Babylon: A Test Case in Prophecy—Part 1

Part one of a two-part series examining the ancient city of Babylon and its role in Bible prophecy
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

It was the most remarkable community of its day—a San Francisco, New York, or London of the antique world. Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), known as the father of ancient history, once visited the great metropolis. He said that “in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it” (The Histories I.178). It was Babylon!

Babylon’s roots reached back almost to the dawn of civilization. Its genesis was with the mighty hunter, Nimrod, who conquered men and made them his unwilling subjects (Genesis 10:9). From that ignoble origin eventually evolved the Neo-Babylonian empire (614-539 B.C.), which figures so prominently in Old Testament history.

The Golden City

The city of Babylon straddled the Euphrates River about fifty miles south of what is now modern Baghdad in Iraq. Herodotus claimed that the town was laid out in an exact square, approximately fifteen miles on each side. The historian suggested that the city was surrounded by a moat (more than 260 feet broad), behind which was a massive wall—some seventy-five feet thick and three hundred feet high, with fifteen large gates of brass on each side. Later writers (e.g., Strabo and Diodorus Siculus) gave somewhat smaller dimensions. But these may reflect different areas of measurement, or perhaps other historical periods (Keith 1840, 271). When Jacob Abbott wrote his fascinating volume, History of Cyrus the Great, he suggested that Babylon was four or five times the size of London (1850, 190). Modern archaeological investigations have involved a significantly smaller area. One of the prominent features of this illustrious city was Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens, constructed for his Median wife who was homesick for her hill-country environment. This botanical marvel was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Scriptures take note of the fame that characterized this community. The prophets designated Babylon as “great” (Daniel 4:30), the “glory of the kingdoms” (Isaiah 13:19), the “golden city” (Isaiah 14:4), the “lady of the kingdoms” (Isaiah 47:5) who was “abundant in treasures” (Jeremiah 51:13), and the “praise of the whole earth” (Jeremiah 51:41). Surely a kingdom of this nature could last forever.

Babylon: The Instrument of Providence

In order to appreciate the significance of Babylon in light of Bible prophecy, one must understand something of Hebrew history. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 722/21 B.C. The southern kingdom (Judah) had been spared that catastrophe (see Isaiah 37) but, due to her progressive apostasy, was on a clear collision course with Babylon. The prophets warned that if Judah continued her rebellion, Jehovah would raise up Nebuchadnezzar as his “servant” to punish the wayward Hebrews. Many of them would be killed; others would be captured and taken away as prisoners by the marauding Babylonians (Jeremiah 25:9). The Chaldean monarch, however, would not be commended or rewarded for this endeavor; rather, after his subjugation of Judah, the Lord would punish him, and the Babylon regime would commence a journey toward oblivion. Jeremiah summed up the history of this affair in the following way:

Israel is a hunted sheep; the lions have driven him away: first, the king of Assyria devoured him; and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has broken his bones. Therefore thus says Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold I will punish the king of Babylon and his land, as I have punished the king of Assyria (Jeremiah 50:17-18).

But Babylon was the epitome of arrogance. She boasted that no one would be able to conquer this powerful citadel. The Babylonians felt absolutely secure within their mighty fortress, and believed that the capital city would never be vanquished. “I shall be mistress forever. . . I am, and there is none else besides me; I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children” (Isaiah 47:7-8). Inscriptions from the Chaldean archives have illustrated the haughty disposition that characterized the Babylonian rulers (Millard 1985, 138).

Prophecy As an Apologetic

Before we are prepared to discuss prophecies relating to Babylon, there are some preliminary matters that must be considered. First, there is the nature of God—the eternal “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). He is the one who is, who was, and who is to come (Revelation 1:4). He, and only he, knows the future as well as the past. The Lord, therefore, is able to speak of those things that “are not” as though “they were” (Romans 4:17).

Only God can know the future. If, then, we are able to establish the fact that the prophets announced—many years in advance—truths regarding the desolation of Babylon, it would amount to a demonstration that ultimately the biblical record was given by God himself. These matters never could have been known by mere chance.

There is an interesting passage in the book of Jeremiah that illustrates this point. On a certain occasion in the prophet’s ministry to Judah, Jeremiah was told by the Lord that his cousin, Hanamel, would arrive soon, offering to sell him a parcel of land in the town of Anathoth. Presently, Hanamel came to the prophet and made that very offer. Jeremiah subsequently uttered this significant statement: “Then I knew that this was the word of Jehovah” (Jeremiah 32:8). When a prophecy is made, and the prediction comes to pass, one can know that God has spoken, provided other prophetic guidelines are in place.

Prophetic Principles

In this two-part study, we will survey some of the prophecies that focus upon Babylon’s demise. First, though, let us remind ourselves of several principles that govern the validity of genuine prophecy.

  1. True prophecies are stated emphatically; they are not couched in the jargon of contingency (unless, of course, contextual evidence suggests that one is dealing with a conditional prophecy).
  2. Generally, a significant time frame must lapse between the prophetic utterance and the fulfillment, so as to exclude the possibility of “educated speculation.”
  3. The prophecy will involve specific details, not vague generalities.
  4. The predictive declarations will be fulfilled precisely and completely. No mere substantial percentage will suffice. One must recognize, though, that occasionally a prophecy may contain figurative terminology; this does not, however, militate against its evidential validity.

[For further study on the characteristics of true prophecy see Principles of Bible Prophecy.]

In the forthcoming reflections, we will emphasize these important points:

  • Babylon’s fall is announced unequivocally.
  • The time of the beginning of her end is declared.
  • The invading forces are specified.
  • Particular details of the Chaldean destruction are chronicled.
  • The final result—Babylon’s utter dissipation—is portrayed graphically.

These factors, considered in concert, testify eloquently to the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures.

Babylon to Fall

In addition to the passage mentioned earlier (Jeremiah 50:17-18), there are many other prophecies that affirm the ultimate desolation of Babylon. In the early eighth century before the birth of Christ, and almost two hundred years before Cyrus conquered the “golden city,” Isaiah declared: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the graven images of her gods are broken unto the ground” (21:9). The double use of “fallen” is for emphasis. Although the verb “fallen” is in the present tense form in English, it actually is in the perfect tense in Hebrew, which represents completed action. This reflects a grammatical idiom commonly known as the “prophetic perfect,” frequently employed in the Old Testament to stress the absolute certainty of fulfillment (Freeman 1968, 122-123). The action thus is expressed confidently—as though it had been accomplished already.

Again Jehovah, through his prophet, rhetorically calls to Babylon:

Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans (Isaiah 47:1).

Babylon is designated as a “virgin” because for many years she had escaped the ravages of other nations. But that status would come to an end!

Or consider the announcements of Jeremiah:

Declare you among the nations and publish, and set up a standard; publish, and conceal not: say, Babylon is taken (Jeremiah 50:2).

Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed; wail for her; take balm for her pain (Jeremiah 51:8).

Among other contexts, a survey of Isaiah, chapters thirteen and fourteen, and Jeremiah, chapters fifty and fifty-one, will reveal numerous declarations concerning Babylon’s impending fall and ultimate desolation.

The Prophetic Chronology

In giving consideration to the time factor in prophecies regarding the destruction of Babylon, two things must be kept in view. First, there was to be an initial defeat of the superpower. Second, afterward there would be a gradual but progressive degeneration of the locale that ultimately would result in total ruin. At this point, we will consider only the first of these matters.

After Judah’s good king, Josiah (639-608 B.C.), died during the battle of Megiddo, he was succeeded by his son Jehoahaz, a miserable failure who reigned only three months. Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt (2 Kings 23:30-34), where, as Jeremiah prophesied, he died (Jeremiah 22:11-12). Then Jehoiakim, Josiah’s second son, came to Judah’s throne. He reigned eleven years (608-597 B.C.). During his administration, the compassionate Jeremiah, via his prophetic proclamations, was attempting to bring the southern kingdom to a state of repentance—with little success, we might add. Let us focus momentarily upon the oracles of Jeremiah, chapter twenty-five.

First, we must observe that the material of this important chapter is dated. “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim” (25:1). Thus, the following prophecies can be dated to 605 B.C. The prophet describes the horrors that are to be visited upon Palestine by the impending Babylonian invasion. He then announces the fate of Babylon herself.

And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations [Judah and several of her neighbors] shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, says Jehovah, for their iniquity (Jeremiah 25:11-12).

Thus, almost three quarters of a century before Babylon fell, when there was absolutely no indication of Chaldean vulnerability, Jeremiah announced the impending doom of the ancient world’s superpower, and he gave a time-indicator as to when those circumstances would unfold. There was no natural way he simply could have “guessed” it.

The Conquerors Specified

But who would overthrow mighty Babylon? Both Isaiah and Jeremiah provide that information. In a section that concludes with, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon,” the messianic prophet wrote: “Go up, O Elam; besiege O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease” (Isaiah 21:2). As I have noted elsewhere,

Elam is here used to facilitate the Hebrews’ understanding of the source of the impending invasion, since Persia was not yet prominent. Later, Elam is considered as a part of the Persian empire (Jackson 1991, 48).

