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Babylon in prophecy

The first great rebel against God, after the Flood, was Nimrod, "a mighty one" and "a mighty hunter". Nimrod (the name in the Heb means "rebel") was prob responsible for the building of the tower of Babel (Gen 11) -- the first great symbol of man's pride and worship of self. In fact, the building of Babel, in Shinar, and the building of Nineveh, in Assyria, are both attributed to this "great" (?) man.

Gen 14 gives a brief but interesting account of a confederacy of four kings from the east which attacked five kings in the land of Canaan, in the days of Abram -- ie approx 2000 BC. The four kings were headed in Gen 14:1 by Amraphael of Shinar, which is the land of Babylon. (Some think "Amraphael" is simply another name for Hammurabi, the almost-legendary ruler of early Babylon, who promulgated civilization's first great law code.) This army defeated its enemies and carried away spoils and captives, among which was Abram's nephew Lot, but Abram and his servants mounted a daring raid to recover his nephew and other captives.

The kingdom of Assyria established a dominance over the ancient city of Babylon during much of the period from 850 to 700 BC. But in the 7th century BC Babylon began to rise again, and finally the tables were turned and she came to surpass Assyria as the dominant power in the whole of the Middle East. This empire is called by historians the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In a series of campaigns, King Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar pushed back the Assyrians to the west and north and controlled the heartland of Mesopotamia. In 612 BC the Babylonians, aided by the Medes and the Scythians, destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (cp Nah 3). The retreating Assyrian army, bolstered by the armies of its former enemy Egypt, tried repeatedly to stem the tide, but in vain. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar, now at the head of the Babylonian forces, won a decisive victory at Carchemish on the northern Euphrates.

Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom with its capital at Jerusalem, now fell under the sway of Nebuchadnezzar (2Ki 24:1; 2Ch 36:1-10). From 605 to 586 BC Jewish kings continued to reign as "puppets" of the Babylonian overlord. But when the last, Zedekiah, attempted to reassert Jewish independence, Jerusalem was besieged and crushed by the Babylonians, assisted by legions from the neighboring Arab nations of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Syria, and the Philistines (2Ki 25:1-8; 2Ch 36:11-17; cp Jer 47-49). The city fell, the glorious Temple of Solomon -- which had seen the very Presence of the Almighty -- was left in ruins, some of the Jews were enslaved and carried away to Babylon, and others were scattered to the four winds (2Ki 25:9-17; 2Ch 36:17-20).

Babylon continued as the dominant power in the area, and as the oppressor and "treader-down" of Israel, until 539 BC, when it was conquered by the Medes and Persians of Cyrus. But the city itself was not destroyed; it became one of Cyrus' capitals, and he appropriated to himself the coveted title "King of Babylon". More than 200 years later, it was still a trading center of great importance when visited by Alexander the Great (IBD 1:246).

In fact, the city of Babylon was never really destroyed, but rather fell victim to a sort of benign neglect -- sinking bit by bit, century by century, further into decay. There were, however, both Jews and Christians living in Babylon in NT times and beyond (cp 1Pe 5:13 and Josephus, Ant 15:2:2 and 18:9:5-9). A Jewish traveler of the 12th century reported, for example, that there existed an active synagogue within a mile of the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's temple of Marduk [M. Allen, "Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary of", Jewish Quarterly Review 17 (1905), 514-530]. It is historically confirmed that, from its beginnings, Babylon has never totally ceased to exist. This simple fact has tremendous impact on the interpretations of certain Bible prophecies.

Such prophecies speak of the fall of Babylon as one of the great events of the Last Days, and an event seemingly associated with the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of God's Kingdom on the earth again. To a certain extent, some prophecies (such as Jer 50 and 51) have already been fulfilled with the defeat of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC. Sometimes it is even proposed that Cyrus himself, as the conqueror of Babylon, was AN "Anointed One", or "Christ", sent by God to destroy evil Babylon (cp Isa 44:28; 45:1; Dan 6:28). There is certainly some merit in this idea. Cyrus' conquest of Babylon did fulfill Bible prophecy. However, certain of the relevant prophecies may have a further fulfillment, since the NT prophecy about the fall of Babylon necessitates another fall of the city -- a fall that is demonstrably yet future.

