Judgment on Babylon
Chapters 17-18 serve as another kind of interlude in the Book of Revelation. In chapter 16, John wrote about the 7 bowls of wrath which God poured out upon the earth in rapid succession. The sixth bowl resulted in the battle of Armageddon, while the 7th bowl of wrath resulted in the destruction of the city Babylon. Now in chapters 17-18, John is going back to these last 2 bowls to get a closer look at the destruction of Babylon and the battle of Armageddon.
When we come to chapters 17-18 (especially 17), we come to one of the most critical chapters in the entire Book of Revelation. Your interpretation of chapter 17 dictates and also indicates the way you interpret the rest of the book. John explains the meaning of certain symbols in Revelation in this chapter, and your understanding of his explanation reveals your interpretation of the book.
THE JUDGMENT OF THE HARLOT—ROME (17:1-18)
Announcement of God's Judgment on the Harlot (17:1-2)
The visions continue with one of the 7 angels who poured out God’s bowls of wrath informing John that he is going to show him the wrath that God is going to pour out upon the great harlot—Babylon—who sits upon many waters. Some immediately jump in at that point and claim that by no means could Rome be the city John is referring to since it did not sit upon many waters. The Babylon of Daniel’s day which symbolizes the city that persecutes the Christians in Revelation was situated upon numerous canals, thereby fitting the description of being a city sitting on many waters. All that is fine and good. On the other hand, Rome sits only upon the Tiber River, hardly fitting this description. The only problem with this preemptive strike against Rome being the Babylon of Revelation is that when John interprets the symbol of many waters, he does not interpret them as being literal waters. We’ll let John explain his symbols. (His interpretation of the many waters comes later.)
John adds 3 elements to this description of Babylon. First, he calls her a harlot or prostitute. A harlot is one who renders sexual services in exchange for pay. The Babylon of Revelation is so powerful that the kings of the earth pay to enjoy her services. The Rome of John’s day offered material and political enticements to whichever nation would court her and serve her. These nations were willing to set up altars to the Roman emperors and Roman state in exchange for material and political wealth.
A Vision of the Harlot (17:3-6)
The angel carries John off into the wilderness where he sees another sign of the harlot Babylon. This time she is riding a red beast (the color of the dragon Satan); the beast is scarlet (red) because he is so closely associated with Satan. This scarlet beast had 7 heads and 10 horns, and was full of blasphemous names. The 7 heads and 10 horns John will explain momentarily. The blasphemous names though refer to the fact that he claims to be divine (one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Antichrist—2 Thess. 2:4). In fact, the event which identifies the Antichrist is his going into the Temple and proclaiming to be God. Now this blasphemy was not an occasional lapse on her part. At the end of v. 4, John says that she carries in her hand a cup full of the unclean things of her immorality.
Ever since the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman emperors were obsessed with the idea of being declared gods. This started due to the influence of Cleopatra. The Egyptians had no qualms with declaring their pharaohs to be gods. Part of Cleopatra’s hold upon Caesar was her insistence upon proclaiming him to be a god. Although this eventually led to Caesar’s downfall, the Roman Senate later bestowed the honor of deity upon subsequent Caesars, normally though after they had died. Domitian, the emperor and Antichrist of John’s day, refused to wait until death to become a god. He led the Roman Senate into making this declaration while he was still alive.
Next, John describes the harlot as one draped with luxurious clothing and precious jewelry. The colors purple and scarlet were normally applied to only the costliest of garments since the scarlet and purple dyes were rare in John’s day. In addition to this, the woman adorned herself with gold, precious stones, and pearls—valuable commodities even in our day and also in John’s day. This description of the woman very easily applies to the city of Rome which enjoyed unsurpassed wealth for her day and time. No other nation before her experienced the prosperity she enjoyed during the 500+ years she reigned as a world power. All the riches of Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt constantly flowed into her coffers.
Across the forehead of the harlot was written a mysterious title: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth.” It was only appropriate that this harlot had her name written upon her forehead because it was customary in John’s day for prostitutes to write their own names across their foreheads so that their customers could easily identify them. Her name was first Babylon. The Babylon of Daniel’s day (586 BC) attempted to lead the world into idol worship, especially Nebuchadnezzar worship; anyone refusing to worship the image Nebuchadnezzar erected risked execution by fire. Well, Rome has taken the mantle that ancient Babylon dropped when the Persians destroyed her. Second, she is the Mother of Harlots. This title reminds us of Saddam Hussein’s boast that he would wage a war against the USA and its allies which would be the “mother” of all wars, that is, the greatest of all wars. Rome was the mother of all harlots in the sense that no other city ever prostituted herself the way she did. She lavished her services upon the nations of the earth if only they would pay her tribute and homage. Third, she was mother of the abominations of the earth; in other words, no other great empire committed blasphemy against God the way the Romans did. This empire engaged in a systematic attempt to force all to worship its emperor as divine.
Finally, John describes this woman as being a lush. Even though she is bedecked with splendid robes and fine jewelry, she is a drunken slut. She is not intoxicated though with the fruit of the vine but with the blood of the followers of Jesus Christ. She thirsts for their blood because they have refused to acknowledge the emperor as supreme divine lord.
Interpretation of the Beast (17:7-14)
At this point, we are surprised that John does not go on to interpret the different elements of the harlot Babylon. Instead, he turns attention to the scarlet beast which is carrying her. When John seems perplexed (amazed) by the image of the woman, the angel informs him that he will now explain the vision of both the Beast and the Woman.
The first characteristic of the Beast that the angel focuses on is that at one point in time the Beast was alive; then he died; and now he is alive again. As we pointed out in chapter 13, this appears to be very similar to the Nero Redivivus legend circulating in the eastern part of the Roman empire (where John lived) during John’s day. Nero had committed suicide by slashing his throat in 68 AD. Nero was so feared though that a legend arose that he would return one day to destroy Rome. Although John would not have believed in this legend, he nevertheless probably used it to refer to Domitian who had proved to be Nero come back to life. As much as Nero attempted to destroy Christians, Domitian surpassed him in his efforts. For the Christians, in a figurative sense Nero had come back to life in the person of Domitian to persecute God’s people.
Next, John claims that those who are not God’s people will wonder at the Beast. (“Those who dwell on the earth” is a technical name for non-Christians in the Book of Revelation.) In other words, they are so taken with the Beast and his power that they are willing to worship him, even though in their right mind they would have never committed such a mistake.
Third, John informs us that certain symbols of the Beast have some literal meanings. For example, the 7 heads of the Beast represent the 7 hills upon which the woman sits. Anyone even remotely acquainted with ancient history knows that the city set on 7 hills is the city of Rome. Some try to get around this by claiming that John says that Rome sits on 7 mountains and not on 7 hills; the same word used for hill though is the same word used for mountain in this verse. (The ironic thing about all this is that the same people who reject Revelation as referring to John’s situation and who also refuse to identify these 7 hills as Rome go on to claim that during the future 7 years of tribulation, Rome as the capital of the European Common Market will be the seat of the Antichrist.)
These 7 heads refer not only to the 7 hills of Rome but also to 7 kings from Rome. Now some reject this and claim that the 7 heads are really 7 kingdoms (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and a future empire) which oppress God’s people. Again, this appears to be a desperate attempt to throw Revelation completely into the future. The problem with this is that John claims that the heads are 7 kings, not 7 kingdoms. There is a good Greek word for kingdom basileia (pronounced as “bah-se-lie’-a”) which John very easily could have used; instead he used the Greek word for king basileus (pronounced “bah-se-loos”). Some claim that the word “king” though is a symbol for kingdom. The only problem is that John is now speaking literally and not symbolically. This interpretation takes something literal (king) and makes it a symbol (kingdom) simply because the literal interpretation does not harmonize with their view of Revelation. This is a dangerous way to interpret the Bible.
In further identifying who the Beast is, John says that the 7 heads represent 7 kings of the city of Rome (7 Caesars). The 6th Caesar of the 7 is now living; he is about to die. Then will rise the 7th Caesar who will reign for only a short time. After his demise, an 8th Caesar will emerge who will persecute Christians. This 8th Caesar is one of the first 7 who died and came back to life. The 7 Caesars John is referring to are (1) Augustus, (2) Tiberias, (3) Caligula, (4) Claudius, (5) Nero, (6) Vespasian , (7) Titus, and (8) Domitian. Three men tried to seize the throne between the reigns of Nero and Vespasian; however, their reigns were so short-lived that they hardly qualify to rank with these other 8. John (for a reason we’ll see in a moment) claims that he is writing while the 6th emperor is reigning—Vespasian. Titus the 7th emperor is yet to come; after he comes, will come Domitian who will persecute God’s people.
The only problem with this is that John did not write during the days of Vespasian but during the days of Domitian, the Beast of Rev. 13 and 17 (we glean this information from Irenaeus who was discipled by Papias, a disciple of John himself). So why does John claim that he is writing during the days of Vespasian? Remember the situation and times John is living in. To identify outright that Domitian was the Antichrist meant certain death for John and the church. Remembering that Revelation is written in code for the safety of the church, John projects himself, as it were, back to the days of Vespasian. His original readers understood what he was doing. They knew that although he was writing as if he were living during the days of Vespasian, he was doing this only for their protection. The 8th king was none other than Domitian, the emperor at that very time trying to destroy them and their churches. The destiny of the Beast has already been determined. Utter destruction.
As for the 10 horns on the Beast, they represent 10 kings who have not yet received a kingdom; however, they will receive authority with the Beast and reign for a little while. These 10 kings are rulers who emerge and ally themselves with the Beast in order to gain economically from their association with him. The Roman empire was built upon 2 things—conquest and voluntary alliances. In John’s day, these were kings who had voluntarily submitted to Rome’s rule and had not been forced by conquest to submit to it. The price for their alliance? Worship the Beast and persecute any and all who refuse to acknowledge him as God. They will join the Beast in waging war against the Lamb by persecuting God’s people; however, Christ will destroy them because He, and not Domitian or any future ruler, is ultimately Lord of lords and King of kings.
Interpretation of the Woman (17:15-18)
John now returns to his identification of the woman. First, John says that the waters the woman sits upon are none other than the peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues she rules over. Because of her expertise in waging war at sea and on land, Rome ruled the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—the Gauls (modern-day Spaniards and French), Greeks, Britain, Egypt, the Middle East, and the rest of North Africa.
What will be her ultimate outcome? She had originally made it possible for the Beast to rise to power. Now he turns on her, and with him the 10 kings who received their power and authority from him. The alliance made in hell now becomes hellish itself. They will strip her barren and even eat her flesh, finally consuming her flesh with fire. Chapter 18 details the destruction of the city of Rome.
Who is this woman? The great city which reigns over the kings of the earth. In John’s day, Rome.