Babylon was not yet an empire in power when this was written, so it’s truly prophetic. No one could guess at this point that they were next in line. Here are some fun facts about Babylon—it must have been a spectacular place. At the height of its glory, it was one of the largest and finest cities of the world. It was surrounded by a system of double walls, the outer one was 17 miles long and wide enough for chariots to patrol on its top. Wow. It had 8 gates. On the road from Babylon to the citadel of Esagila, the street was about 1000 yards long and it was decorated on either side by enameled bricks, showing 120 lions and 575 dragons and bulls. More than 50 temples were inside the walls of Babylon. The city was decorated with elevated gardens high enough to be seen outside the city walls. Water was hoisted to the hanging gardens from the Euphrates River. Wow.
They have found a gate of it, amazingly enough. Here’s a picture:
Just downright spectacular.
But regardless of that, Babylon then (and back to Gn. 11) and now (lots of references in Revelation) symbolizes the power and kingdoms of this world in hostility to God. In Revelation it is known as the center of demonism (Rev. 18.2, 23), and in the Old Testament it was the embodiment of evil, symbolizing all that was rotten and corrupt.
V. 2 – the message is for everyone, everywhere, in all times and places.
v. 3: God is raising up an army, but it isn’t the soldiers of the Lord. It’s the armies of destruction to tear the world apart and subjugate it. He is using these vulgar, godless pagans to accomplish his purposes. (See also Dan. 2.21 where God sets up and deposes kings.) This will not be a small punishmen. It’s going to be severe, life-ruining, and life-destroying. And what’s the point of this terror and pain? To punish and destroy? No.
v. 9 – The point is to stop sin. SIN is the enemy. This shows God’s heart, and God’s strategy. God doesn’t hate people. He hates SIN. He will go to any length to stop sin. He will move heaven and hell—and he has—to stop sin. It’s the point of all of his activity in history: to stop sin, to redeem the sinner, and to create a relationship of peace between himself and each individual person
v. 10 – Nature will manifest spiritual realities, as I believe it always does. That’s why weather will get worse towards the end times. It is true metaphorically (Isa. 60.1-2) as well as literally (Mt. 27.45).
v. 11 – The point is to stop sin. The first stop on this train is PRIDE. The first step in stopping sin is squelching pride. And because pride is so ubiquitous, whole cities will be deserted (v. 12) , and farm fields will lay barren.
v. 13 – the heavens tremble. I don’t think this is literal, but figurative of the depth and intensity of his determination to stop sin.
You may think it’s odd that his strategy for stopping sin is to raise up a barbarian army to kill people, but God almost always works through normal people to accomplish his goals, and through normal events. The other point is: it’s not like he could raise up and army of godly people to do it. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of them. So the plan becomes to raise up the pagans to kill each other off, in the midst of that preserve a godly remnant who hold to the truth and multiply it, and eventually he will return to find a growing group of godly people to work with.
vv. 16-18 – It will be brutal and vicious. Few will be spared. Even righteous ones will be caught up in the mayhem. No matter how strong, rich, or successful, you are vulnerable. Man’s glory is always temporary. Man’s successes are always shallow. Our works don’t last. We are a vapor: wood, hay, and stubble.
The point? This happens all the time. This is what history is like—what life is like—and it confuses Christians so (read the book of Habakkuk—only 3 chapters). So here’s how it works: God hates sin, and works every day to destroy it, both on earth and in our souls. He will do whatever it takes, and employ a multitude of strategies. He raises up and deposes kings, he raises up and destroys armies, he nurtures civilizations and he decimates them. Believers are caught in the swirl, and many are killed in the process. But we are knocked down, but not knocked out. He preserves for himself at least a few to carry on the torch, to raise up the light of truth and to perpetuate the Kingdom. At times that kingdom waxes, and at times wanes, but its light is never extinguished. There are times in history of great revelation (the exodus, the gospels, and immediately after Pentecost), and there are times of great darkness (400 yrs of Israelite slavery in Egypt, 400 years of silence between Malachi and John the Baptist, etc.). Kingdoms of the world, and kingdoms of our God, rise and fall, but the end is not yet. God is waging war against sin, bringing about the redemption of his people, and he will see it through to completion.
And in our souls? Same story. God wages war to knock sin out. Sometimes he can bring the most ungodly things in, yet the point is not to corrupt, but to destroy. The kingdom of this world is strong inside of us, and it needs to be conquered. Sometimes that’s best knocked out by bringing in other worldly things to knock it out. The point is to kill the sin. In times of our straying He wants the remnant of his throne inside of us to rise up, multiply, and grow strong enough to boot out the enemy (the spiritual symbolism of the book of Joshua). God is waging war against the sin in us, bringing about our redemption and the redemption of those in our sphere of influence, and he will see it through to completion (Phil. 1.6).