November 3, 2018

Babylon Undone

The truth about Babylon is that it’s no match for the truth of God.

Lael O. Caesar & Gerald A. Klingbeil

Brace yourselves. Fasten seat belts. Buckle down. All those and whatever else: salvation’s flight to glory is destined to encounter multiple gusts of angry wind; violent, sinking, sickening air pockets; threats to, and assaults on, the craft. Still, the Captain of our salvation is a master pilot; He will take us through safely and skillfully. He will not merely survive the violence; He will confront and swallow it all and consign it to oblivion, Babylon undone, de-created and de-formed. And as for His touchdown, we guarantee you that it will be a thing of beauty, a joy forever; just one more demonstration of His magnificent skills.

Confusion Is Born

The first battering winds of confusion assault our salvation craft very close to history’s beginnings. We hear their howl as early as the eleventh chapter of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, with the story of a tower named Babel. But a perusal of the entire biblical library of 66 books shows us (1) that confusion has already disrupted earth’s story in the Bible’s 10 earlier chapters; and (2) that confusion will continue, and even intensify its confounding all the way through to the end of earthly time. Deciphering confusion’s mystery and mischief demands determined attention—personally and generally, privately and publicly, technically, spiritually, and every other possible way. Eternal vigilance is the price of our success.1

A Bit About Linguistics

Technically speaking, we need a warning about linguistics, because there is no direct correspondence between the English word “confusion” and the Hebrew terms translated that way. The venerated King James Version of the Old Testament uses a half dozen different Hebrew roots to talk about confusion.2 Almost 400 years later the very formal New American Standard Bible (1995)3 has used only one of those six terms, namely, the Hebrew root thw [tohu], to signify “confusion.” We shall focus on tohu.

Babylon does not have the final word. Jesus does.

Tohu is Genesis 1 vocabulary: from the beginning of the Bible tohu stands for formlessness: the earth was formless (Gen. 1:2) before God shaped and filled it; before He brought it light of day, sound of music, and dance of motion. There was starry sky, and yet because He willed that this newest center of life have something of its own He said, “Let there be an expanse”; tohu was what there was before He made the expanse and called it heaven (Gen. 1:6-8). The emptiness, the nothing of tohu,4is what He filled. He filled the nothingness with life-enhancing sunshine and soul-inspiring birdsong; with behemoths and leviathans to play with one another or with Him; with elephants’ trunks and trumpets, lions’ manes and roars, and humans’ intelligence and anthems of praise to Him, the God from whom, alone, all form and goodness and life are derived; the God from whom alone all blessings flow.

For English-thinking minds shaped by 500 years of King James Version language saturating our art and commerce, entertainment, and religion, confusion is the shame and disgrace of potential wasted to nothing, as King Saul is sure his son Jonathan will become through his irresponsible devotion to a youth named David (1 Sam. 20:30).5 In Psalm 44:15 [verse 16 in Hebrew] confusion [tohu] is the debasing humiliation of a nation overrun by hostile forces and reduced to the contempt of an international laughingstock. In Isaiah confusion is stupidity, the senselessness of making idols for worship when there is a God who engages us intellectually, who is master of all times, seasons, and events, including the trajectories, failures, and triumphs of future centuries: in contrast with Him idol makers and their cronies “will be put to shame6 and even humiliated,7 all of them; . . . [they] will go away together in humiliation [khelima]” (Isa. 45:16).

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Confusion: the Archetype

Yet the compelling force of tohu and other terms notwithstanding, there is no more effective term, biblically, for conveying the truth and fraud, the emptiness and fullness, the all and nothingness, of confusion, than the term “Babylon.”  The Bible’s earliest explicit commentary on confusion is Babylon, a truth that demands another linguistic clarification. In our English thinking we distinguish between a tower called Babel and a city, empire, and pervasive theological metaphor called Babylon. No such distinction exists in the Hebrew Bible. For the tower, the city, the empire, and the metaphor that makes its way through Scripture down to the close of human history and the triumph of salvation history are all the same Hebrew word babel [pronounced bah-VEL], Babylon. One may just as surely say, “They are all confusion.” Babel is Babylon. And yes, Babel is confusion.

