Five Views on the Identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18

October 23, 2017 — Leave a comment

I. INTRODUCTION

Famous commentators and teachers of Scripture often state that Revelation 11 or Revelation 12 are some of the most difficult chapters in the Bible to interpret. However, in my opinion the two chapters about the fall of Babylon are the most difficult for me to interpret and wrestle with.

I’ve heard many ideas about the identity of Babylon, Rome, the United States of America, the Roman Catholic Church, Dallas Texas, Jerusalem, Apostate Christianity, New York City, an unknown future city, or Babylon on the Euphrates.

Five Views on the Identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18

Photo Credit: Matthias Gerung (1500-1570)

II. BRIEF EXPOSITION OF REVELATION 17-18

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There are several key observations that we need to make about Babylon in Revelation 17-18.

A. Making Other Nations Rich

First, Babylon is described as a world empire with economic influence. Babylon is called “great city” (Rev 17:17; 18:2, 10, 16, 19, 21). The kings of the world have subjected themselves to Babylon and received punishment because they have allowed Babylon to influence them (Rev 17:2; 18; 18:9). The name written on the forehead of the woman is, “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World” (Rev 17:5). Babylon rules over “masses” of people from every nation and language (Rev 17:15). Additionally, it is described as the great city that rules over the kings of the world (Rev 17:18). Babylon’s economic influence is seen in her desires for extravagant luxury (Rev 18:3, 7, 9) which caused merchants of the world to grow rich (Rev 18:3, 11-19).

B. Babylon Was Wicked and Evil

Second, Babylon is described as being evil and wicked throughout both Revelation 17 and 18. The people who belong to this world became drunk on the wine of her immortality (Rev 17:2; 18:3). Babylon is a home for demons and everything that is wicked (Rev 18:2). The nations of the world have committed adultery with her (Rev 18:3, 9). Holy people are told not to participate in her sins otherwise they will be punished with her (Rev 18:4). Babylon’s sins are piled high (Rev 18:5) and she commits evil deeds (Rev 18:6). The two chapters about Babylon end with the most severe of Babylon’s sins about how her streets flowed with the blood of prophets, of God’s holy people, and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world (Rev 18:24).
Babylon will never be inhabited again (Isa 13:20)

III. VIEWS ON THE IDENTITY OF BABYLON

A. Apostate Christendom or Apostate Church

The church should be loyal and loving God, but in the end times it seems to have taken a turn and now aligns itself with ungodliness. This view does not hold that Babylon is a city or that Babylon is a nation. Instead, it views the word “Babylon” as a religious designation. Meaning, this woman is like the fallen and evil and wicked nation of Babylon in the Old Testament.

The position of the woman riding the beast is important. According to John Walvoord, “Her position as a rider indicates on the one hand that she is supported by the political power of the beast, and on the other hand that she is a dominant role and at least outwardly controls and directs the beast” (Walvoord, Revelation, 255).

1. Strengths

  • The people of Israel were frequent spiritual adulterers. The book of Hosea as well as Ezek 16; 23 describes the people of Israel having a connection to God, but instead following ungodliness. This type of description of God’s unholy people should not be a surprising feature in the book of Revelation since it is revealed else ware.
  • The New Testament Church as a Virgin. The New Testament seems to describe the church as a virgin that is destined to be joined to her husband: Jesus Christ. This would be a future event (2 Cor 11:2), but it was warned against spiritual adultery (James 4:4).
  • The Prostitute Rides the Beast. In Rev 17:3-4 John sees a scarlet beast and on it the prostitute rides. That beast was described by some as the revived Roman Empire in Rev 13:1 and it was the center of the world government of Gentile power in that day. The woman is riding the beast—she is not the beast itself—therefore it is significant that she represents an ecclesiastical power that is distinct from the beast (which is the political power).
  • The Woman’s Attire. The woman wears gold, scarlet, and gems. These are too familiar to the things worn by those in high church positions today. The pope, cardinals, bishops, etc., all wear these types of things.
  • Babylon as the Epitome an Imposter Christianity. Starting in Genesis 10 the Tower of Babel established the “Babylon” idea that it was a corrupt view of God. Throughout various passages in Scripture it was clear that “Babylon” is the name for a great system of religious error. From the Tower of Babel in Gen 10 to the many stories of Babylon in the book of Daniel, there was always been a departure from God when the name “Babylon” is mentioned.
  • Church History of Persecution. Sadly, the church has a tradition of persecuting people that disagree with them or who do not align doctrinally. The description of the prostitute being “drunk” with the blood of people (Rev 17:6) should not surprise us that the church which has lost its way will again begin killing and persecuting people.

