Deuteronomy 20; Psalm 107; Isaiah 47; Revelation 17
AT ONE LEVEL, ISAIAH 47 is pretty straightforward; at another, it is subtly symbol-laden and prepares the way for the development of some biblical symbolism in the New Testament.
At the obvious level, this chapter depicts the fall of Babylon that the accession of Cyrus will bring about. Babylon is a pathetically proud and arrogant city. She is the “queen of kingdoms” (Isa. 47:5); she thinks she will last forever (Isa. 47:7)—not unlike Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. She is so confident of her own security she cannot envisage becoming a widow or losing her children (Isa. 47:8). Proud of her wisdom and knowledge (Isa. 47:10) and her devotion to astrology, she thinks she can control her future (Isa. 47:12-13). Her self-deification is frankly repulsive: the repeated “I am, and there is none besides me” (Isa. 47:8, 10) is a direct challenge to God’s identical claim (Isa. 45:5). But God has had enough. The “queen of kingdoms” will sit in the dust (Isa. 47:1); she will become a slave (Isa. 47:1-3). This “mother” will suddenly be widowed and bereaved (Isa. 47:8-9). Astrology will prove futile to save her (Isa. 47:12-13), and sorcerers and magicians will be of no avail (Isa. 47:12). God himself is out to destroy Babylon.
But this text hints at another level. Chapters 47 and 48 are tied together, constituting one large unit. Isaiah 47 condemns Babylon for its defiant arrogance and promises her doom; Isaiah 48 is addressed to the captives, who (as we shall see in tomorrow’s meditation) are rousingly told to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem. Empirically they live in one city, Babylon; theologically, they belong to another city, Jerusalem. At the level of brute history, of course, the captives could not return to Jerusalem at this stage. They could do so only after Cyrus came to power and granted permission to return. But theologically, the exiles must see themselves as belonging to Jerusalem and not to Babylon. Thus just as “Jerusalem” sometimes refers to the ancient city by that name, and sometimes, as we have seen, anticipates the new, eschatological Jerusalem, so also “Babylon” not only may refer to the ancient city that reached the pinnacle of its splendor about the sixth century B.C., but becomes a symbol—a symbol that anticipates every proud city or culture that imagines it will live forever and arrogantly measures all things by the standards of its own sins and presuppositions. Historic Babylon becomes the symbol of many Babylons.
John understands these things. That is why in Revelation 17 he describes Rome as “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth” (Rev. 17:5), a woman drunk with the blood of the saints. What Babylons have arisen since then?