Identifying the Great Harlot

    One of the most biblically established figures in the entire book is the great harlot. The symbol of the harlot is so abundant in the scriptures that, to the Bible reader, she is one of the most readily recognizable characters in the visions of Revelation.

 

    When God led Israel out of Egypt he took them for his own; Israel was the bride who entered into a covenant relationship with God. As they entered this covenant together, God wrote in stone with his finger, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), and “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But Israel soon broke the covenant. So earlier was there departure that even while Moses was still receiving instruction on the mountain, the people began their harlotry with the golden calf (Exodus 32). Soon, God prepared them to enter their land, commanding that they remove all the idolatry from the land, saying in Exodus 34:15-16,

“lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.”

But even before they entered the promised land they were tempted to harlotry by the surrounding people, as Numbers 25:1-3 reports,

“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.”

Once they entered the land, they continued in the same manner of whoredom, serving false Gods instead of remaining faithful to her husband, the God of heaven and earth. Judges 2:16-17 summarizes,

“Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so.” 

So, the honeymoon stage between God and Israel was not pleasant, and her title of “harlot” (or “whore” in the ESV) was applied early on. Before moving forward in the biblical record, I want to make a note on the meaning of the word. The Hebrew pictograph for the word “harlot” is an agricultural tool with a seed; the meaning of the pictograph is the “hoe of the seed,” and the idea is of someone spreading seeds abroad. The word, applied to Israel, refers to her incessant wantonness in bowing to the surrounding idols, heaping up unfaithfulness to her husband.

 

God used the prophet Hosea’s marriage as a model of his relationship with his covenant people. In Hosea 1:2, the Lord said to him,

“Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

And specifically to Jerusalem, the seat of harlotry in the nation, God expressed through the prophet Isaiah,

“How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.” (Isaiah 1:21)

The prophet Jeremiah also speaks often of the harlotry of the covenant people.

“For long ago I broke your yoke and burs t your bonds; but you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yes, on every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore. Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:20-21).

And to Jerusalem he says,

“I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen. I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?” (Jeremiah 13:26-27).

The imagery only becomes more vivid in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel spends fifty-eight fascinating verses in chapter sixteen describing the great harlot who he identifies as the city Jerusalem. I’ll make a few points from that chapter, but if you haven’t read it lately, please do, it will enhance the whole experience of Revelation seventeen. The chapter begins by describing the sad origins of Jerusalem, a despised and rejected city, left to die in its own blood. But God had pity on her; he raised her up, washed her body, and put on her beautiful clothes. Soon she “grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty” (Ezekiel 16:13-14). She was the Lord’s, and he gave her greatness and glory. Then the story takes a sad and shameful turn, this beautiful bride began to trust the beauty and riches which her loving husband had provided. She turned to bow before other gods and other nations. God reports that she “played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby” (Ezekiel 16:15). How could this have happened? It was the most impossible situation to have ever occurred in the history of the world, as the God of heaven, himself, testifies against her whoring,

“The like has never been, nor ever shall be” (Ezekiel 16:16).

Seeing the testimony of God, how could the great whore of Revelation seventeen be anyone other than Jerusalem?

 

Ezekiel continues the account, testifying that Jerusalem was offering herself “to any passerby and multiplying your whoring” (16:25). He speaks of her whoring with the land of Egypt, and later with the Assyrians, then with the Babylonians (16:26-29). Now, in Revelation seventeen, she continues her same pattern of whoring, this time with the Romans.

“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute” (Ezekiel 16:30).

    It is important to recognize the manner by which the Lord is calling Jerusalem a prostitute, a whore, a harlot, and an adulterous wife; for it may be different than our own definition of these terms. God explains,

“Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. (32)  Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! (33)  Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. (34)  So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.” (Ezekiel 16:31-34).

Jerusalem is a prostitute the does not seek payment. In fact, she gives gifts and payment to those who fornicate with her! Has there ever been such a thing? As God said, “therefore you were different.” So, what is the conclusion of this terrible situation? Her husband promises judgment upon his unfaithful bride,

“I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. (38)  And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy.” (Ezekiel 16:37-38).

The way that God will execute judgment upon her is through the utility of her lovers; the nations which she acted so shamefully with will grow to hate her and turn to destroy her.

“And they shall burn your houses and execute judgments upon you in the sight of many women. I will make you stop playing the whore, and you shall also give payment no more.” (Ezekiel 16:41).

