Tire). For example, both Tire and Babylon in Revelation are women with daughters (Ezek 26:6; Rev 17:5) and will cease to be forever (Ezek 27:36; Rev 18:21). This argues against the literal interpretation of end-time Babylon.

CHANGES THE MEANING

Secondly, Revelation changes the meaning of the Babylon-imagery it borrows from the Old Testament. For example, the Euphrates River literally ran through the ancient city. For that reason, the Old Testament says that literal Babylon “dwell by many waters” (Jer 51:13). Similarly, in Revelation, Babylon “sits on many waters” (Rev 17:1), but now the “many waters” have become a symbol for the peoples of the world (Rev 17:15). Since Revelation changes the meaning of the Babylon-language it borrows from the Old Testament, such language must be interpreted symbolically.

In particular, in both the Old Testament and in Revelation, the Euphrates is Babylon’s river (cf. Rev 16:12; 17:1, 5). For that reason, and since Revelation explicitly defines the Euphrates as a symbol (Rev 17:1, 15), Babylon must also be a symbol.

JERUSALEM IS A SYMBOL.

Thirdly, if the Babylon of Revelation is a literal city, then ancient Babylon’s great enemy (in both the Old Testament and in Revelation), namely the city Jerusalem, should also be a literal city. But, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem becomes a symbol for God’s people (Rev 21:9-10, 12, 14).

PLACE NAMES CONVEY QUALITIES.

Translations of Revelation 17:5 print the name on Babylon’s forehead in capital letters. In the NASB, we read: “a mystery, BABYLON THE GREAT.” This means that “mystery” is not part of her name, but that her name is “a mystery.” Consequently, Babylon is not her real name but a symbol.

Similarly, in Revelation 11:8, we read:

The great city
which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt.”

The great city” refers to Babylon (e.g., Rev 18:21). “Mystically” means that what follows is a symbolic description of Babylon. “Sodom” emphasizes moral depravity and the name “Egypt” identifies “the great city” as the enemy of God’s people. In other words, Revelation uses place names to communicate qualities. Since, in the Old Testament, ancient Babylon was the great enemy of God’s people, the name “Babylon” also identifies this entity as the enemy of God’s people.

UNFULFILLED PROPHECIES

A second argument to justify the literal interpretation is that many prophecies of the destruction of ancient Babylon in the Old Testament have not been fulfilled.

The Old Testament predicted that Babylon will be destroyed suddenly, violently, literally, completely, and permanently (Isa 13:1, 19‑22; 14, 47; Jer 50:13, 35, 39‑40; 51:8, 24‑26) in the “Day of the Lord” (Isa 13:6‑11; 13:1; 14:1‑3; Jer 50:1‑6), when there will be a disturbance in the sun and moon (Isa 13:10). These prophecies have never been literally fulfilled.

That, however, is consistent with the dual fulfillment of classical prophecies. For example, in a single prophecy, Joel 2:28-3:1 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.

Similarly, the Old Testament prophecies of the fall of Babylon apply both to the historical fall of ancient Babylon and to the end-time destruction of the age-old and worldwide enemy of God’s people.

SYMBOLS EXPLAIN SYMBOLS.

A third argument to justify the literal interpretation is that Babylon is explained as “the great city” (Rev 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. For example, the seven heads are seven mountains (Rev 17:9) and the beast is an eight head (Rev 17:11).

Revelation, therefore, often uses more than one symbol for the same reality. Jesus is both a lion and a lamb (Rev 5:5, 6) and the beast from the earth is also “the false prophet” (Rev 13:12-13; 19:20). In the same way, in Revelation 17:18, the harlot and the “great city” are two symbols for the worldwide resistance to God.

TWO BABYLONS

The Babylon of Revelation 17 is a harlot woman and seems to describe her as a spiritual entity, but Revelation 18 describes her as a city. Therefore, literal interpreters propose that the harlot and the city symbolize two different things and that the Babylon of Revelation 18 is a literal city.

