WHO SHE IS – The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth. (Revelation 17:18)
John is told by the angel that the woman is “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” There are a variety of interpretations given by various Bible scholars. This week we will take a look at the Babylon interpretation.
• Literal (Geographical) Babylon Yet to Come – As predicted by both Isaiah (Isaiah 14:1–23; 21:1–10; 46:1–2; 47:1–5) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 50–51), Babylon was to fall, be left in ruins, and never be inhabited again.
Fall – It fell in October 539 BC, when the Persian ruler Cyrus entered the city and the Babylonian king Belshazzar was slain (Daniel 5:30). The principal buildings were spared and the temples with their statues were restored by royal decree. It became a subsidiary Persian capital with an Achaemenid palace located there.
Left in Ruins – It was the center of a number of rebellions, which finally led to its destruction in 478 BC by Xerxes, the grandson of Cyrus. Although Alexander the Great planned to restore it, he met his death there before work progressed very far. When Seleucia on the river Tigris became the capital of the Seleucid rulers, the city once again fell into disrepair and ruins. According to cuneiform texts, the temple of Bel continued in existence until at least until AD 75.(1)
Uninhabited – The site was completely deserted by AD 200.(2)
Thus, if the Babylon mentioned here in Revelation 17 is a literal Babylon, it must be rebuilt like many believe that the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. This time it will fall for good, be left a pile of ruins, and never to be inhabited again (millennium). In 1983, Saddam Hussein, who imagined himself as the heir to Nebuchadnezzar, ordered the rebuilding of Babylon. Like Nebuchadnezzar, Hussein had his name inscribed on the bricks, which were placed directly on top of its ancient ruins. A sample inscription translates to:
”In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him, the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.”
Hussein also added huge portraits of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance of the ruins. At the end of the Persian Gulf War, he commissioned a palace over more Babylonian ruins, in the same pyramid style as a Sumerian ziggurat, calling it Saddam Hill. The massive yet gaudy structure almost completely covered the original ruins, outraging many archaeologists. Hussein’s plans for a cable line running over the Babylon site were halted with the 2003 invasion. Following the 2003 invasion, the United States military camp Alpha was set up on the ruins. Areas were leveled to create landing pads for helicopters and parking lots for vehicles. Tanks rumbled over the ancient bricks, and Polish troops dug trenches through a temple. Soil holding artifacts and bones was scooped into sandbags. Even this military presence was unable to keep looters from ransacking more than 10,000 of Iraq’s historic sites after the invasion.
With the end of his rule, Hussein’s ego-driven grand plan to reconstruct Babylon came to an end. But there are signs that his dreams did not die with him.(3) Several efforts to restore Babylon have been announced in the past several years, but without much progress. When (if) security in Iraq improves, officials hope to begin work on a project to restore the site, with partial funding by the U.S. State Department. The United Nations is also trying to name the place a World Heritage site, a designation that would provide additional support and protection.(4)
• Figurative Babylon 1st Century – Some believe that Revelation 17:18, with the use of the present tense “reigns,” is a clear indication that this text refers a city that existed in John’s day. The city was prosperous and powerful, but also idolatrous (“blasphemy”) and dangerous. It polluted the nations with its filth and abomination (pictured by the golden wine cup), and persecuted those belonging to the Lord (Revelation 17:6). Power, prosperity, pollution of morals, persecution and pride are words that describe the “great harlot’s” influence and activities on a worldwide scale.(5) Because of this, many Biblical scholars believe that Babylon is a metaphor for the pagan Roman Empire at the time it persecuted Christians, and before the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which ended Christian persecution during the reign of Constantine.
Many aspects of Rome’s rule resembled Babylon’s (power, prosperity, polluted morals, persecution and pride). In 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Sibylline oracles, Babylon is used as a cryptic name for Rome. A Roman coin minted under the Emperor Vespasian (ca. 70 AD) depicts Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills.(6) The seven heads are identified as seven mountains, giving a strong indication that the city could be Rome, which was situated on seven hills. When Revelation was written, Rome was indeed reigning over the kings of the earth.(7) In John’s day, no one in the Roman Empire could have doubted that the city that “reigns over kings” meant Rome, any more than anyone would have doubted that the seven hills (Revelation 17:9) alluded to Rome.(8) “She who is at Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13) was most likely the Apostle Peter’s way of referring to the church in Rome, a city which had become as immoral and idolatrous as ancient Babylon. Just as that ancient cultural center had oppressed the Judean exiles, so Rome was now persecuting the Christians living there.(9)
• Figurative Babylon End Times – Other scholars view mystery Babylon as an end times’ empire with many of the characteristics of the ancient Babylonian and Roman Empires (prosperous, powerful, polluted morals, persecution of believers and pride). They view Jeremiah’s prophesied destruction of Babylon as accomplished, never to be inhabited again. This would be why Alexander the Great’s and Saddam Hussein’s efforts to rebuild Babylon were not successful. If Babylon is never to be rebuilt, but two entire chapters of Revelation is devoted to its future destruction, then it must be a future empire that is typified by (a type of) ancient Babylon.
Up Next – Is the figurative end times Babylon a “revived” Roman Empire?
- Wiseman, D. J. (1996). In the Old Testament. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, & J. I. Packer (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., pp. 110–111). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Browning, D. C., Jr. (2003). Babylon. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 159). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 612). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 845). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 17:18). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 250). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.