2. Weaknesses

I encourage you to share the weaknesses to this view in the comments section.

3. Commentators Who Hold This View

Walvoord, Revelation, 253-279.

B. Rome

The most common view is that “Babylon” is a reference to the pagan city Rome and the “beast” which Babylon/prostitute rides on represents the Roman Empire.

1. Strengths

Nine pieces of evidence suggest that the identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18 is Rome.

  • Seven Heads. The seven kings are also represented by the seven heads which consist of five fallen kings, the sixth of which now reigns, and the seventh is not yet come (Rev 17:9-10). This is commonly seen as a reference to a sequence of seven Roman emperors (A. J. Beagley, “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 111).
  • Political Dominance. Babylon as “the great city that rules over the kings of the world” (Rev 17:18) is supposed to point to Rome’s political dominance (Beagley, “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 111).
  • Seven Hills. Some of the most popular interpretations are that the beasts seven heads (Rev 17:9) are a reference to Rome as the city of seven hills (Beagley, “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 111). Support for this view is that Rome did have seven hills: Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Equiline, Viminal, Quirimal, Capitoline.
  • A Mask. The labeling of Rome as “Babylon” as the city with “seven hills” is said to have saved John and anyone who held the book of Revelation from being punished by Rome because a prophecy about the demise of Rome so direct and tragic as Rev 17-18 would surely have caused persecution. Bruce Metzger writers, “To say directly that God will destroy imperial Rome would have been, of course, altogether treasonous in the eyes of the imperial authorities. So, like a prisoner writing in code from a concentration camp, John characterizes the power of evil as Babylon” (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 85).
  • Clothes and Jewelry. The purple and scarlet clothing (Rev 17:4) were the clothes worn only by the uppermost classes of Roman society: emperors’ family, senators, and equestrians (Mulholland, “Revelation,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 553). Additionally, jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls (Rev 17:4) suggests the top of the economic life of the empire (Mulholland, “Revelation,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 553).
  • Rome’s Persecution of Christians. Babylon’s streets flowing with the blood of prophets and persecution of God’s holy people around the world (Rev 18:24; cf. Rev 19:2) support Rome’s reputation to persecute Christians.
  • Trading empire. The mention that no one bought the cargoes of Babylon anymore (Rev 18:11) references Rome’s position as a trading power.
  • Rome Conquered Jerusalem Just as Babylon Had Done. In 586 BC Babylon decimated the city of Jerusalem and most importantly they destroyed the Jerusalem temple. Rome did a similar destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70, which might be why Rome is called Babylon in Rev 17-18 (G. R. Beasley, “Book of, Revelation,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 1027).
  • Described as a “Mystery”. In Rev 17:5 the text says a “mysterious” name was written on the woman’s forehead. This woman might not actually be “Babylon” but instead it is a mystery of who she is: Rome.

2. Weaknesses

Five pieces of evidence show that Rome likely is not the identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18.

  • Rome Is Not the Only City Described with Seven Hills (Beagley, “Babylon,” 112).
  • Widespread Knowledge of Rome as “Seven Hills.” If Rome was known so well as the city of “seven hills” (as evidenced that these seven hills were even featured on Roman coinage) then the idea John revealed Rome as “Babylon” with “seven hills” as a way to mask the identity of Rome is faulty. Since people in John’s day knew that Rome was the city of seven hills, then John’s labeling of the city in that manner still would have been treasonous.
  • Seven Hills are Seven Kings. The “seven hills” in Rev 17:9-10 seems to be “non-literal.” Meaning, they are meant to symbolize the seven kings, not seven literal hills.
    Which Seven Emperors? The idea that the seven heads (Rev 17:7-14) refers to seven literal emperors of Rome is difficult to decipher as no one knows which of the emperors to begin counting with.
  • Little Persecution of Christians in Rome. While some Christians were persecuted under Roman rule, Beagley notes that this persecution was “sporadic and local, not the result of an official policy of persecuting Christians (Beagley, “Babylon,” 112).”
  • Geography Does Not Match. The geographical descriptions of “many waters (Rev 17:1), “desert” (Rev 17:3) does not really match a description of the area of Rome. Instead, it would be more fitting for a literal description of Babylon on the Euphrates River.

