Babylon the Great

Revelation 17. The identity and destiny of the prostitute seated on the beast.


Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on the many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have fornicated, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in spirit to a wilderness, and I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and that had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and gilded with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.

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.

And I marvelled greatly when I saw her. And the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carries her, with its seven heads and ten horns. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to rise out of the abyss and go to destruc- tion. And the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel, seeing the beast that was and is not and will appear.
Herein the mind that has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain a little while. And the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet been given kingship, but they will receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they give their power and authority to the beast. They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

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).

And he says to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes, nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and eat her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving their kingship to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
We have already discussed the significance of the waters. ‘Peoples and multitudes, nations and languages’ corroborates the multi-national nature of Babylon the Great and its domination of the world. The woman is first seen enthroned on the waters, subsequently on the beast; the images are distinct and historically successive – she has not always been seated on the beast. But the re-alignment is a bad move, for the beast is no friend. She is condemned to repeat Israel’s delusion when the latter was similarly unfaithful (Jer 4:30, Ezek 16:15-40):
And you, O desolate one,
    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.
The association causes her to lose her finery and be consumed, to be eaten and burned like a sacrifice to demons. How this comes about is not stated, but it seems clear that the beast’s guilt in shedding the innocent blood of Jews and Christians is also her guilt. Western foreign policy and military interventions have already played a major role in destroying the Church in Syria and Iraq. In the second world war Europe slaughtered 6 million Jews. God will require it of her (18:24, 19:2).