The Great Harlot and Babylon

The Most Important Metaphors

There are two symbolic terms that are used extensively in Revelation, and so it must be important to understand what they mean:

Babylon – Babylon certainly holds a prominent place in the Old Testament historical books, but Revelation makes several references to Babylon in the context of the end times.

The Harlot – We see that Revelation makes several references to a symbolic harlot in relationship to the bowl judgments.

These two terms, the harlot and Babylon, are generally blended together in Revelation, which is why we are examining these two terms together in this article.

As mentioned in How to Interpret Revelation, the book of Revelation often alludes to things in the Old Testament as a metaphor to help us understand the things it reveals about the end times. The references to Babylon and the harlot found in Revelation are prime examples of this. When Babylon is used in the context of the end times, we should understand that scripture is simply using Old Testament Babylon as a metaphor for some future reality in the end times. Similarly, harlotry has a distinct metaphorical meaning in the Old Testament, and it should be understood to have the same meaning in Revelation.

The beauty of using metaphors like this is that a great deal of meaning can be conveyed with just a single word. However, it works only if we realize that it’s a metaphor and we understand the significance of it.

Allusions to the Harlot and Babylon

The primary explanation of the Harlot-Babylon connection is found in chapter 17, although Revelation alludes to this connection (without explanation) on two earlier occasions:

Rev 14:8 –  And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.”

Rev 16:19 – The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath.

Let’s make two observations about the Harlot-Babylon entity described in these verses:

  • Both of these references refer to the destruction of this Harlot-Babylon entity.
  • The first reference (14:8) is near the end of the Bowl Introduction, and the second (16:19) is within the description of the seventh bowl event (only a few verses before we come to chapter 17).

These observations suggests that this Harlot-Babylon entity (whatever it represents) has been active throughout the end times as an enemy of God and God’s people, and it will receive God’s wrath during the bowl events at the conclusion of the end times. It is helpful to understand at least this much before coming to the explanations offered in chapter 17, which is the beginning of (what I have called) the Bowl Interlude.

The Great Harlot of Revelation 17

Rev 17:1-6 – 1Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.”  

3And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality,  

5and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” 6And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.

Although verse 1 says that the angel took John to see the judgment of the great harlot, we don’t actually see the judgment itself until chapter 18. Chapter 17 takes its time to describe the harlot and her connection with the name Babylon. This is the part we need to understand first.

The Nature of a Harlot

This harlot must represent something that is like a harlot from God’s perspective. There are two points to make about the description of her in this passage:

  1. She is attractive to those seeking worldly pleasures. Obviously, being called a harlot suggests worldly sensual pleasures. Besides that, we see her decked out with gold, precious stones, and pearls, and these things suggest worldly wealth. That she engages with kings and is adorned in purple and scarlet suggest high worldly status. In other words, her customers are people attracted by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (ref: 1 John 2:15-17).
  2. She leads people into immorality, provoking God’s wrath. Although she promises pleasures, she ultimately brings about ruin. This is indicated by the cup she holds, which is golden on the outside, but the inside is full of abominations and immorality. The earlier verses mentioned above (Rev 16:19 and Rev 14:8) make it clear that she and her unrepentant “customers” will ultimately face God’s wrath.

The two points above reveal that the harlot is like a trap. She lures people with her promises of worldly pleasure, but then they become unwittingly ensnared into a ruinous standing before God. Interestingly, there are several passages in scripture that speak about the way immoral women are like a trap (e.g. Eccl 7:26, Prov 6:24-25, Prov 7:22-23).

Symbolic Harlotry

Of course, the harlot of Revelation is symbolic and not any actual woman. To understand what she represents, the first question we should ask is this: Is harlotry is used symbolically elsewhere in scripture? The answer is resoundingly yes, and it always stands as a symbol for idolatry. In the Old Testament, we see that Israel at times engaged in idolatry, and when she did, she was depicted as a harlot or an adulteress (e.g. Ex 34:15,16, Lev 20:6, Num 25:1, Judg 8:33, Psalm 106:39, Jer 3:1, Hos 4:12).

