Revelation 17:1-6 – The Vision of the Harlot

(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,

    John is called by one of the seven angels, who poured out the seven bowls of wrath, to see the judgment of the great harlot. The connection is maintained between the bowls of wrath and the judgment of the harlot, there is no difference in the recipients of God’s fury from the bowls in chapter sixteen to the harlot who is seen as destroyed in chapters seventeen and eighteen. During the seventh and last plague, Babylon drained the cup of God’s wrath (16:19); in this chapter, we see a visual of Babylon as the harlot (17:5).

    “The great prostitute.” This is a very distinguishable quality that is significant to her true identity. She is one who has such a history in harlotry, that she is called “the great.” Such is characteristic of Jerusalem, who God testified of her harlotry that “the like has never been, nor ever shall be.” (Ezekiel 16:16). Only Jerusalem is worthy of such a shameful title; no one can match the years of her unfaithfulness to God (also see comments on 17:5).

“Seated on many waters.” This statement is in connection to the figurative name of the harlot, Babylon (14:8; 16:19; 17:5). When God spoke concerning the fall of literal Babylon, he said, “O you who dwell by many waters, rich in treasures, your end has come; the thread of your life is cut.” (Jeremiah 51:13). It is first given as a further detail to bring more life to the figure, being likened to old Babylon who was the doomed captor of God’s faithful remnant. However, the waters are later given more meaning as a separate symbol (see comments on 17:15).


(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 details of this verse point out a specific aspect of Israel’s harlotry. Here they are indicted not because they bowed before idols, but because they bowed before other kings. They turned away from their husband, the king over all, and ran to the kings of the earth, pledging their loyalty to them, and begging them to keep them secure. They put their trust in earthly kings, and not in the Lord God. This is a well-documented fact throughout the history of the old covenant people (see for example, Isaiah 30:2, 31:1; Isaiah 36; Ezekiel 16:26-29). The problem with their actions is evident, they ran to the bosom of their neighbor instead of their husband. They needed only their husband, but this verse shows their sinful wantonness in allying with the kings of foreign nations.


(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.

    John has not yet seen this dreadful woman in the visions of the book, he has only heard of her and of the judgment which has come upon her. In this verse John begins to see the visual depiction of the unfaithful city.

    “Into a wilderness.” What a fitting backdrop for the appearance of the harlot. The wilderness was a necessary place of escape and security after the exodus from Egypt; but they were only to be there for a short time before entering the promised land, instead they spent forty-years wandering about. What is the reason for their long-extended stay in the wilderness? When they reached the border of the promised land, they sent out twelve spies to enter the land and bring back a report. The spies returned after forty days with a report that made the obtaining of the land sound impossible (Numbers 13:32-33). Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, continued to trust in the Lord’s word and begged the people to do the same (Numbers 14:6-9); but the people believed the report of the other ten spies, and desired to stone Joshua and Caleb for their plea. But the Lord spoke to Moses and judged the people, saying,

“The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. (30)  Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in.” (Numbers 14:29-30).

And as to the significance of the forty years they spent in the wilderness, God said,

“And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. (34) According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection.” (Number 14:33-34).

Now, back in Revelation, we see the old covenant people in a figurative wilderness. It is evident that they never really left such a place of desolate faithlessness. They are still the people who refuse the word of God, have no trust in their Lord, and desire to put to death those who would encourage them otherwise

    “A woman sitting on a scarlet beast.” The details of the scarlet beast, being “full of blasphemous names,” and having “seven heads and ten horns,” should remind us of the beast back in chapter thirteen; and the details to come in this chapter will confirm that this is the same Roman beast. Many are too quick to identify the woman as the city of Rome because she is sitting on the beast, but that idea fails for many reasons. One great reason is the fact that this woman is hated by the beast (17:16) and she is destroyed by the beast at the end of this chapter (see comments on 17:16). And let’s be mindful too that these things “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). At what point was the city of Rome destroyed soon after the writing of Revelation? At what point did Rome hate Rome? And when did Rome destroy Rome? None of this is making any sense. Further, if we’d only look at the scope of the vision, we will see a disgusting, drunken, foolish whore sitting on this beast. Look back at 13:1-2 (and the comments there), this is not some tamed beast of the field, this is a horrifying sea beast, that is like a dragon, a serpent, a leopard, a bear, and a lion! Try hitching a ride on that! It’s not going to go over well. You’d have to be the most foolish drunk on earth to mistake this beast as your personal taxi. The beast hates this woman who has jumped on his back, and he is going to buck and roll and fling her off as soon as possible, and he will trample and tear her flesh until she is utterly destroyed.


