Revelation 17:4-6 – Babylon the great, the mother of harlots

REVELATION 17:4

The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet,
and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls,
having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations
and of the unclean things of her immorality,

In verse three, John saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast. That verse gave some details of the beast. Revelation 17:4-6 continues the vision but describes the woman.

The woman was clothed – In Revelation, clothes symbolize the character of the person. For example:

God’s people have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). 

The bride is clothed “in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:8).

… in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls – In the ancient world, scarlet clothing was difficult to manufacture and very expensive. It was only be worn by the rich. In the Scriptures, purple and scarlet are symbols of status, wealth and royalty (e.g., Judg 8:26; Matt 27:28-29).

The “gold, precious stones and pearls” also indicate her worldly wealth. The Son of Man had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matt 8:20), but Babylon, in the view of sinful man, seems beautiful. 

… having in her hand a gold cup – In Revelation, a cup and wine symbolize that harm will be done to somebody. For example:

God will give Babylon “the CUP of the wine of His fierce wrath” (Rev 16:19; cf. 14:10).

God’s people will “pay her back … In the CUP which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her” (Rev 18:6).

.. full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality – This refers back to verse 2 “The wine of her immorality” is interpreted as her blasphemous doctrines.

The word translated as “abominations” is translated as “detestable” in the following statement which accurately describes the harlot:

That which is highly esteemed among men is
detestable in the sight of God
” (Luke 16:15).

REVELATION 17:5

and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery,
“BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”

and on her forehead a name was written – The mark of the beast and the seal of God are also names on foreheads. The 144000 have God’s name on their foreheads (Rev 7:3; 14:1; cf. 22:4) while the beast’s followers have his name on their foreheads (Rev 13:16-17). Names on foreheads, therefore, represent character. Babylon claims to sit as queen (Rev 18:7) but the name on her forehead reveals her true character.

… a mystery – Some English translations print the word ‘mystery’ in capital letters, implying that it is part of the woman’s name. But in the NASB, quoted above, the word “mystery” is not part of Babylon’s name. That means that her actual identity is a great “mystery.” In other words, her name is symbolic and requires interpretation. This is also what the term “mystery” means elsewhere in Revelation (Rev 1:20 and 17:7).

… “BABYLON THE GREAT – This woman is the enemy of God’s people; she is “drunk with the blood of the saints” (Rev 17:6). Babylon, therefore, is a fitting name for her because ancient Babylon was the powerful enemy of the people of God in the Old Testament (Isa 13:19; 14:3-6; Jer 50:15, 29, 31-32, 38; 51:5, 13; Dan 4:29-30).

… THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” A separate section below gives ten reasons for identifying Babylon as false Christianity. For example, Revelation symbolizes both the people of God and Babylon as both a woman and as a city, implying that both claim to be God’s people. However, in the Bible, harlotry is a symbol for unfaithfulness to God, indicating that the harlot symbolizes God’s unfaithful people.

REVELATION 17:6

And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints,
and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.
When I saw her, I wondered greatly.

… And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. – Blood is a symbol for death. For example, the innumerable multitude wash their clothes in the Lamb’s blood (7:14), symbolizing Christ’s death.

Babylon is drunk with the blood of God’s people: “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints” (Rev 18:24). In the plagues, which are God’s revenge for the deaths of His people (Rev 19:2), God gives people blood to drink because they have “poured out the blood of saints” (Rev 16:6). Therefore, becoming drunk from drinking the blood of the saints means that Babylon has persecuted and killed them (cf. Ezek 39:18-19). 

Babylon does not kill God’s people directly; she kills them through the beast. She sits on the beast (Rev 17:3), and the beast overcomes the saints (Rev 13:7) and the beast’s image kills those who refuse to worship (obey) the beast (Rev 13:15). False religion controls the political rulers to force people to accept her doctrines and decrees. In the process, over the centuries, Judaism and the church have caused the deaths of millions of God’s people. Israel even killed the Son of the God.

