A Study of Revelation 17:1-18 - Part I
Revelation 17:1-19:10 “is a large interpretive review of the sixth and seventh bowls, which have foretold the judgment of Babylon” (Beale, 847). They explain in considerable detail what that judgment entails and how it will be effected. It would appear that what is portrayed in these chapters is again an answer to the prayer of the saints in 6:10 that God judge their persecutors for having shed their blood.
The language used here is clearly drawn from Jer. 51:13 where the prophet spoke of impending doom on historical Babylon (“O you who dwell by many waters, abundant in treasures, your end has come, the measure of your end”).
The judgment comes against a “great harlot” (v. 1) or “whore”, an image designed to emphasize the sensual and seductive appeal by which she seeks to lure people away from Jesus. Four times in this chapter she is portrayed as “sitting” (vv. 1,3,9,15), all of which point to enthronement, sovereignty, and influence over the people and the beast (in 18:7 she says, “I sit as a queen”).
The “waters” on which the harlot sits are explicitly identified in v. 15 as “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” This is in keeping with the OT (Ps. 144:7; Isa. 8:6-7; 17:12-14; 28:17; Jer. 47:2) where “the phrase ‘many waters’ occurs . . . with the suggestion of chaos and disorder that are sometimes in conflict with Yahweh and therefore are occasionally used as an equivalent to the dragon or Rahab (Pss. 18:16; 29:3; 32:6; 77:19)” (Aune, 3:929).
The basis for identifying the harlot with Babylon is the explicit declaration in v. 5, the reference in v. 18, and all of chapter 18. But we must still determine who or what “Babylon” is. Many commentators have identified Babylon with the city of Rome. In one sense, Yes, Rome is one particular, historical and concrete manifestation of Babylon, especially for those living in the days in which Revelation was written. But for reasons that will be given shortly, Babylon is much more than Rome. Alan Johnson provides the most accurate and helpful explanation of Babylon, and I take the liberty of quoting him at length:
“Babylon cannot be confined to any one historical manifestation, past or future. Babylon has multiple equivalents (cf. 11:8). The details of John’s description do not neatly fit any past city, whether literal Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, Rome, or even Jerusalem. Babylon is found wherever there is satanic deception. It is defined more by dominant idolatries than geographic or temporal boundaries. The ancient Babylon is better understood here as the archetypal head of all entrenched worldly resistance to God. Babylon is a transhistorical reality including idolatrous kingdoms as diverse as Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Nineveh, and Rome. Babylon is an eschatological symbol of satanic deception and power; it is a divine mystery that can never be wholly reducible to empirical earthly institutions. It may be said that Babylon represents the total culture of the world apart from God, while the divine system is depicted by the New Jerusalem. Rome is simply one manifestation of the total system” (158).
Thus, Babylon is not any one religious system or historical city or individual leader but, as v. 5 declares,
“is the mother of all these historical prostitutes, the archetypal source of every idolatrous manifestation in time and space. . . . Babylon could equally well be seen in any of these classic manifestations from the past or in modern times – viz., Nazi Germany, Idi Ammin’s Ugandan regime, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, British colonialism, or even aspects of American life” (Johnson, 159).
Johnson proceeds to point out that
“all the harlot-city societies mentioned in Scripture have certain common characteristics that are also reflected in John’s description of the great Babylon, in which he merges the descriptions of ancient Babylon and Jerusalem into one great composite. Royal dignity and splendor combined with prosperity, overabundance, and luxury (Jer. 51:13; Ezek.. 16:13,49; Nah. 2:9; cf. Rev. 18:3,7,16-17); self-trust or boastfulness (Isa. 14:12-14; Jer. 50:31; Ezek. 16:15,50,56; 27:3; 28:5; cf. Rev. 18:7); power and violence, especially against God’s people (Jer. 51:35,49; Ezek. 23:37; Nah. 3:1-3; cf. Rev. 18:10,24); oppression and injustice (Isa. 14:4; Ezek. 16:49; 28:18; cf. Rev. 18:5,20); and idolatry (Jer. 51:47; Ezek. 16:17,36; 23:7,30,49; Nah. 1:14; cf. Rev. 17:4-5; 18:3; 19:2) are all here. Wherever and whenever these characteristics have been manifested historically, there is the appearance of Babylon” (159).
Thus, my conclusion is that Babylon is the symbol of human civilization with all its pomp and circumstance organized in opposition to God. It is the sum total of pagan culture: social, intellectual, commercial, political, and religious. It is the essence of evil, the heartbeat of heathenism, the symbol for collective rebellion against God in any and every form. It is the universal or world system of unbelief, idolatry, and apostasy that opposes and persecutes the people of God.
One reason for the harlot’s judgment is that the kings of the earth “committed immorality” (v. 2) with her, or more literally, they “fornicated” with her (see almost identical language in 18:3,9; 19:2). This is not a reference to literal sexual immorality (although the “harlot” undoubtedly encourages it!) but a figurative portrayal of the acceptance of the religious and idolatrous demands of the ungodly earthly order.
In the OT “fornication” is often used in a figurative sense of Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness and her lapses into idolatry (see Lev. 17:7; 20:5-6; Num. 14:33; 15:39; Deut. 31:16; Judges 2:17; 8:27; 1 Chron. 5:25; 2 Chron. 21:11; Ps. 73:27; see also Hosea 1:2; 2:4; 4:15; 9:1; Jer. 2:20; 3:2,9,13; 5:7,11; 13:27). This “fornication” and “intoxication with the wine of her immorality” (see Rev. 14:8; 18:3; 19:2) may also have an economic dimension, as Rev. 18:3,9-19 makes clear. The “harlot’s” (Babylon’s) enticing promise of earthly prosperity and the security it brings was an intoxicating influence on the nations that won their loyalty.
