Revelation 17: God’s People Witnessing the Execution of Babylon

Revelation 17:1-3

Image above is “The fall of Babylon”; Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army. By J. Martin, 1831; from Wellcome Images

Whore of Babylon

Image shared under CC SA License from

The interpreter’s approach to the entire book determines the interpretation of the woman in chapter 17. If the interpreter approaches Revelation as prophecy fulfilled in the 1st Century (preterist view), the woman is Rome.  If the interpreter looks upon Revelation as entirely end time prophecy, the woman on the beast as Antichrist’s kingdom of the end time—futurist view. The idealist looks upon the woman as a symbol of the world arrayed against Christ in all ages—(spiritualized view).  

There has been a blending of the different views in the recent approach to the book. The most popular blend is the preterist/futurist position. The woman is both 1st century Rome and the final manifestation of Antichrist’s kingdom at the end. The approach taken by this study is a blend of three positions—preterist/idealist/futurist position.

The woman is evil behind the kingdoms of this world in all ages which
includes the final manifestation of it
under Antichrist’s rule at the end of the age.

“People are not always what they seem to be. Although we know this is true intellectually, we may still be easy prey for the flashy image, the manipulative hype, the convincing come-on that had its origins in the garden, when the serpent persuaded the woman that it, not God, had her best interests at heart” (See Johnson, D. E., below). 

bowl poured outThe Relationship between the sixth and seventh bowls and what followsRev. 17:1–19:10 is a large interpretative snapshot of the sixth and seventh bowls, which have foretold the judgment of Babylon (which was first explicitly prophesied in 14:8). (see Beale, p. 353 below.)

Revelation 17 depicts the truth that —

God will thoroughly destroy the worldwide religious-economic-political-elitist alliance
that seeks to dominate people’s lives. 

I. God will bring to an end all false religion and culture in league with “Babylon.” 

vs. 1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters… .

This verse makes it clear that chapter 17 is connected with chapter 16. It is one of the seven angels holding the seven bowls that steps forward to give John the explanation of the vision unfolding before his eyes. It is interesting that the Greek contains the present tense of echō (“has”) whereas the NIV/ESV have the past tense of echō (“had”). The seven angels still have the bowls in their hands. This indeed makes the vision all the more vivid. This fact also reinforces the idea that the time span the seven bowls judgment is very short.

John uses krima (“judgment’) which literally means “sentence,” “condemnation,” or “punishment .” The -ma ending of the Greek word has the idea of “the result of judgment,” hence, the “sentence passed.” John is not going to a trial. He is, rather, going to an execution. 

The angel describes the person in the vision as a “whore.” The Greek word is pornē (from which the English word “porn” is derived). It can mean either “prostitute’ or “whore.” In this context. it refers to a prostitute. Frequently in the Old Testament, the image of an  unfaithful spouse is used to illustrate spiritual unfaithfulness to the Lord. Remember that God’s people are said to be married to the Lord. Idolatry is unfaithfulness to Him. Anything metal, material, or mental that we substitute for the Lord is an idol. Compare Hosea 1, 2 for an apt illustration of this image.

“The great whore” sits on many waters. The image of “sitting on waters” is explained in Rev. 17:15—And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.”

The waters are a symbol of the nations of the world. The fact that the woman sits on the waters is symbolic of  the “influence that she wields over all the peoples of the world.” The central question facing the interpreter is who is the woman? Several answers have been suggested by different commentators over the years. (1) The most often suggested is that the woman is the Roman Empire. John’s announcement of the impending destruction of Babylon is an announcement of the destruction of the Roman Empire in the future beyond John’s lifetime. (2) Another suggestion is that the woman is Jerusalem. The announcement of the impending destruction of Babylon is an announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in A.D. 70. (3) A better explanation is that the woman as symbolic of “all entrenched worldly resistance to God. Babylon is found wherever there is satanic deception.

