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).
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.
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 greatly – John “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).
- “The word of God and …
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.
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.