Monday, June 28, 2010

Where Exactly is "Babylon the Great?"

In recent years, prophecy writers often comment on how the rebuilding of the ancient city of Babylon is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the end times in part because of the prophecies concerning the fall of Babylon the Great in Revelation 17-18 ( ). However, the contrasts developed between Babylon and the New Jerusalem in Revelation 17-22 suggest that Babylon is more a theological symbol than a specific geographical location. In his book From Eden to the New Jerusalem, T. Desmond Alexander (p. 176) has noted several specific contrasts between the New Jerusalem vs. Babylon in the closing chapters of Revelation:

1. The chaste bride and wife of the Lord (Rev 21:2, 9) vs. the great harlot (Rev 17:2)
2. Nations walking by her light (Rev 21:24) vs. the corruption and deception of the nations (Rev 17:2; 18:3, 23; 19:2)
3. Glory of nations brought to her (Rev 21:26) vs. luxurious wealth extorted from the nations (Rev 18:12-17)
4. Uncleanness, abomination, and falsehood excluded (Rev 21:27) vs. impurities, abominations, and deception as prominent features (Rev 17:4-5; 18:23).
5. The association with life and healing (Rev 22:1-2) vs. the association with the blood of slaughter (Rev 17:6; 18:24)
6. The water of life and tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev 21:6; 22:1-2) vs. the wine which makes the nations drunk (Rev 14:8; 17;2; 18:3)
7. The call to enter (Rev 22:14) vs. the call to leave and come out (Rev 18:4)
As Alexander explains, Babylon represents the world in rebellion against God. In the Old Testament, Babylon is the locale where humans unite in their defiance against God by building a city and tower (Gen 11:1-9).

Babylon is the prime example of a tyrannical empire that opposes God and oppresses the people of God (Ps 137; Isa 13-14; Jer 50-51):

“Whereas the New Jerusalem lies in the future and will be a city built by God, Babylon already exists. It is here and now, for it is the great human city built by people who live in defiance of God. As we shall see, the book of Revlation presents us with an important choice. We have to choose between being a citizen of this world’s godless Babylon or a citizen of God’s future New Jerusalem.”

“The Babylon of Revelation is often taken to be a cipher for Rome, the greatest ‘city’ in the first century AD. There is no doubt that Rome is included within the image of Babylon. However, Babylon as a symbol should not be restricted to the capital of the Roman Empire, because it represents and embodies what human beings strive after when separated from God, Babylon is the antithesis of the city that God himself desires to construct upon the earth.” (p. 181)

“In Revelation, the city of Babylon symbolizes humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God. History witnesses to the ongoing existence of Babylon, as one nation after another has used its power to grow rich at the expense of others. We live in a world where economic power dominates national and international politics.” (pp. 182-83)

James L . Resseguie, in his recent The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, also recognizes the contrast between Babylon and the new Jerusalem and provides a similar understanding of what Babylon symbolizes and represents in Revelation (p. 35):

"Two cities . . . are symbolic: Babylon and the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the ideal city, the city of God, the new promised land (21:1-22:5). The other symbolic city, Babylon, is the satanic parody of Jerusalem. Babylon looks like Rome with its seven mountains (17:9); claims to divinity (‘blasphemous names,” 17:3) are plastered over its throne, the scarlet beast. Yet Babylon is more than the imperial city. It is ‘Babylon,’ the ancient city of Israel’s exile and alienation (see Ps 137). It is ‘Sodom,” a symbol of wickedness (Rev 11:8; cf. Gen 19:1-25; Deut 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jer 23:14-15), and ‘Egypt’,’ the place of slavery and alienation (Rev 11:8; cf. Exod 5:1-21; Joel 3:19). It is the tower of Babel rising to the heavens staking a claim to be God. Babylon is the archetypal city of this world that seeks to deify itself and to rule supreme. Rome fits the bill--and so does any and every place that makes claims that belong to God alone."

"Babylon and Jerusalem represent the two choices of the Apocalypse. Babylon, the city of this world, the place of exile and alienation for Christians, is the spiritual capital for those who are earthbound, whose point of view is from below (that is, from this world). The earthbound includes not only those outside the church but also those within. Babylon is where the 'inhabitants of the world' dwell and the followers of the beast make their home. Yet Babylon is not only the home of the earth's inhabitants; it is also where Christians live, although it cannot be called their home. In John's world, Christians are exiled to Babylon. Thus, John calls Christians to come out of Babylon in 18:4 and not take part in her sins. Although it is impossible to leave Babylon physically, Christians can leave Babylon figuratively by resisting its norms, values, and believes and by following the Lamb to the new promised land, the new Jersualem.”

We also see a contrast between two cities in Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse (Isa 24-27), a section portraying God’s eschatological judgment of the nations and salvation of his people. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will rejoice in God’s deliverance (Isa 26:1-3; 27:13), and peoples from all nations will gather for a banquet in celebration of the removal of death itself (Isa 25:6-10). In contrast to Jerusalem is the desolate city of the proud that has become a heap and a ruin because of God’s devastating judgment (Isa 24:10-12; 25:1-2, 12; 27:10). Rather than indicating a specific place here, the city stands for the whole world and represents all of the cities of the earth that stand in opposition to God and his rule over them. John Oswalt explains the significance of the city imagery: “The city offers wealth, glamour, excitement, pleasure, intrigue, and power—all the things that humans are prone to sell their souls for. But as mighty and alluring as the city of earth is, a day of harvest is coming when all the fruit will be stripped off and nothing will be left of all the riches that earthlings thought were their own.”

Similarly, the end-time empire in Revelation 17-18 encompasses something much larger than a geographical location and reminds us that the nations of the world are in rebellion against God. Like Rome in the first-century, nations today embody the spirit of Babylon. The danger of restricting “Babylon the Great” to a particular geographical location is that it leads us to ignore the ways in which our nation and culture reflect Babylonian beliefs and values that are contrary to God’s kingdom agenda. One of the prominent features of Babylon the Great is its great wealth (Rev 17:4; 18:11-13), and so the American dream of prosperity and success is the modern reflection of an ancient idolatry. Rather than satisfying our curiosity about end-times events, biblical prophecy is designed to change the way we believe and behave. Rather than giving us a geography lesson, the end-time scenario of the book of Revelation is another reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God” and to “flee Babylon” by refusing to buy into the lies of the prevailing culture around us.

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