Babylon the Great
Topic: Judgment Passage: Revelation 17:1–18
We’re looking today at “Babylon the Great.” We’ve been introduced to her before but only briefly. In 14:8, an angel announced Babylon’s downfall. Then in 16:19, we heard about Babylon’s judgment. But it’s not until chapter 17 that we really get to know Babylon and what she represents. John will often do this in Revelation—he’ll give you a sneak preview, but not until later does he develop the story more fully.
Chapter 17 does this for Babylon, and once we see Babylon for who she is, we understand more fully why God judges her. In the process, though, we also learn what to watch out for when Babylon seeks to impress you. “Wait—Babylon impress me? Didn’t God already deal with Babylon? Wasn’t Babylon that old empire of Nebuchadnezzar, the one full of idolatry? Didn’t it fall to Persia in 539 BC? Are you saying Babylon still exists?” Yes. Babylon the Great—with all its pride, idolatry, and seduction—it’s still around. It’s still seeking to impress you and draw you away from the Lord; and if you can’t discern her, if you can’t see how she’s trying to impress you, then you’re in danger. So, let’s see what she’s like. Read with me, starting in verse 1…
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, 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.” 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. 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. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 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. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? 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 rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 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 royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they hand over 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.” 15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute 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 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. 18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.
Prophets sometimes received visions that remained clouded in mystery. On some occasions, though, an angel would interpret the vision. That happens here to John. In verses 1-6, the Spirit gives John a vision of Babylon. Verses 7-18 then explain what the vision means in terms of her judgment. That’s the order we’ll take things ourselves.
Babylon and the Beast in partnership against Christ.
So, to begin, let’s discuss the vision in verses 1-6. Essentially, John sees Babylon and the Beast in partnership against Christ. Initially, he’s shown a woman. But as things develop, the woman personifies a great city—verse 18. Specifically, she represents Babylon—verse 5. Now, in the Old Testament, “Babylon” eventually became a codeword for proud, idolatrous kingdoms who oppress God’s people.
That’s what we find here. For starters, Babylon is a great prostitute in verse 1. A prostitute is someone who engages in sexual activity for payment. She runs around and lure others into unfaithful alliances. In verse 2, she does this with the kings of the earth. They commit sexual immorality with her.
Now, she’s not the first city described this way. The prophet Nahum once pronounced woes on Nineveh for countless whorings (Nah 3:4). Isaiah 23:15 likens Tyre to a prostitute. Even Zion gets called a whore in Isaiah 1:21. But when you read these Old Testament contexts, something important comes to light. The whoring isn’t limited to sexual activity. It includes pride, idolatry, murder, false political alliances, injustice to the poor, confidence in riches, trusting in false gods.[i] In other words, comparing a city to a prostitute was a more expansive symbol for unfaithfulness of all sorts.
That’s why her cup is “full of abominations” in verse 4. Abominations included idolatry, child-sacrifice, men pretending to be women and vice versa, using a false balance at work, lying to get by.[ii] Babylon seduces kings and nations with her services, and in the end leaves them drunk with all sorts of unfaithfulness. She’s even brazen about it. She wears it on her forehead in verse 5. She refuses to be ashamed about it (Jer 3:3). As “Mother of Prostitutes,” she even works to produce others just like her.
Notice too her dominion over people. Verse 2 describes her as “seated on many waters.” At first glance, that’s not so clear. But later we get help from verse 15. It says, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” Verse 18 adds even more: “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
We then get further assistance from Jeremiah 51:13. There, the image of “many waters” recalls how vast Babylon’s control was. It controlled many waters; and by doing so, it also controlled the exchange of wealth. It became an economic powerhouse on which all nations depended. You see how that would work together with her harlotry? She takes those economic incentives and says, “Come on in. I’ve prepared a bed for you. Drink from my cup and you can buy and sell all you want.”
Which leads to another point about Babylon: her luxurious living is impressive. Look how she’s dressed in verse 4: “…arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup…” These same fabrics and precious metals and stones—they appear later in 18:12. They also appear in 18:16; and in both cases they represent Babylon’s extravagant wealth.
