CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - THE GREAT HARLOT
In this writer’s opinion, Revelation 17 is the most difficult chapter in the whole of the Revelation. This, in no sense, is my final word on this chapter. It, no doubt, will undergo many changes as we prayerfully reflect and study it in the future. I seek to understand the text in its most normal, natural and customary sense. Thus, I tend to shy away from views, which do not have direct textual support. Therefore, views which do not have explicit biblical support are ignored.
(1) Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me saying, (2) "Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot (3) who sits on many waters, (4) with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and (5) those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality."
1. Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me = connects us back with Revelation 15-16. This interpretive expansion follows the truncated seventh and final bowl judgment, which devastated Jerusalem and the Gentiles cities. We are not told which one of the seven bowl-carrying angels is helping John, but one might guess that the angel carrying the bowl interprets that particular bowl. Since the seventh bowl-carrying angel unleashed the devastation that destroyed the cities of the world, we naturally suspect that this same angel now details the destruction for John of the capital of Antichrist’s satanically empowered city.
2. Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot = indicates the purpose of the angel’s interpretive expansion. This is one of eight occurrences of the verb "to show" in the Revelation that also involves an interpreting angel (1:1; 4:1; 17:1; 21:9, 10; 22:1, 6, 8). The judgment is the issue of chapter 17. The great harlot is the subject of this judgment. This is "the" judgment of the harlot. She may have been judged in the past, but this is her ultimate and final judgment. This exact phrase also occurs in Revelation 19:2. There the great harlot is the object of God’s wrath for the death of His bondservants.
This ties us back to Revelation 6:10. The fifth seal martyrs requested divine insight concerning God’s judgment of the living earth-dwellers who were responsible for their deaths. The same term avenge used in Revelation 6:10 occurs in Revelation 19:2. The living earth-dwellers are the instrument of the martyrs’ death, but the woman is the sponsor. The living earth-dwellers are drunk with the wine of her fornication. Matthew 23:37 states, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her." Notice: the city is called "her." Notice: the city is responsible for the death of God’s prophets. Notice: the city is a person.
John indicates that this is the great harlot. One could say that this is the "mother" of all harlots. This naturally leads to a question. What entity would be considered the mother of all harlots in a biblical sense?
Isaiah 1:21 calls Jerusalem a harlot. Isaiah 23:13-18 depicts Tyre as a harlot. Nahum 3:4 declares Nineveh a harlot. The nation Israel is repeatedly accused by the prophets of being a harlot (Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; Hos 4:12-13). It should not escape the reader’s attention that these references apply to cities or nations. It is apparent why Jerusalem and Israel would be harlots in the biblical sense. They both engaged in conduct contrary to their vow of commitment to the one true God. In Jerusalem and Israel could be heard the worship of gods who neither speak, move nor bless. We also can understand why the prophet Nahum declares Nineveh (a city) a harlot as well. One hundred years before, the prophet Jonah had preached and affected repentance on behalf of those living in Nineveh. Key question: why did God send Jonah to Nineveh in the first place? Their promise of faithfulness to the God of Israel postponed His wrath. However, by the time of the prophet Nahum, the people of Nineveh had returned to their sinful ways. This is the basis of Nineveh’s harlotry and subsequent judgment.
Isaiah’s depiction of Tyre as a harlot is bit more difficult to explain in biblical terms. Did the people of Tyre ever have a faithful relationship to the God of the Bible? In other words, in what sense is Tyre a harlot in the biblical sense of violating their vow to God? There is no explicit statement in Scripture that Tyre was numbered among the people of God. However, there is evidence that Huram, king of Tyre, and by extension the people of Tyre, had a deep knowledge of God (II Chr 2:11-16). No one is certain why the king of Tyre is personified as Satan in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. However, in some sense, the king of Tyre had dealings with God, which made him liable. Thus, it can be argued that Tyre had a responsibility to be faithful to the Lord. It is obvious that a harlot in the biblical sense must at one time been faithful to the Lord.
Again, the question: what entity is most befitting the title "the mother of harlots?"
3. Who sits on many waters = defines the particular harlot. The phrase many waters is defined in Revelation 17:15 as "peoples and crowds and nations and languages." The great harlot is seated upon multitudes. To be seated suggests rule. This harlot rules over multitudes upon the earth.
