The images coming out of downtown Baghdad this week were unforgettable. Jubilant Iraqis gathered around a massive statue of Saddam Hussein, trying to topple the man who had tyrannized their country for more than twenty years. The Iraqis couldn’t quite manage it on their own, but with a little help from United States Marines, the statue was ripped from its base and fell headlong to the ground. Its head was severed and then dragged through the streets of Baghdad, where Hussein suffered what to Arabs is the ultimate insult: Iraqis put their shoes on his face.
This scene, like the war itself, called to mind some famous biblical prophecies:
Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians’ pride, will be overthrown by God (Isa. 13:19).
I will stir up and bring against Babylon an alliance of great nations from the land of the north… . [T]hey come like men in battle formation to attack you, O Daughter of Babylon (Jer. 50:9, 42b).
These prophecies were fulfilled long ago. But what makes them sound so contemporary is that Saddam Hussein deliberately patterned his political career after the life of ancient Babylon’s most famous king, Nebuchadnezzar. This explains Hussein’s massive building projects on the ruins of Babylon, the ancient city that lies immediately to the south of present-day Baghdad. There Hussein re-dug the moat that encircled Babylon’s ancient walls, rebuilt the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and re-erected the Ishtar Gate. His future plans included a full-scale reconstruction of the Tower of Babel.
What was Saddam Hussein’s purpose in all of this? His goal was to re-establish himself as the supreme ruler of the Arab world. More than a decade ago New York Times International reported that under Saddam Hussein, “one of the world’s most legendary cities has begun to rise again. More than an archaeological venture, the new Babylon is self-consciously dedicated to the idea that Nebuchadnezzar has a successor in Mr. Hussein, whose military prowess and vision will restore to Iraqis the glory their ancestors knew when all of what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and Israel was under Babylonian control” [John Burns, quoted on the inside cover of Charles H. Dyer, The Rise of Babylon: Is Iraq at the Center of the Final Drama?, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2003)].
There were many things that Hussein admired about king Nebuchadnezzar. He admired his monumental building projects, including the fabulous Hanging Gardens—one of the “seven wonders” of the ancient world. Another was his ability to unite the Arab nations. But he especially admired Babylon’s triumph over Israel. To this day, many Arabs remember Nebuchadnezzar as the man who conquered Jerusalem, not just once, but three times. By using the ancient king as a symbol of greatness, Saddam Hussein hoped to become a focal point for Arab nationalism.
Now all of Hussein’s plans have come to nothing. Like Nebuchadnezzar before him, he shook his fist at heaven, saying, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). And like Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam Hussein has been humiliated. Dead or alive, his kingdom has fallen.
What relevance does any of this have for future world history? According to the book of Revelation, Babylon will be one of last great enemies God will destroy at the end of the world. The Scripture says, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (Rev. 18:2): “Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” (Rev. 18:10); “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again” (Rev. 18:21). Revelation goes on to tell how, despite all its military and economic power, Babylon will be fully and finally destroyed.
Many Bible-believing Christians interpret these verses literally. They believe that these prophecies can only be fulfilled when the earthly city of Babylon is rebuilt. In a recent book about Iraq and the end of the world, Charles Dyer writes, “Babylon represents the negative pole of humanity’s attempts to usurp God’s authority. It is the city of rebellion where humanity reared up its tower in defiance of God, the city that eventually destroyed Jerusalem… . But… the Bible focuses on physical, brick-and-mortar entities, not symbolic ideals. The Babylon described in Revelation is not merely an idea, a religion, or an economic system. It is, above all, a physical city” [Dyer, p. 50].
People who interpret the Bible this way may be right. The conflict between Jews and Arabs refuses to go away. Indeed, it has been at or near the center of global history for the last three thousand years. It would make perfect sense for the last battle to occur between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.
There is a problem with focusing on the earthly Babylon, however, which is that this way of looking at the world keeps evil at too safe a distance. The Bible describes the end-times Babylon as a city of power and money. Its army rules the world. Its people are decked with gold and jewels. Its merchants dominate the world economy. And with all of this comes an attitude of independence from God. In the Bible, Babylon is not primarily a place, but symbolizes a way of living without God. Augustine called this spiritual dominion “The City of Man,” and it always stands in opposition to the City of God.
So where is Babylon today? It is in the city of Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein embraced the pride that God condemned in king Nebuchadnezzar. But Baghdad is not the world’s only Babylon. The biblical Babylon was proud of its wealth and power. But what is the richest, most dominant country in the world today? It is the United States, of course, which means that we face a stronger temptation than anyone to commit the very sins the Bible warns against. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a powerful army or a strong economy. But we should be careful not to trust in our military might or luxuriate in our financial prosperity. When we do, then Babylon is not just a city halfway around the world. It is where we live, too.
The Bible promises that the city of Babylon will be destroyed. Like Baghdad, it will fall. All its wealth will be lost and all its armies will be destroyed. But the Bible also promises that the City of our God will stand forever. If that is how the world will end, then we should be careful where we place our ultimate allegiance.
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