God’s Word uses the term “Babylon” as a euphemism for all the statist regimes of history that have sought to play god. Man outside of God’s grace has an insatiable desire to make good on Satan’s phony promise that men could challenge the sovereignty of God Himself and “be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Gods know good and evil because they determine it. The quest to “be as gods” was thus the origin of the desire for human autonomy, the humanistic dream of playing god, of remaking the world in terms of the sovereign word of man.
Man’s quest of autonomy, or self-rule by his own truth and word rather than that of God, tends to result in one of two manifestations. The individual may become anarchistic, seeking his “own rules” and his “own thing.” The individual autonomous man, however, is either irrelevant or a nuisance to collective man, and so humanism’s autonomy has always tended toward statism. The real autonomy is thus of the state, not individuals, which illustrates the Biblical teaching that man’s rebellion against God represents an enslavement to sin. The moral reality of slavery to sin is manifested in the institutional enslavement of men to the highest collective voice of mankind, the state.
As a moral rebel, man perverts the things of God. Since man is not god, but only a creature, all he can do as a rebel is counterfeit the Creator’s reality. Man was made to have dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28), for instance, but his moral rebellion in Genesis 3 means that all his attempts at dominion without God end in manifestations of his sin. The sinful lust for power rather than godly dominion stems from the original sin of desiring to be as gods. Man’s constant grasp for power is manifested in aggression and exploitation. Power-hungry men create a power-hungry state as the utilitarian means of controlling others.
Man was never freer than in Eden before the Fall. There, he was in total harmony with God and the purpose for which he was created. He was governed, not by his own sinful self-will, but by the revealed Word of God. Man’s perfect government was his self-government in terms of that Word. Adam’s sin was in his desire to be his own god. Man’s continuing sin is his ongoing desire for autonomy; his own dominion, power, and glory; and his demand that the world serve him.
In the atonement of Jesus Christ, God in human flesh paid the penalty for man’s sin and destroyed the moral stranglehold of sin on us. In Jesus Christ, the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), we are made new creatures and therefore our “labour is not in vain in the Lord” (v. 58). We are recalled to our purpose of exercising authority under God’s sovereign lordship because we repudiate Adam’s satanic delusion of autonomy and power.
The Kingdom of God we serve is now available because of Jesus Christ. It exists wherever Christ rules, in church, state, family, or school. Babylon is the kingdom of man, where men seek power in the numbers on which statism depends. Babylon represents the statist exertion of control over others, which presumes on the power that belongs to God. Simply put, the state has throughout history played god and thus institutionally embodied the original sin of man.
The downfall of the statist regimes of history is described in Revelation 17–18 as the “judgment of the great whore” (17:1), who bears the name of “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (17:5). The great whore is said to ride on both a beast (17:3, 7, 9) and on “many waters” (17:1). Four elements here are crucial to understanding what judgment is being prophesied.1 These four elements are the allusion to Babylon, the beast, the great whore that rides upon it, and the waters.
First, Babylon represents the statist powers of human history that have sought the hegemony that rightly belongs to God. It is unmistakably a reference to Babel, the meaning of which is often lost in its relegation to a Sunday school morality tale.
Babel was a political empire in the days of Peleg (Gen. 10:25), who was born 100 years after the flood.2 This means it was in the days of men who well knew of God’s judgment on man’s sin. Peleg was the fifth generation after Noah (and five removed from his descendant, Abram). The goal of the people of Babel is stated in Genesis 11:4.
Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
The goal of Babel was thus both a city and a tower. We tend to overlook the former. They were in quest of both an empire and a “name.” They sought to define themselves in terms of a political entity. Establishing their name was an attempt to exert their authority, to impress their strength in the eyes of all.
“The Tower of Babel” was a representation of the magnificence of the city, the social order, they planned. Like later civilizations of the ancient world (and possibly the antediluvian world that had to have been advanced enough to produce a vessel of the impressive dimensions of the ark), monument building was a means of flaunting power and wealth. Great cities and their engineering marvels were built to instill awe and a sense of insignificance in those who viewed them. In desiring to “reach heaven,” the builders of Babel were trying to project themselves as a power center. The religious statement this made, in the people familiar with the history of the Fall and the judgment of the Flood, was a bold one and a promulgation of a humanistic statist purpose as a substitute for that of God. Babel was a return to the thinking of the pre-Flood generation whose purposes were “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Perhaps its builders were wickedly emboldened by God’s promise not to repeat the Flood (9:8–17).