The martyrdom of God’s people is a main theme in Revelation. Antipas was a faithful martyr (Rev 2:13). John saw “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev 6:9). The people who “came to life” when Christ returns (Rev 20:4) were all martyred. In Revelation’s apocalyptic language, “those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 17:1) are all murderers and all of God’s people are murdered.

The current verse describes God’s people with two phrases (“the saints, and … the witnesses of Jesus” – Rev 17:6) because the number 2 is associated with God’s people. (See the discussion of the number 2 in a separate section below.) 

When I saw her, I wondered greatlyJohn “was completely amazed” (GNB). John’s amazement does not necessarily mean that he understood the prophecy. His amazement is part of the vision. It tells us that we should be amazed. It tells us something about the harlot.

It is hard to understand this amazement if the harlot riding the beast only represented the persecuting Roman Emperors, as some suggest, or the hostile leaders in Jerusalem. Nor would a literal Babylon justify this amazement. However, if the apostolic church of Christ, which has grown into the powerful, dignified, educated and civilized church, is really the intolerant and bloodthirsty enemy of God’s people, that would be truly dumbfounding.

The purpose of the book of Revelation is to reveal that which only God is really able to see (Rev 1:1). It reveals the true nature of the church. It shows that Satan uses the church to destroy God’s true followers. The church “has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit” (Rev 18:2).

THE NUMBER TWO

In Revelation, the number 4 symbolizes the entire world. For that reason, Revelation describes the people of the world using four words where one would have been sufficient, for example, “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev 17:15; cf. 10:11; 14:6). 

Similarly, the current verse describes God’s people with two phrases (“the saints, and … the witnesses of Jesus” – Rev 17:6) because the number 2 is associated with God’s people. Consequently, Revelation uses two concepts to describe them and their things. For example:

      • The word of God and …
        the testimony of Jesus Christ
        ” (Rev 1:2);
      • Fellow servants and … brethren” (Rev 6:11);
      • Prophets and … saints” (Rev 18:14; cf. 11:18; 16:6);
      • Commandments of God and …
        the testimony of Jesus
        ” (Rev 12:17; cf. 14:12);
      • The prophets and …
        those who heed the words of this book
        ” (Rev 22:9);
      • Their witness to Jesus and …
        the word of God
        ” (Rev 20:4).

Similarly, God has two witnesses (Rev 11:3). They are “the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” (Rev 11:4).

Therefore, when it says that the beast from the earth “had two horns like a lamb” (Rev 13:11), both the number two and the word “lamb” are indications that this beast appears Christ-like.

BABYLON SYMBOLIZES FALSE CHRISTIANITY

For the following reasons, Babylon is a symbol for false Christianity:

(1) Both God’s people and Babylon are both a woman and as a city.

While Revelation describes God’s people as the bride of Christ and as the New Jerusalem (Rev 12:1; 19:7-8; 21:9-11), it explains Babylon as “the woman” and “the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18). This implies that they are similar and that both claim to be God’s people.

(2) Harlotry symbolizes unfaithfulness to God.

In the Old Testament, harlotry is a symbol for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, implying that Babylon symbolizes God’s unfaithful people. For example:

Ezekiel 16 represents Jerusalem as a woman chosen and favored by God (Ezek 16:6-14), who abandoned her faithfulness to God and descended into adultery and prostitution (Ezek 16:15-19).

Isaiah wrote, “See how the faithful city has become a harlot” (Isa 1:21-23). For other examples, see Ezek 16:33-34; 23:37; Jer 2:20-22; 3:1-8; and Hosea 2:1-5; 4:7-15).

Jerusalem, representing Israel, had a harlot’s forehead because she “refused to be ashamed” (Jer 3:3). In contrast, in Revelation, Jerusalem is always pure and Babylon is the one with the harlot’s forehead.

(3) Babylon is dressed as a high priest.

