The Judgment of Babylon

by Matthew W. Bassford

It seems like the farther we get into the book of Revelation, the more contentious it gets. Our reading concerns chapters 16 through 18, and the main character in this section is the wicked city of Babylon, personified as a prostitute. To say that the identity of Babylon is under dispute is to put it lightly. Whole oceans of ink have been spilled in defending one of two main viewpoints, that Babylon is either the city of Jerusalem or the city of Rome.

I happen to identify Babylon with Rome, but there is a more fundamental sense in which this debate misses the point. As always, I think the best way to figure out Revelation is not to look forward and try to make it match up with events after the time of its writing. Instead, we are much better off looking back and studying the language of the Old Testament that it is borrowing. Let's use that approach this evening to figure out what we need to know about the judgment of Babylon.

Our text will be Revelation chapter 18, which is particularly suitable for our purposes because it almost entirely comprises references from the Old Testament. As we examine these source texts, they will help us to figure out what the Holy Spirit wants us to understand. Not surprisingly, they are about the judgment of cities from the time of the kingdom of Judah.

The first such text is about the judgment of the literal city of Babylon. Let's read from Revelation 18:7-8. This is taken from Isaiah 47:5-9. The parallels here are clear. Just like the Babylon of Isaiah described herself as a queen who never would know mourning, the Babylon of Revelation says the same thing. John obviously wants us to connect these two events.

Second, John uses language from the judgment of Edom. Look at Revelation 18:2. Our source text this time is Isaiah 34:6, 11-14. Isaiah goes into more detail, but we see that the same creatures are present in both texts: unclean birds, unclean beasts, and even demons. All of these will inhabit the ruins of a city that opposed God. John doesn't only want us thinking Babylon. He wants us thinking Edom too.

He also wants us to think about the judgment of Tyre. Consider Revelation 18:11-19. This time, we need to go to Ezekiel 27. In fact, John uses so much of this text that we don't have time to read it all. Let's take a sample, though, from verses 12 and 13. This is the start of a catalog of trade goods like the one in Revelation 18. Notice particularly the description of the slave trade as a trade in human souls or lives. Also, in Ezekiel 27: 28-32, we see sailors and merchants lamenting the fall of the city. They're doing the same thing in Revelation.

Finally, John uses language from the judgment of Jerusalem. Let's go here to Revelation 18:21-24. This time, John is working with Jeremiah 25:1, 8-10. It's easy to see that both texts contain the light of a lamp, the sound of a millstone, and the voices of a bridegroom and bride. These are the products of ordinary human activity that will cease after God's judgment.

When we put all of this together, we see how shortsighted it is to behave as though God’s judgment is exclusive to any one wicked city or nation. In the time of Isaiah, God promised to judge the wickedness of the whole world, and He did. As I said, I happen to think that this week's reading is about Rome. However, the language of Revelation 18 applies just as well to first-century Jerusalem. We know that it was a wicked city that God judged, and this is the timeless language of God’s judgment.

Nor should we think that this judgment language has had no application since the fall of Rome. Nowhere in Scripture do we see God resigning His position as the great King of the nations, and He has not ceased to control their rise and fall. Thus, it is reasonable to look at Revelation 18 and see it as predicting the downfall of Germany and Japan in 1945 because they too were wicked nations that paid the price for their wickedness.

This is both reassuring and alarming. It reassures us because we can be certain that God continues to rule the fate of nations now. The wicked may prosper for a time, but ultimately, they will fall before His wrath.

However, we must remember that one of the cities that was judged was Jerusalem. God's judgment is not only for other places. If our nation is wicked, it will fall upon our heads too. This takes us to our final text from Revelation 18:4. It comes from Isaiah 52:11. Interestingly, this text also is cited by Paul in II Corinthians 6:14-18.

The message for us is plain. Because God is sure to judge Babylon, we must make sure that we don't belong to Babylon. This was true for Christians who lived in Jerusalem or Rome, and it is true for Christians who live in our wicked nation. This doesn't mean that we must emigrate. Instead, it means that we must hold ourselves apart and not participate in the wicked deeds that are inviting God's judgment. If we will not “come out from among them and be separate”, we will not escape their fate.

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