The Great Harlot
The destruction by the seven bowls of wrath is swift; perhaps too fast to understand what has happened. One of the angels who had held a bowl of wrath offers to show the judgment to John in detail. As we read this chapter, notice the similarities of this description to the prophecy of the fall of Babylon in Jeremiah 51:7-8, 13. What we see is a repetition of history. The original Babylon fell to rise no more; however, another city has risen in the spirit of Babylon of old. Like ancient Babylon it too would fall and for the same reasons.
The Babylon in Revelation is Rome. It sits on seven mountains (Revelation 17:9). It reigns over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:18). She sits on many nations (Revelation 17:15). There are authors who claim that this Babylon is Jerusalem, but these statements do not describe Jerusalem, especially in John’s time. Jerusalem is built on a single mountain – Mount Zion. It is subjugated to Rome, not over other nations.
The Great Harlot
Why a harlot to represent a city? In Revelation we see that Satan had three approaches to destroy the works of God and His people:
- Political brute force, symbolized by the beast from the sea
- False religion, symbolized by the beast from the earth and also known as the false prophet
- The world of lust, symbolized by the harlot.
Rome was a city given over to immorality and she seductively lured other kingdoms to join her (Revelation 17:2). Such is the nature of sin, sin is deceitful (Hebrews 3:13). The lusts of the world can ensnare us (Titus 3:3). Rome was also a vain and wealthy nation (Revelation 17:4). The lure of riches also pulled in nations. But what Rome accomplished was to produce nations that imitated her sins (Revelation 17:5).
Several cities were called harlots in the Old Testament. Ninevah was the harlot of conquests (Nahum 3:1,4). Tyre was the harlot of commerce (Isaiah 23:15-17). Babylon was the harlot of worldly pleasures. Jerusalem was the harlot of religion (Isaiah 1:21). Rome was a city that combined the worse features of all the prior harlots to produce a great harlot.
We see the harlot holding an expensive cup, but the cup is filled with filth (Revelation 11:4). She is drunken on the blood of martyrs (Revelation 17: 6; see also Isaiah 29:9; Habakkuk 2:5). Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus describing the emperor Tiberius saying, “He is not thirsty for neat wine as he was thirsty then, but warm him up a tastier cup – the blood of murdered men.”
She wears a headband that announces who she calls herself: “Mystery.” Ironically we know exactly who she is and what kind of woman she is. Regarding the headband, Edward P. Myers said, “This is a reference to a Roman custom where prostitutes in public betrothals wore upon their foreheads a frontlet giving their names. These were the signs and trademarks of Roman prostitutes. Seneca mentions the custom of a prostitute wearing a headband on which was written her name or some descriptive phrase showing her occupation.”
She sits on many waters (Revelation 17:1). Rome was a major seaport, but in Revelation 17:15 we find that the waters represent the various people she rules over. This was the weakness of Rome: it conquered many nations by force, but it could not mold them into one nation (Daniel 2:42-43). They remained separate nations subjugated by the empire.
The Harlot’s Throne
She is also carried about by a beast (Revelation 17:3, 7). The beast is the sea beast mentioned in Revelation 13:2. It is the government system which supports the harlot. Mike McDaniel said, “This is the great civil persecuting power which rules by military might and by the brute force characteristic of a beast. The fact that the heads of the beast are later expressly identified as seven kings supports this idea.”
The color of the beast is scarlet, giving us an initial impression that it is arrayed in splendor. After all, scarlet is the color of royalty (Matthew 27:28). But it is also the color of sin (Isaiah 1:18).
The seven heads and ten horns are the same as we saw in Revelation 13: they represent the complete power and authority of Rome and it is verified in Revelation 17:13.
The beast is full of blasphemous names (Revelation 17:3). William Barclay said, “Every Emperor was called “divus” or “sebastos,” which means divine. Frequently the very name “God” or “Son of God” was given to the emperors, and Nero on his coins called himself “the Saviour of the World.” For any man to call himself divine was a blasphemous insult to God.” For example, Domitian issued his decrees as “Lord God Domitianus.”
Interestingly, this beast was, is not, about to come out of the abyss, and go to destruction (Revelation 17:8). The description is a corruption of the designation of God, who was, who is, and who is to come. One possibility is that the four phrases refer to the empire’s persecution of Christians:
- It had persecuted Christians under Nero (it was)
- It currently was not actively persecuting Christians (it is not)
- It will soon return to persecuting Christians (it is about to come out of the abyss)
- It will then be destroyed (it will go to destruction)
The beast’s description also refers back to the beast who took a deadly blow but survived.
The seven heads also represent seven mountains (or hills, depending on the translation) (Revelation 17:9). This brings to mind the seven hills of Rome.
The Seven Kings
The seven heads of the beast also represent seven kings: five are dead, one currently reigns, the one yet to come will reign for a short while. The beast itself is an eighth king who is going to destruction, and he is numbered as one of the seven.
There are many guesses as to which rulers of Rome are meant by the seven kings, but none fit the facts well. Rather we should take note that you can’t have an eighth king who is one of the seven, at least not literally. This is a reminder that this is in symbolic language and that would include the number of kings. This is like the seven churches of Asia, though we know there were more than seven in Asia. These seven kings are a representation of all of Rome’s kings. Caird said, “By the same token the seven kings are a symbolic number, representative of the whole series of emperors, and they would remain seven no matter how long the actual list happened to be . . . The one point John wishes to emphasize is that the imperial line has only a short time to run before the emergence of a new monstrous Nero, an eighth who is one of the seven.”
The Ten Kings Without Kingdoms
Rome’s power was in her provinces. The rulers of the provinces, kings in their own right, received authority from Rome for a short while, but they have no real authority, power, or kingdom on their own. Everything they have goes to Rome. This was done by God’s decree (Revelation 17:17; see also Daniel 4:17).
Again, we should not see that there are precisely ten kings, but rather these ten kings represent the whole of the provinces.
Revelation 17:16 tells us that the downfall of Rome will come when the provincial kings rise up in rebellion. Even in the days of Christ and the apostles we see a government that is very concerned with rebellion – squashing any hint of outburst immediately (e.g. Acts 19:40). In Ezekiel 16:35-41, Jerusalem is described as a harlot who is attacked by those she had relations with. In the same way, one of the reasons Rome collapsed was the rebellion of the provincial kings. But also notice that the beast itself hated the harlot (Rome) and attacks her.
Revelation 17:14 is the key verse of Revelation. Is summarizes the entire book. People will attempt to make war against Christ, but Christ will win because he rules over all the nations. Those on Christ’s side are the called (Romans 1:6), the chosen (I Peter 2:9) and the faithful (Ephesians 1:1). Each of these phrases is a reference to Christians.
In the defeat of the harlot, notice the extreme contrast between what she was and what she became. She was robed in purple and scarlet, now she is naked. She was adorned in rich jewelry, but now she is destitute. She drank the blood of saints, but now she is eaten and burned.
Compare and Contrast
Contrast the great harlot with the woman introduced in Revelation 12:1. Revelation 17:18 tells us that the harlot is a great city. The woman in Revelation 12 is also a city, as we will see in Revelation 20:9; 21:2. But the two women are opposites in character, position, and destiny.