Great Harlot Revealed

SynopsisBabylon is unveiled – She is a bejeweled harlot and dripping with the shed blood of martyred saintsRevelation 17:1-6.

Great Harlot, Babylon -
The book of Revelation presents an impressive female figure, Babylon, the Great Harlot. She is identified as a “harlot” and a “great city,” and she is linked to the violent deaths of the martyrs or “witnesses” of Jesus, including his own sacrificial death. That she is designated a “city” means this figure is not a literal woman. She is also tied to the deceptive efforts of the Dragon against the “saints.” The first audience of the book would have connected her with the city of Rome.
The book now begins its third major division marked by John once more finding himself “in the spirit” where he is taken to a specific location from which he sees the next vision (Revelation 17:3-5. Cp. 1:10, 4:1-2, 21:9-11). This division begins in Revelation 17:1 and continues through Chapter 20.

This third division is connected by several literary links to the series of seven bowls of wrath. For example, the angel who explains the next several visions is one of the seven angels “who had the seven bowls of wrath.” The “battle of Armageddon” presented in the sixth bowl of wrath is the same battle to be described in Revelation 19:17-21 - Both descriptions borrow language from Ezekiel’s battle of “Gog and Magog,” and both are called “the war,” singular.

The description of the punishment of Babylon is a detailed explanation of the judgment unleashed by the seventh bowl of wrath when - “Babylon the great was remembered in the sight of God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath” (Revelation 16:19).

Remember - At the end of the seventh bowl an angel declared that the judgments of God were “finished”; therefore, what is described now in Chapter 17 does not follow the seven bowls of wrath chronologically.

(Revelation 17:1-6) – “And one of the seven messengers who had the seven bowls came, and spake with me, saying — Hither! I will point out to thee the judgment of the great harlot, who sitteth upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed lewdness, — and they who were dwelling upon the earth were made drunk with the wine of her lewdness. And he carried me away into a desert, in spirit. And I saw a woman, sitting upon a scarlet wild-beast full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed with purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, — having a cup of gold in her hand, full of abominations and the impurities of her lewdness; and upon her forehead a name written, a secret: Babylon the great, the Mother of the Harlots and of the Abominations of the earth. And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. And I was astonished when I beheld her, with great astonishment” [Source:  The Emphasized Bible].

John’s “guide” for this next section is “one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls.” This is not simply an observation - It is a literary link to the preceding series of seven bowls. This new section presents the outworking of the seven bowl judgments against the men with the mark of the Beast, the kingdom of the Beast, and the “great city, Babylon.”

Tiber River - Photo by Christian Nordmark on Unsplash
By Christian Nordmark
The great harlot who sits upon many waters.” The “waters” are identified a few verses later as representing, “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” This is the mass of fallen humanity from which the Beast ascended, represented previously as the “Abyss,” the “sea,” and the “earth” (Daniel 7:1-3, 7:17, Revelation 11:7, 13:1, 13:11-12, 17:15).

That the “harlot” sits on the waters, points to her sway or rule over humanity. This last clause alludes to a judicial pronouncement from the book of Jeremiah against ancient Babylon, as follows:
  • (Revelation 17:1-6) – “The judgment of the great harlot, who sits upon many waters…and they who were dwelling upon the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication…having a golden cup in her hand, full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.
  • (Revelation 17:1-15-18) – “The waters which thou saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. And the ten horns which thou saw, and the beast, these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her utterly with fire. For God did put in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished. And the woman whom thou saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”
  • (Jeremiah 51:7-13) – “Babylon hath been a golden cup in Yahweh's hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunk of her wine; therefore, the nations are mad. Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed: wail for her; take balm for her pain, if so, be she may be healed…Yahweh has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes; because his purpose is against Babylon, to destroy it: for it is the vengeance of Yahweh…O thou that dwellest upon many waters, abundant in treasures, thine end is come, and the measure of thy covetousness.”
With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” This judgment was anticipated and pronounced in Chapter 14 of Revelation:
  • (Revelation 14:6-8) – “And I saw another angel flying in mid heaven, having eternal good tidings to proclaim the inhabitants of the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he saith with a great voice, Fear God, and give him glory; for the hour of his judgment is come…And another, a second angel, followed, saying, Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, that made all the nations to drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”
  • (Revelation 16:19) – “And great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.”
The description of Babylon also echoes that of “Jezebel,” the prophetess from the church in Thyatira, she “who calls herself a prophetess; and she seduces my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20).

The echo from the earlier letter is deliberate - “Jezebel” represented the seductive activity of Babylon within the congregation at Thyatira. She succeeded in causing some believers to participate in idolatry.

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness.” This marks the start of this third major division of the book.  Note well the verbal parallels at the commencement of each division when John found himself “in the spirit”:
  • (Revelation 1:10) – “I came to be in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet.”
  • (Revelation 4:1-2) – “Behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must come to pass hereafter. Straightway I came to be in the Spirit: and behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting upon the throne.”
  • (Revelation 17:3-5) – “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls…and He carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness: and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy.”
  • (Revelation 21:9-11) – “And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, who were laden with the seven last plagues; and he spoke with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem.”
She was sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” The description links the woman to the “Beast from the sea” that had “ten horns and seven heads, and upon his heads names of blasphemy,” as well as to the Great Red Dragon with “seven heads and ten horns.” That she sits on the Beast suggests control over it. She is closely allied with the Beast and the Dragon against a common enemy - The Lamb and those who follow him (Revelation 12:3, 13:1).

