Revelation chapter 17. The identity and destiny of the prostitute seated on the beast.
One of the angels with the bowls of wrath focuses our attention on the main target of the judgement already outlined, Babylon the Great personified. ‘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). Chaldaean Babylon stood on the ‘many waters’ of the Euphrates (Jer 51:13), which fed a network of canals. More pregnantly, the phrase connotes death and chaos (Ps 18:17, 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 civilisation, 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 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, 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. As throughout, ‘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).
‘Prostitute’ translates porne, but the point is that she rejects the restraints of marriage, regardless of whether she receives payment for her fornication. Prior to the 20th century, virginity in an unmarried woman was taken for granted, being implied in the very word for an unmarried woman – in Hebrew almah, in Greek parthenos, in Latin virgo. It was not the foremost meaning precisely because it was taken for granted. The equivalent English word, ‘maid’ or ‘maiden’, has dropped out of currency as a result of virginity’s no longer being the norm. Over the past seventy years there has been a social revolution, with catastrophic consequences for society, not only because of its undermining of the family and traditional ideas of parenthood, but because to copulate outside marriage is to listen to the Serpent. That very act makes one his subject. “When you eat of the fruit you will not surely die. Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” Innocence melts away, and now one keeps God at a distance (Gen 3:1-8). This is perhaps the chief reason why today old and young, male and female, are impervious to the gospel, supposing that they ever get to hear it.
They have been seduced by the gold and pearls, the intoxicating sense of participating in life’s mystery when bodies join, the thrill of defying God with impunity and liberating oneself from his moral laws. Today even the oldest generation can hardly remember anything different. It must seem odd to read Baroness Trumpington reminiscing (without any Christian belief), ‘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.
We begin to see then why the symbol of the prostitute is so apt. 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. Christian faith decays while Islam within her grows. Dressed in the finery of royalty, inwardly she is a prostitute, and she rides on the ‘beast’. While Islam covers its women and disapproves of homosexuality, it is happy to fornicate with unbelievers, the kafir; 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. But 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. The hills 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 the religion that once inspired her. (The Roman Church may not embody a pure form of Christianity, but she is not herself the woman.) In Nebuchadrezzar’s dream (Dan 2), the third kingdom to succeed his own was the Roman empire, which morphed – passing from legs to feet – into a divided kingdom, the final one before Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome-Europe were 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 are interchangeable (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 Islam. 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, from 637 to 1917, 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 of ten states 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 will belong to them and embrace all the kingdoms (Dan 7:27). The beast does not see that behind their apparent defencelessness stands a ‘Lord of lords’ who, 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.
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. Saudia Arabia holds it a capital offence for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, tolerates no church buildings on its soil and spreads its Wahhabi brand of jihadism throughout the world. But it supplies oil to the West and buys its arms, so the US government overlooks the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center were Saudis. Meanwhile the government of Britain refuses to publish its own finding that Saudi Arabia funds and promotes jihadism in Britain. They regard Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally. Nor should we forget that in the Second World War Europe slaughtered 6 million Jews. God will require it of her (18:24, 19:2).