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.