We’ve been studying the penultimate section of Jeremiah, a section that describes the fate of 11 nations. As we study this section, we see clearly that whilst this world is indeed the territory of Satan, God is active in bringing about his plans and purposes. The invitation to the disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, is the destiny of this world that will be realised when the Messiah comes to sit on David’s throne. The final nation of the 11 dealt with in chapters 46 to 51 is Babylon. Two whole (and lengthy) chapters are devoted to its future. Rather than looking at these chapters verse by verse, we will take a more general look at Babylon in terms of its origin, it’s short term future and its role in the future of this world.
The focus of Jeremiah was on the Babylonian empire as it existed around 600 BC. Babylon defeated the Assyrians and captured their capital city, Ninevah in 609 BC and subsequently defeated the combined forces of Assyria and Egypt in 605 BC. The empire was at its peak under king Nebuchadnezzar II from 605 to 562 BC. As one studies these chapters and takes note of the role Babylon plays in the overall bible storyline, it becomes clear that God’s message for Babylon has an immediate as well as a distant future perspective.
We are all familiar with the story of the tower of Babel (NB, Babel as used in the Genesis account is the Hebrew בָּ בֶ ל – exactly the same word used for the empire in Jeremiah 50 and 51). The usual significance we associate with the events surrounding the account in Genesis 11 is that of the origin of languages. What is perhaps more important is the reason languages were instituted: they came as a judgment against mankind in order to hinder the collective destructive potential of a fallen race collaborating with Satan. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s delegated rule, intended for mankind was appropriated by Satan. It is Satan’s goal to set up a governing authority over the whole of the earth, headed by his offspring the anti-Christ. The creation of the nations through the means of the confusion created by languages (and the natural association of people with a common language) has successfully served to suppress and frustrate Satan’s plans for a single governing authority over the world. Conversely, it is God’s plan is to bring about a universal government of truth and righteousness under the head of the ‘new Adam,’ Jesus Christ. Since the seat of the earthly throne of the Messiah will be Jerusalem and Israel, Satan sees his future success as being dependent upon the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel. Satan will ultimately coerce the nations into a futile attack on Jerusalem (see for example Zechariah 12). So how does all of this relate to Babylon and Jeremiah chapters 50 and 51?
In Jeremiah’s day, Babylon represented the pinnacle of Satan’s political activity on earth. The nation was the head of gold in the God-given dream of Nebuchadnezzar II, and its future was to be one of repeated failure and progressive degradation; Babylon’s successors are described with metals and substances of decreasing value. Ultimately the kingdom of Satan will be crushed and replaced: ‘the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever (Daniel 2).’ Consistent with this presentation of Babylon as Satan’s vehicle for a world government, Babylon features in the description of the end times as revealed to the apostle John in the book of Revelation. The Babylon of this end time is characterised as a home of demons: ‘She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit (Revelation 18:2).’ The idea seemingly presented in Revelation is that Babylon would exercise some sort of control over the nations and would unite them in opposition to Jerusalem and the coming Messiah. When Babylon finally comes under God’s judgment, the nations will mourn the loss of trade and material wealth created by the city. The city is thus portrayed as the centre of commerce and political power, but it is a place also of sexual immorality and the murder of those who stand for truth (Revelation 18: 24). This sounds remarkably familiar to our 21st century experience of globalisation, big business and liberal morality.
Turning back to chapters 50 and 51, Jeremiah seems (as is common with other Old Testament prophets) to foresee Babylon’s future in two aspects; an immediate and a distant – similarly, just as Isaiah foresaw the coming of a future powerful Messiah who would govern with righteousness and justice (Isaiah 11) he also described one who was ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53).’ Thus, as we read these chapters, we should be alert to the two dimensions of the prophecy. Moreover, since Babylon’s ultimate demise is dependent on the Messiah coming to reign on David’s throne, it is not at all surprising that Israel’s future should also feature – more of this later.
- Babylon’s immediate future
The strange thing is that God used the Babylonians to bring about his judgment of Judah – and yet, now it is the Babylonian kingdom that comes under God’s judgment! Remarkably, many of the Babylonians seem to have become believers in the God of Israel during the period of the exile. Nebuchadnezzar II himself eventually (after experiencing God’s judgment) came to honour the God of creation. Initially, Nebuchadnezzar on surveying his city, boastfully stated: ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty (Daniel 4: 30)?’ But after God had dealt with him he declared ‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble (Daniel 4:37).’
Despite these signs of faith in the God of the universe, the empire would eventually fall: ‘Sharpen the arrows, take up the shields! The Lord has stirred up the kings of the Medes, because his purpose is to destroy Babylon. The Lord will take vengeance, vengeance for his temple (Jeremiah 51: 11).’ The circumstances that brought about the fall of Babylon to the Medes is recorded in the 5th chapter of the book of Daniel. The year was 539 BC. The king, Belshazzar hosted a grand banquet, and in the alcohol-fuelled merriment, Belshazzar called for the Jewish silver and gold goblets (looted by Nebuchadnezzar) from the Temple in Jerusalem to be brought out. These goblets were set aside for the worship of the God of the Universe but Belshazzar, his nobles, his wives and concubines drank to the ‘gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone (Daniel 5: 4)’ What ensued turned the king into a quivering wreck! The fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall – the king watched as the fingers wrote a message intended for himself. The wise men of the kingdom could neither decipher the writing nor interpret the message. Well, not quite! Interestingly, the queen entered the banqueting hall (tellingly, it seems that she had not participated in the toast to false gods) – she recommended that Daniel should be called in, a man ‘who has the spirit of the holy gods in him.’ What a remarkable reputation – does our reputation in the world come close?
