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.
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.
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.
Into 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.
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.
(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.
Articles in this series
- The harlot sitting on the scarlet beast (Rev 17:1-3)
- Babylon the great, the mother of harlots (Rev 17:4-6)
- When is the sixth head of the beast? (Rev 17:10)
Other articles series
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.