Among some of the most puzzling questions people have about the Book of Revelation is the identity of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 as well as the identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18. Today’s post examines Revelation 17-18 and provides strengths and weaknesses for each view.
Photo Credit: Matthias Gerung
I. EXPOSITION OF REVELATION 17-18
The city of “Babylon” is mentioned in Rev 17-18 as part of the “seven bowls” (which is last in the series of seven scrolls and seven seals). Babylon is mentioned as part of the seven bowls after the first bowl was poured out on the earth (Rev 16:2), the second was poured out on the sea (Rev 16:3), the third was poured out on the rivers and springs, (16:4-7), the fourth was poured out on the sun (Rev 16:8-9), the fifth was poured out on the throne of the beast (Rev 16:10-11), the sixth was poured out on the great Euphrates River (Rev 16:12-16), and the seven poured the bowl out on the air (Rev 16:17-21). The mention of the city of Babylon is in the interlude of this seventh bowl.
A. Revelation 17
Rev 17 starts by mentioning a “great prostitute” who ruled over many waters (Rev 17:2). She was sitting on a scarlet beast which had seven heads, ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it (Rev 17:3). This beast is the one revealed earlier in Rev 13. In Rev 13 that beast had seven heads and ten horns with ten crowns on its horns (Rev 13:1). These blasphemies are what the beast was allowed to speak against God for forty two months (Rev 13:5). These were terrible words of blasphemy against God that slandered his name and those in heaven (Rev 13:6). For clarification, the beast of Rev 13:1-6 is different than the beast (anti-Christ) in Rev 13:11-17. After a brief mention of the beast and prostitute in Rev 17:1-4, a mysterious name is told to have been written on the woman’s forehead, “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World” (Rev 17:5, NLT).
B. Revelation 18
In Rev 18 an angel came down from heaven and said Babylon had fallen and was a great place for demons (Rev 18:2). Because of her immorality and desires for extravagant luxury the kings of the world committed adultery with her (Rev 18:3). The city of Babylon had sins (Rev 18:4), that were piled as high as the heavens (Rev 18:4-5), she had a cup of terror for others (Rev 18:6), she glorified herself and lived in luxury (Rev 18:7), and she boasted in her heart (Rev 18:7). Because of these sins, according to the angel, Babylon would be overtaken by plagues in a single day (Rev 16:21) and she would be consumed by fire (Rev 18:8).
After Babylon’s destruction the kings who had committed adultery with her will see smoke rising from her charred remains (Rev 18:9). Merchants will weep for her (Rev 18:11) because there will be no one left to buy gold, silver, jewels, purple, cloth silk, scarlet cloth, ivory goods, expensive wood, bronze, iron, marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour, wealth, cattle, sheep, horses, chariots, and slaves (Rev 18:12-13). Merchants will stand at a distance terrified by what they saw (Rev 18:15). Captains of merchant ships, their passengers, and sailors will weep over the loss of Babylon (Rev 18:17-19). Lastly, a mighty angel said that the city of Babylon will never by thrown down with violence and will never be found again (Rev 18:21).
II. THREE VIEWS ON THE IDENTITY OF BABYLON IN REVELATION 17-18
A. Babylon as 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.
Seven pieces of evidence suggest that the identity of Babylon in Rev 17-18 is Rome.
- The 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.
- 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. Third, 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. 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 prophesy 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.”
- 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. Additionally, jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls (Rev 17:4) suggests the top of the economic life of the empire.
- 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.
Four 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
B. Babylon as Jerusalem
Another view about the identity of Babylon (yet less popular) is that Babylon represents the holy city of Jerusalem.
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 (Ezek 16:20:3, 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 Jersualem.
- Jerusalem as guilty for the blood of prophets. Jesus accused Jerusalem of being guilty for the blood of prophets (Matt 23:35).
This view sees Babylon in Rev 17-18 as the rebuilt city of Babylon on the Euphrates River as the future capital of the world empire.
Three positions of support stand for Babylon as the future city on the Euphrates River.
- Unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophecies of Isa 13:21-22; 34:11-17 and Jer 51:37 are not yet fulfilled.
- Generally matches description of Rev 17-18. This city on the Euphrates provides an ideal location for the description of Rev 17-18 as it relates to politics, geography, and commercial availability.
- Many waters. The many waters of Rev 17:15 correspond to Babylon’s location on the Euphrates River with its numerous canals, irrigation trenches, and marshes.
- The main weakness to this view is that Babylon was no longer a nation at the time of John’s vision.
- Additionally, location of Babylon on the Euphrates River is not near the sea.
- The Euphrates River also dries up in the sixth bowl judgment (Rev 16:12-16).
III. DALLAS AS THE CITY OF BABYLON IN REVELATION 17-18?
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.
- Dallas’ numerous prostitutes, strip clubs, and evil deeds could cause it to be labeled as a house for demons (Rev 18:2).
- The sins of this city could be piled as high as heaven (Rev 18:5).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- Those seven hills of Rev 17:9 could be the seven prominent suburbs of Dallas: Plano, 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.
IV. THE BEST VIEW — BABYLON ON THE EUPHRATES RIVER
While arguments for the similarities to Rome are strong, there does not appear to be a reason that Jesus would have revealed to John a mysterious code about the future identity of that city without providing an explanation of what that image or picture was. The best and most likely inference about the identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 is that it will be the literal city of Babylon located on the Euphrates River.
 Supported by Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 984; Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1993), 85.
 A. J. Beagley, “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 111.
 John Wavoord, “Revelation” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 971.
 Metzger, Breaking the Code, 85.
 M. Robert Mulholland, “Revelation,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 18:553.
 Ibid., 553.
 Beagley, “Babylon” 112.
 G. R. Beasley, “Book of, Revelation,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 1027.
 Beagley, “Babylon,” 112.
 Beagley, “Babylon,” 112.
 John Walvoord, “Revelation” in Bible Knowledge Commentary, 973; Robert Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 307.
 This location is in southern Mesopotamia, 60 miles southwest of modern Baghdad, sitting on the banks of a canal of the Euphrates River. Mark Boda and J. Gordon McConville, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 53.
 Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 307.
 Ibid., 283.
RESOURCES I USED IN THIS POST
Beagley, A. J. “Babylon” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Beasley, G. R. “Book of, Revelation,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Boda, Mark and J. Gordon McConville, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Metzger, Bruce. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1993.
Mulholland, M. Robert. “Revelation.” Vol. 18 of the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011.
Thomas, Robert. Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1995.
Walvoord, John F. “Revelation.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.