The End of the World: Babylon’s Past and Future Destruction
The End of the World: Babylon’s Past and Future Destruction
Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. (Isa 13:19)
Main Idea: God predicts the fall of Babylon almost two centuries before it happened.
- Babylon’s Symbolic Role in Redemptive History
- Babylon, Rome, and Revelation
- The constant threat of “the world”
- God Summons an Army against Babylon.
- God’s sovereign actions in history
- God raises an army and darkens the stars.
- The Invaders Named
- The “Medes”: their history
- Detailed prophecy centuries in advance
- Desolation Decreed, Then Fulfilled
- Babylon overthrown like Sodom
- The decree fulfilled, centuries later
Babylon’s Symbolic Role in Redemptive History
All Christians have three relentless enemies that constantly wage war against our souls: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Peter calls Satan our personal enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8). Paul says that the “flesh,” our indwelling sin, drives us constantly to do the very thing we hate doing (Rom 7:18-20). John writes clearly of the “world,” with its relentless assault through the lusts of the flesh and of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle (1 John 2:16). The “world” that John writes about is made up of real, living people whose decisions and actions are controlled by the devil and their own flesh. These people all make their own poisonous contributions to the noxious brew that is the “world”: perhaps a non-Christian politician running for the highest office in the land; or an increasingly ambitious leader in a restless Muslim nation, eyeing a small neighboring country that has resources his nation needs; or a terrorist masterminding the next suicide attack; or the publisher of a pornographic magazine thinking of branching out into the smartphone market; or an actor willing to do anything on film to further his or her career; or a marketing consultant urging a “bolder approach” to marketing clothes to teens; or a financial expert writing a column on “how you can be far richer than you ever dreamed”; or a motivational speaker telling spellbound audiences ten irrefutable laws for success.
This roiling cauldron of rebellion against the rule of almighty God is a vicious, relentless, alluring, cold-hearted enemy to the soul; it is the enemy territory through which every pilgrim for Jesus is making his way to heaven. It has a symbolic name in the Bible: Babylon.
In its simplest meaning, Babylon was the name of an ancient city in Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River. What has traditionally been called the tower of Babel (Gen 11) was actually a tower in the nascent city of Babylon, its inhabitants refusing to accept God’s authority from the very start. From that city arose a mighty empire that conquered the world. From it came an army that conquered the promised land, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, and burned God’s temple to the ground. Babylon was the enemy of God’s people.
Isaiah 13 is the clear prophecy of the fall of Babylon, but astonishingly Isaiah wrote about it a full century and a half before it occurred. So Isaiah saw vividly the conquest of the literal city on the Euphrates. But Isaiah 13 speaks of God’s relentless wrath poured out on “Babylon,” the enemy of his people; it would be fulfilled again and again through the history of the world because from the ashes of one Babylon, rising like a wicked, God-hating phoenix, would come the temporary glory of the next “Babylon.” When the apostle Peter wrote his epistle from Rome, he called that city “Babylon” (1 Pet 5:13). Each God-hating “Babylon” would not literally originate from that same city, but it would have all the same attributes as far as God was concerned. Not until the end of the world would the final “Babylon” be crushed with the second coming of Christ (Rev 18–19).
God Summons an Army against Babylon
First, throughout Isaiah 13, God’s activity as the secret initiator of history is emphasized. God tells what he is doing, how he is acting, who he is raising up to do what, etc. Verse 3 is plain: “I have commanded my consecrated ones; yes, I have called my warriors, who celebrate my triumph, to execute my wrath” (emphasis added). So also verses 11-13 (emphasis added):
I will punish the world for its evil. . . . I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant and humiliate the insolence of tyrants. I will make a human more scarce than fine gold. . . . I will make the heavens tremble.
This is God’s sovereign activity throughout this chapter. In verses 2-4 God is summoning an army from the nations to overthrow another Gentile nation, Babylon, the land of aristocratic “nobles” (v. 2). The invasion and conquest is the “day of the Lord,” a cause for abject terror (vv. 6-9). But then Isaiah’s language reaches up to the heavens saying the sun, the moon, and the stars will all be darkened. Jesus used this same language to speak of the celestial portents that will immediately precede his second coming (Matt 24:29-30). Thus the first fall of Babylon is a mere dress rehearsal for the final one (Rev 18–19).
The Invaders Named
It’s astonishing to marvel at Isaiah’s far-reaching prophetic vision. At the time when this oracle against Babylon was written (ca. 725 BC), Babylon was just a city chafing under the yoke of the mighty Assyrian Empire. The Medes were allies with Babylon in finding opportunities to resist the Assyrians. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah looks down the corridors of time and predicts the fall of Babylon at the hands of the Medes (v. 17) almost two centuries later (539 BC). The Medes grew and developed their culture in what is now central Iran, east of Mesopotamia in the Zagros Mountains and the high plateaus east of that mountain range. As early as 836 BC, the Assyrians referred to them as enemies. In 612 BC the Medes joined the Babylonians to crush the last vestiges of the Assyrian Empire. Here in Isaiah 13:17, the Lord decrees that he is going to “stir up” the Medes against Babylon, and they will not be bought off with silver or gold. So God is looking beyond the first empire (the Assyrians) and the second (the Babylonians) to the third empire, the Medes and Persians. God is eternal, standing over the entire stretch of time and able to declare the end from the beginning.
Desolation Decreed, Then Fulfilled
God goes beyond merely identifying the invader who will defeat Babylon. He predicts the level of devastation that will befall Babylon in her ultimate doom. Babylon, the jewel of the kingdoms, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 19). There will be few survivors; the refugees will flee, only to be found and stabbed by a sword (vv. 14-15). The cold-hearted Medes will even slaughter their children before their very eyes (vv. 16,18). Babylon will be left a howling wilderness, never to be inhabited again. Not even nomadic Arabs will pitch their tents there (v. 20). Instead, it will be a haunt for owls, ostriches, and wild goats (v. 21). This desolation is a clear picture of how empty all the enemies of God will be when his judgment has run its course.
Interestingly, in God’s wisdom, the fulfillment of this decree of desolation came in stages, not all at once. Darius the Mede conquered Babylon in 539 BC, as recorded in Daniel 5, but essentially left it intact. By the time of Alexander the Great, Babylon was still opulent enough for him to desire to make it the capital of his empire. In 323 BC, after his conquests in India, he returned to Babylon, despite the warnings of his soothsayers that Babylon was a cursed city that he should avoid (Cantor, Alexander the Great, 142). Alexander decided to enter the city and to go ahead with his grandiose plans for rebuilding Babylon. But suddenly, God’s sovereign will intervened; Alexander died in Babylon, tradition tells us from a fever brought on by a drunken binge. After Alexander, Babylon quickly hurtled toward God’s decreed desolation through the various Greek kings that ruled the region. By the time the Roman emperor Trajan went to visit the infamous Babylon in AD 116, he was disappointed when he arrived at the site; it was only a wasted pile of rubble. The ruins of ancient Babylon were not discovered until relatively modern times—that’s how totally desolate the place had become. God’s decree had been fulfilled. Babylon still has not been rebuilt.
The lessons from the “Oracles of the Nations” will be emphasized in the upcoming chapters of this commentary, but they are always worth meditating on. Overall, we must embrace and celebrate the absolute sovereignty of God over the flow of human history. We must see how God used these mighty Gentile empires to chastise his people for their sins but how he also judged each of them for their own wickedness. We must learn not to despair when the temporary ascendency of the mighty enemies of God bewilders us and tempts us to wonder what God is doing. We should stand in awe of God’s extraordinary ability to decree the distant future and make everything occur exactly as planned. We should study the theme of “Babylon” in the Bible and realize that it represents the God-hating world system, organized militarily and/or economically for vast power; and we should “come out of her, so that [we] will not share in her sins or receive any of her plagues” (Rev 18:4). We should realize that Jesus Christ fights against the spirit of “Babylon” in every generation by his Word and his Spirit, and that he will overthrow the final form of Babylon with the sword coming from his mouth at his second coming (Rev 19:15). So, we should guard our hearts from the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s possessions” (1 John 2:16), for because of these things the wrath of God is coming on this world. Christ alone can rescue his people from being destroyed with Babylon.
Reflect and Discuss
- How are 1 Peter 5:13 and Revelation 18 clear indicators that “Babylon” in the Bible represents more than only the city on the Euphrates but also a spirit of worldly rebellion against God that arises generation after generation?
- How does John’s warning in 1 John 2:16 relate to the warning of Revelation 18:4? How do we heed these warnings?
- What are the lessons from the “Oracles against the Nations” listed above? How could those lessons be an encouragement to us today?
- How does Isaiah 13 (specifically v. 17) show God’s amazing power to predict the future, even down to small details?
- How is God the central actor in this chapter? (See especially what God says he will do in vv. 3,11-13.)
- What reasons does God give in this chapter for overthrowing Babylon?
- How would this chapter be a great encouragement to the Judeans who would be exiled to Babylon a little less than a century and a half later?
- Why do you think God decreed the total desolation of Babylon, such that it would never be rebuilt?
- Why do you think God willed that the desolation should be fulfilled over many centuries, little by little, rather than all at once?
- How is the fall of Babylon that is predicted in this chapter a dress rehearsal for the second coming of Christ?