I have been to Babylon. In December 2001, I was part of a Church of the Brethren delegation that traveled to Iraq at the invitation of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). When the trip was originally planned, our purpose was to learn about the humanitarian impacts of the sanctions placed on Iraq following the first US-led war against that country in 1990. Shortages of food, medicines, and economic activity were inflicting a heavy toll on the people.
Then just months before our departure, 9/11 happened, which significantly changed the nature of our visit. The humanitarian issues were still quite present, but even this soon after the terrorist attacks, it was clear that the United States had Iraq in its sights. So, while we met with United Nations officials, medical personnel, church leaders, and others about relief aid, we also felt the weight of the looming conflict.
There are two thoughts on this experience that may be germane to our text today. First, we visited the palace of the king of Babylon, complete with its elaborate defense and prancing gods. Even today it seems formidable.
To get to the king’s palace, attacking forces had to make their way through a high-walled maze as boiling oil was poured on them from above. We stood before the wall upon which writing appeared in Daniel 5. For all these portents of might and mystery, that empire did indeed fall.
Additionally, one of our most memorable visits was with a Shiite cleric in the city of Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad. No friend of Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni Muslim, this religious leader sat our delegation down in a large hall and gave us a talking-to, summarized by this eye-opener: “Why does America have to act like it is God in this world?”
(On our return, the church sent humanitarian assistance through the MECC, and our group did all it could to warn against going to war.)
Been there, done that
In the first 38 chapters of Isaiah, the Assyrian Empire is the existential threat to Judah’s security. From chapter 39 on, the prophet tells King Hezekiah that Babylon is the much greater future threat.
Second Isaiah (chapters 40–66) deals with Babylon’s power and eventual collapse. These writings originated with Isaiah’s disciples and can be divided into two periods: Chapters 40–55, usually called Deutero-Isaiah, were written about 538 BC after the experience of the exile; and chapters 56–66, sometimes called Trito-Isaiah, were written following the return of the exiles to Jerusalem after 538 BC.
So, the writers had great familiarity with the fact that empires come and go with regularity. We can all name a few empires that thought they might last forever. Common traits that seem to always lead to downfall, however, are arrogance and a misplaced confidence that they possess the magic to avoid the fate that befell others. Another similarity these failed civilizations often share is overexploitation of God’s creation. The mighty Roman Empire, for example, met its end at least in part due to rampant deforestation.
We know that one of the names for the Lord God is “I am who I am,” as revealed in Exodus 3:14. So, it is telling that one of the charges leveled by God in Isaiah is that Babylon claimed this moniker for itself: “I am, and there is no one besides me” (47:8).
Whether in a large corporation or a congregation, when some at the top of the ladder have this attitude, we can count the days (or at least the years) until that tower comes toppling down. The more voices and perspectives that are added to the mix, the better the chances are the entity will not only survive but thrive. Recent reports have shown that diversity of all kinds in a workplace increases profitability and makes companies smarter and more innovative.
A side note: We can also say this about human attitudes toward the rest of creation. When we see ourselves as the only ones who matter, as the only ones with good ideas for how to thrive, as the ones with nothing to learn from the rhythms and symbiosis of nature, we can imagine that our end will be near.
And then there is the false sense of security embodied in “no one sees me” (v. 10). First and foremost, the Lord God sees. And we know that when God sees injustice, unrighteousness, and arrogance, there is displeasure. We also know that God’s prophets and people of conscience and courage see and respond to bad behavior, whether of empires or oppressive structures of all kinds. The ferment they can stir can be formidable, as we have seen in our nation of late.
We might raise the question here as to whether we see God as active in judging and bringing down empires today in the same way, as seems to be the case in this scripture. Didn’t Jesus shift focus to personal behaviors (forgiveness, peacemaking, care for the stranger) and to systems of oppression (racial hierarchies, corrupt religious structures, exclusion of women)?
Certainly not all Christians accept this shift. I recently attended a service held by a Christian group that very much saw our own nation as God’s chosen instrument in today’s world, with God ready to bless our military and cultural battles if we would but return to our former ways.
Wherever we come out, we can see God’s hand in the order of things as nations or other entities find their comeuppance when they persist in arrogant and self-centered behaviors.
A word about magical thinking: It will eventually burn you! This section of Isaiah 47 is dripping with sarcasm as the Lord taunts those who rely on enchantments of various sorts to guide their way. There is mention of “the power of the flame” in verse 14, which may be a reference to the Babylonian god of fire, Girra, who played an important role in purification rituals where he was commonly invoked together with gods such as Ea, Marduk, and Shamash.
God warns that while one may imagine warming oneself around such a ritualistic flame, one is more likely to be consumed! While such rituals may be comforting, as we think these gods will rally to our aid, turning to such nonexistent entities actually means “there is no one to save you” (v. 15).
This reminds us of magical thinking in our own time. Some seem to believe we are immune to the ravages of climate change or the inevitable decline of a nation or the demise of cherished religious traditions or the consequences of risky personal behaviors. That would never happen to us! The danger here is that such thinking allows one to put off or refuse altogether actions that might stave off disaster.
Collapse is not always pure disaster. An example: Due to the thickness of the rain forest canopy, sometimes only one-thousandth of the sunlight and one-third of the rainfall reach the forest floor. When a large tree comes crashing down, while this may be bad news for the tree itself and the over six hundred beetle species that called it home, it also opens space. Suddenly, it is raining light and . . . rain, where both had been in short supply. Voilà—new life emerges!
The same, perhaps, is true for us. While we are no Babylon collapsing under the weight of our hubris and deluded by magical thinking, we may still find things we cherish coming down around us. And there may be some sense of God’s judgment. Have we not paid close enough attention to God, who desires to lead us into some new place or by a different set of priorities?
The question then becomes this one: How do we seize this time of treetoppling turmoil as a moment to see the new light and feel the refreshing rain, allowing these gifts to awaken new possibilities of faithful living?
David Radcliff, an ordained Church of the Brethren minister, is director of New Community Project, a nonprofit organization working at care for creation and peace through justice.