Great Harlot Revealed

Babylon is revealed as a bejeweled harlot dripping with the shed blood of martyred saints – Revelation 17:1-6

In chapter 17, Revelation presents the impressive figure of “Babylon.” She is labeled “harlot” and identified as the “great city,” and she is responsible for the deaths of the martyrs. “Babylon” is also closely associated with the deceptions and economic power of the “Beast.” In her, the book’s first audience would see the city of Rome.

The vision begins the third major division of the book, as once more, John finds himself “in the spirit” and sees this next vision. This division continues through the first paragraph of chapter 21, where John saw “New Jerusalem descending from heaven” - (Revelation 17:1-21:8).

The immediate vision of “Babylon” is connected to the “seven bowls of wrath” by several literary links. The angel who explained the next several visions was one of the seven angels that had the “seven bowls of wrath.” The punishment of “Babylon” detailed in chapter 18 expands the judgment seen in the “seventh bowl of wrath,” the final one that “completed wrath of God.”  This means the events described in chapters 17 through 20 do not follow the “bowls of wrath” chronologically.
  • (Revelation 17:1-3) – “And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came, and spoke with me, Hither, I will point out to you the judgment of the great harlot, who sits upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication. And he carried me away into the wilderness in the spirit. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”
The third literary unit presents the outworking of the “seven last plagues” against the men with the “mark of the beast,” the kingdom of the “beast,” and the “great city, Babylon.”

She sits on many waters.” The “waters” represent “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues,” the “sea” of fallen humanity from which the “beast” ascended. The description echoes the judicial pronouncement of the prophet Jeremiah against Ancient Babylon:
  • (Jeremiah 51:7-13) – “Babylon has been A GOLDEN CUP in Yahweh's HAND, that made all the earth drunkTHE 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.”
And the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” This same pronouncement was heard previously in chapter 14 - (“She that made all the nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” - Revelation 14:6-8).

The description also echoes the lead deceiver from the church at Thyatira, that “prophetess, Jezebelwho calls herself a prophetess, and seduces my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” The verbal parallel is deliberate, for “Jezebel” represented the seductive activity of “Babylon” that was active already in the congregation - (Revelation 2:20).

And he carried me away in the Spirit to the wilderness.” This marks the start of the new literary division. Likewise, each of the first two divisions began when John found himself “in the spirit” transported to a new vantage point (on Patmos, before the Throne – Revelation 1:10, 4:1-2, 21:9-11).

She was sitting on a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” The description connects “Babylon” to the “beast from the sea” that had “ten horns and seven heads, and upon his heads names of blasphemy,” and to the “Great Red Dragon,” the real power behind the “Great City.”

That she “sits on the beast” suggests her influence over it. She is closely allied with the “beast” and the “Dragon” against their common enemy, the “Lamb” and his “army,” the “saints” - (Revelation 12:3, 13:1).

Blasphemy” or blasphémia more accurately denotes “slander,” false accusations. Previously, the Jews of the “synagogue of Satan” engaged in “slander” by leveling false charges against the church at Smyrna. Likewise, the mouth that was given to the “beast from the sea” hurled “slander” against God and “those who tabernacle in heaven.” Her “blasphemy” refers to the slanderous charges made by her against the “saints,” and most likely, to the legal charges used to haul Christians before civil magistrates.
  • (Revelation 17:3-6) – “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 fornication; and upon her forehead a name is written, a mystery, 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.”
Revelation now lays the groundwork for the contrast between the “Harlot” and the “Bride of Christ” in chapter 21. Unlike the bejeweled “Great Harlot,” the “wife of the Lamb” was 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” was also identified as the “city” of New Jerusalem, which was made of pure gold with walls adorned with “precious stones,” and no “unclean or abominable thing” could enter it. In contrast, “Babylon” was “full of abominations and the unclean things of her fornication.”

Mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” In the Greek sentence, “mystery” is set in apposition to “name.” It is not a part of the “name” inscribed on her forehead. The clause more accurately reads, “a name, a mystery, Babylon the Great.” The Greek term for “mystery” refers to something that is hidden or secret. The angel now unveils the “mystery.”

On her forehead, a name was written.” The “harlot” is contrasted here with the “saints,” those who have the “name of his Father written on their foreheads. They are the “servants of God” and follow Jesus. But the “Harlot” is the servant and ally of the “Dragon,” and that means on some level she also is a counterfeit to the church, just as “Jezebel” was active in seducing the congregation in Thyatira.

Babylon the Great” is another link to the seventh “bowl of wrath,” where she was also called Babylon the Great.” Elsewhere, she is called the “Great City” - (Revelation 11:814:8).

Having a cup of gold full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.” “Fornication” is used metaphorically for the sins of idolatry and compromise. Her “golden cup” full of “abominations” connects her to the “Dragon” who uses idolatry to deceive the nations - (Revelation 2:21, 9:21).

She is the “great city” that is responsible for the “blood of martyrs” (martur). Likewise, in the vision of the “two witnesses” (martur), the “great city” was responsible for their deaths, and before that, for the death of Jesus - (“Where their Lord was crucified”).

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

Thus, the “Great Harlot” is linked inextricably to the violent deaths of the “saints” on account of their 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.” Here, there is a wordplay between the verb “astonished” (thaumazo) and the noun “astonishment” (thauma). The same verb was used earlier when “the whole earth wondered after the beast from the sea” - (Revelation 13:3, 17:8).

John found her appearance “astonishing.” Her outward beauty and grandeur were so impressive that he was taken aback. Outwardly, at least, the “Great Harlot” was not repulsive, but attractive, even momentarily to John. There are reasons why she was so successful at deceiving humanity in general, and more ominously, some of the “saints.”

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Destruction of Babylon

The Little Horn