Cities of Prophecy

Our adventure through old Babylon.

Herbert E. Douglass, Assistant Professor of Religion, Pacific Union College

A strange, warm feeling tingled my back­bone as I walked through the Ishtar Gate of old Babylon. Along this same street rode the haughty emperors of the golden empire, among them Nebuchadnezzar with his con­quered hosts from the western outposts of his far-flung empire, and Nabonidus leading hu­man trophies from Arabia or Lebanon. Down this Procession Street leading from the various palaces to the temple complex were dragged the desert-weary Judeans, the spoils of Nebuchad­nezzar's Jerusalem campaign. Daniel and his three Hebrew companions gazed with awe at the forty-foot towers commanding the Ishtar Gate. They were no doubt attracted, as we were, to the unique caricatures of composite animals, called sirrush, on the walls of the tower. This was the gateway to one of the most fabulous cities of antiquity, of which Isaiah sang, "Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans" (Isa. 13: 19, R.S.V.; the R.S.V. is also used for all texts hereinafter).

In golden Babylon most of the major sciences found their beginning. Here the heavenly bod­ies were carefully measured and charted and time was plotted accurately; feats of engineer­ing were performed with the crudest of build­ing materials—clay instead of stone; and hosts of handicrafts were mastered. The art of writing opened the door to extensive advance in lin­guistics, mathematics, law, and literature. In fact, many historians trace the brilliant contri­butions of art and learning produced in Greece back to their original creators in Babylon.

From a human viewpoint there was no geo­graphical reason preventing Babylon from con­tinuing forever. We saw the extensive remains of an intricate lacework of canals and irriga­tion channels that brought life to latently fer­tile soil. In fact, Herodotus thought that he would be considered a liar if he reported what he actually saw of the productiveness of the Mesopotamian valley.

The amazing feature of Isaiah's statement is that it was penned approximately 150 years be­fore the city of Babylon became the "glory of kingdoms." Although Babylon had always been a religious and cultural center of the Mesopo­tamian valley, assuming a role in the ancient world that Rome now plays in the modern, it had not been the glittering metropolis and political center of the contemporary world until Nebuchadnezzar's day. Under his reign the city became, to human eyes, imperishable.

But the time came when the might and glory of man's best achievements crumbled into dust and oblivion, exactly as God's prophet had predicted. Many political factors, external and internal, caused the decline and ultimate de­mise of the "pride of the Chaldeans," but the fact remains: the death of Babylon was unique, and its subsequent story remains a marvel to all historians.

Both Isaiah and Jeremiah are united in the prediction that Babylon would never again be inhabited. "It will never be inhabited or dwelt in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there" (Isa. 13:20); " 'For out of the north a nation has come up against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it'" (Jer. 50:3); "'So no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall so­journ in her (Jer. 50:40); "'She shall be peopled no more forever, nor inhabited for all generations'" (Jer. 50:39); "'To make the land of Babylon a desolation, without inhabit­ant'" (Jer. 51:29); "'And Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals [and we saw one run over a heap], . . . without in­habitant'" (Jer. 51:37); "'A land in which no one dwells' " (Jer. 51:43). (Texts from R.S.V.)

Because the future of Babylon as a com­pletely deserted ruin was so unlike the story of other defeated cities, Isaiah and Jeremiah em­phasized this uniqueness so that the readers of Scripture in the years to come would be utterly convinced that God knows the end from the be­ginning and that His comments on the years ahead are completely trustworthy.

As any visitor to ancient Babylon can see, no one lives within the precincts of Nebuchad­nezzar's city. Today, the Euphrates runs in a course somewhat west of its ancient channel, and on the fertile area of the ancient river bed stands Kweiresh, a poor Arab village. The debris of the demolished city renders most of the area impossible for agriculture or even ani­mal grazing. Unlike defeated Sidon, Tyre, Da­mascus, Athens, Alexandria, and countless other ancient cities that still remain populated areas today, Babylon, the queen of them all, exists no more. No wonder Jeremiah wrote, "'Everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled'" (Jer. 50:13). The complete lack of ambiguity in prophecies concerning Babylon accents the in­finite foreknowledge of God, who knows all things in advance, the Father of mankind who is never caught by surprise. To foretell the destruction of a great city would not have re­quired great sagacity, because such was the cy­cle of history—but to describe the conditions of Babylon as it would be observed by visitors in the twentieth century was beyond the wildest imagination of any man, except that he be in­structed by God.

Another stark reminder of the frailty of man's best achievements is the miserable swamp-pit, approximately 300 feet square, which once was the foundation of the world-famous temple tower, Etemenanki. Reaching more than 300 feet 'high, this soaring edifice was the center of the Marduk religion, which influenced coun­tries far beyond the borders of Babylon. Only the Karnak Temple in Upper Egypt surpassed Nebuchadnezzar's temple tower. Some say that this ziggurat was the successor to the ancient tower of Babel, which was certainly erected in this general area (Gen. 11:2-5). As one stands on this rim of departed glory, the scenes of in­numerable worshipers and their devoted gifts, coupled with the rites of worship with their animal offerings and human degradation, flood the imagination. This empty pit, this mis­erable swamp with the small heap of ruins in its center, is the end, the grand climax, of religion without the true God, a fearful portent of the end of all counterfeits and man-designed pro­grams to ensure immortality.