But how could this be if the harlot and the city have the same name? Supporters of the literal interpretation propose that the names of the harlot and the city are different. In the KJV of Revelation 17:5, the harlot’s name is “Mystery Babylon” while the city is called “Babylon the great” (Rev 16:19; 17:18). But, in the NASB translation of 17:5, “mystery” is not part of her name. This is confirmed two verses later, where the woman herself is described as a “mystery” (Rev 17:7).

Another justification for the view that the harlot and the city are two different things is that the beast consumes the woman of chapter 17 (Rev 17:16) whereas God judges Babylon in chapter 18 (e.g., Rev 18:8). However, both are destroyed by God (Rev 17:17; 18:5, 8) through fire (Rev 17:16; 18:8-9, 18) and both will become an utterly desolate (Rev 17:16; 18:17, 19).

Contrary to the literal interpretation, there are many indications that the harlot and the city are one and the same. For example:

    • The harlot is explicitly explained as the city (Rev 17:18).
    • The New Jerusalem is also both a woman and a city (Rev 21:9, 10).

CONCLUSION

This article has shown that the evidence for the literal interpretation is weak. Another article in this series shows that Babylon symbolizes A TIMELESS PRINCIPLE, namely that religion always rules over the rulers of the world. In other words, the ancient Babylon of the Old Testament is too young to be the Babylon of Revelation. 😊 Still another article has provided abundant evidence that end-time Babylon is false Christianity

– END OF SUMMARY –


OLD TESTAMENT LANGUAGE

To support the interpretation of Babylon as a literal end-time city, literal interpreters point out that Revelation, to describe end-time Babylon, not only uses the name Babylon from the Old Testament but also repeatedly draws imagery from the description of Babylon in the Old Testament. For example, in both the OT and in Revelation, Babylon:

Dwells on ”many waters” (Jer 51:13; Rev 17:1, cf. Psa 137:1);

Boasts: “I sit as queen and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (Rev 18:7; Isa 47:7-9);

Commits 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, 30; Rev 18:8, 17; Isa 47:7-9) by fire (Jer 51:30; Rev 17:16; 18:8), completely (Jer 50:39; Rev. 18:21), and deservedly (Jer 51:63-64; Rev 18:21).

As another example, an angel throws a stone 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 alludes to an Old Testament prophecy in which God instructed the prophet to go to Babylon, read a book prophecying the city’s doom, tie the book to a stone, throw it into the Euphrates, and say:

Thus Babylon shall sink and not rise” (Jer 51:59-64).

Literal interpreters argue that Revelation repeats the Old Testament language of the destruction of Babylon because the destruction which the Old Testament predicted literally still lies in our future.

However, for the following reasons, this argument is not valid:

(1) TIRE LANGUAGE

Firstly, Revelation also uses language from the destruction of another mighty Old Testament city—Tire—to describe end-time Babylon. For example, both Tire and Babylon in Revelation:

    • Are wealthy (Ezek 27:12, 18; Rev 18:12, 13);
    • Enrich others (Ezek 27:33; Rev 18:19);
    • Support trade via ships (Ezek 27:9; Rev 18:19);
    • Are women with daughters (Ezek 26:6; Rev 17:5);
    • Will no more hear music (Ezek 26:13; Rev 18:22); and
    • Will cease to be forever (Ezek 27:36; Rev 18:21).

The princes will lament over both Tire and Babylon (Ezek 26:16; Rev 18:17-19), 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 argues against the literal interpretation of end-time Babylon.

(2) CHANGES THE MEANING

Secondly, Revelation changes the meaning of the Babylon-imagery it borrows from the Old Testament:

Example 1: The Euphrates River literally ran through the city. Therefore, in the Old Testament, literal Babylon “dwell by many waters” (Jer 51:13). In Revelation, Babylon also “sits on many waters” (Rev 17:1), but now the “many waters” have become a symbol for the peoples of the world (Rev 17:15).

And Babylon’s “sitting” on “the many waters” in Revelation becomes a symbol of Babylon’s corrupting influence on the people of the world: “Those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality” (Rev 17:2; cf. 14:8; 18:3).

