Revelation 17. The identity and destiny of the prostitute seated on the beast.
That the angel is one of those who had the bowls of wrath shows that he is going to focus on one aspect of the judgement. ‘Many waters’ is a set phrase from the Old Testament (Heb. mayim rabbim, variably translated ‘many’ or ‘great’ or ‘mighty’ or ‘abundant waters’), signifying surface or underground rivers (Ezek 17:5), the open sea (Isa 23:3); Babylon itself stood on the ‘many waters’ (Jer 51:13) of the Euphrates, which fed a network of canals. More pregnantly, the phrase connotes death and chaos (Ps 18:16, 77:19, Ezek 26:19, Hab 3:15), with reference to the waters that covered the earth when it was formless and lifeless (Gen 1:2); ‘great’ in ‘great deep’ (Gen 7:11) is simply the singular form of rabbim. More figuratively still, the waters signify Israel’s enemies (Ps 144:7) and the nations generally (Isa 17:12f). Seated queen-like above them, ‘Babylon the Great’ is not a single city but the civilisation of the world, particularly in its religious character. It is called Babylon the Great because it is the fruition and culmination of the first imperial city, Babel, built on the same site as Babylon but abandoned when God frustrated the plans of its builders (Gen 11:1-9). It is the city of man as opposed to the city of God, and lies above the abyssal waters in the ‘wilderness’ or desert, figuratively the place of unfruitfulness beyond the promised land. The woman who bore the child that would rule the nations with a rod of iron also lives in the wilderness (12:6), but it is a place of exile, not domicile. ‘The inhabitants of the earth’ are those who belong to the earth, distinct from those who spiritually ‘sojourn [tabernacle or camp] in heaven’ (12:12, 13:6-8).
To copulate outside marriage is to listen to the Serpent and become subject to him. “When you eat of the fruit you will not surely die. Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Innocence is taken away, following which one keeps God at a distance (Gen 3:1-8). The leaders of humanity might have chosen to be chaste, and not been embarrassed to acknowledge God. But they were seduced by the gold and pearls, by the intoxicating sense of participating in life’s mystery when bodies join, by the frisson of defying God with impunity and liberating oneself from his moral laws. The youngest and middle generations, who scarcely give God a passing thought, have no memory of anything different. It must seem odd to read Baroness Trumpington reminiscing, ‘We really were awfully pure. None of us went to bed with anybody. You didn’t do it. The boys tried, of course, but no, we weren’t brought up that way.’ That was in 1943.
So in addition to the world wars and the famines, this is another sign that we live near the end of the age. Advanced though it is in technology and scientific knowledge, Western civilisation – historically, the product of the Church’s transformation of Roman civilisation – has reduced itself to an obsession with sexual intercourse and sexual infidelity. It has erected on sexual freedom an entire counter-religion, an entire philosophy of personal identity, rights and self-fulfilment. Even motor cars are marketed with images of sexual Eden. Like Belshazzar, the woman drinks from the golden cup of a religion she has spurned, and filled it with filth that a hundred years ago she herself would have regarded as an abomination. Dressed in the finery of royalty, inwardly she is a prostitute, and – a point yet to be fulfilled – she rides on the ‘beast’. Increasing Islamisation is an indication of what is to come. Islam covers its women and disapproves of homosexuality, but is happy to fornicate with the kafir; spiritually, the prostitute is happy to fornicate with Islam. In the final days the West will be complicit in the slaughter of both Jews and Christians and will take delight in it. Their blood will be like wine.
The beast has already been interpreted (ch. 13). As a geopolitical power, it is a caliphate controlling the territories of the ancient Chaldaean, Medo-Persian and Seleucid empires. As an individual, it is the caliph at the head of this union. He ‘was, and is not, and is to rise from the abyss’ – a phrase mimicking what is said about God (1:18, 4:8, Acts 17:3), for he will claim to be God (II Thes 2:4). The phrase also harks back to the earlier vision of him (13:1) rising from the sea, with which the abyss is closely associated. His former incarnation was Antiochus IV. In John’s time he has no embodiment. When he comes again, he will meet with destruction (KJV: perdition). Paul calls him the ‘man of sin, the son of destruction’ (II Thes 2:3), just as Jesus called Judas ‘the son of destruction’ (John 17:12). Contrary to the ESV, the angel does not say why the world marvels at the beast. Paul tells us that it marvels because of false signs and wonders (II Thes 2:10) – false because they deceive, not because they are purely natural.
Wisdom is needed to interpret the whole vision, not just the seven hills or mountains, just as Daniel needed divine wisdom to interpret Nebuchadrezzar’s dream of a colossus. These have a double significance, one relating to the woman (who sits on them) and the other to the beast (whose heads they are). In the first aspect they suggest the seven hills of Rome, consistent with the idea that the woman represents European civilisation, successor of ancient Rome and unfaithful to her spiritual roots in the Roman Church. In Nebuchadrezzar’s dream (Dan 2), the third kingdom to succeed his own is the Roman empire, which morphs – passing from legs to feet – into a divided kingdom, the final one before Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome-Europe are all smashed by an everlasting kingdom.
The other significance of the seven heads is that they symbolise seven kings. Kings can denote kingdoms or empires as well as individual rulers, and in Daniel’s vision of four beasts the two concepts are explicitly interchanged (Dan 7:17, 23). In relation to the empires which subjugated Israel these are Egypt, Neo-Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome-Europe and the Islamic empire. They are all manifestations of one underlying power, the dragon with seven heads and ten horns, namely Satan (Rev 12:3). From the long time-perspective which sees Christ as having come ‘at the end of the ages’ (Heb 9:26) and as coming back ‘soon’ (Rev 22:6f), the 1280 years of Islamic rule are not incompatible with ‘a little while’ (ESV’s and NIV’s ‘only’ before the phrase is a distorting addition). The caliphate yet to come will constitute a short-lived eighth empire that once again subjugates Israel. It will make war on the Lamb, that is, the ‘saints’ (Dan 7:21). But although the beast will prevail, in the end the kingdom of God, embracing all the kingdoms, will be theirs (Dan 7:27). The beast does not see that behind their apparent defencelessness stands a ‘Lord of lords’ who, by virtue of having already conquered, is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph 1:21).
what do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you;
they seek your life.