Babylon was an ancient city in the fertile crescent that takes its name from the Hebrew verb "to confuse." Ruins along the Euphrates River about 60 miles south of modern Baghdad mark the location of the city that played a significant role in the history of the nation of Israel as the destination of the Jewish captives taken by Nebuchadnezzar. It was the capitol of the Babylonian empire in the Old Testament, and is referred to in the New Testament with both a literal and a figurative meaning.
Even though the vast majority of the more than 250 scriptural references to Babylon clearly indicate a literal geographic location, it is also used as a symbol of harlotry and general evil. Some commentators suggest Peter uses it as a code word that stands for some other physical city, most likely Rome (1 Pet. 5:13), while John appears to use it in Revelation as a symbolic reference to some political or religious system of future (e.g. Rev. 14:8).
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In the Old Testament
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In the Revelation
Babylon is first alluded to in Revelation 14:8, when an angel pronounces judgment saying, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality" (ESV). The interpretation of these passages rests heavily on the hermeneutical method employed.
If one approaches the text as mere allegory (such as the idealist), then it would follow that the imagery of the harlot could refer to any world system or ideology from which we are to flee. Thus, idealists hear the command to leave Babylon in Revelation 18:4 echoed in Paul's admonition to "flee immorality" (I Corinthians 6:18) as much as in the prophets' warnings to "Escape, you who are living with the daughter of Babylon," (Zechariah 2:7) and to "Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans!" (Isaiah 48:20).
The recurring harlotry imagery may lead some to speculate that "she" is some false religious system on account of passages that link infidelity to rebellion. However, John makes it obvious that his imagery specifically refers to a city when he says, "The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth." (Revelation 17:18) This use of personification is consistent with the portrayal of the rebellion of Tyre (Isaiah 23:16-17) and Nineveh (Nahum 3:4).
Clearly, a mere allegorical view of Babylon falls short of the demands of a consistently literal, normal, grammatical, historical, contextual interpretation of Scripture.
Another approach to understanding the harlot named Babylon is to view her as symbolically referring to another city. Preterist proponents of this view would identify her as Jerusalem, pointing to the destruction of the city in the first century as the basis for John's "narrative". However, John seems to stress the prophetic nature of his writing rather than the apocalyptic. Furthermore, the vivid description he gives of the fall of Babylon matches that of the prophetic accounts of Isaiah 13-14 and Jeremiah 50-51 much more closely than the historic records of Jerusalem's fall.
The prophet Isaiah equates the destruction of Babylon with the day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6-9), linking it with cosmic disturbances (Isaiah 13:10-13) and universal judgment (Isaiah 13:11-12), indicating Israel's restoration would immediately follow (Isaiah 14:1-4) along with worldwide rest and peace (Isaiah 14:5-8). All of these prophetic elements are contained within John's Revelation.
Jeremiah's account also has a number of striking parallels to Revelation 17-18. Both passages describe Babylon as holding a golden cup (Jeremiah 51:7), dwelling on many waters (Jeremiah 51:13), and coming to sudden (Jeremiah 51:8), deserved (Jeremiah 51:63-64), and final (Jeremiah 50:39) destruction by fire (Jeremiah 51:30), with God's people fleeing (Jeremiah 51:6, 45) and heaven rejoicing (Jeremiah 51:48).
It would be difficult to argue that these details line up with the historical facts of the defeat of Babylon in 539 BC or the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, thus make this particular symbolic view untenable. Rather, it seems more likely that all three passages demand a future fulfillment of prophecies including the rise and fall of a literal city of Babylon during the last days.
Some Historicist adherents of a symbolic view would hold up either the political city of Rome or the ecclesiastical papacy of Rome and look to either the decline of the Roman Empire or the fall of Roman Catholicism as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Here again, the details provided do not align with the reality of historical record.
While one can find some similarities in both, there exists a confounding lack of evidence to validate this interpretation of Scripture. In addition, there is also the daunting question as to why John would have chosen to codify his comments about Rome. The notion that his reference to the "seven mountains" (17:9) supposedly concealed the fact that he was speaking of Rome has little support and forces the reader into an inconsistent hermeneutic.
A more likely explanation is that her sitting on the beast with seven heads -- interpreted by John as both mountains and kings (17:9-10) -- probably refers to control rather than location, much like the reference to her sitting on "many waters" (17:1) (which does not, incidentally, characterize Rome) is interpreted later in the passage as having control over "peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues" (17:15).
Further, most interpreters agree that the other geographic places and cities mentioned in Revelation refer to literal locations, such as Patmos (1:9), the Euphrates (9:14; 16:12), Armageddon (16:16), and Jerusalem (21:2,10). When John wishes to express that he is using the name of a city symbolically, he makes it explicit, such as "the great city which mystically (lit. spiritually) is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified." 11:8 Clearly, a symbolic or coded identity of Babylon is outside the standard of a consistently literal, normal, grammatical, historical, contextual interpretation of Scripture.
Alternatively, a Futurist approach to interpreting the harlot of Revelation yields a view that is in complete harmony with the Golden Rule of Interpretation, which states, "When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense." While John does use symbolic language in his description of the character and events of the harlot named Babylon, he does not employ any formula which leads the reader to understand anything other than a literal physical city which will sway many with her immorality (Revelation 17:2), exert extensive political and economic control on the earth (Revelation 17:4, 9-10, 15), and bring about a great persecution to followers of Jesus (Revelation 17:6). The account that follows details in plain language Babylon's ultimate demise and the reaction of those who witness it.
Critics of this perspective may point to the fact that Babylon has already been destroyed as evidence that the harlot of John's prophecy could not refer to the same city. However, similarities between Zechariah's vision of the ephah (Zechariah 5:5-11) and John's vision of the harlot give the interpreter confidence in the literal future rise and fall of Babylon. Even though he began to prophesy after the initial fall of the Babylonian empire (Zechariah 1:1), Zechariah sees a woman named "Wickedness" taken to Shinar, i.e. Babylon (Daniel 1:2), indicating that evil will reign once more in that region of the world. Employing the hermeneutic method of a consistently literal, normal, grammatical, historical, contextual interpretation of Scripture will lead the reader to an understanding that the harlot named Babylon described in Revelation 17-18 represents a future, physical, rebuilt city where the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and the apostle John will be fulfilled during the last days.