JESUS CHRIST – KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS - [1] The great harlot [Revelation 17,18]

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

In Revelation14:8 we read:

‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.’

In Revelation 16:19 we were given a brief statement about the judgment of ‘Babylon the Great’:

‘The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath’.

Whatever the symbol ‘Babylon’ represents it is something of global significance and impact, and it is something that attracts the full fury of God’s wrath. Its end has been mentioned briefly in each of the previous two parallel sections of Revelation. Now ‘Babylon’ and its end are described more fully.

In 17:1 one of the angels who poured out the seven bowls of God’s wrath tells John that he is going to show him this ‘punishment’. Chapter 17 gives us symbolic information about ‘Babylon’ revealed to John by this angel, and Chapter 18 gives us details about God’s judgment on ‘Babylon the Great’ revealed by another angel and a another voice from heaven.

 

A.    OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND

The Old Testament provides instructive background information about ‘Babylon’ that helps us to understand the significance of ‘Babylon’ in the visions in Revelation, and in particular Revelation 17 and 18.

[1] Genesis 11 reports how the original ‘Babel’, built on the plain of Shinar [in what was later called Babylonia], incurred the judgment of God upon its arrogance and independence by which it exalted itself and trusted in itself instead of depending on God. The mindset of its inhabitants was to ‘build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth’ [verse 4]. There are a number of significant attitudes here:

Disobedience to God’s clear command to ‘fill the earth’ [Genesis 1:28].

Pursuit of equality with God – they want their tower to ‘reach the heavens’, hence to challenge or compete with God. In this they have been deceived by the same allurement by which Satan deceived Eve – equality with God [Genesis 3:5].

Refusal to trust themselves to God – they sought to establish their own security, independent of God, by the work of their own hands.

The abilities and creativity given to humans by God were used in defiance of God, exalting themselves rather than glorifying God.

In all of this they have left aside the truth about God and are depending entirely on their own resources. In their ignorance and arrogance they see no need for God. God is irrelevant. God is redundant.

God’s judgment fell upon them.

[2] The later kingdom of Babylonia, and city of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem in successive raids between 605 and 587BC.  They plundered and destroyed the temple of God, and held the people of God in captivity in Babylon for seventy years – 2Chronicles 36:15-21. Against this city of Babylon the judgment of God was predicted.

Suggested reading:
Isaiah 13,14, 21
Jeremiah 50, 51.

In these prophecies against Babylon attention is drawn to:

her evil [Isaiah 13:11],
her arrogance [Isaiah 13:11; 14:14; Jeremiah 50:31,32],
her idolatry [Isaiah 21:9; Jeremiah 50:2,38; 51:47,52],
her attacks on God’s people [Jeremiah 50:11,15; 51:24,49], and
her opposition to and defiance of God [Jeremiah 50:24,29 ].

There is also repeated reference to God’s judgment on Babylon as retribution for what she did to his people [Jeremiah 50:15,17-18,28,33-34; 51:6,10,24,36,49,56].

In Isaiah 14:12ff we find that passage which has traditionally been understood to describe the fall of Satan from heaven. This is clearly a passage denouncing Babylon – yet Babylon so typifies and reflects the arrogance and anti-God attitude of Satan that it is understood to be describing Satan. This helps us to understand what is intended by Revelation’s references to ‘Babylon’ – that when Revelation speaks of ‘Babylon’ Satan is somewhere in the mix, and that same arrogance that resulted in Satan’s rebellion against God and fall from heaven characterized ancient Babel and Babylon and also characterizes the symbolic ‘Babylon’ in Revelation.

In addition, there is such a similarity between Revelation 17 & 18 and many verses in Jeremiah 50 & 51 that it seems quite evident that these two chapters are being deliberately referenced in the Revelation vision. The ‘Babylon’ of which Revelation speaks is obviously not the ancient city. It was destroyed. Its ruins can be seen in central Iraq. But those ancient human cities, human civilizations, human communities, both ‘Babel’ and ‘Babylon’, typify the evil of the symbolic ‘Babylon’ of Revelation. What is seen in these real historical, physical cities, points us to the nature of the reality depicted by the symbol of ‘Babylon’ in Revelation. [To understand Revelation 17 and 18 it is beneficial to study the Old Testament chapters noted above.]

