The Great Prostitute

SETTING THE SCENEOne of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” (Revelation 17:1-2)

Revelation 17 is a postlude to the bowls of wrath, which expands upon Babylon the Great (elsewhere referred to as the woman, the harlot, or the prostitute), her relationship with the beast, and her judgment.(1) The message is delivered by one of the seven angels from the bowl judgments. Exactly which one of the angels is not specified, although the judgment upon the “woman” (Babylon) appears to be indicated by the sixth bowl of judgment when the Euphrates is dried up.(2)

The woman is called a harlot or prostitute four times in Revelation 17, and her sin is referred to as fornication. Her evil influence has extended to the entire world, reaching
even as high as “the kings of the earth.(3) While the Old Testament usually reserved the designation harlot or prostitute for God’s faithless people (e.g., Leviticus 17:7; Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:1–14; Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea 4:15), it was also used to refer to mighty mercantile or military centers. For example, Isaiah 26:16–18 portrayed Tyre as a harlot who served all the kingdoms of the world. Nineveh as the capital of a world empire also was called a harlot and sorceress (Nahum 3:4).(4)

In addition to the woman, the other main characters in this chapter include the beast and the inhabitants (including kings) of the earth.

THE WOMANThen the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman … dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES, AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman [who sits on many waters] …. Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages … [t]he woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 17:3-7, 15, 18)

How She Was Dressed – Purple and scarlet required expensive dyes and were thus worn only by the wealthy, such as queens (Revelation 18:7) like Jezebel, or by well-to-do prostitutes, who used purple attire to attract attention.(5)

The Cup She Holds – In her hand the woman held a golden cup filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. This likely confirms that her character and life are symbolic of false religion, religious practices or doctrines.(6)

The Title on Her Forehead – It was common for Roman prostitutes to wear headbands bearing their name.(7)

Mystery – Some contend that this is part of the name, while others believe that the name should be interpreted symbolically.(8) Mystery implies a spiritual fact that was previously hidden, was incapable of discovery by mere reason, and is now being revealed.(9) Here it is the name (Babylon) that is the likely mystery – one with a hidden meaning which requires interpretation.(10)

Babylon the Great – Since the earliest portion of the Scriptures, Babylon has played a prominent yet less than stellar role on history’s stage. Genesis 11 describes the people building a tower at Babel to reestablish a basis for unity after the flood. The city of Babel was founded by Nimrod (Genesis 10:8–11). The name Babel means the gate of God, and the infamous tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) was mankind’s idolatrous attempt to defy God and build their own gateway to the heavens. When the Lord sent judgment on the builders by confounding the single shared language of man into many, the word bab-el came to mean confusion.

Later in history, Babylon became a great empire before finally falling to Media-Persia.(11) In the Old Testament Babylon came to symbolize a godless political and economic power. God’s people have always been warned to flee from “Babylon” (see Jeremiah 50:8–9; 51:6, 44–45).(12) But from the beginning of Nimrod’s city in Genesis 10, and even after the fall of Babylon to Media-Persia, an insidious anti-God “Babylonian” influence has been felt throughout history,(13) in various other empires.

In the New Testament, Babylon signifies the world and its forces in opposition to God. It is often contrasted with the New Jerusalem, in which God will finally reign supreme.(14)

Mother of Prostitutes – The woman is not only “the great harlot,” but she is also “the mother of harlots.” The Babylonian system has, in one way or another, given birth to all false religions. She has also seduced men into opposing God and persecuting His servants.(15)

Abominations of the Earth – The Hebrew word for abomination means something (acts, objects, or images) that is vile and detestable in the eyes of God. The word was used to describe the idolatrous practices of the pagans, as well as the horrible things God’s rebellious people would do.(16) Some examples of abominations that are given in scripture are listed in Figure 21.1.(17)

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Where She Sits – In Jeremiah 51:13, as here in Revelation, Babylon is said to sit on many waters. The wealth of Babylon was due in part to its location by the Euphrates and by its vast system of canals. The symbolism here in Revelation has led many commentators to see this as literally signifying Babylon, while others see it as political Rome, Papal Rome, or Jerusalem.(18) Figuratively it could mean the people of many nations (a revived Roman empire, perhaps even the United States?).(19)

Up Next – Who the Prostitute might be.

_____________________

References

  1. Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J. P., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1908). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
  2. Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Moore, E., Craven, E. R., & Woods, J. H. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (p. 312). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  3. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 612). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  4. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 17:1–5). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  5. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 17:4). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  6. Walvoord, J. F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 970). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  7. Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 17:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  8. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 544). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  9. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 590). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  10. Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 17:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  11. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 612). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  12. Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 1082). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  13. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 612). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  14. Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.
  15. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 612). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  16. Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 3). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  17. Willmington, H. L. (1987). Willmington’s book of Bible lists (p. 15). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.
  18. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 543). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  19. Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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