Although you could summarize the Bible in a number of ways, one of the main ways to summarize the story of the Bible is by the war between Babylon and Jerusalem. Throughout the entire Bible, Jerusalem symbolizes the people of God, while Babylon symbolizes the enemies of God. The conflict between the two cities, then, is a story that begins in first chapters of Genesis and does not resolve until the last chapters of Revelation.
The Story of the Bible: Babylon and Jerusalem
Before looking at where this conflict begins (more on that in a moment), let’s look at where this conflict goes. The threat of Babylon as the enemy of God’s people is the looming subject of a huge portion of the Old Testament prophets and writings. God warns his people again and again to repent from their sin, and, when they do not, God himself raises up Babylon (their greatest, most loathsome enemy) to destroy his people. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries off the people of Judah into captivity.
One of the most anguished psalms in the entire Psalter comes out of the captivity of Jerusalem’s people in Babylon:
1By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
6Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
7Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
8O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
9Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!
This painful story, and the justice that it demands, does not find its resolution until the very last chapters of Revelation. In chapter 18, we read the celebration of all God’s people as the behold the city fallen in a single hour:
1After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. 2And he called out with a mighty voice,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!…8she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.” (Revelation 18:1-2, 8)
Then in Revelation, just as Babylon is destroyed forever, we read that Jerusalem is established forever:
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
This conflict between Babylon and Jerusalem is the story of the whole Bible. Until Babylon is fallen, and until Jerusalem is established, all God’s redemptive purposes in this world have not come to fruition.
But where does this conflict come from? Where does it begin? In fact, it begins all the way back in Genesis, where we will turn next.
Genesis 14: The Shot Heard ‘Round the Cosmos
We first encounter the city of Babylon in Genesis 10 with a brief mention of Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, the son of Noah:
8Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. (Genesis 10:8-10)
But then, in Genesis 11, we read a more detailed account of the specific history of the city of Babel, which is “in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 11:2), learning that the inhabitants of Babel conspired in their pride to build a tower within their city that would reach to the heavens. As a judgment against this arrogance, God confuses their language, giving the city the name “Babel.”
At this point, then, we see that the people of Babel/Babylon are no friends of YHWH, but on the other hand, we don’t see that they are much of a threat to the people of God. That all changes, however, in Genesis 14, when Babylon goes to war against the people of God for the first time.
In Genesis 14, we read that four greater kings (14:1) went to war against five lesser kings (14:2) when the five lesser kings stopped paying tribute to the four greater kings:
1In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, 2these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Sinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). (Genesis 14:1-2)
What is interesting about v. 1 is that Moses begins this list of names with Amraphel king of Shinar (Babylon), even though Chedorlaomer is the lead king throughout the rest of the passage:
4Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him…. (Genesis 14:4-5)
As an illustration, this would be like opening a history of the Axis Powers of World War II by saying, “In the days of Mussolini of Italy…” or “In the days of Hirohito of Japan…”, rather than beginning such a history with the more obvious, greater Axis Power: “In the days of Hitler of Germany.”
The only reason for beginning Genesis 14 with a mention of Amraphel King of Shinar is to draw our attention specifically to Babylon as the enemy of the people of God, since the kings then capture Lot along with the rest of the inhabitants of Sodom, and Abram is forced to go after them to rescue his nephew.
But interestingly, Genesis 14 is the first time we hear about Jerusalem in the entire Bible:
17After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (Genesis 14:17-18)
Melchizedek is a critical figure in biblical theology as a priest (cf. Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7), but important for our purposes is that he is the King of Salem–that is, the King of Jerusalem. This is the first place we see Jerusalem, and we find the King of Jerusalem coming out to bless Abram after he defeats the King of Babylon in battle, blessing “God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Gen. 14:20).
And thus, the battle begins.
Jesus, Babylon, and Jerusalem
Briefly, here is how Jesus fits in to the story of Babylon and Jerusalem–specifically within the context of Genesis 14–and how we ought to reflect on this war in relation to our own lives:
- Just like for Lot, Abram is the only hope of salvation for the people of God against the King of Babylon. Lot only found salvation because God had promised to “bless those who bless” Abram, and “him who dishonors [Abram], I will curse, and in [Abram] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Just like Lot, we only find salvation because Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abram, has fulfilled God’s promise to Abram through his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is our only hope of defense against the forces of Babylon–the powers of sin, death, and the devil.
- Just like for Abram, the King of Jerusalem is the only hope of blessing for the people of God. Melchizedek, the King of Jerusalem, is the priest who blesses Abram, marking Melchizedek as greater than Abram. In the same way, a greater Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, is our priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, establishing a better priesthood through a better covenant enacted on better promises. For the people of God, Jesus Christ the rightful King of Jerusalem is our only hope for blessing in the midst of this great conflict between Babylon and Jerusalem (Hebrews 7).
Indeed, Babylon the Great only falls because the city is defeated by Jesus Christ. Moreover, Jesus Christ prepares a New Jerusalem where he can dwell forever in his people, and this city will be established forever once the great enemy of God, Babylon, is overthrown in a single hour.
Praise God for the victory we have through Jesus Christ our Lord, the King of Jerusalem, and our High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek!