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What is Babylon?
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Bruegel, Pieter the Elder
In the great themes of the Bible, we find two Babylons. In the Old Testament, Babylon was one of the great world empires, headed by visionary kings like Nebuchadnezzar. The book of Daniel largely takes place there, with the prophet and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego under the rule of this foreign government. God sometimes used the alien kingdom of Babylon to discipline his own people of Israel (see Jeremiah 25).

The two most notable features of Babylon’s rule seem to be a pattern of rebellion against heaven and God’s decrees, and also a determination to enforce worship with civil might. It’s clear in Daniel chapter 3 that King Nebuchadnezzar had no concept of a wall of separation between church and state! If a man didn’t bow down to his golden image, the fiery furnaces were waiting for him.

In the final prophetic pages of the New Testament, though, we find a different kind of spiritual Babylon being predicted. In chapter 14, three mighty angels fly through the heavens warning the people of earth to leave a great but fallen kingdom again called Babylon. John uses the colorful metaphor of adultery or fornication to describe a church or movement that has betrayed God, and verse 8 describes how this Babylon entity has literally forced the nations of the earth to “drink her maddening wine.” In chapter 18, Babylon is a wealthy and licentious power, rich from her excessive luxuries (v. 3).

Just one chapter (13) before Babylon is described by name, John vividly describes how in the last days people will be coerced into worshiping in a prescribed way or face execution. There will also be severe economic sanctions against any person who refuses to accept what is called this power’s “mark.”

It’s interesting to note that clear back in Genesis 11, rebellious descendants of Noah refused to trust in God’s promises that there would never be another flood. Instead, they chose to construct their own manmade skyscraper, the infamous tower of Babel. So it appears again that Babel — or Babylon — is always marked by a determination to oppose God and his authority as well as by an elaborate false gospel of works instead of grace.

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, virtually all of the foremost leaders in recovering Bible truth — men like Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Knox — studied the apostate trends of Christianity in the Dark Ages, and applied the term “Babylon” to the Church of Rome. It’s understandable why they came to this conclusion: doctrinal confusion was rampant in Europe, and the medieval church had authority to compel worship and excommunicate, torture, or kill religious dissidents.

Here in the last days of earth’s history, our best course is to always seek a pure and obedient grace relationship with Jesus . . . and be humbly watchful for any encroaching desire on the part of religious groups to impose their will on the rest of the human family.

* Painting by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (1525-1569)
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