revelation 17… the woman and the beast

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” 3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

When I saw her, I marvelled greatly. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, 17 for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

The Fall of Babylon

Revelation is fundamentally a narrative. It is the story of the arrival of the eternal reign of God through judgement and salvation. However, it is a narrative involving significant recapitulation. Repeatedly we are brought to the End and the arrival of the day of the Lord only to return again to a significant event or actor that is part of the story of the End. Ch 16 reveals significant divine plagues being poured on the kingdom of the beast, the political power, the antichrist, opposed to God and his people. The chapter reaches a climax with a final eschatological judgement poured on the empire of the beast, ‘the great city…Babylon the great’. We are told it is to drain the wine of the fury of divine wrath. Babylon’s demise, previously heralded has already arrived (14:8; 16:9, 19).

From a terse description of Babylon’s end in Ch 16 we are now given a detailed description of its downfall of Babylon (Ch 17,18).

Ch 17 divides into two clear sections

  • Vv1-6 The vision of a woman riding the beast.
  • Vv7-18 The explanation of the vision.

Vv1-6 The vision of the woman riding the beast

Continuity is created by one of the seven angels who held the seven bowls taking John to see ‘the judgement of the great prostitute’ (17:1) ‘the great prostitute… the mother of harlots’. (17:5). It is, of course a description of Babylon.

There are two principal cities in Revelation – Babylon and the New Jerusalem. There are certain literary parallels between them. In both cases the angel says to John ‘Come I will show you…carried me’ (17:1, 21:9). In each case a city is described as a woman. Each has a few names. Each is introduced in advance before being more fully revealed. Here , however, the resemblance ends for both cities are moral and spiritual polar opposites. Babylon is a brazen whore while Jerusalem is a chaste wife. Cities in the Bible are often female. Some are prostitutes (Isa 23:17; Nahum 3:4) and some are brides (Isa 54:5, 62:4,5). John’s two cities are archetypal. Babylon is the city of man, opposed to God and destined for destruction: the New Jerusalem is the city of God, whose citizens are the followers of the lamb and it is destined for glory, It, unlike Rome, is the true eternal city (Rev 21).

Perhaps we should say a little more about the woman who is Babylon. She is identified as ‘Babylon the great’. Babylon has its origins in Genesis. From the beginning it was a city built for the glory of man (Gen 11). Babylon later gained notoriety as the empire which crushed God’s people. It’s capital city sat upon many waters (Jer 51:13). Here the waters represent other nations over which she has influence (v15). Babylon is seen in the wilderness (17:3). Isaiah describes Babylon as a desert perhaps presaging her end as a wasteland (Isaiah 21:1). In the C1, Babylon is embodied in Rome, the city famously, built on seven hills (17:9). Like Babylon, Rome and her empire seduced the world with her attractions. Both were filled with hubris (18:7; Isa 47:7, 1-15; Zeph 2:15). Babylon and Rome were the two great empires that particularly crushed God’s people. From her own perspective and that of the world she is ‘Babylon the Great”. From the perspective of heaven she is, ‘the mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations’. Like the headbands worn by prostitutes to display their name and character Babylon’s name is on her forehead. She is the source of everything vile and unclean, of all that allures people away from God. John’s Babylon is the cultural centre of the final empire of the antichrist which will seduce the nations by all it promises. At its heart Babylon is all human culture opposed to God.

We see the woman riding the beast; human culture is propped up by political power. At this point the culture (the city) apparently has some control of the political power (the beast). But it is very dangerous to ride a wild beast and likely to end disastrously. The image of the prostitute is developed. The woman is a contradiction, an imposter. She is dressed regally with all the trappings of splendour and wealth reflected in purple and scarlet. However, her appearance is deceptive; it is the dress of a courtesan who despite appearances is nothing more than a common prostitute. Her deception continues with the cup in her hand which is a ‘golden cup’ suggesting something of value, yet it is ‘full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality’. It is with this intoxicating cup of obscenities that she seduces the nations. The cup is filled with every kind of inebriating enticement – greed, cruelty, idolatry and illicit pleasure and it is held out to draw into sin and away from God. This city is the mother of prostitutes. Every arrogant, oppressive, idolatrous culture is the child of Babylon. In all her damning odiums the last mentioned is among her most damning. She is ‘drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus’ (18:24, 19:2). She has become intoxicated by the slaying of God’s people. Nothing more graphically displays her unholy opposition to God. Here is a culture with a bloodlust for cruelty. Babylon doesn’t just deceive she destroys. The beast and human culture are hand in glove. Babylon has nothing of worth, nothing truly pure in her. Her appearance may deceive but underneath is only violence and corruption. Like the world before the flood.

Vv7-18. The vision explained

When the vision is explained to John, surprisingly, the focus is not firstly on the woman but on the beast. I have already considered these verses in discussing the beast in Ch 13. The beast is an empire, in the C1 embodied in the Roman Empire. The empire endures through its various emperors or kings (the seven heads). Yet the beast is properly identified in an eight king who belongs to the seven yet is in some sense distinct. Here the focus has moved it seems from C1 Roman emperors (the seven kings?) to the final antichrist (the eighth king) whose empire (of a brief hour) is founded on the authority he is given by ten kings. The numbers seven and ten are typically symbolic yet like the seven churches seem also to be real. Ch 19 is anticipated when we are told they make war on the Lamb who conquers them for to him belongs supreme authority – he is King of kings and Lord of lords. The nature of this ‘war’ is not easy to imagine (19:11-21). What is clear is that the Lamb will destroy them and all who side with them by the breath of his mouth and the majesty of his coming (2 Thess 2:8). Babylon is not a world for which to live; its end is to be burned,

The chapter closes with a surprising revelation; the beast and his vassal kings turn upon the woman and destroy her; ironically their unity is expressed in wanton self-destruction. Perhaps it is not so surprising when we reflect on how often the empires of this worl d implode and self destruct. Yet in the final analysis this is God’s doing. He has put it into their hearts to fulfil his purpose. He has guided human evil to self devour. The woman is formally identified as the great city that dominates the earth – yet here it is destroyed by the very forces she created. The city that was drunk with the blood of the saints and prophets is sacked and burned, As Nero burned Rome so Babylon the city of man is destroyed by those who rule.

Babylon’s relationship to the beast is described in ch 17. In Ch 18 we witness her downfall and the laments that follow her demise.

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