While ‘Babylon’ is the symbol used in Revelation, there are multiple human civilizations described and condemned in the Old Testament which could have been used with the same effect as symbols for the same reality. We can see in them the same human arrogance that is depicted in ancient Babel and Babylon.

Suggested reading:
Psalm 10:1-6; 73:3-12 – the arrogant, generally
Isaiah 9:8-10; Jeremiah 13:9,15-27; Ezekiel 16:44-52; Hosea 5:4,5 - Israel
Isaiah 10:12-19 - Assyria
Isaiah 16:6-14; 25:11,12; Jeremiah 48:2-7,17-18,29,30,42 - Moab
Isaiah 23:8,9 - Tyre
Ezekiel 29:3-12,15; 30:1-7; 32:1-15 - Egypt
Obadiah 3-4 – Edom

We could also reference Daniel 4 & 5 where the kings of Babylon attract the same condemnation for the same human arrogance.

 

B.    WHO OR WHAT IS ‘BABYLON THE GREAT’?

The Revelation visions about ‘Babylon’ employ symbolic language to communicate truth. Our task is to see beyond the symbol to that truth. It also employs language and concepts drawn from Old Testament references to God’s judgment on the Babylonian empire. It is extremely probable that those words of condemnation against ancient Babylon and other civilizations have dual fulfilment and were predictive not only of the historical collapse of those empires, but also of the nature of and ultimate judgment on what is symbolized by ‘Babylon’ in Revelation.

B.1 The symbol of the ‘woman’ [Note that this woman stands in contrast with the ‘woman’ of Revelation 12 – the people of God, the ‘bride of Christ’ of Revelation 19:7 and 21:9ff. The prostitute in contrast to the bride. The two are diametrically opposed. This is a very important ‘clue’ to what is symbolised by ‘Babylon’.]

The first symbolic vision [17:1-6] is that of a ‘woman’ [verse 3]. There is a ‘title’ written on her forehead which points us to the ‘mystery’ of the ‘woman’ symbol. That symbolic title is threefold: ‘Babylon the Great’, ‘the mother of prostitutes’ and the mother ‘of the abominations of the earth’.

[1] The reference to ‘Babylon the Great’ [here and in the two earlier chapters] immediately calls the ancient city of Babylon to mind. By this title ‘Babylon’ we immediately know that an arrogant enemy of God and of his people is being identified. All that was said against that physical Babylon on a physical level is true of the ‘Babylon’ of Revelation on multiple levels. See Section A above.
Under the symbol of ‘Babylon’ this ‘woman’ is also called ‘the city’ [11:13] and ‘the great city’ [11:8; 14:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,19,21]. [Note that, like the ‘woman’, so the ‘city’ – there is a holy ‘city’ in stark contrast with ‘Babylon’ – read Revelation 21:10f.] As a ‘city’ ‘Babylon’ refers to human community because that is what a ‘city’ is. The vision speaks as if it is talking about a single, large, important, influential city, but there are other elements in the vision that indicate this is symbolic of human community, human civilization, as a whole in its self-sufficient and arrogant opposition to God. This is not human governments, like the first beast, nor is it human religion, like the second beast, although it includes both. It is human achievement – all that calls forth human pride and human perceptions of indestructibility, it is the human ego at its greatest, but without God, indeed in arrogant defiance and denial of God.

[2] This ‘woman’ is called ‘the great prostitute’ [17:1; 19:2], ‘the mother of prostitutes’ [17:5], and ‘the prostitute’ [17:15,16]. The designation ‘prostitute’ draws attention to her illicit and seductive mindset and behaviour. That she is the ‘mother’ of prostitutes indicates the power of her allurements – she reproduces herself in those whom she entices. She, and those who align with her, in their arrogance and pride, are against God and against his law; she has so successfully drawn them to herself that they have no desire for God. They have been completely seduced by their own importance and invincibility.