The unity of the social order of Babel was a forced one. Cain had earlier built a city or cities for protection. Guilty because of the murder he had committed, he felt the need to establish himself in a defensible stronghold. Like its city and tower, the unity of Babel was a planned one, measured in political strength that could be projected to others. Sadly enough, Babel had a very real God-given unity, that of language. Their God-given judgment was in removing their greatest unifying factor, thus making the political order impossible.
Babylon is also a reference to the empire of the Old Testament era, which later developed on the plain of Shinar, or Mesopotamia, where Babel had once existed. It was Babylon that captured Judah and held it for seventy years. It was Babylon that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple of God that Solomon had built. It was Babylon that left the land promised by God to His people a sparsely settled wilderness. The complete enslavement of the Hebrew people, the expropriation of their sacred land, and the destruction of their religious center must have created such a feeling of pride and superiority in the Babylonians that we should hardly be surprised that they became synonymous with those of every age who politically and culturally believe they can make God and His people irrelevant.
We must not limit references to Babylon to either Babel or the ancient empires that bore the name, however. Babylon also refers to the Roman Empire of John’s day. His description of seven mountains or hills (Rev. 17:9) is a clear, well-known reference to the city of Rome from where the Caesars then ruled. Then John describes Babylon as also in the future, kings with “no kingdom as yet” (vv. 12–14). Babylon is more than a single political reference. It is the ideal, the hope, the dream of humanistic man for a kingdom of man that supplants the Kingdom of God.
A second element of Revelation 17–18 is the beast with many heads and horns. These are civil governments, kings (17:10ff.), that “make war with the Lamb” (17:14), though the angels assured John of His victory and that of those who are faithful to Him. In addition to representing civil governments, the beast also represents Satan (17:8) and, again in verse 9, Rome. (Babylon as the dream cannot be separated from the beast, the civil governments, that embodies that dream, so the reference to the seven hills is a reference to Rome as both a civil government, the “beast,” and an embodiment of the dream of “Babylon.”)
The beast, these civil governments, has seven heads that represent kings. The first five kings were past, one was ruling in John’s day (an obvious reference again to Rome), and the last was in the future (17:10). The future king would have ten horns, a symbol of totality. In other words, the future manifestation of statist civil government and its quest to play God would have many lesser manifestations, a number known to God.
Much eschatology is geared to the specific identification of these ten horns. That may not have been John’s purpose. The purpose seems to be the identification of the dream of Babylon as, throughout history, being the unifying factor of statist civil government. The war of the beast against Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, and His people is a recurring theme throughout history, the kingdoms of humanistic statist man at war with the Kingdom of God and its citizens.
A third element of John’s vision is the whore who rides on the beast, the kingdoms or governments of the world. The whore is carried by the beast, who is the major character. It is the work of a whore to tempt man, to play on his passions, his fantasies. We have already characterized Babylon as the dream, the hope, the ideal of rule of man without God, His victorious competitor. The great whore of Babylon tempts the nations, the governments of the world, with the dream of Babylon, the kingdom of man exalting itself over God.
The whore of Babylon is not a person, but the temptation, the quest for the autonomous man playing God. It is a continuation of the phony promise of Satan in Genesis 3:5 that man could, in fact, be “as gods.” The whore is man’s insatiable lust to make good on Satan’s promise. The desire is the embracing of man’s original sin, the determination to make it work in his favor. This is a war on God and the Lamb who offered the only resolution to Adam’s sin at Calvary.
There is yet a fourth element that we should note in Revelation 17. The whore sits on the waters (v. 1). John clearly identifies the waters as people (v. 15). The evils of Babylon are not reserved to a few evil rulers or particular regimes of history; they belong to the peoples as well. The lust (whore) of statist governments (beast, kings) for the preeminence of man’s will and glory in defiance of God (Babylon) cannot be limited to institutions; it is the sinful tendency of all men who, after Adam, pursue a life in terms of the promise of Satan in Eden.
Part of the sinister nature of ancient Babylon, though in no way unique to it, was the control over men it wielded by economic power. It encouraged debt by easy credit and economic control, which was then followed by political control. The description of judgment to which John referred (Rev. 17:1) is largely described in terms of economic collapse (Rev. 18). There is no swifter judgment than economic collapse because it impacts every aspect of the life of every single person. The Soviet Union, let us remember, collapsed with its military strength intact when its economy became so dysfunctional that its people stopped fearing to offend its strength of arms.
The modern Babylons of the West have most noticeably tried to counterfeit the Kingdom of God. Oriental and Asian thought came to have a contempt for history as the realm of karma, the merciless outworking of consequences. Some non-Christian Westerners turned to a similarly defeatist position by seeing history as cyclical. More often Western thought has believed in some form of progress, of forward movement of history toward some hope. Without a conscious belief in the advance of the Kingdom of God and His Christ through the grace shown to His covenant people, man’s dominion impulse is counterfeited, secularized into some humanistic hope.3
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment turned to utopian ideas as a humanistic alternative to the Kingdom of God. Humanistic man’s kingdom is of some kind of Babel, some social order whereby man makes a name for himself and builds some sort of lasting tower or monument to its permanence. Modern man’s towers tend to be legal and institutional rather than made of mortar and brick, but they are no less presumptuous in their goal of creating an order outside of God.
Utopianism seeks a permanent social order, an end to history by creating its final order. Karl Marx clearly saw this as the purpose of revolution. Others have adopted the idea of creating order by revolution through different means, such as political, legal, or educational “reform.” All suggest that a perfect order is possible if man can only be made subject to the new order he envisions. Some method of aggression or legal compulsion is inevitably the means to achieve utopian goals.
The United Nations is a modern utopian version of Babylon. The order it seeks in international affairs is an entirely humanistic one, not a moral one in any Biblical sense. Its hope is in the organization of mankind into a new city and tower of Babel under a concept of justice and law that it decrees. The world at peace it seeks must be a world under its rule and law, a new version of Pax Romana or “peace of Islam.” It is thus, perhaps, the very worst manifestation of the dream of Babylon, for it seeks a world law and a world state. The peace it seeks is in terms of its own purposes and goals of empire. It is an enemy of God’s justice and His Kingdom because it seeks its own.
The United Nations fails to recognize sin, therefore it allows sin to flourish if it is in its own self-interest. The United Nations has always been plagued by internal corruption and scandal. It is a centralized, non-accountable body that rules by a law that is neither organic to the culture to which it dictates nor subject to the transcendental authority of God. The United Nations represents the dream, the ideal of Babylon writ large.
The judgment on the beast, civil governments, and its dream of Babylon is described by St. John (Rev. 18). The angel of God declares, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen” (v. 2). The warning of the angel is clear. “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (v. 4). The angel directly references the ancient Tower of Babel when he says Babylon’s “sins have reached unto heaven” (v. 5). But Babylon thinks she is immune from misfortune, so she sits as a queen who cannot be widowed or mourn (v. 7), i.e., who will never see misfortune.
Four plagues will come upon the Babylons of history, however: death, mourning, famine, and fire (v. 8). Death is God’s response to Babylon’s belief she will never be a widow; mourning is in contrast to the arrogance of her power; famine is the recompense for the wealth she enjoyed through the labor of others; and fire the destruction in her judgment.
The end of all Babylons, like the judgment on Babel, will be a scattering. The means in Genesis 11 was the destruction of the people’s productive capacity by the confusion of their unifying language. This meant more than the comical chaos of our Sunday school lessons; it meant their ability to do any business or trade was destroyed. It was not just the tower that was abandoned; it was the city of Babel and its dream of making a name for itself that was aborted as well.
The collapse of Babylon, the angel says, will be largely economic in nature (Rev. 11–19). Those who benefit from Babylon will mourn its demise, but in this economic collapse, God’s people are called to rejoice over her collapse as the antagonist of the “apostles and prophets” (18:20–21).
Too much eschatology centers around the minutia of John’s prophecy in Revelation, as if its essence were in the details. We fail to see the big picture. The angel revealed to John that man’s hope of being God, his collective system of empire-building toward the good life in terms of one humanistic dream or another will collapse. Babylon will fall. This economic calamity will affect all men, but we must rejoice in its fall as the judgment of God.
We must not pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, nor mourn its coming judgment. We must, rather, prepare ourselves to respond with the refrain that will fill heaven, “Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God: For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand. And again they said Alleluia! And her smoke rose up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:1–3).
Christians must not support statism, even that with a democratic rhetoric. To do so is to support a modern Babylon. Christians cannot invest their lives and future hopes in Babylon, the kingdom of man. Christians must reject the supposition that politics will succeed in building the good life by an economy built on debt. Any such dream or economy built on confidence in Federal Reserve Notes or some other fiat promise of statist men will fall like a millstone cast into the sea (Rev. 18:21).
All Babylons will end in failure and God’s judgment. Are you preparing yourself, despite the economic hardship you will experience, to join the heavenly host in crying “Alleluia”?
1. For more on this see R. J. Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), especially 189–198.
2. For a discussion on Babel, see R. J. Rushdoony, Genesis (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2002), chaps. 24–27.
3. R. J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books), 46–51.