“Babylon is a trans-historical reality that includes idolatrous kingdoms as diverse as Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Ninevah, and Rome. Babylon is an eschatological symbol of satanic deception and power; it is a divine mystery that can never be wholly reducible to empirical earthly institutions. It may be said that Babylon represents the total culture of the world apart from God, while the divine system us depicted by the New Jerusalem. Rome is simply one manifestation of the total system.” (see Johnson, A. F., emphasis mine; below.) 

Babylon Burning on the left; New heavens and Earth on the right.

As one commentator said, “Revelation 17-19 is a tale of two cities.” (Gordon Fee) Which city will we choose?

II. God will judge those who have allied themselves and their fortunes with the false religion and culture of “Babylon.”

vs. 2 …with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”

The Greek word describing the sexual sin here is porneuō. Compare this with the noun referred to above porē (“whore”). The verb describes the “immoral behavior” of the “immoral woman.” It is the most general  word for immoral behavior in the New Testament. It includes adultery as well as immorality by unmarried persons. The rulers of the earth are said to be those who have engaged in immoral behavior with the woman. The “earth-dwellers” is a symbol of those who are thoroughly at home on the earth and who are not looking for a home with the Lord. The “earth-dwellers” are “drunk on the wine of the woman’s immorality.” This is a reference to idolatry and the intoxicating effects of “false religion.” “Immorality” always goes hand in hand with idolatry. Compare Romans 1:18 ff. Immorality and perversions follow idolatry.

III. God’s Judgment shows that for all pretense of power and glory, Babylon is a mirage.

vs. 3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 

Woman inticing

John is in an ecstatic state when he experiences the desert vision. He emphasizes this by adding that he was “taken away in the Spirit” or “by means of the Spirit.” The fact that John is in the desert is in keeping with the geography of ancient Babylon. The literal city and region has become a symbol of satanic deception of the world.

In the desert, John saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names. Previously John was told about the prostitute. Now he is shown. The beast is the same one we were introduced to in the first part of chapter 13. This is clear from the fact that the beast here, like the one there, has seven heads. The color scarlet is descriptive of the blasphemies written on the beast. It is similar to the color of the dragon in chapter 12. The Greek words are different, but they are similar. It is in marked contrast to the white garments of the saints and the Lamb. The blasphemous names describe what activity the beast engages in.

“Whatever person or system—whether political, social, economic, or religious—cooperates with Satan by exalting itself against God’s sovereignty and by setting itself up to destroy the followers of Jesus, or entices them to become followers of Satan through deception, idolatry, blasphemy, and spiritual adultery, embodies the beast of Revelation 13.” (see Johnson, A. F., p. 525, below)

“Beast,” in Greek, is thērion—meaning “wild beast.” This is a designation for evil, demonic forces behind human governments. It is taken from the book of Daniel (7:4-6). In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he envisioned his government as a golden statue. In God’s estimation, human governments under the influence of demonic forces are wild beasts. Government is supposed to support right and punish wrong, but often it does the opposite. It is best to view the number seven as symbolic of fullness of regal power, rather than to identify them with individual nations, kings, emperors, etc. The confusion over which emperor fits which head is proof enough that this method of interpretation is confusing.

The connection between the woman and the beast—If the woman is symbolic of idolatry, it seems that the fact that she rides the beast symbolizes false religion wedded to corrupt government. The end times will witness such an unholy union. Government will come increasingly under a demonic spell. False religion will cause people to worship the corrupt state.

Michael Card sings of Babylon’s fall in his Unveiled Hope album—City of Doom. (It is contemporary music.)

In Revelation, John is removing the screen behind which the deceptive controller of Babylon is hiding and shows it all to be a mirage! 

Next time, on into Revelation 17 further.

(Commentaries on which I rely often without direct quotation) 

Beale, G. K. (2015). Revelation: a Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

ESV. (2001). Accessed 24 June 2020 from

Hendriksen, William. More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (p. 125).

Johnson, A. F. (1982). Revelation in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Johnson, D. E. (2001). Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Kenner, C. (2000). The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.

Morris, Leon. (1987). Revelation in Tyndale New Testament Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

WikiMedia Commons for Images

© 2021 C. Richard Barbare All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s