[3] In close connection with the above symbol of prostitution the ‘woman’ is also referred to as the mother ‘of the abominations of the earth’ [17:5]. Verse 4 refers to ‘abominable things’ which fill the cup she holds in her hand. [The word is a noun in both verses.]  This ‘woman’ is the source of all that God counts an ‘abomination’. Biblically, the word ‘abomination’ [sometimes translated by ‘detestable’ in the NIV] is referred primarily to sexual sins and the sin of idolatry and man-made religion [inclusive of what we now call ‘the occult’], but also more generally to cover anything God has forbidden.

Suggested reading:
Leviticus 18:1-30
Deuteronomy 18:9-13
2Kings 21:2-11; 23:24
Proverbs 6:16-19
Jeremiah 7:9-11, 30,31; 32:34,35
Ezekiel 7:1-9; 8:6-18

These three ‘titles’ of ‘the woman’ give us insight into her nature: she is anti-god and she successfully entices people to identify with her in her anti-god attitudes and actions. She makes sin attractive. She makes sin desirable. She makes man-made religions and ideologies attractive. She does this so powerfully that God is ignored. People desire her rather than God. Drunk with their own significance they see themselves as totally free from the boundaries set by God regarding both belief and action and abandon those boundaries to do all the ‘abominations’ outlawed by God.

She is in direct contrast to that other ‘woman’ whom we saw in Chapter 12. We have seen two of these contrasts above.

She is a ‘prostitute’; the other woman is the ‘bride’ of the Lamb.

She is the source of all the abominations of the earth; the other woman has washed her garments in the blood of the Lamb.

The name on her forehead is ‘Babylon the great …etc’; the name on the other woman’s forehead is the name of God and of the Lamb.

She is dressed in rich clothing and glittering jewels – things provided from the earth, produced by her own effort and artistry ; the other woman is clothed with the sun and has a crown of twelve stars on her head – clothing provided by the heavens.

But there is one thing these two ‘women’ have in common: they are both ‘in the desert’. And there in the ‘desert’ their actions and attitudes are diametrically opposed. The woman clothed with the sun holds to the testimony of Jesus: the woman clothed in dressed in purple, scarlet and jewels holds herself above the testimony of Jesus.

In considering these two ‘women’ we find that both of them refer to a collective group of human beings: the one aligned with God and the Lamb; the other aligned with Satan and all associated ‘beasts’. In Chapter 16 we saw the final judgment on the inhabitants of the earth in their refusal to repent. Here in 17 and 18 we see the final judgment on the inhabitants of the earth in terms of the characteristic arrogant human mindset out of which that refusal emanated.

B.2 The global presence and influence of the ‘city’
There are several statements that speak of the global presence and influence of ‘Babylon’.

She ‘sits on many waters ‘– verse 1. In Verse 15 we are told that the ‘waters’ are ‘peoples, multitudes, nations and languages’.

‘the kings of the earth’ commit adultery with her [17:2;18:9].

‘the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries’  [17:2].

‘all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries’ [18:3; compare 14:8].

‘the merchants of the earth’ were rich because of her [18:3,11ff,15].

‘the nations’ were led astray by her [18:23].

She ‘corrupted the earth with her adulteries’  [19:2].

‘Babylon’ is not a specific individual physical or political city. While some interpreters understand the ‘many waters’ of 17:1 to be a reference to the location of ancient Babylon on the great Euphrates River, the explanation given to ‘waters’ in verse 15 rules out that physical understanding, for the ‘waters’ are not physical waters but people groups of all kinds. She has seduced the whole world. Babylon, then, stands for something that is worldwide, impacting the kings, the merchants, the nations of the whole earth. Not only has she seduced the whole world, enticing the whole world so that the whole world does not desire God, she has so seduced them that they have an insatiable craving for what she offers them. They are ‘intoxicated’ – totally under the influence of her seductions and not even aware of it. They are totally drunk on their own importance, splendour and greatness.

B.3 The source of her power and her evil
In the vision John saw the woman ‘sitting on a scarlet beast’. Here we understand the source and the empowerment of her evil for we have met multiple equivalents of this ‘beast’ before.

Like the ‘dragon’ of Chapter 12 this beast is scarlet.

Like the dragon and the beast from the sea [Chapter 13], this beast has seven heads and ten horns.