4. With whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality = indicates that John is fulfilling his commission given in Revelation 10:11 to prophesy against "kings." "The kings of the earth" are accused of fornication with the great harlot. Under the metaphor of sexual immorality, John declares that the kings of the earth and the great harlot have committed acts, which betray the harlot’s commitment. Four times in the Revelation (17:2, 18:3, 18:9, 19:2) the immoral relations of the harlot are referenced. What is the harlot actually accused of? Revelation 19:2 states, "the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality." To corrupt (phtheiro) in the Greek in this case means, "to cause the moral ruin of" someone. It is clear that John is using metaphorical language. Sex between a man and woman is not the literal referent here. The great harlot is causing the moral ruin of the kings of the earth by leading the call for them to commit and follow the beast.
5. Those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality = is the second group greatly influenced by the great harlot. We have seen repeatedly throughout the Revelation that "those who dwell on the earth" is a technical phrase that refers to the people on the earth who are hostile to God and His people. The Greek is not precisely identical to the other occurrences, but the meaning is the same. The harlot and the kings’ fornication intoxicates the living earth-dwellers. The action of the harlot and the kings is so powerful that the people are swept away by it. It is important to notice that the kings willingly join themselves to the harlot, but the people are made drunk by her actions, which suggests compulsion on the part of the harlot.
(1) And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and (2) I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, (3) full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.
1. And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness = indicates that John is continuing to receive divine revelation by the Spirit of God with angelic agency. It is not clear if the wilderness opposite Israel is the focus of the prophecy or not.
2. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast = begins a description of the woman alluded to in Revelation 17:1. This time she is seated on "a scarlet beast." We saw a similar beast come up from the sea in Revelation 13:1–the dragon. This beast, similar to the dragon and the beast from the sea, is first presented as a composite and then as an individual.
3. Full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns = are the first two characteristics of the scarlet beast, which argue for the conclusion that this beast is a composite. It has the similar characteristics as the red dragon and the beast from the sea. Full of blasphemous names is a description taken from the sea-beast of Revelation 13. Having seven heads and ten horns is taken verbatim from the description of the scarlet dragon of Revelation 12:3. That the woman is sitting on the scarlet beast suggests that she has joined with the beast in his agenda. This constitutes her harlotry.
(1) The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and (2) adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, (3) having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, and (4) on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, (5) "Babylon the great, the mother of Harlots and of the abominations of the earth."
1. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet = begins a general description of the great harlot alluded to in Revelation 17:1. Purple has a rich history in the Scriptures as a symbol of status. It was often worn by royalty (Esth 8:15; Lam 4:5; Dan 5:7). Scarlet suggests wealth (1 Sam 1:24; Prov 31:21; Jer 4:30). This description suggests that the great harlot has attained wealth and status, which is reflected, in her unique position with the composite scarlet beast.
2. Adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls = reflects the wealth of the great harlot.
3. Having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality = continues the description of the great harlot. The gold cup symbolizes her wealth. The woman engages in disgusting acts. What exactly the woman does is not explicitly stated, but is represented by the metaphorical language employed in this verse. In context, since commitment and personal worship is the desire of both the dragon and the sea-beast, the woman must encourage the kings of the earth to follow the composite scarlet beast and worship it. Her involvement in leading the world to worship and support the composite scarlet beast is what makes her a harlot.
4. On her forehead a name was written, a mystery = indicates that the woman (the great harlot) has submitted to the desire of the composite scarlet beast. As God marked the 144,000 with His name and the sea-beast marked his followers with his name, so this woman is marked. Who marked the great harlot is not indicated. However, it is unlikely that she marked herself. The name is derogatory and unflattering. The woman certainly does not see herself as a whore. This is John’s depiction of the woman. Perhaps John sees the name super imposed on the woman.
The fact that the name is a mystery supports this conclusion. This implies that the name is symbolical and will need interpretation. This is how the term has previously been used in the Revelation (1:20; 16:7; and 17:7). The name is not literal.
5. Babylon the great, the mother of Harlots and of the abominations of the earth = indicates the key to understanding this extended metaphor. Who or what is Babylon? Historically, there have been three possibilities: Rome, Jerusalem or the ancient city of Babylon. This harlot is tagged the mother of harlots. The idea suggested by this phrase is that this harlot is the worst the world has ever seen. This argues strongly that harlot here is used in a biblical sense. That is, this harlot had a right relationship to God, which she has violated. This is the only way the superlative idea can be maintained here.
The fact that the term Babylon is a part of the phrase that includes the term mystery argues against a literal interpretation at this point. The ancient city of Babylon is not the author’s intended meaning at this point. To say that Babylon refers to the ancient city of Babylon completely ignores the context and the nature of apocalyptic literature. To explicitly name this ancient city as the future recipient of God’s wrath because of its dealings with God’s holy people contradicts the nature of apocalyptic literature. The city would know of its future judgment and attempt to punish the people of God prematurely.
There is no biblical evidence that ancient Babylon had a right relationship with the true God of heaven. There is no sense in which ancient Babylon is a "harlot" with respect to the true God in heaven. Moral, political or religious harlotry demands a previous right relationship with the one true God.
(1) And I saw the woman drunk (2) with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. (3) When I saw her, I wondered greatly.
1. And I saw the woman drunk = continues the metaphor. This is not literal drunkenness, but figurative. The motif of "drunk with blood" occurred in Ezekiel 39:18-19. There, God indicates that the birds will "drink blood until you are drunk." The idea seems to be that the birds will eat and drink to satisfaction. Thus, the slaughter will be great.
2. With the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus = lists the objects of the woman’s wrath. It is not altogether clear whether John intends one group or two. At first glance, it appears that two groups are intended. Regardless, the great harlot is responsible for the murder of those committed to Jesus Christ, which means NT type believers. The woman is drunk with the blood (life) of the saints. The world is drunk with the wine of the woman’s fornication.
3. When I saw her, I wondered greatly = indicates that the sight of the woman perplexed John. This indicates that John saw a woman, but that the woman was not the literal referent. At this point, John does not know what the woman represents. This argues against the identification of the woman as that of Babylon.
(1) And the angel said to me, "Why do you wonder? (2) I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.
1. And the angel said to me, "Why do you wonder?" = points to the significance of this vision. Having already seen the composite dragon and the composite sea-beast, John is perplexed by the woman. This indicates that the sight of the composite scarlet beast is not significantly distinct from the two previous composite images. However, the woman demands explanation.
2. I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns = echoes our previous thought. The angel begins an explanation concerning the identity of the woman. Notice that the beast is carrying the woman. The relationship between the woman and beast is mutually beneficial.
(1) The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. (2) And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, (3) will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.
1. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction = begins an identification of the composite scarlet beast. The clause that you saw (past tense) indicates that John is no longer looking at the woman and the beast. First, he saw them and now he will receive understanding. The beast was and is not. This is another way of speaking of the death of the beast. The beast is about to come up out of the abyss. This clause echoes Revelation 11:7 and suggests restoration to life after death. The beast go[es] to destruction. The ultimate destiny of the composite scarlet beast is destruction–the lake of fire (Rev 19:20).
The obvious question is whether the composite scarlet beast is an individual or group. Since the scarlet beast dies and is resurrected, it is highly unlikely that a person is intended. No one other than God has the power to raise the dead. There is no evidence that God is going to give Satan this power. There is no evidence in Daniel 2 or 7 that an eschatological person will rise from the dead and lead mankind in revolt against God. The ten-toed kingdoms/kings arise out of the Roman Empire. These facts taken together make a compelling case that the scarlet beast is a kingdom and not an individual. Daniel predicated that Rome would be the final kingdom, which would eventuate into a ten-king/kingdom federation that One like a Son of Man will destroy. John’s vision harmonizes with such a conclusion.
2. And those who dwell on the earth = is a technical term (means the same thing each time it is used) that occurs nine times in the Revelation and refers to the living earth-dwellers who are hostile to God and His people. The "living earth-dwellers" is defined as those "whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world." The book of life contains the names of those whose name was written from the foundation of the world. This is another way of referring to the elect. Notice Ephesians 1:4, "He (God the Father) chose us (believers) in Him (Jesus Christ) before the foundation of the world." The point here is this: God chose none of the living earth-dwellers. This argues compellingly that none of those written in the book, wonders, worships or receives the mark of the beast.
3. Will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come = states the response of the living earth-dwellers to the restoration of the composite scarlet beast. They wonder or better, they worship (Rev 13:3) the scarlet beast.
(1) Here is the mind which has wisdom. (2) The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; (3) five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and (4) when he comes, he must remain a little while.
1. Here is the mind which has wisdom = signals the need to see beyond the words (i.e., the black and white) concerning the declaration given in Revelation 17:8d. The particular clause that must be looked at beyond the simple sense is "that he was and is not and will come." In what sense can it be said that the scarlet beast "was and is not and will come." This signals that a bodily restoration is an idea that is not ordinary. It requires added comment.
2. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings = is the first attempt by the author to explain how the scarlet beast "was and is not and will come." First, the author explains the meaning of the seven heads. The seven heads are seven mountains. Seven hills as a designation for Rome is substantially verified in ancient literature. That Daniel 2 and 7 depicted Rome as the eschatological antagonist cannot be debated. These two facts have led many to conclude that Rome is the object of John’s vision with seven of her kings. However, this is not the case. Mountains are used here to speak of strength. For the woman to be seated, she needs a place of strength. A person’s head is not normally associated with strength.
During the eschatological end, John depicts the woman sitting on a composite scarlet beast that is composed of seven kings. John indicates that the seven mountains are seven kings. Now, Daniel depicts kings and their kingdoms as interchangeable. To speak of one is to speak of the other. However, it is not clear that John does the same thing here.
It appears strange for John to explain, but not really explain what he means. Seven heads equal seven mountains, which equal seven kings. Taking Scripture at face value, John has defined the seven heads. However, most interpreters want to add another step to John’s equation.
Seven heads = seven mountains = seven kings = seven kingdoms. Their basis for this conclusion is based on Daniel’s interchangeable reference to kings and kingdoms. I think seven kings is seven kings just as John said.
3. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come = explains the seven kings. John indicates that five kings have fallen. "Have fallen" is a figure of speech that refers to a person’s death. Exodus 32:28 states, "So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men…fell that day." Like wise, I Samuel 4:10 states, "So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated…and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers." Equally, 2 Samuel 1:19 and 1 Chronicles 5:10 also speak of men falling (dying). In each case, death occurred by violent means. The phrase one is indicates that one of the seven kings that the eschatological harlot will ride was contemporaneous with John. The other has not yet come is a prophetic prediction by John concerning the seventh and final king. This king’s duration will be short.
(1) The beast which was and is not, (2) is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.
1. The beast which was and is not = continues the angel’s explanation of the restored beast. A critical question at this point concerns the time referent. That is, is John describing the past or the future? Some have taken the phrase which was and is not to refer to the future. However, if this line of reasoning is correct, then one should have expected John to say, "the beast which will be and will not be and will come." John wrote, "the beast which was and is not." This must mean that the beast was not at the time John was writing.
Where was the beast at the time of John’s writing? He must have been in the abyss!
2. Is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven = is very important. This explains the mystery concerning the "was, and is not and will come" composite scarlet-beast. The composite scarlet beast is a king. He eventuates from the seven. John’s point is this: there will be seven beast/kings and one of them will service twice upon the face of the earth.
(1) The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, (2) but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour.
1. The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom = begins the angel’s explanation of the "horns." In the tradition of Daniel 7:7-8. Horns represent kings/kingdoms. Daniel indicated that ten kings would eventuate from the fourth beast kingdom/Rome. During the time of those kings another king would arise and subdue three of the ten. The ten kings rule concurrently. In the Revelation, John saw ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom. The ten kings of Revelation 17 are not the same as the ten kings of Daniel 7.
2. But they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour = makes a distinction between the ten kings. They do not have kingdoms, but they have authority to be kings. These kings will rule with the composite beast for one hour. One hour refers to a specific time appointed by God (Matt 24:36, 44, 50; and 25:13) and is not to be taken as a 60-minute time period.
(1) These have one purpose, and (2) they give their power and authority to the beast.
1. These have one purpose = indicates unity among the ten kings.
2. They give their power and authority to the beast = signals the intent of the kings. All that they represent is given to the beast. They do not have kingdoms, but they must have assets that the beast can utilize for his goal.
(1) These will wage war against the Lamb, and (2) the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and (3) those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.
