What is Babylon?
“Come out of her, My people!” (Revelation 18:4)
The context is “Babylon the Great”. But just what is that? It is very important to know, because if we do not leave it, we are warned that we will share in its punishment. But exactly what it is seems rather nebulous, because by the time this was written (near the end of the first century C.E.), Babylon was a “has-been”. Yes, it was still a significant town, and in fact was one of the biggest hubs of Judaism at that time, but like Egypt, it was no longer a major or even sovereign world power.
While it still was, Babylon was already sentenced to destruction, because when YHWH called on it to be the instrument to judge His negligent people (Jer. 25:11), it enjoyed its job too much. (Jer. 50:11)
If we read the original “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” in Isaiah 21:9, we might imagine Jeremiah was speaking of that historical empire. But the very same phrase, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon”, shows up again in Revelation 14:8 and 18:2, written nearly 70 years after Yeshua’s death. Why would Yochanan (John) write then about its fall?
Some think he must have been using it as a code name for Rome since, after all, he wrote this from right under their aquiline noses. There is some merit to that, as we will see, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, because Rome, too, has faded away, and these prophecies are yet to be fulfilled. The scenario of his vision is the end of the age--because Babylon never did fall in the way that is described in Isaiah or Jeremiah. It was captured—nearly bloodlessly—and became part of other empires, then faded away, but was never destroyed as such. Many of its walls and gates and frescoes are still very much intact. (Contrast Jeremiah 50:15)
This enigmatic entity is also described as “the mother of harlots”. (Rev. 17:5) For this reason the Babylon of prophecy is often identified one-to-one with the Roman Catholic Church (which in practicality kept the deflated Roman empire on life support by pumping some Biblical truth into its pagan remains). Since Revelation 14 and 18 say Babylon infected the whole world with the passion of its sexual immorality, others say it represents the United States (especially New York, the wealthy commercial capital of the world whose smoke was indeed seen from far away on 9/11/2001), while still others say, “No, the Babylon system will again literally make its headquarters on that same ancient site on the Euphrates in Iraq.”
And it very well might. There seem to be many levels on which we can legitimately interpret just what it is. In a moving song released in 1978, Bob Ayala laid out some provocative clues:
“There sits the king of Babylon, upon his ancient throne.
There’re bloodstains on his priestly robe; he’s made the earth his home.”
That much could fit the literal Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel’s day. But then he goes on to some aspects that don’t fit that time frame but apparently that of an end-times reappearance of this king:
“There sits the king of Babylon, who can make the image speak. (Rev. 13:15)
Like the serpent in the garden, yes, he’s older than you think…”
“Mystery Babylon”, indeed! The account, written in advance, of Babylon’s being “taken” (Jeremiah 50-51) should especially interest us because the same context describes Israel and Yehudah (both kingdoms) returning together to the Land of Israel and permanently restoring our covenant with YHWH. This is the time when we are to leave it quickly (50:8)—just as Revelation 18 says.
Thus, Babylon may again indeed symbolize one specific nation around the “time of Yaaqov’s trouble” (see Jer. 30:7), but it also has a broader, overarching frame of reference.
One big clue is that it seems to correspond with the Renewed Covenant’s specialized use of “The World” (kosmos). Sometimes this term simply means “the people of the earth”, the object of YHWH’s love, as in John 3:16. But often it has the more sinister sense of an entity that hates those who are righteous (1 Jn. 3:13) More importantly, we are told that “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him!” (1 Jn. 2:15) So it is imperative that we identify what it is we are not supposed to love.
Properly, kosmos means “order”; the term “cosmetic” also comes from it, and that is definitely a spinoff, as we will see. But the main idea is seen the recent resurgence of the phrase “New World Order”, a concept mentioned on the dollar bill in its Latin form, novus ordo seclorum, of a political attempt to change the structure of society to form “e pluribus unum” (one out of many). That is something the major empires of the world have all attempted to do, most notably the Greeks, who wanted to not just receive tribute from, but force their culture on all those they conquered. The story of the Maccabees is the epic Hebrew response to that agenda, which we still celebrate every year at Hanukkah.
But Greece was just one of a series of incarnations of this spirit that was neatly summarized in a statue seen in the king of Babylon’s dream. (Daniel 2:32ff) The statue also includes Medo-Persia, Rome, and a re-emergence somehow related to Rome (but with other elements added) as parts of this same entity.
But Babylon is the head of the statue. (Dan. 2:38) Why? Was it just because his kingdom was superior to those that came later? (Dan. 2:37) Or was there more to it?
With different languages being translated from, it’s easy to miss the fact that Babylon actually showed up much earlier--very soon after Noakh, in the tower of Babel (the Hebrew name for what later shows up in Greek as Babylon). Now we’re getting somewhere, because Babel’s first king was Nimrod, the great rebel against YHWH. (Gen. 10:10) Nimrod’s city held the origin of all pagan worship and the idolizing of human potential and unification—for the wrong cause. Extrabiblical but very ancient accounts (Jubilees and Yasher) say Nimrod directly persecuted Avraham, the paragon of true faith, and that clash has been the theme of the drama ever since.
YHWH scattered the inhabitants of the first Babel, but over and over they have tried to reunite—and always at the expense of YHWH’s people and His instructions. At times it has been allowed to overtly succeed to a great extent, but always with a limit on how far YHWH will let it go, as seen in the “hand writing on the wall” that signaled the end of that second Babylon’s throne. (Dan. 5:5ff) Sometimes the scepter was passed immediately to the next permitted world empire, as in this case; other times it stayed underground for centuries before resurfacing. (The term “occult” means “hidden”--an apt description of how its secretive agendas were transmitted during times when the kind of order YHWH had prescribed was more ascendant.)
The term kosmos is first used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures from about 200 years before Yeshua) to describe an “order” that the Hebrew text calls the “host (or army) of heaven” which YHWH’s people might, like the Gentiles, be tempted to worship. (Deut. 4:19) It refers to the sun, moon, and stars. But since stars are often, in Hebrew lore, linked with the other “host of heaven”, the angels, the fact that a large number (1/3) of them fell with Heylel (Lucifer) can point us toward another important aspect of this “order”. (Rev. 12:4)
And in fact, that is quite literally how Babel is first introduced to us: “Let's build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and make a name for ourselves, so we won't be scattered over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4) Herein lie the keys to our understanding of what the Bible means when it speaks cryptically of Babylon the Great.
“Top in the heavens” probably indicates that it would depict the symbols of the heavenly hosts at its top, rather than just being a skyscraper or an attempt to get out of range of another flood. Mesopotamian ziggurats have been found with names like "House of Link Between Heaven and Earth". “Babel” itself means “gate of Elohim”. Aramaic Targum Pseudo- Jonathan says the tower had an idol at the top with a sword drawn against YHWH. Josephus says that Nimrod aimed to turn men to dependence on himself rather than Elohim, so Babylon was also the origin of slavery, despotism, and tyranny.
It could thus be summarized as “what haSatan wants to make this world into”—usually conformity (compare Romans 12:2), but occasionally touting itself as wanting “diversity”, though that is usually only where he wants to do things differently from how YHWH said to do them. That goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and its seeds were in that forbidden fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
So, insofar as it includes a mixture of truth and paganism, and a rejection of the order that YHWH gave to Israel and adoption of another order simply to spite the Jews, the Church of Rome is certainly one instance of Babylon as a supposedly holy revival of the empire. But it is one that those who want a pure relationship with YHWH need to come out of. Yes, I have seen individual Catholics who show evidence of great spiritual insight and love for YHWH, but as an institution it has the blood of many martyrs on its hands (not to mention victims of other kinds), and in a day when we do have free access to the more ancient teachings that were both suppressed and corrupted by Rome, remaining in the context of that hierarchy could only vex and cramp one who wants to follow the Spirit’s leading. It is the “Egyptian son of an Israelitish woman” as prefigured in Leviticus 24:10ff, and more literally descends from Esau, the twin brother who wanted to kill Jacob, and thus it is bound to be in battle with any true “man of Israel”.
But there is more to “come out of”. In a different sense, Babylon, “the mother of harlots” is everywhere: the whole system that prostitutes our every virtue or vice for the sake of commerce, power, and prestige. It’s everything that exemplifies human arrogance, like the tower from which it got its name. It traffics in not just commodities, but also the bodies and souls of human beings. (Rev. 18:13)
That serpent once held the position which would later be given to both the high priest of Israel and the bride of Messiah. (Compare Ezekiel 28:13 with Exodus 28:17-21 and Revelation 21:19-20). “Babylon” is complicated because the original Deceiver has woven many tangled webs while trying to get his position back. It thus constitutes a rival kingdom that appears in a wide variety of manifestations as the antithesis of YHWH’s people Israel and especially His city Jerusalem—everything that has opposed or counterfeited (trying to usurp) His plan for human history.
Ever since the serpent tricked us out of our title deed to the earth, “the whole world lies in [the power of] the evil one.” (1 Yochanan 5:19) It encompasses every injustice done for the sake of “getting ahead”. It is everything that makes an impressionable young girl cry because she just does not measure up to the image of “beauty” that has ruined so many. The Madison Avenue advertising industry is irrevocably infected by it. It’s present every time natural and simple cures for cancer get buried and banned because they would put the big money-makers out of business. And it shows up wherever people unite for the wrong reasons.
“Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15) doesn’t mean to stop associating with the citizens of the other kingdom. (1 Cor. 5:10) Yeshua, who never yielded to temptation, showed us how to be “in the world yet not of it”—to be both lights in the dark places and approachable by those who want relief from these wearying expectations (because we do possess the remedy).