Example 2: 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: It “has become” a prison of evil spirits (Rev 18:2).

Example 3: 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” (Rev 17:4).

Since Revelation changes the meaning of the Babylon-language it borrows from the Old Testament, such language must be interpreted symbolically. Revelation borrows the name and description of Jerusalem’s Old Testament enemy but uses these as symbols for the enemy of God’s people all over the world and for all time.

In particular, in both the Old Testament and in Revelation, the Euphrates is Babylon’s river (cf. Rev 16:12; 17:1, 5). For that reason, and since Revelation explicitly defines the Euphrates as a symbol (Rev 17:1, 15), Babylon must also be a symbol.

(3) JERUSALEM IS 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 Babylon’s great enemy (in both the Old Testament and in Revelation), namely the city Jerusalem, should also be a literal city. But, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem becomes a symbol for God’s people (Rev 21:9-10, 12, 14).

(4) PLACE NAMES CONVEY QUALITIES.

Fourthly, in the letters to the seven churches, place names have their literal significance (e.g., Rev 1:9) but the following indicates that the name Babylon is symbolic:

REVELATION 17:5

Translations of Revelation 17:5 print the name on Babylon’s forehead in capital letters. In the NASB, we read:

On her forehead a name was written, a mystery,
‘BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH’.

This means that “mystery” is not part of her name, but that her name is “a mystery.” Consequently, Babylon is not her real name but a symbol.

REVELATION 11:8

This verse reads as follows:

The great city which mystically
is called
Sodom and Egypt,
where also their Lord was crucified
.”

This “great city” also refers to Babylon (e.g., Rev 17:18; 18:10, 16). The word “mystically” is similar to the word “mystery” in 17:5 and indicates that what follows are symbols; not Babylon’s real names:

Sodom” was a city of ill repute. This name emphasizes the moral depravity of this enemy of God.

Egypt” was not a city, but a nation. In the Old Testament, Egypt enslaved God’s people. For that reason, Revelation uses this name for the end-time enemy of God’s people.

Since Revelation uses the names “Jerusalem” and “Israel” only to refer to God’s true people, it uses the indirect reference “where also their Lord was crucified” to refer to the literal Jerusalem.

CONCLUSIONS

The great enemy of God’s people, therefore, is described with various symbols, including:

      • The great city,
      • Babylon, 
      • Sodom,
      • Egypt, and
      • Where their Lord was crucified (literal Jerusalem).

Revelation, consequently, uses place names for God’s enemy to communicate qualities. Such names should not be interpreted literally. Babylon was the great enemy of God’s Old Testament people. It is mentioned 260 times in Scripture; second only to Jerusalem. The king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar) invaded Israel 600 years before Christ, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon (Jer 29:1). After this point in history, there has not been a king from the line of David on the throne of David in Jerusalem. The name “Babylon,” therefore, identifies her as the enemy of God’s people. It should not be interpreted as a literal end-time reconstructed city on the site of ancient Babylon.

UNFULFILLED PROPHECIES

A second argument used to justify the literal interpretation of Babylon is that many prophecies of the destruction of ancient Babylon in the Old Testament have not been fulfilled.

The Old Testament predicted that Babylon will be destroyed suddenly, violently, literally, completely, and permanently (Isa 13:1, 19‑22; 14, 47; Jer 50:13, 35, 39‑40; 51:8, 24‑26) in the “Day of the Lord” (Isa 13:6‑11; 13:1; 14:1‑3; Jer 50:1‑6), when 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” (Isa 14:7).

These prophecies have never been literally fulfilled. On October 12, 539 BC, the king of the Chaldeans was slain and the city came under the control of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians. But there was no large-scale attack upon the city. 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. Many within the city were not even aware, for quite some time afterward, that the city had been taken.

