7 Babylon the Great

Babylon — ancient and modern

Babylon was a proud and splendid city on the river Euphrates. In the reign of Belshazzar it was conquered with startling suddenness. Thereafter it declined and became a ruin, and was never built again. Babylon was also the first of four great empires that dominated the world. The kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Babylon.

But the story of Babylon goes much further back than the days of Nebuchadnezzar — to Babel, that ancient arena of pride, rebellion and confusion of tongues.

The connection between the Babylon of the Old Testament and the great city of Revelation is not immediately apparent. But the fact that the Spirit uses this Old Testament name in such an important prophetic context ought to convince us that there is an important common factor.

The important common factor is surely this: each Babylon is, in its time, the great enemy of the people of God. The woman named Babylon is drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus (17:6). What ancient Babylon was to natural Israel, apocalyptic Babylon is to spiritual Israel.

Moreover, the desolation that befell ancient Babylon is more than matched by the destruction of the Babylon of Revelation. In "one hour" she is completely removed, and the great men of the earth are left gasping with amazement.

There are other links between the two Babylons, but these will emerge as we proceed.

The harlot

Like its Old Testament prototype, Babylon of Revelation is referred to as a city — a great city.

As well as being a city, ancient Babylon was also a kingdom, an empire. In contrast, apocalyptic Babylon is not an independent political power. Like its predecessor it controls nations, but does so in a different way. It is famous, or rather infamous, for its compromising relationship with political powers. It both depends upon them and directs them, as a rider depends upon and directs the movements of his beast. Yet the scene in Revelation 17 is not uie dignified relationship of a wise and intelligent rider and his strong, obedient horse. The scene here is bizarre and offensive. Babylon is depicted as a wicked, gaudily attired woman, riding on a vicious, hideous monster. Supported, elevated and borne along by this hybrid creature, she manages, in a precarious way, to direct its movements. She plays a dubious, dishonourable role that involves selling herself for political advantage.

Yes, Babylon is a harlot. In Scripture a harlot is often more than a prostitute. She is an unfaithful wife who has turned prostitute. Thus Israel was called a harlot in Hosea chapter 1 because she had forsaken God, whose spiritual relationship to the nation could be compared with that of a loving, protective husband, and had instead pursued, and been spoiled by idolatrous paramours.

An interesting suggestion that makes no claim to originality is handed on here. It is that the story of Babylon the harlot begins in Revelation 12. There a woman who has fulfilled an honourable role and given birth to a child destined to become a world ruler, is chased into the wilderness. The inference is that she is corrupted in the wilderness, and becomes the harlot of Revelation 17.

Two phases

The career of this wanton woman is presented in two phases:

1. The phase when she sits on a beast.

2. The later phase (after the fall of the seventh head) when she sits upon many waters.

It is when the woman sits upon many waters that she is destroyed by the beast and the ten horns.

Dramatic destruction

Babylon's relationship with the kings of the earth is interesting. She rules over kings (17:18); her relationship with kings is one of wanton wickedness (18:3); she is destroyed by kings (17:16); and other kings lament her destruction (18:9).

The account of her destruction is brief: but it is a drama of cataclysmic dimensions. Following this account, which is found in the concluding section of Revelation 17, is a long chapter which tells of the great void that her annihilation creates, and of the sickening impact that this sudden catastrophe makes on the great people of the world. Kings, merchants and shipmasters lament her loss, but the people of God are invited to rejoice (18:20 and 19: 1.2).1

Immediately after the story of the harlot's destruction comes the marriage of the true bride of Christ in Revelation 19.


Who is this great Babylon? A city on seven hills (17:9); reigning over kings (17:18); serving and controlling these kings by spiritual prostitution (18:3 etc.); a persecutor of the true church (17:6 and 18:20); and, by implication, one who is disgracefully unfaithful to the Man who should have been her spiritual husband — who else but Rome?