The harlotry metaphor is thus rather simple: It likens sexual intimacy with worship.

  • Sexual intimacy is proper only when given lovingly to one’s spouse. Giving it to another is acting as a harlot, and it provokes the spouse to righteous jealously.
  • Similarly, worship is only proper when given lovingly to God. Giving it to another is acting as an idolater, and it provokes God to righteous jealously (Ex 20:4-5).

What is Idolatry?

Our ideas about idolatry should not be limited to people worshiping statues, or things like that. Simply put, one worships that which one regards as supreme. Only God (as revealed in scripture) is truly supreme, and so only He is truly worthy of worship. Therefore, when people regard anything else as supreme, be it other gods, nature, or humanity — whatever it is — it amounts to idolatry.

To be more specific, idolatry encompasses two things:

  1. The false beliefs concerning who and how to worship, and
  2. The people who live in accordance with those false beliefs.

Observe that Christianity correspondingly represents the opposite of those two things:

  1. The true beliefs concerning the worship and knowledge of God, and
  2. The people who live in accordance with these true beliefs.

What Does The Great Harlot Represent?

Based on the above, I believe we can say with some confidence that the great harlot of Revelation 17 represents all forms of idolatry. This includes both the false beliefs themselves and the people who follow them. Ultimately then, the harlot represents all of the unbelievers of the world. (There is actually another way to reach this same conclusion, discussed below.)

This idea that harlotry symbolizes the unbelieving world fits well with the observation above that a harlot is like a trap. Regarding unbelievers, Paul wrote in 2 Tim 2:25-26 “God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

If the people who worship God in spirit and truth are called the church, then this harlot, who represents people who don’t worship God, might be properly called the “anti-church“.

The Babylon Connection

Revelation 17 makes it clear that this symbolic harlot is, in some sense, connected with the name “Babylon”, and we have already seen this connection in Rev 14:8 and Rev 16:19. This connection is one of the most fascinating aspects of Revelation. Even though the harlot metaphor and the Babylon metaphor have separate meanings, they are inseparably linked.

To understand how they are linked, we must apply our understanding of symbolic harlotry with a study of the next two verses in chapter 17, where we see symbolic Babylon brought into view:

Rev 17:5-6 – 5and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”

6And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.

This passage links the harlot with the name of a kingdom, “Babylon the Great”. Although Babylon is being used metaphorically in Revelation, we should assume that it still refers to a kingdom. That is, Revelation is using what we already know about Babylon to describe a future kingdom that shall in some respects be similar. One point of similarity shall be idolatry, which is made immediately clear by the connection to this harlot.

Of course, many other kingdoms have been linked with idolatry, but for the sake of describing this future kingdom, Revelation uses the specific idolatrous kingdom of Babylon. It then goes on to make two points about the harlot, in relation to her connection with Babylon:

(1) She is called the “Mother of Harlots

What could this mean? The imagery is that of one harlot who gave birth to other harlots. Keep in mind that harlotry represents idolatry. Also, giving birth symbolizes being the origin or source.

From this, we see that her connection with Babylon is in some sense an idolatry that became the source of other idolatries. In this case, Babylon must refer to some idolatrous kingdom in the distant past that gave birth to other forms of idolatry that have propagated since then.

(2) She is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the witnesses of Jesus

What could this mean? Being “drunk with the blood” of people can only mean being responsible for their murders, and her two groups of victims are “saints” and “witnesses of Jesus”. These two groups are also identified as the end-times martyrs (Rev 6:9, 11, Rev 12:7, Rev 14:12) during the great tribulation (Rev 12:11,17, Rev 13:7), especially since we observe that this harlot and Babylon will be destroyed by God at the conclusion of the end times to avenge the saints (Rev 18:20,24, Rev 19:2).