In the subsequent years, the city slowly decayed due to competition and neglect. Even when Greece, the great leopard beast of Daniel’s night vision, came in the form of the empire of Alexander the Great, and marched to Babylon on Oct 1, 331 BC, the Persian garrison offered no opposition and the city was not destroyed. After Alexander, Babylon’s economy declined sharply due to competition with the new capital at Seleucia on the Tigris (274 B.C.). 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.

Dual nature of classical prophecies

Ancient Babylon never suffered anything like the predicted complete destruction. The land around her 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 classical prophecies.

Apocalyptic prophecies contain chains of unusual imagery, like the multi-layered metal statue of Daniel 2, or the series of fantastic beasts of Daniel 7, with features unlike those normally seen in nature. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to involve a series of historical events running one after another from the prophet’s day until the End. Dual or multiple fulfillments should not be expected. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to be unconditional, God sharing the large strokes of history that He foresees will take place, regardless of human response.

In contrast, classical prophecy is seen in books like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah. There is a strong focus on the immediate situation but sometimes such prophecies also refer to the End. In such instances, the End is seen as a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. So immediate and end-time events are often mixed together. For example, through Joel, God 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
” (Joel 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.

Similarly, in Matthew 24 Jesus 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 these two events. 

Since such prophecies combine the immediate situation with a glimpse of the further future, such prophecies can have dual or multiple fulfillments as the centuries roll by and various aspects of the prophecy fit various situations.

CONCLUSIONS

Similarly, the Old Testament prophecies of the fall of Babylon apply both to the historical fall of ancient Babylon and to the end-time destruction of the age-old and worldwide enemy of God’s people.

As shown in the examples above, classical prophecies, as opposed to apocalyptic prophecies, combine end-time events with major events in the near future. Literal interpreters use such prophecies to argue that Babylon will be rebuilt but the dual nature of such prophecies imply the opposite, namely that ancient Babylon will NOT be rebuilt, for the dual nature of such prophecies means that the city has already been destroyed as predicted, and those same predictions teach that it will never be rebuilt.


SYMBOLS EXPLAIN SYMBOLS.

A third argument used to argue that Babylon will be a literal end-time city is that Babylon is explained as “the great city” (Rev 17:18), and, if that is not a literal city, then one symbol (great city) explains another (Babylon). However, this argument is not valid because Revelation frequently explains symbols with other symbols. For example:

The seven heads are seven mountains (Rev 17:9).

The beast is an eight head (Rev 17:11).

The seven lamps are “the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 4:5). (The number “seven” is symbolic, in 4:5 it means that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present.)

The seven stars are “the angels of the seven churches” (Rev 1:20). These cannot be literal angels, for Jesus accuses them of sin (e.g., Rev 3:1).

The two witnesses are “two olive trees and the two lampstands” (Rev 11:4) that kill their enemies with fire from “their mouth” (Rev 11:5).

The 144000 are those that did not defile themselves with women (Rev 14:4). (Women, here, symbolizes false churches).

Revelation, therefore, often uses more than one symbol for the same reality. Jesus is both a lion and a lamb (Rev 5:5, 6) and the beast from the earth is also “the false prophet” (Rev 13:12-13; 19:20). In the same way, in Revelation 17:18, the harlot and the “great city” are two symbols for the worldwide resistance to God.


TWO BABYLONS

The Babylon of Revelation 17 is a harlot woman and seems to describe her as a spiritual entity, but the last verse of chapter 17 (Rev 17:18) defines Babylon as a city, and Revelation 18 continues to describe her as a city, emphasizing commercial aspects. Therefore, literal interpreters propose that the harlot and the city symbolize two different things and that the Babylon of Revelation 18 is a literal city, representing a political entity or a commercial system.

MYSTERY BABYLON

But how could this be if the harlot and the city have the same name? Supporters of the two Babylon view propose that the names of the harlot and the city are different. In the KJV of Revelation 17:5, the harlot’s name is “Mystery Babylon” while the city is called “Babylon the great” (Rev 16:19; 17:18). Literal interpreters argue that “mystery” is part of her name and that these are two different names.

However, for the following reasons, the word mystery describes the name and is not as part of her name:

As already mentioned above, in the NASB, Babylon’s name is printed in capital letters as the word “mystery” is not part of that name.

