Revelation 17 (NRSV)
The Great Whore and the Beast
Revelation 17-18 and 19-20 tell two stories, but they are meant to stand side by side. In the first story, John tells of an evil woman who rides upon the beast of chapters 13-14. She is given the name of Babylon. Babylon, to all who knew the Old Testament (and the Greek Old Testament was the Bible of the early Christian church), symbolized great evil. Babylon had pummeled and destroyed Israel, exporting her riches, breaking up her families, and razing her place of worship. It was while in exile following that brutal attack that the psalmist had written, By the water of Babylon there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137).
But John wants his readers to know that, in his telling of the story, Babylon is used as a symbol It is Rome he has in mind. The beast he describes offers us some decisive clues in that direction. The seven heads of the beast, he explains, are seven hills—the seven famous hills upon which Rome sat. The seven heads also are the seven kings. Rome had had more than seven kings, but the mathematics of Revelation are not meant to be arithmetic so much as symbolic. As such, they not only denote the rulers of Rome; they have a message to send about them.
The second story of chapters 19-20 works in contrast. The evil woman (Rome) is compared to the good woman, the church, the bride of Christ.
–Robert H. Conn
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 whore who is seated on many waters,2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” 3 So 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. 4 The woman was clothed 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 fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.”
Babylon was a literal city on the Euphrates River, appearing in the Bible first in Genesis 1o, after the flood. Babylon was later the capital of an empire that conquered Judah and was remembered for its cruelty, sin, idolatry, lust, and greed. In John’s day, Rome was a type of Babylon, embodying all the antagonism and opposition to the Christian faith.
6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
Who does the woman with “Babylon” on her forehead symbolize? Opinions vary. Scholars over the centuries have understood Babylon here to mean Jerusalem, unfaithful like a prostitute. Others see it as ancient Rome, built on seven hills (see verse 9), and seated on many waters (see verse 1), an indication of her world-wide power and dominance. Her being drunk with blood points to Rome’s persecutions of believers.
“But perhaps a more satisfying interpretation is that Rome represents the latest incarnation of that oppressive and idolatrous city, the ‘great city’ which originally bore the features of Mesopotamian Babylon. Ultimately, Revelation is confronting its hearers with two visionary cities which promise two very different destinies to humanity: ‘the great city’ enthroned over the waters of chaos, and ‘the holy city’ or City of God, in which flows the river of the water of life.”
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while.
Who are these seven kings? This is one of the more difficult passages in the Book of Revelation. Some explain these seven kings, five past, one present, and one to come in the succession of Roman emperors in John’s era, but there are many historical difficulties with this approach. Where should the list begin? With Augustus, with whom, strictly speaking, the Roman Empire began? Or with Julius Caesar? Should any emperors be left off the list?
Since the days of the Reformation, many people have found the connection between religious Babylon and Roman Catholicism irresistible, with the seven kings representing seven popes. Recently the list has started at 1929, the date of the Lateran Treaty, in which Italy recognized papal sovereignty over the Vatican City (109 acres) and recognized the pope as an independent sovereign ruler. Of course, as time goes on and there are more popes, the list has to be reshuffled . . . and reshuffled . . .
Again, this is a much-debated passage.
11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
The victory of Christ over the empire of the antichrist!
15 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
HERE is a throwback from Petra, a music group regarded as a pioneer of the Christian rock and contemporary Christian music genres. Formed in 1972, the band took its name from the Greek word for “rock.” They disbanded formally in 2006. I like the driving energy of their rendition of “King of Kings” (see verse 14 above) and “Jesus, Glorious One.”