Like the beast from the sea, but more so, this beast is covered with blasphemous names. This also links this beast with the beast from the earth [the false prophet] which cultivated the blasphemous worship of the first beast.

This composite symbolic beast, carries the woman. [NIV has ‘the beast she rides’, but the Greek text refers to the ‘beast that is carrying her’]. She is sustained, lifted up, supported by this ‘beast’. Satan is the force behind everything she is and does. It is Satan who has cultivated human arrogance and human defiance of God.

In 17:7-13 the ‘beast’ that carries the ‘woman’ is further explained.

It sounds very much like Satan [17:8]. It ‘once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction’. ‘once was’ – before Christ conquered him by his death; ‘now is not’ – his power is presently limited and restrained; ‘and will come up out of the Abyss’ – in the very short time just prior to the end; ‘and go to his destruction’ – his release from the Abyss is with a view to his final destruction.  

The seven heads of the beast are explained as ‘the seven hills on which the woman sits’ and also as ‘seven kings’. And here the vision and the explanation given get complicated with their talk of various kings who have been who are and who are yet to come. We find ourselves in the middle of an unsolvable puzzle wondering if we are supposed to identify specific physical/political kings who have been, who are and who are yet to come, or whether something else is going on here. Verse 11 clearly states that the ‘beast’ is ‘an eighth king’, which tangles the symbols themselves – ‘seven hills’ are ‘seven kings’ and are also the seven heads of the beast, but the eighth king is the beast.

Rather than try to connect these seven kings and ten kings to various earthly kings or kingdoms that have been in the past and will be in the future let us look at the symbolism embedded in their numbers. We have seen before that seven points to ‘perfection’ and ten to ‘completion’. Under the symbolic ‘seven’ we have previously seen the ‘perfect’ enemy and the ‘perfect judgment’. Under the symbolic ‘ten’ we have seen the completion of evil, that point at which God says ‘enough is enough’. Under these symbolic numbers, regardless of whether or not we are meant to identify individual earthly kings or kingdoms, we can say this much: that, empowered by the ‘beast’, who in this vision appears to be Satan, the global influence of ‘Babylon’ is such that, as we have already seen in non-symbolic language, the whole world is lured away from God. The allurement, the intoxication is both ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’. Apart from the redeemed, there is no-one who has not succumbed. The whole world is drunk … totally intoxicated by their own achievements, their own power, their own glory. A perfect seduction, a complete seduction, has entrapped them. Just how complete we will see in a little while.

Note: ‘seven hills on which the woman sits’ seems to have an immediate reference to the power of Rome (and its Caesars), which at the time Revelation was written was the peak of human culture, power and achievement. The ‘seven hills’ is symbolic of all such human accomplishment.  Rome was also, at that time, the source of the bulk of opposition to and persecution of the redeemed. That we are to take this symbolically and also not time-specific is obvious from the fact that in the vision, although the woman is sitting on ‘the seven heads’ which are ‘seven hills’ which are ‘seven kings’, not all of those kings existed at that time.

B.4 What this ‘city’ looks like
Looking from the outside the ‘city’ is rich, powerful and glorious:

18:7 refers to her ‘glory and luxury’.
She is powerful – 18:10.
She is a centre of commerce – 18:11-13, making many rich – 18:15,19.
18:14 and 16 speak of her riches and splendour.

Here we see human civilization at its greatest, at its most excellent. But like Israel of old this human excellence, which is God’s gift, did not result in praise and allegiance to God the giver, but in self-exaltation, in self-glorification and spiritual prostitution. The very things that were given by God became the things by which God was dishonoured.

‘You became very beautiful … your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect … But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute …’ [Ezekiel 16:13-15].

All that human civilizations achieve – their power, their glory, their amazing inventions, their culture, their physical strength and beauty – all of this is due solely to the gift and the grace of God. Yet the more they achieve the more intoxicated they are with themselves.

B.5 What the ‘city’ did to God’s people
While much is said about the influence, luxury and wealth of the ‘city’ there is also repeated mention of her antagonism to the people of God.

We read in 17:6 that ‘the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus’.

In 18:20: ‘Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you’.