Furthermore, two verses later, the angel offers to tell John the mystery of the woman and of the beast which carries her” (Rev 17:7). In other words, the woman herself (and the beast) is a “mystery” (cf. Rev 1:20; 10:7): It is not part of her name.

Lastly, in both Revelation 14:8 and 17:2, Babylon “made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.” But in one instance the name is that of the city (“Babylon the Great” – 14:8) and in the other, the name is that of the harlot (Rev 17:1).

The woman and the city, therefore, have the same name; simply “Babylon.

GOD DESTROYS BABYLON.

Another justification for the two-Babylon theory is that the beast consumes the woman in chapter 17 (Rev 17:16), whereas God judges Babylon in chapter 18 (e.g., Rev 18:8).  However, both are destroyed by God (Rev 17:17; 18:5, 8) through fire (Rev 17:16; 18:8-9, 18) and both will become an utterly desolate (Rev 17:16; 18:17, 19).

PROOF THAT THEY ARE THE SAME

So far, we have addressed the arguments for the two-Babylon theory. The following are indications that the harlot and the city are one and the same:

(1) The harlot is explicitly explained as the city (Rev 17:18).

(2) Both are clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls (Rev 17:4; 18:16), implying great wealth (Rev 17:4; 18:19).

(3) Both persecute believers (Rev 17:6; 18:20, 24). and both deceive the nations (Rev 17:2; 18:24).

(4) Revelation 19 continues to comment on Babylon’s destruction, but now she is again represented as “the great harlot” (Rev 19:2-3).

(5) The New Jerusalem is also both a woman and a city (Rev 21:9, 10).

(6) Revelation often uses different names for the same thing. For example, Jesus is both a lamb and a lion (Rev 5:5, 6) and the beast from the earth is also called “the false prophet” (Rev 13:12, 13, 19:20).

An unfortunate contributor to the distinction between the harlot and the city is the chapter divisions between Revelation 17, 18 and 19, which mask the unity of the entire passage. Chapter divisions are not part of the inspired text and should not influence our interpretations. It is proposed that anyone who reads chapters 17 to 19 without preconceived ideas would conclude that the woman and city are the same.


CONCLUSION

This article has shown that the evidence for the literal interpretation is weak. Another article in this series shows that Babylon symbolizes A TIMELESS PRINCIPLE that is present is all time-bound entities, such as the entities represented by the dragon, the beast and the image of the beast. Namely Babylon symbolizes that religion always rules over the rulers of the world. In other words, the ancient Babylon of the Old Testament is too young to be the Babylon of Revelation. Still another article has provided abundant evidence that end-time Babylon is false Christianity.


FINAL CONCLUSIONS

The literal interpretation of Babylon it that it refers to the ancient city Babylon that will be rebuilt on the banks of the literal Euphrates River, to become the literal political and commercial capital of the world. The evidence for this interpretation is weak.

Revelation changes the meaning of the Babylon-imagery it borrows from the Old Testament.

Revelation uses place names for Babylon to communicate qualities.

Revelation uses the name and description of Jerusalem’s Old Testament enemy as symbols for the enemy of God’s people all over the world and for all time.

Classical prophecies have a dual fulfillment. They combine end-time events with major events in the near future.

Revelation often uses more than one symbol for the same reality.

The Babylon of Revelation 17, which is symbolized as a harlot woman, is the same as the Babylon of Revelation 18, which is symbolized as a city.


Articles in this Series

Other articles series:

For further reading, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

 

One Reply to “Her name is Babylon, but she is not a literal end-time city.”

  1. This article quotes from Revelation 11:8, “the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt.” It notes that “the great city” always refers to Babylon and that Babylon, therefore, is also called Sodom and Egypt.

    However, Revelation 11:8 continues, “where also our Lord was crucified.” That means that Babylon / Sodom and Egypt / Jerusalem, represent the false church whose members are crucifying Jesus, as an enemy in opposition to the true church.

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