Those things God said to the Jerusalem of Ezekiel’s day, but the pattern of God’s judgments remain the same for the Jerusalem of the first century. She continued in her whoring from of old, she is the great mother of harlots, “The like has never been, nor ever shall be” (Ezekiel 16:16). So, the same worthy judgment is given to her in Revelation; the nation which she committed fornication with (Rome) will turn against her, hate her, burn and destroy her.

“And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, (17)  for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” (Revelation 17:16-17).

Ezekiel 23:1-49 is another great witness, showing the covenant people as the great harlot. The chapter follows the same pattern that we saw in the sixteenth chapter, and the outcome of the great harlot city of Jerusalem is the same,

(29)  and they shall deal with you in hatred and take away all the fruit of your labor and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your whoring shall be uncovered. Your lewdness and your whoring (30)  have brought this upon you, because you played the whore with the nations and defiled yourself with their idols.” (Ezekiel 23:28-30).

Aside from the words of the prophets, the book of Revelation holds its own in identifying the harlot beyond the shadow of a doubt. Her description as “the great prostitute” (17:1), and “mother of prostitutes” (17:5), reveal that she has a track record far above any other harlot; no other harlot can be identified in that capacity but Jerusalem. Her distinguishable quality of being the “great city” (17:18) “where our Lord was crucified” (11:8), provides another specification to her unavoidable identity as the city of Jerusalem. She was the city of God, God’s house (temple), and God’s throne; she was the “great city.” But she played the harlot, committing adultery and she must be put away. This leads us to the marriage of God to the “new Jerusalem” who is described as “holy” (21:2); coming down the aisle “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:2). Then the new bride takes on the title of the “great city, the holy Jerusalem” (KJV, 21:10).

 

I must admit that I once accepted that the harlot was Rome, but escaped that view when I realized all the scriptures that contradict it. When one looks at Revelation as separate from the biblical record, then the harlot can become anything, whether Rome, the Catholic Popes, or the World Council of Churches. But once we confess that this is a book which reveals what the old prophets had previously announced (10:7), then the identity of the harlot becomes only one option. However, let’s consider for a moment that Rome is the harlot; for what reason would God call Rome a harlot, let alone the great mother of harlots? Who has Rome sold itself to? How has Rome been unfaithful? Rome could be included in the point which God through Jeremiah brought forward,

“Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.” (Jeremiah 2:11).

Jeremiah’s point is how all heathen nations remain faithful and true to their gods, but Jerusalem cannot keep herself loyal to the one true God. Rome may fit a point or two about the harlot, such as how she is a city, but Rome does not fit the symbolism. Every detail of the harlot in Revelation fits Jerusalem, and every word of God in the Old Testament supports it.

Revelation 16:17-21 – The Seventh Bowl

(17)  The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!”

    The seventh angel pours the wrath “into the air.” There is no indication in the verse as to the meaning of this action, but the meaning becomes evident in the following verse when we see the effects of the bowl poured into the air: “there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake.”

    “It is done!” The final bowl of wrath pours out the last plague, and when it happens, we hear a great voice from the throne of God in the true tabernacle say, “It is done!” He has fulfilled all the words which he gave to the old house of Israel. “The mystery of God” has been “fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” (10:7). This “it is done” reminds me of the very last words of Jesus on the cross,

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” (29)  A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. (30)  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28-30).

It is evident from John’s account that Jesus said “It is finished” in reference to the fulfillment of the scriptures which spoke of his coming, his suffering, and his death. In Revelation we hear, “it is done,” signaling the fulfillment of the scriptures which spoke of the end of the old covenant age, with its temple, its law, and its people.

 

(18)  And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.

    This is that iconic language which we hear from God throughout the entire biblical record. It holds the same meaning through the years, God had entered into judgment with a nation (see comments on 6:12).

    “So great was that earthquake.” This certainly intensifies the language. This is not like the judgment of God against old Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon, or Persia, or Greece. This is a greater shaking than the shaking of those secular kingdoms. As the writer of Hebrews discussed, this shaking was so great that it shook not only earth, but also heaven (Hebrews 12:25-29; see also comments on 21:1). The fall of the physical model of God’s elect and God’s house was more significant than the fall of any other people.

 

(19)  The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.

