“Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen.” Rev. 18:2
“I…saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Rev. 21:2
Certain concepts in Scripture are over-arching and comprehensive—embracing and conveying the message of the Bible as a whole. One such “big picture” or “umbrella” concept is, as the Christian, literary classic by Aurelius Augustine expressed it, “the city of man and the City of God”. The entire message of God’s word, i.e. the Biblical plot, might be expressed in terms of the antithesis between these two cities.
World history, according to Holy Scripture, is a record of the fundamental conflict that exists between these two kingdoms—the story of man’s secular city and its antagonism toward God’s Holy City. Biblical prophecy is the inspired account of the ultimate triumph of the Heavenly over the Earthly city—the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of men.
Augustine’s City of God was written in the aftermath of the Gothic invasion of Rome in A. D. 410. This monumental work was his attempt to explain the fleeting and transitory nature of all man-made empires and to define the true meaning of human history in Biblical terms. In Chapter 8, he defines “these two societies” in terms of “those who live according to man, and…of men living according to God.”
The Bible alone defines this ongoing conflict by assigning an identity to each city. The “real” Tale of Two Cities is not the intriguing account of London and Paris during the French Revolution, but the inspired account of the contrast between Babylon and Jerusalem in the unfolding drama of world history. “Babylon”, a Biblically-infamous label associated with all sorts of moral decadence, religious perversion, and social chaos, represents the perishing kingdoms of this world. “Jerusalem”, the “city of the great King” and center of Israel’s covenant identity, represents the whole kingdom of God, both in its militant and triumphant states. This antithesis between Babylonand Jerusalem runs through both testaments as one of the “big ideas” or motifs of the Bible. “Babylon” is the idea of humanity organized in community apart from God, seeking refuge in human achievement. “Jerusalem” is the idea of life in a Divine counter-community, under the protection and care of Jehovah. It is a contrast, if you please, between man-made religion and God-given revelation.
Babylon is the proud and “lofty” city that God will level to the ground, but Jerusalem, the “strong” city that God defends (Is. 26:1-6). Babylon is the city that man builds (Gen. 11:1-9), but Jerusalem, the city “whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Babylon is the city of “confusion”; Jerusalem is “the city of our solemnities” and “a quiet habitation” (Is. 33:20; cf. Is. 32:18).
The Origin and Significance of Man’s City
When God created man, He placed him in a garden, not a city. The first Biblical reference to the construction of a city is Genesis 4. Its builder was a wicked man named Cain.
This first occurrence of the concept sets the pace for the rest of the Biblical story. Every reference to the city of man in Scripture depicts the same dynamic as the story of Cain—i.e. man’s quest for autonomy. By the very act of building a city when God banished him to a life of wandering, Cain rebelled against Divine authority and asserted his independence of God.
The judicial consequence for murdering Abel was, Cain said, “more than [he] could bear.” “A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth”, said God. There would be no sense of permanence in his life—no legacy or lasting memorial. Cain was banished to the life of a drifter and a wanderer.
But Cain rebelled at the Divine sentence. “If God will not protect me,” Cain reasoned, “then I must take matters into my own hand”. To prevent a life of wandering like a nomad, and to provide for himself a more permanent existence, Cain built a city (Gen. 4:17). He turned for security and personal significance to other people instead of finding security in repentance before God.
Cain’s motive was self-concern. He desired a social identity and sense of significance in his life. His treacherous act had denied these very benefits to his brother Abel; now, God’s judgment denied him the same. In revolt, he further challenged God’s supremacy by turning to the temporary safety and fulfillment that human civilization could provide. Cain teaches us that the quest for permanence in one’s own works instead of God’s gracious provision is the essence of a secular orientation toward life (cf. Ps. 49:11-12).
The second Biblical reference to the building of a city is Genesis 10:8-12. Nimrod is the prototypical city-builder. He built eight cities, the two most prominent of which were Babylon and Ninevah, the respective fountainheads of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires.
