1.3.5.2. A Literal City

Beyond the interpretive issue mentioned above, which we feel is conclusive, there are many other reasons for taking Babylon in the book of Revelation to denote the literal city. One such reason is the mention of the Euphrates River in conjunction with what is said concerning Babylon.

The best solution is to assign Babylon its literal significance of the city on the Euphrates by that name. Mentions of the Euphrates River at other points (Rev. Rev. 9:14+; Rev. 16:12+) corroborate this which is the natural way to understand it. Place names have their literal significance in Revelation Rev. 1:9+; Rev. 2:1+, Rev. 2:8+, Rev. 2:12+, Rev. 2:18+; Rev. 3:1+, Rev. 3:7+, Rev. 3:14+ and the writer is very clear to point it out when he intends a figurative meaning as in Revelation Rev. 11:8+. A reference to a literal city does not exclude further implications regarding political and religious systems connected with the city (Walvoord).1

If Babylon in the book of Revelation is to denote something other than the literal city, we should expect to see significant differences in what is said concerning her. But we do not. Both OT and NT speak in concert on the matter of Babylon. It would seem these passages are in agreement concerning their subject—the literal city on the Euphrates:

The imagery of many waters (Rev. Rev. 17:1+, Rev. 17:15+) is reminiscent of the waters of Babylon (Ps. Ps. 137:1; Jer. Jer. 51:13). . . . The boast of Babylon, “I sit as queen and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (Rev. Rev. 18:7+) echoes that of ancient Babylon (Isa. Isa. 47:7-9). John also employs imagery from the Tower of Babel. When Revelation Rev. 18:5+ says, “her sins have piled up as high as heaven,” the allusion is possibly to the use of bricks in building the Tower of Babel. . . . Revelation Rev. 17:1+-Rev. 18:1+ also repeatedly draws imagery from the description of Babylon and its destruction given in Jeremiah Jer. 50:1-Jer. 51:1. For example, both passages describe Babylon as holding a golden cup (Jer. Jer. 51:7; Rev. Rev. 17:3-4+; Rev. 18:6+), dwelling on many waters (Jer. Jer. 51:13; Rev. Rev. 17:1+), involved with the nations (Jer. Jer. 51:7; Rev. Rev. 17:2+), and having the same name (Jer. Jer. 50:1; Rev. Rev. 17:5+; Rev. 18:10+). Moreover, both passages illustrate Babylon’s destruction the same way (Jer. Jer. 51:63-64; Rev. Rev. 18:21+) and depict Babylon’s destruction as sudden (Jer. Jer. 51:8; Rev. Rev. 18:8+), caused by fire (Jer. Jer. 51:30; Rev. Rev. 17:16+; Rev. 18:8+), final (Jer. Jer. 50:39; Rev. Rev. 18:21+), and deserved (Jer. Jer. 51:63-64; Rev. Rev. 18:21+). Furthermore, both passages describe the response to Babylon’s destruction in terms of God’s people fleeing (Jer. Jer. 51:6, Jer. 51:45; Rev. Rev. 18:4+) and heaven rejoicing (Jer. Jer. 51:48; Rev. Rev. 18:20+). Other commentators have also noticed how frequently John in Revelation Rev. 17:1+-Rev. 19:1+ draws from the imagery of Jeremiah Jer. 50:1-Jer. 51:1. For example, Thomas observes ten parallels between the two sections of Scripture. Aune also observes at least ten parallels between Jeremiah Jer. 50:1-Jer. 51:1 and Revelation Rev. 18:1+.2

Another piece of evidence in favor of a literal Babylon is a literal Israel. As we saw in our discussion concerning Babylon is Jerusalem? , the OT passages dealing with the destruction of Babylon compare and contrast her with Jerusalem. This was one reason why Babylon cannot be Jerusalem. It also provides strong evidence that Babylon is to be taken as the literal city because Jerusalem is taken that way in the same passages. The restoration of the literal, earthly city of Jerusalem (Isa. Isa. 62:1) and the future rule of Messiah from her midst (Jer. Jer. 3:17; Zec. Zec. 14:16) are as sure as God’s word. If Babylon is consistently contrasted with Jerusalem in OT passages, then it is inconsistent to take Jerusalem literally, but Babylon figuratively. If Jerusalem is the literal city on Mount Moriah, then Babylon cannot be said to be New York or merely a commercial or religious system.

