Every Thought Captive

Babylon: Pride, Riches, and the Illusion of Permanence

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters,  with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

When I saw her, I marveled greatly.

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. And he called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!  
She has become a dwelling place for demons,  
a haunt for every unclean spirit,  
a haunt for every unclean bird,  
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.  

For all nations have drunk  
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,  
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,  
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”  

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,  

“Come out of her, my people,  
lest you take part in her sins,  
lest you share in her plagues;  
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,  
and God has remembered her iniquities.  

Revelation 17:1-6, 18:1-5

In 1914, the Empress of Ireland, one of the most beautiful ships in the world, embarked from Quebec City, Canada for Liverpool, England carrying over a thousand souls. Near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, a thick fog hid the massive ship from an oncoming Norwegian cargo vessel. The cargo vessel struck the Empress of Ireland on its starboard side “between the liner's steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin's knife," wrote author James Croall.1 Despite being equipped with safety features like watertight compartments and plentiful lifeboats, the damage was so severe that tragedy was unavoidable. Only 14 minutes after the collision, this beautiful vessel that represented progress, ingenuity, and economic success was completely submerged; 1,012 people lost their lives.

Imagine if the fate of this vessel had been prophetically announced as people began boarding it in Canada. “Fallen, fallen is the Empress of Ireland! Come out from her lest you share in her fate.” Surely many would have taken heed and avoided this tragic end.

In Revelation chapters 17 and 18, the Apostle John’s vision of the fate of Babylon offers a similar warning. Babylon is a picture of success, possessing both immense power and unmistakable beauty. It is a city “seated on many waters,” a symbolic depiction of possessing dominion over “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (17:1, 15). Babylon is a beautiful woman “arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls” (17:4). The city is a prosperous radiant beauty.

However, Babylon is not a virtuous woman but a prostitute. She is not only prosperous but also pernicious. She has gained her power through idolatrous seduction (17:2), luring the nations through the appeal of riches, indulgence, and luxurious living (18:3). She does not fear the Lord but instead holds “a golden cup of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality” (17:4). Babylon opposes God and His people as evidenced by intense persecution. She is “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). 

The future of Babylon is not pictured as a queen enthroned above the nations but as a city punished by God. Many voices testify to the sudden and complete destruction of this great city. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great,” proclaims an angel coming down from heaven (18:1). Another voice from heaven forewarns that the future of Babylon is death, mourning, famine, plagues, and fire (18:8). Finally, chapter 18 ends with a sixfold angelic declaration that Babylon is “no more” (18:21-24).

Earthly voices also testify. The kings, merchants, and seamen all lament over the totality and swiftness of Babylon’s destruction. “For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste” (18:17). Using language of intimacy, sensuality, and intoxication, the Apostle John describes how the political and commercial leaders of the world once drew near to Babylon (17:2, 18:9). “For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (18:3). The picture of nearness is contrasted with their post-judgment perspective. The once seduced kings and merchants “will stand far off, in fear of her torment” (18:10, 18:15). Babylon is prosperous, pernicious, and finally, she is punished.

John Steinberg famously said that Texas is not just a state, but it’s “a state of mind.” Babylon, too, represents more than a political state. It’s the state of mind of the serpent in the garden who lured Adam and Eve towards rebellion, saying, “...when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God” (Gen 3:5). It’s the mindset at Babel where the human race sought to make a name for themselves by building a tower to heaven rather than obey the Lord (Gen 11:4). It’s the attitude summarized in Isaiah’s description of ancient Babylon, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Is 14:14). Babylon represents a state of mind that exalts self rather than submitting to the Most High God. It lusts after power, luxury, and sensual pleasure, imagining that its success will last forever. “In her heart she says, I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see” (Rev 18:7). My beauty, power, pleasure, and riches will surely last forever.

But, like the Empress of Ireland, this ship too comes to a sudden and tragic end. Before destruction befalls Babylon a voice from heaven, probably the Savior’s, cries out to the city’s inhabitants, “Come out from her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (18:4). Throughout the history of the church, there have been varied opinions on the identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18: ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic Church, apostate Jerusalem, and a future reestablished Babylonian, Roman, or yet unknown empire. There is, however, agreement over the character of Babylon and the believer’s relationship to this harlot city. Scholar Grant Osborne writes that “the extent to which this command [to come out] was addressed to the saints in the cities of Asia would indicate it was also meant to be taken spiritually. The saints/holy ones are to separate themselves (the very meaning of ‘holiness’) from the things of the world. This is at the heart of the theme of ethical faithfulness and perseverance in the Apocalypse.”2

As God’s saints or holy ones, believers must come out from Babylon. We are called to live lives that are distinct from the world. So, have beauty, power, pleasures, and riches become your heart’s treasure? Have you succumbed to the illusion of their permanence? Then, remember Babylon’s tragic end and heed the call of Christ: “Come out from her.”

1 Ballard, Robert D. and Archbold, Rick. “Empress of Ireland.” Lost Liners, Madison Press, 1997. https://www.pbs.org/lostliners/empress.html. Accessed December 23, 2023.  
2 Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Academic, 2002. E-Book. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  

About the Author

Photograph of Kevin Joseph

Kevin Joseph

Director of Missions

Park Cities Presbyterian Church

Kevin graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor of Arts and earned a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is married to Ashley and has four kids, with whom he served overseas in cross-cultural ministry for about a decade. Kevin played professional baseball out of college, including a stint in the Major Leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. He currently serves as the Director of Missions at Park Cities Presbyterian Church.