As Babylon was the city of the ancient world, so Rome became the city of the mediaeval world. Rich and splendid, the authority of ancient Babylon reached vast territories far beyond the confines of the city. So too with the city where counterfeit Christianity is enthroned. In the language of the Apocalypse, she sat upon many waters — and waters are "peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues" (17:15).

Some have argued that whereas the woman of Revelation 17 sits upon seven mountains, Rome stands on a cluster of little hills. The fact is that the Greek word translated "mountains" in the AV (but not in all translations), can also be rendered "hills"; and this the AV has done in three places. For example, the same Greek word (oros) is translated "hill" in Luke 4:29 ("the brow of the hill") with regard to an eminence about 12 or 15 metres high.

Rome has been known for centuries, and is known to this day, as the city of the seven hills; and the fact that the city of Revelation 17 is referred to in this way is surely an invitation for us to think here of Rome.

It is true that Israel is also called a harlot in the Old Testament (e.g. Hosea 1, 2 and 3), and this has emboldened some expositors to say that the harlot of Revelation 17 must be Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.

This method of interpreting symbols is not good enough. Because a symbol is applied to a place, or person, or nation in one part of Scripture, it does not necessarily imply that it is to be applied in precisely the same way in different circumstances hundreds of years later. Especially must we beware of this too-facile way of interpreting symbols when other facts do not fit.

Instead, we should ask ourselves what the principles underlying the first application are, and then make appropriate application in the new context.

In the same way as Jerusalem became the centre of an apostate nation in Old Testament times, so Rome became the centre of an apostate community in the Christian era. And just as Israel forsook God and "went a whoring" after the gods of other nations — all except a faithful remnant — so most of the members of the church that was espoused as a chaste virgin to Christ, became corrupted.2 It is fitting that this community should be described as a harlot, or an unfaithful wife; and it is a fact of history that this harlot community has made the seven-hilled city its centre.

One notable mark of infidelity has been the illicit union between the so-called Christian church and the State — a relationship forbidden by the apostles of Christ, including that apostle whom the apostate church has gratuitously called its first pope. (See how Peter refers to the believers as strangers and pilgrims in his first Epistle — 1:1; 2:11; and notice how he enjoins submissive obedience to secular authorities — 2:13,14.)

Not only is Babylon a harlot: she is the mother of harlots (17: 5). As Jezebel bore Athaliah, so the "mother church" has given birth to rebellious daughters — churches that have resented the matriachal dictatorship of Rome, but have not submitted to the authority of Christ.

How appropriate that the announcement of the marriage of the true bride of Christ (19:7) comes immediately after the destruction of the Babylonian harlot.

Appropriate too is the fact that Christ's true bride is also described as a city — the New Jerusalem:

"And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb's wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal . . ." (21:9-11). Corresponding to the two phases of the woman of Revelation 17 are the two phases of the apostate church:

1. When she was carried by the Roman Empire (from the time of Constantine).

2. When (since the fall of the Roman Empire) she has dictated to "peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues" (17:15).

Muddled thinking Many would readily assent to the proposition that the woman of

Revelation 17 is a symbol of the Roman church. Beyond this point, however, the thinking often becomes muddled. Some of those who regard the woman as a symbol of the papacy also seem to have a vague idea that the beast represents the papacy. This produces an impossible expository situation, for according to Revelation 17, verses 16 and 17, the beast (in its association with the ten horns) destroys the woman:

"And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled."

This brings us to another extraordinary blindspot in the thinking of many. The fate of the harlot is stated clearly in the passage quoted above. It is the beast (with its horns) that destroys the woman. And the destruction is complete: "And the ten horns . . . shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire." Utter annihilation, surely! This in no way contradicts the fact that the destruction is providentially directed — "God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will". Like the Assyrian of Isaiah 10, the beast (with the kings) is the rod of God's anger. Despite the plain teaching of Revelation 17 concerning the destruction of the harlot, many cling to the belief that Christ himself will destroy this counterfeit-Christian organisation personally. Let it be stated categorically: the beast and the horns (a political power and its satellites) destroy the whore (17:16,17). Then the beast itself is destroyed by Christ (17:14).