Moreover, “Babel” [Babylon/Confusion] is from its beginning a label with spiritual implications, very much as “Israel” is. God bestows the name Israel for triumph and honor. God’s action inspires the name Babel for shame and disgrace. Citizens of the tower and city and empire named Confusion found no delight in its spiritual derivation. They established their own meaning: Babylon, they explained, means “gate of the gods,” the site of human access to the deities and of divine visits to earth. Their explanation may sound both linguistically plausible and psychologically flattering. But it is the living and powerful Word of God that has preserved the story of how the name was earned. And earned it was, the end and result of great effort, an effort in defiant rejection of God Himself.

Confusion’s backstory is Genesis’ gorgeous creation (chaps. 1; 2), the pathetic disobedience of chapter 3, and the horrible destruction of the global flood (chaps. 6-8). Ten generations from His flawless creation, God wept in brokenhearted grief at evil’s spread and entrenchment across civilization. Human wickedness “was great on the earth”; cognitive processes had sunk to the place where “every intent of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Lamech, Adam’s ninth-generation descendant, had looked upon the face of his firstborn baby and named him Noah, meaning “rest.” Somehow, Lamech hoped, God would use that newborn babe to bring relief from the stress then called life; stress and distress that flowed in overwhelming torrents from the curses that Adam brought in when he chose sin in Eden (see Gen. 5:29).

God wept in brokenhearted grief at evil’s spread and entrenchment across civilization.

Noah was indeed a godly man, one on whom God looked with favor (Gen. 6:8). God used his voice for 120 years (verse 3), announcing the coming respite when God would begin again: He would send a flood that would blot out the now-perverted creation “from the face of the land” (verse 1); no longer would society’s vulnerable women, children, and people with special needs have to live in constant dread; and no longer would the powerful have to constantly pursue the acquirement of even more brutal power to survive in a civilization “filled with violence” (verse 13). Rest was coming. God was going to bring rest.

Not too many cared about the promise of rest or the means for receiving it: floating in a boat while a flood destroyed civilization outside.

After the Flood’s global destruction, God made a categorical pact with Noah: earth would “never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). But the same cynicism at God’s promise of rest in Noah’s boat now showed itself at His promise of never sending a worl
d-destroying flood again: human independence would build a tower that would ensure survival in the event of cataclysmic natural disaster. Humans would guarantee their own protection from any future “act of God”!

God’s site visit found the builders doing very well, with a progress rate pointing to the day they would become unstoppable (Gen. 11: 6). God responded to their progress with two actions: confusing the workers’ language and dispersing the concentrated population globally (verse 8).

They could no longer communicate freely and fluently. Unable to understand each other as before, they journeyed off in frustrated, homogenous groups to different corners of the globe. The construction project came to an abrupt halt. Its history of scattering and confusion gave it its name: Babel, Babylon, Confusion.

For the rest of Old Testament history, Confusion [Babylon] would be God’s principal label for summarizing the climax of devil-inspired human ascent to the heights of power and success (Dan. 4:28-30), including its murderous assaults on God’s people (2 Kings 25:1-21). He would also use it for spiritual conceit at a supernatural level (Isa. 14:3-23). The scope of Babylon would be the scope of tohu: the arrogance and emptiness of an evil Chaldean empire that would baffle Habakkuk, including the stupidity of idol and man worship (Hab. 1:2-2:19); the systematic assault on God’s people and cause (2 Kings 25); and the descent to nothing of great potential (Isa. 14).

Confusion Undone

The long-awaited arrival of the Messiah refocused everything. Here was a voice of genuine clarity, calling a wayward people, as well as the larger world, to come and find rest (Matt. 11:28): rest from self-righteousness, rest from confusion and distortion, and rest from our own efforts to build more towers reaching into heaven. Jesus, working tirelessly during His years of public ministry, moved quickly to dispel wrong notions of the Father. His healing ministry was an illustration of grace; His preaching filled the hole in our souls; His sinless sacrifice made crystal-clear what Moses and the prophets had long spoken about and what had been foreshadowed in every sacrificial animal that had died on the altar of God’s earthly sanctuary.

