Babylon the Great

Written to Christians suffering persecution under the Roman Empire, the book of Revelation encourages Christians to be patient and faithfully obedient to Christ. Reading the book, however, can prove to be a daunting challenge for most modern Christians. Revelation reads completely different from the kind of literature we are accustomed to. It speaks of heavenly creatures, terrible plagues, and multi-headed monsters. It’s a very weird (yet fascinating) book to say the least!

Consider for a moment the strange scene described in Revelation 14.6-13:

And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, and having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and springs of waters.”

And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.”

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or in his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

And I heard a voice from heaven, saying “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “So that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” – Revelation 14.6-13

Why are the angels pronouncing judgment on “Babylon”, a powerful world empire that fell hundreds of years before Revelation was written? What on earth (or in heaven?) is going on here? Apart from a couple of phrases we usually associate with hell (vs. 10-11), and an encouraging verse about those who “die in the Lord”, which we sometimes hear read at funerals (v. 13), these verses sound very strange indeed!

In order to get what is going on with these verses, in order to feel the full force of the strange imagery, and in order to understand the reality to which it points so that we can begin to apply it to our lives, we must first consider Babylon through the lens of the Old Testament, especially the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Babylon in Isaiah

The poetic writings of the prophets are sometimes complex, but being familiar with Isaiah is vital to understanding Revelation 14.

One of the major themes in the book of Isaiah is the superiority of the LORD over Babylon and her “gods”. The first 39 chapters contain Isaiah’s message of judgment on Israel, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in exile in 597 B.C. In Isaiah 40, the tone of the book begins to change from judgment to hope for Israel.

In Isaiah 41-48 we read a series of poems written to remind us that God is greater than Babylon and her gods. Even in the exile, God was still in control (41.2-5), and was orchestrating the exile for Israel’s good (43.22-28). In chapters 47-48 we are reminded that God is faithful to His people no matter what evil Babylon may do.

In Isaiah 49-55 we are introduced to a mysterious character known as “God’s Servant”, who will rescues Israel from Babylon and bring justice. Yet this strange rescue plan necessitates that the Servant will suffer and die at the hands of the nations. It is through this suffering and death that the Servant will bring salvation for Israel and bring God’s justice into the world.

Surrounding these poems are announcements of doom against Babylon. One such warning is found in Isaiah 51.22-23:

Thus says the Lord, the LORD, even your God
Who contends for His people,
Behold, I have taken out of your hand the cup of reeling,
The chalice of My anger;
You will never drink it again.
I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
Who have said to you, ‘Lie down that we may walk over you.’
You have even made your back like the ground
And like the street for those who walk over it.”

God will take the cup of wrath that Babylon made Israel drink, and he will make them drink from it. In other words, God is going to give Babylon a taste of her own medicine! They will fall victim to the same evil that they brought on others!

It is in this context that the “good news”, the “gospel” is proclaimed:

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces peace
And brings good news of happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” – Isaiah 52.7

Today we use the word “gospel” in many different ways. We have “gospel singing” and “gospel meetings”, and we refer to faithful preachers as “gospel preachers.” The word “gospel” is often used as synonymous with God’s plan of salvation.

Although Isaiah doesn’t detract from God’s plan of saving individuals, here in Isaiah, the word “gospel” specifically refers to Israel’s prophesied victory over Babylon. For Isaiah, there are three elements of this “gospel” he immediately mentions:

“Your God reigns!”

And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”…

The LORD has comforted His people,
He has redeemed Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52.7, 9)

This message, announced to Israelites in exile, means that God has won the victory and now reigns over Babylon, and the Israelites are free to go home!

God Himself is coming to restore Zion.

Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices,
They shout joyfully together;
For they will see with their own eyes
When the LORD restores Zion. – Isaiah 52.8

Jerusalem had been destroyed. But now, the “gospel” was the message that the LORD would restore Zion in a public, visible way.

God is going to bring salvation from Babylon, and all the nations will see.

Break forth, shout joyfully together,
You waste places of Jerusalem;
For the LORD has comforted His people,
He has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God. – Isaiah 52.9-10

As history rolled on by, Babylon did indeed fall, and the Israelites returned home from exile. But nobody concluded that Isaiah’s prophecies had been fulfilled. Instead of God reigning, other empires rose to reign in Babylon’s place. There was never any evidence that God Himself ever returned to Zion. Rather than being saved from oppression, the nation of Israel continued to live under oppression for hundreds of years.

So what was Isaiah speaking of? When would Isaiah’s prophecy be fulfilled? The early Christians concluded that God’s victory, His personal return to Zion, and deliverance from Babylon was finally experienced when Jesus died on the cross as an innocent lamb (Is. 53.7).

Babylon in Jeremiah

A second key text to understand is Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians, and spent much of his life under the shadow of their power.

At the end of his book (Jeremiah 46-51), Jeremiah has a long list of poems about how God is going to bring judgment on all of the earthly kingdoms that surround Israel (Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, the Ammonites, and Damascus).

He saves the longest poems for last. Chapters 50-51 form the climax of the book as Jeremiah describes how God will bring judgment on the biggest and most evil of all the earthly kingdoms. God is going to judge Babylon.

Babylon in Revelation 14

After reading the prophets we can finally start to see why the image of “Babylon” was so important in Revelation and why this book would provide so much encouragement for Christians living under the yoke of Roman Empire. And once we grasp that, we can see why this book can be encouraging for Christians today as well.

The first angel announces that God is going to bring judgment:

And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.” – Revelation 14.7

The second angel announces that Babylon is fallen:

And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality” – Revelation 14.8

In judgment, Babylon will be made to drink of the wine of her passion. (Remember what we just read about this cup in Isaiah 51.22-23?)

The third angel warns that this judgment will be thorough and complete, and it will be for all those who have allowed themselves to be seduced by Babylon’s appeal.

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he will also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image and whoever receives the mark of his name.” – Revelation 14.9-10

This “good news” about the fall of Babylon is described in verse 6 as “the eternal gospel.”

What does the “Gospel” in Revelation 14 Mean for Us?

First of all, the gospel cannot be separated from judgment – specifically judgment upon Babylon, the image and ultimate example of an earthly nation. For Christians who were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, this most certainly would be a message of “good news!” When Christians see all the wickedness happening in their country, in their government, and in the world at large, they can take courage. They can know with confidence that judgment is coming upon Babylon, no matter what form Babylon may take in our day.

Secondly, for John, this is a call for endurance.

Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” – Revelation 14.12-13

The book of Revelation encourages Christians to resist the temptation to place their trust in Babylon. Babylon has been judged. Babylon has been defeated. Therefore, no matter how wicked earthly nations may grow, Christians can rest assured that their deeds will follow beyond the evil of Babylon, beyond the grave itself. We must therefore remain patient and faithfully obedient to Christ.

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