    I know that some suggest that the three divisions of the city refer to the three warring factions of Jewish rebels in Jerusalem. And it is certainly true that just prior to Titus’ march against Jerusalem, that the two factions in Jerusalem became three, and this caused much misery upon the people (Josephus, Wars, 5.1.4). However, we are not permitted by the text to start taking this number literally. Therefore, it cannot be that the three parts of the city symbolize the three rebellious parties. Three is not symbolic of three! So, if three is a symbol in this text, and it is, then what does it speak of?

    The splitting of Jerusalem into three was due to the great earthquake, by which many cities fell – according to verse nineteen. The earthquake was the language of God’s judgment upon the Jewish people. So the splitting of the city into three is an act of judgment. This is the pattern which God had shown to Ezekiel concerning the destruction of Jerusalem (of his day), saying,

“A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the sword all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.” (Ezekiel 5:12).

This is in fulfillment to the curses promised upon the covenant people,

“And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” (Leviticus 26:33).

Therefore, the city being “split into three parts” was a way to describe the multiples of sorrows which would befall the people in this judgment of God.

    “God remembered Babylon the great.” He did not forget all that she had done so that he relented from the punishments, but he remembered that she was to “drain” his wrath completely. Babylon the great is the symbol for Jerusalem which was first given in 14:8 (see comments). The following chapter (seventeen) will provide us with much detail as to the identity of Babylon the great.

    “The cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.” This is more judgment language which God has always used for national judgments. (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15-26; Jeremiah 51:7; Lamentations 4:21; Ezekiel 23:30-34; Habakkuk 2:16; Zechariah 12:2). They will drink a cup of wine from the Lord, it will be full strength, it will cause them to stagger and go mad; they will be unable to defend themselves.

 

(20)  And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.

    The message of this text goes along with the previous, how they had to “drain” the cup of God’s fury. The imagery describes how they have nowhere to hide from the wrath of God. They cannot escape his judgment.

 

(21)  And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.

    This seventh plague carried great hailstones. Hail was also the seventh plague for Egypt:

“There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. (25)  The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field.” (Exodus 9:24-25).

The enormous weight of these hailstones, being about 100 pounds apiece, intensifies the figure and adds to the magnitude of the judgment of God against the house of Israel. Ezekiel also prophesies of great hailstones at the fall of the Jerusalem of his day,

“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to make a full end.” (Ezekiel 13:13).

Ezekiel said that when he spoke concerning the false prophets of Israel who give the nation a false sense of security. It is worthy to note that Ezekiel speaks of the “great hailstones” as the completion of the wrath of God upon the people (ibid). In Revelation we are seeing similar circumstances, with the great hailstones being the seventh and last plague, and the testimony from the throne of God, saying, “it is done.”

What then is next for the visions of the book? The next two chapters will reveal a vivid picture of the destruction of Jerusalem, signaling the revealing of the new Jerusalem in the latter chapters. After the vengeance against wickedness comes the restoration of the beauty of holiness.

Revelation 16:12-15 – The Sixth Bowl

(12)  The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east.

    The sixth bowl carries the likeness of the sixth trumpet warning (9:14-21). The warning had affected “a third” of the people, and we can expect the pouring out of the bowl to complete the figure.

“The great river Euphrates.” The Euphrates is the iconic boundary that has long been the last hurdle to jump for ancient militia to invade Israel (also see comments on 9:14). The Euphrates is a figure for gentile armies invading Judea. Like so many inconsistencies, this figure of the Euphrates does not make sense for an interpretation that this book is about the fall of the empire in the fifth century. But someone will argue that this is a vision about spiritual Israel and the forces of the Roman persecutor coming against the figurative boundary of the people of God. That is interesting, but let’s not forget that it is an angel that is pouring out the wrath of God. The angel’s actions are to help the invading armies to pass through with ease and destroy. God is not against spiritual Israel, but he is certainly against physical Israel. The Euphrates is still a figure nonetheless, for it should not be understood that the Romans literally passed through the river to lay waste the old covenant people. There were in fact some troops which came by way of the Euphrates, but that is not the point of the symbol. Again, the river was the iconic spot where Assyria, and later Babylon, and others afterward would cross before wasting the land in destruction. The point is that the Romans and her allies are coming by the plan of God to accomplish his wrath upon the house of Israel.

“Its water was dried up.” The difficult boundary to cross has now become like any other plot of dry land. The Lord has made the provisions for the hosts to gather against Israel.

