Great Harlot Revealed

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

Ancient Rome - Photo by Blaz Erzetic on Unsplash
In chapter 17, Revelation presents the impressive female figure, “Babylon
.” She is called “harlot” and the “great city,” and linked to the violent deaths of the “witnesses” of Jesus. She is connected to the deceptive efforts of the “Dragon” aimed at the “saints,” the ones who have the “testimony of Jesus.” The first audience of the book would have connected this seductive figure with Rome - [Ancient Rome - Photo by Blaz Erzetic on Unsplash].

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

This section is connected to the “seven bowls of wrath” by several literary links. For example, the angel who explained the next several visions was one of the seven angels “who had the seven bowls of wrath.” The punishment of Babylon detailed in chapter 18 elaborates on the judgment unveiled in the “seventh bowl of wrath” – (“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”).

At the end of the “seventh bowl of wrath,” the judgments of God were declared “finished.” This means the events described in chapters 17-21 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 spirit. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”

John’s “guide” was “one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls,” a literary link to the preceding series of “seven bowls of wrath.” This third literary unit presents the outworking of those “seven last plagues” against the men with the “mark of the beast,” the kingdom of the “beast,” and the “great city, Babylon.”


Who sits upon many waters.” The “waters” are identified a few verses later as “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues”; that is, the mass of fallen humanity from which the “beast” ascended, represented previously as the “Abyss,” the “sea,” and the “earth,” and over which she held sway. The description echoes the judicial pronouncement from 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.” Previously, this judgment was pronounced in chapter 14:

  • (Revelation 14:6-8) – “And I saw another angel flying in mid heaven, having everlasting glad tidings to proclaim the inhabitants of the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he says 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.”

The description of Babylon also echoes that of the “prophetess, Jezebelwho calls herself a prophetess, and seduces my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” The allusion is deliberate. In the church at Thyatira, “Jezebel” represented the seductive activity of “Babylon” already active within the congregations, having caused some believers to commit idolatry - (Revelation 2:20).


And he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness.” The statement marks the start of this third major division. Likewise, each of the first two divisions began when John found himself “in the spirit” and transported to a new vantage point (i.e., on Patmos, before the Throne – Compare 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,” which also had “seven heads and ten horns.


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


Here, “blasphemy” or blasphémia more accurately denotes “slander.” Previously, the Jews of the “synagogue of Satan” engaged in “slander” by leveling false charges against the church at Smyrna. Likewise, the mouth given to the “beast from the sea” hurled “slander” against God and “those who tabernacle in heaven” - (Revelation 2:9, 13:5).


Thus, the “blasphemy” of the Harlot refers to her slanderous charges made against the “saints”; most likely, to 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 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.”

At this point, Revelation is laying the groundwork for the contrast between the “Harlot” with the “Bride of Christ” described 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,” 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 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 this “mystery.”


Currency - Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

On her forehead a name written.” Now the “harlot” is contrasted 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 “Babylon” is the servant and ally of the “Dragon.” This means, on some level, she also is a counterfeit to the true church, just as “Jezebel” was active seducing the congregation in Thyatira.

Babylon the Great” is another link to the seventh “bowl of wrath,” where she 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, “Babylon” is called the “great city.” For example, the “body” of the “two witnesses” slain by the “beast from the Abyss” was left in streets of the “great city.” And in an earlier vision, an angel declared, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city” - (Revelation 11:814:8).


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


She is the “great city” 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, previously, that 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 and to overcome them… Here is the endurance and the faith of the saints.” The “saints” were 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” because “they 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.” There is here 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 instead, attractive, even momentarily to John. There are reasons why she was so successful at deceiving humanity in general, and some, at least, of the “saints.”


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