Babylon the Great

Revelation 17. A prostitute seated on the beast: her identity and destiny.


Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, and he 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 from 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 clothed 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 climaxes with the fall of Babylon the Great. 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 Bibles 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 18:16, Ezek 26:19), 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, Hab 3:15). Purple and scarlet were expensive dyes associated especially with royalty. ‘Uncleanness’ refers to the sexual stains that 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 the first imperial city, its lineage traceable from Babel to the empires of its Assyrian and Babylonian successors through to the empires of Persia, Greece, and Rome. It is the city of man as opposed to the city of God, located in unfruitful wilderness. The mother of the appointed heir of all things also lives in that wilderness (12:6), but for her it is a place of exile, not domicile. As throughout Revelation, ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ contrast with those whose minds are set on the things above (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 was implied in the very word for an unmarried woman: Hebrew almah, Greek parthenos, Latin virgo. It was not the foremost meaning 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 (with the State filling the vacuum), but because to copulate outside marriage is knowingly or unknowingly to spurn God and 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 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 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 God’s power of creation delegated to the creature. ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what was evil in your sight,’ confessed David 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 bloodguilt of the woman recalls Ahab’s adulterous wife who, inspired by those with whom she communed by witchcraft, murdered the prophets and other servants of Yahweh (2 Kgs 9:7-22). ‘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, whereupon her priestess assumed the role. The ritual of marriage was repeated annually, and subsequently imitated by peoples beyond Babylonia. In Canaan, Inana’s equivalent was the goddess Asherah and her role taken by sacred prostitutes. By Manasseh’s reign the cult had penetrated to the very heart of Israel (II Ki 21:7, 23:7).

Being the original prostitute, the woman is the first civilisation as well as the last. Like Inana, she drinks from the golden cup of a religion she has spurned, pouring into it filth that she herself would have regarded as an abomination a hundred years ago. She sits on a beast similar to the beast in chapter 12 in colour and similar to the beast in chapter 13 in respect of its blasphemous names. Christian faith decays as Islam within Europe grows. Islam covers its women and disapproves of homosexuality, but is happy to fornicate with unbelievers, the kuffaar; 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 so long as Farsi-speakers remain loyal; those who share the gospel 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 hijackers involved in the World Trade Center attacks were Saudis. Similarly, Britain’s government refuses to publish its finding that Saudi Arabia was funding and promoting jihadism in Britain. It once played a part in the rise of Wahhabism, and regards 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. Of those, 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.

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 carrying 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 destruction. 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 when they perceive the beast that was and is not and will arrive.
“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. The beast that was and is not, it is also an eighth but belongs to the seven, and goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received kingship, but will receive authority as kings for one hour together with the beast. These are of one purpose, and give their power and authority to the beast. These 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.”

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 beast (whose heads they are). In the first aspect they suggest the seven hills of ancient Rome, consistent with the woman’s representing European civilisation, successor of Rome. (Vatican Hill is not one of the seven.) 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 the kingdoms 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 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, 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’, the 1192 years of Islamic rule between AD 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’, which does mean only a short while, and make war on the ‘saints’ (13:7), even eventually on the Lamb himself. But although the beast will initially prevail, the kingdom of God will be theirs and will supplant every earthly kingdom. The beast does not see that behind the saints’ apparent helplessness is one who, having already conquered, sits far above all rule, authority, power and dominion. 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 (12:3). 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 arrive’ – 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. When he comes again, he will be present for a time, then return to the abyss (19:20). 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 13:12).

And he says to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and throngs, 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 to 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 throngs, nations and languages’ is the last variation of the phrase at 5:9. Having lost their genealogical identities, the tribes of the earth are merely urban ‘throngs’, albeit still divided by language. So the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas has increased over the past two centuries from less than 10% to more than than half; by another definition, to more than three quarters. The great city (11:8, 16:19) unites the earth as if all its cities were one. The kings of the earth over which it has kingship (cf. v. 14) are distinct from Europe, although as a political entity Europe is itself a kingdom (v. 18).

The woman is first pictured seated on the waters, subsequently on the beast, indicating perhaps that she has not always been seated on the beast or been a prostitute. In recent decades we have already seen something of this spiritual and political re-alignment, but it is a bad move, for the beast will be 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 unanimity of purpose – and note that the woman too will submit to the beast’s authority if ‘their’ in 17:17 includes her – is what God also has in mind. Because of her association with the beast, they will cause her to be stripped of her scarlet finery and 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 (Ps 46:8, Isa 24:12, Mic 7:13) in consequence of the devastation brought down by the final bowl of wrath. The fulfilled ‘words of God’ are those quoted from the Old Testament in the next chapter.