The message of judgment upon Babylon continues from chapter 50 to 51. Not only do these two chapters make the message to Babylon the longest, single oracle in the book, but the 64 verses in chapter 51 make it the longest chapter. In other words, God has more than just a few words for the nation of Babylon. As they have been the human instruments of destruction for Judah and the surrounding nations, so their fall is described in an extensive, epic way.
Throughout the chapter, the Lord claims responsibility for the downfall and destruction of Babylon. He is the one who plans her downfall (12, 29). He is the One who “stirs up” the Medes and its allies to destroy the destroyer “of the whole earth” (1, 28). He is the One who is taking vengeance on Babylon.
The theme of vengeance and vindication run through both chapters. The Lord takes vengeance on Babylon to repay them (50:15, 28; 51:6, 11, 24, 56); the Lord restores His people to their homeland to vindicate them (52:10, 36). Those who want to downplay the image of God taking retribution in a fierce, lethal way should steer clear of chapter 51: “For the Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full” (56).
At the same time, this chapter highlights God’s faithfulness to vindicate His covenant people, Israel. While it certainly appeared that God had forsaken Israel and Judah, bringing judgment and devastation on them, in reality, He had not abandoned them in spite of their sins against Him: “For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God, the Lord Almighty, though their land is full of guilty before the Holy One of Israel” (5). After the seventy years of exile, He fulfills His promise to give them a future and hope (29:11) by punishing Babylon and allowing them to return to their own land: “The Lord has vindicated us; come, let us tell in Zion what the Lord our God has done” (10).
The reasons given for God’s vengeance upon Babylon are two-fold. First, Babylon sinned against the Lord in its treatment of Israel. While the Lord had used Babylon as His servant to punish His people and other nations (20), Babylon had still sinned (6) by slaying the “inhabitants of Zion” (24, 35, 49) and desecrating God’s temple (11). Second, Babylon sinned against the Lord by relying on idols (17, 47). The boasted in Bel (44) rather than acknowledging the Lord as the “Maker of all things” (19) and the true “King whose name is the LORD Almighty” (57).
Here is evidence that God uses sinful nations and peoples to accomplish His divine plans. At the same time, He holds those same nations and people accountable for their actions when they sin—even while carrying out His purposes. Babylon had been a “gold cup in the Lord’s hand” (7). It had been God’s “war club” to “shatter nations” (20). Now God would “repay in full” the sins Babylon committed while carrying out the Lord’s purposes (56).
Theologically, this helps us understand more about God’s ways in the world. He moves individuals and nations to fulfill His plans without violating their own decision-making powers in the process. He had moved Babylon to attack Judah in a way that allowed the actions to be fully owned by the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar was God’s “servant” who carried out God’s purposes; at the same time, Nebuchadnezzar was a proud, sinful king who acted in his own interests. The armies of Babylon were the Lord’s “war club”, used by God to “shatter” nations, armies, leaders and citizens of all ages (20-23). At the same time, they were culpable for their war crimes. So immediately after referring to the Babylonians as His “war club”, the Lord declares He “will repay Babylon and all who live in Babylonia for all the wrong they have done in Zion” (24). Because the Babylonians were doing their will as they carried out God’s will, they are held accountable for their sinful actions.
The downfall of Babylon is predicted to come in a way that catches the king and his armies off guard. The Medes who attack are said to “prepare an ambush” (12). The Babylonians are taken down while feasting and getting drunk; at one moment they “shout with laughter” and then they “sleep forever” (39). Their king of Babylon has courier after courier come to report the city is being overrun (31).
This prophetic prediction, delivered in the fourth year of Zedekiah’s reign (59), gives an accurate picture of how events would unfold over 80 years later. Belshazzar is partying with his officials, drinking wine out of the “goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem” (see Daniel 5:3) when he sees the writing on the wall. Daniel deciphers the cryptic message (“mene, mene, tekel, parsin”) which announces God’s impending judgment on the nation (5:25). That very night, the invading Medes ambushed the Babylonians and captured the city. Babylon fell quickly and was eventually reduced to rubble, a city “desolate forever” (26, 43).
This extended, 100-verse oracle against Babylon is not simply a message about the fall of a powerful nation, it is much more than that—it is a declaration of the greatness of God. In chapters 50-51 we are given a grand vision of the LORD Almighty. We learn four reasons why He is to be feared, obeyed and trusted.
- The Lord alone is God. Jeremiah’s message is a polemic against the false gods of the Babylonians. Bel, Marduk and the other Babylonian idols are a “fraud” (17). “He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the Maker of all things” (19).
- The Lord controls the nations. Babylon’s rise to power and dominance over other nations was the result of God’s plan (7, 20-23). Its demise was also determined by God (25, 47-48).
- The Lord is the just judge. The Lord repays Babylon for their sinful deeds (6). He holds kings, armies, and nations accountable for their actions. While judgment doesn’t always come as quickly as some would like, it does come (46-47).
- The Lord is faithful to His unfaithful people. In spite of their sins, God remains faithful to His unfaithful people: “Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God” (5).