In Revelation, Babylon is dressed in the clothes of the high priest of ancient Israel. For example, the Ephod contained purple, scarlet, and gold (Exo 28:5-6), and both the ephod and breastplate contained precious stones (Exo 28:9-13 and 17-21). And Babylon’s forehead inscription resembles the title HOLY TO THE LORD on the High Priest’s miter (Exo 28:36-38).

But there is a difference. The colors of the robes of Old Testament high priests were made “of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet material” (Exo 28:6). The blue was to remind the people of the Commandments of the Lord (Num 15:38-39). The harlot’s adornment lacks the color blue, which implies that she symbolizes the high priest but she no longer complies with God’s commandments.

(4) Babylon suffers the penalty reserved for the daughter of a priest.

Babylon will suffer the penalty reserved for the daughter of a priest who is guilty of fornification, namely, to be burned with fire. She will be burned with fire (Rev 17:16). In the law of Moses, the penalty for fornication was stoning (Deut 22:20-27). But there was one exception to this rule. If the woman involved was the daughter of a priest, she was not to be stoned, but “she shall be burned with fire” (Lev 21:9). Babylon is treated as the daughter of a priest would be treated in similar circumstances.

(5) The beast is a symbol for the church.

As concluded in the previous article, Babylon is the power behind the beast of Revelation 13 and a previous article concluded that:

The beast is the 11th horn of Daniel 7 which blasphemes God, persecutes His people and will “intend to make alterations in times and in law” (Dan 7:25). This identifies it as false religion.

The beast is the church of the Middle Ages.

(6) The false prophet has two horns like a lamb.

God has “two witnesses” (Rev 11:3). Revelation 11:7-11 describes their defeats and victories at the end of the world’s history (cf. Rev 11:15). The opposite of the two witnesses is “the false prophet” (Rev 16:13; 19:20). This false prophet is symbolized as a “beast coming up out of the earth.” (To see this, compare Rev 13:12 and 19:20). This beast convinces the world to create an image of the beast (Rev 13:14) and has two horns like a lamb (Rev 13:11). The number two, in Revelation, symbolizes God’s people and the lamb is a symbol for Christ (e.g., Rev 14:10).

(7) Babylon kills God’s people.

Babylon is guilty of the deaths of all of God’s martyrs (Rev 18:24) and only the church is able to selectively identify and persecute God’s true people.

The church is able to identify God’s true people because they oppose the church’s blasphemous practices and doctrines. In history, God’s true people were never selectively persecuted by people outside the church.

(8) God’s enemy is inside the church.

In the seven letters (Rev 2-3), the powers that oppose God’s true people are inside the Church. 

(9) The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet deceive people by means of signs and wonders (Rev 13:13; 16:13. This is what the end-time false prophets will do (Matt 24:24; 2 Thess 2:9).

(10) The main word in Revelation 13 and 14 is “worship” (13:4, 8, 12, 15; 14:7, 9, 11). This final conflict may, therefore, be described as a war over worship, and therefore, a religious war.

BABYLON ALWAYS EXISTED.

That Babylon has a Christian face is one of the most startling messages of Revelation. However, there are a number of indications that Babylon always existed:

She is guilty of the deaths of ALL OF GOD’S PEOPLE who have been killed for their faith: “In her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (Rev 18:24).

Since she is the “mother of harlots” (Rev 17:5), she is the source of spiritual harlotry.

She sits on all seven heads (Rev 17:9) and the heads include the ancient empires of Babylon, Mede-Persia, Greece and Rome.

The vision of Babylon sitting on the beast, therefore, is a timeless description of how religion has always dominated the civil authorities so that she could force people to accept her doctrines. But in the Christian era, the church took over the role of Babylon because only the church is able to identify and selectively persecute the true people of God. Political authorities are not able to do that. The true people of God are identified by their persistent testimony against the blasphemous doctrines and decrees of the church (Rev 17:6; 12:11):

The beast from the sea, symbolizing the church of the Middle Ages, is one instance of Babylon with a Christian face.