3. Commentators Who Hold This View

Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 984; Metzger, Breaking the Code, 85. According in Vincent in Word Studies (p. 545), Tertullian, Irenæus, and Jerome all thought the prostitute was Rome.

C. Dallas, Texas

While there appears to be many alleged clear connections to the identity of Babylon being Rome (listed above with numerous strengths), it is important to compare a modern example. How about the city of Dallas as the identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18? A quick look at the text and the city of Dallas yields six points of support.

  • First, Dallas’ numerous prostitutes, strip clubs, and evil deeds could cause it to be labeled as a house for demons (Rev 18:2).
  • Second, the sins of this city could be piled as high as heaven (Rev 18:5).
  • Third, a quick look at the multi-million dollar homes in Highland Park could label the city as glorifying herself and living in luxury (Rev 18:7).
  • Fourth, Zales and Tiffanies’ jewelry stores are headquartered here and could be a connection to the buying of gold, silver, and jewels (Rev 18:12, 16).
  • Fifth, jcpenney is also headquartered in Dallas and that could be a connection to the sale of fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet (Rev 18:12, 16).
  • Sixth, those seven hills of Rev 17:9 could be the seven prominent suburbs of Dallas: Plan, Mesquite, Arlington, Irving, Garland, Richardson, and Frisco.

While this might be a facetious look at the book compared to modern life in Dallas, it serves a point that strong correlations can be made to most cities if one is allowed to infer that Babylon was a code name for another city.

D. Jerusalem

Another view about the identity of Babylon (yet less popular) is that Babylon represents the holy city of Jerusalem. This is often the view held by preterists or partial-preterists. In their view John wrote the book of Revelation in AD 65 and this prophecy predicts the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

1. Strengths

Four pieces of evidence support Babylon as Jerusalem.

  • Seven Hills. Jerusalem (in addition to Rome) was categorized by seven notable hills.
  • The Title as a Prostitute. Calling Babylon a “prostitute” and accusing the city of adultery is a similar way that Israel and Judah were labeled in the Old Testament (Isa 1:21; Jer 3:8-9; Ezek 20:3, 30; Hosea 1:2-2:23).
  • Substantial Imports. The list of substantial imports in Rev 18:12-13 could also have been attributed to the trade imports typical of Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem as Guilty for the Blood of Prophets. Jesus accused Jerusalem of being guilty for the blood of prophets (Matt 23:35).

2. Weaknesses

Among many weaknesses of this view, the there is only one view needed to prove this view as incorrect. The mountain of evidence (which I have outlined before) clearly states that John wrote the book of Revelation in AD 95, not in AD 65. Therefore, if John wrote the book in AD 95, the identity of Babylon could not be the city of Jerusalem and its destruction in AD 70.

E. Babylon on the Euphrates River

“Taking all the facts into account, the best view is that Babylon is the literal city of Babylon on the Euphrates in modern Iraq that will be rebuilt in the last days.” (Hitchcock, The End, 362)

“Throughout history, Babylon has represented the height of rebellion and opposition to God’s plans and purposes, so God allows Babylon to continue during the final days. It is almost as though he ‘calls her out’ for a final duel. But this time, the conflict between God and Babylon ends decisively. The city of Babylon will be destroyed.” (Dyer, The Rise of Babylon, 182)

While this is the simplest and most straightforward view, it seems to be uncommon among scholars. In my opinion, with so much emphasis being placed on Babylon here it seems that that the nation of Babylon is the literal city of Babylon.

1. Strengths

Out of all of the different commentaries and books on the end times, I have found Mark Hitchcock’s book, The End (pp. 361-369), to provide the most clear and biblical picture of the nation of Babylon. I’m following his material in the book to explain my view of these two chapters.

