Matt Colvin offers a well thought out rejoinder to my latest attempt to show that John’s account of the fall of Babylon-the-great refers to Rome. The point he makes is a challenging one: John says that the great city will be thrown down by violence and will be found no more (Rev. 18:21). But Rome was not destroyed: it did not suffer the fate of cities such as Nineveh and Babylon, which Matt says were buried in the sand. So if John was prophesying the catastrophic fall of Rome, it was a false prophecy. Jerusalem, on the other hand, certainly suffered utter destruction, so for the sake of saving the integrity of biblical prophecy, let’s stick to the view that Babylon-the-great is Jerusalem.
I have two things to say in response.
First, I don’t think it’s a good idea to do biblical interpretation in the light of how things turned out. If interpretation of a prophetic text really cannot be resolved, then I guess it’s fair enough to pick the reading that lines up best with the actual course of events. But as far as I can see, the exegetical evidence is firmly in favour of the view that Babylon-the-great is Rome. I have made the further point that such an interpretation is fully consistent with the pattern of judgment on Israel followed by judgment on the foreign city that we find in the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic texts. We have, therefore, every reason to expect such a climax to John’s Apocalypse.
So if we read Revelation 18 forwards rather than backwards, without the benefit of hindsight, I think we are bound to accept that John meant to describe the fall of the prostitute-city of Rome, which rode on the back of the beast-like kingdom of Rome.
But, secondly, I think that Preterists who point to the supposed historical failure of the Rome view may have misjudged biblical prophecy.
John’s description of the fall of Babylon-the-great draws extensively on the word of the Lord concerning Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51. The themes of a fallen city, a city that made the nations drunk with her wine, sins that reach up to heaven, the command to flee from the city, the repayment of the city for what she has done to others, rejoicing over the fall of a city that had been responsible for the deaths of both Jews and non-Jews, the image of a stone cast down, Babylon sinking to be found no more—all these themes are derived from Jeremiah’s description of God’s judgment against Babylon as repayment for its destruction of Jerusalem. See my previous post for the details.
Jeremiah’s language is uncompromising and final: the land will be made a desolation and none will dwell in it (50:3); Babylon will be the “last of the nations, a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert” (50:12); her walls will be thrown down (50:15); it will be overthrown like Sodom and Gomorrah, no one will live there (50:40); it will be destroyed (51:11); it will be a perpetual waste (51:26); it will sink to rise no more (51:64).
The agent of this judgment, however, would be the Medes (Jer. 51:11, 28), and we know from history that the Medo-Persian forces did not destroy Babylon utterly. Unable to break down the massive walls, Cyrus cunningly diverted the Euphrates and his soldiers entered the city along the river bed while a national festival was in full swing (Herodotus 1.191). Babylon became the administrative capital of the Persian empire and continued to flourish as a centre for learning and science. It was captured by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and only began to decline a century or so after that. It was still standing in the Byzantine period.
So in a passage that clearly provides an important template for John’s account of the fall of Babylon-the-great, we have a prophecy of utter destruction that was not literally fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was brought to an end, but the city merely changed hands. It’s true that eventually Babylon disappeared from history, but Jeremiah’s prophecy is specifically that the Medes would destroy the city. Are we to say that this was also a false prophecy?
John’s account of the fall of Babylon-the-great speaks in the language of repayment. His “Pay her back as she herself has paid back others” (Rev. 18:6) echoes Jeremiah’s “I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the LORD” (Jer. 51:24).
Jerusalem was violently destroyed by the Babylonians, so Jeremiah prophesies judgment in commensurate terms. Jerusalem was or would be violently destroyed by Rome, so John prophesies judgment on Rome in commensurate terms. Neither prophecy was fulfilled according to the letter of the text, but the point is that the hostile régime was overthrown, leading to the fulfilment of YHWH’s purposes—in one case the return of the Jews from exile, and in the other the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world.