The beast from the earth looks like Christ (Rev 13:15, 11) and symbolizes the end-time church, but speaks like Satan (Rev 13:11; 12:9), and, therefore, is described as the false prophet (Rev 19:20) is another such instance.

TOWER OF BABEL

The apostasy from the true faith goes back to the Tower of Babel where the descendants of Noah were scattered and given different languages (Gen 11:1-9). Just as ancient Babel (the Hebrew name for Babylon) was the place of great opposition to God after the Flood, Babylon is the mother of harlots and the source of everything that opposes God from the time of the tower of Babel to the end of history. Present-day false religions, including false Christianity, are her children (Rev 17:5), for example:

There were two women,
The daughters of one mother.
They committed harlotry in Egypt, …
As for their names, Samaria … and Jerusalem
” (Ezek 23:2-4).

BABYLON IS BOTH AN OPPRESSOR AND A HARLOT.

In the Old Testament, Babylon represents oppression. The Old Testament does not refer to Babylon as a prostitute. But Revelation 17 describes the enemy of God’s people both as a harlot, symbolizing apostasy from the true faith, and as Babylon, symbolizing oppression. 

TRANSVERSAL PRINCIPLES

Babylon symbolizes the enemy of God’s people.

Babylon is a symbol of the Christian church.

The vision of Babylon sitting on the beast symbolizes how false religion has always dominated the civil authorities so that she could force people to accept her doctrines. But in the Christian era, the church took over the role of Babylon.

In Revelation, the number 2 is associated with God’s people.

 

Revelation 17:1-3 – The harlot sitting on the scarlet beast

Revelation 17:1

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls
came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here,
I will show you the judgment of the great harlot
who sits on many waters

Then – The previous chapter described the seven last plagues. In the seventh plague, at the end of Revelation 16, God judges Babylon (Rev 16:19). Now the angel comes to explain “the judgment of the great harlot.”

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls – Seven angels received “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God” (Rev 15:7) and poured them out in Revelation 16. Since it is one of the plague angels who brings this explanation to John, he will explain these seven last plagues; specifically, the seventh.

Came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here – The angel wants to take John somewhere else. It is proposed below that the angel took John to A DIFFERENT TIME IN HISTORY.

In Revelation 21:9-10, it is also one of the plague angels who invite John to come and see “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” Then the angel took John to see “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” In other words, in that case, the angel took John to the time of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1).

I will show you the judgment of – The judgment of the great harlot” refers to the seventh plague, where God gave Babylon “the cup filled with the wine of the fury of His wrath” (Rev 16:19). Revelation 17 and 18 interrupt the sequence of events to explain that judgment; who Babylon is, why she is judged, and how she will come to her end. The sequence of events, after the destruction of Babylon in the seventh plague, continues in Revelation 19 with the shouts of joy over her judgment (Rev 19:1-2).

The great harlot – The name of the great harlot is Babylon (Rev 17:5). Both God’s people and Babylon are symbolised as women and as cities and it is one of the plague angels who shows both these women to John (Rev 21:9-10; 17:18). However, while God’s people are presented as faithful; clothed with “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:8), Babylon is described as a harlot. Since God’s people are described as “the wife of the Lamb,” these similarities and differences imply that Babylon falsely pretends to be God’s people. In other words, the great harlot Babylon symbolizes false Christianity. See the article, Mother of Harlots, for an elaboration of this principle.

Since it is two of the plague angels that explain these two women, it implies that the seven last plagues will make a clear distinction between the true people of God and the people that falsely claim to be His people.

Who sits on – This symbolizes her corrupting influence on the people of the world (Rev 17:2; 19:2).

Many waters – The phrase “many waters” comes from the Old Testament, where the ancient city Babylon was called “you who dwell by many waters” (Jer 51:13). In the Old Testament, the “many waters” referred to the Euphrates River that ran through the city and supported life in it (Jer 50:35-38). In Revelation, since the name of the harlot, who sits on “many waters,” is Babylon (Rev 17:5), the “many waters” in Revelation also refer to the Euphrates River but it has now become a symbol for the “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” of the world (Rev 17:15).