Interestingly, Nimrod’s name means “we shall rebel”. He led the first human coup d’etat against the government of heaven—a brazen, highly-organized world revolution against the Creator. Babylon was the headquarters of his rebel kingdom. In a flagrant rejection of God’s command to “replenish the earth” after the Deluge, Nimrod sought to incorporate humanity into a central world community. According to conservative estimates, the city of Babylonstretched to an expanse of more than 100 square miles. It was built of brick instead of stone and slime (bitumen, or asphalt) instead of mortar (Gen. 11:3).
The people of Babylon also determined to build “a tower whose top may reach unto heaven” (Gen. 11:4). Far from being a simple experiment in architecture, the tower of Babel was a religious expression of defiance toward God. Since the city of Babylon was the source and epicenter of all idolatrous religion (Jer. 51:7), it is likely that this tower was a ziggurat for idolatrous worship. It symbolized fallen humanity’s proud revolt against Divine Sovereignty.
That revolutionary spirit of organized opposition to God is yet extant in the world. Psalm 2 describes it in terms of a coalition of mankind (both the “heathen”, i.e. Gentiles, and “the people”, i.e. Jews, represented by their respective “kings” and “rulers”) “against Jehovah and against His Christ”. Led by Nimrod, the prototype of the “man of sin” (2 Ths. 2), the first world empire sought liberation from the restraints of God’s government, saying, in effect, “Let us break their bands asunder and cast away His cords from us” (Ps. 2:3).
What was their motivation in the building of Babylon and its multi-tiered tower to the sky? They were driven, first, by pride: “Let us make us a name” (Gen. 11:4b). According to Isaiah 56:5, everlasting significance is a gift of grace—something conferred by God—but they sought it via human achievement. The contrast in the very next chapter is striking: “And the Lord said unto Abram…I will…make thy name great” (Gen. 12:1-2).
They were driven, secondly, by fear: “…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4c).Like Cain, the post-flood population feared alienation. They should have obeyed God’s command to repopulate and inhabit the earth (9:1), relying on Him for their significance and security. Instead, they incorporated in an unholy alliance of rebellion against Him.
The next reference to cities is Genesis 14-19 and the “cities of the plain”. These cities were probably located on the southern-most end of what is now the Dead Sea. They included Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim. Together, these cities formed a conglomeration of wickedness—a virtual cauldron of iniquity.
An episode from the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom lends insight into this concept of the secular city and man’s attempt to find refuge in community instead of God. Note the antithesis between “the mountain” and “the city” in his story.
As the angels conducted Lot from the city of Sodom, they said, “Escape to the mountain.” Lot replied, “Not so, my Lord…I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die: behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live” (Gen. 19:17-20). He seems to say, “Surely I cannot get in much trouble there, for it is just a little city.” The angel agreed to allow him to escape to Zoar. Strangely, however, Lot can find no solace in Zoar: “And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain…for he feared to dwell in Zoar” (v. 30).
Lot’s fear of leaving the city displays just how much he had come to depend on man and just how little he trusted in God. Conversely, the fear he experienced when he arrived at the city and his failure to find any reprieve demonstrates the principle that when a person ceases to fear and obey God, he begins to fear everything else (cf. Deut. 28:66-67).
By way of summary, these three accounts suggest that the earthly city is an expression of fallen man’s campaign to live independently of God. It promises security and protection in community rather than the Creator. It is a quest for purpose and meaning in society rather than the Savior. The prophet Hosea asserts that it was when Judah forgot his Maker that he “multiplied fenced cities” (Hos. 8:14; cf. 13:10). Apparently, Judah forgot the principle that the most impregnable fortress is vulnerable “except the Lord keep the city” (Ps. 127:1b)?
The Future Doom of Man’s City
It is a fact that none of these man-made cities provided lasting significance or safety. The actual city of Babylonwith its famous hanging gardens and impressive architecture no longer exists. The “lofty city” has been laid low, even to the dust (Is. 26:5). Nimrod’s ascending stairway to heaven cannot even be located today. It is buried beneath the hot sand of modern Iraq—a testimony to the righteous judgment of God against man’s proud quest for autonomy.