Many Protestant futurist interpreters (as well as those from the historicist school) have wanted to identify the harlot with the Roman Catholic Church. But it would be better to understand the harlot as a trans-cultural symbol or figurative embodiment of any and all religious individuals and institutions that embrace and encourage others in idolatry. The harlot is any form of religious, moral, and philosophical opposition to the kingdom of Christ, whether late medieval Catholicism, contemporary liberal Protestantism, or New Age heresies.
John’s experience “in the Spirit” reminds one of Ezekiel’s (2:2; 3:12,14,24; 11:1; 43:5). The “desert” is an allusion to Isa. 21:1-2, the latter being a vision of judgment against historical Babylon.
If the presence of “many waters” (v. 1) in the “desert” (v. 3) seems contradictory, remember that this is symbolic geography. We have already seen an overflowing river in the desert (12:15-16), so this should come as no surprise.
The description of the “beast” here is almost verbatim that of 13:1. The beast’s scarlet or red color links it with the dragon (12:3) who is also red, and may point to the bloody nature of the persecution it inflicts on the people of God.
That the woman (i.e., the harlot of v. 1) rides the beast indicates some form of alliance between the apostate religious world system and the tyranny of the state. “The woman must represent that part of the ungodly world that works together with the state, such as the social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects of the world” (Beale, 853).
Several things are said of the woman/harlot that point to her identity and nature:
(1) She is clothed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, all of which is identical with what we read of Babylon in Rev. 18:16. On the one hand this points to her worldly beauty and seductive appeal, but on the other it emphasizes the economic prosperity on the strength of which she lures unbelievers into participation in her fornications. There is an obvious contrast between the harlot and the Bride of the Lamb, the latter portrayed as a city adorned with precious stones, pearls, and gold, and clothed in bright, pure linen (21:2,9-23).
(2) In her hand she holds a gold cup full of “abominations” and the “unclean things of her immorality” (v. 4b), both of which are references to the various forms of idolatry in which she and her paramours are engaged. Her attire (v. 4a) and the contents of her cup (v. 4b) provide an interesting contrast: beauty and gross wickedness (Johnson, 160).
(3) A name is written on her forehead (cf. 7:3; 13:16; 14:1,9; 20:4; 22:4). Some believe the word “Mystery” modifies “Babylon” and is thus part of her name (hence, “Mystery Babylon”). More likely “mystery” stands alone and indicates that the deeper meaning of something previously unknown is now being revealed and interpreted. The specific part of the name that is a mystery is that this harlot is the “mother” of all harlots and the “mother” of the abominations of the earth. That is to say, “she is the fountainhead, the reservoir, the womb that bears all the individual cases of historical resistance to God’s will on earth; she is the unholy antithesis to the woman who weds the Lamb (19:7-8) and to the New Jerusalem (21:2-3). Therefore, she cannot be merely ancient Babylon, Rome, or Jerusalem, because these are only her children – she is the mother of them all” (Johnson, 160).
(4) The woman is guilty of persecuting those who believe in and witness to Jesus (cf. 18:24; 19:2).
This stunning and disturbing image overwhelms John. There is in his response a mixture of fear, perplexity, and perhaps a measure of admiration for her beauty and power. John is both temporarily captivated and awestruck. But more than anything, he is fundamentally repulsed.
The description of the beast (see 13:1ff.) and the book of life (see 13:8) have been dealt with elsewhere (see the exposition of those texts). Here we take note of the beast as one who “was and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss” (v. 8). This is clearly a parody of God who on several occasions has been described as the one “who was and who is and who is to come” (4:8; cf. 1:4,8).
(1) Note first of all that the negative middle term “is not” and the third term “coming up” are probably a parody of Christ’s death and resurrection. That the beast “is not” points to the continuing effects of his having been decisively defeated at the cross of Christ. That the beast yet “lives” to persecute the people of God is why the earth-dwellers wonder and follow after him/it. Also observe that “whereas Christ’s resurrection results in his being ‘alive forever’ (1:18), the beast’s resurrection results in his ‘destruction’” (Beale, 865).
(2) On the other hand, Bauckham contends that the reference to the beast’s “coming up” is a parody not of the resurrection of Christ but of his parousia (second coming). We noted earlier that God’s “coming” refers to his coming at the end of the age in the person of Christ to judge the world and consummate the kingdom. The description of the beast’s “coming up” thus is a parody of the eschatological return of Christ. The beast comes up from the “abyss” while Jesus comes down from “heaven” (19:11).
(3) One should also note a striking contrast between chapters 13 and 17. In chp. 13 the success of the beast is portrayed. Though struck down by divine judgment, he miraculously recovers, wages war on the saints, and conquers them (13:7). “Of course,” as Bauckham notes, “it is only from the perspective of the beast and his worshippers that this is victory. Elsewhere, John refers to the same occurrence – the saints’ faithful witness to death at the hands of the beast – as their victory over him (15:2)” (437). In chp. 17, on the other hand, the inevitable demise of the beast is portrayed. “Unlike his resurrection, his eschatological coming fails to vindicate his divinity. He comes only to go to destruction” (Bauckham, 437).
To be continued . . .