This illustrates an important principle, namely that Revelation changes the meaning of the literal things it borrows from the Old Testament. The “many waters” has now become a symbol of the people of the world and “sitting on” has become a symbol for her corrupting influence. As another example, ancient Babylon was “a golden cup in the hand of the LORD, intoxicating all the earth” (Jer 51:7-8). Revelation puts the gold cup in Babylon’s hands (Rev 14:8; 18:6). And while intoxication in Jeremiah had to do with physical travail, in Revelation it becomes a symbol for spiritual corruption (Rev 19:2; 17:2). This means that we should not interpret Revelation literally.

Revelation 17:2

with whom the kings of the earth
committed acts of immorality,
and those who dwell on the earth
were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.

With whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality – Literally, this means sexual immorality. But the OT also uses this concept figuratively for idolatry (Hos 9:1; Jer 3:6; Ezek 23:19; 1 Chron 5:25). In our current verse, it refers to a union of false religion and the world rulers. False religion uses the political rulers to force people to accept her doctrines and decrees. Political rulers, on the other hand, use religion to control their subjects.

This relationship is called immoral because true religion does not allow itself to be used for political gain and does not use the power of political rulers to enforce her doctrines.

And those who dwell on the earth – Revelation uses this term nine times (Rev 13:3-4, 7-8, 12, 14); always for to the people who are hostile to God and His people. In contrast, God’s people are referred to as “the saints” and “the witnesses of Jesus” (Rev 17:6).

Were made drunk – They are not literally drunk. It means that they don’t think clearly. This is what false religion does to people. The power of spiritual Babylon lies in deception: “All the nations were deceived by your sorcery” (Rev 18:23).

With the wine of her immorality – This refers to the teachings and doctrines of false religion.

Revelation 17:3

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness;
and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast,
full of blasphemous names,
having seven heads and ten horns.

And he carried me away“He” refers to the angel of verse 1.

In the Spirit – John was not carried away physically but in vision, just as Ezekiel was carried in vision to Jerusalem (e.g., Ezek 3:12-14). In a vision, God interacts directly with the mind; bypassing the normal senses.

WildernessInto a wilderness – This is not in a literal wilderness, for Babylon also sits on “many waters” (Rev 17:1). A wilderness is a place where life is difficult and dangerous. In this verse, it symbolizes that the angel took John TO A TIME IN HISTORY when Babylon and her beast are weak. This interpretation is supported by the facts that:

      • The beast does not have any crowns (Rev 13:3), in contrast to the crowns of the dragon and the sea beast (Rev 12:3; 13:1).
      • The beast “is not” and in the Abyss (Rev 17:8). The Abyss symbolizes a state of incapacity. For example, when Christ returns, Satan will be locked up in the Abyss for 1000 years “so that he would not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev 20:3).

Since the harlot sitting on the beast symbolizes that religion dominates the world rulers to force people to accept her decrees (cf. Rev 17:6; 18:24), the weakness symbolized by the wilderness implies religious freedom.

And I saw – The previous verses described what John heard. Now begins John’s vision.

A woman – Since this woman is identified as “the mother of harlots” (Rev 17:5), she is the harlot of verse 1.

Sitting on a scarlet beast – John heard that the harlot sits on “many waters” (Rev 17:1). But verse 3 begins a vision and he sees that she sits “on a scarlet beast.” Later, he hears that she also sits on the seven heads of the beast (Rev 17:9). This is an example of the hear/see combinations in Revelation. John hears about something, but when he looks, he sees something very different, but the two things are two perspectives on the same reality. In Revelation 17, the “many waters” symbolize the people of the world (Rev 17:15) while the beast with its heads and horns symbolizes the nations into which the people are divided. [For more information, see the more detailed discussion below.]

