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 approached and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, 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 had seven heads and ten horns. And 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 I saw the uncleanness of her fornication, and on her forehead a name written, a mystery, “Babylon the Great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And the woman was drunk from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.

The wrath of God has climaxed with the judgement on Babylon the Great (16:19). Now, in another excursus, one of the avenging angels 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 (Jer 51:13) that flowed through Chaldaean Babylon 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 especially associated 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 abyssal waters, ‘Babylon the Great’ is not a single city but civilisation as a whole. It is called Babylon the Great because 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 the unfruitful wilderness that encircles the land of Israel. The woman who bore the appointed king of the nations also lives in the wilderness (12:6), but it 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’ (12:12, 13:6-8, Col 3:2). ‘The saints’ are the Jews.

‘Prostitute’ translates porne. The point is that she rejects the restraints of marriage, regardless of whether she receives payment. Prior to the 20th century, virginity in an unmarried woman was taken for granted, being implied in the very word for an unmarried woman – almah in Hebrew, parthenos in Greek, virgo in Latin. 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 (whether 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, explicitly in the sexual domain. ‘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 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), put to death 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, known as the Inana cult. 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 passed it to Nimrod by lying with him. On her death she was deified as queen of heaven, and her priestess took her role. The ritual was repeated annually and imitated or adapted by other peoples. In Canaan Inana’s equivalent was Asherah, her role taken by sacred prostitutes. By Manasseh’s reign the cult had penetrated to the very heart of 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 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 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 will take delight in the slaughter. Their blood will be like wine.

It is Islam – a power distinct from the unhappy 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, and the government of Britain refuses to publish its own 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 Orthodox and Russian Orthodox killed in the decades following the Russian Revolution. The Jewish Holocaust has already been mentioned.

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 from 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 be present.
“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. 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 purpose, 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 scarlet beast – a composite of several animals – has the same number of heads and horns as the red dragon of chapter 12. Its symbolism was interpreted in the commentary on chapter 13: it is an eighth kingdom or empire, an alliance controlling the territories of the ancient Chaldaean, Medo-Persian and Seleucid empires. As an individual, it is also 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 (II Thes 2:4). He rises from the abyss, the abode of demons (9:2-11, Luke 8:31). His former incarnation was Antiochus IV. When he comes again, he will be active for a time, then return to the place of destruction (Rev 9:11, 19:20). Paul accordingly calls him the ‘man of sin, the son of destruction’ (II Thes 2:3), the latter-day counterpart of Judas (John 17:12). The world marvels, it seems, because he has come back to life.

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 and unfaithful to the religion that once inspired her. (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, and Peter apparently referred to Rome as ‘Babylon’ in his first letter.

The other significance of the seven 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 Israel at various times, the heads are Egypt, Neo-Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Hellenistic Greece, Rome-Europe and Islam, although during Islam’s ascendancy the people were exiled from the land. All are manifestations of one underlying power, the dragon with seven heads and ten horns, who is Satan. From the long perspective that sees Christ as having come ‘at the end of the ages’ (Heb 9:26) and as 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 that will make war on the ‘saints’ (Dan 7:21) and on the Lamb. But although the beast will prevail, the kingdom of God will eventually be theirs, and take over all the kingdoms (Dan 7:27). The beast does not see that behind their apparent helplessness stands a Lord of lords and King of kings 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.

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, and will cause her to be laid waste and naked, and will eat her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose, and be of one purpose, and to give their kingship to the beast until the words of God are fulfilled. And the woman that you saw is the great city that has kingship over the kings of the earth
‘Peoples and multitudes, nations and languages’ confirms the multinational nature of Babylon the Great and her domination of the world. She is first pictured enthroned on the waters, subsequently on the beast, indicating perhaps that she has not always been seated on the beast. In recent decades we have already seen the beginning of such a spiritual and political re-alignment, but it is a bad move, for the beast is no friend. She is condemned to repeat Israel’s delusion (Jer 4:30, Ezek 16:15-40):
And you, in your devastation,
     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.
Despite her professions of love, the ten kings and the beast hate the woman, and are of one mind. Ironically, their purpose is also what God has in mind. They cause her to be stripped of her scarlet finery and to be eaten and burned like a sacrifice to the underworld. ‘Laid waste’ (eremωmenos) has the same root as the words ‘wilderness’ (eremos) and desolation (eremωsis): what was metaphorically characterised as wasteland becomes literally wasteland (18:17, Ps 46:8, Isa 24:12, Mic 7:13) in consequence of the devastation brought down by the final bowl of wrath.