And such is also the final end awaiting archetypical “Babylon”. All human systems are sure to fail. All are ultimately inadequate to deal with the real problems of mankind. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, secularists were emboldened to promote their message of human progress and development, and the inherent goodness of mankind. But two world wars in the past century and the growing prospect of a third on the not so distant horizon argue that the actual story of human history is one of regress and decline, not progress and improvement. In the face of world chaos, every effort to rally the masses to sing one more verse of “We Shall Overcome” sounds hollow and silly. Man cannot save himself. There is no “Rambo” waiting in the wings to save the day. Instead, the secular city is destined for judgment.
Revelation 18:1 – 19:5 describes the coming fall of Babylon, the archetype of the kingdoms of men: “And [the angel] cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird…for her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18:1, 5). This stunning passage describes the collapse, not of a single city or empire, but, of civilization itself. God will triumph over “Babylon”. He will overthrow all that is opposed to Him.
Why will God judge the city of man? Babylon will be judged because of her long war against God and His saints. (Rev. 17:6; 18:24), and because she has trafficked in the spread of global deception (18:23). Though the “merchants” and “kings of the earth” will bewail the collapse of the secular city, crying, “What city is like unto this great city!” (18:9-19), the “holy apostles and prophets” will rejoice, for God will avenge the glory of His name (18:20-24). “Hail the day so long expected! Babylon is fallen to rise no more!”
The Glory of God’s City
In contrast to the perishing kingdoms of men, the kingdom of God is glorious and everlasting. The superstructure that God builds is an eternal reality. God is its Founder (Heb. 12:22; 11:10). It is a city that He has “prepared”—i.e. a city built by God’s sovereign grace (Heb. 11:16; cf. Mt. 25:34).
God is also the city’s Defender (Is. 37:35; Ps. 46:1ff). It is a city for which God provides (Ps. 48; Is. 33:20), and a city that God, Himself, inhabits (Eze. 48:35; Zech. 8:3).
The Biblical motif of “God’s city” finds an immediate, historical application in the original city of Jerusalem, and a fuller, spiritual application in the New Testament church. But the idea finds its ultimate and complete fulfillment in the eternal state—a new and glorious community in which there is no more death, sorrow, pain, crying, darkness, sin, or devil (Rev. 21).
There is a holy city, a happy world above;
Beyond the starry regions, built by the God of love.
An everlasting temple, and saints arrayed in white;
They serve their great Redeemer, they dwell with Him in light.
The gospel calls God’s people to separate themselves from Babylon: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partaker of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4; cf. 2 Cor. 6:17). It summons us to a life of non-conformity to this fallen world-system—a counter-cultural sort of existence (Rom. 12:2). How sad it is when God’s people, like righteous Lot, compromise with this world (Gen. 13:11-12; 19:14-16; 2 Pet. 2:7-8)! How vitally important it is that God’s children remember that though they live in this world, they are not to be of it (Jno. 17:11,14)!
Presently, the gospel church is the tangible expression (or microcosm) of the kingdom of God (Mt. 16:18-19). It is comprised of those who have “escaped the pollutions of this world through the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:4b; 2:20a) and bowed the knee of submission to Christ as Lord. It is frequently termed the “militant” church, for it is presently locked in military conflict (or, spiritual warfare) with the fallen kingdoms of men.
Like the saints who comprised the seven local churches in Asia Minor, however, we gain perspective that encourages us to faithful endurance (“here is the patience of the saints” – Rev. 14:12) when we can see the larger picture. The book of Revelation with its message of the Lamb’s ultimate triumph over every foe gives us the necessary incentive to fight on with courage and valor in the midst of the present, earthly fray. Like the believers who were the original recipients of John’s heavenly visions, we are strengthened by the knowledge that Babylonwill be destroyed and Jerusalem will prevail. This heavenly perspective helps us to interpret the meaning of our present circumstances in the world.
And like them, we must learn to view our lives now in terms of a pilgrimage toward that eternal and heavenly home. One day, the conflict will be over and the church triumphant, comprised of the redeemed out of every nation, kindred, people, and language—all whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life—will inhabit the city that God has prepared. Then, the strains of “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen” will give way to the nobler song, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.”