Container Ships - Photo by Andy Li on Unsplash
By Andy Li on Unsplash
Blasphemy” or blasphémia more correctly means “slander.” The Jews of the “synagogue of Satan” were guilty of “blasphemy” for their slanderous charges against the Christians of Smyrna. Similarly, a mouth was given to the Beast from the sea with which to hurl “slander” or “blasphemy” against God and “those who tabernacle in heaven” (Revelation 2:9, 13:5).

The term “blasphemy” refers not to the Harlot’s use of profanity but, instead, to her slanderous charges against the saints; most likely, in reference to legal charges brought to haul Christians before courts and magistrates.

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication.” At this point, the book of Revelation is laying the groundwork to contrast the harlot with the “Bride of Christ” described in Revelation 21:9-27.

In contrast to the Great Harlot, the wife of the Lamb is adorned with the glory of God, and “her light was like unto a stone most precious, as it were a jasper stone, clear as crystal.” The “bride of the Lamb” is also identified as a “city,” New Jerusalem. It is made of pure gold and has walls adorned with “all manner of precious stones.” Its twelve gates are made of pearls. In contrast to the “bride,” the Harlot is “full of abominations and the unclean things of her fornication,” however, no “unclean or abominable thing” can enter the city of New Jerusalem.

And upon her forehead a name written, mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” In the Greek sentence, “mystery” is in apposition to “name” and is not a part of the name inscribed on the Harlot’s forehead; that is, “a name, a mystery, Babylon the Great.” The Greek term rendered “mystery” refers not to something that is enigmatic and mysterious, but to that which is hidden and, therefore, secret. The angel now unveils it.

On her forehead a name written.” This feature sets the woman in contrast to the saints who follow the Lamb and have the name of his Father “written on their foreheads. The saints are the “servants of God” and follow the Lamb. The harlot is the servant and ally of the Dragon. This suggests on some level she is a counterfeit of the true church; her surrogate, “Jezebel,” is already active in Thyatira (Revelation 2:20, 7:3, 14:1).

This name, “Babylon the Great,” is another link to the seventh bowl of wrath where the woman is also called Babylon the Great,” the one to whom God will give “the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath” (Revelation 16:19).

Elsewhere, this figure is called the “great city.” Thus, in Revelation 11:8, the bodies of the two witnesses lie in streets of the “great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” In an earlier vision, an angel declared, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city” (Revelation 14:8).

Having a cup of gold full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.” In the book of Revelation, “fornication” is metaphorical and portrays sins of idolatry and compromise with the Beast and Satan. Her “golden cup” is filled to the brim with such abominations. This description ties her intimately to the efforts of the Dragon to deceive the nations (e.g., Revelation 2:21, 9:21).

This is the “great city” responsible for the “blood of martyrs” or “witnesses” (martur). In the vision of the “two witnesses” (martur), the “great city” is responsible for the deaths of the witnesses, and of Jesus (“Where their Lord was crucified”). The pronoun “their” links the two witnesses and their deaths to the Lamb. Calling the city “Egypt” is fitting; the judicial punishments of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls of wrath utilize language from the ten plagues of Egypt, as well as verbal allusions from Jeremiah Chapter 51 concerning Babylon:
  • (Revelation 8:8-9) - “A great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea; and the third part of the sea became blood…and the third part of the ships was destroyed.”
  • (Jeremiah 51:25) – “I am against thee, O destroying mountain, saith Yahweh, which is destroying all the earth: and I will stretch out my hand upon thee, and roll thee down from the rocks, and will make thee a burnt mountain.”
She is responsible for the deaths of the two “witnesses” (martur). At the outset of the book, Jesus is the “faithful witness.” In Pergamos, a martyr named ‘Antipas,’ who was killed “where Satan dwells,” is also called “my faithful witness.” When the fifth seal was opened, John saw the “souls of them that were slain for their testimony.” The Beast from the Abyss is only authorized to slay the two witnesses after “they have finished their testimony…he shall make war against them and overcome them” (Revelation 1:4-5, 2:13, 6:9-11, 11:4-7).

Likewise, the enraged Dragon went off “to make war with the remnant of the woman’s seed, they who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” This reference not only links the “harlot” to the martyrdoms of saints but, also, makes clear why she killed them – because of their witness for Jesus (Revelation 12:17).

The blood of saints.” Previously, the Beast from the sea was authorized to wage war against the “saints and to overcome them…Here is the endurance and the faith of the saints.” The “saints” are identified as “they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” The first four bowls of wrath were poured out on the men who had the mark of the Beast because “they shed the blood of saints and prophets” (Revelation 13:7-10, 14:12, 16:6).

Thus, the Great Harlot is tied to the violent deaths of saints slain on account of their faithful testimony for Jesus. That she is “drunk” with their blood indicates the great pleasure she takes in their deaths, going all the way back to the death of the first “faithful witness,” Jesus Christ.

I was astonished with great astonishment.” John does a wordplay with the verb (thaumazo) and the noun (thauma), using both with the sense “astonishment.” The basic meaning is “wonder, marvel.” The same verb was used earlier when “the whole earth wondered after the Beast” from the sea. In the next paragraph, the “inhabitants of the earth wonder after the beast, that was, and is not, and will come” (Revelation 13:3, 17:8).

Wonder” does not mean that John admired this female figure, but he found her appearance astonishing, her outward beauty and grandeur were so impressive that he was taken aback. There are reasons why this “woman” is so successful at deceiving the world and some, at least, of the saints.


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