Daniel duly arrived and interpreted the words. But before he interpreted the words, he remined Belshazzar that he, Belshazzar was descended from a man (Nebuchadnezzar II) who had ‘acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men.’ Belshazzar had not, even although he knew the truth. What a dramatic reminder that we must all one day give an account of our lives. The words on the wall? “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin”; numbered, numbered, weighed, divided. The days of Belshazzar’s reign had been numbered and brought to an end, his kingdom had been weighed and found to be of short measure, it would thus be divided by the Medes and the Persians. On that very night, Belshazzar was killed, and the mighty kingdom of Babylon was defeated. The defeat and judgment happened in just a few hours. No one in their wildest dreams would have predicted such a rapid demise. I took a train from my home in East Grinstead yesterday – it takes a route right through the centre of London and as it crosses the River Thames at Blackfriars station an impressive vista of the city opens up; Tower bridge, Europe’s tallest building, the ‘Shard,’ the shining glass buildings of the city and Canary Warf in the distance. I contrast this with our evening service at West Street church last Sunday evening – just 7 people gathered, we were a totally insignificant group in this world’s reckoning – but it is our privilege to meet with the king of kings who will one day bring the impressive human structures to a rapid end!
- The fall of future Babylon
The more I read of Jeremiah 50 and 51, the more I see the future judgment of Babylon. The actual demise of Babylon in Jeremiah’s day, whilst not being bloodless was accomplished with little destruction. The Greek historian Herodotus records that the city was under siege by king Cyrus. The Babylonians were however protected by two thick defence walls and had ample supplies to outlast a lengthy siege. According to Herodotus, the river that ran through the city was diverted by Cyrus and this offered the Median army a weak and undefended point of entry to the city. It seems that the city was thus taken without a significant fight. The Cyrus cylinder, housed in the British museum, records something of this victory (at least according to the victors!), victory was attributed to the god of the people Marduk: ‘(Marduk) allowed him to enter Babylon without battle or fight, sparing his own city of Babylon from hardship.’ Of course, those in attendance at the feast of Belshazzar knew that Cyrus’ remarkable victory had nothing to do with Marduk and everything to do with the God of Israel! It was wilful disregard for God that brought about Babylon’s fall.
These accounts of the fall of Babylon are in somewhat stark contrast to the many descriptions of the fall of the city described in Jeremiah 50 and 51, for example: ‘13 Because of the Lord’s anger she will not be inhabited but will be completely desolate. All who pass Babylon will be appalled; they will scoff because of all her wounds (chapter 50) and ‘22 The noise of battle is in the land, the noise of great destruction! 23 How broken and shattered is the hammer of the whole earth! How desolate is Babylon among the nations! (chapter 50)’. In verses 35, in the vivid poetic language we further read:
35 ‘A sword against the Babylonians!’ declares the Lord – ‘against those who live in Babylon and against her officials and wise men!
36 A sword against her false prophets! They will become fools. A sword against her warriors! They will be filled with terror.
37 A sword against her horses and chariots and all the foreigners in her ranks! They will become weaklings.
A sword against her treasures! They will be plundered. 38 A drought on her waters! They will dry up. For it is a land of idols, idols that will go mad with terror.
No doubt, the Babylon in Jeremiah’s day did fall to Cyrus (who likely installed Darius as the governor of the city), but there was to be a future Babylon, representing a centralised system of government, a city of great renown and wealth, but a city that is headed for destruction: ‘46 At the sound of Babylon’s capture the earth will tremble; its cry will resound among the nations.’
- What about Israel?
The focus of the bible and Jeremiah is not Babylon, but rather it is Israel. So what does all this mean for Israel? There is an immediate impact and a long-term impact. The immediate benefit was that Israel in alignment with God’s promises, would return to the land. Verse 19 of chapter 50: ‘9 But I will bring Israel back to their own pasture, and they will graze on Carmel and Bashan; their appetite will be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and Gilead.’ In verse 33 Jeremiah contrasts God’s strength and the strength of Babylon as it holds Israel captive, ‘34 Yet their Redeemer is strong; the Lord Almighty is his name. He will vigorously defend their cause so that he may bring rest to their land, but unrest to those who live in Babylon.’ The point here is that Babylon’s judgment would bring relief for the people of Israel and that is exactly what happened. The Median king, Cyrus introduced a policy of repatriation of exiles – in 2 Chronicles 36 we read these remarkable words: 22 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: 23 ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.”’ Babylon’s fall would bring about Israel’s reinstatement. How good God is!
Israel’s future state would not only involve a return to the land but a return to fellowship with God: 20 In those days, at that time,’ declares the Lord, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare. Moreover God promised that he would bring rest to the land of Israel. At the pivotal moment when Israel entered the promised land, the Lord spoke of a day in which they would experience rest from all their enemies (e.g. Deuteronomy 12: 10, But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety.’). By no stretch of imagination could Israel have claimed such an experience of rest since they returned to the land after their exile in Babylon. This rest is still future and will require the return of the king at which time, this world will be rid of the Babylonian system and will experience the wonderful benefits of the perfect rule of the Messiah.