In 18:24: ‘In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints and of all who have been killed on the earth.’

In 19:2: ‘He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.’

These verses indicate that ‘Babylon’ is not a reference to a single influential end time ‘city’. Nor can it be defined as the Roman Catholic church, which did not exist at the time the Revelation was given. God holds this ‘Babylon’ responsible for all the blood of all of his people, both Old and New Testament, down through the ages. ‘Babylon’ is judged for what she did to them all. In this ‘Babylon’ the blood of them all was found.

[In two previous parallel sections of Revelation we have seen this retributive judgment of God upon those who shed the blood of God’s saints and prophets [6:10; 16:6]. In both cases the target of God’s vengeance is the inhabitants of the earth. In this we have another pointer to the identity of ‘Babylon.’]

We know from history that Rome was ‘drunk with the blood of the saints’. Rome, as a city, and Rome as a human culture/civilization, craved and relished the sport, the entertainment, of watching the saints die … they were thrown to the lions and other wild animals, they were burned alive, they were forced into ‘to the death’ combat. But this physical death does not exhaust the meaning of these verses. Rome was also intent on coercing Christians to recant: to deny their faith. This woman of Revelation 17 stands for any and every human civilization or culture that in its arrogance opposes ‘the saints’, including, but not limited to, the Roman empire known to John.

[Let us bring this up to the present: we do not today have Christians being killed for the entertainment of the crowds in the Colosseum, but we do have the killing of Christians, or of those thought to be ‘Christian’, being posted on the internet. This physical killing of individual or multiple Christians is, regardless of how horrific it is, but a small part of what is included in the ‘woman’ being ‘drunk with the blood of the saints … who bore testimony to Jesus’. There is something going on in the world that is far bigger than the martyrdom of individual believers. All around the world as any human civilization becomes more and more self-sufficient and human achievement escalates, so does human pride and human self-sufficiency. God is ignored. God is considered irrelevant. God is considered ‘dead’. God is denied existence. Man stands alone confident in his own achievements and ability. The ‘saints’ and the ‘witnesses of Jesus’ are so few that the church, like God, is marginalized, ignored, irrelevant, dead, nothing. On this perceived victory over the church the ‘woman’, the great harlot, is intoxicated. When human civilization, human culture, becomes maddeningly drunk with its demolition of the church (whether by physical, political, religious or philosophical means), with its perceived annihilation of the testimony of Jesus – then human civilization and human culture is ‘the harlot’, Babylon.

Think how deliberately ‘secular humanism’ expressed in various ‘Humanist Manifestos’ discards religion of any kind. Think how despairingly postmodernism lives with the perceived absence of God and of truth, and denies outright the existence of God and of truth. Think how viciously some atheistic evolutionists verbally attack belief in the validity of the Genesis narratives, even to the extent of demanding that teaching ‘creation’ to children be a legal offence.]

B.6 The limitation of evil
An interesting perspective is introduced in 17:15-17: that evil has an inner dynamic of destruction built into it by God, and God uses this inner dynamic to achieve his purpose. Those who have been deceived by evil into embracing evil, with its insatiable craving for power and importance, cannot survive. Inevitably each one is brought down by another. By God’s purpose: The ‘beast’ hates the ‘prostitute’. By God’s purpose: the ten kings give their power and authority over to the beast. Together they bring the prostitute to ruin.  

This dynamic of evil destroying evil is observable throughout human history. And this will continue to happen to ‘Babylon’ ‘until God’s words are fulfilled’ [17:17]. [See Appendix #5 for further comment.]


CONCLUSION
Probably at any time in human history there has been a city, king or kingdom that could be identified as ‘Babylon’.  At the time of Noah ‘man’s wickedness on the earth had become’ great, and ‘every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ [Genesis 6:5]; ‘the earth was corrupt in God’s sight … all the people on earth had corrupted their ways’ [Genesis 6:11,12]. We have seen above many human civilizations characterized by arrogance and defiance of God. Always these communities or civilizations are brought down. Our contemporary culture has a very strong odour of ‘Babylon’, that great prostitute – human arrogance - who so entices and allures the inhabitants of the earth that they do not even consider God. So it is now, and so it will be at the time of the end.