Chapter 17 begins a new section of Revelation, and for it John’s tour guide is one of the seven angels who poured the bowls of wrath on the earth. This indicates that this sixth cycle will culminate in the judgment of Christ’s enemies (v. 1). Before God brings an end to the idolatrous world system, He wants John and his readers to see it for what it is. John sees worldly culture personified as a detestable harlot, awash in iniquity and violence, who has not only turned from godly virtue but used her sinful pleasures to lead multitudes into idolatry. The opening verses of chapter 17 presents five notable features in describing the great prostitute: her location, her mount, her adornment, her cup of abominations, and her name, which unfolds the mystery of her role in history.
First, her location is given in verse 3. The wilderness has several meanings in Scripture. It depicts the barren results of sin. In Matthew’s Gospel, the wilderness is inhabited by demons (Matt. 12:43) and Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1). Isaiah described the desert as the place from which invaders would come to destroy Babylon (Isa. 21:1-10). Later, Babylon will herself be turned into a wilderness (Rev. 18:2). Since Babylon is “the great city” where sin festers (17:18), the wilderness is also a place where John can view the harlot while being out of reach of her sinful allures. Persecution or social rejection will often cause Christians to be excluded from worldly society, but this very seclusion offers a refuge from the allure of sin.
Second, the brazen woman is mounted “on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns” (v. 3). There is no question that this beast is the persecuting tyrant of earlier visions, the antichrist government rulers of the earth. The seven heads correspond to the four beasts of Daniel 7, which stood for violent world kingdoms, and the ten horns identify Daniel’s fourth beast, the Roman Empire (Dan. 7:7). This composite beast thus symbolizes all “the great persecuting power which rules by brute force and is the supreme enemy of Christ and the church. The beast’s scarlet color identifies him with Satan, the red dragon, and reflects his bloody persecution of the saints. The blasphemous names reflect his idolatrous demand to be worshiped, the very danger facing John’s readers from the bestial Roman emperor.
Third, this picture is amplified with the harlot’s adorning (v. 4). The first thing we notice is the costliness of her garb: scarlet dye was expensive and purple was so costly that it was the symbol of aristocracy and royalty. She adds the gaudy shimmer of jewels and pearls to complete the impression of wealth and carnal beauty. The harlot’s luscious depravity contrasts with the true beauty of the church as the bride of Christ (Rev. 12:1; 21:11). The harlot dresses seductively, so as to lure the worldly kings to their destruction. In contrast, the outward beauty of a Christian woman is modest, seeking to edify rather than allure, and her most precious beauty is inward and spiritual (1 Pet. 3:4).
Fourth, we are shown the harlot’s cup (v. 4). The golden cup suggests riches and glory, while its contents impoverish the soul and disgrace those who drink of it. “Abominations” speaks of things especially offensive to God, such as false worship, occult practices, and sexual perversions such as homosexuality and gross indecency, while “impurities” refers to sinful corruptions in general. The point is not merely imbibing of impiety and sin but their intoxicating influence in promoting idolatry in the place of faith in the true God. Secular culture holds forth this very cup, in all the apparent glitter of gold, so as to seduce people by its contents, making them slaves of the consumer enterprise and willing servants of the idolatrous state.
Finally, John learns her name (v. 5). Harlots in Rome were said to wear headbands bearing their names. Here, the name is “Babylon the great.” This symbolizes the oppressive kingdoms of the world that disregard God and don’t recognize Jesus as King is here personified as a human female who sells herself and gives birth to abominations. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to think of young American girls who imbibe the values of secular society and early in life take on the appearance and values exemplified by this harlot. This symbolizes the spiritual harlotry of a culture that has turned from God.
The point of John’s vision of the harlot is for Christians to see the truth of the world for what it is. It works like a fairy tale in which magic of the beautiful seductress wears off to reveal a hideous and evil witch. “Do you see the world for what it is?” Revelation asks. The problem is not the world itself but the secular-humanistic world system in rebellion to God. Apart from God’s rule of grace and truth, the world falls to the deadly alliance of the prostitute’s moral corruption and the tyrant’s abuse of power.
The model for this decadent world system is the ancient Rome that dominated the world in John’s time. Rome provides an apt symbol for worldly idolatry especially in the two great threats she posed to the church, threats that organize Satan’s assaults in every age. The first of these is persecution. John’s readers could not forget the shocking torment of Christians in the reign of Nero, and they now face the deadly threat of the emperor Domitian if they continued to refuse to worship his idolatrous images. The second form of satanic attack on Christians is moral corruption. Rome was a cesspool of the worst debaucheries, especially sexual. These two strategies – persecution and corruption – continue to be used by Satan in his attempt to destroy the Christian church and witness.
When Christ’s people see the abominations of the great harlot world culture, what should be their response? The answer is obvious from the nature of this vision, but it is explicitly given in Revelation 18:4-5. Probably the best advice ever given on how to avoid the pollution of sin and the enticements of a harlot world is found in the very first chapter of the book of Psalms (Ps. 1:1-2). This says that Christians are shaped by the influence of their associations.
The message to which we open our ears and our hearts will end up determining the way of life that we will follow. On the one hand are those who live close to the world, receiving its ideas and following its fads, who then begin walking in that way and end up seated, or confirmed, in worldly corruption. On the other hand are those who live close to God’s Word, listening to the counsel of God and practicing a lifestyle that is pleasing to Him. These are the two ways that will yield two different lives.
The harlot Babylon allures with pleasure that leads to the embrace of death and despair. The Savior Jesus calls with life from God for those who believe. The only blood He bears is the blood He shed in our place, to free us from the penalty of our sin. The key to Christian living, then, is in part to see the ugly destruction of the harlot who rides the beast. An even greater key is to see Jesus, who is altogether lovely, and who imparts true beauty, life, and glory to those who take the cup of life from His hands.
Revelation 17:1-6 Study Questions:
Whose judgment does the angel invite John to observe next?
Why is the image of the “whore” used to describe Babylon and the system it represents?
This terrifying, multilayered denunciation of the out-worldly delightful and inwardly deceitful city ought to give pause for serious thought to all those of us who live within today’s glossy Western culture – and all others who look on and see our glitzy world from afar, where are we in this picture?
Babylon has worshiped idols: the quick-fix pseudo-divinities that promise the earth, take all you have to give and then leave you with nothing. What are the life-draining effects of serving false gods today?
What does it mean that the whore has become drunk with the blood of God’s people (v. 6)?