I will cut off from Babylon name and remnant, posterity and progeny, declares Jehovah of hosts. And I will make it a possession for porcupines and muddied pools of water, and I will sweep it with the broom of destruction. –Isaiah 14:22-23
Reading through verses like these, you get a sense for the intensity of God’s feeling towards Babylon. In short, God hates Babylon (Rev 17:16-17). The reason? Babylon is the antithesis and counterfeit of what the church is supposed to be. This is a deadly combo. It looks like the real thing but is the complete opposite. It is not until Babylon is removed that New Jerusalem, the wife of the Lamb, is revealed. Judgment precedes jubilation. This is the order of Revelation chapters 17-19. The obstacle to one lovely lady is one lurid lady.
God’s goal is to prepare the bride. Jonathan Edwards said, “The creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse.” Satan’s goal is to Babylonianize the bride, rendering her unsuitable for marriage.
Viewed from this angle, Witness Lee says,
“The whole Bible is a story of Babylon and Jerusalem. One may say that the Bible is the history of the struggle between Babylon and Jerusalem.”
The Bible reveals four great acts of God: creation, election of Israel, redemption, and the New Jerusalem. Again and again what God gloriously begins, ends in Babylon. Babylon represents the lowest stage of man’s fall. Zechariah poetically describes the Jewish captives in Babylon as “myrtle trees that were in the bottoms” (Zech 1:8). The first three stages of God’s work all end in Babylon. Whenever God’s people end up in Babylon, God comes in to do something new.
- Creation—Babel (Gen 11)
- Election—Babylon (Dan 1)
- Redemption—Babylon the Great (Rev 17)
Babylon is Satan’s ultimate and most damaging counter-work against God’s purpose because God’s purpose cannot be fulfilled in Babylon. Not only can we not sing the song of Jehovah in a foreign land (Psa 137:4), more importantly, we cannot build the temple of God there. To quote W.B. Yeats, Babylon is the the beast that “slouches towards Bethlehem.”
In the Old Testament Babylon was a place that God’s people were taken to. In the New Testament Babylon is a principle that God’s people have taken in. The former is captivity, the latter is corruption. In the New Testament these merge—the way Satan captures the church is by corrupting it.
In Revelation, Babylon is described as a city, a prostitute, and a mother. Cities organize people and create norms, beliefs, and values. Prostitutes indiscriminately and wantonly unite with others. Mothers bear children who carry forward their genes. This means that Babylon is a culture that is promiscuous (from Latin pro, intensive prefix + miscere, “to mix”) and procreative (from Latin pro, “forward” + creare, “to create”).
A city is where cultural change happens, either preserving and developing or destroying and superseding the past. In the second case, as in Babylon, the city is a place of the “conflict of differing traditions, a center of heresy, heterdoxy and dissent, of interruption and destruction of ancient tradition, of rootlessness and anomie.” The Hebrew word Babylon means confusion. Many patristics (e.g. Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa) understood Babylon to signify doctrinal confusion and applied this principle to the heresies that were cropping up in the church at that time. But how I’m looking at it here, it is appropriate to view it as cultural confusion, that is, a confusion of where our allegiances and longings lie.
In the book of Daniel we see this process of assimilation and change. Daniel and his three companions are selected for… well, cultural reprogramming. Nebuchadnezzar wants to change their names, diet, learning, and language—in short, he wants to radically change their constitution and identity. Satan’s strategy in the captivity was to Babylonianze God’s people through cultural immersion. He knows better than we do that our hearts are not impervious to our cultural environment and that if we are not on guard, a new vision of the good life will seep into our being and silently convert us without even an argument.
If Satan succeeded, then even if a liberator (Cyrus) came in 70 years, it would be too late—even though they can go back to Jerusalem, nobody will want to go back, because now, to them, Babylon is better. The focus of Satan’s attack was their heart. This is implied in Daniel’s reaction to the free buffet of the best the king had to offer, his “choice provision”—Daniel set his heart not to be defiled (Dan 1:8). Our heart is “our chief representative” and “the acting commissioner or ambassador of our inner being”. If something captures our heart, it controls our longings and steers our being. Daniel realized that if he wasn’t careful his heart would get hooked.
James K. A. Smith puts it very clearly when he says,
If you are what you love, and you ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer says something similar,
A culture is a society’s software, a program for cultivating humanity….culture is in the full-time business of educating people and forming their humanity (culture cultivates!). Culture educates by programming certain types of behavior and by inculcating certain beliefs and values. We can go further: culture is in the full-time business of spiritual formation….culture ultimately educates not minds but hearts.
Just like it’s possible to live in another country without adopting its culture (think Chinatown or Little Italy), the church should exist as a culture within a culture—in the world but not of the world.
