Revelation 17: Unveiling The Mysterious Woman Riding the Beast

Revelation 17:3b-7

Image above of “Vanity Fair” by Frederick Rhead, from The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come, by John Bunyan, New York, 1898. Public Domain illustration found at

I have spent a great deal of time in this Blog trying to discern the message of Revelation to First Century Christians. I believe the book has application to every age, but I see application for us today as derived from the message of the text to the first century believers. For example, John didn’t see planes dropping bombs or helicopters flying in battle. He saw visions of apocalyptic warfare in terms of his own day. Most of the symbols are taken from the Old Testament. John is up-dating the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets for his audience. 

This chapter reminds me of a scene from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (Sorry for its being animated, but it is not just a cartoon version of the book.)

In the last post, we saw the theme of Chapter 17—The woman riding the Beast symbolizes enticing evil behind the kingdoms of this world. The application of Revelation 17 is—

God will thoroughly destroy all religious-economic-political alliances
that seek to dominate people’s lives. 

I. Believers must resist all attempts by Godless alliances to usurp the place of God in their lives. vs. 3

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.

The words “and I saw” indicate another vision has occurred. It is true that the wilderness is a place where God places His people for their protection. However, the wilderness is not a physical location, but it illustrates a spiritual truth.

“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.)


Image of desert by Panoramio licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported from WikiMedia Commons.

Why does the scene take place in a wilderness area? The wilderness is the place where God protects His people while judgments are falling on His and their enemies. John is wafted off to this desolate place to see the woman and beast judged. Why? This act tells us that the wilderness is not only a place of protection, but it is also a place where God’s people understand events happening in the world around them more clearly. (see Johnson, D.E., below.) 

II. Believers can best discern the evil behind the scenes in our world by remaining disconnected from mainstream society. vs. 4

vs. 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.


The kings’ and the nations’ acquiescence to immorality refers not to literal immorality, but figuratively to acceptance of the religious and idolatrous demands of the ungodly earthly order. (see Beale, p. 354, below.)

The woman was clothed like a queen in regal garments. But, in her hand was a cup filled with wickedness. Jeremiah 51:7 says—Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad.

The Babylon of old was a mighty force for conquest in the Ancient Near East, but just like Babylon of old, Babylon of John’s and ours will fall. “Abomination” is bdelygma—”detestable thing” such as an idol. In Matt. 24:15, quoted from Daniel, it causes desolation. The word “filth” is akathartēs—uncleanness or impurity, especially that of immorality. It is often associated with demons in the New Testament. The outward scenes of adultery painted in the movies and magazines are those of  pleasure and delight. On the contrary, its true inward character is uncleanness and impurity.

Isaiah 21:1-2 seems to give the background of John’s words here.

1 The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea. As whirlwinds in the Negev sweep on, it comes from the wilderness, from a terrible land. 2 A stern vision is told to me; the traitor betrays, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, O Elam; lay siege, O Media; all the sighing she has caused I bring to an end.

III. Believers must always bear in mind Babylon is a corrupter of human beings made in the image and likeness of God. vs. 5

vs. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 

The writings of Juvenal and Seneca state that it was the custom of Roman prostitutes to wear their names on a piece of lace that encircled their foreheads. Jeremiah 3:3 says—Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed. (see Johnson, A.F., below.)

Whore of BabylonFalse religion flaunts its sin. What is written on the forehead band is in dispute, however. Is the word “mystery” a part of the title or a part of the introduction to the title? The Greek New Testament punctuates the verse so as to exclude the word from the title. It makes it an adjective modifying the entire title—i.e., “A name was written on her forehead, a mysterious one… .” A mystērion in Scripture is a divine allegory or secret that is revealed. One New Testament scholar defines mystery as “an open secret.” It is that which can only be known by revelation. The verse should be translated—”And she had a name written on her forehead, a mysterious one: Babylon the Great the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth.” The mystery is that the woman is the mother of all of the filth the earth-dwellers have gotten involved with. (Image above right is from Pinterest at

IV. Believers must understand that Babylon is intoxicated by martyring believers. vs 6

vs. 6 And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

“The narrator identifies this city as Vanity, home of a great and ancient festival called Vanity Fair, where tawdry products are traded and Beelzebub is worshiped. At Vanity Fair, Faithful and Christian are mocked, smeared with dirt, and thrown in a cage.” (summary from Spark Notes at 

The image of “being drunk with blood” is a symbol of “the lust for violence.” Two groups are mentioned as being killed at the woman’s instigation—(1) the saints (2) and the martyrs. False religion allied with evil government is the source of the persecution of God’s people since the beginning of history. For instance, read the history of the Scottish Covenantors struggle with the British government allied with the high church party. Thousands were slaughtered because they would not affirm the English Monarch as the head of the church. The Covenantors would only affirm King Jesus as the head of the church. This was not a massacre of Christians by pagans. It was a slaughter of Christians by other professing Christians.

John says, when I saw her. I was greatly astonished. John did not understand the vision at first glance. John is awestruck (Greek word is thaumazō = “astonished out of one’s senses”) by the woman. John was whisked away to the wilderness lest he form an understanding on his own. Note also that the earth-dwellers marvel over the beast. John needed explanation from God. The earth-dwellers make up their own explanation in opposition to God. They thus form a false religion around the beast.

Christian and Faithful Beaten at Vanity Fair

Christian and Faithful beaten at Vanity Fair; image by David and William Bell Scott; 1857 Wood engraving; Illustration for Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

We ought not to be awestruck by any government or organization that claims to be a secular savior for mankind. In the end they will martyr all who profess to serve Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Governments can tolerate criminals, but they refuse to tolerate those who will not conform to their dictates and laws. We must stay awake and not be lulled to sleep by the siren-songs of godless society around us!


“Ulysses (Odysseus) and the Sirens,” 1891, by John William Waterhouse,
shows the Greek warrior-king bound to his ship’s mast as the Sirens’ song calls to him. (Public Domain)

Next time we will move on to Rev. 17:7-14.

(Commentaries on which I rely 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

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