1. These will wage war against the Lamb = indicates the purpose or mind of the ten kings. They are united in their attitudes toward the Lamb. The attack of the ten kings against the Lamb is not specially detailed, but they must gather with the nations to Armageddon.
2. The Lamb will overcome them = signals defeat for the ten kings and the beast. The title "Lord of lords and King of kings" is applied to the Lamb here and the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:16.
3. Those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful = is an unusual occurrences in the Revelation. Called (klatos) and chosen (eklektos) occur only here in the Revelation. Both words occur together in Matthew 22:14. These are clearly the saints of the ages. It is not explicitly stated what the role of the Lamb’s accomplices is.
And he said to me, (1) "The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.
1. The waters which you saw where the harlot sits = continues the angelic interpretation of the harlot’s judgment. The waters are people, multitudes, nations and tongues. Revelation 17:9 declares that the harlot sits on seven king/kingdoms. Thus, we can say that the harlot is carried by a universal segment of the population of the earth.
(1) And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, (2) these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire.
1. And the ten horns (kings) which you saw, and the beast = have the same agenda.
2. These = will do four things to the harlot:
a. Will hate the harlot = is the first. Revelation 17:7 and 9 indicates that the harlot’s relationship to the beast is mutual. She wants to be with the beast and the beast wants her. Therefore, Revelation 17:16 must be taken in an ingressive sense. That is, the ten horns and the beast "will begin to hate the harlot." Something will happen that will change the relationship between the harlot, the beast, and his confederate nations.
b. Will make here desolate and naked = signals both depopulation and shame.
c. Will eat here flesh = is clearly a figure of speech. As an animal, the beast is able to devour flesh. However, the point is that the beast and the ten horns will destroy the harlot.
d. Will burn here with fire = is the fourth and final acts against the harlot by the ten horns and beast. She will be burned with fire.
(1) For God has (2) put it in their hearts to execute His purpose, and by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, (3) until the words of God will be fulfilled.
1. For God has = signals that an explanation follows concerning why the ten kings will act as they do.
2. Put it in their hearts = comes from the Old Testament. To put in the heart occurs in the OT. Exodus 35:34 states that God put the ability to teach in the heart of Bezalel. Twice in the book of Nehemiah, we are told that God put in the heart of Nehemiah actions to be undertaken (2:12; 7:5). Ezra 7:27 indicates God did a special work in the heart of king Artaxerxes. In each case, God’s perfect will was accomplished as a result of God’s work in men’s hearts. Three infinitive phrases express God’s will worked out through the ten horns and the beast:
a. To execute His purpose (mind) = is a general statement that indicates that God has a purpose in allowing the deeds of the ten kings and the beast. The sovereign plan of God is worked out through the deeds of the kings and the beast. In context, it is the judgment of God that the ten horns and the beast executes for God upon the harlot.
b. By having a common purpose (mind) = indicates that the reason the ten kings are united in purpose is that God put the desire in their hearts. The unity is supernatural in origin. Political harmony is no easy feat to achieve. God’s help is needed.
c. By giving their kingdom to the beast = indicates that the goal of the kings is the defeat of the Lamb. The avenue they think will accomplish their objective is to give their assets to the beast in hope that it will be enough to defeat the Lamb.
3. Until the words of God will be fulfilled = indicates that the destruction of the harlot is a fulfillment of prophecy.
(1) The woman whom you saw is the great city, (2) which reigns over the kings of the earth.
1. The woman whom you saw is the great city = begins the final explanatory item of the bowl-carrying angel. The identity of the woman is given. She is the great city. Most commentaries in their attempt to force Revelation 17 to refer to the ancient city of Rome ignore, diminish, or generalize the textual details to support their conclusion.
Revelation 11:8 clearly identifies "the great city" as Jerusalem. The fact that the great harlot is called a city argues strongly for this conclusion. Revelation 17:5 clearly shows that Babylon is not referring to the literal city of ancient Babylon. Therefore, there is nothing in Revelation 17 that disqualifies Jerusalem as a solution for this text.
2. Which reigns (literally, has a kingdom) over the kings of the earth = is the final defining strait for the woman. The way the woman rules over the kings of the earth is through the Antichrist. This makes her a harlot. She prostitutes herself with Antichrist when she rightly belongs to God.