Revelation 17. A prostitute seated on the beast: her identity and destiny.
The wrath of God has climaxed with the judgement on Babylon the Great (16:19). Now, in another excursus, one of the avenging angels – not the unseen guide of 1:1 – takes John to a personification of the city. ‘Many waters’ is a set phrase from the Old Testament (Heb. mayim rabbim, variably translated in the ESV as ‘many’, ‘great’, ‘mighty’ or ‘abundant waters’), signifying surface or underground rivers (Ezek 17:5), the open sea (Isa 23:3). The ‘many waters’ of the Euphrates that flowed through ancient Babylon (Jer 51:13) 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 deep that covered the earth when it was formless and lifeless (Gen 1:2); ‘great’ in ‘great deep’ (Gen 7:11) is the singular form of rabbim. More figuratively still, the waters signify the nations that surrounded and always threatened to overwhelm Israel (Ps 144:7, Isa 17:12f). Purple and scarlet were expensive dyes associated especially with royalty. ‘Uncleanness’ is accusative, part of the list of things that John saw: sexual stains besmirch her fine clothing.
Seated queen-like above the waters, ‘Babylon the Great’ is not a single city but civilisation as a whole. It is the fruition and culmination of Babel, the first imperial city. It is the city of man as opposed to the city of God, located in unfruitful wilderness. The woman who bore the appointed king of the nations also lives in a wilderness (12:6), but the latter is a place of exile, not domicile. As throughout Revelation, ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ are those who belong to the earth, in contrast to those whose minds are set on the things above, who ‘sojourn in heaven’ (cf. John 3:31, Col 3:2). ‘The saints’ are the Jews.
‘Prostitute’ translates porne. Regardless of whether she receives payment, the woman rejects the restraints of marriage. Prior to the 20th century, virginity in an unmarried woman was taken for granted, being implied in the very word for an unmarried woman – Hebrew almah, Greek parthenos, 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 ceasing to be the norm. Over the decades since the Second World War there has been a social revolution, with catastrophic consequences for society, not only because it has undermined the family and traditional ideas of parenthood, but because to copulate outside marriage is to spurn God (knowingly or unknowingly) and 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 God, 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. Atheism rationalises away the guilt.
They have been seduced by the intoxicating sense of participating in life’s mystery, the thrill of defying God with impunity and liberating oneself from his moral laws. 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. Today State programs of sex education are eroticising the psychological development of children from the age of five.
We begin to see then why the symbol of the prostitute is so apt. Sin is infidelity towards our Maker, causing us to want to hide our nakedness, and fornication is the wilful repetition of that infidelity in the domain of procreation, which is his own power of creation delegated to the creature. ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what was evil in your sight,’ David confessed after his adultery. Advanced though it is in technology and scientific knowledge, western civilisation – portrayed as a woman rather than a beast, because it once knew God – has reduced itself to an obsession with sexual intercourse, and erected around it an entire counter-religion, an entire philosophy of personal identity, rights and self-fulfilment. Self-gratification is valued more highly than bringing up a family. Even motor cars are marketed with images of sexual Eden.
The nature of earth’s ‘abominations’ is not specified, though Leviticus and Deuteronomy mention several. The woman’s bloodguilt recalls the adulterous wife of Ahab who, inspired by those with whom she communed by witchcraft (II Ki 9:22), murdered the prophets and other servants of Yahweh (II Ki 9:7). ‘Mother of prostitutes’ is a reference to the practice of ‘sacred marriage’ that originated in 4th-millennium Babylonia. Inana, purportedly the daughter of Anu God of heaven but actually a woman, stole Anu’s kingship by lying with his high priest, and she then gave it to Nimrod by lying with him. On her death she was deified as queen of heaven, and her priestess took the role. The ritual was repeated annually, and subsequently imitated by peoples beyond Babylonia. In Canaan, Inana’s equivalent was Asherah and her role taken by sacred prostitutes. By Manasseh’s reign the cult had penetrated to the very heart of Israel, Yahweh’s Temple at Jerusalem (II Ki 21:7, 23:7).