Some of the relevant OT prophecies are discussed in light of possible further fulfillment, and the Rev passages are examined for the best interpretation possible:

Isa 13: "The burden of Babylon" (v 1): Babylon will be destroyed by God's "sanctified ones" (v 3) in "the day of the Lord": "it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty" (v 6): "Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonian's pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will rest his flocks there" (vv 19,20).

It is true that, as v 17 states, God would stir up the Medes against Babylon. But history confirms that even after its defeat at the hands of Cyrus, Babylon continued to exist and to be inhabited. And so the precise prediction of vv 19, 20 has not been fulfilled as yet! Is it not likely, then, that the Medo-Persian conquest of Babylon, in the 6th century BC, was only an initial (and not a complete) fulfillment of this prophecy? And if so, that complete fulfillment yet remains for the last days.

Isa 14 continues in the same vein: At the time when Babylon falls, and when a taunt is taken up against the king of Babylon (vv 4,12) -- at that very time -- Israel will be especially blessed by God: "The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob. Nations will take them and bring them to their own place. And the house of Israel will possess the nations as menservants and maidservants in the Lord's land. They will make captives of their captors and rule over their oppressors. On the day the Lord gives you relief from suffering and turmoil and cruel bondage..." (vv 1-3). It is true that the defeat of Babylon by the Medes and Persians led, after another few years, to the return of some Jews to Jerusalem. No doubt the return and rebuilding under Ezra and Nehemiah and Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest was A fulfillment of this and similar prophecies. But is it the ONLY, or even the FOREMOST, fulfillment? Or does a greater fulfillment await us in the Last Days? Notice the language: "they will... rule over their oppressors" (v 2) -- that was not at all true of the Israel of Ezra's day, who continued subservient to successive regimes of Persians and Greeks and Romans long centuries after Babylon's defeat. And again, in v 3, "the Lord gives you relief from suffering... and... bondage" may point to more than the limited and temporary OT restoration of Israel.

Isa 47 and 48 picture a fall of Babylon: "The Lord... will do his pleasure on Babylon, and his arm shall be on the Chaldeans" (Isa 48:14). At the same time the Lord will deliver His people who have been held captive there: "Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, 'The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob.' They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out" (Isa 48:19,20). Fulfilled in the days of Nehemiah? Surely. Totally fulfilled then? Maybe not. Because a last-days (and miraculous) deliverance and return of Jewish believers -- who will have evidently been carried into captivity by the Babylonian invaders -- is alluded to in Isa 11:1-16; 19:23-25; 27:12,13; 35:1-10; 43:1-7; 52:1-10; and elsewhere.

Jer 50 and 51 is the most detailed prophecy of the fall of Babylon. And again, this passage was certainly fulfilled in 539 BC. But a number of verses suggest a future fulfillment: " 'In those days, at that time,' declares the Lord, 'the people of Israel and the people of Judah together will go in tears to seek the Lord their God. They will ask the way to Zion and turn their faces toward it. They will come and bind themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten' " (Jer 50:4,5). When in the past has Israel bound itself in a perpetual covenant to the Lord at Jerusalem, a covenant that cannot and will not be broken? Never. So these verses have yet to be fulfilled.

" 'But I will bring Israel back to their own pasture and he will graze on Carmel and Bashan; his appetite will be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and Gilead. In those days, at that time,' declares the Lord, 'search will be made for Israel's guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare' " (Jer 50:19,20).

Israel will experience true forgiveness only when they accept Jesus as their Messiah. That event is yet future.

"Like a lion coming up from Jordan's thickets to a rich pastureland, I will chase Babylon from its land in an instant. Who is the chosen one I will appoint for this? Who is like me and who can challenge me? And who is that shepherd who will stand before me?" (Jer 50:44). Only by a real stretch may such words be applied to Cyrus, the Old Testament conqueror of Babylon. But they are quite appropriate to Jesus Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:9,10; Rev 5:5; 10:3), the Good Shepherd (Isa 40:11; John 10:11), and the One "like God"!

Rev: The Apostle John wrote Revelation at least 600 years after the fall of the original city -- so plainly there will be another fall of Babylon at the time of Christ's coming (which is of course the main theme of Rev). Since the days of Luther, a common interpretation of Revelation has been to see in "Babylon" a mystical, or hidden, name for Rome. Thus the fall of "Babylon" is interpreted as the ultimate overthrow of the Apostate Church system centered in Rome. Roman Catholicism is demonstrably a corrupt system that, along with all other equally wicked systems, deserves to be, and will be, destroyed by Christ at his coming. But is that the best way to interpret "Babylon" in Revelation? It was the drying-up of the Euphrates River that led to the fall of ancient Babylon -- this is suggested in Jer 50:38; 51:36 and confirmed by secular history: After the waters of the river were secretly diverted in the dead of night, enemy troops made their way along the empty river-channel right into the heart of the city, and Babylon fell. In Revelation, surely there is again a geographical and a cause-and-effect connection between the drying-up of the Euphrates River and the fall of Babylon in the Last Days (cp Rev 16:12 with Rev 16:17-21; 14:8)

Consider that the Euphrates River and the historical Babylon were connected geographically. The drying-up of the one led, in the past, to the fall of the other. And there is only one "Babylon" through which the Euphrates River flows! So the case is strengthened for a more literal interpretation of the Babylon of Revelation -- ie that it applies to the real city being rebuilt today, and to the nation occupying the ancient territory of Babylonia. And so the last chapters of Rev picture the defeat of a vicious and depraved Babylon, the hateful and cunning enemy of God's people -- coinciding with the complete victory of a spiritually renewed Jerusalem. The age-old conflict between the two cities -- the one standing for sin and rebellion from practically the beginning of time, and the other standing for peace and righteousness -- will come at last to a soul-satisfying conclusion. "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird... for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes" (Rev 18:2,5). "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem... It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal" (Rev 21:10,11).

The modern-day Iraq of Saddam Hussein occupies the same territory as the OT Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. And the links between Saddam's Iraq and Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon are even more pronounced, since for some time the government of Iraq has been involved in a massive archaeological reconstruction of ancient Babylon. The modern restoration of Babylon began in 1978 and was, at least until the gulf war began, scheduled for completion in 1994. There is no information about damage to the project from allied bombing of Iraq; but ancient Babylon, 40 miles of so south of Baghdad, is not known to be near any major strategic sites and so may have been spared.

As of February 1990, over 60 million bricks had been laid in the reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar's city. Despite the objections of archaeologists, Saddam Hussein has insisted on rebuilding directly over the most ancient ruins. His reconstruction includes the Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, a Greek theater, many temples, Nebuchadnezzar's Throne Room, and a model of the famed Ishtar Gate. He plans also to rebuild the legendary Hanging Gardens and several artificial hills, including one to be called "The Tower of Babel". Why such infatuation with an idea? It has been said: "President Hussein's decision to rebuild Nebuchadnezzar's Palace... is the centerpiece of a campaign to strengthen Iraq's nationalism by appealing to history... Mr. Hussein's campaign also serves subtler ends; it justified Iraq's costly war with Iran as the continuation of Mesopotamia's ancient feud with Persia. And it portrayed Saddam Hussein as successor to Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon's mightiest ruler" (Paul Lewis in the New York Times, April 19, 1989). And Saddam himself has referred to: "Nebuchadnezzar, the national hero who was able to defeat the enemies of our nation in the land of Canaan [Palestine, or Israel] and to take them as prisoners of war to Babylon. What we need now is to increase awareness in this regard" (quoted in the Babylonian International Festival brochure for September 22, 1987).

And so a rebuilt Babylon is Saddam's way of conjuring up the magic of Arab unity and greatness, and authenticating his call for the Arab nations to help him accomplish what his hero Nebuchadnezzar accomplished before him: i.e. the destruction of a Jewish Jerusalem.

"The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up... The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air... God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath" (Rev 16:12,17,19).

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