(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 beautiful clothes and jewelry which she wears were given to her as a virgin, when Jerusalem was wed to God, as the Lord recounts the story in the book of Ezekiel, saying,

“I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. (11)  And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. (12)  And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. (13)  Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.” (Ezekiel 16:10-13).

But now, looking at her actions, she is certainly not worthy to be dressed in such beauty, as God had said to his adulterous Jerusalem,

“And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself. Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.” (Jeremiah 4:30).

And that scripture from Jeremiah is great narrative to the very situation happening in this chapter of Revelation. She still wears the beautiful clothes and boasts in herself as the city of God, but she is a hypocrite and the Lord’s city she is certainly not. As Jeremiah said of the Jerusalem in his day, so also in the first century, her lovers despise her and seek her life. This is the situation between Rome and Jerusalem that is outlined in this chapter. For her adornment, see also 18:7, 12, 16.

    “A golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” Her cup is full of abominable things, impure things, idolatrous things. The reference to her “sexual immorality” is a figure of her adultery against the Lord by both bowing to foreign gods and allying herself with earthly kingdoms, such as she is doing in the first century with Rome.


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

The forehead labeling is an ongoing theme in the book. In this book every person has a name written on the forehead. The faithful servants of God have the name of the Lamb and of the Father written on their foreheads (7:3; 14:1), and all others have the name of the beast on their foreheads (13:16). It is evident that the forehead labels are a figure of identity and belonging. The faithful are the Lord’s and his identity is embedded within them. The sinful world find their belonging with the beast who allows and encourages the continuation of their sins. And now, we see the harlot city of Jerusalem; she is not identified as the Lord’s bride, but as a prostitute, and she finds her place among the abominations on earth. The forehead markings are an interesting figure in the book; they tell how all things are forthrightly exposed before God. Each one’s identity is well understood before him as if it were written right on the forehead.

The harlotry of Jerusalem has long been associated with the image of the forehead. In Jeremiah 3:3, the prophet indicted the people for having a harlot’s forehead, saying, “you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed.” (see also Isaiah 48:4; Ezekiel 3:7-9). The imagery shows how they have no shame in what they do, their conscience is hard like stone, and they do not blush in guilt of such actions (Jeremiah 6:15).

    “Babylon the great.” The figure of “Babylon” is brought back into focus (see 14:8). Babylon stands for the oppressor of the faithful remnant; the remnant that God will set free from her grasp by bringing her to an end. This is what God did for his people in the days of the Babylonian captivity, and this is what God is doing in the first century against the house of Israel who has acted in similar form to old Babylon in the oppression and captivity of the Lamb’s faithful people.

    “Mother of prostitutes.” As you can see from the many scriptures given in the introduction to this chapter, who can live us to the title of “Mother” of all harlots? It can’t be Rome, for she is too young, and her short track record cannot verify that she could ever be considered in the running of the mother of all harlots. But Jerusalem is another story. Jerusalem was called a harlot by God long before Rome was born. And when Rome was just a child in Ezekiel’s day, God called Jerusalem a whore that “the like has never been, nor ever shall be.” (Ezekiel 16:16). Before the founding of Rome, Jerusalem had multiplied her whoring with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and many other surrounding nations. Jerusalem is the only fit to such a disgraceful title.


(6)  And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.

    “Drunk with the blood of the saints.” There were two persecutors in the first century, Rome and Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is the only one that fits every detail given about the harlot. As well, we do not know the extent of Rome’s persecution of Christians, nor how long it took place. Many say it lasted about four years, but there is nothing in history to suggest that, so it may have been fewer than years. Nonetheless, Jerusalem is the only fitting place to truly be “drunk,” that is, completely full of the blood of the faithful. Consider closely what Jesus said when he was in Jerusalem,

“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, (35)  so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (36)  Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (37)  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:34-37).

    “I marveled greatly.” John is absolutely astounded at her appearance and shameless conduct. How personal this picture must be for him; he is watching this woman drank up the blood of his own beloved brethren.

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