From this, we see that her connection with Babylon is in some sense responsible for the murder of saints up through the end times. In this case, Babylon must refer to idolatrous kingdoms that will cause the murders of saints and Christians, up to and including the future great tribulation.

We observe then that Revelation is using the Babylon metaphor to describe a kingdom with dual associations with idolatry, such that it refers both to the ancient past (as the source of idolatries) and also into the future (as murderers of end-times Christians). How can this be?

To answer this question we should first understand Babylon as it is presented in the Old Testament. There, we can make a remarkable observation: The Old Testament presents dual instances of Babylon, and they match up with the dual meanings of Babylon given in Revelation 17.

These Two Babylons are discussed below:

Babylon #1 – The Mother of Harlots

In the ancient past, as recorded in early Genesis (shortly after Noah’s time), we see this:

Gen 11:1-9 – 1Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.

4They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.

7“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

What does this have to do with Babylon? It is the same place! This place called “Babel” in Genesis 11:9 was later known as Babylon. The people of this first Babylon were building a type of tower called a ziggurat, which usually has a large square base and then gets narrower as it rises. Most ziggurats rise to a certain height, where it has a flat top.

Why did they build it? It says they wanted to “make for ourselves a name“. They were becoming prideful, and pride always causes people to stop worshiping God and start worshiping themselves, either directly or through gods of their own creation. That is, they were practicing idolatry, which is symbolic harlotry.

What did God accomplish when He scattered the people with different languages? He broke their unity. This slowed down the pace in which they were heading toward total pridefulness, and total idolatry.

Did the scattering stop their idolatry? No. Rather, it divided their false religion, resulting in several similar, but different (and often competing) false religions. One can now begin to see why this first Babylon can be called the “Mother of Harlots”. The first idolatry at ancient Babylon was scattered, giving birth to several other idolatries.

Historical note: Being scattered didn’t stop the people from building towers either. As they spread out, they built other towers wherever they settled. There have been over thirty ancient ziggurats found all over the area of Mesopotamia, and all of them are believed to have had some sort of connection with pagan religion.

It is not easy to trace the origins of pagan religions because religions are intangible beliefs that move about and evolve as they go. However, the idea that many of the pagan religions of history had a common origin at Babel (i.e. Babylon) is supported by noting the similarity between the gods of ancient Babel (called Sumerian deities) with the gods found in subsequent cultures (e.g. Egyptian, Arabian, Norse, Assyrian, Philistine, Greek, Roman, etc.). They are all polytheistic religions with similar gods having similar roles.

This part of the Babylon metaphor suggests that the many of the scattered idolatries spawned from this original Babylon will be united in the future and final Babylon kingdom. In a sense, they all come home to mother. This seems to agree with worship in the end times (Rev 13:4, 8, 12).

Babylon #2 – The Murderer of Christians

The second, and perhaps more prominent instance of Old Testament Babylon refers to the pagan kingdom that, under Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Israel in 586 BC. This invasion from Babylon brought the earthly kingdom of Israel to an end, killed many Jews (a traditional figure is 80,000), took many others into captivity (including Daniel), destroyed Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.

This is where we must understand that this Old Testament kingdom of Babylon is being used as a metaphor for another kingdom that will appear on earth in the end times. This may be the most firmly established metaphor in the Bible because it is established in a bidirectional manner:

  • It is used in the Old Testament to connect ancient Babylon forward to the end times.

Perhaps the best example of this is Isaiah 13, which starts with “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw”, and this is followed by some judgments against the Old Testament kingdom of Babylon.

But then the judgments suddenly transcend Old Testament Babylon and become apocalyptic, as in verses 9-10: “9Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises And the moon will not shed its light”. These verses are clearly looking way into the future to end times. Then around verse 17, Isaiah returns again to Old Testament Babylon, and Isaiah correctly foretells how they will be defeated by the Medes (Medo-Persia).

  • It is used in the New Testament to connect the end times backward to ancient Babylon.

There are multiple examples of this in Revelation, but it is most strongly seen in Revelation 18. As discussed in the Chapter 18 commentary, we see several quotes from the Old Testament prophecies that were originally made with reference to the ungodly Old Testament kingdom of Babylon. In chapter 18, those same things are said with reference to the ungodly kingdom that will persecute the saints during the end times.

This part of the Babylon metaphor informs us that we can expect several parallels between Babylon’s invasion of Israel in 586 BC and Antichrist’s persecution of the Church in the end times. The table below highlights these parallels:

Parallel Israel attacked by Babylonian kingdom in Old Testament Church attacked by Antichrist’s kingdom in end times (symbolic Babylon)
Object of the attack God’s appointed representatives on earth, the nation Israel (Ex 19:5-6) God’s appointed representatives on earth, the church (1 Pet 2:9)
Attack foretold Old Testament prophets foretold the attack from Babylon against Israel (e.g. Isa 39:5-7 Jer 5:15-19). Jesus (Matt 24:9,15,22) and John (Rev 6:11, 13:7) foretold the attack from Antichrist against Christians.
Prophet given a ‘scroll eating’ experience  In his vision, Ezekiel eats a scroll that has sweet and bitter aspects (Ezek 3:1-2,14). This pertains to the coming attack from Babylon. In his vision, John eats a scroll that has sweet and bitter aspects (Rev 10:8,9,10). This pertains to the coming attack from Antichrist’s kingdom.
Condition of the people attacked Much unfaithfulness in Israel (Jer 7:30-31, Ezek 8:5-18) as they worshiped foreign gods. However, there were some Jews who remain faithful (Isa 10:20, Dan 1:8-12). Much unfaithfulness among the churches (2 Tim 3:1-7, Rev 2:14-15, Rev 2:20, Rev 3:1 ), although there will be some true Christians who remain faithful (Rev 2:9, Rev 3:8, Rev 12:11).
God’s supposed representatives think falsely they are right with God Israel rebuked for appealing to the temple, and presuming deliverance from God (Jer 7:4,9,10). The churches are warned against thinking they are rich and in need of nothing (Rev 3:17,18,19,20).
God withdraws presence, allowing attack Ezekiel describes the presence of God leaving the Temple of Israel (Ezek 10:18). Paul describes the Holy Spirit (restrainer) being taken out of the way in the end times (2 Thes 2:6-7).
God’s people appointed to sword or captivity Jeremiah expresses God’s anger against Israel by saying that they are appointed them to the sword or captivity (Jer 15:2) John warns the churches that they are also appointed to the sword or captivity (Rev 13:10).
Idolatry is compelled under threat of death People were told to worship an image of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar under penalty of death (Dan 3:15). People will be told to worship an image of the end times king Antichrist under penalty of death (Rev 13:15).
The destruction of the attacker decreed. It was foretold that Babylon would fall, never to rise again (Isa 13:17-30, Jer 51:64). It is foretold that Antichrist’s kingdom shall fall, never to rise again (Dan 7:26, Rev 18:21).
Attack lasted for a decreed duration. For Israel, the attack involved a decreed time of captivity for 70 years (Jer 25:11-12, Dan 9:2). For the church, the attack involves persecution for a decreed time of 3 1/2 years (Dan 7:25, Rev 13:5).
Result of the attack Israel was purified and restored. They returned to Jerusalem, the temple rebuilt, God’s glory returned, and they did not worship foreign gods again (Ezra 9:15, Jer 3:5, Ezek 43:4) The churches will be purified. The faithful will return to new earth with Christ in an eternal state of righteousness (Dan 12.8-10, Rev 21:1-4)
Reason for the attack Israel provoked God to anger with their idolatry and neglect of His commands. See below.

Are the Churches Provoking God to Anger?

People in the churches today tend to think that they are okay with God. They think “God loves us and His anger will only be directed at other people who don’t profess to be Christians, such as atheists, the openly immoral, and people involved with cults”.

But remember that God did not withhold punishment against His people Israel when they failed to represent Him properly. It was God who directed Babylon to attack Israel (e.g. Jer 20:4, 21:10, 25:9). The Babylonian attack brought terrible times for both faithful and unfaithful Jews. The difference was that the faithful Jews believed the warnings and lived in a God-honoring manner during the attack and captivity. The unfaithful Jews thought they were okay with God simply by virtue of their status as God’s chosen people. Among the unfaithful Jews, many apostatized and were revealed as idolaters, while others turned to God after learning a painful lesson.

In a similar way, it will be for God’s purposes that Antichrist’s ungodly kingdom will persecute the Church, and that it will likewise cause terrible times for both faithful and unfaithful Christians. God will do this because He is displeased with much of what He sees happening in His name within the churches who purport falsely to represent Him. In other words, the persecution from Antichrist’s kingdom will be our Babylon.

This idea should not be a surprise to most true Christians who sense that many churches today have strayed far from what they are supposed to be. This is also indicated by the messages to the seven churches given in chapters 2 and 3, where five of the seven churches received some form of rebuke. The message to the churches, conveyed by this Babylon metaphor, is severe.

The connection that Revelation makes between the harlot and Babylon should now be clear. In the future, there will be a final Satanic kingdom on earth. The harlot represents the idolatry that motivates the people in that kingdom, while the name Babylon is used to describe the kingdom as a whole, including its nature, its objectives, and its fate. In particular, Babylon represents God’s chastisement of the largely unfaithful church, just as God used the Old Testament kingdom of Babylon to chastise the largely unfaithful nation Israel.

The Harlot vs. the Bride

Earlier in this article, I gave some reasons for believing that the harlot of Revelation 17 represents what I called the anti-church, which is the unbelieving world and the various false religions or philosophies by which they live. Here, I’ll offer another way to arrive at this same conclusion.

This harlot of chapter 17 is only one of the symbolic women presented in Revelation. In chapter 21, we see another symbolic woman who is called the bride. The striking thing about these two symbolic women is the great similarity in which they are presented.

The table below shows the corresponding passages side-by-side, as these two symbolic women are presented.

Harlot of Revelation 17 Bride of Revelation 21
Introduced to her by one of the seven “bowl” angels Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me
Command to come and be shown the woman saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters saying, “Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
Carried away in the Spirit to some place And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain
The woman is associated with a city The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth. and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.
Her appearance of wealth (although one is temporal and the other is eternal) The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper

I don’t believe that these similarities are accidental. On the contrary, they are a signal to the reader that these two women are intended to be held in contrast with each other. But if this is true, what is the point being conveyed by the contrast?

The only reasonable answer is that the harlot and the bride are opposing counterparts to each other. This means that if we can understand what the bride represents, then we can figure out what the harlot represents also, because the harlot must be effectively the opposite of the bride.

So what does bride represent? Again, we should look to see if a “bride” is used symbolically elsewhere in scripture. Indeed, she is, and in all cases, she represents God’s people. In the Old Testament, she was seen represented faithful Israel (e.g. Isa 61:10). In the New Testament and in the end times, she represents the church (John 3:29, Rev 19:7).

So, the bride seen in chapter 21 represents the true church. These are the people united by the true gospel, who give their worship to God, the One who is worthy. Therefore, the bride’s opposing counterpart — the harlot — must be the “anti-church”. These are the people united by some form of idolatry, who give their worship to some unworthy “god” of their choosing.

Again, this agrees with the conclusion above, that the harlot represents the unbelieving world.

After the Great Harlot is introduced in Revelation 17, it goes on to discuss the “scarlet beast” with seven heads and ten horns on which the harlot sits. It gives a remarkable explanation for that imagery, and these things are discussed in The Seven Heads and Ten Horns.

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