|By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©2002|
|Dr. Thomas suggests that the section from Revelation 17:1-19:10 provides a parenthetical look at Babylon before continuing with the chronological progression of future events. This month’s article looks at the angelic guide, the harlot and the beast mentioned in Revelation 17:1-6.|
The Seventh Bowl: Part One of Intercalation #1, The Harlot and the Beast
Last month’s lesson provided an introductory summary and an overview of the seventh bowl. The first major point in the overview (point “a.”) was Intercalation #1: Detailed description of Babylon, her past, present, future (17:1–19:10). Babylon will bear the brunt of judgment under the seventh bowl judgment, so in this extended intercalation an extended segment of Revelation’s description of the seventh bowl is devoted to Babylon’s demise. This month we examine 17:1-6a, Part One of the Intercalation: The Harlot and the Beast.
We call the extended section an “intercalation” because it forms a parenthesis in the ongoing prophecy of future fulfillments of Daniel’s seventieth week and subsequent events. It is parenthetical because, rather than simply advancing the chronological progress of future events, before specifying the events themselves, it catalogues historical episodes leading up to those future events. Introductory remarks in 17:1-6 are summed up under three headings: the angelic guide, the harlot herself, and the beast.
The Angelic Guide
The appointed guide for the readers’ excursion through Babylon is “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls” (17:1). We are not told which of the seven bowl-angels this one is. Very possibly he is the angel with the seventh bowl since a description of the seventh bowl is now in progress, but that is speculative and not that important. The important point to note is that the description of 17:1–19:10 relates to the ongoing description of the seven bowls, otherwise known as the seven last plagues (Rev. 15:1). That larger section is an integral part of the seventh bowl, and likewise is an integral part of the seven last plagues.
The Harlot Herself
The bulk of 17:1-6a furnishes descriptive details about the harlot or prostitute. The angelic guide summons John, the writer, to view the judgment of “the great harlot who sits beside many waters” (17:1). He uses the same words, “come, I will show you” as he will later use in Revelation 21:9 when introducing “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” This is a first hint of the contrast that Revelation will draw between Babylon in the current section and the New Jerusalem later in the book.
In prophetic language, prostitution, fornication, or adultery equates with idolatry or religious apostasy (see Isa. 23:15-17; Jer. 2:20-31; 13:27; Ezek. 16:17-19; Hos. 2:5; Nah. 3:4). Old Testament prophets charged cities such as Nineveh, Babylon, and Jerusalem with this sin against God. With that background in mind, it is beyond controversy that the woman of Revelation 17:1 is the epitome of spiritual fornication or idolatry. The woman is a symbol for false religions of all types that began at the tower of Babel (Gen. 10:9-10; 11:1- 9) and extend into the future when they will reach their apex under of the beast, whose full description we have already examined in Revelation 13:1-8. She represents all false religions including apostate Christianity.
The position of the harlot “beside many waters” (17:1) locates her “on the shore of many waters.” According to 17:15, the “many waters” represent “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” In other words the “many waters” are the world’s population over whom the harlot has control. In 17:3 we will see her control over the beast who rules these people, but that control over both the world’s population and the beast has a limited duration as 17:16-17 will indicate.
According to 17:2, her religious prostitution has involved all levels of society, from earth’s kings to the rest of earth’s inhabitants. World leaders will join in Babylon’s system of religious compromise, sacrificing all spiritual principles that are compatible with worship of the one true God. Such spiritual prostitution has always characterized such nations of the past as Assyria, Babylon, and Rome, but will be especially noteworthy throughout the world in the final days just before Christ returns. With that kind of leadership, what else can be expected of earth’s inhabitants than to become drunken with the same “wine of her fornication” (17:2).
In 17:3 the angelic guide moved John to a new vantage point, a solitary wasteland, to give him a different perspective of the harlot. John sees her sitting on a scarlet beast, the same beast as the one who emerged from the sea in 13:1. This position denotes a degree of control of religious power over secular political power. The beast is a political leader as we have seen before and will note again below in our discussion of “The Beast.”
The woman’s clothing and adornment are elegant, but repulsive. “Purple and scarlet” (17:4) pertain to royalty, luxury, and splendor. She is “decked with gold and precious stones and pearls”(17:4) to enhance her appearance even more. Both her clothing and adornment are emblematic of elegance, but “a golden cup in her hand filled with abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication” (17:4) is repulsive to the pious mind. Idolatrous rites are activities so blasphemous against God that He detests them. The harlot’s cup is full of them.
A label on the woman’s forehead divulged her identity: “a mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (17:5). Some have erroneously concluded that “a mystery” as a part of her name furnishes grounds to interpret “Babylon” in a non-literal was. Most often, it is taken as a code-word for Rome, but various contextual and historical factors militate against that identification. “Babylon” did not become a code-word for Rome until long after Revelation was written, some time in the second century A.D., when persecution of Christians had become an empire-wide practice. The “many waters” of verse 1 and the “wilderness” or “desert” of verse 3 are inapplicable to Rome, but they fit Babylon on the Euphrates perfectly. “Mystery” indicates a new revelation about Babylon, something previously concealed, but now an object of clear revelation. What initially began in Genesis 10:9-10 and 11:1-9 will eventually be revealed as a vast religious system that stands for everything that God cannot tolerate.
False religion inevitably brings with it the persecution of the saints who witness about Jesus, as the angelic guide reveals in 17:6a. Widespread martyrdom of Christians will characterize the environment created by the harlot’s control over the world.
The beast who will become more prominent as Revelation 17 continues comes in foronly a brief mention in 17:1-6a. That brief mention comes in verse 4 in his being portrayed as the animal on whom the woman rides. We have met him earlier in Revelation 13:1-8, an earlier discussion that a reader of this column would do well to review. In 13:1 his seven heads and ten horns and names of blasphemy were mentioned there as they are here, but his scarlet color is first mentioned here. In Revelation 14:8-11 his close association with Babylon is implied, but that close association becomes explicit here. The beast is the world empire, or more particularly, the ruler who perfectly embodies the spirit of the empire. He controls the system politically as the harlot represents false religion that gives spiritual cohesion to the system of Babylon. His scarlet color symbolizes luxury and splendor as it does for the harlot in 17:4 also. In 13:1 the names of blasphemy were on the seven heads, but here they cover the beast’s whole body. As suggested in an earlier lesson, the seven heads of the beast are seven consecutive world empires throughout history, and the ten horns on the last of the heads are ten kingdoms contemporaneous with the final false Christ (see 17:12).
Together with the harlot, the beast will control the world in days just before the return of Christ. Under her control, false religion will prevail, and under his control, political dominance will force false religion on earth’s inhabitants. The whole system will be aligned in aggressive opposition to God.
Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, similar forces are at work in our world. Those who choose to worship the true God are often a despised minority who must pay a price for speaking out against false religions, whether they be apostate Christianity or non-Christian religions. Yet the price we pay for standing for the truth has not yet reached the point that many of us have had to pay with our lives. In that future day the blood of the saints and witnesses of Jesus will flow freely under the oversight of the great harlot Babylon. Let us use all present opportunities in testifying about Jesus and His saving grace to those around us while we have the freedom we still have! The day will come when that liberty will be gone.
Note: For more details about the harlot and the beast under the seventh-bowl judgment, see my discussion in Revelation 8–22 (Moody Press, 1995), pages 279- 291. To order this volume, you may contact Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15 or www.gbibooks.com.