“To prepare the way for the kings from the east.” The symbolism continues. The history of the old covenant people is shrouded with kings from the east, especially Assyria and Babylon, who God raised up in order to judge and punish his people for their sins. This figure is used to reveal that God is once again bringing an idolatrous nation to accomplish his will against the wickedness of the Jewish nation.

(13)  And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs.

                   Connected to the events of the pouring out of the sixth bowl, we have the actions of the devil and the empire. We learned from verse twelve that God made the provisions that the devil is now seeing as a loose-end; however, it is not a loose-end at all. God had planned it all! But the devil does not know the mind of God.

                   “Out of the mouth of.” This statement is given three times in this verse, and is significant to the interpretation of the vision. For what comes out of the mouth but words! By words the devil and the idolatrous empire deceive the world into the depths of immorality.

                   “Three unclean spirits like frogs.” Their deceptions are symbolized as demonic spirits that traverse to corrupt individuals. They are also likened as frogs. Frogs were a torment to Egypt in the second plague (Exodus 8), which proceeded from the Nile river. In a similar picture, these torturous people will proceed from the figurative river of verse twelve and deceive many others to follow them into the destruction of many people. Little do they know that this is God’s way of fulfilling the old covenant promises.

“They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 28:52).

(14)  For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.

                   The devil and his followers (the idolatrous empire) see the figurative opening in the Euphrates and begin to rally the troops to finally put an end to the old covenant people.

                   “Assemble them for battle.” This is what many call the battle of Armageddon. Armageddon is a historic location in Israel, a site well known for the victory of God, not the devil and his deceived people. It is a reoccurring theme in the book that the devil never wins; even here, when it looks like he is accomplishing something, only God’s will is fulfilled.

                   “On the great day of God.” Otherwise known as “the day of the Lord” in other scriptures. This is a day of judgment; God’s judgment. It is not about the devil or the empire, this is about Christ. The Lord is judging his old covenant people.

(15)  (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”)

                   Verse fourteen is followed with the famous words of Christ, that he comes as a thief in the night. This statement is in connection to the “great day of God the Almighty.” This is all judgment language. Christ is coming to Judge; but we ought not jump out of context here. This is referring to the day of judgment for the nation of Israel in the first century. There is no harmony in the text if we view this judgment as any thing else, or at any other time in history.

                   “Coming like a thief!” Jesus said this to the church in Sardis too (3:3), but it is not a new idea, Jesus spoke of it in the context of his discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:42-43; likewise it is used by both Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2-5) and Peter (2 Peter 3:10). It is important to recognize that the Lord comes as a thief to those who are deceived and not waiting for him. He never comes as a thief to those who are watching for him. Recall how the Lord told Sardis, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief (3:3). Do you see the condition? If they would not wake up, then his coming would be like a thief to them; therefore, if they were awake, then they would not be surprised at his coming. Paul made the same point, saying “you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” (1 Thessalonians 5:4). Paul expected the church to not be surprised by the judgment of Christ against the house of Israel, and so did Peter, John, and Jesus.

Revelation 16:10-11 – The Fifth Bowl

(10)  The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish (11)  and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.

    We are not given a lot of details here as to the people who are being afflicted; I will provide two options, both of which would be scriptural ideas. In either case, the pouring out of the bowl onto the “throne of the beast” must refer to the place of Rome. This pouring out onto the location of Rome may not be a change in people, just a change in location. The Jews were not just in Judea, but they were scattered throughout the empire (Acts 2:5, 8-11), and there was a great population of them in Rome – as is evident from the content of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. So the fifth angel’s actions are revealing that this judgment of God is not upon one plot of land, but upon the Israel that is scattered throughout the empire. In the curses of the covenant, God promised,

“And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:64).

This he accomplished because of their disobedience, and the curse is a great scope of the situation which the Jews are in during the first century. They have been scattered everywhere, and they have played the harlot against God with every god of wood and stone imaginable (13:12; 14:9-10; 17:4-5). So the kingdom being “plunged into darkness” would refer to the judgment against the house of Israel throughout the empire.

    The other option is to understand this angel to be acting against the gentiles, who took part aiding and abetting the old covenant people in their idolatry. It is evident that God had also remembered the gentiles for their sins after he judged old Israel (19:17-21; 20:11-15).