Like Inana, Babylon the Great drinks from the golden cup of a religion she has spurned, pouring into it filth that a hundred years ago she herself would have regarded as an abomination. Christian faith decays as Islam, with its much higher premium on sexual purity, grows. Spiritually, she rides on a ‘beast’ – the beast seen in chapter 13. 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 hate those who disturb the peace with the gospel (Matt 24:9). It will seek to silence their witness by killing many of them, and take delight in the slaughter. Their blood will be like wine.
It is Islam – a geopolitical power distinct from the people in its grip – that has destroyed the Church in Syria and Iraq, provoked in part by Western military interventions. Iran is overtly hostile towards the West but reluctantly tolerates a substantial Christian population in its midst; those who share their faith are imprisoned and beaten. Saudi Arabia is covertly hostile. It 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 zealots who brought down the World Trade Center were Saudis; the government of Britain, likewise, refuses to publish its finding that Saudi Arabia was funding and promoting jihadism in Britain. They regard Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally.
Until the 20th century, the majority of Christians lived in Europe and North America. Hence the majority of Christian martyrs also lived in those countries. The greatest number – many millions – were members of the Orthodox Church, killed in the decades following the Russian Revolution. The Jewish Holocaust has already been mentioned.
Wisdom is needed to interpret the vision, just as Daniel needed divine wisdom to interpret Nebuchadrezzar’s dream of a colossus. The heads have a double significance, one relating to the woman (who sits on them) and the other to the dragon (whose heads they are). In the first aspect they suggest the seven hills of Rome, consistent with the woman’s representing European civilisation, successor of ancient Rome. (While the Roman Church does not embody a pure form of Christianity, she is not herself the woman.) In Nebuchadrezzar’s dream (Dan 2), the third kingdom after his own was the Roman Empire, which morphed into a divided kingdom, the final one before Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome-Europe were all smashed by an everlasting kingdom. Rome was eponymous for the empire it founded, controlled and epitomised. Peter apparently referred to Rome as ‘Babylon’ in his first letter.
The other significance of the heads is that they symbolise seven kings. Kings can denote kingdoms as well as individual rulers, and in Daniel’s vision of four beasts the concepts are interchangeable (Dan 7:17, 23). In relation to the kingdoms which dominated the Levant at various times, the heads are Egypt, Neo-Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Hellenistic Greece, Rome and Islam, although during Islam’s ascendancy the Jews were exiled from the land. All are manifestations of the underlying power that is Satan, the dragon with seven heads and ten horns. From the long perspective that sees Christ as having come ‘at the end of the ages’ (Heb 9:26) and coming back soon, the 1192 years of Islamic rule between 637 and 1917 are not incompatible with ‘a little while’ (ESV’s and NIV’s ‘only’ before the phrase is unwarranted). The caliphate yet to come will constitute a short-lived eighth empire of ten states. They will reign for ‘one hour’, the period of the ten plagues of God’s judgement, and make war on the ‘saints’ (Dan 7:21), even eventually on the Lamb himself. But although the beast will initially prevail, the kingdom of God will be theirs and will supplant every kingdom (Dan 7:27). The beast does not see that behind the saints’ apparent helplessness stands one who, having already conquered, is far above all rule, authority, power and dominion (Eph 1:21). At the end of the age he will conquer his enemies by force.
The scarlet beast has the same number of heads and horns as the red dragon of chapter 12. In relation to the dragon, it amounts to an eighth head, an eighth kingdom or empire, and since all the other empires are defunct, the dragon and this last empire are pictured as identical. As an individual, the beast is the man at the head of this union. He ‘was, and is not, and will be present’ (17:8) – a phrase mimicking what was said about God (4:8), for indeed he will claim to be God. His former incarnation was Antiochus IV. He rises from the abyss, the abode of demons (9:2-11, Luke 8:31). When he comes again, he will be present for a time, then return to the abyss (Rev 19:20, 20:10). That is why Paul calls him the ‘man of sin, the son of destruction’. The world marvels at the beast, it seems, because he has come back to life (also 13:3).
what do you mean by dressing in scarlet,
by adorning yourself with ornaments of gold,
by enlarging your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you;
they seek your life.