The book of Revelation portrays the final enemy of God and His faithful covenant people as the harlot "Babylon" (Rev. 17:1-6). God will judge and defeat her, just as He brought about the fall of ancient Babylon. Old Testament symbolism is used by the apocalyptic angel when he announces: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries" (Rev. 14:8; see Isa. 21:9).* This symbolism is developed further in the vision of the seven last plagues, the final two of which clearly allude to the fall of ancient Babylon after its inflowing Euphrates River was suddenly diverted (Rev.16:12, 17-19). Our present study intends to understand the theological significance of the fall of end-time Babylon through its apparent typological connection with Israel's salvation history.
The apocalyptic description of the fall of Babylon as a result of the sudden drying up of its Euphrates waters is at once a literary and theological allusion to a major historic war of Yahweh in Israel's history. The neo-Babylonian empire, as described in the books of Daniel and Jeremiah, was religiously and politically an archenemy of Israel as God's covenant people. John introduces Babylon into his apocalyptic outlook because of its opposition to Jerusalem, the city of God.
The characteristics of Babylon
Babylon can be defined theologically by its relation: (1) to the God of Israel and His way of salvation in the sanctuary; and (2) to His covenant people. In the Old Testament, Babylon destroyed the Temple of God in Jerusalem, trampled on its religious truth, blasphemed the name of Yahweh, and oppressed unto death the Israel of God (Dan. 1-5). These theological essentials characteristic of Babylon remain unchanged in its apocalyptic anti type (Rev. 14:8; 17:1-6; 18:1-8). Babylon's rebellion against God's authority operated in two dimensions: vertically, against Yahweh's sovereign and saving will, and horizontally, against Yahweh's covenant people and their sacred sanctuary worship. Babylon was at war on a double front: against the God of Israel, and against the Israel of God.
The hatred that inspired Babylon of old will motivate apocalyptic Babylon in a more intensified measure. God is now in separably united with the risen Christ. Modern Babylon must therefore be defined Christologically and ecclesiologically.1 The New Jerusalem is explicitly called the bride or "wife of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9), while "the Lord God Al mighty and the Lamb are its temple" (verse 22). Only those may enter it "whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life" (verse 27). The center of command is emphatically "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev. 22:1). Christ is honored in the Apocalypse with full divine prerogatives (verse 13). The apocalyptic dragon directs its blasphemy and hatred against God, His Christ (Rev. 12:5), and the faithful church (verses 6-12). Employing two allied powers, the beast and the false prophet, the Babylonian dragon attacks and enslaves the universal church and distorts her teaching concerning the sanctuary and true worship (Rev. 13:1-8; 14:6-12; 19:20).
The thrust of the message of hope in the Apocalypse is that Christ will judge the end-time Babylon once and for all and that He will vindicate the Christ-believing Israel with a glorious rescue. The future fall of Babylon is based on the fall of ancient Babylon as its ordained type. The theological essentials remain the same, while the ethnic and geographic restrictions are removed by giving them cosmic and universal proportions. As Yahweh's judgment fell suddenly on ancient Babylon (Isa. 47:9,11; Jer. 51:8), so Christ will now cause His judgment to come suddenly on universal Babylon, the antichrist kingdom (Rev. 18:8, 10, 19). The apocalyptic fall of Babylon will be much more devastating and infinitely more spectacular than its type. It will be Armageddon for Babylon.