Full of blasphemous names – Names represent character. For example, the name of God is written on the foreheads of the 144000 (Rev 14:1). That means that they have God’s character. On the other hand, the name of the beast is written on the foreheads of his followers (Rev 13:16, 17): They have his character. The character of the scarlet beast, therefore, is blasphemous. The rulers of this world deny the sovereignty of the Creator.

Having seven heads and ten horns – Both the heads and the horns are later explained as “kings” (Rev 17:10, 12), symbolizing the world rulers. The seven heads follow consecutively one after the other (Rev 17:10) and symbolize the seven phases of the beast’s existence. The ten horns indicate that, in the end-time, the harlot will be able to consolidate the authority of the nations of the world under her control (Rev 17:12-17). The scarlet beast, therefore, symbolizes the political powers of the world over which Babylon “reigns” (Rev 17:18). [For more information, see the more detailed discussion below.]

In the Wilderness

In Revelation 12, the pure woman, symbolizing God’s people, fled from the dragon “into the wilderness” (Rev 12:6, 14). Because both the women in Revelation 12 and 17 are in the wilderness, it is possible to argue that they are one and the same woman and that the bride of Christ (the church) has become a harlot. That would explain John’s amazement when he sees the harlot (Rev 17:6) and the statement that Babylon is fallen (Rev 14:8; 18:2), which implies that she was not always a harlot.

That also aligns with history. After the church has become the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it took on the dominating and persecuting character of its boss; the emperor and the empire; making decrees and persecuting those who oppose her doctrines. Over the centuries, millions of people have been killed in the name of Christianity, for example, the massacres of the Waldensians.

However, for the following reasons, the reference to the wilderness does not mean that the bride has become a harlot:

Firstly, the scarlet beast, representing the rulers of this world, is also in the wilderness.

Secondly, Babylon always existed, which means that the two women always existed side by side. This is indicated by the following:

(1) In her was found the blood of all of God’s people who have been martyred over the ages (Rev 18:24). Babylon was present in the Old Testament Israel, as evidenced by the fact that Israel killed the prophets. In the time after Christ, the church persecuted and killed God’s people. Babylon, therefore, includes the church.

(2) Babylon sits on all seven heads (Rev 17:9) and, as discussed in other articles, the seven heads symbolize empires from the time of Daniel to the end of time.

(3) Babylon is called “the mother of harlots” (Rev 17:5) which implies that she is the source of harlotry.

Beasts, Heads and Horns

There are two other beasts in Revelation that each have seven heads and ten horns, namely the great red dragon (Rev 12:3) and the beast from the sea (Rev 13:1). These beasts are identified in the article on the Seven-Headed Beasts:

In Revelation 12:3, the dragon represents the Roman Empire, but, later in that chapter, it also symbolizes other organizations that persecute God’s people (Rev 12:6, 14). In the context of the war in heaven, Revelation 12 even uses the dragon as a symbol for Satan (Rev 12:9).

The sea beast, in its original setting (Rev 13:1-2), represents the church of the middle ages (See also the article on the beast).

The seven heads symbolize seven kings (Rev 17:9-10); interpreted as seven phases of the beast’s existence. For the identification of the seven heads, see:

The ten horns also symbolize kings (Rev 17:12). Revelation 17:12-17 describes them as an end-time coalition of the nations of the world under the authority of the harlot.

The beast is not something different from the heads and horns. Rather, the beast is the sum of the heads and horns.

The dragon and the sea beast are specific organizations that come into existence at specific points in history. In contrast, as discussed above, the harlot exists in all ages. For that reason, the scarlet beast on which she sits also exists in all ages. This is confirmed by the identification of the seven heads of the beast, namely as empires that existed from the time of ancient Babylon to the end of time (cf. Rev 17:9).

The Harlot and the Scarlet Beast

Chapter 17 describes the harlot Babylon as distinct from the beast (Rev 17:3). The two together are described as interacting throughout the chapter. At first, the woman collaborates with the beast (Rev 17:1-3) but later, she is destroyed by the same beast (Rev 17:16).