  • Revelation Refers to the Last-Days Capital of the Antichrist as “Babylon”. While it is possible that Babylon is a code name for Rome, New York, Jerusalem, or some other world city, it is unlikely that John would do so in a way that emphasized the name of Babylon so often. For example, Babylon is specifically mentioned six times in Revelation as the capital of the Antichrist (Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).
  • No Indication of Nonliteral Interpretation. When we were reading about the two witnesses in Jerusalem John told us to “symbolically” interpret the city as “Sodom and Egypt.” Yet, the reader knows that the two witnesses were not actually in “Sodom and Egypt.” Instead, John uses the titles of those two locations to describe the spiritual state of the city of Jerusalem. The point is that in Revelation 11:8 John specifically clues us in saying, “Hey, I’m not talking about the literal actual city, I’m using a symbol to convey meaning.” Therefore, since there is no indication or hint from John that this is supposed to be a symbolic interpretation, we should let the text speak for itself which is that this is the actual nation of Babylon.
  • Babylon Is the Most Mentioned City in the Bible Beside Jerusalem. According to Mark Hitchcock Scripture refers to Babylon about 300 times in the Bible. Throughout the Bible the nation of Babylon symbolized the epitome of evil and rebellion against God. For example, in Gen 11:1-11 Babylon was the city where man first began to worship himself in an organized way against God. Babylon in this context was an entire anti-God system as well as a literal city. Another example is that Babylon was the capital city of the first world ruler, Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10; 11:9). Furthermore, the king of Babylon—Nebuchadnezzar—destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Lastly, Babylon was the capital city of the first four Gentile world empires that rule over Jerusalem outlined in Daniel’s prophecies.
  • Babylon Fits the Criteria for the City Described in Revelation 17-18. Everything described of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 fits the criteria for an empire that would rule politically, economically, geographically, and militarily. Nothing seems out of place or difficult to interpret.
  • The Euphrates River Is Mentioned Twice in Revelation (9:14; 16:12). The city of Babylon straddles the Euphrates River. Four angels are described in Rev 9:14 being held at the Euphrates River who are ready to go and lay waste to one-third of the world. The Euphrates River dries up in Rev 16:12 so that massive armies can cross it and prepare for battle. These two events support the idea that evil and wickedness is cooking in the pot of Babylon.
  • The Prophet Zechariah (writing twenty years after the fall of Medo-Persia) Saw a Future Babylon (Zech 5:5-11). The prophet Zechariah was writing his prophesies about twenty years after the fall of Medo-Persia, yet he still saw a future Babylon (Zech 5:5-11). The parallels between Zechariah 5:5-11 and Revelation 17-18 are striking. Both include a woman sitting (Zech 5:7; cf. Rev 17:3, 9, 15), emphasis on commerce (Zech 5:6; cf. Rev 18:13), wickedness (Zech 5:8; cf. Rev 17:5), focus on false worship (Zech 5:11; cf. Rev 18:1-3), woman directly connected with Babylon (Zech 5:10-11; cf. Rev 17:5).
  • Prophetic Promises that Babylon Would Be Destroyed Suddenly and Completely. History tells us that Babylon died a long slow death over many centuries. Since Babylon has never been destroyed in a quick and decisive way like the prophets predicted, it is likely that the prophetic passages of Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 about Babylon’s sudden and quick destruction are yet to be fulfilled.
  • The Location of Babylon Is on the Euphrates. Jeremiah’s prophecy about the doom and fall of the nation of Babylon in Jer 50-51 is one of the most severe prophecies I am aware of. There are numerous similarities between Jer 50-51 and Rev 17-18. Here’s just some basics: named the same name (Jer 50:1; cf. Rev 18:10); compared to a golden cup (Jer 51:7; cf. Rev 17:3-4; 18:6), dwelling on many waters (Jer 51:13; cf. Rev 17:1), involved with nations (Jer 51:7; cf. Rev 17:2), destroyed suddenly (Jer 51:8; cf. Rev 18:8), destroyed by fire (Jer 51:30; cf. Rev 17:16), never to be lived in again (Jer 50:39; cf. Rev 18:21), punished according to her deeds (Jer 50:29; cf. Rev 18:6), fall illustrated (Jer 51:63-64; cf. Rev 18:21), God’s people flee (Jer 51:6, 45; cf. Rev 18:4), and heaven rejoices (Jer 51:48; cf. Rev 18:20).

2. Weaknesses

The first and most obvious weakness for Babylon being the identity of the woman is that Babylon was no longer a nation when John was writing his letter to the seven churches in Asia.

3. Commentators Who Hold This View

Mark Hitchcock, The End, 361-369.

IV. CONCLUSION

No view should be held dogmatically. Instead, each Bible student should read the Bible, ask for God’s understanding, and make his or her best attempt to interpret the text. Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that evil exists in our world and will continue to exist. Whether “Babylon” is Rome, Apostate Christianity, or the literal city of Babylon on the Euphrates, Christians must remember that Satan’ roams the earth and empowers evil people to do wicked deeds.

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Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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