But earlier in 18:3, we see more of what’s going on. Kings and nations form an alliance with Babylon and the merchants grow rich “from the power of her luxurious living,” it says. On the inside, this woman is full of abominations. But on the outside, she looks like royalty. She looks admirable. She looks strong. She looks like she’s number one in the world. And that’s what entices people to form alliances with her.
One of her biggest alliances is with the Beast. Verse 3 says, “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” We’ve seen him before. In 13:1, he’s the Beast rising out of the sea. He manifests Satan’s rule on earth. We had to go back to Daniel 7 to learn about this Beast. He symbolizes many kingdoms over time that oppose God and persecute God’s people. Remember too that the Beast is the one that impresses the world with military power and political influence. The whole world is so impressed by his ability to conquer that they worship the Beast in 13:7. Babylon rides on his shoulders.
Which explains why Babylon also persecutes the church. That’s what the Beast is about. Verse 6, “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” When you confront her idolatry and unfaithfulness, you suffer. You don’t get to buy and sell in her economy. If you don’t affirm her abominations but follow Jesus instead, then you die. She spills your blood. At first, her scarlet colors look like royalty and riches. But on closer inspection, she’s covered in the blood of the innocent. That’s Babylon the Great.
Now, some have wondered who she represents historically. First-century Rome is a good option. Rome was wealthy. Rome controlled the seas. Rome idolized its military. Rome persecuted Christians. John may very well be nudging his readers to wake up and see the true state of things in your Roman culture.
But I don’t think Revelation means for us to stop there. In 16:19, Babylon included the cities of the nations. Here she rules the kings of the earth. Also, in the bigger picture, Babylon stands in contrast to New Jerusalem. You belong to one or the other. It’s better to say that Rome was but one manifestation of Babylon. Every society, every government that opposes Jesus is part of Babylon.
She’s vast and impressive! That’s why John marvels greatly in verse 6. The same word appears in 13:3 to describe people marveling at the Beast to the point of worship. Perhaps John is beginning to lean that way. But it could also mean that John feels overwhelmed in the sense of, “How could anyone stand against this great Babylon?” Either way, the following words expose why worshiping Babylon isn’t the answer. Nor is it right to lose hope. Before Jesus, Babylon has no lasting power or future.
The Beast’s Doom before Jesus’ Lordship
Which brings us to the angel’s interpretation in verses 7-18. In verse 5, John named a mystery—Babylon the Great. But in verses 7-18, he explains the mystery. The point isn’t to keep things hidden but to reveal; and what’s revealed gives you wisdom.
He starts with the Beast in verses 7-14. The Beast’s rule is impressive but futile before the lordship of Christ. Yes, the Beast’s rule is impressive. In verse 8, he’s characterized with a past and future rise: “[he] was and is not and is about to rise.”
Then in verses 9-11, he stands behind the rise of seven kings/kingdoms. “The seven heads,” he says, “are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” As you can imagine, there are numerous views about these kings. I’ll try to give you three that are more sane.
Many view these kings as seven Roman emperors. That’s possible. A big problem, though, is knowing which emperors to count. Do we start with Caesar or Augustus or Caligula? There’s no widespread agreement. Also, seven almost always symbolizes completeness in Revelation. So, it’s likely symbolizing more than just Rome.
Others view these kings as historic empires that opposed God’s people—Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and so on. I appreciate this more, especially as it sees the Beast manifesting his rule in numerous empires across time. But again, which empires do we count? Do we include Egypt, Tyre, Assyria? It’s hard to say.
A third approach brings us closer to the mark, I think. The seven kings symbolize the Beast’s rule across history. As we know from Daniel 7, the Beast has a long history already. He manifests his reign in numerous empires across time. But by summarizing them in this 5 + 1 + 1 scheme, we learn that most of his history is over. John isn’t concerned about numbering specific kings/kingdoms as he is about recognizing how little time the Beast has left.[iv] We’re living in his final days. John was writing during the sixth. All that’s left is the seventh climactic act.
Now, there is this other bit about an eighth in verse 11—“it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven.” But that doesn’t mean an eighth after the seven. The eighth is “of the seven” in the sense that he stands behind all seven and yet manifests the fullness of his power in the seventh. Across history, this transcendent Beast (as an eighth) rules through his seven heads, the seventh being his climactic assault.
So, the Beast’s rule is impressive. And because of this past, present, and future domination, people marvel at the Beast in verse 8. At first glance, one might even mistake him for a messiah of sorts. After all, “he was and is not”—that sounds like a death. Then he rises in verse 8. Then he’s also one who “is to come.” That sounds like Jesus elsewhere in Revelation. But on closer look, we’re not so duped. He rises, but from the place where devils are chained—“the bottomless pit,” verse 8 says. He reigns, but not forever like Jesus. He only gets “a little while,” verse 10 says; “one hour,” verse 12 says. He returns, but his end is destruction—verse 8 and 11 say, “he goes to destruction.”
When the seventh act comes, we need not worry. Look at verse 12: “And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. They will make war on the Lamb and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings…”
The Beast is impressive. But the Beast cannot stop the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Beast—and all the governments and political powers that he symbolizes—he’s impressive. But he is no savior. The Beast is a poser. The Lamb is the true Savior; and the Lamb will conquer him. More on that will come in chapter 19.
Babylon’s Self-Destructive Alliance
For now, let’s not forget about Babylon. If the Beast she rides is going down, that can’t mean good things for Babylon. Babylon is impressive, but her alliance with evil proves to be self-destructive. She controls peoples and multitudes and nations—verse 15. She has dominion over the kings of the earth—verse 18. And part of that success she owes to her alliance with the Beast. But notice what God causes to happen in verse 16: “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, 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.”
In the Old Testament, you will find several cities that God compares to a prostitute. Cities like Babylon, Egypt, Jerusalem, Nineveh, Tyre. But what’s common to them all is that the lovers they seek out end up hating those cities in return. They’d form these alliances with other pagan nations—and with them their false gods—and every time it’s self-destructive. The very nations on whom they depended, become instruments of judgment in God’s hands. That’s what happens here.
God puts it into their hearts. He causes them to fulfill his word of judgment against unfaithfulness. What word of judgment? The word of judgment in all those Old Testament types and patterns. He told us this would happen to Babylon; and when God gives us his word, he always follows through.
How should that affect us?
That’s the vision of chapter 17. Babylon and the Beast partner against Christ; and their alliance creates an impressive run across history. But in the end, they cannot stop the King of kings and Lord of lords. In the end, God’s word has already determined their downfall and judgment. How should that affect us?
One, to whom do you belong? In verse 3 the angel says, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute.” Those same words appear later in 21:9. Only this time a different woman appears: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And what does John see next? The holy city Jerusalem coming down from heaven (Rev 21:10). Another woman personifying another city. Revelation paints the world as two women personifying two cities; and the point is to get you asking, “To whom do I belong? Do I belong to the Bride of Christ? Or do I belong to the Prostitute?
How can you tell? What do you love? Do you love God, or do you love the riches of the world? Where do you find your comfort—in the Lord, or in the power structures of this world? What are you trusting to save you? Jesus? Or things like wealth, alcohol, the next fad, the next relationship, or your own efforts to change things? Where is your allegiance? With Christ? Or with a particular nation or political leader? If Jesus is not the object of your love, comfort, trust, and allegiance, then Babylon is your city; and when Babylon falls, you will fall…unless you repent and put your faith in Jesus.
The good news is that your judgment hasn’t yet come. The good news is that even for those who’ve fooled around with Babylon—your sins may be like scarlet, but God can make you whiter than snow. You may have drunk from Babylon’s abominations, and you know yourself to be unclean. But Jesus’ blood can make you clean. The blood of Jesus breaks the power of Babylon’s hold, and makes you belong to the Bride of Christ. Leave the foolish prostitute—she’s doomed—and come to Jesus. He is forever beautiful, and he will make you forever beautiful in his presence.
Here’s another way this vision affects us: beware of Babylon’s subtle appeal. Have you ever heard someone use the analogy, “like a fish scarcely knows it’s in water”? We use that to illustrate a simple point: we’re often unaware of our surroundings, especially cultural influences. What’s around us becomes “normal,” because that’s what we’re used to. It often takes an outsider to help us see the true state of things. Revelation is like that outsider—in it, God reveals the true state of things.
You see, in first-century Rome, you had this goddess named Roma. She personified the Roman state. Her image was stamped on coins. Her statues adorned buildings. She looks like this strong, virtuous woman wrapped in battle garments. Sometimes she’s “reclining on Rome’s seven hills.”[iii] The message was Rome is strong. Rome takes care of you. Rome is your peace. Rome is the world’s hope. If you live in that long enough, it’s easy to start believing that’s “normal.”
But here’s what Revelation 17 does: it jerks the reader from that “normal” to reveal the true state of things in Rome. From God’s perspective, that woman sitting on seven hills is no virtuous woman. She’s a prostitute who rides the Devil’s Beast and drinks the blood of saints. That’s like someone exposing Lady Liberty as a façade hiding America’s idolatry. If you’re a Roman citizen, that’ll wake you up; and some of the Christians needed that. The Christians at Pergamum and Thyatira were tolerating teachers that said idolatry and sexual immorality was okay. Laodicea was leaning heavily on Babylon’s riches, so much so that it made them feel superior and without need of Jesus. And God wrote Revelation 17 to wake them up. Look what you’re flirting with.
Revelation does this not just for readers in first-century Rome; it does it for every person who picks up this book and reads. Again, Rome is but one manifestation of Babylon. We are just as vulnerable. Think of the all the parallels between Babylon and our own present American context. Characterized by unfaithfulness of all sorts. An economic powerhouse on which many nations depend. Our military and political power is impressive. We poke fun at regimes that parade their military equipment down the street, but whose beating their chests when the fighter jets fly over our football games after the national anthem? We look like royalty, but within there is a worship of self-autonomy, a love for luxurious living, a culture that normalize abominations. Babylon is here. Can you see her? Can you discern her ways?
Let this vision shape how you see the world. That’s why John says, “This calls for a mind with wisdom.” Isn’t it interesting that Revelation presents the world as two women, just like Proverbs personifies wisdom and foolishness as two women. In Proverbs, there’s Dame Folly and Lady Wisdom. Dame Folly is also a prostitute, and her road leads to destruction. Lady Wisdom leads to life. Revelation does likewise; and if you embrace the way it views the world, then you will be wise. You will discern the foolishness of Babylon. You won’t fall for her outward appeal. You won’t fall for her appearance of power. Your eye will be trained to see behind the façade.
Finally, give thanks that Babylon and the Beast will fall. Part of God’s plan in renewing all things is ridding the world of all that destroys it. I didn’t say anything about it earlier, but did you notice the line from verse 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.” If you are with Jesus—if you belong to him and follow him—he will fight for you and bring you justice.
He will not allow Babylon and the Beast to get away with their evil. He has ordained a day for their final downfall. The world is not spinning out of control. Everything is under God’s control. He will see to it that his word is fulfilled. His word has already determined the end. When you see an onslaught of evil in our culture—when you see the President calling good evil and evil good; when you see the wars and the political upheaval; when you see the injustice to those more vulnerable; when you see governments trying to squelch the gospel and threaten Christians; when you see humans exploited for money—it’s sometimes easy to get lost in it all, and you start feeling like change will never come, that things will always be this way.
But one of my favorite things to tell people is that, because of God’s goodness and sovereignty, things won’t always be this way. Part of the good news is that God will eradicate all evil. The powerful, the rich, the political leaders, the superpower countries like US, China, Russia, Germany—none of them determine the future. God’s word determines the future; and his word will see to it that evil is destroyed.
So, every time you start feeling despair about the world, remember Babylon’s judgment and give thanks that things won’t always be this way. There’s another city coming—the New Jerusalem will replace Babylon and fill the earth with healing, life, and peace in God’s presence.
[i] Hos 4:14; Nah 3:4; Isa 1:21; 23:15-17; Ezek 16, 23.
[ii] Deut 7:25; 12:31; 22:5; Prov 11:1; 12:22.
[iii] Tabb, All Things New, 13.
[iv] For further treatment of this third view, see Paul M. Hoskins, "Another Possible Interpretation of the Seven Heads of the Beast and the Eighth King (Revelation 17:9-11)," BBR 30.1 (2020): 86-102.