Rev. 17:1 –Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (HCSB)
A tale of two cities
Revelation contrasts two women who also are depicted as cities. First, there is the faithful bride of Christ represented as the New Jerusalem. Second, there is the great prostitute, who is denoted as Babylon. John draws from the Old Testament to help us identify these women. In the Old Testament, Israel appears either as a pure bride (Isa. 54:5-6; 62:5; Hosea 2:19-10) or as a prostitute or adulteress (Jer. 3:6-10; Ezek. 16:15-22; 23:1-49; Hosea 4:12-13; 5:3), depending on her relationship with God at the time the prophets spoke.
This imagery is carried forward into the book of Revelation. It’s important to note that sometimes the harlot is not Israel but evil foreign lands such as Nineveh (Nahum 3:4) or Tyre (Isa. 23:17).
In addition to the prostitute imagery, John draws from the ancient city of Babylon, well-known for materialism and immorality. Revelation combines the images of the great city of Babylon with that of a prostitute to describe a center of pagan power. The image appears in Revelation as the “prostitute” (Rev. 17:1, 5, 15, 16; 19:2), the “great city” (Rev. 16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21), and “Babylon” (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).
John’s focus in Revelation 17-18 is on God’s judgment of the prostitute. She has aligned herself with the beast from the sea and demonic spirits. Her own idolatry and immorality have corrupted the nations around her. Her wealth and power accelerate her corrupting influence.