The scale of destruction

The whore is utterly destroyed: what does this really mean? Revelation 17 says that the woman is a seven-hilled city: does this imply that the 'eternal city' is scheduled for demolition? To predict the annihilation of Rome must sound offensive to some people, but it would be far more offensive to pretend that the prophecy of Revelation 17 was not there. Ancient Babylon was reduced to a heap of rubble and never rebuilt. This will be the destiny of her modern counterpart.

This is not the whole story. In its apocalyptic context, Babylon is more than a city: it is also a system of religion that emanates from the city. Counterfeit Christianity will also be destroyed.

Babylon — or Rome — can be thought of as a number of concentric circles. In the middle is the city; around it is the community that bows to the authority of the bishop of Rome; outside that is the vast area where, in varying degrees of concentration, papal teaching has permeated. It is sometimes called "Christendom", and sometimes "the Western World".

It is noteworthy that the great segment of the world that vaguely thinks of itself as Christian has for many years been deeply involved in commerce and transportation of merchandise. These features are highlighted nostalgically in the lamentations that follow the destruction of the whore. Even the merchandise that Babylon dealt in is catalogued. Does this suggest a connection? Does it not strengthen the conclusion that the whore is deeply involved in the economics of Christendom?

This may also help to explain why the elaborate description of apocalyptic Babylon's mercantile interests reminds us so much of Tyre of the Old Testament, the mercantile power of the ancient world. Ezekiel (chapters 26-28) speaks of God's judgments on Tyre, and the language is strikingly similar to that applied to Babylon in Revelation 18.

It is not easy to define the limits of the destruction. The centre of the circle will certainly be demolished, and the system of religion directly associated with it will also have to go. It seems likely that many people will also perish; hence the urgent call, "Come out of her, my people."

There are those too who will stand afar off and witness with sorrow the destruction of their beloved Babylon:

"And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come" (Revelation 18:9,10). Merchants and shipmasters will likewise lament.


Several Old Testament prophecies speak of "all nations" uniting to make war on Jerusalem. The best known are probably Joel 3:2 and Zechariah 14:2. These Scriptures tell of a gathering together of the nations of the world, in the latter days, for a common, wicked purpose — the destruction of Israel.

This forthcoming international confederacy recalls the first united nations conspiracy — the one recorded in Genesis 11 that took place in Babel.

But there is a difference. On the first occasion the speech of the nations was confounded. On the next occasion, after the nations have been judged, there will be a "pure language", as Zephaniah declares:

"Therefore wait ye upon me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then I will turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent" (Zephaniah 3:8,9).

Babel is Babylon. Are we then to conclude that this aggressive conspiracy against Israel will be carried out in the name of the apocalyptic Babylon — the infamous harlot of Revelation 17?

Ancient Babylon stood on the river Euphrates. It seems reasonable therefore to assume a connection with apocalyptic Babylon when the name of Euphrates occurs in Revelation. One such occurrence is Revelation 9:14-16 (the sixth trumpet) which speaks of an incredibly large army, apparently waiting in readiness at the Euphrates for the precise moment to attack.

To attack whom? In ancient days invading armies came from the Euphrates to destroy Israel. The suggestion therefore is that because this great company, bent on destroying Israel, comes from the Euphrates, it represents the Babylonian harlot-organisation of Revelation 17.

No wonder Babylon herself is destroyed so utterly!

References and Notes

1. There is a reversal of chronological sequence in chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation. Whereas chapter 17 describes the destruction of the great whore, the chapter that follows predicts this destruction, and warns God's people to come out of Babylon because her plagues are to come in one day (verses 4-8).

2. 2 Corinthians 11:3.

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