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Notebook: Great Cities of the Old Testament: Babylon

J Grant

The great city of Babylon was situated on the river Euphrates almost 56 miles south of Baghdad, the present capital of Iraq. It was in the area known in Scripture as the land of Shinar (in Daniel 1.2 Shinar is stated to be the land of the king of Babylon). Over many centuries this was a great metropolis, at times a capital of mighty nations, and always a centre of trade. Secular history dates the early years of this city but some of the earlier dates are disputed. About 1700 BC there is evidence that Babylon was the capital of the kingdom of one Hammurabi whose rule reached from the Persian Gulf to Canaan. This man’s fame is founded on the fact that a set of laws to cover his kingdom was discovered in 1901. They were engraved in stone and, now known as the Code of Hammurabi, they are housed in the Louvre in Paris.

Over the centuries that followed the city rose and fell to other conquerors on a number of occasions until during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (approximately 605-562 BC) it was the magnificent capital of the Babylonian Empire. For more precise information we turn to the Word of God where we know historical accounts to be accurate.

The early years

After the Flood there was an era of great building projects that are recorded in Genesis 10. The grandson of Ham, a son of Noah, was named Nimrod and he established his kingdom in the land of Shinar. He asserted his authority and "began to be a mighty one in the earth" (Gen 10.8). It is clear that this man sought to impose his rule on others. It also was his ambition to centre worship in his kingdom and to that end the Tower of Babel was built, and there sorcery, astrology, and all the black arts would be practised. As there was only one language, such a place of international gathering would be welcomed. But God stepped into the situation and this godless worship was halted, their one language ceased, and national tongues took their place. This attempt to create a "religion" that dominated the earth is still the Adversary’s plan.

The great capital of Babylonia

The Assyrian Empire controlled Babylon until, in 627 BC, Nabopolassar, a Babylonish general, expelled the Assyrians and by 612 BC had established their city as the capital of the dominant power in the region. The son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, ruled Babylon at the zenith of its power. He is credited with rebuilding the city as the most splendid city of its day in which was to be found the Istar Gate, the Hanging Gardens, and the Royal Palace. His pride in his work is declared by his words, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, for the honour of my majesty?" (Dan 4.28-30). This city, with all its glory and power was the wonder of the world.

Babylon had a highly developed society. The system of writing was by means of cuneiform symbols that were written with a stylus on clay tablets. These were baked in the sun. In the realms of mathematics a very advanced system was in use which used base 60 rather than base 10 which is common today. They divided the day into 24 hours with each hour having 60 minutes, a system that has stood the test of centuries.

The population of cities of that era cannot be determined with accuracy, but that of the capital of the Babylonian Empire would be around 50,000. The streets, somewhat like those of Ur of the Chaldees, would be narrow with single storey mud brick houses consisting of a few rooms positioned round a centre court. The wealthier lived in homes of two stories, which could have up to 12 rooms. The rooms consisted of kitchens, reception rooms, lavatories, private places of worship, and bedrooms. Underneath some of the houses there was a family mausoleum in which the dead were buried. Household utensils, weapons, tools, and jewellery were left with the dead.

The empire of Babylon

The Babylonian Empire stretched from the borders of India to the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. As has been noted, the Assyrian Empire fell before it and shortly after the death of King Josiah Judah became its possession. Egypt had also to acknowledge its power "for the king of Babylon had taken from the river of Egypt unto the river Euphrates all that pertained to the king of Egypt" (2 Kings 24.7).

The authority of Nebuchadnezzar was supreme. His pride is seen in the great image of gold that he decreed should be set up on the plain of Dura and that all who were involved in the government of the Empire should gather before this image and, at the sound of music, bow down and worship it (Dan 3.3-7). The punishment for refusal to do this was death by being cast into a fiery furnace.

The great image, revealed to the king in a dream foretold the history of the "Times of the Gentiles", the centuries in which the Gentiles nations would rule due to the failure of Israel to obey the terms of the covenant between the nation and Jehovah. Nebuchadnezzar was the "head of gold" (Dan 2.38), a supreme monarch with authority that no other monarch, apart from the "King of kings" will ever exercise. It was this king, however, who was humbled by being driven from the presence of men and made to eat grass as an animal for a period of seven years (Den 4.28-37). On his recovery he was returned to his throne and declared, "I…praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase".

The future Babylon

Babylon, therefore, reached the height of its power under Nebuchadnezzar, an era that lasted some 70 years. The events surrounded the capture of the city by the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, are recorded by Daniel (ch.6). Despite retaining some of its importance it declined in power and influence.

There will, however, be a future Babylon, called Babylon the Great. As it was the first dominant kingdom recorded in Scripture (Gen 10.10), it will again, during the time of tribulation that follows the rapture of believers to be with Christ (1 Thess 4.13-18), dominate world events as a great system of religion and commerce. It will fall again, the religious Babylon to the man of sin, and the commercial by an act of God (Rev 17-18). Then the cry will be, "Babylon the great is fallen…" (Rev 18.2).

Lessons to be learned

God’s judgment on Israel

Babylon was used in the hands of God as the means of bring judgment on ungodly, rebellious Israel (2 Kings 25.1-30). It is true that the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to Assyria, but Judah fell to Babylon. The King of Judah, Johoiakim, was taken to Babylon as a prisoner, and he remained in that state for thirty-seven years.

Prior to the Babylonian invasion, the prophet Habakkuk had cried to the Lord regarding the sinful condition of Judah, and called on the Lord to intervene. When the Lord revealed how He would chastise His people Habakkuk was amazed that such a cruel, rapacious enemy would be used to bring this about. The little book bearing the name of the prophet is worth reading to see the dealings of God with His prophet in these troubled days. God is sovereign and no one has the right to challenge Him.

God’s preserving grace

The prisoners taken to Babylon included four young men, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The purpose was to bring a group of the best of the captives and introduce them into the Babylonian way of life and religion, with a view to fitting them for life and service amongst the ruling elite. The first attempt was to have them eat the best of food, that which was set before the king. However, this would have been offered to idols, or part of it could have been food that was not permitted in the Law. Their request to eat food suitable for them resulted in them being "fairer and fatter in flesh" (Dan 1.15) than other captives. They refused to break the word of God in this matter and in the matter of a great image of the King that had been erected and before which they were commanded to bow in worship (Dan 3). The lesson is that the Lord gave them the courage to obey His word even although they stood alone. In other matters also Daniel and his friends stood firm and were preserved by the God of Israel. What a lesson is this in showing that the Lord does not overlook those who refuse to sin against Him even when the world offers the most tempting of compromises.

God’s prophetic plan

Now that the nation of Israel no longer ruled the land given to them by the Lord it could be argued that God’s purpose for a glorious future for the nation had been abandoned. The times of the Gentiles, when Gentile nations will dominate rule on earth, as has been noted, had been ushered in. Nebuchadnezzar saw a vision which showed that Babylon was the first of these nations and that others would follow (Dan 2.31-35). From that vision we learn that Israel still has a glorious future and that, despite any outward appearances, God is still firmly on the throne. His purpose will not be thwarted! Israel will no longer suffer for "In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men…shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you" (Zech 8.23).


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