The pronouncement of God’s judgment on the nations concludes with two chapters about the Babylonians. The oracles against Babylon are over twice the length of any of the messages directed to other foreign nations (Babylon—100 verses; Moab—47 verses; Egypt—26 verses; Philistia—6 verses; Edom—15 verses; Ammon—6 verses; Kedar/Hazor—6 verses; Syria—5 verses; Elam—5 verses).
The content and basic message of these two chapters (50-51) could have been shortened considerably; much of the material is a variation on the same theme of coming judgment. However, since Babylon had been the instrument of Judah’s destruction and exile, it is logically and emotionally fitting that God’s judgment on them receives extended attention. God is answering the imprecatory prayers of his people (Psalm 137). He is proving again that He is Lord and Judge of all nations. It will be apparent to all that “The Lord has taken vengeance, vengeance for his temple” (15, 28; see Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).
There is no mistaking the truth that God is taking credit for planning (45), commanding (21) and accomplishing the punishing of Babylon (18). He stirs up the armies of the north to attack (9). He sets a trap for Babylon that they cannot avoid or escape (24). The invading armies are part of His “arsenal” and are “weapons of His wrath” (25). Those who have trouble with the concept of God ordering the Israelites to demolish the Canaanites need to realize that this was not a one-time aberration. God prompts nations to attack other nations as a way of carrying out His righteous judgment upon them.
The reasons for Babylon’s downfall and destruction are identified throughout the oracle: Babylon relied on false gods (Bel, Marduk—2; idols–38) and false prophets (36); Babylon rejoiced in the pillaging of God’s inheritance (11), especially the Lord’s temple (28); Babylon had brutally “hammered” the other nations (23); Babylon had become “arrogant“ (31-32). In short, Babylon had “sinned against the Lord” (14); it had “opposed the Lord” (24) and “defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (29).
While the Babylonians had been chosen by God to carry out His judgment on Israel and the surrounding nations, they fulfilled their assignment in a sinful way. Their arrogance, excessive brutality, and disregard for God’s temple (a sign of their disrespect for Him) were culpable. They overstepped and overreached. Now it was time for God’s payback: “Repay her for her deeds; do to her as she has done. For she has defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (29).
The fall of Babylon is described in painful detail. An “alliance of great nations from the land of the north” (3, 9, 41) will attack Babylon with swords and arrows. The capture of the city will be surprisingly sudden (“you were caught before you knew it”—24). Babylon will “surrender” (13) but her walls will still be torn down (13), her armies and population decimated (35-37), the city left desolate and uninhabited (3, 13, 39). The great king of Babylon will be paralyzed by fear (43) and punished (18). The destruction will be so complete that Babylon is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah (40).
Daniel 5 (as well as the Greek historian Herodotus) records the events surrounding the fall of the supposedly secure city. An alliance of the Medes and Persians (the nations from the north) attacked, diverting water from a canal the flowed into the city (a possible allusion to this is found in verse 38). Their troops entered the city on the dry waterbed and surprised Belshazzar (the frightened king—43; Daniel 5:6, 9) and his officials. Babylon lost its prominence and ultimately became a desert, fulfilling Jeremiah 50:3: “No one will live in it; both men and animals will flee away.” Though Alexander the Great and Saddam Hussein had plans to rebuild it, Babylon remains a wasteland.
Embedded in this prophetic pronouncement against Babylon is a message of hope for the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They will gain their freedom as Babylon falls to the armies of the north (4). They will return to their homeland (5) and find rest (34). Most importantly, they will be restored to a covenant relationship with God (5) and be fully forgiven for their many sins (20).
A closer look at the verses that envision Israel’s future release and restoration adds to our understanding of how God will deal with His unfaithful people. We learn important details about their return from exile and their restoration to God.
Return from exile. Jeremiah 29:11 promised a “hope and a future” for the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They would come to seek the Lord with all their hearts (29:12) and God would gather them “back from captivity” (29:14). Now in Jeremiah 50 we see that this return is not without upheaval, confusion and danger. In the chaos surrounding the capture of Babylon, the Jewish exiles are able to escape from the Babylonians who were “refusing to let them go” (33). The Jews would “go in tears to seek the Lord”—we’re not told if these are tears of joy or distress. As they flee from Babylon, they head to a homeland they had never seen; consequently, they must “ask the way to Zion” (5). They must also make the long, dangerous journey back towards Jerusalem. In short, God’s release and re-gathering of His people was not without significant upheaval. We must not assume that God’s work in the lives of His people will always be smooth and peaceful. Put another way, tears and fears do not necessarily mean God is not at work in our lives.
Restoration to God. The Lord not only promises to bring the exiles back to their homeland. He also promises to bring them back to Himself. The returning exiles are said to “bind themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant” (5). While this could be a reference to a renewal of the Mosaic covenant, because of the prophecies in Jeremiah 31, I would see this as an allusion to the coming New Covenant (31:31-34).
In His unfailing love, the Lord not only allows His sinning people to return to Him, He also completely blots out their sins: “In those days, at that time . . . search will be made for Israel’s guilt but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgiven the remnant I spare” (20). Oh the mercy of God to remove sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Because of the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurated by His blood, there is full and final forgiveness for those who bind themselves in covenant with God through faith in Christ. Bless the Lord O my soul!