But when all of these things are solidified into a codified form is when they become most dangerous and much harder to disentangle ourselves from. That is why it is important to not let ourselves become enamored with or indebted to them while they are still in their nascent forms.
Scripture hints that all of these things will indeed form one unified entity again soon, just like at the original Babel, and become a bit more obvious to those who are watching out for it. Revelation 14 segues straight from Babylon to “the Beast” who requires everyone to be a “citizen of the world” or die, showing us that they are inextricably linked.
But Judah and Israel were once in the past both described as “harlots” (Ezekiel 23), and insofar as either sells itself to this ominous entity, the City of the Great King will be compromised as well. If the Crusaders and the Palestinians have wanted to co-opt the capital of Israel, how much more will the “New World Order” (which we can now see is, ironically, actually haSatan’s oldest order) want to move its seat to Jerusalem after its own capital falls again? (At that point, in Rev. 11:8, Jerusalem is code-named “Sodom” and “Egypt—because though Nebuchadnezzar’s statue only addressed the instances of Babylon that would follow him, the baton from the earlier Babel had passed through Egypt as well.
But Israel is not to be counted among the nations. (Num. 23:9) It is a unique entity, in a category of its own with a special purpose (the meaning of “holy” in Hebrew). YHWH alone, not any centralized rule of a man, sets our agenda and our priorities.
At present all of this is held at bay by the prayers and actions of those loyal to YHWH, but it will be allowed one final attempt to put its long-standing plan into effect. HaSatan has always thought he could do a better job at ruling than YHWH could, wanting to supplant Elohim Himself. He saw his more impersonal way of running things as more efficient and productive, reflected in Pharaoh’s philosophy that if the Hebrews even had time to think of taking a break, they must have more time on their hands than they needed and thus, in his way of thinking, they should be giving Pharaoh even more of their time, as Rabbi David Fohrman points out.
Lest haSatan accuse YHWH of leaving his solution to the world’s ills untested, his structure must be allowed one last occasion to be objectively and publicly proven to be intrinsically flawed so that the truth may be evident to all and their choice clear. HaSatan wants his kingdom to be of the highest quality; after all, pride was his watershed trait. But it lacks love, mercy, and understanding. He only gives space to the prettiest–but by whose standard? YHWH created us with great variety and many kinds of dignity, but when those who are already deeply loved still feel a need to change their faces to try to achieve some standard of “beauty”, just who are they trying to look like? HaSatan’s favorite, Nimrod’s wife Semiramis? Why would we feel obligated to live up what YHWH has given to another rather than the unique kind of beauty He has assigned to us? Of course, this foments discontent, which is how haSatan has been dividing and conquering since the beginning.
How many morals and ideals are compromised (Mat. 16:26), and how many others are trampled on in our attempts to rise to world-class “success” as defined by the self-styled “experts” who think they know better than the rest of us? They probably don’t even know they are part of a conspiracy; most are only its pawns. But we know how it feels to see once-innocent children turn on those who love them most for the sake of appearing cosmopolitan and urbane, when we know that those who are luring them in couldn’t care less about them but are only thinking of how they can con them out of what little they have.
But we must never let this dishearten or overwhelm us. Yeshua, as always, provides good news to those who are willing to obey: “In the world you have distressing affliction, but be of good cheer (courage); I have overcome the world.” (Yochanan 16:33b) And “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 Yochanan 4:4) And he gives us handholds to grip when the pressure is greatest, with life-preservers like “Here is how the holy ones can persevere, steadfast and faithful.” (Rev. 13:10; 14:12)
One of these is that we guard both YHWH’s commandments AND the faith of Yeshua—a combination that is truly a narrow path that few seem to find, though it has been there all along. Another, less overt, thing to hang onto is that we are let in on the secret that Babylon’s end is to be cast into the sea. (Rev. 18:21) By using the same phrase, Yeshua gave us a clue to the reason it would come to such a demise: It “caused the little ones who believe in me to stumble”. (Mat. 18:6)
Our job is to teach those “little ones” how to recognize that wolf in sheep’s clothing and to do all we can to shepherd and shelter them away from its influence, so that even when it devours, they will remain innocent and thus qualified to return and rebuild the real kingdom after the counterfeit one is gone. The new birth—which means this age is not all there is for us--gives us the freedom to stop climbing the ladder and sacrifice our present lives (which are doomed anyway) for the sake of liberating more people from the tyranny of “this present evil age” in which we never measure up, yet the carrot is always dangled in front to try to make us think we will get there someday soon.
“Might makes right” is the law of Babylon, but that is not the way YHWH wants us to operate. That’s why the Torah tells us to set up judges. When we see the contrast, like David, we have to respond by saying, “Oh, how I love Your Torah!”
Just as Israel, in Egypt, got to experience the antithesis to Torah’s freedom just before it was made available, so again this despotic ruler indwelt by haSatan himself will make it darkest just before the arrival of the King truly worthy of his crown and his more-real world, where “righteousness will be at home”! (2 Kefa/Peter 3:13)