The fall of Babylon in history
The full impact of this typological relationship can be sensed more fully if one takes a close look at the original plot as described by the prophets Isaiah (Isa. 41; 44-47) and Jeremiah (Jer. 50, 51), together with its historical fulfillment (Dan. 5). The narratives of the Greek historiographers Herodotus (born about 484 B.C.) and Xenophon (born about 431 B.C.) support the historical reality of Babylon's fall by the deliberate and sudden diversion of the flow of the Euphrates. Careful attention needs to be given to the manner in which Babylon actually fell, in surprisingly accurate fulfillment of some aspects of the prophecy. Cyrus, the Persian army general, indeed came from the east, in God's providence (Isa. 41:2, 25) and, according to the Cyrus cylinder, he took Babylon "without any battle." He accomplished a surprise entry into the city by diverting its incoming water flow, and this took place in literal fulfillment of prophecy (Isa. 44:27, 28; Jer. 51:13, 36; 50:38). Yahweh would even "open doors before him so that the gates will not be shut" (Isa. 45:1). Isaiah had stressed the redemptive purpose of it all: "for the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen" (verse 4), and: "He [Cyrus] will rebuild my city and set my exiles free" (verse 13) and restore the Temple (Isa. 44:28). Accordingly, God bestowed on Cyrus the honorable titles of "anointed" and "my shepherd" (Isa. 45:1; 44:28), titles that elevate Cyrus' acts of judgment on Babylon and of redemption for Israel (see Ezra 1:1-4) to serve as a dramatic type of the Messiah's final battle against apocalyptic Babylon. Already in the type it was Yahweh who spoke to the Euphrates: "Be dry, and I will dry up your stream" (Isa. 44:27). Cyrus was only Yahweh's agent in God's judgment on Babylon. Just as Yahweh and His covenant people were at the center of the fall of Babylon, so Christ and His covenant people—the faithful church—stand at the center of the fall of modern Babylon and of Armageddon.
The fall of Babylon in the day of wrath
It is essential to define precisely the theological characteristic of each participant in the ancient fall of Babylon in connection with Yahweh, before one can responsibly determine the corresponding function of each participant in the apocalyptic fall of Babylon (Armageddon) in connection with Christ.
1. Babylon functioned as the enemy of the Lord and as the oppressor of Israel.
2. The Euphrates was an integral part of Babylon, supporting and protecting it as a wall, thus likewise hostile to Israel.
3. The drying up of the Euphrates indicated God's judgment on Babylon, causing its sudden downfall. It stood therefore for the preparation of Israel's deliverance.
4. Cyrus and his allied kings of the Medes and the Persians (Jer. 50:41; 51:11, 28) came as the predicted kings from the east to Babylon to fulfill God's purpose. They were the enemies of Babylon and the deliverers of Israel. Cyrus is "anointed" by the Lord to defeat Babylon and to set Israel free.
5. Daniel and the Israel of God in Babylon constitute the repentant, faithful covenant people of God (see Dan. 9).
These theological characterizations can be called the essentials of the fall of Babylon. In the Apocalypse, Babylon represents the archenemy of Christ and of His church. Now both Babylon and Israel are universal, their territorial scope is worldwide. The gospel is explicitly sent out "to every nation, tribe, language and people" (Rev. 14:6). The fourfold emphasis stresses its universal radius. The subsequent announcement that Babylon the great is fallen, is founded on the fact that she has "made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries" (verse 8). The whole world has finally come under her spell (Rev. 14:8; 17:1-6, 15).
In harmony with this worldwide range of Babylon, Inspiration gives also to Babylon's river Euphrates an emphatically universal application: "The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages" (Rev. 17:15). Those who insist that the "Euphrates" represents only the people that live in the actual geographical location of the Euphrates, are bound to follow the same interpretation with "Babylon," "Israel," "Mount Zion," etc. Such fail, however, to grasp the Christocentric character of biblical typology. The gospel of Jesus Christ delivers us from the restrictions of ethnic and geographic literalism for the Messianic era.
The role of Revelation 17
The angel's interpretation of the Euphrates in Revelation 17 serves to guard us against a relapse into the Middle East application of Babylon's river. Whenever God dried up a literal river or a "flood" of enemies in Israel's history —like the Red Sea or the Jordan River, or the flood of invading Euphrates people (Isa. 8:7, 8) —it always signified a providential judgment on the enemies of God's people. The drying up of Babylon's great river during the future sixth plague (Rev. 16:12) will be no exception.
This judgment will be set in motion when the political rulers and multitudes of all nations suddenly realize God's verdict on religious Babylon and unitedly withdraw their support from Babylon. They will even dramatically reverse their loyal support into active hate, into such a hostility that they will completely destroy Babylon. This is the sudden dissolution of Babylon that in God's providence destroys Babylon.
