Ellul’s The Meaning of the City is a book in six chapters. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, the subjects of the six chapters are, in effect:

  • Chapters 1 and 2: Babylon
  • Chapter 3: from Babylon to Jerusalem
  • Chapters 4–6: Jerusalem

Ellul’s exposition of his themes is oddly meandering, and there are points where he flatly contradicts something he had written just a few pages back. So it can be difficult to identify the main line of the argument, but I think I’ve managed it. What follows is my summary of his argument specifically about Babylon — because that’s the part of the book that I’m especially interested in.

(By the way, I have the old Eerdmans edition of the book, not the newer Wipf & Stock edition, which has different pagination.) 

In Ellul’s reading of the Bible, Babylon is the very type and image of The City — indeed, one could say that every city is included in Babylon (20). This is a vision that persists from the historical books and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible all the way through to the final chapters of the book of Revelation. Among many other things, Revelation depicts and interprets the condition of the Christian church at Rome, but it does’t refer to Rome; instead it refers to Babylon, because that’s Rome’s true identity. Augustine, as I noted in an earlier post, calls Rome “the second Babylon,” but in Ellul’s reading it simply is Babylon. As (in Paul’s letter to the Romans) all humanity is somehow contained in Adam, all cities are somehow contained in Babylon.

The builder of the first city was Cain, and Cain called that city Enoch, but its real name is … well, you get the picture. Ellul tells the story this way: Cain, having murdered his brother, is cast out of his own society, but is permanently marked by God, in a way that’s meant to protect him from those who would claim the right to take vengeance on him. Cain, though, “went away from the presence of the Lord” — was not sent away, but chose to depart, and built a city whose walls would protect him. That is to say, the point of his building a city is to refuse the protection of the Lord and instead to insist upon his own independence (5–6).

And, given the fallen human condition, the idea of the city-as-protection is inevitably, and rapidly, converted to the idea of the city-as-aggression. The city is the first, the most powerful, and the one necessary instrument of war (13).

So the city (AKA Babylon) is created in order to enforce and maintain human self-sufficiency, which is deeply entwined with the libido dominandi. The city is intrinsically defiant of God — it is in a sense the instrument not just of war on other human beings but war on God, whom it hopes to kill (16). And therefore, in the end, Babylon will perish. It will not be transformed, will not be converted; as the book of Revelation (chapters 17-19) tells us, it will be destroyed. And this must happen because its entire purpose is to refuse the protection of the Lord and trust instead to human power, human control. All this may be considered an expansion and justification of Augustine’s clam that the end of the City of Man is destruction — though, oddly, Ellul barely mentions Augustine in this book. Because of what Babylon necessarily is, God’s curse is upon it (44–48, 53).

(A possible topic for another day: Ellul struggles to fit the city of Nineveh into his account [69–70], because, as we see in the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh repent and God takes pity on them. Ellul likes to say that there’s a distinction between the way God talks about cities — he curses them unconditionally — and the way God talks to people — he invites them to repentance — but in Jonah God says “I take pity on Nineveh, that great city.”)

So Ellul’s first major point is that Babylon, and Babylon as the type and image of the city simpliciter, is destined for destruction. The second part of his argument — and this is especially interesting — begins thus: Babylon is where we live. And, he says, Babylon is not a place that we are at liberty to escape from. His exegesis here begins with an unambiguous statement from Jeremiah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” For Ellul the key points here are:

  • Our exile is determined not by our captors but by the Lord himself;
  • We are not to flee the city but “seek its welfare”;
  • Whatever good comes to this city of our exile will come to us as well;
  • Our seeking for the city’s welfare is characterized primarily by prayer.

For Ellul this last point is especially important. When we pray for Babylon, we say that human beings are indeed dependent on God, which means that our prayers for Babylon undermine the very rationale for its existence — which, as noted above, is the establishment of human self-sufficiency. By praying for Babylon, we say: In the end, you cannot defy God, you cannot even escape God. So we we live within the city and we pray for it to flourish, but we deny its own account of what true flourishing is (73–76).

Moreover, since God is the one who sent us into this exile, we are not at liberty to abandon this city until one of two things happen: either we are cast out of it (in which case we shake the dust off our feet as we leave that city) or the Lord returns and deals with it himself. It is not our job — Ellul says this repeatedly — it is not our job to be judge or executioner of Babylon. That’s above our pay grade. It is our job to be, as James Davison Hunter might put it, faithfully present in Babylon. This idea is absolutely foundational to Ellul’s vision of how we live in the city of our exile (78–82, 182).

So in one sense, you could say we don’t rebel: we live peacefully in the city, we do not try to escape it, we don’t try to thwart it. But in another sense, we underminine it by praying for it. By praying, by asking God to bless the city, we deny its self-understanding, and we invite it to rethink itself — indeed, to die to itself and rise to new life in God. (The story of Nineveh, again, suggests that this can happen.) And we are to continue in these practices until we are forced — by the Lord’s return or by, as it were, exile from our exile — to stop. Voluntary departure is not to be considered; we must remain at our post.

One final point: Ellul says that when Jerusalem consents to the crucifixion of Jesus, it becomes Babylon — and therefore, is subject to Babylon’s destruction (49–50). The New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 alone is the city that will not be destroyed. And if Jerusalem can through sin become Babylon, then the task of the Church is to pray that Babylon will become Jerusalem — Jerusalem as God meant it to be, Jerusalem as, in the New Creation, it will be. This, it seems to me, is what makes the example of Nineveh more important than Ellul thinks it is.