The Principle of Babylon
Throughout church history there have been many people who have identified the church of their time with Babylon the Great (e.g. Dante, Luther). But in this post I am more interested in the principle of Babylon. There is a difference in the Bible between a thing and the principle of that thing. We may not be a part of the thing itself, but we may still be under its principle. A few examples include, the law, the man-child, the Sabbath, and Babylon.
Let me clarify: although Christians have been discharged from the Mosaic law and are no longer under it (Rom 6:14; 7:6), it is possible to still live under the principle of law by resorting to the effort of our flesh to please God. The principle of law is man working for God. This is contrary to the principle of grace, which is God working for man. In the same way, while Christians may not be technically a part of Babylon the Great, as identified in Revelation 17-18, they may still be snared by its principle.
The benefit of talking about the principle of Babylon like this is that it prevents it from becoming an “us versus them” discussion and instead implicates all of us.
The principle of Babylon is deduced from the Scriptural descriptions of Babylon. Three main characteristics stand out:
- Natural ability—the Tower of Babel signifies man’s natural ability used to make a name for himself (Gen 11).
- Hypocrisy—the Babylonian garment Achan stole signifies pretending to be something we are not to receive glory from man (Josh 7).
- Mixture—the vessels of God that were placed in the temples of Babylon signify mixing the things of God with the things of the world (2 Chron 36:7).
These three characteristics are all seen in the description of Babylon in Revelation 17—18:
- “I sit a queen, and I am not a widow” (18:7)—she is powerful in herself and exalts her own name while denying her husband’s.
- “Gilded with gold and precious stone and pearls” (17:4)—the appearance doesn’t match the constitution. The precious materials are only a gilding.
- “A golden cup full of abominations and unclean things” (17:4)—the nature of the cup and the nature of the contents don’t match. The precious is mixed with the worthless.
The Way to Overcome the Principle of Babylon
All these elements are within us. Ask yourself, do I rely on my self to do God’s work or do I depend on God? Do I seek popularity and recognition or do I only seek God’s glory? Do I behave the same way in the church and outside of it? Am I constituted with the truth or do I merely have a beautiful doctrinal gilding?
God’s repeated command concerning Babylon is: “come out of her” (Isa 52:11; Jer 50:8; 2 Cor 6:17; Rev 18:4). But since Babylon is a principle that is within us, the only way to come out of Babylon is to be purged of these elements in our fallen nature. And the only way to do this is to be reconstituted with Christ.
Jesus is the only one who is:
- Absolute for God—”I do not seek My glory” (John 8:50).
- Full of reality—”the reality is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21).
- Without mixture—”He is pure” (1 John 3:3).
The way to be reconstituted with Christ is to take Him as our burnt offering (Lev 1:4) by laying our hands on Him in prayer.
We all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
1. Jonathan Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage to Her Sons, and to Her God,”in Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, vol. 25 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, p. 187
2. Witness Lee, The Four Men in the Bible, Ch. 9
3. Robert Redfield and Milton B. Singer, “The Role of Cities in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Part 1” Economic Development and Cultural Change Vol. 3, No. 1 (Oct., 1954), p. 58. The two labels they give to these two types of cultural change are: orthogenic vs heterogenic. Orthogenic describes the process in which, “religious, philosophical and literary specialists reflect, synsthesize and create out of the traditional material new arrangements and developments that are felt by the people to be outgrowths of the old. What is changed is a further statement of what was there before.” Jerusalem would be an instance of this.
4. James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 22
5. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian, p. 116
6. Dante famously threw a few Popes into Hell, in the circle of simony, (Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, and Clement V), and then said about them,”About you shepherds was the prophecy of the Evangelist, when he saw her who sits upon the seas, whoring with kings” (Inferno 19.106-108). In Purgatory, Dante describes the history of the church through the many transformations it has undergone and again applies the vision in Revelation to the church of his times, saying, “So monstrous a thing had never been seen before. Confident as a castle on a mount a loose-dressed whore was riding on its back: her eyes glanced round, it seems, and they were prompt (32.147-150). Luther’s second pamphlet of 1520 was entitled “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.
7. Watchman Nee, CWWN Vol. 46, Ch. 11. “In reading the Epistles it is necessary to differentiate between “law” and “the law.” Where the definite article is used, the word refers to the Mosaic law; when there is no article, the word refers to law as a principle. Our deliverance from “the law” is based on our deliverance from “law” as a principle….”Law” as a principle is greater than “the law” as a thing. Law as a principle includes “the law” as a thing. What do we mean when we say that God does not deal with us on the basis of law? We mean that He makes no demands upon us. If I am living according to the principle of law, I am seeking to please God, but this seeking to please God is displeasing to Him.”