Part 8. The fall of Babylon (17:1—19:5)
8.1. The prostitute and the scarlet beast (17:1-18)
† PICTURE: John is led by one of the bowl angels into the desert. There he witnesses a prostitute (Babylon the Great) sitting on the beast (antichrist). She is intoxicated with power and wealth and uses her power to persecute and kill many saints.
17:1 In 16:19, when the 7th bowl was poured, an unprecedented earthquake splits Babylon the Great into 3 parts and the city was destroyed. This is God’s punishment because of “the fury of His wrath.” What happens is described in details in ch.17 (about the sin of Babylon) and ch.18 (about its fall).
The identity of Babylon the Great is not clear. It is variously identified as Rome and Jerusalem. However, it is most likely a representation of the political, social, economic, and cultural structures of the entire world, as represented by the various institutions (see 17:18). She is the one responsible for the suffering and bloodshed brought upon the saints.
In OT, the imagery of the prostitute is commonly used to denote religious apostasy (Isa 1:21; Jer 13:27). That is why some people (in the last century and before) interpret this as a corrupted Roman Catholic Church. They also point out that the pope’s ceremonial gown is purple in colour like in v.4. However, this interpretation is no longer accepted today.
Here, Babylon the Great is described as a prostitute in the sense of:  forming alliances for all the immoral reasons, including the abuse of power,  seducing everyone in the whole world to follow its ways,  committing immoral acts to gain material wealth (luxury) and political power,  acting without loyalty, instead, involving in promiscuous and adulterous relationships.
The prostitute is pictured as sitting upon many waters (similar to Jer 51:13). According to v.15, the waters are people, multitudes, nations, and languages. It is also a possible reference to Babylon’s numerus canals that distributed the waters of the Euphrates to the surrounding territory; the many waters symbolize the influence of Babylon as it flows out throughout the entire world.
17:2 The kings of the earth who have committed adultery with the great prostitute are the nations who have entered into immoral relations with Babylon. They are the apostate power structures that Babylon has enticed into idolatrous worship of herself and the beast. The intoxication is a description of their indulgence in luxury and their abuse of power.
17:3 Here, the desert is not a place of divine protection and nourishment (as in 12:6,14), but a setting for a vision of judgment.
Based on its appearance (7 heads and 10 horns), the scarlet-coloured beast is the beast that came out of the sea in ch.13, that is, the antichrist. The colour is similar to its master, the great red dragon. The blasphemous names refer to his self-deification like those used by the Roman emperors in referring to themselves in the 1st century; these names included divine, saviour, lord.
17:4 The woman is clothed in luxurious garments and adorned with gold and costly jewels. Purple and scarlet signify luxury and splendour. Purple was often used for royal garments (Jdg 8:26; Dan 5:7) and scarlet was a colour of magnificence (Nah 2:3). This is in contrast with the “fine linen, bright and clean” worn by the Bride of the Lamb who appears later in 19:8.
The golden cup is a symbol of carnal satisfaction. It is full of abominable things which represent her moral corruption and ceremonial uncleanness. These are the things that she offers to the world.
17:5 Her title is in her forehead. “Mystery” means the name is to be understood in a mystical rather than literal sense. In the NEB (New English Bible), it is translated: “written on her forehead was a name with a secret meaning.”
Babylon the Great is her name. It is the great system of godlessness that leads people away from the worship of God and eventually to their own destruction. It has gained a worldwide reputation for luxury, corruption, and power. She is “the mother of whores and of every obscenity on earth.” (NEB)
17:6 Worst of all, she is intoxicated with the blood of righteous martyrs, meaning that she has slaughtered a large number of believers, ignoring her conscience like a drunk person. This is a main reason that rouses the wrath of God (Rev 16:6).
John was astonished as he does not understand what the woman and the beast represent. That is why the angel will explain the vision in the remainder of this chapter.
17:7 The vision involves a single mystery that includes both of these figures (woman and beast). In normal circumstances, the rider is one who is in control and who decides the direction to proceed. However, in this case, the beast is carrying the woman to wherever it decides to go and the beast is in fact the stronger one and is in control (see 17:16-17). As the antichrist, he is the head and leader of the world system.
17:8 The beast is described as “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss.” The phrase “now is not” probably refers to the mortal wound that the antichrist received (13:3) and the phrase “will come” means that he will recover from the wound and return to fight against the forces of God. The description is an intentional antithesis to the description for God “who is, and who was, and who is to come.” The coming back to life of the beast (antichrist) is also an imitation of the real Christ who was put to death yet came back to life.
The pagan world will be amazed with the apparent resurrection and will submit to his authority. They will form an attacking army. Yet, this will be his last attack as he will be destroyed.
That the names were written “from the creation of the world” can be explained from 2 different perspectives:  Based on the teaching of predestination, God in fact knew at the creation of the world who will ultimately be in heaven and who will be in hell. Then the statement is literally true: names of every redeemed individual have been in the book of life since creation.  God predestined a plan at the creation of world. The plan involves the salvation of those who will accept Jesus Christ. The phrase “whose names have not been written in the book of life” refers to the group of people who reject the gospel. Not that each individual was predestined but that the whole group was predestined. As before, the “inhabitants of the earth” refer to those who are hostile to God.
17:9 The calling for a mind with wisdom is the introduction to the clue that is given below (vv.9-12). It is similar to the statement before describing the number of the beast in 13:18. Here, the explanation is easier to grasp than the previous verse.
The 7 heads are identified as the 7 hills upon which the prostitute is sitting. Some believe that this refers to Rome, the city built upon 7 hills. However, it is more likely that the hill is a symbol of power (like in the OT, Dan 2:35; Jer 51:25) and the hills are the 7 successive kingdoms or empires. This is exactly the explanation in the next verse.
17:10 Five of the 7 kings have fallen and were in the past; one king is still in power; and one has not yet come. There are different interpretations:  Some interpret the 5 past kings as the first 5 Roman emperors before John’s time: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. But this will not count Julius Caesar (before Augustus) and will not include 3 rival emperors who ruled briefly between Nero (AD 54-68) and Vespasian (AD 69-79). Then Vespasian will be the one who was ruling when John wrote Revelation. However, the evidence is fairly conclusive that Revelation was written in the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). Therefore, this explanation has many difficulties.  The 7 kings represent the power of the Roman Empire as a historic whole; the seven is simply a number for completeness. The statement simply says that the Roman Empire is still in power and will extend a little longer.  The 7 kings are a succession of secular empires. One writer lists Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, Greece as the 5 past empires. The Roman Empire is the present kingdom and the one to come is the Christian empire beginning with Constantine. (This interpretation of empires follows the 4 beasts in Dan 7.) This last interpretation is probably the best one. It is also possible that the 7th kingdom refers to the empire of 10 kings at the end time (see 17:12).
17:11 The beast is the 8th king. That he belongs to the seven probably means that he is involved in all the secular empires just as 1Jn 2:18 says, “as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.” Or it can mean he plays the same sort of role as his earthly predecessors in the 7 empires. He “now is not” can mean that:  At this point in the end time, he was killed by a sword (13:14) and has not come back to life.  At the time of writing Revelation (1st century), the beast has not yet ascended from the Abyss.
17:12 The 10 horns are 10 kings who as yet have not received their royal power. They are either:  the people representing the totality of the powers of all nations on the earth, or  kingdoms or nations from the region of the ancient Roman Empire (the 4th beast in Dan 7:7-8), that is, in Europe. The number 10 is symbolic and indicates completeness and does not mean exactly 10 kingdoms or nations. In fact, an alliance with perennial internal power struggles (such as the European Union today) including nations from both western and eastern Europe will fit better with the two iron legs of the image in Dan 2:40-42. This second interpretation is probably better because of the events in 17:16-18 when the 10 kings and the beast destroy the woman. If the first interpretation is followed, the 10 kings will in fact be destroying themselves.
The 10 kings will receive authority for a short time period alongside the beast in the end time.
17:13 Later, the 10 kings will turn the authority over to the beast and join him in a war against the Lamb.
17:14 Here is a promise of victory for the Lamb in the battle of Armageddon. The armies of heaven will share His victory as well.
17:15 The waters in v.1 are interpreted as the fourfold grouping which stresses universality.
17:16 What happens next is similar to the allegory of Oholibah (Eze 23:11-35), who lusted after the Assyrians, was defiled by the Babylonians, and became a prostitute in Egypt. The beast and the 10 kings turn on Babylon the Great. It is like a drama that exposes the self-destroying power of evil, as planted by God. Different components of the evil empire give way to jealousy and hatred. They betray and destroy each other. This in-fighting is probably symbolized by the city splitting into 3 parts (16:19).
As the result of this internal struggle, the woman who was once dressed up like royalty is now stripped bare, losing all her power and wealth. The language used for “eating of her flesh” suggests wild beasts tearing at the body of their prey and portrays the fierceness with which the prostitute is attacked by her assailants, just like how Jezebel was killed (2Ki 9:30-37). The “burning by fire” means total destruction with nothing remained. In the OT, if the daughter of a priest defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she is to be burned in fire (Lev 21:9).
17:17 The angel explains that it was God who brought about the slaughter of the prostitute by putting it into the hearts of the 10 kings to do His will. The powers of evil actually serve the purposes of God. The sovereignty of God is again emphasized.
17:18 Babylon the Great is now explained as the great city that possesses all the authorities of the earth. It is a representation of the whole power structure of the world system.
† We can learn from the example of the prostitute. She loves and abuses wealth and power. She abuses wealth by immersing herself in luxury. She abuses power by persecuting the saints. On the other hand, she lacks morality and loyalty. People who follow her example will end up in destruction, often destroyed by their disloyal “allies”. They may think they are in control of their lives but they are in fact controlled by the devil. Christians must live a moral and loyal life and must never abuse the wealth and power that God put into our hands as stewards.