“Money, money, money” is an expression of Babylon’s deceptive counter-structure designed to push the Creator God off His throne.

Death on the cross confounded Christ’s disciples for a moment; resurrection morning dispelled all doubts. When Jesus ascended to heaven the early community of His followers, still fearful and wondering, prayed and waited for the promised Counselor. He came in power and visibly on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1), what Moses used to call the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15-21). The day that celebrated firstfruits in Israel’s festival calendar (Num. 28:26) now marked the day that God brought in the firstfruits of His bountiful harvest. Peter’s powerful sermon, translated by the Spirit into many languages, was understood by Jewish visitors gathered from all corners of the Roman Empire in Jerusalem’s temple. They had come for the comfort of familiar ritual; they left with the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, communicated in their own languages that went straight to their hearts. Similar to the story of the tower in Genesis 11, God comes down, not to confuse and disperse this time, but to unite and proclaim that atonement has been wrought, the Desire of Ages has come (Haggai 2:7). Through Him, the Word, human language becomes what it was always meant to be: a vehicle to communicate the good news of divine love. The Word blessed the stranger, the widow, the outsider, the enemy, the seemingly unworthy and lost.8

On the periphery of a power-hungry, land-thirsty empire the crucified and resurrected Christ began, slowly but surely, to undo the effects wrought by the fallen angel, Lucifer, who had propagated so much confusion, deception, and manipulation, as well as emotional and physical abuse of the weak by the strong. Less than 600 years before the arrival of the Messiah, the prophet Daniel had been shown a vision of the nature of secular and religious Rome (Dan. 2; 7; 8): those feet of mixed clay and iron (Dan. 2:40-43); a terrifying and frightening beast (Dan. 7:7, 23), so different from all other beasts preceding it; a little horn that uprooted three other horns and became larger and larger, speaking blasphemous words against the Most High and His saints and trying to change times and law (Dan. 7:8, 24, 25). This power, first civil then religious, was to reappear in the centuries following that glorious day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 in Jerusalem. Already, though, Babylon's undoing is foreshadowed.

Babylon the Great

Many decades after the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2, John ponders the future of the church he loves. Sitting on Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea, he catches a glimpse of the Lamb (Rev. 14:1) standing on Mount Zion surrounded by the perfect number of the redeemed (144,000). Against the backdrop of an awe-inspiring sound track John sees three angels flying in midair, proclaiming the everlasting gospel. “Fear God, and give Him glory” (verse 7), the first angel shouts triumphantly. The Creator is about to come and His judgment will liberate His people. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” (verse 8), roars the second angel. The third announces the complete destruction of all those in alliance with the beast, the power backing Babylon (verses 9-12). Revelation has exposed sin's confusion before, but this is Babylon's first appearance as Babylon in the book. It won’t be its last. John cannot see it clearly yet, but centuries down the road the rise of papal Rome fits the bill when we consider Daniel’s and John’s prophecies concerning Babylon. It’s a power that requires worship and offers its own way of salvation. Jesus’ mother, together with saints and priests, are essential ingredients of a system built on works.

Revelation 17 uses the imagery of a woman dressed in scarlet and covered completely in blasphemous names. Her eye-popping costly attire must have dazzled John at first; but then he sees the golden cup filled with abominations and the filth of her spiritual prostitution (verses 1-4). Conveniently she bears an identifying name on her forehead. It’s "Babylon the Great," echoing an earlier king’s fateful self-aggrandizement (Dan. 4:30) that led to complete humiliation and divine judgment. Scripture states that the inhabitants of the earth “were drunk with the wine of her fornication” (Rev. 17:2, KJV).

Babylon’s ability to manipulate, force, confuse, and deceive on a grand scale is intoxicating stuff. Observers are wowed. Babylon prostituting herself picks up a well-known theme of Old Testament prophetic texts in which God’s people Israel  lose their way and decide to follow the Baals, the Asherahs, the Molechs of their times, mixing true religion with false religion (cf. Hosea 4; 5). “A spirit of prostitution is in their heart,” wrote the eighth century B.C. prophet Hosea. “They do not acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 5:4, NIV). One of the greatest proofs of Babylon’s spiritual prostitution of mixing true and false religion is its opposition to recognizing God as the Creator, the Sustainer, the Lord of the universe.

Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great

Revelation 18 describes the fall of Babylon. Echoing the second angel of chapter 14, another angel proclaims with a mighty voice the fall of the entity that for hundreds of years controlled the destiny of the then-known world. Judgment on Babylon is God’s way of liberating His people. Babylon’s fall is an opportunity to “come out.” It’s the right moment to leave an entity that once dazzled the world by its power and dominance, but ultimately rejected God’s lordship.

John describes this poignantly in Revelation 18:4, 5: “Come out of her, my people, . . . so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to he
aven, and God has remembered her crimes” (NIV). There is a clear allusion to Genesis 11 here. Instead of a tower being built right into heaven, Babylon (dare we say papal Rome?) has piled up atrocities and sins that reach right up to heaven. Forget the millions of victims of the Inquisition; forget the thousands of children abused by unscrupulous priests; forget the uncounted souls who tremble at the thought of death without the assurance of divine grace offered freely through the righteousness of Christ—and no one else.

Again, using the Old Testament background, Babylon’s adulterous relationship with the kings of the earth points to religious syncretism, a system creating its own way of salvation (verse 3). Baal and Yahweh just do not go together. The assemblage of political and religious alliances fostered by Babylon is coercive and manipulative. We need to remember that this is the same little-horn entity that is seeking to change times (of worship) and law (Dan. 7:25). But this Babylonish conglomerate has more than political and religious dimensions. The merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries (Rev. 18:3). Business has flourished in Babylon’s world. Unscrupulous exploitation is another trademark of Babylon. “Money, money, money” is an expression of Babylon’s deceptive counter-structure designed to push the Creator God off His throne. Instant gratification and reckless accumulation of material things go hand in hand with the exploitation of nature and people. Babylon has worked its way into all elements of our lives.9

TouchDown!

Fortunately, John did not end his book with chapter 18. Babylon does not have the final word. Jesus does, for “after this” (referring to the fall of Babylon described in Revelation 18) John hears “what sounded like the roar of a great multitude” (Rev. 19:1, NIV). It’s the roar of the Lamb’s great touchdown! The hallelujahs ring with the shouts of that multitude, those who did not pay allegiance to Babylon, who came out of her, who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. In their adoration of the Master Pilot, Captain of their salvation, they proclaim His triumph in the great controversy: “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (verses 1, 2, NIV).

God’s character had been questioned by Lucifer at another time and in another place. Now His character as Creator, Saviour, and Judge is magnified by that countless multitude shouting “Hallelujah!” as if their lives depend on it. For when grace has captured and changed our hearts, we cannot but sing praises to the Lamb that was slain but lives forever!


  1. John Philpot Curran, Dublin, 1790, said: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”;  but the quote, also often attributed to Thomas Jefferson as “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” existed in some form or other before either of them: https://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/eternal-vigilance.
  2. bsht, qln, tbl, chfr, klm, thw. While bbl, which we discuss later, logically belongs to this group; the King James Version never translates it “confusion.”
  3. Except otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. The version is a good example of “formal equivalence,” in which translators stay close to specific lexical meanings of terms, instead of “dynamic equivalence,” which aims at more fluid renderings of the general ideas involved.
  4. In Isaiah 41:29, ’efes [nothing] is the synonymous parallel to tohu.
  5. The term here translated “confusion” is boshet, literally “shame.”
  6. Stative verb, passive voice—boshu.
  7. Stative verb, passive voice—niklemu.
  8. See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “‘He Spoke and It Was’: Human Language, Divine Creation, and the imago dei,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 36 (2014): 59.
  9. See Igor Lorencin, “Babylonian Mentality: With Whom Do You Bank?” Ministry (April 2014): pp. 18-21.

Lael O. Caesar and Gerald A. Klingbeil are associate editors of Adventist Review and both love discovering God’s revelation of His character and grace in the Old Testament. Writing this article together represents something they have never attempted before. It’s been a ride—and a blessing.

Lael O. Caesar & Gerald A. Klingbeil
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