It is our view that the identity of Babylon ultimately rests on the proper interpretation of Gods word. We must examine the meaning of words in their historical context. What did they mean to those who spoke them, heard them, and wrote them down? When the OT says Babylon, the promises and predictions are made meaningless if they can mean any other major commercial city in some future age. This is akin to redefining Israel after the fact, to make it mean Church or people of God. It is fair game for God to add to His revelation, expand its inclusiveness by way of progressive revelation, but He is not permitted to change the original meaning. Not permitted?, you say. Yes! God is limited by His own character. The reason God cannot change the original meaning is found in His character: He cannot tell a lie (Num. Num. 23:19; Rom. Rom. 3:4; Heb. Heb. 6:18; Tit. Tit. 1:2). For God to say Babylon, hundreds of years before Rome is even a factor in the minds of his people and then later have the same word mean Rome is simply unacceptable. How is such action essentially any different than telling a lie? At the very least it is extremely misleading, something we would dare not accuse God of. Gods promises and predictions are only as good as language. If Babylon in the OT predictions can be Rome, London, New York, or Tokyo, then what hope have we of knowing our promises are reliable. What if physical resurrection really doesnt mean physical? Or eternal life isnt quite eternal? There are two parties in any communication: an originator and a recipient. Communication involves the participation of both. The originator expressing meaning and the recipient understanding that meaning in the current context based upon common rules of language and the accepted meaning of words. Therefore, the understanding of the recipient is a significant factor in establishing the meaning of communication. Although a purposefully deceptive communicator may purposely express his communication in a way in which he knows that the recipient will incorrectly interpret his words, this is not our God. It is His intention and pleasure to communicate to His creatures in a reliable manner. Moreover, His very character and the character of His Word are at stake. How could He possibly elevate His word over His own name (Ps. Ps. 138:2), the expression of His very character, and at the same time package it in words which dont mean what they appear to mean, but take on entirely different meanings later on? This is especially important in the matter before us because the term Babylon is not isolated to the book of Revelation. Proving that some have used the term to denote Rome in extra-biblical writings is totally irrelevant when we consider Gods word. Even if it could be shown that Babylon in the NT is supposed to mean something else (and it cant),1 there is still the insurmountable difficulty of making extensive OT passages concerning Babylon mean something entirely different after-the-fact. The problem for interpreters who would attempt to reinterpret Babylon (and the blessing for those of us who do not) is that the meaning and use of the term is anchored in the context of the passages in the OT.2
This is exactly what is foretold in Jer. Jer. 1:1. There the destruction of Babylon is foretold; for it is the word that the LORD spake against Babylon (Jer. Jer. 1:1). We have not yet heard of any commentator who thought Jeremiah prophesied this of Rome, or of any other city except the literal Babylon.3
Although we believe there are numerous reasons why Babylon in the book of Revelation designates the literal city on the banks of the Euphrates, this issue alone is determinative. The proper historical-grammatical interpretation of the OT passages in their original context precludes all other meanings. As with all passages of Scripture, there will be many different applications, but only a single meaning based on the original context.
1 All but one reference to Babylon in the NT outside the book of Revelation are obviously literal: Mtt. Mat. 1:11-12, Mat. 1:17; Acts Acts 7:43; 1Pe 1Pe. 5:13. The reference at 1Pe. 1Pe. 5:13 is disputed, but there is no real reason for taking Peters use as non-literal since there was a significant contingent of Jews who remained in Babylon at the time of the NT.
2 We reject the idea of a complementary hermeneutic as embraced by proponents of progressive dispensationalism which attempts to provide a mechanism by which the original meaning can be modified and even changed.
3 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), Rev. 18:4.