It is the burden of Revelation 17 to explain the sixth and seventh plagues. Revelation 17 reveals the surprising shift from a loyal support of Babylon by her political followers to an absolute hate against her religious leadership as the result of God's own verdict (verse 17). The surprising fact is that God will bring about the self-destruction of Babylon by way of her own supporters. The Euphrates' waters, the multitudes who have supported her in her work (verse 15), will suddenly be caused to dry up, that is, to withdraw their support. The beast with 10 horns shall suddenly become the harlot's hater, instead of her illicit lover, and will destroy her completely (verse 16). But this unsuspected reversal of the unholy union will occur only at the "hour" when the attack is made by a united Babylon on the Messianic remnant (see Rev. 12:7; 13:15-17; 16:13-16).
When Cyrus had dried up the waters of the Euphrates, the way was prepared for all the kings from the east to enter the capital and to take over her world government. Thus, the handwriting on Belshazzar's banquet hall was fulfilled: "Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians" (Dan. 5:28). However, prophecy did not find its complete and exhaustive consummation when Cyrus overthrew ancient Babylon and with Israel's subsequent return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-5).
The apocalyptic drama of the spectacular cosmic signs and the everlasting destruction of Babylon will be fulfilled only when the Messiah personally enters the scene as the holy Warrior to overthrow Babylon, when her crimes against the Israel of God have piled up to heaven (see Rev. 18:5). The fact that Christ will bring divine judgment from the heavenly temple on end-time Babylon (Rev. 15- 19) is more than a striking analogy with Cyrus' victorious overthrow of ancient Babylon. Christ's final mission is to consummate Israel's types and prophecies of redemption from Babylon on a universal scale and in cosmic glory. His coming will no longer be from any earthly place, but directly from the heavenly throne of God, that is, from the direction of the astronomical or cosmic east. This will be the greatest theophanic glory ever displayed to the world, the most splendid liberation of God's covenant people ever experienced. "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. . . . The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean" (Rev. 19:11-14).
Lessons for today
What can be learned from this correspondence between Israel's salvation history and that of the end-time church in the book of Revelation? That there exists by divine appointment a theological analogy or typology between the salvation history of Israel and that of the church of Christ. This typological structure expresses the salvation-historical continuity of the faithful church of Christ as the true Israel of God. To her the promises of God's covenant with Israel will be gloriously fulfilled, because "in Christ" all God's promises are "Yes!" (2 Cor. 1:20). The church today may claim the new-covenant promises and blessings, however, only through spiritual union with Christ, that is, by abiding in Him through faith and willing obedience (see Isa. 1:19-21; John 15:1-11). It is of fundamental importance to realize that any claim to God's redemption promises without a living faith and wholehearted commitment to Christ our Lord is presumptuous (see Matt. 23:27-38). The theological significance of the apocalyptic plagues in Revelation 16 is clear and full of assurance to the followers of Christ: the God of Israel will not fail to deliver the faithful saints in their moment of utmost extremity at the end of history. What God did to redeem ancient Israel from Egypt and from Babylon, He will do once again in a most dramatic way for Christ's faithful church!
The irony of the book of Revelation is the sobering implication that end-time Babylon will include also those church communities that are in fundamental rebellion against the Lord Jesus Christ, just as ancient Jerusalem received God's judgment in the old covenant. In this light the announcement of the second angel's message, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great" (Rev. 14:8), takes on an added meaning in the time of the end. Its moral significance for us today seems to be that the final enemy of the revived everlasting gospel of the first angel (verses 6, 7) has been weighed in the balances of the heavenly sanctuary and found wanting! Just as the divine hand writing on the wall of Babylon's palace announced the irrevocable verdict of Babylon's impending destruction, so will the activation of the second angel's message in Revelation 14 become part of the good news that Babylon has now been judged and shall soon meet its ultimate defeat. It is the time to leave "Babylon" and to withdraw all responsibility of partnership with all organized apostasy and rebellion against the Lordship of God and His Christ.
1 See H. K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in
Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation,
Andrews University Monograph Series (Berrien
Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1987),
vol. 13, chaps. 5, 7.
2 Herodotus Book I 191, in Herodotus, A. D.
Godley, trans., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946),
vol. 1, pp. 239, 240; Xenophon Cyropaedia 7. 5.
7-34, in Xerophon's Cyropaedia, W. Miller, trans.,
Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1943), vol. 2, pp. 265-275.
H.W.F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon
(New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), p. 152, comments:
"There is no reason to reject the story."
3 J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern
Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed.
(Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 315, states:
"Without any battle, he [marduk] made him enter
his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity."