By Mark Mayberry
Babylon, an ancient city-state famous for its magnificence and culture, was located on the banks of the Euphrates River in the region of Shinar. Babylon is mentioned over 250 times in the Bible. Biblical writers often portray this ancient capital of Babylonia as archetypal of pagan idolatry.
The city of Babylon was situated along the Euphrates River about 300 miles northwest of the Persian Gulf and approximately 30 miles southwest of modern Baghdad in Iraq. At one time, the Euphrates flowed through the midst of the city. However, as rivers are often wont to change their course, today the river runs somewhat east of the ancient city.
In the Hebrew language, the name Babylon is derived from the root Babel, meaning “to confound or confuse,” and has reference to the confusion of tongues that occurred at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:9). The Genesis account says the ancient prehistoric city of Babylon was founded by Cush and the followers of Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-10).
The storied history of Babylon can be divided into two distinct periods: The Old Babylonian Kingdom which dates from 1830-1550 B.C., and the New Babylonian Empire which dates from 626-539 B.C. The great Hammurabi, remembered for the ancient code of law that bears his name, is associated with the first period, while King Nebuchadnezzar is identified with the second.
Babylon did not play a significant role in Bible history until she reached the Neo-Babylonian Period. The Bible refers to Babylon, the capital of Chaldea, as “the beauty of kingdoms” and “the glory of the Chaldeans’ pride” (Isa. 13:19). The Chaldean empire is also known as the Neo-Babylonian empire. Its leaders include Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II, Evil-Merodach, Neriglissar, and Nabonidus. However, the most famous and successful of all these rulers was Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar II, the son of Nabopolassar, ruled Babylon from 605-562 B.C. During his days, Babylon reached the zenith of her power and glory. Nebuchadnezzar was a skillful builder and master administrator as well as mighty conqueror.
From a biblical standpoint, Nebuchadnezzar is remembered for having deported the nation of Judah. His army first marched into Palestine in 606/605 B.C. At this time, the first group of Jewish nationals was taken into Babylonian captivity. Daniel was numbered among the leading citizens who were exiled at this time.
His army returned in 597 B.C. The first Babylonian attack on Jerusalem occurred on March 15-16 of that year, as recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle, a contemporary cuneiform text. After Jerusalem fell, Jehoiachin, the king of Judah, and 10,000 captives, including Ezekiel, were taken as prisoners to Babylon.
For about eight years the Jews endured the Babylonian yoke and paid tribute to Nebuchadnezzar. However, in 589 B.C., Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon, perhaps trusting in the Egyptian promises of military aid. Nebuchadnezzar and his army marched against Jerusalem and besieged the city for about two years. Finally, in July of 586 B.C., the wall was breached and the Chaldean hordes poured into the city. After the smoke had cleared, the city lay in ruins. Solomon’s temple was razed to its very foundation, and nearly all the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine were carried away into exile. Such was the severity of God’s judgment upon his wayward people.
The city of Babylon did not reach the height of its glory until the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:30). He spent lavish sums of money in splendid building programs. His brilliant city included vast fortifications, famous streets such as the Processional Way, canals, temples, and palaces. The Ishtar Gate, which led into the city through the double wall fortifications, was decorated with rows of bulls and dragons on enameled brick. Likewise, the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room were covered with enameled brick. During his days, the towering ziggurat was rebuilt. Nearby was the temple of Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. Not far distant were the hanging gardens of Babylon, which the Greeks considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century B.C., Babylon lay in the shape of a huge square, surrounded by 60 miles of walls, the greatest of which was 300 feet high and 87 feet wide. Within these walls, the streets of the city ran at right angles to each other. These boulevards were lined with houses that stood three to four stories high.
Archaeological excavations that occurred between 1899 and 1917, and then again after 1958, have revealed much about this enormously wealthy city. While the description of Herodotus was somewhat exaggerated, the city was all the same quite impressive. The walls were about eleven miles long with a total of eight or nine gates. The outer wall was 25-feet thick and the inner one was 23-feet thick. Watchtowers stood 65 feet apart on the walls. Archaeologists estimate that the population of greater Babylon (i.e., the walled city and its suburbs) in Nebuchadnezzar’s day was approximately 500,000.
Her Sin — Lust of the Flesh
Babylon followed after the lust of the flesh. In particular, she is condemned for her “sensuality” (Isa. 47:8-11). This Hebrew word, which means voluptuousness, comes from the root word eden, which not only describes the garden home of Adam and Eve, but refers to that which is luxurious, dainty, and delightful (2 Sam. 1:24; Ps. 36:8; Jer. 51:34). Fleshly lusts could be easily indulged in Babylon (Dan. 5:1-4). While it was customary for all who dwelt in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar to eat the king’s choice food and wine, Daniel and his friends determined that they would not defile themselves with such (Dan. 1:5, 8).
Lust of the Eyes
Babylon followed after the lust of the eyes. Motivated by grasping rapaciousness, she conquered many weaker neighboring kingdoms, thus acquiring their wealth and land. Although Babylon served as the arm of God’s avenging wrath, nevertheless, she enjoyed her role too much. Her capacity for violence and bloodshed was unrestrained (Isa. 14:3-6). Thus Babylon would be held guilty for her savage cruelty (Hab. 1:1-11).
The Pride of Life
Babylon was condemned for her pride. Called “the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Chaldeans’ pride,” nevertheless, she would be overthrown and brought low (Isa. 13:19-22). Although Babylon was lifted up to the heavens, yet she would be humiliated and disgraced, stripped of her eminence, excellence, and glory (Isa. 14:11-15). God would judge her haughty and arrogant spirit (Jer. 50:29-32).
Her Overthrow — Old Testament Prophecies
Babylon was the focus of many Old Testament prophecies. In particular, Isaiah and Jeremiah predicted the downfall of the city of Babylon (Isa. 13-14; Jer. 50-51). This sentence would be administered against Babylon because of her overweening pride, her depraved sensuality, and her cruel violence. She would be completely overthrown, never to rise again (Isa. 13:17-22; 14:16-23).
These prophecies were clearly fulfilled. In 539 B.C., Babylon was conquered by Cyrus, leader of the Medo-Persian alliance. Herodotus says that the army of Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River and then marched up the riverbed under the city walls. Babylon fell without a fight. Afterwards, the city of Babylon began to slowly decay. Xerxes plundered it. Alexander the Great thought to restore it, but the cost proved prohibitive. The city soon thereafter fell into ruins and was re-taken by the desert. Babylon was never to be revived. Today, the ruins of this ancient city stand as an eloquent testimony to the passing of proud empires and to the providential hand of God in history.
New Testament Symbolism
Thus, considering the history, grandeur, and transgressions of Babylon, it is not surprising to find this city used as a symbol in the Book of Revelation. As ancient Babylon had been noted for cruelty, oppression, and wickedness, so also the Imperial City of Rome had a similar reputation in the New Testament era (Rev. 18:1-3). Christians were suffering persecution from the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, God is still in control. Even as the capital of Chaldea was ultimately overthrown (Isa. 21:6-9), so Rome was also destined to fall (Jer. 50:9-13; Rev. 14:8).
Her Seductiveness — Wrong Approach
King Hezekiah foolishly sought to impress the ambassadors from Babylon by showing them all the treasures of his house (Isa. 39:1-8). We make the same mistake whenever we try to impress the world. Many would replace the preaching of the cross with a message that is more popular, more positive, more pleasant, more palatable. They sacrifice gospel preaching on the altar of pop psychology. They appeal to the world through the lust of the flesh (through emphasizing food, fun, frolic), the lust of the eyes (through emphasizing impressive and imposing facilities), and the pride of life (through emphasizing a self-esteem stroking, self-affirming philosophy). Instead of fire and brimstone, they minister to the hearer’s felt needs. Yet, all such compromises are doomed to failure (1 Cor. 1:18-31). We need to quit trying to entertain the goats and get back to feeding the sheep. Gospel preachers have been given a sacred charge: They must preach the word! With courage and conviction, they must reprove, rebuke and exhort with all authority (2 Tim. 4:1-5).
In closing his first epistle, Peter said, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings” (1 Pet. 5:13-14). It matters not whether Peter was referring to saints in Mesopotamia or saints in Rome. Either way, the people of God must learn how to live in the world, and yet remain apart from the world (John 17:14-17). No matter how impressive Babylon may seem, the people of God must maintain their distinctiveness. God demands our full allegiance, and will not countenance divided loyalties (Rev. 14:6-13). We must come out and be separate (2 Cor. 6:14-18; Rev. 18:4-5).
Thus we have examined the history, grandeur, sin, overthrow, and seductiveness of Babylon. The lessons are many: God still rules in the kingdoms of men (Jer. 27:5). Righteousness still exalts a nation, but sin is still a disgrace to any people (Prov. 14:34). Apart from God, all human accomplishments continue to be vanity and striving after the wind (Eccl. 1:2). Satan still would tempt us through the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17). Let us not be seduced by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Rather, let us resolve to fear God and keep his commandment, recognizing that this is the whole reason for our existence (Eccl. 12:13-14).
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Babylon.”
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Babylon.”
The New Unger’s Bible Handbook, 198-200.
The Revell Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Babylon.”
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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 4 p10 February 17, 2000