This article does not intend to contribute a graphic eyewitness report of the various ruins as they exist today in Babylon, because this in­foimation is already available in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 4, Ad­ditional Note on Daniel 4. However, one visit to the ancient site is more valuable than many hours of studying charts and descriptions in a cold textbook. The previously sterile maps now throb with the pulse of reality, each temple or palace of Nebuchadnezzar's day shapes up in the mind's eye, and the body again feels the dusty sweat of that Sunday morning when we walked over the debris of incomparable Baby­lon.

Desolation of Nineveh

Each click of the rails on our night train ride from Baghdad to Mosul added to the expect­ancy of meeting face to face with the remains of perhaps the most feared empire of all history, Assyria. The archeological discoveries from the Assyrian area in northern Iraq have shed more light on Biblical history than those of any other country. Most infrequently would a foreign na­tion mention any detail of Israelite history, but Assyrian records have corroborated Biblical in­formation with a number of incidents.

A visitor to the Mesopotamian cities, how­ever, must be prepared for a keen disappoint­ment if he is expecting to view graceful temples and vaulted palaces with the grandeur of for­mer art depicted in monuments, pillars, and sculptured walls. The stone that built the won­ders of Egypt or the Greek and Roman cities throughout Palestine was not available in the alluvial soil of the Mesopotamian valley; almost all construction was fashioned out of burnt or sun-dried brick—a likely victim of rapid deteri­oration. In addition, the vengeance of succeed­ing conquerors requited the Assyrian cities with punishment equal to the scourging that the Assyrians had given their foes in the years when they mercilessly ruled the world.

Nahum 1:14 predicted an amazing conse­quence of Nineveh's overthrow by the coalition of Medo-Persia and Babylon in 612 B.C. Al­though Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold the unique fact that Babylon would never again be inhabited, Nahum predicted that the very site of Nineveh would be forgotten by succeeding generations, a pitiful retribution that even Bab­ylon did not taste, for the site of old Babylon has always been known. Only two hundred years after Nineveh was plundered, the famous Gre­cian general Xenophon led the "immortal" ten thousand past the site and marveled at the gigantic ruins. Inquiring from the Bedouins who camped nearby as to the name of this spoiled city, he soon learned that the original city's name of Nineveh had been completely forgotten. Such was the history of Nineveh down to the last century—no one knew where it had existed and most Bible critics doubted that it had ever existed!

Because of the excavations of Layard, Ras­sam, and others since the middle of the nine­teenth century, we now are permitted to recon­struct a significant portion of Assyrian history as well as to verify many historical facts of the Old Testament.

The prediction of utter desolation was made by both Nahum and Zephaniah: "And all who look on you will shrink from you and say, Wasted is Nineveh; who will bemoan her?" (Nahum 3:7); "He will make Nineveh a deso­lation, a dry waste like the desert" (Zeph. 2:13). The utter ruin of this "exceedingly great city" (Jonah 3:3) was so complete that even when the archeologists began their exca­vations in earnest, they had considerable diffi­culty even finding the formless mound of an­cient Nineveh.

Although there are two mounds today that carry the secrets of old Nineveh, only Kuyunjik, the northern mound, is available for excava­tions; the southern mound lies under the mod­ern mosque of Nebi Yunus, which, according to Moslem tradition, contains the tomb of the prophet Jonah. If the latter mound contains as much helpful material as the excavated north­ern mound, the scholarly world has much to anticipate.

What now can be seen is only the leftovers of previous excavators—which seem to add to the general desolation. However, the British Mu­seum is proudly the richer for these excavations. Besides the gigantic winged bulls, each carved out of one stone and weighing forty tons, and countless other carved objects, the fabulous library of Ashurbanipal is now available in the British Museum for the modern scholar. Space does not here permit a fair evaluation of this library's contribution to our knowledge of his­tory during the time of the Biblical kings.

One last prophecy of Nahum deserves our attention. Written at the time when the sight of the Assyrian army was enough to chill the blood of the unfortunate victims, when Assyria raised its flag over more land than any other imperial power, before or since, when the slightest desires of a Sennacherib or an Esarhaddon brought worldwide repercussions, the words of Nahum seemed singularly audacious and puny. "I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a gazingstock" (Na­hum 3:6). "A gazingstock," "desolation and ruin," and "no more shall your name be per­petuated"—what a striking illustration of the end of all evil powers when God at last steps into history and calls an end to cruelty, oppres­sion, and grief! Regardless of how mighty man may make his kingdom, the seeds of destruction are born within it. Man's only security for eter­nal happiness rests, not in any philosophy or kingdom of his own creation, but in the prof­fered love of his patient Lord. The Mesopo­tamian cities of the dust witness to the fact that the eternal city can be erected only in heaven.

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Herbert E. Douglass, Assistant Professor of Religion, Pacific Union College

January 1958

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