Skinner observed that Elam and Media were

the dominions of Cyrus. The former lay east of the Tigris and north of the Persian Gulf; Media was the mountainous district adjoining it on the north. Cyrus, according to the Babylonian records, was originally king of Anzan, in the north of Elam; in 549 he conquered Media, uniting the two in one kingdom (1963, 170).

Rawlinson noted that “Elam” is named because it was familiar to the Hebrews, whereas “Persia” would have been a designation alien to them at the time of Isaiah’s writing (1950, 336). What precision!

Again Isaiah details the conquering exploits of Cyrus, leader of the Medo-Persian forces and the brilliant strategist who overthrew the city of Babylon:

Thus says Jehovah to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut (45:1).

The prophecy was uttered two centuries before the birth of the Persian monarch, and yet, as we shall demonstrate subsequently, it sets forth a number of remarkable events in connection with the conquest of the Chaldean capital.

Jeremiah is equally specific regarding the invaders of Babylon.

Make sharp the arrows, hold firm the shields: Jehovah has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes; because his purpose is against Babylon to destroy it (51:11).

Some suggest that this passage sarcastically urges the Babylonians to sharpen their arrows and firmly clutch their shields—as if they would be able to defend themselves against the Lord’s forces (Clarke n.d., 388). Others feel that this is a rhetorical charge to the Medo-Persian soldiers to prepare their military implements for attack against the Chaldean forces (Plumptre 1959, 168). “The Persians were famous among the ancients for their archers” (McClintock and Strong 1969, 372). Jehovah has plans for Babylon. He will destroy it by means of the “kings” (tribal rulers) of the Medes. Again, the accuracy of the biblical text is demonstrated by the precise terminology used. As Wiseman has noted concerning Jeremiah 51:11: “Babylonian texts (Nabonidus) show that the title ‘king of the Medes’ (11) was correctly in use in 544 B.C.” (1979, 849).

The historical facts are not disputed. The Babylonian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.), was succeeded by his son, Evil-Merodach (562-560 B.C.), who is mentioned in 2 Kings 25:27-30 and in Jeremiah 52:31-34. Next came Neriglissar (560-556 B.C.), an evil conspirator who was defeated and slain in battle by the Medes and Persians (Sanderson et al. 1900, 54). Labashi-Marduk subsequently came to the Chaldean throne in 556 B.C., but was assassinated after a few months. Finally, there was Nabonidus, who ruled from 556-539 B.C. His son, Belshazzar, was co-regent with his father. Actually it was Belshazzar who was occupying the city of Babylon when it fell (see Daniel 5:1ff). Inscriptions have been discovered which make it clear that Nabonidus had entrusted the “kingship” of the capital city to his son while he campaigned in Arabia for about a decade (Vos 1988, 276). When Cyrus advanced against Babylon, Nabonidus marched east to meet him, but fled before the Persian general’s army. Later, after Cyrus had captured the city (539 B.C.), Nabonidus surrendered to the Persians. And so, the biblical prophecies regarding the conquerors of the city of Babylon were fulfilled exactly.

In part two of this study, we will examine some of the many details concerning the fall and deterioration of Babylon—details that were previewed prophetically by the great seers of Israel.

  • Abbott, Jacob. 1850. History of Cyrus the Great. New York, NY: Harper Brothers.
  • Clarke, Adam. n.d. Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
  • Freeman, Hobart. 1968. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1991. Isaiah: God’s Prophet of Doom and Deliverance. Abilene, TX: Quality.
  • Keith, Alexander. 1840. Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived From Prophecy. Edinburgh, Scotland: William Shyte & Co.
  • McClintock, John and Strong, James. 1969. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Millard, Alan. 1985. Treasures From Bible Times. Oxford. England: Lion Publishing.
  • Plumptre, E. H. 1959. Ellicott’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Rawlinson, George. 1950. Isaiah. The Pulpit Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Sanderson, Edgar, J.P. Lamberton, and John McGovern. 1900. The World’s History and Its Makers. Chicago, IL: Universal History Publishing Co.
  • Skinner, J. 1963. Isaiah: I-XXXIX. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vos, Howard. 1988. Belshazzar. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Wiseman, D. J. 1979. Jeremiah. The New Layman’s Bible Commentary. G. C. D. Howley, F. F. Bruce, and H. L. Ellison, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.