Rev. 17:15 – He also said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute was seated, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. 16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished. 18 And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.” (HCSB)
The waters you saw
The angel tells John in verse 15, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute was seated, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages.” This is in contrast to – perhaps even a parody of – Psalm 29, in which the voice of the Lord is “above the waters. The God of glory thunders – the Lord, above vast waters…. The Lord sat enthroned at the flood” (vv. 3, 10). Everything Satan does is a counterfeit, and we see this in full force throughout Revelation. The notorious prostitute who sits on many waters no doubt has a global impact. Her voice reaches around the world and draws many followers. Just as we see men and women “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven (Rev. 5:9b), there are “peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages” responding to the siren song of Babylon the Great.
The imagery in this scene draws from Old Testament passages that compare nations and armies with floodwaters. In Isa. 8:7, for example, we are told that “the Lord will certainly bring against them [Jews of the southern kingdom] the mighty rushing waters of the Euphrates River – the king of Assyria and all his glory. It will overflow its channels and spill over all its banks.”
The idea of the prostitute sitting on, or sitting by, many waters implies that she presides over them. There is influence, even authority on her part, and perceived benefit on the part of the people who pay homage to her. Satan is subtle in this way. He takes truth and twists it so that it appears he offers us more than God, who is holding back things we desire and deserve. He offers the forbidden fruit in exchange for our wills. We agree and ask others to join us. We enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb. 11:25) but discover they are golden chains. In Revelation 17 we see the notorious prostitute presiding over a vast multitude of followers who then turn on her and devour her.
Some people argue that truth is found in numbers. Christianity has the most adherents in the world; therefore, it must be right. Islam is the fastest growing world religion and may one day overtake Christianity as the world’s leading belief system; therefore, it must be right. Mormonism is one of the fastest growing sects / cults of Christianity; if so many people are embracing the teachings of the LDS Church, it must be right. In Revelation 17, multitudes throughout the known world embrace the notorious prostitute, so she must be right. What a danger it is when we place our trust in numbers. Jesus made it clear that truth is found only in Him. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). His is the narrow way that leads to life (Matt. 7:13-14). He calls us to persistent faith but remarks, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find that faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
The woman you saw
Chapter 17 ends with the identification of the woman: “And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth” (v. 18). We have already discussed various views about the identity of the city: Rome, the Roman Catholic Church, Jerusalem, a false religious system, or even the city of Babylon. But let’s close out this part of our study by looking at the biblical depictions of Babylon and how they illustrate a system in opposition to God.
Verse 18 makes clear that the city, whatever it is, exists in John’s day, for it “has an empire” (present tense) over the kings of the earth. Further, the city is likened unto ancient Babylon in numerous ways. It is powerful on a global scale; it pollutes the nations with filth and abomination; and it persecutes those belonging to the Lord. The harlot’s relationship with those who live on the earth is similar to the rapport between Jezebel and the sinners at Thyatira (Rev. 2:20). The wider mystery of Babylon has some connection with her being the source of harlotry and abominations throughout history, including the martyrdom of God’s saints (vv. 5-6).
The prostitute is described in seductive female terms. The kings of the earth commit sexual immorality with her. The earth dwellers become drunk on the wine of her promiscuity. She dresses in purple and scarlet, adorns herself with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She holds a golden cup in her hand. She is alluring, but the impurity in her cup and the name on her forehead show the danger of being seduced. Like a prostitute, she may be desired but is rarely admired.
John is “greatly astonished” at the sight of this woman. What can that mean? “John is on the brink of yielding to temptation, but the temptation is not sexual. John’s astonishment is more dangerous than that, for it is closer to worship. It recalls an earlier account in which ‘the whole world was astonished and followed the beast’” (IVP New Testament Commentaries, found in http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Rev/Vision-Woman-Scarlet-Beast).
In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck provide biblical insight into Babylon as the source of false religion. Here is a sampling:
- The record begins with the building of the tower of Babel (Gen. 10-11). The name “Babel” suggests “confusion” (Gen. 11:9). Later the name is applied to the city of Babylon, which has a long history dating back to as early as 3000 B.C. One of its famous rulers was Hammurabi (1728-1686 B.C.). After a period of decline Babylon again rose to great heights under Nebuchadnezzar about 600 years before Christ. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (605-562 B.C.) and the subsequent history of Babylon is the background of the Book of Daniel.
- Babylon has both political and religious significance. Nimrod, who founded Babylon (Gen. 10:8-12), had a wife known as Semiramis who founded the secret religious rites of the Babylonian mysteries, according to accounts outside the Bible. Semiramis had a son with an alleged miraculous conception who was given the name Tammuz and in effect was a false fulfillment of the promise of the seed of the woman given to Eve (Gen. 3:15).
- Various religious practices are observed in connection with this false Babylonian religion, including recognition of the mother and child as God, as well as an order of virgins who become religious prostitutes. Tammuz, according to tradition, is killed by a wild animal and then restored to life, a satanic anticipation and counterfeit of Christ’s resurrection. Scripture condemns this false religion repeatedly (Jer. 7:18; 44:17-19, 25; Ezek. 8:14). The worship of Baal is related to the worship of Tammuz.
- After the Persians conquer Babylon in 539 B.C., they discourage the continuation of its mystery religions. The Babylonian cultists, in turn, moved to Pergamum (or Pergamos) where one of the seven churches of Asia Minor is located (Rev. 2:12-17). The chief priests of the Babylonian cult wear crowns in the shape of a fish head to honor the fish god. The crowns bear the words “Keeper of the Bridge,” symbolic of the “bridge” between man and Satan. Roman emperors later adopt this moniker, using the Latin title Pontifex Maximus, which means “Major Keeper of the Bridge.” The bishop of Rome later uses this title. The pope today often is called the pontiff, which comes from pontifex. When the teachers of the Babylonian mystery religions later move from Pergamum to Rome, they introduce pagan religious rites into Christianity.
- “Babylon then is the symbol of apostasy and blasphemous substitution of idol-worship for the worship of God in Christ. In this passage Babylon comes to its final judgment” (Walvoord and Zuck, Rev. 17:3-5).
Note Warren Wiersbe’s comments on Babylon: “The city of Babylon was founded by Nimrod (Gen. 10:8–11). The name Bab-el means ‘the gate of God.’ Ironically, the famous tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9) was an idolatrous attempt by man to defy God. When the Lord sent judgment on the builders by making mankind’s one language into many, the word bab-el came to mean ‘confusion.’ Later in history, Babylon became a great empire before finally falling to Media-Persia. But from the beginning of Nimrod’s city in Genesis 10, an insidious anti-God ‘Babylonian influence’ has been felt throughout history. The woman is ‘the great harlot,’ but she is also ‘the mother of harlots.’ The Babylonian system has, in one way or another, given birth to all false religions. She has also seduced men into opposing God and persecuting His servants” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 17:1).
Wiersbe continues: “The ‘Babylonian system’ of false religion has been a part of history since Nimrod founded his empire…. Readers in John’s day would identify ‘the harlot’ with the Roman Empire. Readers in the Middle Ages might identify it as the Roman ecclesiastical system. Today, some believers see ‘the harlot’ and the Babylonian system in an apostate ‘world church’ that minimizes doctrinal truth, rejects the authority of the Word, and tries to unite professed believers on some other basis than faith in Jesus Christ.
“Throughout history, political systems have ‘used’ religious bodies to further their political causes. At the same time, church history reveals that religious groups have used politics to achieve their purposes. The marriage of church and state is not a happy one, and has often spawned children that have created serious problems. When dictators are friendly with religion, it is usually a sign that they want to make use of religion’s influence and then destroy it. The church of Jesus Christ has been most influential in the world when it has maintained a separated position.
“Finally, note that those who trust the Lord are not influenced by ‘the harlot’ or defeated by the kings (Rev. 17:14). Once again, John points out that the true believers are the ‘overcomers.’
Satan’s counterfeit religion is subtle, requiring spiritual discernment to recognize. It was Paul’s great concern that the local churches he founded not be seduced away from their sincere devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:1–4). In every age, there is the tremendous pressure to conform to ‘popular religion’ and to abandon the fundamentals of the faith. In these last days, we all need to heed the admonitions in 1 Timothy 4 and 2 Timothy 3 and remain true to our Lord.”
Charles Swindoll, who holds a futurist view of Revelation, teaches that the great prostitute is works-based, humanistic religion. She is called the mother of harlots because she is “the foundation of all false religions, drawing inspiration from pride, self-sufficiency, and a denial of God’s grace.” He writes, “The fulfillment of this worldwide religion awaits the future tribulation, but that doesn’t mean the same devilish religious deception isn’t alive and well today…. Christians are not immune from being negatively influenced by these devilish deceptions, so let’s keep a couple important truths at the forefront of our minds. First, religious activity feels full and alive but is, in truth, empty and dead…. Second, satanic strategy appears impressive and effective but is, in truth, impotent and deceptive” (Insights on Revelation, pp. 228, 232).
Four major views of the woman and the scarlet beast
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the woman and the beast?
Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – see chapters 17-19 as a detailed account of the fall of Babylon, which has been announced in Rev. 14:8 and described in Rev. 16:19. John is carried into the wilderness to see this vision; while he has been carried into heaven for other parts of the revelation, what he sees here has no affinity with heaven. The scarlet beast is the same that we encountered in chapter 13 and is seen as imperial Rome. The woman, however, is seen either as the city of Rome (with the beast the Roman Empire) or as Jerusalem, which some preterists argue convincingly fits the symbol of the harlot much better than Rome.
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see chapters 17-19 as a lengthy celebration of the future downfall of papal Rome. If the true church is like a chaste bride, then it only makes sense to depict the unfaithful church as a harlot. The desert is a reference to Campagna, a low and desolate plain surrounding Rome. The lavish adornments of the harlot are symbolic of the Catholic Church’s great basilicas. The inscription on her forehead demonstrates that she is not ashamed of her false doctrines, which are contained in her golden cup — abominations such as Mariology, the buying of indulgences, and the worship of relics. Her drunkenness on the blood of the saints stands for the bloody persecutions of non-Catholics throughout the centuries.
Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – differ as to the identity of Babylon. Some believe it is the revived ancient city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. Others see it as the Roman Catholic Church or some world council of churches that has abandoned its love for God and thus persecutes true believers. Others see it as a revived Roman Empire, a largely political, cultural and commercial behemoth that represents the humanist systems opposed to God. Still others find the harlot and her deeds best understood in the context of spiritual adultery. Even so, futurists tend to agree that the harlot represents more than one city and more than one era in history, although it finds its fullest and most wicked expression in the days preceding the return of Christ. At last, after centuries of opposition to God and the abuse of His children, the false political, economic, social and religious systems fall, and it is cause for celebration.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see Babylon as the seductive world system, described in the context of ancient Rome with its idolatry and decadence. This system seeks to seduce and persecute the church but will fall at the coming of Christ or gradually through the advance of the gospel. John’s perspective in the desert, like the journeys John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul take into the wilderness, provides a clear perspective on the world as it really is. As Herschel Hobbs writes, “Unless one sees Rome as symbolic of all powers arrayed against God, he will miss John’s full message” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 403).
Next: Babylon has fallen – Revelation 18:1-2