Without any spirit of dogmatism, and without entering into the question of the identity and significance of the Babylon in the Revelation—whether mystical or actual—we would express our conviction that there are Scriptures [e.g., Zec. Zec. 5:1] which cannot, according to our judgment, be satisfactorily explained except on the supposition of a revival and yet future judgment of literal Babylon, which for a time will be the centre and embodiment of all the elements of our godless Western “civilisation,” and which especially will become the chief entrep?t of commerce in the world, . . . To this conviction we are led chiefly by the fact that there are prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the literal Babylon which have never in the past been exhaustively fulfilled, and that Scripture usually connects the final overthrow of Babylon with the yet future restoration and blessing of Israel.3

One reason some reject a literal interpretation is the picture of “mystery” and harlotry associated with Babylon in the book of Revelation (Rev. Rev. 17:5+). As we shall see in our discussion of Mystery Babylon?, the “mystery” is not related to the identification of the city, but her relationship with the beast upon which she rides. The angel who explains the mystery to John devotes most of the passage talking about her relationship with the seven-headed beast with ten horns (Rev. Rev. 17:7-14+) and relatively little to the Harlot herself (Rev. Rev. 17:15-18+). Even then, he concludes by saying, “And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Rev. Rev. 17:18+). He makes sure John understands that the Harlot is a city—the literal city of Babylon. The use of harlot imagery does not preclude a related literal meaning, for the angel is showing John that she is both a city and a worldwide polluting influence:

The Old Testament uses harlot imagery to depict the Gentile cities of Tyre (Isa. Isa. 23:16-17) and Nineveh (Nah. Nah. 3:4) while never hinting that these cities are not meant to be understood literally. . . . The same sort of harlot imagery that describes the city in chapter 17 is also employed in chapter 18 (Rev. Rev. 18:3+, Rev. 18:9+). Yet, despite these similarities, Walvoord interprets the city in Revelation Rev. 17:1+ non-literally while simultaneously interpreting the city in Revelation Rev. 18:1+ literally.4

First, [Babylon] signifies a literal city, which shall yet be built in the Land of Shinar, on the banks of the Euphrates. Proof of this was furnished in our last chapter so that we need not pause here to submit the evidence. Six times (significant number!) is ‘Babylon’ referred to in the Apocalypse, and nowhere is there a hint that the name is not to be understood literally. In the second place, the ‘great city’ (unnamed) signifies an idolatrous system - ‘mother of harlots’ a system of idolatry which originated in the Babylon of Nimrod’s day, and a system which is to culminate and terminate in another Babylon in a day soon to come.5

Another reason in favor of taking Babylon as a literal city rather than a symbol or figure is found in its representation as the Harlot: “The Whore represents a City. . . . Babylon, must therefore be understood literally, otherwise we should have the anomaly of a figure representing a figure.”6 The literal view of Babylon has numerous proponents and was held well in advance of the circumstances of our own time (the Gulf War and the overthrow of Iraq by the United States). The literal view is not a reaction to these events, as if an attempt to pour prophecy into the politics of our day. In fact, the literal view has just the opposite characteristic: it is far less susceptible to reinterpretation as the movements and situations of history change with time:

The Babylon view has been criticized as being the product of reading current events regarding the present Iraqi crisis back into the text rather than being the product of sound exegetical principles. . . . However, this accusation seems unfair in light of the fact that numerous interpreters held the view long before Saddam Hussein rose to power. Such commentators include Newell (1935), Jennings (1937), Cooper (1942), and Lang (1948). Other commentators held the view even before Iraq became a nation in 1932. Such commentators include Seiss (1909) and Larkin (1919). It is true that Dyer released his book advocating the literal Babylon view on the eve of the Gulf War and recently on the eve of the present war with Iraq. However, it should also be noted that the content of these books is based upon Dyer’s master’s thesis that was completed in May of 1979 long before Hussein’s rise to power and escalating tensions between America and Iraq.7

In my limited library, I have found a number of men who taught a future [literal] Babylon from Rev. Rev. 17:1-18+ and Rev. 18:1+. They include the following: B. W. Newton (1853), G. H. Pember (1888), J. A. Seiss (1900), Clarence Larkin (1918), Robert Govett (1920), E. W. Bullinger (1930), William R. Newell (1935), F. C. Jennings (1937), David L. Cooper (1942), G. H. Lang (1945). I am sure that more could be added to the list.8

Further evidence for taking Babylon as the literal city is found in the way in which her destruction is illustrated by an angel in the book of Revelation. The angel takes up a stone and throws it into the sea, saying, “Thus with violence the great city Babylon shall be thrown down, and shall not be found anymore” (Rev. Rev. 18:21+). This is an intentional allusion to a similar prophetic enactment found in Jeremiah:

The word which Jeremiah the prophet commanded Seraiah the son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, when he went with Zedekiah the king of Judah to Babylon in the fourth year of his reign. And Seraiah was the quartermaster. So Jeremiah wrote in a book all the evil that would come upon Babylon, all these words that are written against Babylon. And Jeremiah said to Seraiah, “When you arrive in Babylon and see it, and read all these words, then you shall say, ‘O LORD, You have spoken against this place to cut it off, so that none shall remain in it, neither man nor beast, but it shall be desolate forever.’ Now it shall be, when you have finished reading this book, that you shall tie a stone to it and throw it out into the Euphrates. Then you shall say, ‘Thus Babylon shall sink and not rise from the catastrophe that I will bring upon her. And they shall be weary.’ ” Thus far are the words of Jeremiah. (Jer. Jer. 51:59-64) [emphasis added]

The angel virtually duplicates the pronouncement and activity of Seraiah in Jeremiah’s day. Of particular import is the fact that Jeremiah sent Seraiah with Zedekiah to Babylon in order to make his pronouncement of judgment. This is similar to how Jonah was sent to Nineveh. In both cases, the pronounced judgment concerned a specific geographic location which God would judge. Morever, the pronouncement by Seraiah was that of a permanent destruction where neither man nor beast would ever remain there. As we have seen, the historical record of literal Babylon does not match the seriousness of this prophecy. The question proponents of a non-literal Babylon must answer is why did Jeremiah go to the trouble of instructing Seraiah to make such a pronouncement at the specific geographical location of literal Babylon if the fulfillment is to be found somewhere else? Either at a different city (e.g., Rome, New York) or in the destruction of a generic system? It would seem that the actions of Jeremiah, entrusting the message to Seraiah who was traveling to Babylon, point to God’s intention to judge the specific city over which the pronouncement was made. See commentary on Revelation 18:21.

Notes

1 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), Rev. 14:8.

2 Andy Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon In Revelation 17-18?.

3 David Baron, Zechariah: A Commentary On His Visions And Prophecies (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1918), 167-168.

4 Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon In Revelation 17-18?.

5 Arthur Walkington Pink, The Antichrist (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999, 1923), s.v. “Antichrist in Babylon.”

6 Ibid., s.v. “Antichrist.”

7 Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon In Revelation 17-18?.

8 Ice, “Babylon in Bible Prophecy,” in Thomas Ice, ed., Pre-Trib Perspectives, vol. 7 no. 11 (Dallas, TX: Pre-Trib Research Center, March 2003), 5.