In verse 2, we read that “the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality” and interpret that as the union of religion and state. But, in verse 3, we also see that the harlot sits on the beast, indicating that she dominates the beast. In other words, she controls the world rulers (Rev 17:18). However, the principle remains that religion and state have an immoral influence on one another.

Babylon and the Sea Beast

All three the dragon, scarlet beast, and the sea beast have seven heads and ten horns. Therefore, all three symbolize the nations of the world. But while the harlot sits on the scarlet beast, she is not described as sitting on the sea beast or on the dragon. However, although the harlot is not mentioned in Revelation 13, when the sea beast and its allies force people to accept the mark of the beast (Rev 13:12, 15), the three angels warn the people of the world (Rev 14:6) against her (Rev 14:8). This means that the harlot is part of the powers that persecute God’s people in Revelation 13. This is interpreted as follows:

The vision of the harlot sitting on the beast does not symbolize specific entities. Rather, it symbolizes a principle, namely that religion in all ages controls the rulers of the world (or at least exerts an influence on them). Even though it may not be stated as such in Revelation 13, this principle applies to the powers persecuting God’s people in Revelation 13.

The dragon of Revelation 12 and the sea beast of Revelation 13, in their original settings, represent very different human organizations (the Roman Empire and the church of the Middle Ages), but the principle that religion dominates the rulers applies to both.

Hear/See Combinations

John heard that the angel said that the harlot sits on “many waters” (Rev 17:1) but then he sees that she sits “on a scarlet beast” (Rev 17:3). This is one of the hear/see combinations in Revelation. John hears about something, but when he looks, he sees something very different. Nevertheless, the two things are closely related. Other examples include:

The angel calls John to come and see “the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9) but then he sees “the holy city, Jerusalem” (Rev 21:9, 10).

John hears that the lion has overcome, but when he looks, he sees a lamb as if slain (Rev 5:5-6). The lion and the lamb symbolize two different roles which Christ fulfills at different times.

John hears that 144000 will be sealed (Rev 7:4), but when he looks, he sees an innumerable multitude (Rev 7:8). As discussed in a previous article, Revelation 7:1-8 interrupts the sixth seal. Revelation 7:9 continues the sixth seal and shows the innumerable multitude at exactly the same point in history as when the multitude hides in the mountains, which must be at the end of the seven last plagues. The 144000 and the innumerable multitude, therefore, both symbolize God’s end-time people, but at different points in history: The 144000 are sealed before and in preparation for the seven last plagues while the innumerable multitude shows them at the end of the seven last plagues.

In the same way, the “many waters” and the beast provide two different perspectives of the same reality. The “many waters” symbolize the people of the world (Rev 17:15) but the beast with its heads and horns puts the focus on the nations into which the people are divided.

John is also later told that the woman sits on the seven heads (Rev 17:9). Therefore, the seven heads are another perspective on the people of the world but now divided into different ages of history.

Conclusions

(1) Revelation 17 explains the seventh plague.

(2) The harlot sitting on the beast symbolizes a union of false religion and the state, with religion dominating the state.

(3) The harlot Babylon always existed and claims to be the true “wife of the Lamb.” She is not mentioned in Revelation 13, but the principle that religion controls the rulers of the world applies to all ages and, therefore, also applies to the events symbolized in Revelation 13. This is an important principle, namely that the persecution in Revelation is persecution of God’s true people by the mainstream church. 

(4) The scarlet beast symbolizes the political and military powers of the world over which Babylon “reigns” (Rev 17:18). It exists in all ages.

(5) The wilderness does not symbolize that the bride of Christ has turned into a harlot. It implies a time when the link between religion and the state is weak. In other words, it is a time of religious freedom.

(6) Since this Revelation changes the meaning of the things it borrows from the OT, we will miss the mark if we try to interpret it literally.

(7)Those who dwell on the earth” always refers to the people who are hostile to God.

(8) This article provides an overview of the hear/see combinations in Revelation.

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For further reading, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

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